Category Archives: Diary

The Sweeper: England Needs A Soccer-Specific Stadium

wembley

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When you spend £757 million on a new football stadium, you should probably get the most important part of it right: the pitch.

Following this weekend’s FA Cup semi-finals, with players slipping up all over the field, Wembley officials have admitted the poor state of the pitch:

“We accept and understand the frustrations around the standard of the pitch at Wembley for last weekend’s FA Cup semi-finals. The problems faced on Saturday were due to the way the surface was prepared and the measures used overnight were unable to resolve the situation sufficiently for the match on Sunday.

“There is a unique challenge with the surface at Wembley and we are working with expert pitch consultants to get it right. Wembley Stadium is a multi-purpose venue and we have to hold other events as part of the business plan, which means regular pitch replacements each year.

Multi-purpose indeed, even though Wembley National Stadium Ltd is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Football Association. Of course, when you spend £757 million on a football stadium whose primary tenant team — England — only plays a few games a year there, you need to hawk it out to all kinds of events to make that money back, even with the £161 million of public funding chipped in.

Which is why on the same day the newspapers are full of woeful stories about the standard of the pitch at Wembley, Saracens rugby team are trumpeting “10,000 knights to descend on Wembley Stadium”:

The iconic venue will step back in time to middle England as medieval acts perform around the stadium and fans will get be able to join in the theme with 10,000 of them dressed in knight’s tabards that will be on sale on the day.

Then the Saracens rugby team will play Harlequins. In the summer, Green Day and Muse will host concerts.

One former groundsman at Wales’ Millennium Stadium said “Everybody expects the pitch to be perfect, even though it also stages rugby league, motor racing and American football, along with concerts.” And the lack of rest for the pitch in the summer is even more damaging. “Clubs have six to 10 weeks in the summer to work on the pitch but the demands of Wembley mean that is impossible. At Wembley, because of the use, the root zone has compacted and as a result the drainage isn’t good enough.”

Attempting to deal with the poor state of Wembley’s pitch, the Football Association reportedly plans to relay it every three months at a phenomenal cost of £125,000 each time.

This enormous expenditure on a facility not fit for its primary purpose inevitably raises questions over the Football Association’s priorities in spending. In the Telegraph, Henry Winter laments the lack of quality English managers, and says money spent on Wembley would have been better spent on training coaches: “For a 10th of the outlandish cost of a stadium the FA doesn’t need and can’t afford, it could already have built the National Football Centre and set up a production line of managerial talent.”

Of course, the Football Association just had to have Wembley instead, whatever the cost.

Quick Hits

  • Jonathan Wilson says adjustments to the offside law have massively benefited the game: “The modern offside law may be the best thing that’s ever happened to football, and it is almost certainly the reason Barcelona have been so successful with a fleet of players whose obvious asset is their technique rather than their physique.”
  • Rochdale A.F.C.: now just one win away from only the second promotion in their history, a remarkable feat for a club founded in 1907.
  • Stan Kroenke takes over. . .oh, the St Louis Rams.

The Sweeper appears daily. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: Home Grown Profit In MLS

US Soccer Development Academy

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On Saturday at Toyota Park, I watched parts of a game between the Chicago Fire Academy and the US Youth National U-17 Team, a game won by the Fire 4-0. To be fair, many of the Fire’s players were a year older than their opponents (though the Fire were also missing a couple of their best players, Technical Director Frank Klopas mentioned to me), but it was still an impressive showing.

Remember the name Victor Pineda (who also plays for the USYNT), Fire fans: the talented 17 year-old looked awfully good in the glimpses I saw, and MLS rule changes announced last week make it much more likely a player like him could be signed to the first team squad sooner rather than later.

MLS roster sizes were increased from 24 to 26, with two more slots added solely for homegrown players from their youth academies. Clubs now receive three-quarters of the transfer fee for a homegrown player who goes abroad, an increase from two-thirds, and something that will, for example, be welcomed by a club like Vancouver who are about to join MLS with one of the continent’s leading youth academies.

The changes to the homegrown players rule considerably grows the incentives for clubs to invest in their development academies, building on MLS’ Home Grown Player Initiative founded in 2007, which now means every single club has an Academy team in US Soccer’s Development Academy, itself also founded in 2007 with a significant financial investment by US Soccer. The Development academy requires the participating clubs, 77 in total in 2009-10, to hold three training sessions per week, and limits the number of games the teams can play, to encourage a focus on the improvement of skills rather than maximising game play.

The Fire now have a free Academy that means kids from poorer backgrounds can get top-level training without having to pay the enormous fees typical of elite clubs in the United States in the past. They have a youth system that runs all the way from U-6 to the first team. And they have a very talented crop of players from a diverse variety of backgrounds.

The Fire are not doing this solely out of the goodness of their hearts. It is an investment in developing local talent that will not only improve the first team, but will eventually — they hope — make the club money through the transfer fees received in the future. MLS is going the right way in rewarding clubs for their substantial investments in youth development both on the field and off it. That’s the only way it can work.

Some don’t believe there is a need for this structure at all, as one of Paul Gardner’s rambling recent essays demonstrated (he’s not calling for ‘anarchy’…but it’s not at all clear what he is calling for).  But for me, watching local kids of all backgrounds from all parts of the Chicagoland area wearing the Fire badge beating the US Youth National Team on the main field at Toyota Park suggests to me a bright future for youth development in this country and its necessary connection to the elite professional league here.

Quick Hits

The Sweeper appears daily. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: Asking “O Brother Where art Thou?” at Pompey

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Blogs are often criticized for riding on the back of hard working traditional print media journalists charged with covering stories and gathering quotes first-hand.  Despite the disintegration of the traditional means of income for newspapers and magazines—exclusive ownership of the print press, the classified ads— for now, print journos still have the money and resources to send reporters to go out and report the news, with bloggers left to provide links and commentary.

But gathering the immediate facts of the day, collating them for a quick news story to be read and tossed out with the daily paper, won’t ever give readers the full story.  Thankfully, there are others have striven to uncover the deception at Portsmouth with methodical accuracy, relying only on dormant online news stories from the last year or so.

Mark Murphy at twohundredpercent today provides a marvelous, must-read investigative look into how both Ahmed Al-Faraj and Peter Storrie attempted to lay all responsibility for the board’s decisions at Portsmouth on Ahmed’s “brother” Ali Al-Faraj (dubbed Al-Mirage by fans), a man who purportedly ran the whole show, yet a man whose “brother” Ahmed claimed was next to him in a car while touring Fratton Park even though Ali couldn’t get an entry visa to the country, a man Sulaiman Al-Fahim admitted he’d “never met” despite selling 90% of his stake in the club to him, and who passed the Premier League’s fit-and-proper person’s test despite no one at the Premier League having actually met or made contact with him.

“Al-Mirage” indeed.

Even more damning is the failure of club administrator in shedding any light on the details of Ali Al-Faraj’s ownership of the club as a part of “due diligence” for potential investors:

And the joint administrator with the microphone, the never-knowingly-shy Andrew Andronikou promised over two months ago that he’d be covering it. “We have the responsibility of investigating the company’s recent financial history,” Andronikou said in a statement (club web-site, 26th February 2010) – although this statement also promised “proposals ready for circulation within eight weeks” to creditors. Andronikou at the time rightly gave priority to the “problems in hand…which are not insignificant,” and which he identified as “stabilising the club and reinstating a solid foundation for the future.”

As Murphy points out, all Portsmouth is left with is a debt estimate that seems to magically balloon by the week, now quoted at over £100 million, up from “£60 to £70 million” quoted at the end of February.  The incompetence and lack of transparency goes on and on.  Murphy concludes by pointing a finger directly at Richard Scudamore, for whom a storied, century-old club entering administration in the top flight has the same effect as a nightclub footballer punch-up.  If you ever wanted a clear demonstration of the warped priorities and unaccountability of the Premier League business model, this is it.

Murphy laments that the only major sources following this story are “the HMRC and Private Eye.”  It’s likely going to be this way for some time.  Football rumours and manager tirades will always run on page one; it’s sometimes left up to bloggers to help pick up an unheard story.  This is the sort of piece we need to see more of, and joins Fake Sigi’s point-by-point demolition of the MLS website debacle in demonstrating the sum of a string of publicly available news items is often greater than the whole.

Football meanwhile—despite all the incompetence and mismanagement that the supporters never deserve—goes on, proving that even money has its limits in the game:  ravaged and relegated Portsmouth FC will play in the FA Cup final at Wembley.

Quick Hits

  • Jaime Jackson waxes poetic about the greatness of the Bundesliga.
  • When Saturday Comes points out, quite rightly, that we’d rather not have all that “ra-ra” nationalism in our soccer commentary, thanks very much.

The Sweeper: On Harry Redknapp and Quantum Mechanics

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Dara O’Briain‘s column in the Guardian today destroys Sir Alex Ferguson’s inane “what-could-have-been” bluster, his complaint that Rafael’s second yellow card in the Champions League second leg quarterfinal against Bayern Munich absolutely cost United a chance to go through:

The point is, Ferguson, like the rest of us, needs to have a moment to point to, a moment where his favourite parallel universe, the one where he wins the Champions League, disappeared down the track without him.

And if quantum physics is right, that universe really exists. But then again, so does the universe where Lionel Messi lies on the turf a broken man, as I, yet again, clear the ball off his toe and scamper down the field.

It seems former Portsmouth manager Harry Redknapp also has his own unique view of how the financial decisions or “causes,” if you want to get all classical physics about it, taken during his tenure at Pompey led to the “effect” of a universe in which Pompey is going into administration and losing their own century-old ground on the eve of an FA Cup semifinal.  None of those causes apparently involve him:

“The problem was that the owner when I was there, Sacha Gaydamak, suddenly lost interest and stopped putting money in,” Redknapp said. “They have not funded the club [since he left]. It only holds 19,000 people, there is no [corporate] hospitality. That’s the trouble. And who knows where the money has gone? Who owns the land around the stadium? I wouldn’t know.”

Ian over at the maddeningly marvelous twohundredpercent isn’t quite ready to let Redknapp completely off the hook in the wake of the financially damaged clubs under his previous purview:

There is a clear line in the sand to draw between managers that frequently turn up as fire fighters at clubs that are already in desperate financial straits and the circumstances of Harry Redknapp’s career. It remains a stark fact that every club that Harry Redknapp has been involved with as a manager (Bournemouth, West Ham United, Portsmouth and Southampton) has suffered desperate hardship after his departure. This may merely come down to being a matter of Redknapp being persuasive when it comes to persuading chairmen to make money that a club has available. It may be just a coincidence (after all, Redknapp’s departure from Bournemouth in 1992 and West Ham in 2001 can hardly be blamed upon their current circumstances). The whispering, however, continues.

Still, Redknapp has a point.  As any quantum physicist will tell you, there is no straight line between cause and effect from which you can work backwards and parse out the innocent from the guilty.  Hence SAF can’t tell you with any certainty that Rafael’s sending off prevented Manchester United from going through to the semifinals in all possible worlds.

But as chaotic as football finances can seem in the English game, it is far more predictable than the product it sells on the pitch.  Clubs spending upwards of 70% of turnover on player wages will predictably go into debt.  Clubs reliant on one investor to pay all the bills at the end of the year will be predictably less stable than a club that spends money generated from turnover alone.  Enormous wage taxes unpaid to the HMRC because of the football creditors’ rule, under which clubs must be paid transfer fees before any other creditors, predictably lead to winding up orders.  If we’re still using the physics metaphor, we are not talking about Schroedinger’s Cat here; this is something a little more akin to gravity.

Redknapp may not be guilty for driving Pompey into the ground, but neither is he blameless.  Rather, his pressure on board members to spend sums on players on they might not otherwise be able to reasonably afford with promises of glory (and therefore money, as football’s money men seem to assume more on faith than reason) is but one symptom of the disease currently crippling English football at all levels, especially the most vulnerable.  Redknapp’s talent at arm-twisting greedy board members is not a crime, but rather one more rung on a one-way ladder.

Quick Hits:

  • Get your pre-World Cup tension on. The same day the prospect of unsold tickets for the tournament in South Africa is called a “tragedy” by Fifa secretary-general, Jérôme Valcke, a group linked to Al-Qaeda (a conclusion we hope has been drawn by someone with actual knowledge of international terrorist organizations and not some sensationalist reporter on a web browser, fingers crossed!) has threatened to bomb the England v. USA opener.
  • Vanessa Perroncel‘s unsexy testimonial to the Guardian says way more about the extraordinarily aggressive tabloid journalism in England than it says about John Terry.
  • Kenn Tomasch reminisces about a time when Major Indoor Soccer League was considered worthy enough for a ten minute television news segment.
  • The Guardian gets some soccer bloggers on a couch together to shoot the shit on government regulation of football.

The Sweeper: Fan Ownership and Community

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Yesterday, we looked at an attack on the idea of fan ownership from the right of the political spectrum, by Martin Samuel in the Daily Mail. Samuel’s condemnation of the idea was confused, and woefully misinformed (or deliberately misleading).

Interestingly, from the other end of the political spectrum, the Guardian published a piece by Andrew Martin last Friday that also raised concern about the movement for fans to become more involved in running their football clubs, recently encouraged by reports of the Labour Government’s plans to give supporters a share in their clubs.

Martin opened his piece:

That Gordon Brown is drawing up proposals to give fans a share in football clubs should come as no surprise. With the connections formed by trade unionism, church or social club having fallen away, support for a football club is one of the few ways left of showing communitarian endeavour and a willingness to belong.

communal

Yet curiously, it’s this very effort by supporters to ensure they are involved in running clubs and can work to embed them in a positive way in their community that is bothering Andrew Martin. Because, of course, there are more important things people should be doing.

When James Alexander Gordon reads the results at 5 o’clock on Saturday, the former identity of the town or city flares briefly in my mind. When he says “Nottingham”, I think lace; “Stoke”, potteries, and so on. But then I’m 47 and with a retrospective frame of mind. Before long, the names of many of our provincial cities will evoke nothing but the team, and this is the problem, not the solution. I urge all those energetic, engaged people who want to take charge of their clubs to look beyond the touchline and take charge of their towns: stand for the council, fight the corporations, campaign for co-operation in the workplace, blog about how the Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism has all but killed provincial Britain, and become an active member of the party you think most likely to reverse the trend.

I’m never quite clear why it’s thought that an active interest in football kills the possibility to do anything else with one’s life, or why culture itself should be ignored as a valuable way to develop community — and yes, football is a small but significant part of British culture and society.

Football has become an important cultural touchstone of modern Britain, and can’t simply be wished away for folks to focus on other things. Millions of people attend football matches, and making that an active, participatory experience — including through ownership of clubs — has important implications not just for football itself, but for football as a part of society. If a key part of a society’s culture is purely passive, if it’s just about watching on TV and letting your club rot away at the ends of a private individual out to enrich himself at the expense of your and your friends hardearned money spent at the turnstile or on your Sky subscription, well, I fail to see how that’s a good thing (of course, we now need a 5,000 word debate on the Culture Industry, but I’m siding with Walter Benjamin, suckers).

For a long-time, supporters were too passive and ill-organised, and at the same time regulation of football by those who ran it became too lax, as they little cared for the experiences of supporters; in the 1980s, the laissez-faire approach saw too little attention paid to stadium safety and directly contributed to the deaths of over one hundred fans in the Bradford Fire and the Hillsborough Disaster. Supporters standing up together after that played a crucial role in making the experience of watching football safe. Not simply accepting being treated like cattle means something beyond the confines of the touchline that Martin limits his understanding of supporter activism to.

People watch football either apathetically or with some say in what happens with the experiences, and this is where Martin misses an important point. Getting fans actively involved in their clubs is likely to change football and its role in the community in a positive fashion. Maybe this isn’t very important; but it’s also better than not doing anything, which is the alternative.  We’re not going to stop going to games, or wasting our time watching them on the television either way. We’re just going to be able to have a say in what’s going on and look out for our collective interests as fans of our clubs. A few thousand people doing this as elected representatives at supporters’ trusts is not going to make or break the progress of community activism in the rest of society, surely.

David Conn wrote the following in “The Beautiful Game?” a full six years ago:

“There are signs of enlightenment, hope, everywhere: more fans who understand the fabric and culture of the game and believe it does not have to be this way. Trusts have formed at nearly every club — admittedly some in better shape than others — and there are more supporters asking plain questions and not being satisfied when the answers don’t come. Recognition does seem to be slowly evolving that football clubs must do more than cash in on the loyalty of their fans, and even the Premiership clubs do seem to want to do more in their communities, if only to claim they have ‘corporate social responsibility’. There is increasing alarm about the junk we eat, and how little we exercise, so it can surely not be too long before that discussion gets round to wondering whether our national sport and its clubs could be doing more to get people playing football, rather than hooking them into consuming it on television or in the £50 seats.”

How that’s a bad thing from Martin’s perspective is a little baffling to me.

Quick Hits

  • We’ve mentioned this on Twitter a couple of times, but I can’t quite get over how beautiful the new Run of Play is (click on “about”). And then there’s the writing, which is even better.
  • Jonathon Wilson on pressing football: “This is the unspoken strength of Barcelona: they aren’t just majestic in possession themselves; they also make other sides tentative in possession. Think not just of Arsenal, but of Michael Carrick and Anderson haplessly misplacing passes in Rome last May. Partly that is because Barça are so quick to close space; but it is also psychological. Barça are so good in possession, so unlikely to give the ball back, that every moment when their opponents have the ball becomes unbearably precious; even simple passes become loaded with pressure because the consequences of misplacing them are so great.”

The Sweeper appears daily. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: Fan Ownership and Pillock-Run Clubs

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The backlash to the recent media buzz about increasing supporter-ownership in English football has begun in British newspapers. The excellent Must Read Soccer compendium has linked to two pieces in the past few days that rip into the idea of increasing supporters’ say in how their (yes) clubs are run; intriguingly, one comes from the right-wing Martin Samuel in the reactionary Daily Mail, and one from the left-leaning Andrew Martin in the at-times progressive Guardian.

Let’s start with Samuel’s piece today, and we’ll address Martin’s tomorrow.

Samuel opens with the old anti-democratic chestnut:

Next time you are at a football match, look at the bloke next to you and ask yourself a simple question: would I want him speaking on my behalf?

Well no, I wouldn’t want the random person sitting next to me speaking on my behalf. Just as I don’t want the random person sitting next to me on the bus running my local government. I’d like to hear their platform and vote on them and other candidates in a fair election on a one-person, one-vote basis, please. That’s how supporter-run clubs work, through the election of a board by the members of a supporters’ trust, open to all fans.

Representative democracy is always a difficult  concept for the likes of the Daily Mail to grasp, but the idea of how a Supporters’ Trust or fan-owned club is run isn’t about picking a random Dave from the crowd and putting him in charge of the club. Nor is it about mob-rule, especially as Trusts have extensive constitutions that clearly delineate what role the elected board must play in running the club.

We don’t have to deal with this in theory. Let’s look at fan-owned club AFC Wimbledon, run by the supporters through the Dons Trust, who describe their mission as follows:

An organisation that represents a large interest such as AFC Wimbledon must have governance and accountability to all both financially and morally. That’s where the Dons Trust does its job. The Dons Trust is a not-for-profit organisation that owns AFC Wimbledon and is guardian of all principles and aims by which it operates. It is committed to strengthening the voice of supporters in the decision making processes at the football club, and strengthening the links between the club and the community of Wimbledon and the surrounding areas. . .In AFC Wimbledon the Dons Trust now operates and nurtures a wholly supporter-owned community football club that is run by democratically elected officers.

Of course, for Samuel, there is no such thing as “community”, or any shared interest among fans whatsoever. There is only the lonely, individual fan.

It is a myth, this idea that supporters are a breed. In reality, there is no group called The Fans.

There are individuals with different ideals and beliefs, who congregate around the sport for vastly differing reasons, and take from it wildly different pleasures.

The decaying bones of Margaret Thatcher pulsate with joy at these words!

And so:

Your little circle may be discerning, insightful and wise, but two rows in front could be a band of complete morons, wearing the same colours as you, but singing a song about gassing the Yids.

Suppose this little lot are the ones that end up in the boardroom?

Where is the fit and proper person test for supporters groups?

It lies in the same place as it does for the elected governance of any democratic society, in the people’s hands. If I’m part of a club with a membership that democratically elects a bunch of morons who sing songs about gassing the Yids, that club isn’t part of a community I want to be involved in anyway; and should such folks stand to run for election in the first place, I’d fight against them with all the energy I could muster.

There are over 100 elected supporters’ trusts in England; many aren’t perfect, like in all applications of democracy. But most have been run successfully, saving numerous clubs from bankruptcy and acting as a reasonable voice for fans who do share one common interest that may or may not be shared by a random private owner: an interest in the long-term stability and success of their football club.

Right now, of course, outside of fan-owned clubs like AFC Wimbledon anyone can come in and buy a club regardless of their views without the fans having any say in it at all. Portsmouth, Manchester United, Liverpool, Chester City. . .these clubs have not been run for the long-term good of the club since their various takeovers, but for short-term private gain that has damaged each, perhaps irreparably.

Let us turn back to AFC Wimbledon’s organisation under the control of the Dons Trust Board (DTB), which I think demonstrates that all of this how to run a football club business has actually been thought through by the fans and their democratic organisation. Its aims encompass open, clearly stated goals such as financial prudence, supporting women’s football, a stadium near the club’s geographic home, communication and openness, working with the local community, encouraging equality and diversity, and promoting the active involvement of members in running the club.

But this doesn’t mean fans picking the team. Careful review and rules determine the role of the elected Trust board and how it oversees the operation of the club:

  • At its first meeting in 2007, the Board decided to adopt the general approach and working patterns piloted in the second half of 2006 under the Strategic Review and Oversight Board (SROB). In practical terms, what this means is that throughout 2007 and since the Boards of the DTB and AFCW PLC have worked together very closely in order to give the Trust and Club unified, strategic leadership and direction, with a clear line of accountability running from the three Club Directors up to the full elected DTB which is, in turn, accountable to the membership as a whole.
  • The DTB has deliberately kept itself at arms length from the day-to-day operations and management of the Club which have been left in the hands of the three Directors of AFC Wimbledon Ltd – Erik Samuelson (Chief Executive), Ivor Heller (Commercial Director) and Nigel Higgs (Youth and Community Director). The three Directors (all of whom are simultaneously elected members of the DTB) are accountable to the Board as a whole and they come to it for approval of strategic policy developments (eg response to developments at the Greyhound Stadium and Morden Park) and/or major financial commitments (eg maintaining the Kingsmeadow planning permissions, agreeing our negotiating position on the perimeter lease and drawing down sums from the £600k Barclays Bank credit facility).
  • Typically, the agenda of the monthly DTB meeting comprises major issues of the kind just itemised as well as issues that are of continuing strategic importance to the Trust (eg membership levels, fundraising, and member participation) and the Club (eg the stadium, training facilities, the youth and ladies teams) and receiving, discussing and questioning the regular reports and accounts from Erik, Ivor and Nigel.
  • Where does football fit into this? In their formal sessions, the fans who make up the Board stick to a self-denying ordinance that all footballing matters are channelled through the Chief Executive so that the first team Manager has a clear and uncluttered line of communication with the Club management.
  • Rather than indulge in general footballing discussion, the Board confines itself to strategic matters, key ones in 2007 being the size and availability of the playing budget and the endorsement of the process adopted for selecting and appointing a new first team manager.

None of this careful separation of responsibilities between the elected fans’ board and the directors charged with running the club is of interest to Samuel, who is instead worried that power might end up in the hands of “a bloke behind us at West Ham who thought Bobby Moore couldn’t pass.”

In the end, Samuel is simply denying that fans are capable of democratically settling on a general interest for their club through the electoral process (which is in fact much easier to do in the context of a football club than for democracy in society in general. Perhaps we should return to aristocratic political rule in England as well, then).

He concludes:

Aside from being a crass electioneering ploy which presumes we are all stupid, the flaw here is that government plans for empowerment presume a homogenous body, The Fans, with a single thought between them.

The fact is there is still a chance your club will be run by a complete pillock; except at least the last complete pillock might have been able to afford to buy a striker.

The point, though, is that yes, a complete pillock could be elected to to the board of a fan-run club. The beautiful part is that the fans also get to elect them out on a one-person, one-vote basis, and if they so wish, to stand for election themselves.

If the fans don’t have a say in the club, they’re stuck with it being run by a pillock for as long as the pillock wants it.

Mike Ashley, or, a pillock

Quick Hits

  • Paul Gardner rips apart Sepp Blatter’s feeble defense against the use of video technology in football to assist officiating.
  • Tim Vickery, on Messi as the devastating decoy.

The Sweeper appears daily. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: The Greater Fool Theory

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Christian Seifert

I’ve been alluding to it in past Sweepers, and now Bundesliga chief executive Christian Seifert has given it a name:

“During the Super Bowl [in February] I was in the United States talking to some owners and one guy told me: ‘It’s the greater fool theory. Some day a greater fool will come and buy the club.’ But hoping for that, and waiting for that in football, which is so important to the city, to a region, to people, is a natural conflict.”

Witness the hope of Manchester United supporters placed in the hands of the of a small group of potential investors to wrench their club from the leverage-happy Glazers, or the anxiety of a failed bid by American management company Rhône Group to take Liverpool from Gillett and Hicks, or the fans and owners of indebted clubs hoping a new investor will come along and save their team from administration or worse.  A change of investorship still yields the same uncertainties, the same wage inflation, the same diminishing cost/turnover ratio.

The problem is not separating the good investors from the bad. It’s the business model of football itself which, as Seifert notes, requires an enormous amount of capital investment in a sport with profit margins of less than two percent (see Simon Kuper).  It’s a system that encourages, if not dictates, profligate debt, and which entices investors less interested in the good of the club than in the prospect of “selling up.”

Seifert made these remarks in an interview with the Observer, in which he also underlined the need to limit players’ wages to an acceptable percentage of turnover for football to a remain viable sport.  He seems to be one of a few football executives to look at the wider implications of the current system, whereby English fans are reduced to hoping one set of benevolent owners will trump another set of malevolent owners in the hope their club will remain healthy and competitive in the years to come.

Seifert goes on to point out some things so blindingly simple (if naively hopeful) that one is reminded of George Orwell’s dictum, that “to see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” To wit:

“The Bundesliga pays less then 50% of turnover in players’ wages. I’m absolutely sure a league can reduce wages. If all the clubs said: ‘OK, we reduce wages by 10%,’ maybe you will have some players who would leave for Spain or Italy, but 99% will say: ‘OK, still I make a hell of a lot of money.’”

Or,

“Of course it’s not necessarily a problem when you have a debt. Personally when you buy a car or house you have debts. But you have to prove that you have, let’s say, a business model even as a single worker that you can pay back the money.”

Limiting wages to a percentage of turnover.  Responsible debt spending.  It’s not as if these ideas have no basis in reality; Seifert’s Bundesliga is now cited daily as a model for English football moving forward.  Some of the Labour proposals for football reform tabled last week include measures already in place in Germany.  Whether or not change comes likely depends on a commitment from administrators, supporters trusts and politicians to endeavour to state the obvious at every turn.

Quick Hits

  • A couple of articles today highlight the hypocrisy behind West Ham‘s call for Fulham to be punished for fielding a “weakened side” against their relegation rivals, Hull.
  • And if you want to argue about maintaining the “integrity of the competition” in the Premier League, Said and Done has a nice dollop of PL hathos for you.  A taste: “Premier League spending on grassroots football last year via the Football Foundation – 1.5% of their £1.005bn turnover, the same proportion spent on their operating and admin costs. Other Premier League money distribution last year: £790m to clubs – who spent £70.7m of it on agents; £74.4m on parachute payments; £790k on Richard Scudamore’s salary – plus a £745k bonus.”
  • From a Left Wing on FIFA’s decision to ban the hijab in football: “This seems like a fine moment to recall Sepp Blatter’s most famous statement about the women’s game:”Let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball. They could, for example, have tighter shorts.” Fuck that. I’ll take headscarves and lime green tracksuits over that bullshit anyday.”
  • Are USA chants at Premier League matches offensive?
  • North Korea hasn’t been able to play a football match in ages.

The Sweeper: American Soccer Fans – Do Some Conditions Apply?

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This hasn’t been the greatest week for marketing in Major League Soccer; the Sweeper has already joined Fake Sigi this past week with a look into what went (horribly) wrong with the launch of mlssoccer.com, as well as criticizing the not-very-well-thought-out marketing campaign to get more fans to come watch FC Dallas.  But is it possible that European club-following American soccer fans might never watch MLS games, either live or on TV, no matter how well MLS markets the game or how much the league improves? Could they be conditioned to dislike MLS despite a steady improvement in quality over the years, or the league’s attempts to attract better players despite a shoestring budget relative to other American sports?

That’s the view put forward this past week by Jason Davis at Match Fit USA.  He makes an analogy between American soccer fans and the character Brooks from The Shawshank Redemption:

Brooks left prison after years of being told when to eat, sleep, shower, etc., and couldn’t change himself to accept freedom. In my terribly imperfect analogy, Euro-focused soccer fans are Brooks, and might never be able to accept that MLS is a decent, competitive, and engaging league that is worth two hours of their time a week, no matter what the league or those of us who love it do to convince them.

As ever, the problem in discussing the myriad problems marketing soccer in America and Canada is the lack of definitive research on the tastes and habits of American soccer-lovers.  That hasn’t prevented the proliferation of countless views on how best to fill some of MLS’ more consistently poorly-attended stadiums, whether it’s focusing on MLS supporter culture, splashing as much clash as certain clubs can afford on “buying talent” to convince Euro fans, promoting the game to soccer moms and dads as a way to get their kids to see “the real thing,” or marketing to a growing Hispanic fan base.  Each of these approaches has been tried in MLS in one form or another with mixed results.

Often the league’s greatest successes have come as a complete surprise. Richard Peddie, the CEO of Toronto FC’s corporate investor/operator Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, famously said prior to TFC’s first season in 2007 he’d be content with 13 000-15 000 fans attending games at BMO Field, only to watch gobsmacked along with the rest of Toronto’s sports writing intelligentsia as season tickets sold out months ahead of kick off.  The renewal numbers remain at 95% despite the club’s inability to make the playoffs three years running.  In recent years, it is clear that some geographic markets perform better than others, regardless of results on the field.

But perhaps one of the best ways MLS can hope to draw more and more fans in the long term is simply by continuing to exist.  Despite the hemming and hawing about the lopsided attendances across the league, MLS is still only fourteen years old. Manchester United took half a century to become one of England’s most popular clubs, Liverpool slightly longer than that.  Real Madrid first came to the fore in world football in the mid 1950s with the advent of the European Cup, about half a century after it had been founded.  The enormous success enjoyed by the Big European clubs was often bestowed by history, luck, and a dedicated fan base, the sort of qualities only time can yield.

The idea of building a football league to capture the hearts and minds of American soccer fans overnight is a probably naive, like expecting the arrival of Jens Lehmann and Thierry Henry at Red Bull Arena to rejuvenate a less-than-stellar franchise (or expecting that a sold out Giant stadium means America was ready for countless soccer franchises).  It may take another fourteen, or twenty-eight years, for MLS to win over the Brooks’ of American soccer.

Quick Hits

  • Brian Philips monumental and much-missed Run of Play has returned, and it is beautiful.
  • The strange and wonderful world of QPR boss, Neil Warnock.
  • The Independent’s James Lawton argues the the recent spat of injuries to major internationals ahead of the World Cup indicates the debate has expanded beyond club versus country.

The Sweeper: Franchise Football in Scotland

Cowdenbeath, the Blue Brazil

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The words “Franchise Football” strike fear into football fans across Britain. The reason that Wimbledon’s move to Milton Keynes, where they became the MK Dons, continues to generate outrage now many years on is because it abrograted a simple cultural belief common to the vast majority of fans: in some sense, a team “belongs” to its local community. It shouldn’t be moved about like a McDonalds.

But, as Bobby Brandon wrote on these pages last year, MK Dons were not the first “Franchise FC” in Britain; a Scottish precedent had been set in 1995, when what is now Livingston FC (then known as Meadowbank Thistle) abandoned Edinburgh for a new home and stadium in Livingston, West Lothian.

And then in 2002, Airdrie United bought out Clydebank FC to take their place in the Scottish Second Division, killing Clydebank FC despite extensive efforts by United Clydebank Supporters  to save the club (the rise, fall and rise again of Clydebank was covered in detail here by Damon Main last year).

Now it looks set to happen again, and unless the Scottish FA steps in, a trend of “franchising” could spread in Scottish football. This time, as the outstanding Scottish blog Away from the Numbers explains, “Cowdenbeath FC and their supporters seem to be facing the fight of their 119 year history at the moment, as it was revealed that they may be looking at possibly groundsharing or possibly a merger with/takeover by Edinburgh East of Scotland non-league side Spartans.”

Details are sparse, but Away from the Numbers speculates it could mean “a takeover by Spartans to buy the Cowden name, move them lock, stockcar and barrel to Edinburgh and have them play under Spartans name in Spartans’ Ainslie Park ground.”

One reason Spartans might want to do this is the same as that of Aidrie United’s reasoning before them: the lack of a true pyramid system in Scotland means the incentive to “buy” a place in the Scottish League is strong for clubs below that level.

In this case, Spartans currently play in the East of Scotland Football League, one of three “non-leagues” immediately below the Scottish Football League, which does not have automatic promotion and relegation with those leagues below (a lack of promotion/relegation isn’t just for  MLS, folks!). Opportunities to join the league are thus rare, and in 2008, Spartans were denied their application to replace defunct Gretna.

The situation, then, is not quite comparable to the way MK Dons jumped the pyramid in England by taking over and moving Wimbledon (in England’s true pyramid system, they could have started a local club and fairly moved all the way up the league, as Wimbledon originally did starting in non-league football).

