Thursday, 26 November 2009

The Europa League

For the first time since Manchester United finished bottom of their Champions League group in the 2005-6 season, the Premier League will be represented by less than the full compliment of United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal in this season’s last 16. This week, Liverpool got the away win they needed at Debrecen, but slip out of the Champions League thanks to a 1-0 win for Fiorentina at home to already-qualified Lyon.

It is tempting, in this new age of English dominance in Europe that has seen Premier League teams make up three of the four Champions League semi-finalists for three consecutive seasons (albeit only producing a winner once), to view this as some sort of disaster – both for Liverpool and for the English contingent at Europe’s top table. I’m not so sure it is.

Liverpool, guaranteed to finish third in their group with a game left to play, will now enter the newly-rebranded UEFA Europa League, previously the UEFA Cup. This will no doubt be reported as Liverpool suffering the ignominy of having to play in a “pointless”, devalued competition that will only make it harder for them to perform as well as they should in the Premier League (though they seem to be making things difficult enough for themselves as it is). And, as something of an insult to teams like Valencia, Roma, Hamburg, Villareal, Benfica, Werder Bremen, last year’s winners Shakhtar Donetsk and, of course, Merseyside rivals Everton, they will likely be tipped as favourites to win the competition.

Apart from the fact that having a high-profile English club involved in the tournament’s knockout stages will certainly improve the Europa League’s viewing figures in the UK (the sort of thing I’m sure UEFA will have hoped would happen when they re-launched the competition) just as the still-highly-possible entry of Inter Milan would in Italy or Bayern Munich might in Germany, does it deserve to be so much maligned as a legitimate European competition?

At a time when the gulf between the richest clubs and those unlikely to ever break into Champions League qualification spots is wider than ever before – and remembering that no team from outside the now-defunct G14 group of Europe’s ‘elite’ clubs has ever won the Champions League – surely the Europa League can be as exciting, unpredictable and as exotic as the European Cup is and was in bygone days. The team names are weirder, the cities more obscure, the players more appreciative of the occasion, the matches more memorable in the long-run – for many teams making an appearance it will be their first trip into Europe or their first for a lifetime; and most of their fans will tend to believe it’s probably their last.

The romance that many curmudgeonly, nostalgic pundits lament the loss of in the big-money Champions League is, I think, still very much alive in the Europa League. Teams who are barely known outside their own countries can have a good run in their division or cup one year and face the prospect of thrilling away trips to clubs in bigger, more high-profile leagues, or – especially in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union – a chance to face old rivals from other nations.

Many of these are, to me at least, if not in football terms then politically and historically intriguing, despite those who may scoff at the apparently low level of competiton. For example, this season has seen Croatia’s Slavija Istocno Sarajevo take on MFK Kosice of Slovakia (Kosice won 5-1 on aggregate, incidentally), while Polonia Warsaw of Poland met Dutch side NAC Breda. Exotic ties like these just don’t happen in the Champions League.

And the competition is more balanced – and so less predictable. Picking a UEFA Cup winner at the beginning of a season (or even halfway through) is far harder than in the Champions League, where the eventual winner will almost certainly come from a pool of four or five teams. Sure there are favourites, and the fixture list throws up its brutal mismatches – Roma hammering Gent of Belgium 10-2 on aggregate this season springs to mind – but none are ever as tedious as in the Champions League. The gulf between the sides likely to end up in the last sixteen and those destined to return to the drudgery of their minor European leagues is so huge that the competition is, often, barely worth watching before Christmas. Other than maybe the Barca/Inter/Kazan/Kiev group this season, there’s barely a shock in sight going into the knockout stages.

So maybe Europe’s second competition is something of a glimpse back in time, to the days of the European Cup of the 60s and 70s, when no one nation dominated and any side could win. The European Cup that Celtic won and Nottingham Forest retained. Maybe. Either way, it’s a shame to denigrate it so much and suggested that winning it “doesn’t matter”.

To suggest that Benitez’s Liverpool wouldn’t be ecstatic to be lifting a European trophy at the end of this season and therefore qualifying for the Champions League next season and playing in the showpiece UEFA Super Cup match, is ridiculous. Similarly, how much would David Moyes love to bring Everton their first continental silverware since the 1985 Cup Winners’ Cup victory over Rapid Vienna? A quarter of a century is a long time to wait for prominence on the European stage – that it’s not going to be the European Cup they could be lifting is probably more a matter of finance than football. It certainly won’t matter too much to the trophy-starved fans.