The Scottish football authorities could alleviate what seems to be a growing pattern of clubs attempting to parachute up the pyramid by instituting a promotion and relegation system from the non-leagues to the Football League.

If they don’t, more franchising may well follow.

Quick Hits

The Sweeper appears daily. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: FC Dallas Marketing Fail Continues

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Average attendance in MLS in week one of the season was up from 2009. At the top end, an impressive 36,241 saw Seattle’s opener against Philadelphia.

But as has been noted across the blogosphere, at the bottom end FC Dallas reported a crowd of just 8,016 for their home game against Houston, who brought a decent number of fans to Dallas themselves.

It’s not news that Dallas have a problem attracting fans. Average attendance in 2009 came in at 12,441, a decline of almost 5% on 2008, but this comes with an enormous asterisk: that average number was inflated by almost 3,000 thanks to a double-header at the Cotton Bowl with a friendly between Mexico and Colombia that attracted over 50,000.

So in reality, the 2009 home opener for Dallas was about par for the course in recent times (and that Cotton Bowl crowd also tells us, quite obviously, that there are plenty of people in the Dallas region who do like soccer who are not regularly attending FC Dallas games).

Many point to the location in far-out Frisco of Dallas’ stadium, Pizza Hut Park, as the reason for Dallas’ attendance woes; however, the fact that more people used to go and watch Dallas games there and don’t any longer isn’t a good sign. And of course, it tells the lie to the claim that all MLS teams need is their own stadium to succeed in attracting fans.

The fact is, it’s just obviously not worth the time or expense for soccer fans to go to Frisco and watch FC Dallas play. Match Fit USA notes that the team second from bottom in week one’s attendance chart, the Columbus Crew, have the same owners as Dallas, the Hunt family (MLS largely owes its existence to the late Lamar Hunt). Columbus, of course, have a winning team and also their own stadium:

Last year FC Dallas started terribly and used a late-season push to get themselves in playoff contention. Winning is always a draw, and it’s possible that the fans stayed away because the team was poor to start the year. That conclusion might be reasonable if the ownership of the club didn’t have such a poor track record, both in Dallas and Columbus; the Crew are in the midst of a trophy winning streak yet have failed to crack the top half of league attendance the last two seasons. Dallas’ problems on the field combined with Pizza Hut Park’s location is a double whammy; but even bad teams and those playing in massive American football stadiums far from their natural base can draw more than 10k.

Where we go from here is, of course, the problem. In a franchise system without promotion or relegation one answer to solve the problem of a team in a sinkhole as deep as Dallas’ dragging down the rest of the league is to move the team, an unpalatable solution from a fans’viewpoint.

It’s possible to recover from disasters like these; in 2003, the Fire opened with an even lower crowd than Dallas’ in 2010, for quite different reasons, but you see the point. FC Dallas, though, are in the midst of several seasons of marketing fail in their own, rather nice stadium.

MLS has talked up Seattle and Toronto’s success in selling itself to “football fans”, the young male demographic, as its prime marketing strategy in this era of the league.  Dallas, indeed, were one of the originators of this strategy in an unsuccessful way, with their renaming from the Dallas Burn to FC Dallas in 2005. Dallas also introduced membership in an official supporters’ club that has also been a failure, already rebranded from “Hoops Nation” to FCD Nation.

The fail has kept on coming. In December, we mocked FC Dallas’ abysmal “We are NOT spectators” marketing campaign.

FC Dallas: We Are Not Spectators

This is a prime example of an MLS marketing foolishness: what succeeds somewhere is seen as a simple strategy for another team to follow, regardless of the nuances of the local fan culture, the history of the sport in each region or the prospective fanbase. Instead, there’s a powerpoint and some poorly paid graphic designer on their first job out of college is assigned the task of coming up with something that is supposed to mean something to people using a cupcake cutter vaguely copied from success elsewhere in the league.

It doesn’t take a lot, but it does take something to make people open their wallets and travel out to Frisco to watch an MLS game, and FC Dallas’ front office just can’t figure out what the hell that something is.

Quick Hits

The Sweeper appears daily. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: Literally A Political Football

blair-keegan

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When the British Government has gotten involved in football, the results have at times been dramatic; Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, calling for an identity card scheme for football fans, or in the wake of Hillsborough, legislation that led to the creation of all-seater stadia at the top levels of the game.

Now, after months of controversy about football ownership models in England and crises up and down the nation have coincided with the general election approaching, the Labour Pary’s election manifesto will — according to the Guardian — play to the feeling that change is needed:

The government is to unveil radical proposals that would give football fans first option to buy their clubs when they were put up for sale and require clubs to hand over a stake of up to 25% to supporters’ groups.

The ideas, due to be included in the Labour manifesto with a promise of action in the first year of a new government, are designed to give fans a far greater say in how their football clubs are run and overhaul the way the game is governed.

It is believed that No 10, which has been working secretly on the plans for weeks, has resolved to deliver concrete proposals to tackle growing public disquiet at the level of debt carried by some clubs, the ownership model of others and the dysfunctional structure of the Football Association.

Two Hundred Percent asks if this is “playing to the gallery or genuine change”, and concludes that:

In principle these proposals get the thumbs up but, after years of being knocked from pillar to post, football supporters are right to ask questions of anything like this rather than blindly saying, “Right, where do I sign up?”. The issue of it being vote-mongering has to be countered against the fact that there is a groundswell against the current administration of the game in this country and that the only alternative to these proposals would be for them to not be made, and for everything to carry on down the route that it has been following for the last few years. However, there are real concerns to be voiced over party politicising this issue. No-one wants to alienate people from joining or being involved with supporters trusts, and the idea of Labour & The FA lining up against the Conservatives, Sky and the Premier League is not an appealing one.

And shortly after 200%’s post, the Conservatives did indeed come out and call Labour’s proposals electioneering, with their Sports spokesman Hugh Robertson saying that “After 13 years of inactivity by the government on this issue, this has all the hallmarks of a pre-election gimmick. There are massive, massive implications for company law and insolvency law.”

Robertson, though, did not dismiss the idea that government could play a role in increasing fan representation, or that that would be a bad idea in general, instead saying easier ways could be found to increase supporter representation at board level.

The Conservatives may have a point that Labour’s proposals have a sniff of electioneering about them and that the workability of the proposals must be questioned (FIFA and government interference, anyone?), though we should wait to see the full proposals before passing judgment.

David Conn takes a broader view, however, and suggests that these proposals do actually fit into a long-term concern of the Labour Government with the way football has been run in the past thirteen years:

The ideas that will form this policy pledge in Labour’s election manifesto are not a response just to the last three months, but to 13 years. When first elected in 1997, Labour believed that all was not well in a game generally being celebrated for its renaissance, for “coming home”.

The new government set up the Football Task Force to address issues including high ticket prices, how to encourage supporter involvement in clubs, and how the wider purpose of football clubs can be preserved when they are, in reality, companies being bought and sold or, as was the boardroom fad then, floated on the stock market.

The taskforce did produce some enlightened progress, including the formation of the Football Foundation, to channel a proportion of the new satellite TV riches into the wretchedly dilapidated grassroots, and the establishment of Supporters Direct, to encourage democratic fans’ trusts to be involved in the running of their clubs.

So the principle that clubs should be more like true clubs, there to serve their members, the supporters, not the commercial interests of whoever bought the holding company, took serious root in the government more than a decade ago. But on the grit of regulation, of whether football should be forced to reform itself, the government always drew back, arguing it could not step in.

The timing that the government will now step-in will be viewed by the cynic as so much guff. But football fans may want to pause and wait for the full proposals before dismissing an idea that does at the least give considerable further credence to the movement towards greater supporter representation in the running of football.

In that vein, Supporters Direct commented today that “The two parties – one of which will form the basis of the next government – both agree fans should have a stake in the clubs they support and are pledged to work to make it happen. That’s great news for the trust movement and long-overdue recognition that clubs aren’t businesses like any other.

“We look forward to the next government – whoever it is – putting fans at the heart of the game and we will work with them to make it happen.”

Quick Hits

  • Red Bull Arena opened to considerable fanfare on Saturday night, with the Red Bulls eking out a 1-0 win over the Fire (wish I’d been there, despite the result). Big Apple Soccer wonders, though, if the empty seats don’t suggest there remains a cause for concern about the fanbase for the Red Bulls despite the new $200m stadium.
  • A Bulgarian third division game lasted just one minute, after injury and suspension-hit Gigant Belene went down to just six players.
  • Leadership? Simon Barnes on the curious English attitude to the myth of the “leader”: “We English have a special veneration for leaders. We measure our past entirely in kings and queens (every outmoded thought is “Victorian”, every idyll “Edwardian”) and in sport we admire captains and managers above all else. We are in thrall to the mystique of leadership.”

The Sweeper appears daily. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: Platini’s Financial Anti-Doping Test

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If you find yourself bored by today’s fixtures, or stuck in an elevator, you might consider downloading the sixty-page PDF of UEFA‘s proposed regulations banning European club investors from engaging what is charmingly referred to as “financial doping.” That’s the practice of owners slipping in a telephone booth-sized envelope of their own money into the club books at the end of the fiscal year, ensuring their team stays in the black even though club revenues might cover only a fraction of club spending.  As Matt Dickinson writes, that means:

No more Sheikh Mansour lavishing more than £400 million to secure a place in the Champions League unless he can square the outgoings with Manchester City’s income. No Mohamed Al Fayed propping up Fulham, or Randy Lerner at Aston Villa, unless their cash injections are beneath the limit — to become less than “10 million (£9 million) a year on average — that a sugar daddy can spend.

According to the Times, UEFA are hoping these proposals will cure everything from player wage inflation to top flight clubs going into administration mid-way through the season.  It’s hard to argue it won’t tackle the major problem of private investors artificially propping up clubs whose turnover does not justify their spending.

There will be of course resistance from big clubs, at least to the letter of the law.  Meaning some team boards will already be getting accountants to scour the proposal for what Dickinson calls “loopholes” in the new regulations, like owners “sponsoring” their clubs.  Some have already said these regulations will be very difficult to enforce.  And Dickinson’s fellow Times columnist Patrick Barclay points out there are reservations, particularly from some smaller top flight clubs concerned that preventing new investors from covering initial losses would lock them in a cycle of mediocrity:

There are fears, and the most widespread is that formerly mid-sized clubs will not be able to benefit from sugar daddies, as the likes of Parma and Deportivo La Coruña have done in the past, or as Chelsea and Manchester City do now. Not to mention Fulham, whose debt is approaching twice the size of Portsmouth’s when the latter went into administration.

That could be the cruel irony in Platini’s plans; that they will punish smaller clubs whose investors cover a personally acceptable amount of loss that doesn’t amount to a ripple in terms of player wage inflation or competitive imbalance.  But any proposal that doesn’t attempt to change the English system of private club investment, a system that Barclay writes the English “bizarrely seem to cherish,” won’t cure the underlying disease.  We hope this will at least alleviate the worst symptoms.

Quick Hits

  • Richard Scudamore plays dumb in reaction to the resignation of Football Association chief executive Ian Watmore.  Outside of claiming he “has no power,” Scudamore had some remarks on Watmore’s desire for the FA to get some of the Premier League’s cash bags: “There is loads of stuff the clubs do that is not selfish, greedy or self-centred.  But I will also defend the right of our clubs to retain 84p in every pound we generate to create the product that everyone seems to be enjoying right now.”
  • Meanwhile, the consensus is the Premier League chairman Sir Dave “Man of a Thousand Boards” Richards, with whom Watmore is said to have tussled on the FA board over several issues outlined here, is a complete and utter tosser.
  • Checking in on Charlie Davies.

The Sweeper: Who Owns Your Club?

Robbie Williams and Port Vale

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Today’s Sweeper offers you a video A-Z (that’s Zed, folks) from England on where the money comes from for the owners of every club in the Premier League and the Football League.

There’s something telling about the stream of industries here that gives a better sense than I’ve seen for a while about the bizarre randomness of ownership in English football; it would be quite interesting to compare to similar videos for other countries like Italy, Spain, Germany or the United States.

A sampling:

Birmingham City: Property/Hairdressing/Gambling
Exeter City FC: The fans
Fulham: Harrods

Quick Hits

The Sweeper appears daily. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: Is running the FA the most pointless job in football?

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Five chief executives in ten years is the kind of instability that breeds confused decision-making and lack of direction. For English football, then, it’s not a good thing that the surprise resignation yesterday of Ian Watmore, chief executive of the Football Association, will mean a fifth in ten years will soon be arriving.

The comments on the radio today about this by David Davies, the Football Association’s executive director, are well worth reading:

“I’m very sorry on a personal level because like a lot of people I liked Ian Watmore. But the reality for everybody who cares about football has to face up to is that the FA has lost five chief executives in little more than a decade. Most of them have been victims, and Ian Watmore it seems is just the latest, of the chronic instability that I believe, and have said on several occasions, is inherent in the way our football is run.

“The structure builds in conflict – the FA, the Premier League, the Football League and the other organisations, too – conflict that is hardly surprising given that the game is riven with conflicts of interest. People’s roles and responsibilities are either not defined at all, are blurred, or worse still, set up in competition deliberately with each other.”

Davies was asked if the position had become the most pointless in English football: “Well it shouldn’t be, should it? We’re talking about the governing body of a sport in a nation that is crazy about that sport. But I understand the natural cynicism that people have because over a generation some of us, initially internally and now externally, are pointing out the problems when you have these very powerful organisations who do come together on the FA board.

“The reality is that the personal relationships haven’t been able to withstand the battering that has been inevitable. The other thing is you cannot tell me this morning what the agreed priorities of English football are, nor can I. The problem is there are none. Everybody does their own thing. We cannot go on like this for another generation.”

Personal relationships?  The Guardian says these were rocked by Watmore’s insistence on change, met with resistance by Premier League chairman Sir Dave Richards: “It is believed that Watmore opposed the slow-moving committee structure of the FA, and believed he was being blocked by Richards and another Premier League representative, including Phil Gartside of Bolton Wanderers, on a number of issues.”

The Times, though, says he was “driven out by enemies within the FA”. The piece paints him as a “football man” who wanted to do the right thing “but who became frustrated at his inability to do that.”

But again, the piece returns to the power of the Premier League as the key frustration Watmore faced in pursuing change: “From the moment the FA gave the green light to the establishment of the Premier League, it has been increasingly weakened over time. The Premier League now holds an awful lot of power on the FA board which doesn’t help when the FA is attempting to implement its own changes to the game. It is not simply a Premier League issue, it is that the professional game as a whole is resistant to a lot of the changes the FA and Watmore in particular have tried to make.”

The Telegraph says that despite his short tenure, Watmore leaves achievements in his wake: “Notably, he pushed through plans for the National Football Centre at Burton, a vital project which had failed to get off the ground under previous regimes. He also secured a number of strong commercial deals, and paved the way for the Women’s Premier League.” (note: there’s already a Women’s Premier League, the Telegraph means the Women’s Super League)

Of course, unnamed sources at the Football Associationare now busy briefing the likes of Harry Harris at ESPN Soccernet claiming all is sweetness and light: “An FA insider told Soccernet: “It is a shame we have lost a decent guy, but there is no big ‘nuclear’ issue here. Some people are trying to make out there are problems with, say, the Premier League. Not at all.

“Relations across the game are in a pretty good state, certainly compared to what they have been in certain situations in the past.”

Right. Five chief executives in a decade suggests it’s a piece of cake for the Football Association.

Quick Hits

  • Meantime, and not insignificantly in this context, the Premier League is looking forward to a massive £1.4bn windfall from overseas television rights, according to FC Business magazine: “The new deal for 2010-13 has more than doubled from the £625m which was secured in the last rights issue. Premier League officials have assured its member clubs that they will raise the amount each receives from the current £10m to around £23m per season.”
  • “The Red Bull way”? Really? More to come on this.
  • How Qatar’s World Cup bid will beat the weather.

The Sweeper appears daily. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: The Women’s Super League, Who’s In and Out?

Super League

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The Football Association’s long and troubled effort to launch a professional summer women’s league has moved a step closer to actually happening: about a year from launch, they have announced the eight teams who will make up the league, out of 16 applicants. They are: Arsenal LFC, Birmingham City LFC, Bristol Academy WFC, Chelsea LFC, Doncaster Rovers Belles, Everton, Lincoln LFC and Liverpool LFC.

If we take a look at the current elite level of English women’s football, the FA Premier League, we will find a noticeable omission: Sunderland sit atop the standings currently (albeit second-placed Arsenal have plenty of games in-hand on them), but were not chose for the new Super League. Also missing from the Super League are fellow Premier League teams Nottingham Forest and Millwall.

Forest’s chief executive Mark Arthur expressed his disappointment: “When you are launching a new product,” he said, “you should surely include the biggest brands.” Arthur made his feelings plain: “”The application and decision-making processes were not satisfactory. We’ve done so much for the women’s game in recent years, yet we weren’t even granted an interview to explain our submission.”

Sunderland will be equally disappointed, if not surprised: word leaked last month that they would not make the final cut, leaving the north-east of England unrepresented in the Super League. Last month, Sunderland boss Maurice Alderson said that “”With the help of Sunderland FC, we put in a very strong bid and not for one moment did I think we wouldn’t get in. We’re top of the league, we reached last season’s FA Cup final and we’ve got nine current internationals at various age levels. To have all that on top of a bid backed by a Premiership club and get turned down is devastating. We’ve been kicked in the teeth.”

Without knowing the details of each application, it’s impossible to say if any of those clubs simply failed to meet the basic criteria the FA laid down or not.

Lincoln City were the surprise inclusion, with their rather interesting logo. They have an impressively ambitious statement on their website today looking forward to the future, including the Super League’s television deal with ESPN.

Since the inception of Lincoln Ladies F.C. it has been the club’s main aim, and indeed its main priority, to play at the highest level of women’s football.

This is the first time in the history of the city of Lincoln that a football club from the city will play in the highest league and at the highest level. It fills us all at Lincoln Ladies with great pride that it is our club that has delivered this fantastic prize and all the possibilities that go with it to the city, and to the people of Lincoln.

From the outset, we must stress that Lincoln Ladies will not be content with just making up the numbers in this new elite league. Rather we will strive, as we always have, to be champions of England, and we will now also look towards success for our club in European competition.

We will endeavour to build the strongest squad possible, which will include some players who presently play for us and also world class players who we hope to bring in from outside, to enable our club to achieve the success it craves, and to give the people of Lincoln a women’s football club they can be really proud of.

The Super League will be played in Summer, which of course means our supporters can enjoy watching our games in beautiful weather, warm sunny afternoons and balmy evenings, with all the benefits this will bring, enabling our club to make each football match a fantastic enjoyable and memorable experience.

It’s a real shame that the sporting success of Sunderland hasn’t been recognised, but the ambition and enthusiasm of a club like Lincoln does bode well for the Super League.

Quick Hits

  • Ridge Mahoney sums up MLS’ new labor deal, as all sweetness and light now pours forth from the players, league and owners: “For 2010, the salary cap will be $2.55 million per team (it was $2.32 million in 2009) and the minimum salary for non-developmental players is $40,000 ($34,000 in 2009). Each will increase at a basic five percent per year, though for older players the minimum will be greater. At that growth rate, the salary cap will be approximately $3.1 million in the final year of the CBA, and the minimum will be slightly more than $46,000.”  Personally, it seems to me to be a score draw given the positions each side came from.
  • Tim Vickery on a welcome sight, Uruguayan football (back) on the rise: “If it can keep grooming technically gifted players then this country of just 3.4m people will continue to punch above its weight on the football field – and that, surely, is a better course of action than punching below the belt.”

The Sweeper appears daily. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: “Western Civilization Does Not Hang in the Balance”

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Garber and Foose shake hands

So said George H. Cohen, director of the U.S. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service and mediator in the MLS/MLSPA collective bargaining agreement talks, following the news yesterday that MLS commissioner Don Garber and MLS players union boss Bob Foose had signed a new five year CBA, ending the prospect of a players strike that would have delayed the start of the 2010 MLS season.  Steve Goff offers the best rundown of yesterday’s agreement, noting the small areas of compromise on the part of league toward guaranteeing contracts, in addition to formulating a draft system for waived players:

*For the first time, a majority of players will have guaranteed contracts.
*The players’ ability to move freely within the league will be greatly improved.
*Player compensation will be increased substantially.

Importantly for Don Garber, none of these concessions threaten the core basis of MLS’ single-entity status, which he reiterated yesterday: “MLS was founded on the principle that our owners would not be keeping against each other for player services. When we think of free agency, it is that concept of internal bidding, and there will not be internal bidding for player services.”  And Bob Foose can at least go back to the players with some substantial gains in player compensation and contracts.

History will certainly recognize that the league had the upper hand in negotiations.  As Jason Davis points out, “the power of the Union was mitigated by the youth of the league, the unprofitably of its clubs, and imperative that MLS continue uninterrupted and without the black stain of a labor stoppage.”  Indeed, several papers reprinted the league’s reminder that only two MLS clubs were profitable last year (Toronto and Seattle) as if it was news.  Taking those losses into account, if you accept the premise that the sort of free agency the MLSPA was demanding would have led to internal bidding among team owners investor/operators (credit: Tomasch) and, in turn, higher costs, the players didn’t have much economic leverage to push for their demands.

Indeed, it’s often the case that in many sports labour collective bargaining talks, the players are in the most difficult position: if the league is already successful and the players rich, it’s very difficult for them to garner any public sympathy during labour disputes.  If the players are relatively low-paid or restricted in movement compared to other professional leagues, the owners can simply point to low or non-existent profits as a reason not to meet players’ “costly” demands.  Using a work stoppage as leverage often alienates fans and threatens the long term viability of the sport, yet whether or not you take issue with Foose and the players association for pushing their agenda to the brink of an all-out strike, it’s arguable that Garber and the league may not have shifted on some demands had they not realized that, indeed, “Western civilization does not hang in the balance.”

Anyway, that’s a discussion for later.  What we might ask now is, were there any positives to come out of the last few months of MLS CBA angst?  I would say, perhaps surprisingly, yes.  For American and Canadian soccer fans with a vested interest in MLS, the labour/management dispute helped ground discussions in a concrete understanding of the underlying economics of the league.  And the CBA talks made public and (often) included players and owners in a discussion that has often gone on behind the scenes in American pro soccer; is a highly-centralized, single-entity approach the best model for what many perceive to be a sport with shallow roots in the Northern part of this continent?

While a huge relief for MLS fans, the new five-year CBA still doesn’t definitively answer that question.  The conclusion of the MLS CBA talks won’t end what is still a fierce debate on the future of American pro soccer as MLS gets older, and hopefully, healthier.

Quick Hits

  • At first it seems like a Dante-like vision of hell: “There will be an England World Cup song after all this year, recorded by an unlikely alliance of 11 television football commentators and the Cotswold Male Voice Choir, in aid of the Prince’s Trust.”  Until you find out the commentators won’t be doing any actual singing.
  • Karsten Blaas details a hitherto-ignored scandal in German refereeing, one that has more to do with homophobia than match-fixing.
  • Amy Lawrence with a piece on how far French football has come this year: “The French coaching system is flourishing. An extraordinary 18 of 20 clubs in Ligue 1 are guided by local talent. Blanc and Puel, along with Didier Deschamps and Rudi Garcia – the pair whose teams fell out of the Europa League but retain excellent reputations for their progressive work at Marseille and Lille – are leading the way while all in their forties. All have benefitted from the methods introduced by Gérard Houllier, who set up a training programme at Clairefontaine in the 1990s. It is a three-year course, involves several internships, and evidently its graduates are given a fantastic schooling.”

The Sweeper: Prospect of an MLS Strike Over (Updated)

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UPDATE: The Associated Press released some details of the new five year deal signed between MLS and players shortly after 1:00 PM EST today:

The union leader Bob Foose said that a majority of players would receive guaranteed contracts for the first time and that there would be increased player rights within the league when contracts expired…“Players will have greater rights at the expiration of their agreements, but they will not be free agents within the league,” Garber said.  Instead, there will be a re-entry draft for players whose contracts end or options are declined. Few details were made available during the call.

Replace "transit" with "MLS players" and you get the idea

News broke quickly broke over the Associated Press this morning that there is a near agreement on a five year deal between the Major League Soccer and the players’ union, as the league and player representatives have scheduled a press teleconference today at 1:00 pm EST:

Major League Soccer and its players called a joint news conference for Saturday and were near agreement on a five-year contract that would avoid a strike scheduled for next week, a person familiar with the negotiations told The Associated Press.

At this point there is no word on any concessions the league may have granted to players, although some on Twitter are already speculating it will involve some loosening of restrictions placed on waived players.   All Pitch Invasion can tell you with confidence right now is that some quarters of the MLS blogosphere are no doubt already beginning their lengthy “I told you so’s” based on their various predictions about the likelihood of a work stoppage, and that this soccer blogger is thankful it will be another five wonderful years before I have to write about any of this ever again.

Quick Hits

  • EPL Talk provides some interesting tidbits from the lawsuit filed against Google and YouTube by Viacom and the Premier League.  While both sides have defensible legal arguments, as more and more underground video highlights providers pop up and viewers flock to illegal live streams to watch games, a massive lawsuit filed over copyright infringement in 2007 over five second vids on YouTube seems to underline the futility of challenging Internet copyright violation via legal means.
  • The Scottish FA chief executive Gordon Smith opposes cordoning off certain SPL and Scotland fixtures for over-the-air broadcasters like the BBC.  Smith: “We certainly feel that competition, in terms of the broadcasting rights, is what brings in the best value; the required money in order to fund all the other initiatives you have in your game.  If it becomes a listed event, it means there would be a big drop in the funds for the football association and that would reflect in terms of what we can do for the game here.”
  • All hail the “not rich, but comfortable” Sepp Blatter, King of FIFA: “Sepp Blatter has tightened his grip on Fifa after forestalling the challenge of his only probable rival for the organisation’s presidency. The accompanying announcement that the governing body’s annual turnover had broken the $1bn barrier for the first time only served to increase Blatter’s security.”  João Havelange would be proud.

The Sweeper: CONCACAF’s Copycat Champions League A Failure?

Champions Leagues

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The commercial and marketing success of UEFA’s Champions League since its launch in 1992, with its final now the most watched annual sporting event globally surpassing the Super Bowl, has spawned imitators by FIFA confederations around the world.

We have the AFC Champions League in Asia, launched in 2002;  we have the CAF Champions League in Africa, launched in 1997; we have the OFC Champions League in Oceania, launched in 2007; and we have the CONCACAF Champions League in North and Central America (and the Caribbean), branded as such in 2008.

The only confederation that hasn’t renamed its premier international club tournament as a “Champions League” is South America’s CONMEBOL, which of course has retained the Copa Libertadores, founded in 1960. It hasn’t done so for the simple reason that the tournament is already a success; albeit not as lucrative as Europe’s equivalent. The other confederations have all tried to copy the success of allowing in more teams to the champions’ tournament and giving it a snazzy new name.

The most recent effort, CONCACAF’s, has a problem. All four teams in the semi-finals this year are from Mexico (UNAM Pumas, Pachuca, Cruz Azul and Toluca). Meantime, in UEFA’s Champions League, six different nations are represented in the final eight. Now, UEFA’s showpiece has not always been a brilliant exhibition of the continent’s diversity; England has had four representatives at this stage in each of the previous two years. The institution of the Champions League in Europe itself has been a blow to smaller nations, a fact recognised by UEFA with their reorganisation of the qualification process to benefit countries outside England, Germany, Spain and Italy.

But in the CONCACAF Champions League last year as well, Mexico provided three of the four semi-finalists as well and both finalists. Even the final iteration of the CONCACAF Champions Cup in 2008 before it was renamed the Champions League saw both Mexican qualifiers reach the final. This should have been a sign that CONCACAF was not ready for a “Champions League” that allowed in more qualifiers from the dominant country. It has simply entrenched Mexican dominance, especially with MLS still unable or unwilling to prioritise the tournament.

The CONCACAF Champions League may be making more money now; Mexican television will be enjoying their national hegemony. But for countries in the rest of the region, the chances of their champions progressing in the tournament have become slimmer, and that’s a blow to the development of club football around the confederation.

Quick Hits

The Sweeper appears daily. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.


The Sweeper: MLS, The Replacements

The Replacements

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Scabs in MLS?

Here’s Real Salt Lake’s owner Dave Checketts, as reported in the Deseret News (via Fake Sigi):

“I just came from a meeting with several owners and the commissioner down here in Los Angeles, and we know exactly what we’ll do. These are all owners who’ve been in the NBA, they’ve been in the NHL, some of them own Major League Baseball teams even today. We know what we’ll do. We have a plan if the players strike,” said Checketts.

“I just hope the players understand the implication of the threats they’re making to strike because if they do in fact go on strike, then that forces the owners to do something very aggressive and very different.”

There aren’t many things the owners can do that would be “very aggressive and very different” that don’t involve hiring scabs to replace MLS players on strike.

I don’t see this scenario resulting in a Keanu Reeves movie romanticising the replacements, but it may be an apropos comparison. That 1987 players strike in the NFL came as massively rising television revenues were lining the owners’ pockets and the players wanted more of the pie; not quite the same as today in MLS, though obviously rising revenues are behind some of the players’ demands. Moreover, NFL players were already being paid considerably more than MLS players today, with a median income of $170,000 in 1987 money, double MLS players median today not even adjusting for inflation.

But one key issue was similar to the dispute in MLS: free agency.

In 1987, NFL players initially wanted unrestricted free agency, while the owners only offered a modest advance on the compensation system in place.

According to this 1988 Monthly Labor Review article, the owners had a fairly simple strategy to break the strike: “(1) stonewall in negotiations, (2) use the NFL’S public relations program to persuade the fans of the rightness of their position, and (3) divide and frustrate the players by proceeding with the regular schedule using strikebreakers.”

As this piece puts it, following the breakdown of negotiations, a 24 day strike resulted in one of the weirdest periods of play in the history of professional sport:

What followed was one of the strangest months in pro football history, as NFL teams fielded lineups of amateur athletes unconvincingly masquerading as NFL players while the real players—many of them millionaires—walked picket lines, unconvincingly masquerading as blue-collar working stiffs.

A previous strike in 1982 led owners to prepare replacement players as the labour agreement negotiations broke down in 1987.

This strategy, a throwback to the early 20th century, was calculated to wear down the union. The owners were taking a long-term view. This approach was effective because unlike 1982, the games went on. This, coupled with the breakdown in player solidarity, probably won the strike for the owners. But there was a bargaining issue that also contributed to the union’s failure: free agency.

The owners simply would not budge on this issue, and as the strike went on and the players changed their demand on free agency to restrict it to only players with four years experience or more, divisions amongst the players on the importance of this issue grew — it obviously benefited veteran players much more than poorer players, in the short term at least. And the short-term was the problem for the union.

Despite the NFL players’ relatively rich salaries, the union was ill-prepared for a strike; there was no strike fund to provide benefits, no line of credit for player loans. It’s interesting also to look at the economic impact, again from Monthly Labor Review:

What was the impact on players and owners? The strikers lost an average of $15,000 per game, and approximately $80 million altogether. All teams refunded monies to fans who had purchased tickets but did not attend strike games. Although gate receipts and television ratings were down, the owners saved on salaries by paying the replacement players comparatively little. The average owner’s profit per game actually rose from $800,000 before the strike to $921,000 during the strike. This profit was temporary, however, because the league has to refund $60 million to the networks over the next two seasons for the one missed weekend of play, the reduced ratings, and the decline in advertising revenues.

In MLS, the owners will surely save money in the short term in the event of a strike. Television deals in MLS are not worth a great deal. I don’t know if the MLS players’ union has a strike fund or a line of credit to help striking players out, but I rather doubt it. This is a young league that hasn’t had much time to prepare for a strike.

In 1987, an ESPN poll found that the NFL owners won the public relations battle. Though attendance dropped, the second week of the strike saw many fans return to games. Regular officials showed up, and regular television presenters appeared. 16% of the players crossed the picket line. After twenty days, the players’ union made a proposal to the league that was rejected, and their strike collapsed four days later. The result was a disaster for the union.

The 1987 strike ended in total defeat for the NFL Players Association. Having lost all leverage, the players crawled back to work without winning free agency, without winning a guaranteed share of league revenue, without even reaching agreement on a collective bargaining agreement. The owners’ victory was so crushing that in 1989 the Players Association actually went out of business as a union; under federal labor law, workers gained standing to file class-action lawsuits against their employers only if they didn’t belong to a union. Therefore, having been utterly thwarted in their 1987 strike, the players took the radical step of decertifying the union two years later to pursue their goals in court.

This may or may not be a relevant historical example for the present state of MLS; there are plenty of other examples we could look at. But it’s hard to say that the MLS players’ union is in a stronger position than the NFL players union was in 1987, with players even worse off economically, and the real value of free agency still somewhat amorphous given the hard salary cap in place (ironically, in the NFL, following several court cases and the reformation of the players union, in 1993 free agency in the NFL was granted essentially in exchange for the introduction of a hard salary cap).

If there’s a strike in MLS, will the players be able to hold firm for more than a couple of weeks? How important is free agency to most of the players? Will MLS really be prepared to take “very aggressive” action and bring in replacements? Will fans show up to watch? Will Keanu Reeves appear in a soccer sequel to the Replacements?

Quick Hits

The Sweeper appears daily. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: Can Television Save Local Football?

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Here’s a curious proposal from one of England’s most thoughtful football writers: in order to increase ties to local clubs lost by national television broadcasts and migration patterns, Gabrielle Marcotti suggests that “if fandom is reached via television, then television should be fully embraced, albeit with some key safeguards, along the lines of what the NFL has done for years.”

What he means here is that Premier League clubs’ games should be shown only in their region and not nationally, as long as they are sold-out, a sensible enough provision to ensure games are seen by actual fans. As Marcotti explains,

“Scrap the notion of nationwide Premier League TV games, with the exception of one “game of the week” which would be on a terrestrial brodcaster and would be the league’s showpiece that week. Then, divide the country up into regions and show every Premier League game but on a regional basis as long as one of two conditions are met: either it’s an away game or it’s a home sellout.”

Marcotti accepts it’s a rough idea, but concludes by summing up the benefits:

Obviously it’s a radical re-think and requires a number of adjustments. You need to do a lot of fiddling for regions where there are many clubs (like London or Manchester). You need to spread the schedule out across the weekend which will, no doubt upset traditionalists (although, in fact, it’s already very spread out). But it would allow many who simply can’t go to games – whether because they are too young, too old or too poor – to follow their local club and develop (or rekindle) their passion for it. And, if done right, it would also boost attendances. By the way, technologically, it would be very easy to do: Sky boxes are already set based on postcodes, which is why if you move from Liverpool to London and take your receiver with you, you still get local Liverpool news.

This isn’t quite the NFL model, though. Yes, home teams have to sell-out their games 72 hours before a game or it will be blacked out on television within a 75 mile radius of the team’s home stadium. Meantime, when the local team’s game is airing, no other game can be shown on a local network station.

But there’s still a hell of a lot of nationally broadcast games, which is why the NFL’s television deal is even sweeter than the Premier League’s. A fan of an NFL team who does not live in that team’s local market can purchase NFL Sunday Ticket on satellite and watch all their team’s games that way. You don’t have to be local to watch every game your team plays, wherever they play. And through Sunday Ticket, you can watch pretty much every game every weekend.

Aside from the premium Sunday Ticket package, there’s an enormous amount of gridiron on American television broadcast nationally.  If your local team plays at say 3pm central time (in my case, the Chicago Bears), you can usually find two games on local network stations beforehand at noon, and then nationally broadcast games on both Sunday and Monday evenings. For the second half of the season, NFL Network (a dedicated station available on most cable or satellite packages for little extra charge) shows a live game on Thursday nights nationally as well.

The point of all this is to say that the NFL’s model isn’t exactly one of encouraging local fandom over following a team across the country. A Cowboys fan could watch every game Dallas plays even if he lives in Seattle by buying NFL Sunday Ticket or going to one of hundreds of bars that has it. He can also gorge on a dozen plus other games and entirely ignore the Seahawks if he chooses.

What the NFL’s model does do is encourage existing local fans of their team to go to games, or they will be blacked out in their locality on television. Essentially, though, this is presupposing a local fanbase for that NFL team, not encouraging one over national affiliations.  The NFL is obviously popular enough now that a team can move states and suddenly a sold-out stadium will appear in their new home. Part of this is precisely because of the amount of games shown nationally.

Marcotti’s model would surely result in a far less lucrative television deal for the Premier League. But I’m also not sure it would help local clubs outside the Premier League, as the regional behemoths like Liverpool would in this model have more of their games on television available to local fans.

The problem is that in most of the NFL, there is only one team per region. In England, ensuring every Manchester United game could be seen locally on television every week would surely only do more damage to other local clubs like Rochdale or Stockport County by increasing the availability of United games from the armchair, even if they were not shown at the same times as their games. It would actually encourage local armchair Premier League fandom, wouldn’t it?

The local television model works in the NFL with 32 teams spread across a geographic area so much larger than England, which is the size of Alabama and has over 90 professional clubs. Limiting broadcasts by locality and not damaging smaller teams is much harder to do in England.

Quick Hits

The Sweeper appears daily. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: MLS Owners Speak Out On Strike

AEG

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An MLS ownership group has finally spoken out about the possibility of a strike by the players. Tim Leiweke, long-time chief executive of Phil Anschutz’s AEG (who own the LA Galaxy and half of the Houston Dynamo), expressed amazed consternation that the league’s employees could be so ungrateful: “It would have been easy for us to quit over the last 10 years,” he said. “There were five different times we could have called it a day. But we didn’t. We fought through it.

“So for them [the players] to suddenly threaten that they’re going to shut it all down, I’m a little amazed at the lack of respect they show for the commitment that we all have made to get the league to where it’s at today.”

“So when I hear them talk about striking and shutting the league down, I’ve got to tell you, they’re going to lose us when they talk like that.

“We do this out of passion. If this were a business, we would have quit this 10 years ago.”

(The Womens Professional Soccer players recently left without a team to play for as AEG abandoned the LA Sol might find Leiweke’s comments rather ironic. But that’s another story.)

AEG aren’t fooling anyone by claiming they are in this for the passion and not the business, as if this entire soccer venture was a tax write-off for Uncle Phil Anschutz, who didn’t become America’s 37th richest man through benevolence.

Obviously, AEG’s passion for the sport over business demands doesn’t extend to building stadiums without stages to suit the other parts of their entertainment business.

As one senior AEG executive recently put it, “There’s an expectation that all our assets will be good enterprises and profitable. There’s no charity involved.”

Of course, there shouldn’t be. The Galaxy are sometimes said to be profitable, sometimes not. If Leiweke is right and soccer is not a business for AEG, the sport probably doesn’t have much future in the United States; relying on a billionaire’s ongoing passion is not the way forward. It needs to be a successful business, which is why owners aren’t relenting on the players’ demands anyway, why several stadiums have those stage ends, and why Soccer United Marketing exists. Those aren’t bad things, but they’re about more than just passion for the sport.

And true, a huge loss-leading investment by Anschutz and Lamar Hunt was absolutely crucial to the league’s survival in its early years; the question is, do today’s players owe AEG something for that?

The fact is, the players, like most workers, don’t have a whole lot of leverage here except for threatening not to work. Appealing to Phil Anschutz’s best nature with nicely written letters from their mothers probably isn’t going to cut it. AEG are a $1 billion business that has decades of experience in litigation, with Anschutz described by one businessman who actually won a case against AEG as a man “will cut your legs out from under you”, according to this 2006 LA Times piece:

Like many aggressive businessmen, Anschutz also has acquired his share of adversaries. His litigation record reveals a sharp-elbowed tycoon willing to pay to make disputes go away and to keep his public image intact.

During the last three decades Anschutz has paid cash settlements — all of them confidential — to companies that claimed they were denied their fair share of profits or were done in by deceptive business practices, according to interviews and courthouse documents in California, Colorado and Wyoming.

Among the settlements was a multimillion-dollar award to Mel Gibson, who alleged that the theater chain Anschutz controls cheated the actor’s distribution company out of revenue from the hit movie “The Passion of the Christ.”

George Ablah, 77, a real estate magnate and fellow native Kansan, prevailed in a legal tussle with Anschutz over a failed oil and gas partnership.

“He is very tough,” Ablah said of Anschutz. “He thinks he is God. If you question him in any way, he will cut your legs out from under you…. He is extremely lucky with those tactics. It has worked out very, very well for him.”

As Fake Sigi says today about Leiweke’s comments, “The owners look like they’re going to stand firm.”  There’s nothing wrong with that, but the players make their living out of this sport and have every right to treat it as a business and not make concessions based on AEG’s track record or passion for the sport, as Leiweke implies they should; it’s not a “passion” for the players, it’s their workplace. They might not be paupers, but an $80k median salary in a career that lasts a decade or so means they don’t have the luxury to take the long view in the same way as Phil Anschutz, sitting on $7.2 billion.

Quick Hits

  • An interesting interview here with the Chester City fan running the Supporters’ Trust attempting to resurrect the team, explaining how they lost patience with ownership: “The final straw for many was the one-minute’s silence that was held for what was a “major benefactor” of the club, which, upon investigation, turned out to be the death of a drugs baron from Liverpool who had been assassinated by a South American mob. This was a person we were holding a respectful minute’s silence for?”
  • Amusingly enough, FIFA actually has an “ethics chief”, who have written to 2018 and 2022 World Cup bidders and told them to play fair. Just like Sepp and Jack do, obviously.

The Sweeper appears daily. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: The Brits Takeover ESPN for the World Cup

tea-crumpets

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ESPN has decided to go all British for its lead voices in all 64 World Cup games this summer on American television this summer, and Steve Davis is not happy about it. In an eloquent rant, Davis comments that:

I’m on this British accent thing again because you guys just announced your lineup for World Cup broadcasts. Talk about a kick in the nads to the American soccer establishment! Here’s the opening line from your announcement:

“ESPN’s World Cup telecasts will have a British accent.

“Adrian Healey, Derek Rae and Ian Darke have been hired by ESPN for its U.S. broadcasts at this year’s World Cup and will join Martin Tyler to give the network British play-by-play announcers for all 64 games beginning June 11.”

Man, that’s a fine “How Do You Do” for Yankee viewers …and announcers.

In an open letter to ESPN, Davis asks “couldn’t you guys at ESPN squeeze an American voice into the play-by-play lineup?  Is American soccer such a craphole wasteland that a guy like JP Dellacamera can’t get a bite of the play-by-play mic?”

Dellacamera is certainly hard done by here. Most odd of all, as EPL Talk has commented, is that United States games (including against England) will not have an American voice as lead commentator. The only American voice we will hear is the dull John Harkes.

What Davis doesn’t mention is the disappointing coverage provided by ESPN at the previous World Cup behind the microphone, led by baseball guy Dave O’Brien, as this New York Times article from July 2006 reminds us:

At the beginning of this tournament, we received so many comments from readers complaining about the ESPN and ABC announcers that we had to ask you to stop sending them in. It was true, however, that like many of you, I found it so hard to listen to their game commentary that I switched to Univision — even though I was describing matches live and needed a steady flow of information. It felt as if whatever information I was getting through half-understood Spanish was superior to what I was getting on the English-language telecasts.

After a few days, however, the ESPN and ABC announcers had gotten better. They had stopped shoehorning trivia facts, interesting sidelights and random statistics into the play-by-play and color commentary, and best of all, they had stopped making tortuous analogies to sports like baseball and basketball to “explain” soccer to their American audience.

This was true for all the announcing teams (although the English/Irish team of Adrian Healey and Tommy Smyth were getting it right pretty much from the start). Shep Messing, who had been particularly awful the first couple of days with constant explanatory references to baseball while doing color to Glenn Davis’s play by play, must have heard the complaints and thankfully kept it to soccer thereafter. Two other teams, JP Dellacamera and John Harkes, and Rob Stone and Robin Fraser, were straightforward and even insightful from a fairly early point. Sometime during the World Cup’s second week, I found myself gravitating back to ESPN.

Which brings us to the lead announcing team, Dave O’Brien and Marcelo Balboa. O’Brien in particular has come under a heavy barrage of criticism for his lack of feel for soccer, which is down to his being a baseball announcer who didn’t follow soccer until a few months ago. Some American soccer fans were upset with ESPN’s choice of O’Brien even before the tournament started, with one starting a petition to remove him in favor of a career soccer announcer, and certainly once the tournament got under way, the reaction has been consistently negative from fans in general, as anyone reading the comments sections to this blog’s live game reports can tell.

All true, though for my money Marcelo Balboa was worse; so inane and inaccurate was his commentary that I had to institute a house-rule to all visitors to my house for World Cup games not to point out his every annoying comment, so we might be able to talk about something else at some point. In any case, it’s pretty clear (and this was obvious in their Euro 2008 coverage as well) ESPN is committed to not repeating that mistake by going with more experience.

At the same time I think Davis is still right that it’s a shame ESPN could not find room for one talented American soccer commentator (rather than attempting another Dave O’Brien transplant from another sport), and Dellacamera would have done a decent enough job.

All things considered, though, it’s going to be much easier for every fan of the sport to listen to Martin Tyler in 2010 than it was to Dave O’Brien in 2006.

Then again, I have (the remnants of) a British accent, so perhaps this isn’t my place to speak.

Quick Hits

  • Cardiff City’s Supporters’ Trust has released a statement about the club’s financial crisis, issuing some alarm about the way the club is run following court proceedings: “It is obvious that our beloved football club is in a wretched financial state and yet there appears to be none of the drastic cost-cutting measures we have seen at other clubs who have encountered similar problems. Instead, it seems the only remedies being offered by the Cardiff City board are the hopes of substantial foreign investment or promotion to the Premiership.”
  • A sneak peak at the new MLS website. That’s MLSsoccer.com with two Sssss, then. We’ll have our own review of one MLS club’s new website up sometime this week. Bet you can’t guess which one.
  • Kinda wish someone would do this for every city in the US: Football in Miami and Beyond has an excellent roundup of all the media coverage out there for the sport in Miami.

The Sweeper appears daily. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: Serie A’s Series of Unfortunate Events

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Comparing European leagues is a favourite pastime for followers of club football, and UEFA has long provided fans with a handy system of coefficients to supply us all with a point of ‘objective’ comparison.  Following last week’s results in the Champions League, which saw Fiorentina beaten by Bayern Munich and a pathetic AC Milan ravaged by Manchester United, the gap in that “league of leagues” between Serie A and the Bundesliga shrank to 1.4 points. As Raphael Honigstein pointed out in a piece for the CBC on Friday:

Germany still have five teams in the running – Bayern, Stuttgart (both in the Champions League) and Bremen, Wolfsburg and Hamburg (all Europa League) – whereas Italy are left with only Inter and Juve, who take on Fulham at Craven Cottage next week.

Defeats for those two teams in England would naturally be much appreciated in Germany. There is a realistic chance that the Bundesliga can overtake their southern rivals by the time the season is over and have four teams (three guaranteed starters plus one at the final qualification stage) involved in Europe’s top competition from 2011-12, whereas the Italians would have to make do with two plus one.

Today, Marina Hyde embraced some of the anti-Serie A schadenfreude ahead of this week’s potentially balance-tipping Champions League fixtures.  In an article for the Sunday Observer, she opens with a lead paragraph listing Serie A’s ills containing some familiar themes to long-time followers of the English top-flight:

Sadly, kicking calcio when it is down is nothing new. Italian football’s problems are well documented. AC Milan’s powerlessness against Manchester United emphasised dipping levels of performance in Europe. Inter’s untroubled dominance at home tells of a league struggling for competitiveness. Gone are the days when the biggest names in football would play in Serie A, as Diego Maradona and Michel Platini did in the 1980s. Nowadays, the departure of the best players – Kaká and Zlatan Ibrahimovic moved to Spain last summer – smacks of lowering standards. Then there are the poor attendances. The antiquated stadia. The outbursts of racism and violence. The harsh and stressful policing. The financial headaches brought on by the after-effects of the corruption scandal.

It would be hard to argue that the current Serie A is even remotely similar to the dire state of English football in the mid-to-late eighties—banned from Europe, blighted by violence, crammed in antiquated, inept stadiums, all while Serie A showcased the Ferrari football of Arrigo Sacchi’s (and Berlusconi’s) AC Milan, Platini’s Juventus and Maradona’s Napoli—but Hyde seems to echo the sense in England that the English top flight and Serie A have swapped places over the past two decades, even amid growing doubts about the financial sustainability of the Premier League.

The battle of coefficients also signals that, so far, 2010 has been the year of the Bundesliga.  As Terry Duffelin pointed out last week, the current financial good boy of Europe is not without its problems.  But if results go against Inter this week at Stamford Bridge there will be a sense that the German top flight has emerged from the 2008 economic downturn as a European leader, rightly joining England and Spain at the top of the coefficient heap.

Still, the balance of power could shift again.  As Hyde mentions, Italy could find the national impetus to renovate her mostly municipally-owned stadia with a successful bid for the 2016 Euros.  And she doesn’t (nor have any pundits thus far, really) mention what sort of longer term financial effects we might see with the Serie A’s split from Serie B this coming season.  But for now, Italy arguably has some serious body work to do on that Ferrari.

Quick Hits

  • Point number 14 from Rod Liddle’s 15-point advice plan for Greg Clarke, the incoming chairman of the Football League: “Ban the sale of Chelsea or Manchester United shirts from club shops. Yes, Northampton Town, I’m talking about you.”
  • James Corrigan echoes a growing sentiment on how best to oust the Glazers from Manchester United: “On Friday, the Red Knights, that consortium of would-be saviours, pleaded with supporters not to renew their season tickets. It was another way of saying boycott the matches. As hard-bitten millionaires themselves, the Red Knights realise the Americans will not be swayed by damning chants or the symbolic waving of wool. If the Theatre of Dreams turned into an echo chamber, the Glazers would soon be on their way. The protest on the balance sheet is something they would most definitely understand.”
  • Turkey’s TFF First League consigns Ankaraspor to a series of 3-0 losses for the entire season as punishment for “anti-competitive” links.

The Sweeper: Peter Storrie Isn’t the Real Story

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The "e-nail" in question.

Portsmouth FC‘s chief executive Peter Storrie stepped down yesterday, following Pompey’s administration and a possible nine-point deduction that would make the prospect of a financially-disastrous relegation from the Premier League a near-certainty.  Storrie told reporters yesterday that he felt he had been made “a scapegoat” for the club’s money problems, leading to the winding-up order by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and administration:

Announcing his decision on ESPN, Storrie said: “It is best that I walk away for the sake of the club as well as my family and friends. Despite working non-stop to try to keep this club alive for the last 14 months, they need someone to blame, and there is nobody left to blame but me.

“It is not fair on my friends and family. I can’t take it any more, taking all the stick on my own, so I have decided to quit.”

Football is a game of personalities, and while it’s hard to have much sympathy for the embattled former chief exec (he took what some viewed as insufficiently sacrifical 40% pay cut while 85 Portsmouth FC staff were made redundant), he indirectly makes a good point.  As the Times article points out, it was only the beginning of this season that fans were chanting his name under the benign perception of his initial work at Pompey in reaction to the club’s emerging debt problems.  The shift from hero to villain over the course of this year indicates in part the difficulty on the part of fans in according blame among the confusing collage of shadowy figures in power behind Portsmouth’s gross financial mismanagement.

Ultimately, no one personality bears the weight of blame for Pompey’s woes, and as an Independent article illustrated a couple of weeks ago, many English clubs are only a few managerial missteps away from a fate similar to Portsmouth’s.  Yet it seems the populist tabloids are running at the shifty Peter Storrie with great gusto.  The Sun proclaimed today it had “e-nailed” Storrie by printing an email that sort of, maybe implicates the chief exec with an inappropriate payment £86 000 to Frederic Piquionne’s agent, Willie McKay.

Even if proven, in the big scheme of things, a proposed payment to a player agent of £86 000, violating the FA’s strict new guidelines,  is but a sniffle compared to the plague of debt and player inflation wrought by free-wheeling private investment in English clubs.  But the press love a good villain, and it appears Storrie will do, for now.

Quick Hits

  • And if you want to get a sense of how pervasive shifty third-party player transfer payment arrangements have become, Brian Simpson focuses on FIFA’s “…introduction of a new web-based system for registering transfers – the Transfer Matching System (TMS)….Essentially, all the details of a transfer are entered onto the TMS website by the buying and selling clubs – contracts, player IDs, all fees, payments to agents and verifiable proof of payment – and when the details match the transfer is approved. The new system will become mandatory from October 1 this year, with 144 of the 208 national associations already signed up.”
  • Alan Smith makes the dubious claim that the threat of a 40% relegation pay cut clause has been successful in motivating Sunderland to stave off relegation.  His evidence?  Sunderland’s 4-0 defeat of Bolton on Tuesday.  They’re currently five points above the drop-zone with an -8 goal differential there, Alan.  The clause has been in the Sunderland contracts for awhile now.
  • And on the MLS CBA front, the Toronto Star‘s Chris Young posits that “…the most obvious point has been hammered down again and again: In a World Cup year in which U.S. television and the general public will be footycentric like never before, how stupid would these people look, and how damning an indictment of their big-league hopes and dreams would it be for them to fail at the bargaining table?”  My advice is to leave that question to the MLS bloggers in a hermeneutic death struggle over the meaning of tiny scraps of player quotes and Mark Abbot union negotiation updates.

The Sweeper: Strike Looms in MLS, Will the Players Lose the PR Battle?

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Despite the efforts of a government mediator, George H. Cohen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, negotiations between MLS and the players’ union in New York have not resulted in an agreement — though importantly, negotiations have not been broken off by either side.

Meanwhile, the players have voted overwhelmingly to give themselves the right to strike if no agreement is reached before the season, and Galaxy players’ representative Chris Klein stated unequivocally that “the players will not start the season without a new CBA in place.”

Ridge Mahoney sums up the three key issues that remain to be resolved very well this morning.

It’s perhaps no surprise it has come down to the wire, with the season opener a mere 13 days away. Indeed, the threat of disrupting that first week of action is the players best bargaining chip right now: the Philadelphia Union are scheduled to play their first MLS game on Thursday, March 25th, and Red Bull New York open Red Bull Arena on March 27th. Both games are live on ESPN, and critical moments in both clubs’ histories.

The timing of it is interesting in two ways. Certainly, it makes sense for the players in terms of their leverage with the league to strike at the last possible moment before the season openers. It puts the league in a very difficult position, right now, quite obviously. Emergency meetings are being held by clubs to figure out what to do.

In terms of its effect on the public, striking at the last moment does the most damage, and there will be a sizable number of hardcore fans obviously upset. Shit, I know of over 200 Fire fans booked to travel to New York for the March 27th game still in the dark about whether there will actually be a game to watch. My estimate is Fire fans collectively have spent about $75-100,000 spent on that weekend already. Some of that will be refundable — game tickets, for example. Some plane tickets will be transferable, and some accommodation and transit will just result in lost deposits.

But it’s a substantial amount of time and money up in the air; months of planning have gone into it. Same goes for many other teams: Philadelphia have a large contingent headed to Seattle for their first game. Houston fans have a big bus trip planned to Dallas. Toronto, though put-off by past visits, are presumably sending a decent number to Columbus, if not the 2,000 of previous trips.

All in all, we’re surely talking hundreds of thousands of dollars paid for in tickets, transit and accommodation by away fans to the opening week’s games, and yet with two weeks to go, we still wait to see whether they will happen.

This isn’t a point for or against the strike as such. But there is a PR battle to be won with fans, and given MLS has said it will not lock-out the players and play can continue without an agreement, that puts the players in a sticky position the longer they leave it to strike. The players, of course, will say it’s the league’s fault for being inflexible to them. I’m not assigning blame for the failure of the two sides to come to agreement here.

The problem is that according to Buzz Carrick, a further vote will be needed by the players to actually go on strike. This means that any strike called will almost certainly only be announced within a few days of the opening game, if not the day before.

This maximises the players’ union’s leverage with the league; it also maximises damage to the league’s most committed fans.

Quick Hits

The Sweeper appears daily. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: Did Beckham Embrace the Green and Gold?

Beckham, Green and Gold

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The photo of David Beckham wearing a green and gold scarf applauding Manchester United supporters at Old Trafford is PR the leaders of the Glazer protest campaign couldn’t have scripted better.

Not surprisingly, the Manchester United Supporters’ Trust followed up this morning with an email to their 100,000+ list smartly capitalising on the moment:

I’m sure you were watching the incredible moment last night when Beckham bathed in green and gold. It’s moments like this that justify all the collective effort we’ve been putting into this campaign. We are showing our strength. We are making a real difference.

Last night we welcomed a legend back to Old Trafford – now we need to capitalise on this moment and bring other United heroes into our fold.

We’ve just written a letter to Beckham, Cantona and all of the former United players which calls on them to join our campaign to reclaim United. As a show of support we want you to add your name to the letter too – we’ll then deliver it and the names of all of the people who have signed it, to the players and the media.

Together we can send a deafening call for change – will you co-sign our letter to the United greats now?

http://action.joinmust.org/heroes

This is our chance to reach out to the United players who built our club – who led from the front and defined United’s success over the past decades. But our club is in trouble – we need them to lead United again right here, right now.

The letter goes on to conclude that “Last night, Beckham united with the fans and led by example. Beckham has shown his true colours, now it’s up to us to show ours – we need to build on this moment and build on this chance for change.”

Again, this is a fine example of the professional nature of the protest campaign. The photo of Beckham from last night has been embedded into the header of the letter. One public moment and he’s now the figurehead of the campaign.

Beckham, though, might have received a phone call or two after the game, as he distanced himself from the political implication of the green and gold:

“I’m a Manchester United fan and when I saw the scarf I wanted to put it round my neck,” Beckham explained. “It’s the old colours of United but, to be honest, it’s not my business. I’m a United fan and I support the club. I always will, but it’s got nothing to do with me how it’s run. That’s all to do with other people. I just support the team. I will always support the team.”

It’s always a little sad to hear say someone say they support a team but that how it’s run is not their business, but it doesn’t really matter much what Beckham says about it after the fact. It’s always been about the imagery for Beckham, the iconic moments, and this lasting image is a moment worth a fortune to the protest movement whatever was actually whirring in Beckham’s brain when he put on the scarf.

“Change can and will happen – we just need to fight for it,” MUST’s email to 100,000 concludes. “Last night thousands of green and gold scarves were on show in Old Trafford. One rested on the shoulders of an icon.” And that’s worth a million to MUST.

Quick Hits

  • If you can find it amidst perhaps the most ad-plastered news site I have ever seen, northjersey.com has a few interesting comments from New York Red Bulls managing director Eric Stover, including a proud claim that they might hit 8,000 season ticket holders by the end of the month. Which, I guess, is a big improvement (or he wouldn’t be happily bandying about the number), but means the Red Bulls still have enormous single game sales work to do to keep the 25,000 arena reasonably full each game. Still, improvement is improvement.
  • In a more aesthetically pleasing and thoughtful piece about the state of soccer in the New York area, This Is American Soccer features an op-ed on a “last chance for MLS in Manhattan”: “RBNY has its new home, but another structure’s future also places the city’s soccer future in the wind. Pier 40, one of the largest and most-used sports facilities in Manhattan, is in dire need of rehabilitation. Just as with RBNY, many plans have failed. But Greenwich Village resident Patrick Shields thinks he has the answer.”
  • Fake Sigi says “foreign investment in MLS has nothing to do with collective bargaining”. And I’m pretty sure he’s right.
  • Speaking of the MLS labour dispute, Steven Goff reports that with a mediator now at the table, the owners and players “keep talking”.

The Sweeper appears daily. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: The Press, Spying and English Football

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You probably read yesterday about the bugging of England team meetings by an unknown party, with several hours worth of recording offered up to media outlets.

It’s interesting to note that also yesterday, a court case settlement involving a newspaper, the News of the World, and well-known publicist Max Clifford offers insight into the lengths the press are prepared to go to peek behind the curtains of football’s leading figures.

The Guardian reports:

The News of the World was tonight accused of buying silence in the phone-hacking scandal after it agreed to pay more than £1m to persuade the celebrity PR agent Max Clifford to drop his legal action over the interception of his voicemail messages.

The settlement means that there will now be no disclosure of court-ordered evidence which threatened to expose the involvement of the newspaper’s journalists in a range of illegal information-gathering by private investigators.

This is not the first settlement the NofTW has made; £700,000 was paid to Gordon Taylor, head of the Professional Footballers’ Association, after a private investigator working for the NofTW hacked into his phone messages.

An expensive settlement, given the NofTW’s editor at the time said “I never asked for a Gordon Taylor story, I never commissioned an Gordon Taylor story, I never read a Gordon Taylor story, I never published a Gordon Taylor story. With all respect to Gordon Taylor, he is hardly a household name.”

But messages on Taylor’s phone featured many prominent football figures, including Sir Alex Ferguson and Alan Shearer.

Another known victim in football was David Davies, former executive director of the Football Association. There’s no information when he was targeted, but it’s fair to guess that it may have coincided with the News of the World’s “fake sheikh” sting of England manager Sven- Goran Eriksson in 2006.

Unfortunately, the willingness of those targeted to settle out of court with the News of the World means we may never know the extent of the operations the newspaper took to spy on prominent footballing figures.

Quick Hits

  • The reports by Deloitte on football’s finances always receive considerable publicity, and buzz with positivity about rising revenues in European football. At the same time, we know particularly in England, that this rising revenue does not mean clubs are stable or profitable, a key fact missed in Deloitte’s reports, as Paul Kelso says in the Telegraph: “As a test of financial health the focus on revenue alone borders on the specious, akin to complementing a man in intensive care for having a full head of hair.”
  • Two’s a crowd for a penalty kick, the J-League rules.
  • Chester City Football Club’s 126 year-old history is over. The club were wound-up today over unpaid debts. Time for a Phoenix club to rise from the flames. Cardiff and Southend, meanwhile, have a stay of execution from the high court.

The Sweeper appears daily. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: UEFA Recognises Football Supporters Europe

Football Supporters Europe

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Yesterday, we kicked off a weeklong series on the question of supporter involvement in club governance, looking particularly at the role of supporters’ trusts in England. The piece focused on the prospects for fan ownership, but the broader importance and benefit of supporter involvement in the running of football is increasingly being recognised across Europe.

Case in point: yesterday, UEFA (including president Michel Platini and general secretary Gianni Infantino) met with representatives from Supporters Direct and Football Supporters Europe in Nyon, Switzerland. UEFA’s website says the following were amongst the items discussed:

  • matchday arrangements at UEFA club and national team competition matches
  • the Fan Hosting Seminar held in Barcelona in February (Football, Host Cities and RESPECT)
  • the new UEFA policy of hosting the UEFA Champions League final on a Saturday and providing a special allocation of tickets to parents and children
  • increasing further the dialogue between UEFA and supporter representatives.

This sounds like simple stuff fans should be in the loop about in discussions by the authorities for everyone’s benefit, but this is something football’s authorities have long struggled to do. Whether because of fear, arrogance or apathy, supporters have typically been regarded as inessential to the process of dialogue and decision-making. This is curious, because without supporters, there would not be professional football. Of course, supporters themselves could only blame themselves for some decades for their own short-sightedness, but great steps have been taken in recent times on European-wide collaboration amongst fan groups.

In an important step recognising the mutual gain to be had from this dialogue, UEFA have officially recognised Football Supporters Europe as the representative European fans’ organisation. FSE’s held its first proper general meeting last year, and describes itself as “an independent, representative and democratically organised grass-roots network of football fans’ in Europe.” FSE says that:

We think that there are enough issues that need to be acted upon in modern football such as ticketing, fan culture, discrimination and policing in football, and football fans should finally speak up, loudly and clearly, and develop a powerful, united, influential and independent representative voice within the structures of the game!

We asked Dave Boyle of Supporters Direct about how the meeting with UEFA went. “UEFA are serious in their engagement with fans and lots of national associations could learn from them!”, he told us. “We don’t agree on everything, but like all good relationships, it isn’t dependent on complete agreement. As Johnny Rotten said, they mean it man!”

From a North American perspective, fans here ought to consider the similar benefits of a nationwide supporters’ network.  MLS’  “Supporters Summit” needs an upgrade in its substance, as Don Garber himself seemed to be looking towards in his address at MLS Cup last year. It seems to me there is an open door there from MLS for supporters to create this dialogue in this continent before anything like the problems we have seen in Europe over the decades become a detriment to the game’s growth here, one reason I’m backing the commitment of the nascent Show Racism the Red Card North America to celebrate and support the diversity of the sport.

Though someone else can deal with Uncle Jack Warner….

Quick Hits

  • Are English standards in the Champions League dropping this year? “Europe Strikes Back”, Oliver Kay says in the Times.
  • James Lawton keeps up the seemingly daily coverage of the Red Knights riding to Manchester United’s rescue, saying that “Sooner or later some of the less temperate critics of the Red Knights – who propose, among other things, to move Manchester United from under a mountain of debt – may have to get a bit more specific.”
  • You know, it’s pretty damn cool that the Fire’s official blog has a piece by one of their 16-year old Academy prospects who travelled with the first team to Mexico in pre-season this week.

The Sweeper appears daily. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: Laws of the Game Stuck in the Past

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We asked on Friday ahead of this weekend’s meeting of the International Association Football Board (IFAB), who determine the Laws of the Game followed under FIFA’s direction worldwide, if the formation of its membership was an historical anachronism that could be detrimental to the modern game, with a British veto guaranteed due to a nod of the head to its nineteenth century foundation in Blighty. As we explained, the eight person board is comprised of four representatives from FIFA and one each from the four British associations, with a majority of six required to pass a law.

The results of the meeting and the explanations given for some of their decisions (which might be too generous of a word) has raised further questions about the board’s fitness to be the custodians of the rules everybody plays under.

Most notably, the IFAB has rejected even further looking into goal-line technology. FIFA.com spins this nicely with its headline “Favouring football’s human side”.

“The IFAB has decided not to pursue goal-line technology and to no longer continue experiments in that area,” explained the FIFA Secretary General, Jerome Valcke. “The question posed to the members of the IFAB was simple: should we introduce technology in football or not? The answer from the majority of members was no, even if was not unanimous.”

I don’t know what Mr. Valcke considers to be “technology”, but if we’re being nice about it, it seems to me that referees and their linesmen these days aren’t communicating via carrier pigeon or morse code, but by the wireless headsets attached to their heads. Regardless of the merits of the technology, ruling out even experimentation with goal-line technology is just pig-headed.

League of Nations

Pretty much every article outside of FIFA.com’s in-house sycophancy comes down hard on the IFAB. Arsene Wenger said it was “beyond comprehension”; the head of the Italian FA asked why experimentation itself had been ruled-out; and James Lawton offers a withering take-down of the IFAB’s views:

No doubt the resistance to change will continue to be fuelled by the old, played-out arguments. You know them well enough. These things level themselves out. Technology would interrupt the flow of the game. Referees and linesmen would be diminished.

The feebleness of such arguments can surely no longer bear the most casual scrutiny. Certainly, they had never been so besieged as in the wake of the Henry outrage. Then, an Irish team which had played with brilliant optimism and purpose was aghast to see their chance of victory and the great prize of a ticket to South Africa taken away, stolen before their eyes… and those of a watching world.