I love the Champions League, as I made clear on this blog earlier in the season, but I think the way it completely overshadows the Europa League is unfortunate. Rather than constantly expanding the Champions League to include teams and leagues that the European giants will simply walk over (which for me is the truly pointless part of UEFA’s current strategy) giving the “lesser” tournament a bit of genuine support could really help. There is a great deal of affection around for the long-gone Cup Winners’ Cup, as this was really seen to be a trophy worth winning. The Europa League could well go on to be that too, if the governing body can keep themselves from messing around with its format for a couple of seasons. While no one wants endless group stages and seventeen two-legged rounds meaning beleaguered clubs with tiny squads are forced to play 200 matches a season, it’s a shame that, as a tournament, it’s so easily dismissed.

The fact that the mostly-empty 20,000 seat Bulgarian Army Stadium where I sat to watch CSKA Sofia play Sliven in October wasn’t even big enough to host the Europa League tie with Fulham a few weeks earlier (the 38,000 or so crowd packed into the nearby Vasil Levski National Stadium instead) should be enough of an example: to many, this “pointless” trophy does really matter.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

How Much Longer, Sepp?

Oh, for goodness’ sake, FIFA. You too, UEFA. You saw what happened tonight – just like everyone else did. Do you really think there’s going to be a single newspaper, television show, football fan or impressionable young child out there who thinks that tonight’s result was a fair one? It’s not like they won’t be talking about it – this was no meaningless kick-about, nor even a group match or league game where one unfair decision that turns a win into a defeat can be moaned about and written about and debated over – but forgotten in a few short days’ time.

This was a knockout match – and not just any old knockout match. Extra time in the second leg of a play-off tie, the winner of which would be the final European nation to qualify for the World Cup. The World Cup, guys. As the BBC have said in their match report tonight (and doubtless most back pages will in the morning), it’s hard to imagine it being more heartbreaking – or coming at a more devastating moment.

Tonight France played Ireland at the Stade de France with a slender 1-0 lead from the first leg in Dublin. Ireland took the lead in the first half through Robbie Keane, levelling the score on aggregate and, an hour or so later, sending the tie to extra time. It was, by all accounts, certainly no more than Ireland deserved.

It could be argued that Ireland hung on and defended their slender advantage for most of the second half while France created more chances – but that excuses nothing of the circumstances of France’s victory.

The ball floated into the box from midfield from a free kick, falling just in front of the (probably offside) Thierry Henry, who clearly used his hand to stop the ball going out of play – knocking it into a position where he could pass across the face of goal to the arriving boot of William Gallas, who scored. It was a goal – but, clearly, it shouldn’t have been.

Naturally the Irish players and fans are devastated, as losing teams so often are; especially when the manner of the defeat is cruel and seemingly unfair. But I wonder if the stakes have ever been much higher? There aren’t many comparable situations. One act of flagrant cheating from a highly-regarded player (and while it is a shame to see Henry do it, it’s certainly not his first offence) here means the difference between Ireland going to the World Cup or not. The World Cup – the biggest, most significant global sporting event of them all, which comes round only once every four years; only the Olympic Games can dream of coming close, and even then I would argue that its level of cultural impact and ability to unite and simply matter to the sheer number of people the World Cup does is way, way off.

One only has to look at the way London’s Algerian population is celebrating their nation’s play-off victory over Egypt tonight to get a glimpse into what qualification means to people – especially those from small countries. Take a look at Trafalgar Square tonight and you’d think Algeria had won the whole competition. I’d imagine there are fair few pubs in Dublin whose inhabitants are wondering whether they’ll ever bother watching football again.

The impact failure to qualify for the second consecutive World Cup finals – and this time through no real fault of their own – will have on Irish football, particularly financially, should not be underestimated. In a country where football has to compete with rugby and hugely popular indigenous sports like Gaelic football and hurling, whose domestic league is of a relatively low standard and hence whose players almost all ply their trade in the UK (oh and how French coach Raymond Domenech’s decision to spitefully label the Republic’s first team as “England B” was almost made to look so stupid), missing out on qualification in such miserable fashion is a real blow.