Only the match officials were in the dark about the scale of Henry’s cheating as he controlled the ball with his hand before making the decisive cross. How long would it have taken to wipe away that catastrophe? No longer than the uttering of a few words by the fourth official.

Who would have been diminished then? Only the culprit Henry, exposed for an act dismaying, it seemed quickly enough, both to himself as well as the great army of his admirers.

But worse than the decision has been its presentation, so hamfisted that the genuine concerns about introducing video technology into the game are lost in the uproar. Despite their claims to have taken “careful deliberation” over it, the IFAB left most only baffled by the defense offered, which appears to centre on the joy we all apparently indulge in from human failing. IFAB board member Jonathan Ford of the Football Association of Wales said “The big moments in this sport – whatever they are – get supporters talking and go down in history. That’s what makes this sport so vibrant.”

Irish FA member Patrick Nelson concurred: “We were all agreed that technology shouldn’t enter football because we want football to remain human, which is what makes it great,” going on bizarrely to reference one of the worst refereeing mistakes of all-time in the 1966 World Cup final. “The fans keep talking about these matches again and again, and relive them.”

The IFAB, oddly, even accepted that “referees need assistance in making decisions” according to FIFA.com, yet tabled the other proposal to examine the use of goal-line officials until May. Nineteenth century public relations to go with a nineteenth century structure, then.

Quick Hits

  • Could Andrew Ellis be Rangers’ white knight? The mooted sale price of the club as David Murray looks to get rid of his 90%+ share for just £33 million reminds us again of just how vast the difference is in the value of Scotland’s top clubs from their southern neighbours, almost entirely due to the vastly different domestic television revenue incomes.
  • Tragic news as Nigerian Endurance Idahor died on the pitch this weekend.
  • The Guardian (for once not David Conn) give us more detail on the Red Knights Manchester United takeover bid: “The Red Knights are hoping to galvanise support for a bid that would be welcomed by both fans and the football authorities. Analysts say there are several ways a transaction could be structured. One would be to bring in a rich individual as part of the bidding consortium who could wipe out debts of £715m, pay the Glazers about £500m and commit resources to further develop the club. A condition of such a deal would be to sell shares to the fans with sufficient voting rights to allow them to block any future sale and have a say in the running of the club. An alternative would be to sell to 60 or so super-rich investors and spread ownership more widely among supporters and their wealthy backers.”

The Sweeper appears daily. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: Is Sir Alex Ferguson’s Support the Cornerstone in Red Knights’ Bid?

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Officially, Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson does not care a wit one way or another about the anti-Glazer Green and Gold supporters, now a regular fixture at every United match, so long as they love the club.  Said Ferguson yesterday: “I saw plenty of green and gold scarves at Wembley on Sunday, and I was delighted to see them. I’d even take City fans if they wanted to come along. We’ll take all sinners. As long as they’re supporting United, they can wear what they bloody like.”  As for a proposed bid by the “Red Knights,” a collection of wealthy Manchester United supporters including Supporters Trust chief executive, Duncan Drasdo, Ferguson simply referred to David Gill’s reassertion the club was not for sale.

But according to the Observer‘s motley collection of silent sources, the United manager fully backs United’s prospective new owners, a revelation that one source confides will be a “killer blow” to the Glazers’ hold on the club.  Even the Observer can’t stop itself from proclaiming that their scoop “…will raise the stakes at a sensitive stage in the bid but may encourage some of the wealthy waverers who have shown tentative interest in signing up to the consortium.”

It’s hard for this non-economist to see just how exactly a few quotes from some unnamed sources will affect the Glazers lack of desire to sell, or affect the Red Knights’ stated intention not to pay more than United’s rumoured £800 million valuation.  Likely it will lead to more supporters joining the Manchester United Supporters Trust, which has gone from 60 000 to just under 120 000 since the Red Knights bid was announced, which is certainly a good thing. The Sweeper will wait and see if this story develops, or dies with the Sunday Observer.

Meanwhile, today’s Quick Hits point to a raft of stories on the increasing tensions brought about by continued financial mismanagement in football:

Quick Hits

  • Portsmouth supporters are preparing for the worst: “Next month it is a big day out at Wembley for potless Portsmouth – and next season they could be playing at Westleigh Park, Havant. A “Plan B” has been drawn up whereby, if Pompey go into liquidation, they will drop down to non-League football in a groundshare with near neighbours Havant & Waterlooville.”
  • Steve Menery with a brief-but-excellent report on the recent Soccerex conference, where football’s commercial-minded meet: “Money is still flooding into football but quite how it is shared and regulated is long for change. Everyone at Soccerex knew that but until UEFA’s small print is unveiled, no one will be able to gauge exactly what impact Platini’s attempt to turn football into a more equitable business will really have.”
  • A Premier League club will disappear after its owners have cut off all funds from the club.  The Russian Premier League, that is.  In a story worthy of Simon Kuper’s Football Against the Enemy or Jonathan Wilson’s Behind the Curtain, the decision by FC Moscow’s owners, Norilsk Nickel, to cease their financial support “…is seen by some as part of a conspiracy to promote Alania Vladikavkaz, champions in 1995, to the Premier League. Alania are from the troubled Caucasus region, plagued by extremist violence and poverty. Alexander Khloponin, a former Norilsk Nickel chairman, has just been made the government’s envoy to the region and the club’s promotion will help bolster his position.”
  • It didn’t take long for the Independent to point to the ‘goal’ not given to Birmingham late in Portsmouth”s 2-0 quarter-final FA Cup win yesterday as evidence that the International Football Association Board meeting’s decision not to pursue goal-line technology was misguided.

The Sweeper: Randy Lerner Shows the Love to the Tune of £82.5 Million

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It seems Aston Villa‘s American owner Randy Lerner, who has enjoyed darling status with the British media since taking over the club in 2006, has invested his own money into the team to the tune of £82.5 million since May 2008, the Telegraph reported yesterday.  The author of the article speculates the news will “further endear him to supporters,” but this AVFC supporter wrote last weekend’s Sweeper on the inflationary effects of private capital in English football.  And with a reported loss last season of £43.7 million, this supporter is also reminded of David Conn’s words from last week, when he warned “…the [financial] commitment will become too great once rich men pull out.”

In other words, the current, sixth-place finishing Aston Villa is one Randy Lerner away from a red-ink nightmare.

Not that Lerner is that sort of owner.  The Telegraph notes that his investment in Aston Villa, which comes on top of his initial purchase bid of £62 million in 2006, is “unsecured and interest free, and repayable between 2016 and 2019.”  And the club has arguably benefited from Lerner’s investment.  Villa’s relative success in the Premier League—a succession of sixth place finishes—has led to an eleven percent increase in turnover.  So what has led to the enormous losses?  The Telegraph:

The loss is explained by a rise in player wages to £70.6 million, up from £50.4 million. Lerner also authorised the payment of £7.7 million in “management charges” to Villa’s US-based holding company.

Ah, that old song.  This story further underlines that “tightening up” the Fit-and-Proper Person’s test won’t be enough to reform finances in English football.  Ensuring “benevolent” wealthy owners take over beloved, historically-important clubs rather than “self-interested” ones, won’t stop the inflationary effects of private capital on player wages and transfer fees, an effect that wiped out any revenue gains made from making AVFC a success on the pitch.

The article ends as most of these sorts of articles do:

Villa’s current model is likely to breach new Uefa regulations on “financial fair play”. Uefa’s rules, which will be introduced in 2012, will require clubs to break even or be self-supporting to compete in European competition.

Whether UEFA’s initiative will truly mean the party’s over for freewheeling investors in English football remains to be seen, but for many cash-strapped English clubs paying ever-inflated wages and fees, 2012 can’t come fast enough.

Quick Hits

  • David Conn writes on the absurdity of fans not being allowed to know who ultimately owns their club: “Whoever succeeds Lord Mawhinney as the Football League’s chairman should push through the rule, as quickly as he can get his head round the detail, that all clubs must publish who owns them. Knowing who the owners of a club are, and understanding their motivation, is so basic a starting point for balancing the tension at the heart of football clubs, and for enjoying decent relations with supporters, that to withhold it is an insult.”
  • American First Lady Michelle Obama appeared with a couple of DC United academy coaches for something called “Let’s Move!” yesterday.  I’m sure the beltway hacks are already compiling their “Obamas support playing effete European field game to make your kids healthy” stories.  Meanwhile DCU fans wonder why they’re yet again reading “Move” and “DC United” in the same headline.
  • When Saturday Comes presents a nice, tidy update of the situation in League Two.
  • And twohundredpercent.net presents his very own version of You Are the Ref, this time care of a windy incident in Germany’s lower leagues: “Just occasionally, something happens that is so ridiculous that all they can do is laugh at it all. At a recent German amateur match between TSV Wimsheim and TSV Grunsbach, such an incident occurred. A goal kick to Grunsbach might not have seemed like the obvious route to a goal for their opposition, but the clue was in the fact that they had an outfield player taking a goal kick and that the ball was being held in place by the goalkeeper. What happened next was proof that sometimes taking a short goal kick is the best option.”

The Sweeper: Should the British have so much say in the Laws of the Game?

Picard

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The International Football Association Board (IFAB) is something of a curiosity in today’s system of global governance of the game. The board meets annually to discuss and decide on any changes to the Laws of the Game, which all national associations affiliated to FIFA are required to enforce in games under their auspices.

The curiosity is the board’s constitution.  It’s made up of four representatives of FIFA and one representative each from the football associations of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It takes six votes for a rule to be changed.

Effectively, that gives the United Kingdom (a single nation, if not for FIFA purposes) a veto over all changes to the rules of the game.

The IFAB is holding its annual meeting this weekend in Zurich, and has five main changes on the agenda:

  • no automatic red card for denying a goal-scoring opportunity if a penalty is given;
  • the legality of players “feinting” before taking penalty kicks;
  • allowing direct input from the fourth official on the sideline to the referee on key decisions;
  • the future of goaline technology;
  • similarly, the possibility of introducing extra assistant referees on the goaline

The latter is obviously a hot topic because of the Henry handball against the Republic of Ireland. Which brings up back to the curiosity we started with: in an age when FIFA has over 200 member nations, is it fair or sensible that four member associations have such a disproportionate say in the rules of the game? Had it been Northern Ireland, rather than the Republic, robbed by Henry, how would that change the dynamic of this weekend’s meeting?

Historically, of course, this makes sense. The IFAB existed long before FIFA did: with various rules in place across the British Isles as the game began to be played in an organised fashion in the mid-nineteenth century, the Football Association pioneered standardisation of rules alongside the Scottish, Welsh and Irish associations in 1882, with the first meeting agreeing on the rules of the game taking place in 1886.

When FIFA was formed under continental leadership in 1904, it accepted the IFAB’s authority to determine the Laws of the Game, with Britain still very much the epicentre of the footballing world. FIFA itself was first invited to take part in the board’s discussions only in 1913.

The IFAB has guarded the rules with a respectable conservatism; is this historical provenance enough to justify the curiosity of so much British Isles representation on the board?

One might argue, of course, that anything which prevents Sepp Blatter’s FIFA leadership from having more say in the game’s rules is a good thing. That said, why not continue the same balance of power, but have four member associations randomly rotate each year on the board in place of the British associations?

Or is this a case of if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it?

Quick Hits

The Sweeper appears daily. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: Is Women’s Football on Fast-Forward?

Platini presents the Euro 2009 trophy to Germany

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UEFA held its Women’s National Team Coaches Conference last November (“the first of its kind”, UEFA says), and the extensive report on it in their “Technician” publication (PDF) makes for very interesting reading.

It’s notable that the report, whose focus is on the technical side of the game, opens up by touting impressive viewing figures for the 2009 UEFA Women’s European Championship: expanded to twelve teams, the report says it “attracted unprecedented TV audiences which highlighted a spectacular growth in the popularity of the women’s game.”

To prove the point, UEFA notes that “almost 40% of the viewing public” in the Netherlands watched their country’s semi-final game, with 1.5 million in the UK and 7 million in Germany tuning in to the final, won by latter for (and this fact probably isn’t so good for the women’s game) the fifth successive time.

The twelve team format was the subject of some debate at the conference; it prompted some teams to play for draws, but the chances of the format changing seem low:

As Giorgio Marchetti [UEFA's Competitions Director] pointed out, finals with 8 or 16 teams might be fairer in sporting terms but the former would be seen as a retrograde step and the second option, although it would provide greater incentives, might create a tournament which would be difficult to host and to finance.

Team shape and structure was discussed; the report emphasised the growing tactical innovation on view:

As Andy Roxburgh commented at the conference, “top teams again proved that shape mattered. A disciplined defensive structure and a framework for attacking fluidity and creativity was important.” As recently as the 2001 finals, the most frequent team shape was a classic 4-4-2. In Finland, however, the trend was towards a 4-2-3-1 with two screening midfielders operating in front of a zonal back four.

The pace of the game and the ability of teams to shift tactics during games was praised as an advance on previous tournaments. Germany’s winning coach Silvia Neid commented that “I would say that the difference in terms of coaching, positional play and tactics in comparison with the 1997 finals, for example, was simply incredible.”

Importantly, it was felt that even the eliminated teams showed quality, and none were embarrassed, this despite the tournament’s expansion. “What most struck me,” Norway’s coach Bjarne Berntsen said, “was that teams were so well organised and played at a higher tempo than in the past. I think we are seeing the results of girls starting to play their football at earlier ages and, in the case of the Nordic countries, the benefits of being able to train and play on artificial surfaces. It means that the level of skill is progressively increasing as the young girls come through.”

The goal average, at 3.00 per game, was down slightly from 2005, but still well up from 2001 and 1997.

The overall positive tone of the report hits an interesting snag with regard to the continued dominance of Germany. There’s no doubt the exceptional quality of the athletes Germany continue to produce sets a standard in European and even world football, and raises the level of the women’s game. At the same time, the gulf between that country and the rest of Europe was once again well-illustrated, including in the final, as they swatted away England’s cinderella dreams with relative ease.

England’s coach Hope Powell was honest and straightforward about the German team’s quality:

“The players on the German bench would be starters in other teams. Their other strengths are a clear playing style, strength, power and direct attacking. In the final, we tried to take the game to them and we managed to force them on to the back foot for certain periods. But they are always dangerous and one of their other strengths is the belief that they can always score goals.”

How can the level of the game be raised continent-wide to match the Germans? The conclusion to the report notes the need for better training of coaches up and down the game, as Silvia Neid put it: “We are at risk of letting enthusiastic young players work with coaches who haven’t really got enough tactical know-how.”

Others commented on the need for infrastructure investment, and for football’s authorities to take the women’s game more seriously. As Hope Powell summed up, “women’s football needs to continue to make efforts to attract investors and governments need to be persuaded to fully embrace the women’s game and not just make token gestures.”

Quick Hits

  • The Premier League has decided to table discussion of a possible play-off for England’s fourth Champions League spot; the Daily Mail and ESPN Soccernet are both reporting “fixture congestion”, along with opposition from the biggest clubs, as the main factors in the decision by club chairmen.
  • Paul Doyle looks at an odd afternoon in west London, as South Korea take on the Ivory Coast in the middle of a weekday afternoon, with a “a decidedly Spinal Tap quality to formalities.”
  • It’s the end of an era at a ground in Scotland, as Hibernian’s East terrace is torn down.

The Sweeper appears daily. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

Remembering Keith Alexander, A Pioneer

Keith Alexander

Tributes have been pouring in for Keith Alexander, the Macclesfield manager who passed away aged 53 yesterday following his club’s game against Notts County in League Two.

As Leon Mann rather bluntly explains in the Mirror, his passion for the game was extraordinary.

When you flat line three times, the last thing you do is throw yourself back into the very job that nearly killed you.

But such was Keith Alexander’s love of football – and management – he couldn’t resist taking up the reins as soon as he recovered from a brain aneurysm in 2003.

But his legacy was more than just his passion for the game; Alexander was a pioneer for racial equality actively involved with the Kick It Out campaign, and until yesterday one of just three black managers in professional English football (an alarming number, given a quarter of the game’s players are black).

In the Guardian, Paul Elliott writes:

Black managers could not have a better role model. He put club chairmen and officials at their ease because he was so engaging, so normal and had such a good sense of humour. And, of course, he could really debate the laws of the game, having qualified as England’s first black referee.

Keith had reason to feel bitter about the way he was sometimes treated in football, especially when he started out, but he never succumbed to bitterness and preferred to try to break down barriers with quiet dignity, character, humour and a smile.

Personally, Keith never made excuses and worked incredibly hard. In years to come his achievement in being appointed the first full-time black professional manager in England will be seen as as big a landmark as Viv Anderson becoming the first black player to represent England and Paul Ince becoming the first black player to captain the country.

Finally, a broad range of tributes in the Telegraph indicate how many people Alexander touched in the football world and beyond.

The Sweeper: Who Are The Red Knights?

Red Knights

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The Red Knights — super-rich and influential Manchester United fans riding to the rescue of the club from the clutches of the Glazers — are led by Jim O’Neill, chief economist at Goldman Sachs, Mark Rawlinson, head of corporate law at Freshfields, and Paul Marshall, a founder of the hedge fund Marshall Wace.

The Manchester United Supporters’ Trust emailed their considerable list of United supporters today, totalling around 50,000 (admittedly including snoopers like me), responding to the news breaking with further details of the “Red Knights” efforts to buy out the Glazer family. Duncan Drasdo, head of MUST, writes:

“You’ve no doubt seen coverage in the media of Monday’s “secret” meeting of the “Red Knights” – a group of true United fans – and the fact that MUST was an essential partner at that meeting.

We can reveal that the Red Knights are indeed developing a plan to buy United – and any new ownership model would aim not only to put the club on a sound financial footing, but would also put all of us, as supporters, at the heart of everything the club does.

Crucially, before they take action, the Red Knights need to know that they have the backing of United supporters. They’ve played their part and now we need to play ours by demonstrating mass support. We need to race to our first goal of 100,000 fans.”

Details of the Red Knights’ plan and the involvement of supporters in it remain sketchy. The British press, though, is asserting the seriousness of the men behind the bid, with the Telegraph saying:

While the project may look to some a classic case of millionaires high on the greasepaint-whiff of football, the Knights, for all their self-aggrandising title, have substance. O’Neill is among the most respected economists in the UK. He is a former non-executive director of United who opposed the Glazer takeover, and he remains close to United chief executive David Gill.

His involvement is not without personal jeopardy. A spokesman for the Knights stressed that he was acting in a personal capacity, but his position has already brought a personal intervention from the Glazers, who are understood to have contacted Goldman’s New York head office to complain after he went on the record to say there was “too much leverage” at United.

O’Neill is joined by equally credible figures. Mike Rawlinson, a partner at City law firm Freshfields, was an adviser to United when the Glazers targeted the club in 2005 and also knows Gill.

Paul Marshall, a partner at hedge fund Marshall Wace, and Richard Hytner, deputy chairman of Saatchi and Saatchi, are also involved, as is investment banker Keith Harris.

They are a formidable grouping but to overcome scepticism in the City and hostility in Florida they will need to produce a credible proposal in the face of the fierce complexities their ambition poses.

The ties to David Gill are particularly interesting, with the Red Knights saying yesterday they were “supportive of current management” at United, according to David Conn. Conn further explains how the Red Knights want MUST involved in the campaign:

Fans will eventually be asked to contribute financially towards buying a stake and, probably at some strategic point, to withhold their custom. Hence Duncan Drasdo, Must’s chief executive, saying it is “essential for a majority of two key groups, the Old Trafford season ticket holders and those with executive facilities, to show their appetite for participation”.

That collective supporters’ stake (presumably to be held by MUST) is expected to be over 25%, which would give supporters some protection from certain measures the owners could take through company law. Yet how this money would be raised has yet to be explained; if we imagine a £1bn sale price, that’d mean the supporters’ collective share would be £250m. Would the Red Knights be so generous as to contribute towards this and donate a portion of shares? Would other rich Man Utd fans be willing to invest more into the fund and still receive only a single share?  Or would it require MUST’s 100,000 e-membership to contribute £2,500 each?

How will the Red Knights force the Glazers to sell? It seems there are several prongs to their attack, including pressure from season ticketholders (let’s not forget United’s waiting list at Old Trafford has entirely dissipated in the wake of sustained price rises), and potentially buying up the Glazers debt on the market. Ultimately, though, it’s about giving the Glazers enough money to put it crudely, satisfy their greed enough that they get the fuck out of dodge.

Conn explains: “Their ideal solution is to make the Glazers an offer large enough to give them a profit palatable to both sides on the £272m the family paid to buy the club in 2005. The other £559m out of the total £831m price, including professionals’ fees, was all borrowed then loaded on to the club to pay off. The Glazers may want £500m profit; the Red Knights might consider £100m more than adequate.”

Quick Hits

  • UEFA’s financial fair play proposals have received assent from the European Clubs Association, though not without a few concessions.
  • Portsmouth’s owner offers a lifeline, but it’s still nowhere near enough for the club to survive long.
  • Reuter’s says that China’s match-fixing scandal is just a reflection of the game’s deeper problems: “China’s match-fixing scandal is a symptom of the problems that bedevil soccer in the country and urgent restructuring of the game is needed to prevent its recurrence, according to Shanghai Shenhua owner Zhu Jin.”
  • Johannesburg’s new World Cup venue, Soccer City, came in $133 million over budget, apparently due to higher building costs than anticipated.

The Sweeper appears daily. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: Is Red Bull Arena the Perfect Major League Soccer Stadium?

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To describe Grant Wahl’s review of his tour at Red Bull Arena, the new home of Red Bull New York, as gushing would be something of an understatement. Indeed, he even describes himself as “breathless” over it.

Wahl emphasises that Red Bull Arena is a “soccer stadium”, not a multi-purpose venue like so many other MLS stadiums:

Unlike so many other MLS buildings, which have a stage at one end and double as concert venues, Red Bull Arena is built for fútbol. Not one of the 25,000 seats — and they’re all seats; no benches here — has a bad view. The front row is a mere 21 feet from the sidelines and 27 feet from the endlines, the better for Juan Pablo Ángel to make a quick run and Lambeau Leap over the short retaining wall after scoring a goal.

This emphasis on the soccer won’t stop rugby tearing up the turf this summer, but Wahl’s point is well-made. The stadium is an exact copy of a Euro 2008 venue from Austria, and it shows.

Red Bull Arena

Wahl waxes about the location (an improvement on the team’s former home in the Meadowlands, New Jersey); the “hip surroundings” (umm, “restaurants, retail stores and condominiums”?) and the “little things” (not so little “giant HD video boards”).

I’m trying hard, and perhaps failing, not to mock Wahl’s enthusiasm for the stadium. It’s a big moment in American soccer in some ways, and Wahl is right to emphasise the quality of the arena. It does look like it will surpass anything in MLS quite comfortably as a facility. Am I jealous of it as a Fire fan?  Well, yes…aside from those giant Red Bull logos, of course.

And that’s the catch: it’s surprising that Wahl doesn’t delve into some of the deeper issues the Red Bulls still need to prove they have overcome. He mentions the problem of the quality of the team briefly at the end of his pieces, but refuses to open the can of worms surrounding the many years of Metro and Red Bull failure on and off the field.

But we will say it: this is, after all, Red Bull Arena.

Maybe our old friend the Metrologist will pop-up to remind Grant of that, if he still frequents these parts. A week tomorrow will mark the fourth anniversary of the rebranding (renaming doesn’t do it justice) of the MetroStars as Red Bull.

Three years ago, on a blog I miss, the Metrologist wrote the following:

Who can scream out Red Bull songs with a straight face? Unintentional self-parody at its worst.

Today, March 9 2007, marks the one year anniversary of the conversion of Metro into the Red Bulls, and this string of discussions is its legacy – the magic candles flickering on the taurine-soaked birthday cake. They always re-ignite. They still vastly overshadow the actual job of supporting this team. They always will, until the last of the dyed-in-the-wool Metro traditionalists give up and find something else to do. Make a wish!

Red Bull, the corporation and its fans who have embraced the new branding (it’s not an identity, folks), will say those dyed-in-the-wool folks are past worrying about at this point, and they’ll criticise this blog for even bringing up that ghost. They like to laugh at the Metrologist, now. They wish his kind gone and maybe they are, maybe the opening of the new arena does draw a line under that era. Maybe even the Metrologist doesn’t care anymore that Red Bull took his team’s identity away from him. Maybe this doesn’t matter anymore two years further on:

What today also marks is the the ticking-over of the worst year of being a Metro fan ever. While the organization itself has been jarred, and I don’t think anyone can say for the better overall (more on that in a coming post), I think what remains of the already-tortured diehard Metro crowd has only been further alienated, divided, and turned against one another. I’ve been a part of that, on a personal level, more than I’d like to admit. What used to be a pretty cooperative community, especially online at least on the surface, now has serious lines drawn through it.

I’m not qualified to offer an opinion one way or the other on the state of New York’s culture of fan support as we approach the opening of Red Bull Arena, though I’m hoping to be there at the inaugural MLS game against the Fire on March 27th. Perhaps it is all rosy and 25,000 rabid Red Bulls fans will arise from the nation’s largest metropolis to support the team they’ve had such a problem with since 1996. That capacity is over double the Red Bulls average attendance at Giants Stadium last year, 12,491. There’s absolutely no doubt that will be improved upon at the new stadium.

But I do think there’s a little more to be said about it all than Wahl’s breathless review of the arena covers; it’s still Red Bull, as the stadium itself can’t stop reminding us, and there will still be some who will question how attached a community can become to such a recently re-branded team. It’s a discussion Red Bulls fans don’t want to have, I’m sure; the proof will be in the pudding over the next decade one way or another as we’ll find out if supporters do come out to consistently fill what Wahl calls “a truly edifying edifice” once the shine has worn off.

Quick Hits

  • The “Red Knights” making their moves towards a takeover of Manchester United are calling on fans to boycott season ticket purchases to pressure the Glazers to sell.
  • The spotlight has been off Newcastle United in recent times; in The Times, George Caulkin says the pressure is still on Mike Ashley to put back together the club he broke.  “Football, like heat, can generate mirages. How else, with March upon us, can we contextualise a club which, until Portsmouth nabbed their title, was widely recognised as the most gloriously demented in England, but which now resembles the very model of stability? How else to explain the otherwise inexplicable – that Mike Ashley no longer appears the battiest of owners.”
  • Ridge Mahoney looks at the latest in the MLS labour dispute, edging towards the position of the players as he wonders if MLS couldn’t work out a model of free agency: “Other leagues have formulated tiers of free agency; while MLS is different in that it is a single-entity enterprise, one can’t blame the players for fighting to get at least some independence beyond the very narrow boundaries of MLS. While it follows complex formulas to calculate and stay within its salary budget, MLS can suppress salaries since there’s no real competition. It can’t match the salaries even Scandinavian teams give to young players, so it just ignores any aspect of the market except itself.”

The Sweeper appears daily. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: Chile’s Earthquake and the World Cup

Ring of Fire

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Following the devastating earthquake there this weekend, Chile unsurprisingly cancelled two international friendlies scheduled for this Wednesday as part of their World Cup preparations. Few in Chile right now will be thinking about football with more than 700 dead.

Stating the obvious, Chilean federation president Harold Mayne-Nicholls said “Football cannot remain indifferent to the catastrophe which has hit our country and certainly not to the pain and tragedy of thousands of Chileans.”

Tim Vickery reminds us that, sadly, this isn’t the first time an earthquake in Chile has interceded with the World Cup, a perhaps inevitable consequence of Chile’s positioning within the “Ring of Fire” circling the Pacific Rim. In the previous instance, a 9.5 tremor in May 1960 — the biggest instrumentally recorded earthquake of all time — killed thousands.

Chile were scheduled to host the World Cup just two years later. Chile appealed to keep the World Cup, and the hosting of it despite the disaster was controversial. As Vickery says, “Some may feel the World Cup should not have gone ahead, that all of Chile’s energies should have been spent on more pragmatic priorities.”

Yet the words of Chile’s president of the South American federation, Carlos Dittborn, became something of a rallying call for reconstruction. “Because we have nothing,” he said, “we want to do everything.”

So go ahead it did. Newly built Estadio Nacional in Santiago hosted the opening game on May 30th, 1962, two years and eight days after the earthquake. Chile beat Switzerland 3-1, and then a few days later, surprised most by beating Italy 2-1 to clinch their place in the second round. It was not a pretty game; according to FIFA, it was “the most stupid, appalling, disgusting and disgraceful exhibition of football” (ever?). One doubts, though, that any of Chile’s fans cared how the game was won.

Chile ended up finishing third, amidst national jubilation at the success of an event that seemed to turn the corner in the country’s reconstruction. “Seemed” is the key word, but the importance of the event emotionally for the Chilean people is stressed by Vickery:

The idea that the 1962 World Cup could in some way ‘compensate’ for the earthquake is clearly foolish and lacking in all sense of proportion. It couldn’t bring back the many who died – the investment could help repair shattered buildings, but not shattered lives.

But the human being is a social animal and football – and especially international football – possesses an extraordinary power, a capacity for collective emotion and celebration unmatched in modern society.

One hopes that the next World Cup in just over a hundred days from now can provide a little solace for Chile through the performances of its national team, as unimportant as it seems today.

Quick Hits

The Sweeper appears daily. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: There’s No Money to Be Made In Football

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Simon Kuper, author of Why England Lose (Soccernomics over here), submitted an excellent op-ed to the Guardian yesterday, summing up what is more and more obvious to those of us following the current financial mess in English football: there is no money to be made in the sport.  Kuper explains:

Football is not “big business”. It’s a piddling industry. Clubs such as Portsmouth rarely make profits and shouldn’t even try to. Instead of pretending they are Tesco, they should model themselves on not-for-profit local museums.

It was Portsmouth that set off the current kerfuffle over football’s debt. The club overspent on good players, won an FA Cup, and on Friday became the first Premier League club ever to go into administration. However, its rivals are almost as bad. Premier League clubs owe about £3.5bn between them. Clubs spend like big businesses – the average player in the Premier League makes well over £1m a year – but are small ones. A single large Tesco superstore turns over about as much as Portsmouth’s £70m.

This has been blindingly obvious for some time.  So why do English clubs still attract interest by private investors, even when they promise very little return on that investment?  Today, Owen Gibson provided a list of five major hurdles faced by potential owners of Crystal Palace, among them seeking ownership of Selhurst Park, sorting out previous owner Simon Jordan’s hedge fund, and somehow working out a strategy for Palace to stay in the Championship on a ten-point deduction.  The list doesn’t include the £10 million commitment fee.  Yet amazingly, Gibson prefaces his list by writing, “There is believed to be no more than a handful of realistic bids, including one from the United States.”

That anyone at all would be interested in an economic venture of this type seems, on the face of it, ludicrous.  Paul Hayward puts it down to “hucksterism” on the part of the Premier League that it still manages to attract foreign investment:  “While [the Premier League] decide[s] whether to be more like the NFL or NBA in America or stay as the TV deal-makers in a hucksters’ paradise they will hope that the punters in Hong Kong, Abu Dhabi and Africa have not noticed that one of the 20 masters of the universe hasn’t got 30p to use the loo at a London station.”

But perhaps what both Kuper and Hayward are missing is that football investors don’t always necessarily invest because they expect a Tesco-like return.  Some owners get involved to shore up their own assets and leverage debts (Glazers), some get involved out of a naive love of their club (Simon Jordan, Mike Ashley), and some buy clubs seemingly to add them as a sort of luxury holding or to gain prestige (ADUG).  The same thing that makes football exceptional as a business entity (i.e. little financial return, but lots of hope and glory) makes it exceptional for owners.

In any case, Kuper is right in writing that this investor-ship is doing damage to the sport.  He concludes his article with some sound advice:

It would be a shame to let football’s current crisis go to waste. The English game should adopt a strict licensing system like Germany’s to limit clubs’ debts. It should again bar club owners from profiting from their investments. And it should instruct clubs to break even while serving their communities, as museums do. The only business of football is football.

Quick Hits

  • Via Fake Sigi. Soccer FanHouse on the new USMNT kit: The new uniforms unveiled/leaked by Nike this week invoke some traditions while abandoning others, and the result is a mediocre, frustratingly incomplete kit that could be so much better.”
  • Maybe there is some money to made in football: the Independent reports that Sir Stanley Matthew’s boots from the 1953 FA Cup final garnered £38,400 from a private bidder.
  • And finally, a lovely piece by Brad Woodhouse on the 1993-94 League Cup Final featuring Aston Villa and Manchester United, and how it compares to today’s game: “We are, however, troubled by a statistic that has been widely aired lately, which is that in his three seasons in charge at Villa, Martin O’Neill has yet to win a game in March. He has our permission to lose for the rest of the season if we can win on the last day of February.” Amen and amen.

The Sweeper: David Conn Has the Premier League’s Number, and it’s Red

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John Westwood — Super Fan, Financial Analyst

You know things have gone too far when John Westwood—the man with the funny hat, no shirt, and dreads visible at every Pompey game—articulately expounds his views on the financial state of the game on the BBC.  It seems everyone has a view on Portsmouth FC‘s winding-up by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the club’s subsequent administration, but few have matched the Guardian’s David Conn in both depth and insight into the greater implication of Pompey’s financial problems.

His articles, usually coupled with Jaime Jackson’s superb and relentless coverage of each new sordid detail to emerge from Fratton Park (available to buy now from Balram Chainrai in easy monthly payments over the next ten years!), have provided a fascinating read over the course of the last few months as Portsmouth’s troubles worsened.  What’s interesting though is that Conn has resisted the temptation, indulged in by many pundits, of hammering us with his view on what’s wrong with the system and how we should fix it.

Today though, Conn seems to be edging closer to the heart of the matter by writing that the problems at Portsmouth cannot be leveled simply at “bad management”; they are built in to the contours of English football’s financial model.  Yesterday’s Sweeper highlighted Stoke’s debt-free management under the Coates family ownership, but Conn’s remarks today indicate the Coates’ £24 million investment may be a symptom of the same disease:

At Manchester United and Liverpool, the takeovers have loaded the great clubs up with debts. At the clubs with owners putting money in, some are rich enough to sustain it, and do it relatively responsibly. It does, though, inflate players’ wages at all clubs, fuelling overspending. At some, Pompey now proving the point, the commitment will become too great once rich men pull out.

The inflationary effects of this sort of private investment has had an enormous effect on Premier League coffers.  As if to prove the point, the Independent has today provided a must-read, team-by-team breakdown of club debt to demonstrate how pervasive the problem has become.  And the article’s author notes, there’s more to it than money-owed:

Yet debt should really be only one part of the concern for fans. Even if owners write off what they are owed, their other function is to absorb losses made by the club and provide working capital. If that backing (often a condition of banks continuing to lend) disappears, clubs will be in big trouble. Relegation and the accompanying fall in television revenue are likely to spell bankruptcy.

It’s becoming more and more obvious the lethal combination between finance and the competitive nature of football—the increasing reliance on private capital to buy better players in order to avoid relegation and continue enjoying broadcast rights’ fees; the enormous player inflation that results; and the insistence by the Football League that debt-laden teams pay transfer fees to clubs first and taxes to the government second (the “football creditors” rule) to avoid giving competitive advantage to a club on the pitch—will continue to wreak havoc in English football unless serious changes are introduced to the English system.  It seems Westwood is right; it’s all about “the men at the top” right now.

Quick Hits

  • Yesterday in a flutter of Blogger Minima opinionating, Fake Sigi gave his views on Canadian player development and what it will mean for future expansion in Vancouver and Montreal: “In the short term, the lack of domestic Canadian talent will continue to provoke more Canadian frustration with the rigidity of MLS, and it will also be the motivation behind the Toronto bloggers supporting the players in their quixotic quest for free agency and bigger salaries.”  I responded, and Duane Rollins felt compelled to reveal exactly what he wants for MLS and why.  It seems not all Canadian frustrations about MLS are necessarily the same.
  • Buyers beware: police warn fans not to buy World Cup tickets from sites like eBay and Gumtree.

The Sweeper: A Strike Would Not Kill Major League Soccer

Skeleton soccer

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There is only one big story in town in North American soccer.

“Effective at midnight tonight, our collective bargaining agreement with MLS will expire,” MLS Players’ Union executive director Bob Foose said.

“While we expect that negotiations with MLS will resume at some point, there simply hasn’t been enough progress made in the negotiations to date to warrant an extension of the old agreement. We have advised our players to keep working for the time being, but as of Friday they will be doing so without a CBA. In the meantime, all options are being considered as the process continues. We are completely committed to forging real changes to the way MLS players are treated.”

So, no strike right away by the players’ union; but with negotiations at a pause and no extension to the collective bargaining agreement in place, ballot papers on a strike are presumably speeding around the country as we speak.

Ridge Mahoney explains the scenario:

“The options include striking, because if the CBA is no longer in force, neither are the clauses by which the union promises not to strike and the league promises not to lock the players out. So, technically, the players can train and play while holding the strike threat in hand, and the owners can elect to lock the players out. “

A strike, Mahoney says, would be a “clear lose-lose.” Many less pragmatic observers are going much further, and believe a strike would kill stone dead the development of soccer in the United States, especially in a World Cup year.

As Kenn Tomasch puts it, “It’s trendy and chic and makes you look like you’re in the cognoscenti when you shake your head slowly and say “A strike would kill soccer in this country” with a tight frown on your face.”

Just “stop”, Kenn urges you.

Kenn asks:

  • “Are the people funding Major League Soccer going to stop funding Major League Soccer after a work stoppage? Are they just going to fold up their tents and stop operating teams?”
  • “Will players who either go on strike or get locked out end their professional careers and stop playing in Major League Soccer at the conclusion of a work stoppage?”
  • “Will the communities and companies that have funded the league’s nine soccer-specific stadiums (with others either planned or hoped for) just bulldoze them and turn them into shopping malls?”
  • “Will the teams at the Division II level just say “Eh, there’s no point in playing if they’re not playing, so we’ll fold, too?”
  • “Will fans stay away in droves from Major League Soccer matches when they resume after a work stoppage?”

We agree with Kenn that the answers to all of those questions are “no”, to a resounding degree in most cases. The last question is perhaps the trickiest; we’d see a fall in attendance temporarily, particularly a loss of casual fans, but the pockets of probably all of MLS owners are deep enough to weather that storm, should it come to it. There’s a reason MLS only lets seriously rich billionaire dollar companies and individuals to buy into the league (of course, that’s one reason the players are being intransigent about their own demands).

A strike would not be good for for MLS, certainly; but soccer in this country has survived many not good things before, as has MLS. As Kenn concludes, “If not having a major league for a decade didn’t kill the game, a brief work stoppage isn’t going to do it.”

Quick Hits

  • As Portsmouth enter administration, Stoke City prove it’s possible to be a medium sized provincial club in the Premier League and be debt-free: “Figures announced for the year 2008-09, the club’s first season in the Premier League, show the Potters made a net profit of £503,000 at the end of the last trading year, after transfers, and had an increased turnover of £54m – up from £11m in their last season in the Championship.”
  • Arsenal, meanwhile, have announced pre-tax profits of £35.2 million, and perhaps most importantly for the club in contrast to some of its bigger competitors, “Debts at Arsenal Holdings, the Gunners’ parent company, were slashed from £332.8m to £203.6m.”
  • Complaints by Celtic about the standard of refereeing in the Scottish Premier League ahead of their Old Firm derby against Rangers means “the risk of disorder on and off the pitch at Sunday’s Old Firm fixture has been needlessly heightened”, according to former referee Kenny Clark.

The Sweeper appears daily. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: Referees Are Rubbish

Referees under pressure

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Wigan manager Roberto Martinez has ripped into refereeing standards in the Premier League, complaining about a poor decision for the first goal in Wigan’s 3-0 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur at the weekend.

“I think it devalues the Premier League when you get actions like that,” said Martinez. “It is not even a close call and it makes you wonder. You have got a player that is two yards offside.

“I cannot explain how the best league in the world has got people that can get those decisions wrong. When you are looking at it from abroad, I think it is laughable stock. It is the best league in the world, you cannot get decisions like that wrong.”

Celtic, meanwhile, are apparently in talks with the Scottish Premier League over concerns on the standards of refereeing in that league.

Last week, Alex Ferguson voiced his complaints about the standard of refereeing in the Champions League, according to the Guardian:

Sir Alex Ferguson  has added his voice to a Europe-wide groundswell of concern about refereeing standards in the Champions League, where certain officials from smaller football nations increasingly appear to be out of their depth.

This only added to complaints from the Italian FA’s president following last week’s Fiorentina-Bayern Munich game, the Guardian continues:

Furious at Fiorentina’s misfortune, the Italian FA’s president, Giancarlo Abete, has lambasted Uefa. “Last night we all saw the wickedness that was evident and you all know what I am talking about,” he told the newspaper La Repubblica. “A grave error has been committed at this stage of the Champions League and it weighs heavily.

“But what worries me the most is the level of quality in the preparation of referees for such big games. The game was conditioned by the referee and his assistants, who were not up to the standard.”

And in the Europa League, just a couple of months ago, Fulham boss Roy Hodgson, backed up by David Moyes, launched a blistering attack on the quality of referees in the competition:

“We play at home against Amkar Perm, and I witness one of the worst challenges I have ever seen in football – and the referee decides to punish it with a yellow card.

“In the next match against Basle, [Andy] Johnson is pulled down from behind in the penalty box – and the referee decides to give neither a penalty nor a card to the player.

“Then we play against Rome at home and have a player sent off when he is clearly not the last man and actually doesn’t foul him anyway.

“Finally we go to Rome and have two players sent off – one of which is the most laughable decisions I have come across in many, many years of football.

“When I weigh all those things up I’m very, very disappointed – because we have taken the Europa League very seriously and wanted to play well.”

Does this all add up to a Europe-wide crisis in refereeing standards? Are referees getting worse? Confusingly, just the next week, Roy Hodgson pointed out the opposite as he considered the possible introduction of video technology to aid referees.

“One of the hardest jobs on the football field is that of a referee,” said Hodgson.

“The standard of refereeing today compared to 30 years ago is much, much better. I don’t really understand this unbelievable search for perfection.

“When I first started playing, we had no way of checking these things – and a linesman made a decision in 1966 which certainly worked in our favour.

“Maybe these things have always existed, we just did not know about them. The major problem today is the consequences of what, unfortunately, turns out to be a bad decision, and it is pretty obvious what those were in terms of Ireland against France.

“We have just got to constantly strive to get to a situation where a referee makes as few mistakes as possible, constantly work on them in terms of their understanding of the game and their fitness and I really think that is happening.

“An area that could be debated is whether players themselves, when something has gone diabolically wrong, could help the referee out and not just keep their mouths shut.

It might, of course, also help referees if managers kept their mouths shut more after games, Roy. It’s clear that becoming a referee is not a desirable job. The Football Association’s “Respect” campaign has not been a notable success.

At the grassroots, the English game has a serious shortage of referees, with 7,000 quitting each year, largely due to the abuse they receive and poor conditions. There are only 24,000 active referees in England with 38,000 games each week, meaning many games going without referees.  The FA’s Get Into Football campaign includes a target to increase the number of active referees by 8,000 by 2012.

It seems there are a number of factors in play here: more television coverage means more complaints from managers (even those not at the game and watching video highlights, like Alex Ferguson). But it does also make it less and less desirable to be a referee, even as demands on referees for fitness get ever higher. Does this mean many potentially good referees are quitting early on or not entering the profession at all? Who would want to be a referee when the newspapers every day feature managers berating them, for a job that ears far far less than those who do the complaining make?

Quick Hits

The Sweeper appears daily. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: In Defense of Mascots

Mascots

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Two friends of mine have a daughter who, they say, is obsessed with mascots. She loves them, documents them, can answer any question you could ask about them.

Yet in American soccer, many disdain the use of mascots as “not authentic”, something that distracts from “real” passion for the game.  As Super Rookie points out on du Nord today in a piece brilliantly titled No mascots in football! A myth of cryptozoological proportions, “All too often, being an American soccer fan comes with many disparaging comments from other “football” fans who know the “real” way the sport is played in Europe, specifically, in Europe. Yet, in England almost all of the teams have a visible mascot that masquerades around the stadium and city to spread the word of their professional sports team.”

Mascots, of course, are silly, stupid, and to be enjoyed or ignored. So why so serious about them, SR asks, as he looks at the response to a possible creation of a mascot for his new local team, NSC Minnesota?

Why is it that we in America are held up to a standard of sport that doesn’t even exist in other parts of the world? Recently, a posting on the NSC Minnesota facebook page suggesting ideas for a mascot were met with responses like, “I’m not sure why a mascot is needed for a soccer team…you don’t need a mascot. You need more passionate fans.” Really? I think the Thunder had some pretty passionate fans, as will this new team. Plus, the Minnesota Thunder had a kick ass mascot named, Thor. Why can’t a mascot go hand-in-hand with the passionate soccer fans and continue to meet the expectations of professional sports fans the world over?

The next time someone tells me about how “real” football teams don’t have mascots I will point them over to Football Mascots. They will get to see some amazing mascots that have infected the sport with their collective awkwardness. For instance, if I lived in West Ham the first phone call I would make for my child’s birthday party would be to secure an appearance by Herbie the Hammer. If I was trying to impress the ladies with my swagger I would have Mr. Posh from Peterborough United show up to chauffeur me around the city (chicks dig dudes with monocles).

I do wonder how much evidence there is for the value of mascots as a marketing tool — they’re not actually cheap. I’ve seen mascots roll up in nicer cars than players at MLS events — seriously (there’s a good line for the players’ union). I’ve noticed that even teams whose obvious demographic would seem to make a mascot a no-brainer don’t have one, like my local Chicago Red Stars. I did once sit in on an Advisory Board meeting for the Red Stars where we brainstormed mascot ideas…there is nothing better than 15 grown-ups trying to figure out what would work as a mascot and what wouldn’t.

Still, SR concludes that the power and draw of mascots is considerable, and his piece is a lovely rejoinder to the knee-jerk reaction against the likes of Terry Bytes (OK, that is a particularly bad one by Fulham):

Sometimes communities adopt mascots, once created for individual teams, as a symbol for their entire community. The most prominent example of this is of Youppi, the former mascot of the now defunct Montreal Expos. Upon losing a place in the world of baseball it was quickly announced, to much fanfare, that the Montreal Canadians had signed Youppi as a free agent! This example is the beauty of the entire thing! Mascots are meant to be stupid, they are meant to be out there and idiotic (who remembers the creation of the San Diego Chicken), but if we have learned anything it is that they actually work, as proven by the mass adoption of mascots by almost the entire Football Association in England.

Quick Hits

  • While we’re taking things lightly today — it’s been a long week — check out seven Commodore 64 football games on EPL TalkTracksuit Manager was one of my favourite games of all-time.
  • Alright, back to the non-fun-stuff. First off, Matt Scott in the Guardian neatly demolishes Cardiff City supremo Peter Ridsdale’s boast that the club are overdraft free, by pointing out “they do have a few mortgages to their name.” All is not well there, to say the least.
  • Oh yeah, the latest on that MLS strike-thing. Steven Goff at Soccer Insider does not respond to Dan Loney’s satirical response to his open letter to AEG owner Phil Anschutz, playing it straight with news that “My understanding is that some teams have begun to vote whether to strike and that players are largely unified in their battle with management.”
  • FIFA are reportedly concerned that “players at the World Cup could use undetectable stimulants derived from traditional African medicines that aren’t currently banned substances.”
  • Meanwhile, in a move to end some of the shadowy nature of the global transfer system, the Telegraph reports that “in an attempt to end the worst excesses of a largely unregulated market that produces between 20,000 and 30,000 deals worth in excess of $1 billion (£650 million) every year, Fifa will introduce a mandatory system for processing all international deals.”

The Sweeper appears daily. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: Time for Man Utd Fans to Boycott Old Trafford in Green and Gold Campaign

Green and Gold protest

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Keith Harris, a Man Utd fan and leader of a consortium hoping to buy the club from the Glazers, states the rather obvious and says to force change, the Green and Gold campaign has to turn into a boycott of the stadium by fans to hit the owners in the pocket and force them to sell before their investment’s value takes a serious tumble.

“They have to be prepared to take the pain of not watching their club in order to achieve a long-term gain. Supporters have to be galvanised to say, ‘we will not come. We will not buy programmes and merchandise’.

“It’s a big ask, it’s a risk, but that is what must happen. The Glazers are thick-skinned and seem impervious to protest. They will not be impervious to enormous drops in their revenue.

“I would not talk about this if I didn’t have full confidence in our ability to raise the money to do this. I never talk publicly unless I have confidence. Getting the money together is the easy bit, but we can’t make an offer until the Glazers are placed in a position where they are forced to consider it.”

I didn’t know raising something like $1bn was easy, but then, I’m not the chairman of an investment bank like Keith Harris is. He’s also not new to football or to takeovers, as a former Chairman of the Football League, and as the man who negotiated a much more successful takeover by an American investor in the Premier League: Randy Lerner’s at Aston Villa.

Tellingly, at the time of Lerner’s takeover in 2006 Harris said that “Randy has inherited a club without borrowing huge sums of money which would be needed to service a debt.”

Presumably, Harris’ takeover plan for Man Utd is similar, even at the much higher cost it would take to buy out the Glazers, with Harris reportedly one of the “Red Knights” United’s supporters’ groups have been talking to for some time.

The question is whether any of these groups are prepared to step up the protest to include a boycott of the stadium as Harris wants, to force a sale. The indication from the Manchester United Supporters’ Trust (MUST) this week seemed to be the opposite, as it was emphasised that the team’s fortunes had taken an uptick since the green & gold started appearing at Old Trafford in a MUST press release last week, calling it the “green and goals campaign”:

United have scored an incredible 22 goals and the fantastic atmosphere created from supporters wearing the colours of green and gold has been transmitting to players on the pitch.

The consensus from many reds is the atmosphere, certainly at Old Trafford has been better than anyone can remember in recent times. In the game against Man City the stadium shook with noise and it felt like a throwback to thirty years ago, for those of us old enough to remember

No supporter is being pushed into green and gold, above all, anyone joining the campaign remains fully positive and 100% behind the team and in their support for Sir Alex and the players on the field

Whether at Old Trafford, The Emirates, Villa Park or the San Siro – Fergie’s wish has been granted. Reds have got behind the team noisy, determined and newly optimistic about the potential future ownership of the club by supporters of Manchester United.

The trickiest part for any supporters’ protest is always how to know when it’s time to “turn your back” on the team, and it’s the option most likely to alienate the most fans from the campaign. So far, MUST and others have played it right symbolically to turn the chords of discontent into a mass choir at Old Trafford.

But sooner or later, Harris’ point has to be addressed: how can the Glazers be forced out without cutting off their income?  One way to start would be to begin by boycotting club merchandise matchday purchaes at Old Trafford as a first step, before ramping up the boycott if the Glazers refuse to sell.

Quick Hits

  • A torrent of news stories have appeared in recent days on the impasse in MLS labour negotiations. I almost don’t know where to tell you to start if you haven’t been following every twist and turn, though Ridge Mahoney has a good summary and analysis of the statements by the league and the players’ union today. He summarises the key difference, which appears to be over free agency, as follows: “In professional sports leagues there are myriad forms of free agency, only a few of which constitute outright, free-wheeling bidding wars. What the league really fears is not a few teams amassing the best talent through sheer financial clout, but — aside from damaging the underpinnings of a single-entity system — players fleeing poorly run teams to well-managed operations as soon as they can. A protectionism policy on parity is hardly the hallmark of a growth industry, which MLS purports itself to be. “
  • China’s match-fixing scandal sees two clubs relegated from the Super League, including Sheffield United affiliate club Chengdu Blades.
  • The Guardian looks at the state of England’s World Cup bid; unharmed by tabloid gossip about the likes of John Terry and Ashley Cole, yes, but still working out the best way to suck up to Jack Warner. Not a pleasant assignment, that.

The Sweeper appears daily. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

Red Alliance: Liverpool and Manchester United Fans to Unite Against Owners?

Liverpool and Manchester United fans' protest

Manchester United and Liverpool supporters getting behind the same cause?  The Manchester Evening News reports that such is the level of each club’s fanbases disgust at their respective ownership groups that they are considering a joint protest at the March 21st game between the two clubs:

Plans to stage a joint show of strength at the March 21 game have been discussed but are still being finalised.

Any joint demonstration is expected take place in the ground with protest marches ruled out amid fears fans, unable to ignore the two club’s historic differences, would clash.

Supporters of both clubs may be encouraged to join in chants and display banners sympathising with each’s cause.

One source described the plans as “ground breaking.”

He said: “There have been talks and certain groups from both sides are up for it.

“It just shows what state football in this country is in when two of its biggest rivals are talking about joining together.”

We contacted the Independent Manchester United Supporters’ Association for comment, but they were unable to help.

Which probably tells you how touchy this potential “partnership” in protest is likely to be, and how potentially powerful as well.

The Sweeper: Portsmouth Fans Offered Stake in Club

Portsmouth chimes

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In a curious parting move, Sulaiman al-Fahim, the first of Portsmouth’s four owners this season and lasted a full forty days before selling 90% of his share to Ali Al-Faraj, has offered to donate his remaining ten percent of the club to fans via the Portsmouth Supporters’ Trust.

al-Fahim said that “This is a community club and should be owned by the fans and supporters. They should be involved and have full transparency in their club. The supporters should have a say in it. And the club should be managed with financial transparency.”

This might have been more helpful as a statement by al-Fahim when he owned the entire club, and was actually in a position to do introduce that transparency and the supporters’ say in things that might, just might, have helped steer the club in the right direction. It’s hard to see how it could have things any worse, at the least.

The offer now from al-Fahim has been met with bewilderment from the club, whose spokesman said they “are surprised as only last week he was saying he wanted to buy the club again”.

Meanwhile, the Trust is sensibly treading cautiously in response to the offer, releasing a statement saying:

The Pompey Supporters’ Trust working committee met with Suleiman Al Fahim at the end of January to discuss the possibility of Mr Fahim donating his 10% share in Portsmouth Football Club to the Trust. The working committee agreed that the offer had been made in good faith, but due to the circumstances of the Club we required financial and legal advice before we’d be in a position to comment further.

No formal offer has yet been made to the trust, but appreciating the need for urgency in the current dire situation, the Trust and it’s advisors will deal with any formal offer immediately after it’s been received.

A recomendation based on financial and legal advice will be put to the Pompey Trust’s members, who ultimately approve any decisions of this scale.

Would receiving 10% of a club in dire trouble and deep debt be good for the Trust at this point?

Meanwhile, Portsmouth’s Chief Executive Peter Storrie, whose middle name may as well be “embattled” at this stage, has defended the club’s parlous position today, and almost inadvertently revealed why Pompey have attracted a stream of new owners and further suitors despite the perilous position of the club: the potential for retail land development the club has: “the potential for 100,000 square foot of supermarket. You can imagine what that would be worth.”

Quick Hits

  • Writing in the Guardian, Martin Kelner suggests that contrary to much common understanding in England, many NFL fans feel the same way about their clubs as English fans do, looking at the documentary about the move of the Baltimore Colts to Indianapolis in 1984 by owner Bob Irsay: “The people of Baltimore, into whose own autobiographies the story of the Colts is inextricably weaved, owned the club, not Irsay, in much the same way as Manchester United belongs to Manchester not to the Glazers, Leeds United to Leeds rather than Ken Bates, and Portsmouth FC to Portsmouth, rather than (fill in name of this week’s owners here).” Kelner comments on the team’s band, who played on without their team until the Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore in 1996 and began supporting the new/old team. . .a rather unfortunate happy ending to the story for Browns fans themselves, a fact not explored by Kelner.
  • FIFA takes a look at the AFC Champions League, as the nine-month tournament gets underway.
  • The headline to Tim Vickery’s piece this week, “Is the Copa Libertadores better than the Champions League?”, is a little mis-leading as Vickery sensibly doesn’t go down that path. But he does point out that if UEFA’s elite competition is the Beatles, that doesn’t make South America’s version Herman’s Hermits, pointing to the unpredictability and the remarkable young talent on show as a reason we should all pay more attention to the tournament.
  • Blue Square Premier side Chester City could yet be “saved” by the rather bizarre prospect of a Danish takeover, a possibility that may not have fans who believe it’s simply time to start over jumping in the air with joy.

The Sweeper appears daily. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: Players, MLS Break the Silence on CBA Talks

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Reacting to player comments on on-going collective bargaining agreement talks made on Friday (part of a clumsy player PR ploy, according to Jason Davis), Major League Soccer president Mark Abbott has spoken out on the league’s position on a new CBA.  While he defended the league’s offer to players, mentioning a proposed increase in league salary spending to $60 million over the next five years, he also spoke about the major sticking point in negotiations: free agency under MLS’ single-entity structure.  Steve Goff quotes Abbott:

“That is something the league is not prepared to do,” [Abbott] said of free agency within MLS. “What is important to understand is that our league is in a different situation than the other professional sports leagues in North America. When it comes to players, we function in an international market and other leagues are not subject to our salary budget and do have greater resources. It is that dynamic that makes us different from other sports leagues in the U.S., and that’s why we don’t believe free agency works for us. The players have an opposite view, but our view is that it’s not something that is good for the continued growth and development of the league. Our system was designed to counteract the international market.”

Both Goff and Kenn Tomasch question how allowing players released from their club to move freely between MLS teams will destabilize the league and raise costs for owners.  Goff asks, “What is the harm in a player declaring his intent to remain in MLS but wanting to play for a different club?”  Meanwhile, Tomasch also wonders, “If you don’t want a player, why shouldn’t he be free to seek employment elsewhere (like any other worker in any other field in America)?”

Whatever the league’s rationale behind rejecting free agency for players (feel free to sort through Abbott’s remarks on Soccer by Ives for more on the subject), it’s apparently enough to force a work stoppage.  MLS has already stated it’s more than happy to start the season without a new CBA, putting the onus to strike on the players.  Several bloggers, including Fake Sigi, have already argued the league will have the upper hand in any work stoppage, so it remains to be seen how far players will be willing to go to challenge the arguably illogical notion that some form of free agency will kill MLS’ single-entity structure, rob it of all its players, and bankrupt the league.

Quick Hits

  • Kenn Tomasch with an excellent article detailing the last professional soccer strike in America, the NASL in 1979.  It didn’t last long, didn’t involve everyone, and was generally a big, fat mess: “For less than a week in 1979, the NASL played a confusing game of ‘What’s My Lineup? with some players walking out, some walking on, and many walking around wondering exactly what was happening.”  How much there is to learn from this “strike” for this time around remains to be seen…
  • Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, Jaime Jackson continues his excellent coverage of Portsmouth‘s winding-up woes for the Guardian, today revealing some sticky details about Pompey’s enormous wage bill: “Once tax and NI payments are added to the basic £1.8m players receive each month, and other staff wages are taken into account, the club are still shelling out far more in wages than their Premier league TV money and matchday income combined. The chief executive, Peter Storrie, accounts for more than £100,000 a month and earns £1.4m a year.”
  • Depending on your point of view, the remarks of a spokesman for the Manchester United Supporters Trust quoted in the Independent this morning will either be heartening or maddening: “This is surely no coincidence. United have scored an incredible 19 goals, and the fantastic atmosphere created by all supporters, but especially those wearing the colours of green and gold, has undoubtedly been transmitting to the players on the pitch.”

The Sweeper: Portsmouth Need £22 Million to Live

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News has emerged today that Portsmouth FC must come up with £22 million (give or take whether the club end up relegated) by a March 1st High Court date, or else the club will be declared insolvent and fold as a result of the HMRC’s winding-up petition for unpaid taxes.  The news follows the Premier League’s declaration it would not allow Portsmouth to sell its players outside the transfer window to raise emergency funds even though FIFA was open to the move, a decision taken either because, depending on who you read, the Premier League was afraid it would encourage the club to avoid administration and the subsequent nine point penalty, or because Scudamore and co. are still confident Portsmouth will find an interested investor in time.

In addition to administration, the other measures under consideration by the club’s current owners won’t exactly leave Portsmouth in an advantageous position to stay solvent in future.  The Guardian’s Jaime Jackson:

Even if Portsmouth were to enter administration, a total of around £14m would be required….In a move that will anger fans, sources also claimed that the owner, Balram Chainrai, will be sold the freehold of Fratton Park to pay off £10m of the £17m the Hong Kong businessman is owed. He would then lease it back to the club for a minimum of 15 years for a rent of more than £1m for the first year, before the rate rises.

Fans of Crystal Palace, or Simon Jordan himself, will tell you how easy it is to stay financially afloat when you don’t own your own ground, which CPFC haven’t since 1985.  Anticipating the news yesterday, Arsene Wenger pleaded yesterday for the Premier League to give Portsmouth a “minimum payment” to prevent the club folding at least until the end of the season.

Whether Wenger’s pleas are based on some measure of self-interest in the league is for others to judge, but he did remind everyone of something that has been forgotten by owners and Premier League officials alike: “It’s terrible that some clubs will go out of business because it’s part of the history of the country.” Pompey have played at Fratton Park since 1897.  There is a long fan legacy involved here in England’s south coast, and Portsmouth’s example should motivate Supporters Trusts in pushing for greater debt regulation for English clubs in the coming General Election.

Quick Hits

  • It appears Didier Drogba has put his differences with Caf aside and is on the short list for African Footballer of the Year, reports the BBC and the Independent.
  • When Saturday Comes takes notice of the “unusual” rise of newly-promoted Montpellier in Ligue Un: “What makes Montpellier’s achievement all the more remarkable is that they didn’t spend a single euro on transfer fees last summer.”
  • Is there such a thing as an MLSnob?

FIFA’s World Cup Tickets Fiasco: Blatter and Family Have Some Explaining To Do

FIFA World Cup 2010 logo

The General Secretary of FIFA, Jerome Valcke, has admitted ticket sales for the 2010 World Cup have been a shambles, and changes will be made for the 2014 event.

And ticket prices will be cut in an effort to fill stadiums in South Africa this summer. According to the Telegraph, Valcke also admitted that running ticket sales through agency Match had not been successful:

He also acknowledged that Fifa may have made mistakes in the way it had run ticketing and travel arrangements. Fifa granted agency Match exclusive rights to sell travel and ticket packages for the 2010 and 2014 tournaments, but its near-monopoly on hotel rooms has seen supporters asked to pay high prices. Valcke predicted that Match was unlikely to make a profit from South Africa.

“We have good lessons to learn from 2010 and they will help us in 2014. For the World Cup 2010 we will have to sell the tickets to fans direct, we will think about setting up Fifa ticketing centres around the world.”

The Telegraph doesn’t mention that the original decision to award Match the exclusive rights generated considerable controversy. It just so happens that Match is part-owned by Swiss company Infront Sports & Media, whose president and CEO is Philippe Blatter — yep, nephew of one Sepp Blatter.

Last month, Andrew Jennings reported on Match — who stood to earn as much as $342m from the contract — and their expensive surcharges that have raised prices for everyone.

Travel agents have to pay MATCH $30,000 just to be allowed to buy tickets to package with rooms and sometimes flights. Then they have to pay up to 35% surcharge on every ticket MATCH sells them, boosting a ticket with a face value of $160 to as much $244. So MATCH can take up to $84 from each fan.

The company has also established an iron grip on rooms. Hotel chains and Bed & Breakfast want business from fans and have signed up with MATCH – and must pay them 30% of their gross charges – so driving up prices again.

Any thoughts on this, Sepp or Philippe?

The Sweeper: Scotland Loses Champions League Spot, Rangers and Celtic Face Financial Crises

Old Firm

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Rangers and Celtic’s financial futures look a little bleaker today. Scotland will only have one entrant in the UEFA Champions League for the 2011-12 season, after falling below Belgium in the rankings used to determine each country’s qualifiers. Moreover, their champions will not advance automatically to the group stage, and will instead have to navigate through three qualifying rounds.

The news is a massive blow for both Celtic and Rangers, with next year’s title race in Scotland likely to be even more fierce than usual. Both clubs released their financial reports for 2009 this week, and neither club is on a rosy path without Champions League football.

The timing of this new could hardly be worse for Rangers, who continue to seek a buyer, with majority shareholder Sir David Murray looking to offload his 90% share in the club. Rangers remain mired in significant debt and beholden to Lloyds Bank despite impressive profits of more than £13m announced for the second half of 2009. Most of that profit, though, was dependent on Rangers Champions League appearance.

Celtic’s financial report, meanwhile, neatly illustrated the price of not making it to the Champions League group stage:

The cost of participation in the Europa League, to which Celtic were consigned this season, becomes clear in comparison to spoils from the Champions League. Set against the results for the same period in 2008, turnover is down by almost a quarter to £36.11 million and the operating profit has fallen from £12.68 million to £4.7 million, with the pre-tax profit similarly reduced from £8.36 million to £1.27 million.

Celtic chairman John Reid put the difference from missing out on the Champions League at £7 million, with bank debt for the club increasing to £0.97 million to £3.13.

Even tougher times could be ahead for one of the Old Firm.

Quick Hits

  • Arsene Wenger calls for UEFA to adopt a more transparent process in how they select referees: “It has to be clarified first of all how they [Uefa] nominate referees for games. They have to be much more open on how they rate their referees. Nobody knows really how they name their referees. Where is the ranking of the referees? I believe too much has gone on in the last 30 years. What has happened is not good for football.” And for once, Alex Ferguson agrees with Wenger, expressing his own concern about referee selection for the Champions League.
  • FIFA have given Portsmouth special permission to sell-off their players outside the transfer window, with some questioning the integrity of the Premier League for the exceptional action. West Ham’s co-owner David Gold said: “I do have a problem with a club being able to buy those players and gain an advantage over a competitor. I wouldn’t want a competitor buying a player not usually available to them to help them stay up, and neither would my club’s rivals want West Ham doing that. A principle needs upholding.”
  • Meanwhile, FIFA have admitted ticket prices for the World Cup in South Africa were set too high.

The Sweeper appears every weekday, and once at the weekend. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: How Not to Question the US Soccer Federation About Diversity

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Our post yesterday on the future of SoccerAmerica sparked an interesting discussion in the comments about the purpose of the magazine in print and online.

The magazine still has outstanding access to decision-makers. This week, Paul Gardner has a two-part interview on the SoccerAmerica website with the recently re-elected President of the US Soccer Federation, Sunil Gulati.

The interview is…how can I put this charitably…curious. Gardner seems to meander from question to question based on various bees that have rattling around in his bonnet for some time, not bothering to particularly explain his point or follow-up strongly to Gulati’s answers.

PAUL GARDNER: You took office with what seemed to me a serious conflict of interest situation over your work for the New England Revs. But it seems not to be a problem.

SUNIL GULATI: It gets brought up on various issues. There are times when there is a potential conflict — on MLS matters — but they are relatively few, and my involvement has been completely disclosed.

PG: Would it not make matters simpler and clearer to make your position — that of USSF President — a job with a salary? Why are you opposed to this?

SG: It’s something that’s been suggested, and as things are turning out, it seems that more and more Federations worldwide now have paid Presidents. But it’s not something that I am comfortable supporting — a least while I’m president.

PG: I have seen no real evidence that national team success translates into a gain for MLS. I mean does it sell more tickets?