It is said that the most lucrative single match in football is the English Football League Championship play-off final, the prize for the victor being a place in the Premier League – and hence a share of the money Sky and numerous international broadcasters pay to show matches around the world. This figure is hard to pin down, but it is usually quoted as being around £35 million. Clearly, this would make an enormous amount of difference to almost any club in the Football League (Notts County aside, maybe) – and so were this Wembley clash to be decided on an obvious handball offence? The calls for a replay, for lawsuits, for compensation, would be deafening. Particularly if Neil Warnock happened to be one of the coaches.

And yet this is even bigger. It matters to a whole country – and also to plenty of people in Britain and the global Irish diaspora – not just the fans of a single club. As someone with around 25% Irish heritage (the rest is Scottish), I was looking forward to having some blood connection to next year’s tournament.

So come on, FIFA, UEFA, chaps. You surely won’t get many more high-profile incidents than this as incentive: bring in the bloody technology.

It exists! It exists in lots and lots of other sports – I can only assume Blatter, Warner, Platini et al haven’t watched any tennis, motor racing or cricket in the last five to ten years, such is their apparent obliviousness to the likes of HawkEye. It doesn’t even have to be HawkEye – if anything football moves too fast to really benefit from the sort of detailed analysis the system offers. The only technology football needs is already there. You see all those cameras around the stadium, Sepp? They’re filming everything – from all the best angles and, nowadays, in super-hi-def, super-slo-mo replay-o-vision. Would referring to this handy multi-angle feed cause the game to slow down or stop for too long? Not at all – all that is needed is an official sat at the side of the pitch watching the exact same feed as everyone else. The referee needs only to glance over to him – he either nods or shakes his head: done. Tonight’s incident could have been decided in a quarter of a second, as indeed it was by everyone watching on TV. Goal disallowed – the French would barely have started celebrating.

It’s slightly annoying to be moaning about FIFA again this week, but it leaves me feeling incredulous when things like this keep happening, at the highest level, and those at the top remain recalcitrant. Ironically, even UEFA’s half-arsed ‘goal-line officials’ would have spotted Henry’s handball tonight.

I love the modern game, but remain most baffled that while the football authorities have embraced everything they can to make football as up-to-date and future-ready as is possible – selling broadcast rights, attracting huge tournament sponsorships, building glittering new stadiums, supporting grassroots projects and creating some dazzling youth training systems around the developing world – they’ve yet to embrace something as simple and as staggeringly obvious as video technology.

It’s got to come in soon, hasn’t it? Will it take a team winning the World Cup Final with an illegal goal or a blatant dive to win a penalty for them to finally realise? Maybe it’ll happen in 2010. A big part of me hopes it’s against France, too – and not just the Irish quarter.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Getting Away with Murder

Hate figures are easy to come by in modern football. Every fan has a team they genuinely hate – and it’s not necessarily their clubs’ rivals. For example, I imagine there’s relatively few Chelsea fans who actually hate Fulham, such is the longstanding and still significant gulf between the clubs’ fortunes on the pitch. The same, of course, cannot be said of Manchester United or Liverpool fans, or, as we’ve already seen this year, West Ham and Millwall fans, for example. Equally, Real Madrid and Barcelona fans hate each other’s teams so much that in a recent poll where Barca fans were asked which they would prefer, Barcelona winning or Real Madrid losing, the prospect of a defeat for Los Merengues won by a clear majority.

The fact that it is the teams they hate is significant. It’s perfectly possible, all over the world, to see groups of friends, all of whom support different clubs, bantering quite happily (and notably not kicking the shit out of each other) while still expressing (and probably feeling) heartfelt animosity towards the actual clubs their friends support. I have certainly been part of such groups in the past and while it’s handy for exercising one’s Sky Sports round table discussion show pretensions, there’s no pretence towards balance; some teams we just hate.

And it’s absolutely not just teams that get picked on. Everyone has certain players they can’t stand, no matter what club they play for or what country they represent. Some people can fly into a spluttering rage at the sight of rival managers, former players, team owners (poor Mike Ashley, eh?) or even just the sight of a replica shirt or badge. Maybe it’s a controversial goal someone scored once, or some long-held grudge against a nation that knocked yours out of the World Cup twenty years ago. There are people who hate teams because of some perceived injustice that took place long before they were even born – grievances passed down from generation to generation like a festering, anxious and really rather silly family heirloom.