SG: When the national team is successful, people notice the game itself more, there’s a general buzz. They certainly notice the players. Does that mean more people tuning in to MLS games? Those analyses are hard to make. It’s very difficult to isolate data points, but I do believe that as the sport is successful in one sector, that often translates into other areas – just don’t ask me to prove it statistically.

PG: The demise of the National Hall of Fame is not encouraging, a reminder that things can go wrong. Should the Federation do more to support it?

SG: We are continuing our support. We continue to put money into it. We believe it’s important to have that annual recognition — the inductions  of the sport’s top players and personalities. The second part is the museum itself, the exhibits. The model we have on that front is not sustainable. The Hall has been heavily subsidized for many years by the local community, the state, sponsors, as well as by the Federation and the Foundation. It’s not encouraging, true, but if you’re asking do I think it’s a reflection of where the sport is now — no I don’t.

As we can see, Gulati easily brushes aside what are legitimate concerns poorly constructed into questions by Gardner that fail to get to the meat of any of the issues raised. There is no attempt to dig into detail in Gardner’s follow-ups. It’s certainly not a puff-piece, but it’s almost better than that for Gulati, so easily does the Columbia University lecturer fend-off the veteran journalist.

Then things take a turn for the weird. Gardner’s final question to Gulati, the overseer of all of American soccer, is a bizarre, unexplained query about how the hiring of an assistant coach by US Men’s National Team boss Bob Bradley is somehow a retrograde step for the diversity of the sport.

PG: Diversity is one of your aims. You got it off to a good start with the appointment of Wilmer Cabrera as the U-17 coach. But I’ve seen little progress since then. In fact, I would describe the recent appointment of Jesse Marsch to be an assistant national team coach, as a glaringly anti-diversity move.

SG: Well, it’s OK for us to disagree about individual coaching appointments — but when we talk about assistant coaches, the national team coach or any head coach in our program has great latitude in selecting his staff. So while I’m happy to discuss my decisions in appointing head coaches, I believe that assistant coaches are very much in the purview of the head coach.

Appointing Wilmer Cabrera was one very public thing. But we now have our website in Spanish, we have two or three Hispanics on our BOD, we have more Spanish-language coaching and referee programs. Very few people would think that the hiring of Wilmer is more important than, for instance, the ability to communicate, or having our courses available for Spanish-speaking programs. These are all pieces of the puzzle and an area where we clearly have to continue our efforts — and not only in the Hispanic community.

Indeed, as the second part of Gulati’s question makes clear, there are a lot of points to explore about the USSF’s work on diversity. All this, apparently, is of no interest to Gardner — the work at the grassroots is nowhere near as important as who Bob Bradley’s assistant coach is, judging from the sole question he asks about diversity.

We have to dig a little deeper to understand Gardner’s sputtering question and track back to his column from 10 days ago about the appointment of Marsch to the USMNT coaching staff to figure out where that came from.

The first half of the piece is a screed about Marsch’s record as a player, a rather half-hearted attempt to paint him as dirty, before Gardner concludes he “was not a particularly violent player.”

It’s in the second half that we start to see some reference to what might have prompted Gardner’s question. He picks up on some ill-considered comments by Marsch about diving Brazilians made a couple of years ago, concluding that:

Without questioning Bradley’s admiration of Marsch’s “knowledge and experience,” I am merely pointing out that there are some problems of attitude here that would surely need to be addressed in a player who has been catapulted into the rarified atmosphere of the national team’s ruling class.

To wit: an addiction to serial fouling, a compulsion to quarrel with referees, and a conviction that all Brazilians are cheats.

Bradley, for sure, must be well aware of all this. He has been Marsch’s benefactor since recruiting him at Princeton University and he has coached him professionally at D.C.United, Chicago, and Chivas USA. It is disturbing to ponder that Bradley might actually find the attitudes mentioned above to be positive additions to the national team coaching agenda.

More likely Bradley is simply willing to overlook them. A kindly touch from the master to the protégé who, not long ago, let it be known that he regards Bradley as “a genius.”

Gardner has been ripping on Bob Bradley since at least 1998, when he coached the Fire to the MLS Cup and US Open Cup titles, the journalist criticising the “boring” soccer he saw (if only Piotr Nowak had been Hispanic!). Bradley later moved on to the USMNT role succeeding Bruce Arena (who he assisted at DC United for two years before heading up the Fire), thus perpetuating the East Coast Anglo Rulership of Dull American soccer that at least allowed Gardner to keep filing in the same columns to SoccerAmerica and World Soccer with a mere find and replace on his Word document.

Maybe that’s a bit mean. Gardner has been making an important point about the need for US Soccer and MLS to improve the integration of Hispanic soccer culture into the “mainstream” of the sport for many, many, many years. Surely there are some serious points on it worth raising to Gulati on that based on Gardner’s long experience looking at it.

One could even question whether Bradley’s continual loyalty to those he has worked with in the past does mean the US Soccer set-up is too insular, though the choice of an assistant coach isn’t the best example there given that role surely has to be taken by someone the head coach knows intimately and trusts heading into a World Cup finals tournament.

There might even be a legitimate question to ask of US Soccer about Marsch’s comments on diving Brazilians. Maybe.

Unfortunately, given the chance to ask the man in charge of it all about any of these elements, all Gardner could do was toss an irrelevant softball Gulati was able to hit for a home run.

Quick Hits

  • Are football fans discriminated against?  The Football Supporters’ Federation are hosting an event asking these questions in London next month, wondering “Why are football supporters treated differently from other groups in society? Go to Wembley for a pop concert and you can stand without fear of ejection. Head to a rugby league match and you can drink in your seat. Try either of those at a football game and you could end up with a criminal record. “
  • Fake Sigi on the prospects for a work stoppage in MLS: “the players have absolutely no leverage in a work stoppage. None. MLS will keep making money through Soccer United Marketing off of all those Mexico exhibition matches and Interliga and will simply wait for the players to come back to the table.”
  • Two Hundred Percent looks at “The Continuing Adventures Of Sulaiman Al-Fahim”, as Portsmouth’s former owners true colours come out.

The Sweeper appears every weekday, and once at the weekend. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: The Decline of SoccerAmerica

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It won’t surprise you to learn that newsstand circulation and subscriptions of American magazines declined 9.1% in the second half of 2009, after a 12.36% decline in the first half of the year. Double digit declines were previously recorded in 2008. Newsweek’s circulation fell 41.3%.

I don’t know what SoccerAmerica’s decline was, but we can presume they were hit hard as well, based solely off their recent announcement that they are ending their monthly print issues, instead offering special print guides to events like the World Cup and the MLS season.

Their next issue will be their “Complete Guide to MLS 2010″, which promises the following:

  • In-Depth Previews of
    All 16 MLS Teams
  • Features on MLS’s Top Stars
  • Profiles of MLS’s
    10 Best Young Players
  • All-New Fresh & Dynamic Look
  • Brilliant Photography

Will you be buying a copy? At $12.95, I won’t be, and that’s not meant as a slap to SoccerAmerica. It will probably feature some fine writing. The problem is, my google news reader will be chock full of “in-depth previews” and “features on MLS’s Top Stars” before the magazine drops in mid-March. I’ll already be saturated, for free.

The question Steve Davis asks on his Daily Fix column is whether we are losing quality with the decline of a respected print magazine and its replacement by the plethora of bellicose voices on the internet and television.

Ridge [Mahoney], Mike Woitalla and Paul Kennedy at Soccer America have long been the leaders in providing smart, moderated voices in domestic soccer. It was always a shining example of how specialized media can work exactly as it should, with intelligent people using their access to influencers to help readers (and the outside media at large) develop a better understanding of it all.

They’re still doing the same good work, but their influence has waned. Their diluted voice has nothing to do with diminished skill or desire. Rather, it’s about their platform. Soccer America, like so many other print platforms, has simply struggled to keep pace in a rapidly changing media world. The words and wisdom still exist – but it gets short shrift, frequently obscured among the everyday tsunami of quasi-informed opinions.

In all honesty, I truly don’t know of anyone who gets the magazine anymore. Ridge’s excellent MLS Confidential is known and respected inside the industry, but I don’t know how many fans/readers it reaches. Same for Woitalla’s good work. (If you’re interested to any degree in youth soccer, you absolutely must check out his ongoing work on kiddoes in soccer. It is truly terrific and essential reading.)

There are other good sources of information and opinion on the U.S. soccer scene out there. But only a precious few have the ability and inclination to layer it all with context, perspective and supporting data. It’s much easier, after all, to fire off a few sentences, sprinkle in some outrage in the appropriate places (but with no consideration for offering alternatives) and then head out to lunch.

SoccerAmerica has tried to make the move to the internet, with their daily email subscription service. But their website’s never been compelling, and doesn’t appear to generate more than minimal revenue itself. Taking a glance at it today, the headline piece is “Rooney ranks among the greats” by Paul Kennedy, a 314 word recap of the Madrid-Man Utd game from yesterday that offers absolutely zero new information or any insight not available at dozens of other outlets I’d visit before SoccerAmerica to read about European football. It’s a completely pointless piece.

Buried below, Paul Kennedy has another brief piece that’s interesting and well-done because it offers me some information on something I haven’t seen a million times already, covering the latest recruitment by Virginia in college soccer. Digging through the site, there’s obviously a ton of unique and interesting content on parts of the American soccer scene going under-reported everywhere else, especially on youth soccer.

So why is SoccerAmerica wasting Paul Kennedy’s time having him write a wrap-up of yesterday’s Champions League action when he’s obviously capable of so much more?  The magazine, with a core staff of quality reporters, should focus 100% on their niche to stay relevant: they have to adapt to the new platform of the internet, and part of that is recognising there is little point covering what’s already covered everywhere else now we all have access to so many information sources.

Quick Hits

The Sweeper appears every weekday, and once at the weekend. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: Wannabe a Wag?

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When Sports Illustrated’s infamous Swimsuit Edition has an entire category for “soccer WAGS”, you know it’s become a world-wide part of celebrity culture that transcends  anything much to do with soccer.

It has become a career option for English women, with a clear path to success and a hierarchy of status: wife above girlfriend, Premier League husband over Championship husband, and a trip to the World Cup as a WAG to be scrutinised and photographed at every angle shopping, dancing and tanning the ultimate goal.

In a long, thoughtful piece in the Guardian, Kira Cochrane takes the time to actually talk to WAGS, and finds (unsurprisingly) the dream world isn’t quite so dreamy.

Many aspects of Wags’ lives bring to mind a sort of 1950s womanhood: they seem to be expected to come when called and, equally, to stay away when they’re not wanted. (There was the ­notorious Manchester United Christmas party in 2007, when the Wags were apparently told to stay at home, 100 handpicked women were brought in to party with the players, and the night ended with a rape allegation that was later dropped.)

Cochrane talked to, amongst many, Nicola Tappenden (Bobby Zamora’s ex-girlfriend) and Alison Kervin, a sports-writer who is writing a series of novels about WAGS: initially intended to be aspirational, she was depressed by what she found as her research went on.

The women face isolation and upheaval, says Kervin, as their partners move from club to club and they either follow them, and lose established friendships, or stay put, and live apart from their partners. Tappenden is well-versed in this problem – it’s what she finds most stressful. Her fiance, Walton, has moved clubs a lot recently, “and you don’t know whether you’re coming or going. I couldn’t keep doing it, so now we’re living separate lives practically.” Tappenden is in Epsom Downs, while Walton is in Crewe, “and I wouldn’t wish that on anybody. I find it really, really difficult.”

Jadene Bircham, the wife of former QPR player Marc Bircham, concurs: “It’s a long hard slog being married to a footballer,” she says. “They’re out continuously. Their job is their life. It’s lonely: a lot of weddings, ­christenings, birthday parties are on ­Saturdays, so they can’t go because they’re ­playing football . . . That’s always their first priority.”

Cochrane questions what WAG culture says about the values of our society today and the opportunities available to working class women, a regression to a world where women were judged by their appended status to a man.

The icons and images at the heart of a culture tell us an enormous amount about its values. It’s interesting to note which images of women have multiplied over the last five years: an increasing sexualisation, and a media obsession with women in turmoil (Britney Spears, Amy Winehouse, Anna Nicole Smith).

The Wags are a part of this wider culture. It’s not their fault – very often, the couples are childhood sweethearts who would have stayed together had he been a plumber, a plasterer or a teacher. It is the media that has chosen to describe them as Wags and define them by their marital status. But the idea is thus reinforced that women can never be heroes in their own right. If the obsession with Wags represents one thing, it’s surely a means of putting women firmly back in their place.

Quick Hits

The Sweeper appears every weekday, and once at the weekend. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: Clubs Divided Over Premier League Play-off Plans

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The Guardian reveals today that the Premier League is considering introducing a play-off tournament for England’s fourth UEFA Champions League spot:

Currently the club which finishes fourth goes through but the new proposal would mean a play-off between the clubs finishing fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh. The intention is to inject more competition into a league in which qualification has for years remained in the hands of the same four clubs.

Premier League sources have confirmed that the play-off proposal was presented at the most recent meeting of all clubs, on 4 February, and the league’s chief executive, Richard Scudamore, was authorised to return with further details in April.

It is understood that the idea was enthusiastically supported by all clubs – except the so-called big four of Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool. Scudamore, and the league’s secretary, Mike Foster, will examine the practicalities of how a play-off system could work: whether it should take the form of a home-and-away knockout system, similar to that in the Football League, or incorporate seeding. They will also look into when matches could be fitted into a crowded fixture calendar before making recommendations.

A majority of at least 14-6 would be needed to pass the rule change. ESPN Soccernet, though, reports the opposite on the support of the clubs, saying:

Soccernet understands the idea has little support among the clubs, who are concerned that it could cost English football one of its coveted places in the Champions League.

It has been suggested that only the first three European spots be decided on league position and the fourth place be determined by a play-off. That could mean the teams finishing between fourth and seventh play a mini-knockout competition.

Such a move would be seen as a measure to inject more competition into the league, but if the team finishing seventh qualified for and won the Champions League place play-off, it could affect English football’s coefficient – and eventually it is possible England’s quota could be cut from four to three clubs.

In addition, the fixture programme is so congested already that extending the season is not something most clubs would encourage, especially in a World Cup or European Championship year.

Back in the Guardian, however, John Ashdown says the idea “makes sense” for most clubs despite the risks of fixture congestion (it should be noted that the Netherlands abandoned its own play-off for their second CL spot just two seasons ago).

One wonders a little about the timing of this. On the one hand, this year is seeing the most competitive race for fourth place since Spurs’ infamous food poisoning incident in 2006.

One other other hand, the playoffs would create a new revenue stream for the league, and at a time clubs are struggling financially, the accusations of greed might be less stinging than they were a year or two ago with the Game 39  fiasco.  The Football Association would also welcome another moneyspinning game or three at Wembley.

It also brings into question the purpose of the league system. Playoffs in American sports generally make sense because of the division of the regular season competition into divisions or conferences. It makes no sense to have a play-off when everyone has played each other an equal number of times in the course of the league season. Tony Cascarino lays into the idea from this perspective on the Times’ blog, taking a swipe at American sports in the process:

Such a move undermines the whole season. You play for 38 matches, you have your ups and downs and at the end of it the best team wins the league and the worst teams go down. You can always say the league table doesn’t lie after 38 games – well, if this idea was brought in it could.

Football is cying out for some credibility but this smacks of a gimmick. Where does it stop? Do people really need the extra entertainment of a play-off at the end of a season? Are we becoming like the United States where we have a short attention span and are bored by the thought of a league season finishing after 38 games?

One possibility to alleviate this concern would be to weight the play-off to reward the teams that finished higher up, as is done in Greece. Wikipedia explains their system:

In the play-off for UEFA Champions League, the teams play each other in a home and away round robin. However, they do not all start with 0 points. Instead, a weighting system applies to the teams’ standing at the start of the play-off mini-league. The team finishing fifth in the Super League will start the play off with 0 points. The fifth place team’s end of season tally of points is subtracted from the sum of the points that other teams have. This number is then divided by three to give the other teams the points with which they start the mini-league.

It seems unlikely the Premier League would introduce a complicated system like that for its play-off. Either way, the idea is certain to attract less opposition than Game 39, and will have a definite attraction for clubs outside the big four.

Quick Hits

The Sweeper appears every weekday, and once at the weekend. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: Should Government Intervene in Debt-Ridden English Football?

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As a General Election looms, the Telegraph is reporting this weekend that there are plans in parliament for a regulatory body (“Office of Football Regulation“) to prevent clubs from running up irresponsible debt-to-turnover ratios and stop the winding-up orders that have in recent days threatened the existence of several long-running English teams.  Legislators are also looking into ways a regulatory body could give fans a greater say in governance of their clubs.  Momentum for this wide-ranging legislation has picked up in recent days:

The potential government plans – ahead of the forthcoming general election – follow a decision by Tony Lloyd, the Labour MP, to table an Early Day Motion in the Commons calling for supporters to hold tangible stakes in their clubs and for the government and the football authorities “to create a binding framework which will regulate club debt”.

The Telegraph declares that the move “would be one of the most controversial political interventions into sport in history” and will meet resistance from all quarters, including the Premier League, the Football Association and the Football League (although it doesn’t lay out clear reasons why).

In a separate story, the Telegraph details how Manchester United supporters and other rival supporters’ groups, galvanized by Tony Lloyd’s early day motion, are soliciting government ministers to assist in efforts to wrest control of their clubs from owners whom they believe do not have their club’s best interests at heart:

Those in the boardrooms of clubs and footballing authorities who chose to dismiss the fans’ movement as a gentle, unthreatening wave of dissent risk being caught out like King Canute. Fans’ anger over leveraged debt, the increasing sophistication of supporters’ methods, and the soapbox offered by the General Election, mean that this is a movement that must be taken seriously.

Manchester United Supporters Trust president Richard Hytner, who is looking at several different fan ownership scenarios for Manchester United, says “ours is not a case built on sentiment; it is based on commercial common sense. Loyal fans who love our club are worth a fortune and worthy of respect.”

There is certainly a populist element to recent promises of more government oversight of club affairs, and supporters should be wary of exploitation from political parties seeking election on the back of promised “commercial common sense.”  It is far from certain that government-enforced debt regulation and increased fan participation, while admirable, will yield “a new and prosperous chapter,” as Hytner believes it will for United.

But moves for more government regulation of football debts at least in principle reflect a growing belief that clubs should no longer be seen as private financial interests to be exploited by self-interested owners, but public entities with long, autonomous histories, with fans at their centre.  Pitch Invasion will be watching closely as this story develops…

Quick Hits

  • West Ham co-owner David Gold believes the Premier League has an obligation to save Portsmouth from oblivion because it will deeply impact the other top-flight clubs: “That can’t be right. For that reason, you have an obligation to save a football club. We have allowed Portsmouth to get into this mess. The brand is 20 Premier League football clubs. We must take responsibility.”
  • The BBC’s Emma Wallis reports on racism pervading Italian football: “In a country where Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi famously described US President Barack Obama as ‘tanned’, it is perhaps not surprising that tackling racism is a minefield.  Writer Francesco Pacifico says the concept of racism is different in Italy. He says it is difficult to eradicate racist attitudes because ‘in Italy there is no notion of a few rotten apples… we’re all rotten apples.’”
  • EPL Talk looks at the clumsy introduction of Fox Soccer Plus, and the contninued lack of communication to US viewers about the implications of changes to the soccer broadcasting strata.

How Not to Save the FA Cup

BRITAIN SOCCER FA CUP FINAL

The FA Cup has been declining in prestige for a couple of decades now, for reasons that aren’t very difficult to understand. The institution of the UEFA Champions League made it a tertiary priority for the big four clubs who came to dominate English football.

Even for smaller clubs in the Premier League, the growing riches of league play made the rewards to be had in the FA Cup much less important financially than whether the club finished in seventh place or seventeenth in the league, due to the much greater prize money at stake there.

The FA Cup winner takes home £3.4 million; a minimum of £30 million is taken home for just staying in the Premier League.

This disparity in rewards did not exist until recent times. No wonder so many teams field weakened teams.

For fans, playing semi-finals at Wembley as well as the final has taken some of the lustre off the pot at the end of the tunnel, the greed of the FA making a Wembley appearance more commonplace.

Unpredictability and upsets remain, as we’ve seen this year in spades, but the media spotlight on the tournament has diminished with so much focus on European competition and the Premier League title race.

And you know it’s bad when the Football Association actually determines they need to do something about it, or it least get a committee to talk about doing something.

Unfortunately, according to the Times, they have a batty solution to reigniting interest: instead of finding a way to build off of the tradition of the world’s oldest football tournament, they instead want to bring in some gimmicks by reportedly making it a testing ground for experiments in the rules and regulations of the game:

The dilemma for the FA and its ten-man Challenge Cup Committee, which is chaired by Sir Dave Richards, the Premier League chairman, is what kind of changes to make to the competition. The FA’s hierarchy is conscious that much of the Cup’s appeal lies in its tradition, which is why there is resistance to the idea of seeding the draw, but there is a growing feeling that something needs to change. [..]

Perhaps the most intriguing idea, though, is that the FA Cup could attract greater interest by volunteering itself to be used as a stage for future experiments with the laws of the game.

Fifa, world football’s governing body, is likely to give a trial to various innovations over the coming years — having confirmed yesterday that goalline technology will be back on the agenda when the International Football Association Board meets next month — and there is a school of thought within the FA that, as a pioneering competition, it could benefit from staging such experiments in future.

It’s all very well for the FA Cup to be a pioneer and a testing ground for change. But it sure as hell isn’t going to save the grand old competition. Did a lot more people suddenly start watching the UEFA Europa League because it was featuring an experiment with additional assistant referees on the goalline?  No.

The solutions are actually likely prosaic changes like more prize money, smarter scheduling and marketing the class and history of the FA Cup. Whether the FA can manage to do any of that remains to be seen.

The Sweeper: David Gill Says Debt is the Road to Ruin

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We all say things we don’t mean on occasion. But sometimes we say the right thing, and then get ourselves into a spot of bother when political necessities force us to make something of a u-turn. Joseph Stalin in 1939, for example.

Or David Gill today. Manchester United’s chief executive faces some embarrassment as comments he made about the present owners of the club, the Glazers, were dug up from 2004, when the Americans were still in the early stages of their controversial takeover. At the time, Gill said that “debt is the road to ruin”, with the green & gold protesters putting it on a poster displayed at Man Utd’s game against Aston Villa this week.

The Guardian’s digger has the comments:

Digger was surprised to find a revealing question-and-answer session from 2004 still on the club’s website. The interviewee was David Gill, then as now United’s chief executive.

He was being asked why the club had broken off negotiations with the Glazer family, who at the time were mounting a hostile takeover of the club. Reading Gill’s comments, you could almost imagine him having scrawled the protest slogans himself.

For instance, how about: “We’ve seen many examples of debt in football over the years and the difficulties it causes; we know what that means and we think that is inappropriate for this business”?

Or: “We have very vocal fans and one of the key strengths of Manchester United are those fan groups”? (A view that seems to have changed rather over the past four years.)

Or even: “It’s important to note that we don’t have an issue with the Glazer family: it is about leverage”? (The club website helpfully explained that leverage means using debt to finance a takeover offer but United fans need no such clarification today.)

I wonder how long those comments will remain on the United website, as the club have even reportedly fired their own workers for wearing green and gold at Old Trafford.

Quick Hits

The Sweeper appears every weekday, and once at the weekend. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: FC Edmonton Won’t be the Drillers

Not the Edmonton Drillers

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When it was announced this week that FC Edmonton had joined the NASL and would begin play in 2011, many presumed there was a connection between the club and the Vancouver Whitecaps. Not so, at least not at present.

In an interesting interview at Inside Minnesota Soccer, Edmonton’s general manager Mel Kowalchuk reveals a few interesting things:

  • There’s no connection between the club and the Whitecaps: “We made Vancouver an offer for their franchise when they were going to MLS. That’s as far as it went. There was some discussion with Vancouver which depended on where MLS went as well as Division II soccer went — that we could perhaps have some sort of relationship. But that’s as far as it ever went! I don’t know where all this (talk of a Vancouver partnership) came from and it keeps surfacing. It’s actually kind of caught us off guard because that wasn’t the deal and it never was the deal.”
  • It looks like, also against what had widely been presumed, the team will not be called the Drillers, as Edmonton’s previous NASL team was: “I run an indoor league and one of teams are the “Drillers”. I could get the name from them any time I wanted, but our interest in that name is very mild right now. We grabbed the FC Edmonton name so we could have a legal entity but we may just keep it.”

Read the rest of the piece for some tidbits about the club’s plans, including a youth academy with apparent links to an unnamed club in South America, and their ambition to build a new stadium. Ambitious stuff.

Quick Hits

The Sweeper appears every weekday, and once at the weekend. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Football League’s First Female Referee

A leg injury to referee Tony Bates in the match between Nottingham Forest and Cardiff Coventry City last night inadvertently led to history being made for football: the most experienced assistant referee in the team takes over, and that happened to be Amy Fearn.

The 31 year-old became the first female to referee at a Football League game in the 122 year history of the world’s oldest league competition.

Interviewed on the Football League’s website, she quite rightly put the moment into proper perspective:

Last night will of course raise the profile of women in football; it can only be a good thing for encouraging more women into the game. There is a great relationship between male and female officials – when the referee came off he told me to stay calm and do my best and it would be great to see more women come into the game.

I understand there was a big reaction from the crowd but I don’t remember it at the time. I’m glad there was nothing controversial in that twenty minutes – football should be about the players not the officials.

It was in 1997 that the NBA became the first major American sport to feature a female referee, not without controversy.

The firing by the NBA of female referee Dee Kantner in 2002 was attributed by some to gender-bias in how referees are expected to behave, as Russell MenyHart wrote at the time:

Underestimation of Kantner’s ability would not necessarily be malicious. Powerful male players are used to male referees being equally tenacious. Even coaches who honestly try to make gender-blind evaluations are susceptible to unintentional bias due to their preconceived notions of what makes a good referee. Kantner was undoubtedly subject to increased scrutiny as a woman, and the NBA seems to have made no effort to consider whether its existing standards of “good” refereeing were gender-based.

The deeper problem is that a significant change such as this takes cultural adjustment, not just a change in cast. Kantner’s firing (and the fact that no other female referees have been hired in the past five years) represents the ignorance of the dominant party, a pattern seen over and over again in many sectors of American society.

Some years on, and many other sports have now crossed that barrier, and the controversy seems to have died down (though it should be said basketball lends itself to more focus on the referees). Major college football saw its first female referee last autumn, Sarah Thomas, as the New York Times reported:

Thomas, 35, is major college football’s only female referee. She has grown accustomed to startling players and coaches on Saturdays but said it did not occur as often as one might think.

“Most of the time they are so focused on what they are doing, they don’t notice me,” Thomas said. “And that is what every other official strives for. Our best games are the ones that no one knows we’re there.”

Even the UFC welcomed its first female referee last June, Kim Winslow.

Female referees at the assistant level in England have not always had an easy time. In 1999, then Coventry boss Gordan Strachan launched a blistering attack on Wendy Toms, saying “We are getting PC  decisions about promoting ladies.” In 2006, then Luton manager Mike Newell went further when discussing assistant Amy Rayner:

She should not be here,’ Newell said. ‘I know that sounds sexist, but I am sexist, so I am not going to be anything other than that. We have a problem in this country with political correctness, and bringing women into the game is not the way to improve refereeing and officialdom.’

He added: ‘It is absolutely beyond belief. When do we reach a stage when all officials are women, then we are in trouble. It is bad enough with the incapable referees and linesmen we have, but if you start bringing in women, you have big problems. It is tokenism, for the politically correct idiots.’

With these attitudes no doubt still around today, the challenges facing the likes of Amy Fearn remain considerable as they attempt to forge their own path to the Premier League.

The Sweeper: Portsmouth Only One of Many In Debt to the Taxman

hm-revenue

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Portsmouth
have seven more days to breathe after a stay of execution was given to them in the High Court over £11.5 million that they owe the taxman, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC).

Meanwhile, Cardiff City were also in court today, receiving a 28 day adjournment on they £2.7million they owe HMRC.

And Southend United also procured an adjournment from the court over the £200,000 debt they have to HMRC.

Noticing a theme?  David Conn at the Guardian sums it all up:

Yet the very appearance of two of football’s bigger clubs – and Southend United – who continue to receive millions of pounds in TV and other income, in a court where scores of small, hard-hit businesses will be wound up today, has concentrated minds again on the game’s inability to balance the books, even in this boom time.

Since 1992, the year the Football League’s First Division clubs broke away to form the Premier League, and therefore not share their TV rights bonanza with the other three divisions, Football League clubs have fallen into insolvency a staggering 53 times.

For three of them – Aldershot, Maidstone and, later, Scarborough – the histories of the original clubs did truly end, in liquidation before subsequently being re-established. For others, administration meant they could be bought by new owners, who paid a fraction of the debts that were owed – except at Southampton, where last year Markus Liebherr paid Saints’ debts in full. Since 2002, when ITV Digital’s collapse helped push 10 clubs over the edge, an estimated £200m due to creditors has been left unpaid, including sums owed to the police, local ­councils, hospitals, universities and other public bodies, a Yellow Pages-worth of small businesses and, most unforgivably, St John Ambulance.

Appallingly, as Conn mentions, St John Ambulance, whose volunteers tend to the sick and injured at football stadiums, are often left unpaid as the Premier League and Football League’s rules ensure footballing creditors (other clubs, players) are paid first.  HMRC have been unhappy about this for themselves for some time, and have this past year stepped up their efforts to get paid for debt owed to them, with King’s Lynn already wound-up.

Two Hundred Percent, a month ago, foresaw today’s events, with three clubs now facing a final chance to pay the taxman or go under:

All of this brings us back to the question of whether it is right that HMRC should pursue football clubs this aggresivlely, and the answer to this is, of course, “yes”. Football seems to continue to exist in a world in which all that ever matters is what happens on the pitch. Even now, clubs seem fundamentally immoral in their financial dealings. Why should Portsmouth pay hundreds of thousands of pounds per week on players’ wages and not settle their tax bill? Why should Cardiff do the same? And the ultimate responsibility for this sort of fiasco lies with the authorities that run the game. They have it within their power to make it compulsary that all clubs settle all of their debts in full each month before they even start thinking about signing new players or even starting to pay the ones that they already have. It’s their choice. The fact of the matter remains a stark one: one of these days, HMRC will catch up with another Kings Lynn, who can’t settle their bill in full, and that club will close. Just like that. In the middle of the season. And everyone will be shocked that it has happened, when the bitter truth of the matter is that the biggest surprise of all is that it hasn’t happened already.

What to make of all this? Supporters Direct says there is no “magic bullet” to sort football out, but that it’s time to look at “solutions; they may be salary caps, luxury taxes, loss caps, a more comprehensive, single Fit and Proper Test, built in supporter-representation at clubs to ensure protection against grounds like Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park being split from the club, or the countless number of small London clubs seeing their homes sold to pay for wreckless spending (in some cases, something a little more sinister at play by property developers).”

Quick Hits

The Sweeper appears every weekday, and once at the weekend. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: The Bundesliga Model

Bundesliga

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The Bundesliga is really getting some attention this week in the English-language press. Yesterday, as we mentioned, it was Patrick Barclay in London’s Daily Telegraph commenting on the German league’s financially sane model, with clubs less in debt and ticket prices affordable. Old news, but in these turbulent times in England, finally making some waves.

And now it’s the American media’s turn, as Soccer Insider talks to Bundesliga chief executive Christian Seifert, who attended the Super Bowl and came away impressed with the “product”: He told Steven Goff that “There is so much to learn from the Super Bowl and the NFL — it is one of the greatest life experiences around the globe. You see the surroundings, the camera concepts and TV technique, the way sponsors are involved, the event management.”

Meanwhile, somebody Jack Bell at the New York Times’ Goal blog thinks is also the “Bundesliga chief executive”, a Christian Pfennig — who apparently is actually the Bundesliga’s VP of Communications (unless Jack just has his Christians mixed up…or Steven does…) — speaks of the success of their model despite the challenge of the recession in 2009:

“We are proud and satisfied with our numbers in the first season of crisis. Who would have thought that record numbers are possible? We have combined relative financial health with good performance on the pitch. We believe it shows how good the Bundesliga business model is. Our three revenue streams — TV revenue, sponsorships and gate receipts — has more stability. In Italy, the clubs receive very little from match receipts, so you have to decide if you want sporting success while you ignore any financial circumstances. We are trying to do both in the Bundesliga.”

It’s well-known that the Bundesliga has a partnership with MLS, which has been less about high-profile friendlies and more about meetings off the field to share best business practices. That’s interesting, because at the heart of it their business structures are quite distinct, with German clubs at least half-owned by their fans (members) by Bundesliga regulation. This is what has largely protected German clubs (and fans) from the predatory short-term thinking that has bedeviled, oh, say English football in recent years.  Periodically we see articles praising the Bundesliga like those above; will we see some substantive progress from other countries in following aspects of their model, or is the Super Bowl’s glitz just more likely to move in the opposite direction?

Quick Hits

The Sweeper appears every weekday, and once at the weekend. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

How the American Soccer Season is Scheduled

old-computer

Almost every major league in the U.S. now has its schedules out for the year. This is not an easy operation, especially in a country with the vast distances at play here. And fascinatingly, two articles today give us some rare insight into how the hell all this actually comes together.

In MLS, it’s schedule-craftsman Brad Pursel who is to “blame” for whatever game isn’t at the right convenient date for you or some other fan somewhere: “It’s one of those twisted puzzle things you enjoy putting together,” Pursel said of the effort in an excellent piece by Kyle McCarthy. “You take a lot of lumps along the way, but it’s part of the process.”