It is all silly – and totally irrational. I have my own personal hate figures in the game, of course, like everyone. The ones that really interest me, however, are those universal hate figures, the ones that everyone, whether they be on the TV, radio or down the pub, just can’t get on with, and can’t fathom why they’re allowed to exist at all – and often with good reason.

They come at all levels of the game. The standard choice, as far as players go, would be someone like Joey Barton. The very mention of his name in almost any football-literate company will elicit the same sort of responses – “thug”, “disgrace”, “ungrateful”, “should be banned for life”, et cetera. I say almost, because presumably he has his fans somewhere. All the bosses that have signed him despite knowing his track record, his appalling discipline, his unforgivable off-the-pitch behaviour. The team mates that have stuck by him and defended his character. And presumably his family must have a bit of a soft spot for him, too.

But there can’t be many. If anyone reading this doesn’t know Barton’s record, this is the player who, to name a few “incidents”: stubbed a cigar out in the eye of a Man City youth team player in a nightclub causing permanent scarring, assaulted a 15-year-old Everton fan during a tour of Thailand in 2005, beat up team mate Ousmane Dabo at City’s training ground, leaving him with a suspected detached retina, and, most famously, spent 77 days in prison in 2008 for assaulting a man at a McDonald’s restaurant in Liverpool city centre. The FA make a great deal of fuss about the need for footballers to be role models to young people – and yet he’s still permitted, clubs allowing, to play football at the highest level, enjoying the attendant luxurious lifestyle.

Other universal hate figures are found higher up. The biggest – because he’s right at the top, I suppose – is Joseph “Sepp” Blatter, President of FIFA. There is literally no one more important than him in the world of football, and yet whenever his name is mentioned in the press, by a pundit or by a fan, it is usually in the most derisory terms. How has Blatter, despite having held the title of President for 11 years, failed so spectacularly to endear himself to the common football fan?

There are a number of reasons. There’s the constant rumours of financial irregularities – including rights payments to FIFA mysteriously vanishing and ending up in the personal accounts of FIFA delegates, and the suspicious halting of an investigation into the loss of $100m by FIFA’s marketing partner in 2002; there’s his comments in 2008 declaring Cristiano Ronaldo to be a “slave” when Manchester United refused to sell him to Real Madrid (but mainly it was because Sepp just really, really hates the dominance of the Premier League); and, of course, his charming suggestion that to make women’s football more successful the players should “wear tighter shorts”.

Blatter is a magnet for ridicule – he is a symbol of everything that is just a little seedy and corrupt about the very top of modern football. And yet, despite damning books and articles by dedicated investigative journalists like Andrew Jennings, he remains FIFA President – and is unlikely to be unseated any time soon. With a global audience of fans who love declaring their hatred for teams, fans, referees, managers and administrators, why haven’t people like Blatter and his particularly odious Vice President Jack Warner (but more about him another time), Joey Barton and other petulant, undeserving players, felt a bit more of the wrath?

My theory is that in a sport, and in a culture, that is so used to polarised opinions, controversial on- and off-pitch events, and is quite comfortable with casual, irrational “hate”, that sometimes the truly deserving hate figures are allowed to go about their business – bringing the game into disrepute, often, engaging in morally repugnant criminal activity. Perhaps we need to focus less on irrational, decades-old grudges and throw a bit more hate the way of those who have genuinely done something to deserve it.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Naming Rights and Wrongs

Today Newcastle United announced the ‘new name’ to be applied to St. James’ Park in the wake of less-than-popular owner Mike Ashley’s decision to take the club off the market and put the rights to the historic stadium’s name up for sale instead. Apparently more of a placeholder move than a permanent change – especially given that it is named for Ashley’s own chain of budget sports gear shops – for the remainder of the season Newcastle will be playing at The @ St. James’ Park Stadium. Hm.

There’s been a predictable amount of noise made about it – scoffs from the majority of football fans who see limitless comedy potential in the prospect of an already-maligned club lumbered with an unfashionable name for their once-untouchable and locally-treasured home; groans and resigned shrugs from the beleaguered ‘Geordie Nation’ who are long past being shocked at anything Ashley has to throw at them in terms of indignity; and of course platitudes from those in the team’s hierarchy who are adamant that this direction can only be a good thing for the club. The same has been said about Tottenham’s proposed new ground (which, based on the concept artwork, I like to call The Naming Rights Stadium).