Things got a little simpler this year for MLS, with the addition of Philadelphia giving the league an even number of teams and a balanced schedule. But that doesn’t mean it’s simple:

The word process doesn’t begin to describe the lengthy and onerous toil of trying to compile a 240-game schedule that satisfies the needs of the 16 member clubs on and off the field, the three national television partners and the league office.

Although the project hums along at varying speeds during the entire calendar year, the schedulemaking process for the upcoming year commences in earnest during the previous summer when MLS executives and team officials determine the competition format for the upcoming season. Philadelphia’s arrival as the league’s 16th team in 2010 simplified the process considerably for this campaign: a 30-game schedule with each club playing every other side home and away.

The next step involves allocating the home openers. Assigning those dates historically takes place November or December, but MLS pushed up the announcement to September to take advantage of greater venue availability and permit more time to generate buzz for those matches.

Teams get directly involved in the process starting in the fall, typically in November. Each club submits a schedule wishlist for the upcoming season, ranking potential home dates on a priority basis and submitting a handful of blackout dates to avoid hosting matches when its home venue is unavailable.

MLS Vice-President Mark Abbott tells McCarthy the league’s three main priorities, two of which perhaps unsurprisingly and understandably enough are directly business-based: “maximizing attendance, creating a television schedule to maximize ratings and balancing the schedule from a competitive perspective.”

16 teams and 240 games is one thing. How about 3,000 regular season games for over 500 teams? That’s the task facing organisers of the Super Y-League, part of the USL structure, with four conferences, 16 divisions, and ages ranging from U-13 to the Super U-20s.

The priorities here are based around the clubs’ needs, obviously widely varied, as the organisers’ themselves explain in a post on the USL’s new Free Kicks blog.

Step 1. Finalize how many teams each club is putting into the division and in what age groups.

Step 2. Decide how many games each division will play and in what format. (Home and away, multiple groups, etc.)

Step 3. Collect scheduling matrixes from each club.

Step 4. Compile each of the clubs matrixes into one calendar-like document that shows us everyone who is available on any particular day.

Step 5. Create a schedule template in excel, listing each of the 3,000 + games.

Step 6. Start setting dates! We typically start with the long distance trips that require weekend dates and overnight stays. This step takes days and sometimes weeks to complete (depending on the division). Kate and Erin typically put on head phones and listen to some classic Backstreet Boys hits (our secret guilty pleasure) in order to truly focus on the task at hand.

Step 7. Once we assign all the dates to each game, we upload the schedule into our database and double and triple check everything!

Step 8. We then email a copy to each of our clubs primary contacts one week prior to our scheduling meeting so they have time to review and touch base with their coaches to see if any changes need to be made.

Step 9. We gather for a fun-filled day of scheduling in a neutral location, where each club is required to send a representative. Clubs work directly with one another making changes to the schedule where needed.

Step 10. After the meeting, we give the clubs an additional three weeks to make changes without penalty. We also have them turn in all of their home game times and venues.

Step 11. The schedule is posted online and is officially released to the public! The whole process from start to finish takes approximately 3 -4 months.

This all reminds me of a very good piece last June on the BBC’s site, explaining the mysteries of the somewhat mythical “fixture computer” in England. There, an element we haven’t heard discussed in the U.S. comes into play: the concerns of the police about potentially volatile fixtures.

The Football League, for example, sends out a questionnaire to all their clubs in March. This is a club’s opportunity to request specific dates they would like to avoid and what other team they would like to be paired with. The questionnaire is jointly signed off by the police and also reflects their concerns – issues such as ensuring high-profile matches do not clash with big events in a city.

So spare a thought for those who do have to navigate all these concerns to schedule the games we enjoy, usually only receiving opprobrium in return.

The Sweeper: Chinese Football No Longer Exists

China football shirt

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When fans in China tuned in their television sets to the all-powerful state sports channel to watch their country take on Japan this weekend, they got a surprise: they were instead treated to the local version of a long-running European gameshow.

Reuters reports that “In Sunday’s sports news bulletins, CCTV-5 did not mention the 0-0 result, or even that the match itself had taken place, local newspapers reported.”

This comes in the wake of a match-fixing scandal that has rocked Chinese football to its core, with many top officials, including the former head of the Chinese Football Association (CFA), under police investigation.

The task of reviving Chinese football falls to Wei Di, the new head of the CFA, who said “Chinese football has degraded to an intolerable level. It has hurt the feelings of fans and Chinese people at large.”

The level of corruption has even caused concern for Hu Jintao, China’s president, and the dramatic action with the arrests of top officials and the black-out of the sport from television screens could be taken as a positive: serious action is finally being taken to deal with the endemic problem of the “black whistles” in the game. Either that, or the sport is done for.

The timing is crucial: football is enormously popular, but so of course are many other sports. The NFL made a big push this weekend to spread the popularity of the Super Bowl there. China’s Super League is due to start play in May, but might be delayed as the investigation into match-fixing continues; what’s important is that this time, real reform comes that can take football forward.

Quick Hits

  • The English press finally wises up to the possibility that the Bundesliga might be a decent model of financial sanity, with Patrick Barclay asking “Is the German model of football administration the way forward for the game in England?”  He looks at an annual report on the Bundesliga’s finances, which show the league as a whole less in debt than Manchester United alone, yet still with ticket prices laughably lower than the Premier League.
  • The Daily Mail says Manchester United fans are planning a boycott of season ticket purchases, to hit the Glazers in the pocket for inflicting said debt on the club as the “Green and Gold” campaign ramps-up, though the piece offers few details. We’ll take a look in more depth at this later today.
  • Tim Vickery looks at the complicated resolution to the controversy over Mexican clubs in the Copa Libertadores, following last year’s swine flu panic.
  • Peter Storrie, somehow back in charge at Portsmouth, pleads for time. Again. Meanwhile, in the same report, it’s said that “An Irish/American consortium is in talks about becoming the fifth owners of the club this season with the Hong Kong-based Chainrai, who exercised his right to take control of the club on Thursday.”

The Sweeper appears every weekday, and once at the weekend. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: ‘John Terry sleeps with some bird and everyone’s up in arms’

Big Story *sigh*

So said Jimmy Greaves in an interview this weekend with the Independent.  While Pitch Invasion has been doing its darnedest to keep JT’s affair and subsequent de-captaining from the England squad off our lead posts, the subject has so clogged the English media with the story now moving into the meta “guilt-ridden proper-journo” phase that it’s time to take a look so we can drop it forever.  And what better day than Sunday to take in the anguished moralizing of every paper in Britain (and one or two in America)?

The pick of the lot (and there are so many op-eds to choose from) has to be the normally-balanced Paul Hayward.  He opens with a bit of self-flagellation on behalf of all of England:

It is just a game, like football: a journalistic, blogtastic game of sanctimony versus cool. England’s is a culture talking itself to brain death. Outside the circulation war and its website equivalent most English folk positioned themselves between extremes. They thought John Terry was a wild man, a slave to his appetites, but mistrusted the assertion that an England captain should be sacked for having extra-marital sex, which this saga was never really about. At its heart was persistent misuse of the leader’s role: the latest being the allegation that an associate of Terry’s management team offered the use of his skipper’s subsidised Wembley box for £4,000 in readies.

The article is meandering and downright weird, a screed against Sven Goran Eriksson for what Hayward is convinced he would have done to Terry in Capello’s place, a haranguing of booing opposing fans and friends of Wayne Bridge for alleged hypocrisy, but at the same time an adoration of Fabio Capello.

Hayward’s piece is followed closely by one of the Independent’s many articles dedicated to Terry this weekend, this one by James Corrigan:

…how could [Capello] have possibly said to Terry: “For sleeping with Wayne Bridge’s missus I’m stripping you of the captaincy – and giving it to that fine man of virtue who videoed the players’ orgy in Ayia Napa.”

It is vital that English football now guards itself from the temptation to go all ethical. If they don’t, the ensuing muckraking will end up in row upon row of footballing graves. At the start of this saga, the Football Association were denounced for once again displaying their spinal deficiency and leaving the disciplining to the manager. Yet what they did was exactly right. The FA might just have peered down the lists of both the current and past England internationals and spotted a drink-driver here, a wife-beater there… and serial philanderers everywhere else. And thought: “Oh, blimey!”

You can pretty much guess the rest.  Meanwhile other broadsheets take the predictable Sunday School approach, particularly the Telegraph, which dallies with xenophobia by opening with this gem: “Things have come to a pretty pass, you might say, when it takes an Italian to lecture the English on sexual mores.” Right.  And they get downright slaphappy when the health minister parps in about decisions made by the manager of English national football team.

The best part is, none of this has any consequence for anybody at all, save John Terry, his agent, his sponsors, his wife, Wayne Bridge, and his wife.  Talk about an epic football media fail.  Most newspaper pundits would have done well to listen to Jimmy.

Worldwide Stories

  • EPSN writes a puff-piece on cigar-smoking MLS commish Don Garber, to which Fake Sigi responds in his inimitable way: “Yeah, it’s pretty cool that Don’s living the trailer park tatoo lifestyle, hoarding alcohol, breaking trade embargo laws, and puffing his way toward an early death. Not only does he smoke cigars, which we knew, but now he needs his fix so bad that he will actively turn down free transportation to smoke while he drives at 90 MPH.”
  • A Blackburn Rovers supporter has died from injuries sustained at Stoke‘s Britannia Stadium.  A man is being held for questioning, and no Stoke supporters are suspected to have been involved.
  • Henry Winter gives the floor to Crystal Palace owner Simon Jordan, who describes in detail how his hedge fund called him in the middle of an FA Cup tie. It’s a very flattering piece which Winters paints as a “a cautionary tale,” rather than hopelessly obvious when one considers the sort of money one might expect from a Championship side that doesn’t own their own ground.  You be the judge.
  • Are you a tall footballer?  Than expect guff from the referee.

The Sweeper: Supporters United Behind the Green & Gold Campaign

Green and Gold

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The growing “green & gold” protest campaign by Manchester United supporters, with fans donning the original colours of the team originally known as Newton Heath, is led by no one group.

There are certainly leading individuals and organizations at the core of the protest, though, especially the Independent Manchester United Supporters’ Association (IMUSA) and the Manchester United Supporters’ Trust (MUST).

The latter sent out an email to their members today on their involvement and path forward: “The wheels of the Green & Gold Revolution are turning. MUST has had meetings with Keith Harris and separately with members of at least two other independent potential consortia. All involved are “Red to the core” United fans. It will need everyone to come together into a single force. In any takeover MUST’s role will be to bring the mass of supporters together with the “Red Knights” bringing the majority of the funds.”

IMUSA has a statement on their site explaining the partnership they envisage with such “Red Knights” to ensure a new takeover does not take the club down the same path as the Glazers again. They are attaching three conditions to their support for any prospective buyers:

(i) Set aside, in perpetuity, at least 25% of the shares in the club (that can neither be sold nor traded) to a Trust, (the trustees of which should include fans representatives and representatives of the local community), so that the likes of the Glazers can never inflict themselves on our club gain.

Note 1: In most clubs in Germany the fans own 51% of the shares. The 25% called for here is derived from the amount needed to prevent a company being delisted on the Stock-Exchange if it is taken over

(ii) Establish a democratically and transparently elected Fans’ Forum and grant it powers to influence decisions about those issues that directly impinge upon the fans.

Note 2: The Glazers have only ever made one statement directly to the fans, via a sycophantic interview on MUTV in 2005 and have never met with IMUSA, preferring instead to simply ignore the written request to do so from the then Minister of Sport, Richard Caborn and the reminder phone-calls from his office that followed

(iii) Agree to the revisiting of the ticket price reconfiguration exercise begun by IMUSA and the club in 2005 (that would have resulted in nearly 70% of ticket prices being reduced whilst keeping match-day income the same) but abandoned following the Glazer takeover.

Note 3: Ticket prices under the Glazers have all but doubled for many ordinary fans and this has resulted in much of our traditional support being priced out. We wish to see this situation addressed as a matter of urgency whilst recognising the need for a certain level of match-day income

Meanwhile, those that formed FC United of Manchester some years ago out of protest to the Glazer takeover and due to a general dissatisfaction with the experience of Premier League football are trying hard to support the campaign without looking like smug bastards saying I told you so.

FC United offers its support to the Green & Gold Campaign aimed at unifying United supporters. The campaign, organised by no one group nor owned by any one section of support, has grown over the last two weeks as awareness of the true implications of the takeover of Manchester United has escalated.

The wearing of Green & Gold attire is intended to provide a public, tangible demonstration of the depth of feeling and provides a direct link to our, commonly shared, Newton Heath roots and has undoubtedly caught a mood.

Many have argued that the only realistic method of protest is one of full and total boycott. For those that made that painful sacrifice in 2005 and received criticism for doing so, it is an understandable reaction. However we did not seek the moral high ground five years ago, and we should not aim to occupy it now. Whether to boycott or not has always been down to individual choice and continues to be exactly that, however IMUSA were correct this week to state that the only real solution is to starve the Glazers of cash.

FC United is a proud bulwark against the travesty of the takeover, but we do not exist as a virtuous island. Our priorities are to continue to build our football club as an example of how we believe all clubs should be constituted; our short term aim is to establish our own stadium, in the longer term we will continue to campaign for wider supporter-ownership across football as we firmly believe that the only sustainable model of ownership is just that. We intend to place FC United at the very centre of that debate.

If we are going to affect significant long term change in the game then it is more important than ever that we maintain our own course to show that there is an alternative model to the instability of clubs which do not involve supporters at their heart. We must continue to help build a broad alliance of fans and interested parties in the wider game and we should encourage those better placed than us to tackle the issues at Old Trafford by giving them our support.

FC United remains as an alternative for fans seeking refuge from the excesses of the Premier League and we continue to be a major part of the visible resistance to the Glazers and the general mismanagement of football. Without the reforms we have campaigned for there will be no long term sustainable solution.

The Green & Gold campaign has been criticised for being merely symbolic by some. Yet perhaps for the first time, it seems this is something all the major activist groups and many supporters who would never have allied themselves with such “radicalism” before are finding a common voice through. If IMUSA and MUST can find an investment group who have the money to buy the club, and who commit to the conditions for support IMUSA outline, there may yet be salvation for Manchester United. And if not, FC United of Manchester  are right there for every supporter who feels disenfranchised by the Glazers.

Quick Hits

The Sweeper appears every weekday, and once at the weekend. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitte

The Sweeper: Premier League to Put On Salary Cap?

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West Ham owner David Sullivan sees the light according to the Guardian, calling for a salary cap to be introduced to the Premier League:

West Ham United’s co-owner David Sullivan has reignited the debate over a salary cap in the Premier League, saying it may be the only solution to the “madness” of current top-flight wages.

Sullivan, who along with David Gold bought 50% of West Ham last month for £52.5m, said the salaries were “bad for football” and hit out at the imbalance created by the spending power of the billionaire owners of Manchester City and Chelsea.

“Maybe the ultimate solution would be a salary cap,” said Sullivan. “I’ve always been against it but I’m starting to swing towards it, as they have in American football. Other than that I just don’t see an end to it – of wages out of all proportion to the turnover of the clubs. Somehow there should be some sort of control.”

Well, that couldn’t be because it sucks to be paying Kieron Dyer £60,000-a-week, could it?

This kind of thing needs a little more thought to it than Sullivan’s general sense that Something Must Be Done, and it will need momentum from many more owners and from leadership at the Football Association to coordinate with the Football League (which has a salary cap related to turnover in the lower two divisions, but not in the Championship).

It does seem, though, that the tide is turning as English football clubs realise the hole they have dug themselves with uncapped spending. It will need some support from the big clubs to push this forward….If only there was a leading executive at a leading English club with some experience of running a soccer league with a salary cap….

Quick Hits

The Sweeper appears every weekday, and once at the weekend. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: Spins, Lies and Liverpool

Reagan_Gorbachev

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I was once representing supporters in a meeting with senior club executives on a heated issue, taking minutes assiduously throughout. Towards the end, one senior executive (who is no longer with the club) said we had accused him of something that I thought we hadn’t said. Yet he was very, very angry about it. I suggested he was mischaracterising what we had said; he disagreed. I said it was in my minutes, and offered to read them. He became even more irate, claimed he had been “recording the whole thing” (we had never been told the meeting was being taped), and stormed out promising to prove his point (he never returned, nor provided any proof). I don’t, of course, rule out the possibility that my own interpretation and minutes were in the wrong.

But the point is, without such a tape recording, even with written notes meetings are subject to such wildly different interpretations. Liverpool’s Spirit of Shankly (SOS) supporters’ union experienced something similar following their meeting with Liverpool managing director Christian Purslow this week: neither side could reach agreement on what Purslow had said when they compared notes after, so the Sons of Shankly published both their own and Purslow’s minutes in full.

Read them over, because it’s remarkable how different they are. The key difference the media have focused on is whether or not Purslow said Liverpool’s owners are now “out of money”. What doesn’t seem to be in question is that Purslow accepted Liverpool badly need £100m, though interestingly, the Times uses Purslow’s minutes of the meeting and does not mention the SOS’s differing take on how Purslow phrased the urgency of this need. Compare:

SOS minutes:

SOS – Can you also confirm that the intention (as reported) would be to secure investment from a third party for a 25% share of the Club – is this still the intention? If not, what is the current intention?

CP – It is not a given that £100 million will buy 25%. I need to find £100 million, and if this is for 1% or 100% I don’t care. I am concentrating on getting the investment needed. Some investors may have issues with working with the present owners, but some don’t just want a percentage, some want 100%. No investor is going to want to invest £100 million and have a smaller stake than the present owners.

Purslow minutes:

SOS – Can you also confirm that the intention (as reported) would be to secure investment from a third party for a 25% share of the Club – is this still the intention? If not, what is the current intention?

CP – I have seen this reported and I think it comes from the sales document prepared by the owners bankers last year. The reality is much less proscriptive. The owners and the board are considering different sorts of proposals which could involve new investors taking a stake or a full takeover. The market will determine valuation and we have enough interest to suggest that the owners valuation is realistic.

The current lead bank RBS is highly supportive of the club and this is a vitally important and positive thing. With new investment they have already agreed that they would provide new long term facilities and would also like to participate in financing the stadium and they are not the only bank who has met with the club and expressed interest in the stadium project, many have.

But the common denominator of all these financing providers is that we need new investment first and so this is the key first step.

Critically, SOS’ minutes paint a far different picture of the bank’s current view of the club: missing from Purslow’s minutes is the following on the Royal Bank of Scotland’s (RBS) frustration with Hicks and Gillett.

SOS – If the bank want £100 million paying down on the debt as part of the last re-financing, what will they ask for in the summer? Will it just be for 12 months again?

CP – I have got a conditional agreement for a 3/4 year loan deal. At the last re-financing agreement, Hicks and Gillett paid down the debt with their own money. A new investor will pay down the £100 million needed now. The banks want us reducing debt and being cautious. RBS are annoyed and unhappy with Hicks and Gillett and they want a change of ownership. The £100 million pay down is compulsory, it has to be done. I will not agree to a deal that is unworkable for us, but we need to have the owners own and the managers manage.

Whatever the true story, it’s sad that this attempt to communicate has failed so miserably. Purslow’s own minutes close with him saying “I assure you I will not spin or lie. I am under no obligation to meet with you-the fact I do is because all fans have a legitimate right to express views and I want you to feel that you have a channel of communication into the club you all love.”  Whether SOS’s or Purslow’s minutes are accurate, that channel itself is now presumably closed, as someone is indeed spinning and lying here.

Worldwide News

  • Speaking of Liverpool, Goal.com gives an interesting, rather potted — and I’d like to hear some Merseyside opinion on this — I’m not 100% certain entirely accurate historical overview of the transformation of the Liverpool-Everton rivalry from “friendly derby” to vitriolic battle: “The 1980s in particular were littered with football-related examples of ‘Scouse Solidarity’, as Merseyside dominated the English football scene, winning eight of the decade’s ten league titles, and exclusively contesting three major cup finals in five years.”
  • European Football Weekends has yet another excellent supporter-interview up, this time with an AFC Wimbledon trust member, whose meatiest quote comes as he considers the prospect of MK Dons some day heading to their stadium for a game as something that would “make Galatasaray look like a genteel afternoon at county cricket by comparison.”
  • How does soccer make Fox News?  Combine John Terry, Eric Wynalda, John Harkes and at least two (alleged) affairs, and the sport hits the so-called fair & balanced “news” (alright, it’s an AP wire story, but still. H/T to the Offside Rules.)
  • There ought to be more praise for Stoke winger Matthew Etherington, who has spoken openly about his gambling addiction and the treatment he has taken for it; as something that has played havoc with many players’ careers, perhaps more in the future will feel comfortable seeking help earlier than Etherington was able to.

The Sweeper appears every weekday, and once at the weekend. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: Mansfield Town do a Radiohead

mansfield-town

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Alright, so some of us might not pay very much to watch Mansfield Town, but here is an interesting promotion by the club for their game this weekend against Gateshead, as they let supporters set their own ticket price:

Blue Square Premier side Mansfield Town are offering fans the chance to pay whatever they want to see their home game against Gateshead on Saturday. The club’s owners thought up the scheme to boost the crowd and thank fans and the people of Mansfield for their support since the 2008 takeover.

“Let’s pack the ground for this match and roar the team on to victory,” said chairman Andrew Perry.

The scheme also applies to away fans at the 10,000-capacity Field Mill ground. People will be able to turn up on the day and pay any amount to watch the game. They will be able to sit where they want, except in the seats reserved for season-ticket holders.

Of course, one couldn’t do this regularly, or no-one (presumably) would buy season tickets. Unless, perhaps, they were pairing that up with an initiative from FC United of Manchester we mentioned last summer, who decided to let fans set their own season ticket prices. A scheme that worked very well for FCUM, in fact.

Will we see more clubs around the world try either initiative to boost interest and give supporters a chance to pay their club what they think they’re worth to watch?

Worldwide News

  • The Culture of Soccer has an excellent piece on a new film that sounds worth checking out, Los Angeles-based filmmaker Pablo Miralles’s documentary on the US-Mexico soccer rivalry, Gringos at the Gate.
  • Here’s a strange piece by Louise Taylor in the Guardian, in which she simultaneously questions why Victor Moses, sold by Crystal Palace to Wigan this week, attracted so much attention, and suggests it’s because Premier League managers and scouts rarely watch Championship games in person…and then says she’s never seen Moses play, either. Still, overall an interesting piece on why Football League talent may be overlooked in England.
  • David Conn concludes that the spending in the transfer window in England, at its lowest for some years, reflects the fact that “the Premier League clubs have suddenly realised they cannot keep borrowing and spending to fuel rampant transfer inflation.” Finally!
  • Steven Goff has the latest on DC’s stadium efforts…And it’s more no news is bad news for DC United fans.

The Sweeper appears every weekday, and once at the weekend. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: Where’s Your Wad Gone, Premier League?

spending

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Spending in the Premier League this transfer window isn’t just down: it has shrunk to levels that one might even consider sane. The BBC’s Simon Austin recounts the numbers as we approach the transfer deadline:

“I’ve just been to interview a sports consultant at Deloitte. They estimate only £21m has been spent in the January transfer window so far, compared to £170m last year and £150m in January 2008. There haven’t been any £10m signings this year and only one for £5m, which Spurs paid Portsmouth for Younes Kaboul. There were seven £10m signings last January – three were made by Manchester City (Nigel de Jong, Craig Bellamy and Wayne Bridge), three by Spurs (Wilson Palacios, Jermain Defoe and Robbie Keane) and one by Arsenal (Andrey Arshavin).

I suppose this ought to come as no surprise, given we’ve spent the past few months here writing non-stop about the financial crises at various Premier League clubs. Yet the sheer scale of that decline is rather remarkable: it would be very interesting to see how this compares across the continent, and to consider if this marks a turning point in the balance of power in spending across Europe.

Worldwide News

  • We asked on Saturday if anyone could offer us any reasonable defense for the decision of CAF to ban Togo from the next two Africa Cup of Nations tournaments. Nobody did, but in a bizarrely short and weakly argued piece in the Times, the usually thoughtful Gabriele Marcotti spits out the following: “CAF’s announcement that Togo would not be allowed to enter the next two continental tournaments met howls of outrage. And, indeed, it is shocking, until you read CAF’s justification. Togo were banned not for withdrawing from the competition — given the circumstances, it would have been more than understandable — but because the decision to pull out was taken by the Togolese Government, which apparently overruled the players, who reportedly wanted to play. And CAF, like Fifa and Uefa, has strict rules about government interference in sporting matters: the decision should have been made by Togo’s football association and it should have been final.”  Not a word about the unusual circumstances to the “interference” in this case, nor the bizarre timing of CAF’s announcement.
  • The Philadelphia Union has pulled off an impressive sponsorship deal for their new stadium in this economy, with a $20m, ten-year deal with Pennsylvania Power & Light. The deal is in line with Rio Tinto’s deal with Salt Lake and Dick’s Sporting Goods in Colorado, though considerably more than the ten-year, $7.5m sponsorship for Toyota Park in Chicago.
  • Two Hundred Percent says pretty much all that needs to be said about the “John Terry moral conundrum.”

The Sweeper appears every weekday, and once at the weekend. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: Togo Ban Fallout Continues

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While BBC African football blogger Piers Edwards’ opening sentence on his post yesterday may be slightly over-the-top (“Not since Buckingham Palace took so long to respond Princess Diana’s death in 1997 has an organisation so badly misjudged the mood of the public”), he does capture a bit of the public mood following Caf’s decision to fine Togo $50 000 and ban them from the next two Africa Cup of Nations tournaments.

Edwards is closer to the mark when he writes:

Caf argues that the African game doesn’t get the coverage it deserves – but how is Sunday’s Nations Cup final between Egypt and Ghana going to be about football when announcing this decision 24 hours beforehand?

Even while this tournament has progressed and become about the football, there was always the feeling that the Cabinda attack, which took place 48 hours before the opening game, would overshadow it.

Now it certainly will, as Caf reignited a fading ember at the worst moment.

And it’s true: in lieu of a preview of today’s final between Ghana and Egypt, most of the English news sites featured Emmanuel Adebayor’s bitter reaction in L’Equipe to Caf’s Cameroonian President, Issa Hayatou: “Mr Hayatou has served Africa extensively, but now he must escape…this decision is outrageous” (although, oddly, Jonathan Wilson’s tournament diary gives the news one sentence, the headline reading “all’s well”).  Any hope of a goodwill story leading up to the final, like the re-emergence of Ghanaian forward, Asamoah Gyan, has been definitively quashed.

FIFA is yet to issue a statement on the decision, and none more than Togo’s coach Hubert Velud are hoping for strong leadership from Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini:

I am curious to know if Blatter and Platini will endorse this decision.  If they let this go, it is the gateway to completely dysfunctional football. I officially launched an appeal to international bodies to see their reaction.

The relationship between politics and football is always a complex balancing act, but if there was ever an appropriate instance to allow a merciful exception to the rule, this was it.  By timing the decision immediately before the tournament final, Issa Hyatou and Caf have effectively ended any hope the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations will be remembered for anything other than violent attack, and the cynical politicking that followed.

Worldwide Stories:

  • Meanwhile, Paul Wilson at the Guardian writes a scathing summary of the reasons behind slow ticket sales ahead of the World Cup in South Africa: “Cheap tickets or easier access may have persuaded more people to take a risk, but it is too late now. Fifa are stuck with an unholy triangle of security scares, expensive tickets and hotels, and too few flights into the country.”
  • All geared up for next week’s Super Bowl action?  Well, you’ll be delighted to know that the NFL’s flagship final has been usurped by the Champions League in global viewership, and the trend looks to continue: “The Super Bowl, traditionally the biggest TV event in global club sport, attracted 106m live viewers for the whole thing, with a reach of 162m. ‘That was Super Bowl’s best ever figure, and as an event it’s still growing,’ said Kevin Alavy, an Initiative director. ‘Extraordinarily, the Champions’ League is growing faster, with room for further significant expansion.’”
  • When Saturday Comes pays heed to the use of the “stern talking to” instead of a first half yellow card.
  • And what finally, what all that John Terry business means for him financially.  If you must.

How to Justify Banning Togo from the Next Two Africa Cup of Nations?

CAF

FIFA and its confederations take political interference into sporting affairs pretty seriously. Perhaps too seriously, given certain circumstances.

The decision of CAF to ban Togo from the next two Africa Cup of Nations because of the decision of the Togolese government to withdraw the team from the current tournament is defended by the confederation as follows:

The Executive Committee of the Confederation of African Football met on 30 January 2010 and examined the withdrawal of Togo national team from the Orange Africa Cup of Nations 2010.

The Executive Committee and its president renewed their sincere condolences to the families of victims involved in this tragic terrorist attack which happened January 8, 2010. The attack was condemned by CAF and also a total support was given to the Togolese team.

At that time, CAF said they have understood perfectly the decision of players not to participate in the competition.

Meanwhile, following a decision taken by players to participate in the competition, the Togolese government decided to call back their national team.

The decision taken by the political authorities is infringing CAF and CAN regulations. Therefore, a decision has been taken to suspend the Togo national team for the next two editions of Africa Cup of Nations, with a fine of $50,000.00 handed to the Togolese national football association, in conformity with article 78 of Africa Cup of Nations Angola 2010.

CAF then links to their regulations to prove their point (actually, they don’t: the link doesn’t work).

Togo midfielder Thomas Dossevi expressed his disappointment.

“We are a group of footballers who came under fire and now we can’t play football any more. They are crushing us. Togo should appeal the suspension. When we said we were going home for a three-day mourning they said they were with us in this ordeal and now they punish us.”

This comes just five days after CAF president Issa Hayatou said “We wished they would have stayed but respect their decision to leave.”

Apparently not.

Can anyone offer a serious defense for this decision? We like to look past the obvious reaction here, but I can’t think of much more to say about CAF’s insensitivity here, expect that it’s remarkable they couldn’t even wait for the dust to settle on the tournament and the brutal attack on Togo before laying down the hammer on a still grieving team.

The Sweeper: Yes, Man Utd Fans Deserve Our Sympathy

Craig Bellamy hit by coin from Man Utd supporters

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I love the Guardian’s football coverage, so it’s especially disappointing when it reduces itself to tabloid hysteria with a poll like this: “Do Manchester United fans deserve our pity?”, the paper asks. The only analysis offered to help us make up our minds on this question is the following: “If they’re wealthy enough to throw spare change at Craig Bellamy, should we feel sorry for supporters who complain about rising prices at Old Trafford?”

We’re then left to answer yes or no.

Quite what one thing has to do with the other — besides an extraordinarily tenuous link to money — is beyond me. Seriously: what? If it was supposed to be funny, it fell flat for me.

Fortunately, for a more serious analysis of where United fans stand in the present Old Trafford crisis, we turn once again to Ian at Two Hundred Percent, who asks where the protest movement, now symbolised by “green and gold“, goes next:

Those wearing green and gold scarves were showing their distaste at the Glazer family’s control of Manchester United and the club’s proposed bond issue. Green and gold – the colours of the original Newton Heath Football Club that changed its name to Manchester United – have been designated those of this protest. Some, however, are calling into question what the protest means and what it hopes to achieve, especially when the thousands wearing the scarves on Wednesday night were quite obviously and notably inside Old Trafford, having spent a large amount of money on tickets – money that will, ultimately, keep the Glazers at Old Trafford.

Ian doesn’t quite seem to have an answer: do United fans protest by boycotting their club, and thus bring the Glazers down but destroy the club in the process?  Do they all go and support FC United of Manchester? Or do they focus on symbolic, peaceful protest and hope the Glazers eventually cave?  The first comment to Ian’s piece is worth reading for one perspective:

It is a pointless exercise, though a noble one, for scattered individuals to make a stand by boycotting United games as a protest against the Glazers. What is really needed is for everyone, from fan clubs, MUST, online sites and all, to get together and organize major boycotts and protests against all things associated with the Glazers’ hold on United. Yes, it may hurt United in the short term, but it’s the team’s long term welfare that’s at stake. Better to act now and bring about a collapse of the Glazers’ financial structure at United while the club still holds its world-wide reputation and some kind of dollar value, rather than wait until the Glazers’ gut it by selling off Old Trafford, Carrington, and all the players of value, leaving behind a shell of a team little better off then where a once glorious Leeds now finds itself.

Manchester United is at a crucial crossroads in its existence. Down one path lies despair and a trivialization of all that was once glorious about the club. Down another lies salvation through people power. It’s the same old story. As long as people sit around doing nothing, as long as a few die-hards put together sporadic and relatively futile gestures, nothing will happen. But if people who really love the club stopped for a moment to just realize what kind of absolute power they wield as a mass, the consequences could be astounding.

How many weeks of an empty Old Trafford on game days do you think it would take before the Glazers’ initiated desperate talks to sell off the club before their finances collapsed? How much do you think their revenue streams would be affected if people stopped buying merchandise completely? How do you think the Americans are going to feel if supporters started boycotting the products of the club sponsors, even going so far as to write to them to let them know they’ll snub their products as long as the Glazers’ remain at Old Trafford?

The power to bring about the desired change is there, if supporters but knew how much of it lies in their own hands bound together as one.

To answer the Guardian’s original, facile question: yes, United fans do deserve our sympathy. They are faced, as timbo’s comment makes clear, with that not exactly simple ever-present challenge of human history, how to exert positive change from the bottom-up based on mass activism, the only control they have all their individual selves collected together. Except for the idiot who threw his loose change at Craig Bellamy, of course.

Worldwide News

  • Australia’s The Roar takes an interesting look at how Adelaide United have continued to have strong attendance despite poor performance on the pitch this season, with their CEO attributing it to the depth of their community engagement: “Part of why we are where we are is, we believe, that one of the main pillars of our organisation is to ensure that our connection and relationship with our community is very active and a meaningful relationship. There are a number of key parts to that. We have, I would say, the most comprehensive wide-ranging program of grass roots in our community. It is significant, it is about corporate, it is about the general public, it’s schools programs, it’s about connection and relationships with sport and with clubs.”
  • Sport is a TV Show has a superb piece on Manchester City, Manchester United and how to buy success: “Immortality is a swindle. There was a time when City fans could, and did, mock United for last having won the league in 1967 (the days when smallpox-ridden infant chimney sweeps were sent abroad to defend sugar plantations for King and Empire) while City’s last title had come in 1968 (the year the world went from black-and-white to colour and sex was invented (yeah, you heard, Larkin)). And how long ago that seems. “Money doesn’t necessarily buy success” is a true statement. “Money doesn’t buy success” is superstition.”
  • Of course, the necessarily clause depends on choices made at any given club, and it’s becoming ever clearer that Manchester City’s Garry Cook will soon face the chop for his increasingly laughable management of a club he keeps saying will inevitably be the world’s biggest. Here’s his latest gaffe.

The Sweeper appears every weekday, and once at the weekend. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: England’s Worst Club Chairman Refuses to Run Away

Peter Ridsdale

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Sometimes Wikipedia, despite often lacking the neutral tone of your average encyclopedia, does describe things best — in fact, precisely because of that. Witness the entry on Peter Ridsdale, former chairman of Leeds United.

Ridsdale became chairman of hometown club Leeds United in 1997 and enjoyed success in the first four years of tenure as Leeds reached the UEFA Cup semi-final in 1999–2000 and the UEFA Champions League semi-finals in 2000–01. During this time he enjoyed a good relationship with the Leeds fans.[1] However, once the full extent of what Ridsdale and his board had done at Elland Road was discovered by the fans this relationship vanished and he is now best remembered by Leeds supporters for the financial nightmare that the club found themselves in.

Under Ridsdale’s stewardship the club borrowed £60m against future gate receipts, effectively gambling on Leeds qualifying for the Champions League in successive seasons, which they failed to do. Ridsdale has repeatedly denied any blame with regard to the later situation of the club[2] but has also conflictingly admitted it was a mistake to allow David O’Leary to spend so lavishly on players.[3] Ridsdale also claimed that he would have saved Leeds from subsequent relegations to the third tier of English football and the debt his board had incurred in the name of the club.[4] The fact remained however that by the time Ridsdale stepped down in March 2003, Leeds were £103 million in debt and failing on the field.[5]

So Ridsdale left and went on to Barnsley, where he showed considerable improvement in his club management skills, this time taking only a little over a year to run the club into the ground and get the hell out of there.

And then he showed up at Cardiff City; this time, he’s managed to make himself perhaps even more unpopular than ever before — quite an achievement.  His latest bout of unpopularity comes after he convinced thousands of fans to buy 2011 season tickets at the end of last year to bring in revenue to be used on bringing in new players in the transfer window, only to then announce the money would be used to pay off unpaid tax bills and that new players would not be brought in. The fans are furious, and are calling for an Emergency General Meeting of the club.

Cardiff City supporters have called for an extraordinary general meeting so the club can explain why they will not be using fans’ money to buy new players.
Fans had expected an estimated £3m raised by advance season ticket sales to be used to finance transfers.

But Cardiff’s decision not to buy players is because of a cash crisis. ”They have made a big mistake by over-budgeting. An EGM is what we need now,” demanded Paul Corkery, chair of Cardiff City Supporters Trust.

More than 10,000 fans invested in deals for season tickets for 2010/11, cash that manager Dave Jones said he expected to be used to buy new players.
And if Cardiff won promotion to the Premier League the fans were promised that money would be paid back to them in a scheme called “Golden Ticket”.

In response, Ridsdale said “I have two choices. I either run away or I apologise.” Unfortunately for Cardiff City fans, he decided to take the former option: “I won’t run away.”

Worldwide News

The Sweeper appears every weekday, and once at the weekend. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: Lockout Looms for MLS? Yes, No, Maybe So.

strike

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We’ve rather evaded the ongoing labour talks between MLS and the players’ union, mainly because we don’t have any insider info or original insight to offer on the dispute. But we’re just days away from a lockout, so we are at least keeping a close eye on the proceedings. Two different news reports today paint different pictures of how close we are to the first work disruption in MLS history.

At Soccer America, Ridge Mahoney cautiously says that the latest news “might be interpreted as encouraging.” Mahoney tells us the two sides are at least sitting at the table together for lengthy periods of time.

Representatives of the two sides met for eight hours yesterday at league headquarters, and discussions are scheduled to resume Wednesday.

On hand for MLS were Commissioner Don Garber, President Mark Abbott, Executive Vice President Todd Durbin, and others, including members of the league’s legal firm, Proskauer & Rose. Jon Newman, General Counsel to the MLSPU, was among those on the players’ side of the table.

Progress, or lack of same, has been hard to track, yet eight hours is a long time for two opposing sides, regardless of the issues, to tolerate each other.

In the San Diego Tribune, Mark Zeigler is rather less optimistic:

Neither side is talking much, respecting to a mutual media gag order, but snippets of sentiment have leaked out over the past few months as talks have grown more contentious. It’s not looking good. Several players and agents privately say they consider a Feb. 1 lockout inevitable.

On the table are issues such as free agency, the salary cap, roster size, minimum pay, guaranteed contracts, moving expenses, per diem, 401(k)s. The core issue, though, might be something far more fundamental: the true financial viability of the league.

So leave it to Freddie Ljungberg to proclaim on his blog yesterday that “Based on the latest news I’ve heard from both sides,  there wont be a lock out or strike on Feb 1.” True or not, perhaps more interesting were his comments about just how surprising all this was to Freddie:

Its been a difficult time. The potential strike that is happening in US soccer has made every player worry about their career’s and where they will be playing next season…. It’s been a big surprise how long the negotiations have been going on and no agreement has been reached.

All that the players are asking for is FIFA RIGHTS!! Every football player in the world that I know of plays under those rules, big or small leagues. So when I thought an agreement would be signed in a second…How wrong was I…..

How wrong indeed, Freddie.

Worldwide News

  • On Portland’s stadium redevelopment for MLS, Fake Sigi points to a Field of Schemes piece on some less than transparent aspects of the council’s funding for it, concluding “What’s clear is that there’s plenty of opposition to getting this deal done, and while by all accounts the stadium deal will get pushed through, it’s not at all obvious the community is happy with the arrangement. Nothing against Portland and their fans, but MLS expansion in the Pacific Northwest beyond Seattle hasn’t been a shining example of public relations.”
  • European Football Weekends looks at what they call Britain’s #1 ultras group, Celtic’s Green Brigade. One of their leaders describes their non-existent relations with the club: “We don’t have any relationship with Celtic, or at least not a positive one. They are happy to use the chants we start over the tannoy and our tifo pictures on their adverts for ticketing but beyond that there is no relationship to speak of, and we regularly have problems with them in terms of getting access with materials, with aggro from club stewards and officials etc. Recently our members taking the group banner into matches have been pointed out by Celtic stewards to the police who have demanded details and searches, using spurious legislation against us.”
  • One third of World Cup tickets remain unsold; not a surprise, perhaps, but a real shame.

The Sweeper appears every weekday, and once at the weekend. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: Europe to Host 2018 World Cup, No-one Surprised

europe

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There is some breathless commentary to the news that FIFA seems set to restrict the 2018 World Cup bidding to European countries, leaving 2022 open for the rest of the world.

“From what I’ve discussed with the president of Uefa, Michel Platini, in the last few days in Moscow is that only a European candidate will be evaluated for the 2018 World Cup,” Blatter said. “It’s still not decided, but it’s an idea to help facilitate the work of Fifa and its executive committee.”

While it might be news that FIFA would announce this formally, it’s hardly a secret that the 2018 World Cup was set to go to Europe. The World Cup and FIFA has certainly been too Eurocentric for too long given the World Cup has never been away from Europe for more than one cycle until now, with 2010 and 2014 consecutively outside Europe. For 2018 to have also been outside Europe as well might not have been a bad thing, but it certainly would have been shocking, especially given the success of Germany 2006.

2018 is essentially a three-horse between England, Spain/Portugal and Russia, the latter a slight outsider at this stage. Spain/Portugal is a very serious contender, especially with Blatter’s more interesting comment today that joint hosting was not a major impediment (thought to be the case after the various issues FIFA had with Korea/Japan in 2002): “History has shown that at the European Championships of 2000 [Belgium-Netherlands] and 2008 [Austria-Switzerland] that joint organisation can be a great success,” Blatter said. England, of course, have a very strong case, though seem to be attempting to sabotage their own efforts with the disputes between the Premier League and Football Association over the bid. Russia has the problem of proving it can overcome many infrastructure obstacles to hosting the tournament across their vast territory. It will be a tight race.

That leaves Japan, Australia, South Korea, Qatar, Indonesia and the United States bidding for 2022. It’s probably too soon for either Japan or South Korea. Qatar have a strong, well-backed bid in financial terms and given the influence of AFC boss Mohammed Bin Hammam should not be underestimated in terms of backroom influence, but there are fairly obvious issues to a country with a population of 1.4m hosting a World Cup.  Australia would provide a large chunk of fresh meat for FIFA to develop the sport further in though they do have some internal problems with their bid to overcome, while the United States has the best bid in financial terms, with unparalleled modern, large stadia.

What’s not surprising is that it’ll be Europe in 2018, and somewhere else in 2022.

Worldwide News

  • Such is football’s hegemony in English sport that it’s taken over a week for the British press to remember that the Olympic Stadium did have a legacy use planned for it: that running track West Ham would have to work around if they did move into the stadium wasn’t just there for decoration, but for athletes to, uh, run on. The timing of West Ham’s sudden renewed interest in a move there (a couple of years after ruling it out) could not be worse for UK Athletics, about to submit a bid to the IAAF for the World Championships in 2015. UK Athletic’s chairman Ed Warner said “West Ham made a clear decision two or three years ago that the stadium wasn’t going to work for Premier League football and for them to come back to the table and to put a spanner in the works regarding the timetable is just very frustrating for us because we’re trying very hard to plan the legacy future of this stadium.”
  • Poor Peterborough: things obviously aren’t good when your club chairman says “The team spirit from the last two years has nearly been destroyed by greed, skulduggery, tapping up and disloyalty from within and this has all occurred over the last 120 days or so, non stop and is eating away at our inner core.”
  • And things are even worse if rumours of Colonel Gaddafi’s son buying your club doesn’t seem relatively that bad anymore, in the latest installment of Portsmouth’s woeful tale.
  • Egypt’s upcoming clash against Algeria in the Africa Cup of Nations just got a little more intense with news the latter’s government plans to airlift in hundreds of fans.
  • EPL Talk looks at the abysmal state of Premier League websites, and I have to say I agree entirely with the analysis: the cookie-cutter approach, and in particular the choice of the hideously cluttered cookie cutter used, has been a dismal failure.

The Sweeper appears every weekday, and once at the weekend. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: National Football Museum to Relocate

National Football Museum

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The National Football Museum opened at historic Deepdale stadium in Preston in 2001. The museum has received over 100,000 visitors a year, and includes collections from FIFA and the Football Association. Yet after the loss of a Football Foundation grant sustaining it, the museum is now moving to Manchester, into the Urbis Centre. The move will take 18 months to complete, beginning in February.

Opened just a few years ago itself, Urbis describes itself as “an exhibition centre about city life. On your visit you can explore exhibitions about contemporary art & design, music, fashion, popular culture and the people who make our cities what they are.”

Urbis had been a success, the Guardian explains.

Urbis, it was generally felt, had found its feet. With 250,000 visitors a year coming to see its ever-changing self-curated shows on subjects ranging from Manga to video games to urban gardening, it was a success story.

That was not always the case. Urbis (Latin for “of the city”) was built in 2002 and is easily one of the most visually striking buildings in Manchester, resembling a glass ski slope with an indoor funicular.

The original idea was for Urbis to be a museum of the city but few really knew what that meant. It became, like so many post-millennium projects, something of a white elephant. Four years ago, with the arrival of Allen, a former style journalist, that changed. “We banned the word museum. The word museum does mean things in cabinets, and we didn’t have any,” Allen said.

The focus shifted towards representing popular culture in all its forms – fashion, music, television, gardening and so on – and having lots of ­changing shows that would be “zeitgeisty” and surprising. “We got to a point after a couple of years where we suddenly realised what we had created was a Sunday supplement,” said Allen.

It seemed to be working: visitor numbers rose steadily and the place was popular with a young demographic group.

Then football came along. The National Museum of Football in Preston was in serious financial trouble and on the verge of closure. Its trustees approached Manchester city council, the main funders of Urbis, in the summer, and things moved quickly. After its final exhibition, the building will close to reopen as the new football museum in the summer 2011.

This decision has not sat well with all. Many in Manchester lament the loss of an innovative cultural centre, and given Preston is only an hour or so’s drive away, it’s not as if the football museum was far away to begin with. The £8m cost to retrofit the Urbis Centre looks set (despite initial promises) to be funded largely by Manchester City Council, with other projects giving way. Local authorities in Preston are furious at the move. The Football League and Football Association have hardly helped, both trying to lure the Museum even further away to Wembley.

At the same time, the move to Urbis does offer an intriguing opportunity for the museum, if its holdings and exhibitions are exhibited with some of the ethos already existing at the building. Football is obviously deeply embedded in popular culture today, and a living exploration of its contemporary significance as part of a museum explaining its historical transformation could be enormously valuable for the understanding of the game’s past and present beyond whatever is on Sky Sports News.

Worldwide News

  • ESPN’s UK channel decided to unleash Tommy Smyth on an unsuspecting and unprepared British audience, and the Guardian’s Martin Kelner was unsurprisingly unimpressed. Kelner concludes that “He provides the kind of coverage that might appeal to an American audience that sees soccer as a rather comical pastime, taking Mexicans’ minds off the terrible food and stopping Europeans declaring war on each other.” I have, though, met very few Americans who find soccer comical and bother to watch it on ESPN, and even fewer who find Tommy Smyth entertaining.
  • As the Football Shirt Culture site shows us, Ajax and AZ in the Netherlands both wore shirts emblazoned with Giro 555 this weekend, their regular sponsors giving up their space to promote the Dutch national disaster relief account anyone can easily donate to in times of major crisis, in this case, obviously in aid of Haiti. A good gesture by all.
  • Another English women’s international, Lianne Sanderson, has signed stateside in WPS, saying the delayed start to the Football Association’s Women’s Super League meant there was no choice to make.
  • Notts County are scrambling to find £2m in funding this week in order for the club to satisfy the high court over unpaid debts, in what’s looking more and more like a sad denouement to a sorry saga.

The Sweeper appears every weekday, and once at the weekend. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: Leeds Go From “Dirty” to “Loveable”

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Rob Smyth capped off his Guardian minute-by-minute report yesterday by printing an email from someone named Scott W., who wrote: “I never thought I’d say this, and as a United supporter you might not like to hear it, but Leeds United have become loveable, haven’t they?”

It’s hard to argue after Simon Grayson’s League One-leading team provided one of the competition’s best games this year.  Manchester United’s long-running rivals, who famously knocked them out of the third round of the FA Cup, won the hearts of neutrals again yesterday with Jermaine Beckford’s tying goal in the 95th minute after Alan Wiley gave an unassailable penalty for Dawson’s scything tackle on Beckford in the Tottenham area.

Like an aging star getting a comeback role after a long bout of horrible B-movies meant to finance an insatiable drug habit, Leeds look to be finally emerging from their sordid financial past.  Indeed, it’s the first time in years one has been able to read stories about the club without seeing the words “Peter” and “Ridsdale” repeated over and over.   Now it’s much more likely to be “Simon” and “Grayson.”   The Telegraph:

Once again, Leeds’ mood had been excellent, brimming with defiance and belief. Despite recent travails in League One, Grayson is proving a master at motivation, a trait seen in his successful time reviving Blackpool’s fortunes…“There’s only one Simon Grayson,’’ chorused the visiting hordes. Without taking his eyes off the game, Grayson gave them an appreciative wave. Leeds fans love the way that Grayson, a schoolboy fan, has given the club its respect back. Wembley may be a distant dream but the Championship isn’t.

It’s either a great irony, or a great hope for football, depending on your perspective, that a “Big Club” once synonymous with the unattractive-but-efficient football of Don Revie in the 1970s, and over-spending and debt in the early naughts under Ridsdale, are riding a wave of manager-driven, attacking football to promotion from League One.  The Guardian’s Paul Hayward captures a bit of the renewed spirit:

Leeds are a club much copied. They built a debt mountain long before Portsmouth, Newcastle or West Ham, pioneering the suicidal wage bill and lunatic transfer budget for others to emulate. After the reckoning has come the rise, as if they exist these days to provide hope for clubs who endure near-death experiences….

….Leeds needed to regain their self-respect, their identity. The twinkly team of the David O’Leary years has retreated into a kind of infamy. This one is an older diagram of machismo, with touches of prettiness. You look at Leeds now and no longer see a history of trauma. You see a replay and Beckford writing his name across the sky.

While that trauma hasn’t quite been overcome yet, with promotion to the Championship still to be achieved (Leeds have drawn one, lost two since their victory over Man United), we see his point.  On a weekend when Sir Alex Ferguson chided his club’s fans for supporting the “Green and Gold” anti-Glazer initiative, and Portsmouth supporters invaded the pitch to protest continued financial chaos at Fratton Park, Leeds United is providing a much-need feel good story for beleaguered football writers everywhere.

Worldwide Stories

  • News has just broke that the transfer embargo at Portsmouth has been lifted after a rescheduled payment deal was struck with Udinese for the Sulley Muntari transfer.  So now everything’s going to be okay, right?  Right?
  • James Corrigan thinks the FA‘s response to Gary Neville‘s repeated crimes against decency and humanity is toothless: “Yes, all the sycophants will dust off their plaudits when Gary says goodbye and one will sparkle above all others – “a model professional”. But he is nothing of the sort. Model professionals do not raise middle fingers to rivals.”  Uhh, okay.
  • Match Fit USA wonders what the meaning of USA‘s loss to Honduras last night might mean.  Maybe the thing to do would be to look at the roster, see how many MLS players were on it, then head over to Fake Sigi’s piece on MLS USMNT players leaving for Europe.  I would but I don’t have time.
  • Paul Wilson praises both the Carling Cup for being entertaining and the BBC for providing good coverage of the tournament.
  • Roma beat Juventus yesterday and it looks like Juve manager Ciro Ferrara might really, actually, truly be asked to leave.  Honest.

The Sweeper: UEFA Demands Clubs Break Even

uefa

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It’s not exactly breaking news that from 2012 onwards, UEFA are planning to introduce stringent financial regulation that will not allow clubs making a loss to enter European competition. But the Telegraph does have some interesting details today, and confirms that interest payment on debt will be included. Uefa’s general secretary Gianni Infantino told the Telegraph that:

What we are doing, with the support of all the stakeholders in the game including the major professional clubs, is to try and improve the long-term stability of European club football by encouraging clubs to live within the revenues that they generate. We are concerned, and many of the clubs and owners are concerned, about the sustainability of the game.

We survey more than 650 clubs all over Europe, and found that 50 per cent of those clubs are making losses every year, and 20 per cent of them are making huge losses, spending 120 per cent of their revenue every year. Around one third of the clubs are spending 70 per cent or more of their revenues on wages. Revenues across European football grew by 10 per cent last year, but the salaries of players and coaches have gone up by around 18 per cent. It is clear that if we continue like this it will end up with a spiral of inflation, so we need to bring a more rational and reasonable approach to this crazy game.

14 of the 20 clubs in the Premier League made a loss in 2008, but it appears that even though a few clubs might protest the new regulations, the broader base — as Infantino implied — of clubs in the European Clubs Association accepts the need for some sanity to prevail in financial regulation.  But it will be a major challenge to clubs with severe interest payments eating up any profit they are making.

Worldwide News

  • Speaking of which….it looks as if the Glazers’ bond issue at Manchester United has been a success, in financial terms, as the Times reports: “More than 50 low-risk investors, primarily insurers and pension-fund providers, have stumped up the cash at a fixed annual interest rate of 9 per cent.” Unfortunately, as Helen Power explains, this isn’t actually good news for the club or its fans: “The problem for United fans — who have long detested the Glazers for their perceived addiction to debt — is that it is a bad thing to give the family more freedom. The family will also almost certainly take advantage of that new freedom to spend as they wish to pay off some of the £202 million they owe to hedge-fund investors under the club’s payment-in-kind notes. If they do not, the interest rate on that debt will rise from 14.25 per cent to 16.25.” The Telegraph, meanwhile, looks at the latest effort by United fans to save the club from the Glazers, as they seek wealthy backers for a prospective consortium.
  • American soccer writer Steve Davis tells us why the fact less American media outlets will be able to send as many journalists to the World Cup this year might actually be a good thing for the quality of the coverage, if not the quantity: less general writers who know nothing about the game will be going, leading to less embarrassing incidents like the writer Davis saw at the last World Cup identifying US defender Jimmy Conrad by the credential around his neck (thanks to William for the tip).

The Sweeper appears every weekday, and once at the weekend. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: The Fan, the Customer and Money in Football

money

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Yesterday, we noted that the avalanche of negative media stories about the Glazers’ regime at Old Trafford seemed finally to be pushing the moderate fans into the rebellious camp. Pointing to the same piece we noted in the Daily Mirror by Oliver Holt yesterday, Ian at Two Hundred Percent suggests there is a “sea change” in the analysis of football and money by the English media:

In an extraordinary article in the Daily Mirror yesterday, Oliver Holt put forward a call to arms to all football supporters and offered an impassioned defence of those that are protesting against the way that our game is being mismanaged at the moment. Last Friday the Daily Mail, of all people, ran an article on FC United of Manchester that came close to being a eulogy and was at the same time a stinging attack on the Glazer’s management of Manchester United. The Guardian is getting its teeth well and truly into the proposed Manchester United bond issue, with new stories about the state of the club’s finances being reported on a seemingly daily basis. There’s something in the air. Attitudes are starting to change.

The writers on the sports pages are generally given a freer political reign than those in other parts of a daily newspaper. Much as it might seem jarring to see FC United being talked about in the Daily Mail, it isn’t, upon reflection, actually that surprising. Football is in the process of eating itself, and football sells newspapers. At this moment in time, however, there is a tangible sea change in the attitude of the printed press in its attitude towards football and money. The bare fact of the matter is that articles such as the two linked to above simply wouldn’t – apart from the ever-impeccable David Conn in The Guardian – appeared in British newspapers a year ago.

This change in attitude towards money and football, with an apparent recollection by the press that fans are more than customers and that subordinating football to the vagaries of the market with no regulation by the football authorities might not actually be the best idea, seems to be the result of several high-profile crises in the Premier League. Manchester United and Liverpool top the list, and the debt at other Premier League clubs such as Portsmouth and West Ham is all too obvious. But these cases are hardly the first time English football clubs have over-reached themselves. Leeds United are the most obvious recent example, but lax financial regulation by the football authorities and the willingness of club owners to gamble their club’s future on the market dates back to the 1980s in England.

Tottenham Hotspur, for example, were the first English club to be floated on the London Stock Exchange in 1983, and the club embarked on an ambitious attempt to become a leisure-orientated company based on the Hummel brand, then diversifying into other areas such as travel and restaurants. These efforts were an absolute disaster, and the football club faced bankruptcy by 1991 not because of poor performance on the pitch (Tottenham were quite successful, winning the FA Cup in 1991 with stars such as Gary Lineker and Paul Gascoigne), but solely because the football had become subordinate to business. And that business was not a success.

hummel

Spurs were saved by the essentially enforced sale of Paul Gascoigne to Lazio and a takeover by Amstrad chairman Alan Sugar. But Tottenham Hotspur Football Club was no longer in charge of itself; it was now part of, and ultimately dependent on, the performance of Tottenham Hotspur PLC.

Manchester United would follow Tottenham onto the Stock Exchange, leading eventually to the debt-ridden Glazer takeover. And now, despite extraordinary success on the pitch under Alex Ferguson in recent years, United find themselves more and more in debt as the football club itself is subsumed under and reliant on the complex corporate structure of Red Football Limited, and need the market to respond to their bond issue, or face even greater problems.

Just as a media storm now surrounds the Glazers, there was much criticism of the man who had taken Spurs to the brink of bankruptcy, Irving Scholar. Many questioned the PLC model. But it was all forgotten soon enough, as other clubs embraced the market model, in most cases disastrously. Football was seen as riding a rising tide of prosperity as television money flooded in.

And so as clubs now needed to produce dividends, the relationship between the fan and the club was transformed: extraordinarily, ticket prices at Manchester United increased by 241% between 1989 and 1995, and at Tottenham by 118%. Football was now seen as a profit-making business rather than as a public utility, as Anthony King puts it in The End of the Terraces. Can’t afford to go to the game any longer? Tough.

How was this sold to fans? King says the new regimes at clubs like Man Utd and Spurs “had to establish the legitimacy of profit-making as the clubs’ central meaning and, following from this, the new directors have had to transform the relationship between the fans and the club. Such a transformation can only be achieved through altering the way in which individuals understand themselves and, in particular, making fans see themselves as customers.” The English media, King explains, played a key subservient role in accepting this transformation.

The present discontent with this change that now means a successful club like Manchester United is somehow over a billion dollars in debt and that sees fans squeezed ever more for every last penny due to this commodification of football was expressed some years ago in the creation of FC United of Manchester. But is this fringe rebellion now finally becoming a part of mainstream thought about football?  Ian ends the piece we began with by asking the key question about this: will, as with the Tottenham Hotspur example from the 1980s, the lessons be quickly forgotten?

The game is starting to smell rotten from the inside out, and this smell is starting to become all-pervasive to the extent that even those that have been trying to avoid the smell or [who] don’t have a particularly strong sense of smell are starting to notice it. The question now is whether the current press enthusiasm for sniffing around is a passing fad or something capable of bringing about meaningful change.

Worldwide News

The Sweeper appears every weekday, and once at the weekend. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: Man Utd Fans’ Protest Goes Green and Gold

love-united-hate-glazer

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Another day, another Glazer debt story at Manchester United: today, the Telegraph reports that “Accounts for United’s holding company Red Football Joint Ventures Limited for the year to June 2009 reveal that the total debt secured against United and the Glazer family’s holding increased by £17 million.”

Will the constant drip-drip of these stories stir greater fan protest against United’s ownership?

Of course, many United fans have been protesting for a long, long time, dating back at the least to the protest in the 1990s against Rupert Murdoch’s attempt to takeover the club, to the later formation of FC United of Manchester. The founding of Shareholders United Against Murdoch eventually led to the formation of the Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST), today in the forefront of protest against the Glazers. Witness the “Love United Hate Glazer” banners unfurled and then quickly (and some say violently) taken down at Old Trafford at the weekend.

In the Mirror today, Oliver Holt (a Stockport fan himself) waxes lyrical over the supporters who have stood up:

I admire the supporters who unfurled the ‘Love United, Hate the Glazers’ banner at the Stretford End on Saturday.

I admire the Spirit of Shankly fans who are trying to defend Liverpool from its American owners.

I admire the Stockport County supporters who walked from Edgeley Park into Manchester to highlight the club’s financial plight at the height of the winter freeze before Christmas.

I admire the people who have made AFC Wimbledon such a success and still rage against the way their club was stolen from them by Milton Keynes Dons.

And the disaffected United supporters who set up FC United of Manchester and who have stuck to their principles as their club has risen through the non-league pyramid.

They didn’t just sit there and munch on their prawn sandwiches when the Glazers took over.

They saw what was coming and they tried to mobilise more United fans to protest with them but the club, to their shame, snuffed the protests out.

Sir Alex Ferguson turned his back on those people, too. He got another Champions League victory out of it, I suppose, but now he’s suffering the consequences.

I hope they keep it peaceful but I hope United fans step up their protests about what is happening to their club.

I hope they continue to make life awkward for the Glazers. I hope they keep taking that banner to games and unfurling it.

Because the rape of so many of our football clubs relies in some part on the silence of the fans.

It relies on supporters accepting meekly the bland and hollow explanations they are given.

It won’t be news to regular readers of this blog that we like to bang the drum for supporter activism. What’s interesting to see is that it seems a tipping point has been reached in terms of more and more “moderates” willing to protest against the Glazers. Where MUST and other leaders of supporters’ protest take their action next could be hugely important for English football. Take this one United blogger and season-ticket holder, long a skeptic of MUST, a fan who viewed the Glazers wearily but accepted the fate of the club was lost to them (“If you regularly read this blog, you will know that i am a bit of a moderate when it comes to the subject of Glazer’s ownership, but now there is talk of ground sales and whatnot, and my fellow fans are genuinely upset, I’m starting to get itchy feet.”)

The blogger goes on to explain that he received an email from MUST, saying that:

I will admit i am not their biggest fan. I totally get the sentiment, but i suppose i don’t know enough about them (as people) to really give them my full backing. The email contained the first thing that has fired my imagination regarding all of this. It explained an idea by the lads at Red Issue. The idea was about a visual impact that we could have at games. They suggest that we revert back to the clubs original colours of Green and Gold, as in the Newton Heath days. This would stand out against the Red and White of Old Trafford, and allow us to be individually identified as those against our club being dragged through the mud..

This is just one fan, of course, but protests like this that even what some might unkindly call the sheep at Old Trafford can easily get behind suggest the Glazers PR machine is doing no good (reportedly sending their bond debt prospectus to players isn’t going to help, either), and even Ferguson’s support for the regime is no longer having much impact. As the blogger concludes, ”Its time to get active. And if a moderate like me feels like that, there must be trouble on the way. So don’t go out tonight, unless you’re green and gold.”

Worldwide News

  • This isn’t directly football-related, but there has been considerable interest in our series on the future of American soccer journalism (and the same dynamic roughly applies the world over), so the world’s eyes will be eager to see if the New York Times’ limited access “metered” model works in 2011. Colour me skeptical for now.
  • But why do we need something like this to work? So a company like Sports Illustrated can afford to send Grant Wahl to Angola for the Africa Cup of Nations (they were planning to send him there before the Cabinda tragedy, incidentally).  Wahl has an excellent piece up on his trip:  ”I’ve seen plenty of examples over the years when sports and politics mix, when the world’s most popular pastime and the pursuit of power combine to turn fútbol into anything but the simplest game. But I haven’t ever been in the middle of such a palpably tense situation like this one in Cabinda, a complex landscape mixing soccer and politics, fear and violence, nationalism and rebellion.”

The Sweeper appears every weekday, and once at the weekend. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

The Sweeper: West Ham’s Gold Diggers?

David Gold and David Sullivan

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David Gold and David Sullivan, the porn moguls and former owners of Birmingham City, have purchased half of West Ham United, seizing operating control. They say they want to try and persuade the government to let them move into London’s new Olympic Stadium, presumably to generate more revenue and tap into West Ham’s potential than is possible at Upton Park (without expensive redevelopment). Sullivan said they hope to rent the stadium, though admitted the running track would present a considerable problem.

Sullivan put down the purchase to his heart ruling his head. “West Ham is the club of the East End and Essex. I went to school in Hornchurch and right out into Essex is West Ham land,” he said. “We wouldn’t buy this club at all if this wasn’t West Ham. It makes no commercial sense for anyone to buy this club.” Elsewhere, he said “We are West Ham fans and I don’t think we would have bought West Ham if we hadn’t been fans as, from a business point of view, it is in a serious mess.”

That’s certainly true — the club has £100m of debt –  but Sullivan is a smart businessman, and he’s been waiting a while for the mess the previous ownership took the club into to lower the price enough for him and Gold to take advantage of the situation. Here’s Sullivan, speaking just over two years ago:

I could see a scenario where the Icelanders, in two years’ time or 18 months, making no money out of West Ham having cocked it up, they might want to walk away. They might want to say to me, ‘Come and buy half the club and make it work for us,’ because they have done some appalling things at West Ham. The wages they are paying both to staff and players – I cannot see how the business model works. And they have done it as an investment, no other reason.

Investment, of course, is why Gold and Sullivan owned Birmingham City (their tenure was hardly free from controversy). They say their purchase of West Ham is not about business but about being close to home (not the first time we’ve heard this from Sullivan, as he considered where next to invest after Birmingham), which may well be true, but it’s certainly also the usual smart business from the pair. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, if they can find a better business model for the club than the disastrous previous ownership, something Sullivan identified a while back. West Ham fans will still want to keep a sharp pair of eyes on them, though, especially if the club sells its traditional home to move to a rental situation at the Olympic stadium.

Worldwide News

  • In today’s daily update on the Glazer family’s attempts to become most hated in Manchester, we learn they could take a juicy £130m out of the club next year.
  • The Times’ Matt Dickinson takes a look at a club where owners find it much harder to screw the fans, AFC Wimbledon, the fan-owned club that’s seen eight years of success. Dickinson’s article is rosy in general, though ends with words of unanswered caution: “To go to Kingsmeadow is to renew your vows with the game. It shows you how a club can be run, how they should be run, how they were always intended to be run. The place is full of happy fans, well-meaning staff, enthusiastic volunteers. How long can it stay that way? How far can fan ownership carry them?” The question, though far from inappropriate, does seem to imply non-fan owned clubs are usually well-run as a rule — which is in England, quite patently not the case.
  • Only a generation late, the Football Association is finally, really, truly building the National Football Center they’ve been promising for the best part of a decade.
  • Yours truly was pleased to be nominated for the Best Football Writer of 2009 by Soccerlens, so if for some reason you enjoy these daily ramblings, you may want to vote for me, and check out the other categories as well.

The Sweeper appears every weekday, and once at the weekend. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.