To be honest, I’m inclined to side with the latter. I mean, the @ St. James’s Park Stadium’s not that bad is it? OK, so it’s far too wordy and impossible to fit into a catchy terrace chant and the @ sign in the middle is a cringingly dated lunge at sounding modern (much like the awful Stadium:MK where MK Dons ply their trade) – but the fans and TV pundits will still refer to it as St. James’ Park; it’s unlikely that the BBC in particular will spend much time reciting the URL for Ashley’s retailer in fear of giving ‘undue prominence’.

Newcastle fans can be consoled with the fact that it could be a lot worse. In America’s MLS, where, unlike in England, the commerce came a long time before the football, the fans take their seats at Pizza Hut Park (FC Dallas), The Home Depot Center (LA Galaxy) and – best of all – Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, home of the Colorado Rapids. Even York City’s KitKat Crescent has a certain assonant poetry to it.

The key to selling naming rights for stadiums, it seems, is choosing the right sponsor – and making sure it’s actually a good name. One example is Arsenal’s glittering Emirates stadium; probably the most pleasant place in the country to watch club football and oozing class and expense from every glass and concrete corner – and it has a name that rolls off the tongue; the sponsorship element of it is relatively easy to ignore.

When Arsenal first announced that they would be leaving Highbury for the Gulf airline-sponsored Emirates, there were groups of fans who were incensed, declaring that they would refer to the stadium as Ashburton Grove and never, ever, by its corporate name. Three years down the line and you’d be hard pushed to find an Arsenal fan that had a problem with playing at the Emirates (apart, perhaps, from the fact that they haven’t won anything since moving there!)

It seems odd, especially nowadays, for fans to complain about naming rights being sold for their teams’ stadiums anyway. For a long time now football clubs have been adorned with advertising: corporate logos and companies names are key parts of the iconography of football – indeed, in the case of shirt sponsorship, they are literally part of the fabric of modern football. Is it really violating the sanctity of a football club to step up from having every single player wear a logo on his chest, every member of backroom staff wear a branded jacket and hundreds of metres of advertising hoardings all around the pitch to playing in a branded stadium?

In a previous blog post, Modern Football is Brilliant, I argued that football today, particularly in the Premier League, is as exciting and infinitely watchable as it is because of the increased money and ‘commercialisation’, rather than in spite of it. For me, this also applies to shirt sponsorship’s effect on the look and, yes, feel of the game today.

Looking back through photographs from the last 20 years or so of football history, the most notable differences are usually in what the players are wearing (and occasionally the haircuts). The history of the Premier League, for example, can be divided into eras based on shirt sponsorship: for example there was the Sharp-era Manchester United of the 1990s, in which they won their historic treble in 1999, which gave way to the Vodafone-era United of the 2000s. So many fans I’ve spoken to will fondly remember their favourite shirts, whether it’s JVC Arsenal, Sega Arsenal or O2 Arsenal; Autoglass Chelsea, Fly Emirates Chelsea (and how incongruous that sounds even a couple of years later, such is the airline’s association with their North London rivals); and how odd will Liverpool shirts look without Carlsberg emblazoned across the front from next season? And will it herald a significant new era for them?

Perhaps this is just me being sentimental as usual – but what is true is that corporate involvement with football is certainly not always some terrible, cynical, money-spinning venture. Often, especially in the lower leagues, local businesses sponsor football clubs who are as much a part of the community as the clubs themselves and form a genuinely symbiotic relationship. Without the sponsorship of local businesses, it is likely many League One and Two clubs would struggle to survive. Is it any wonder that more and more of them sell off their naming rights too? There are always criticisms that teams have sold out or betrayed their long histories by making this sort of move – but when the choice is either changing the name of the stadium or even the club (as many teams all over Europe have – see Wales’ TNS between 1997 and 2006 and FC Red Bull Salzburg, once SV Austria Salzburg) – or ceasing to exist, surely it’s better that a historic club survives in some form?

Football is kept alive by advertising and sponsorship – and is all the stronger for it. It is the reason that England can still sustain 92 league clubs, many of whom are well over 100 years old, despite falling attendances and an overwhelming focus on the top few in the media. So while it’s sometimes funny (I remember as a child when we used to laugh at local team Rochdale because they were sponsored by Carcraft, the local Skoda dealership – could any other sponsor exude less glamour?) sponsorship is a major part of the lifeblood of the sport – and makes for some of the most enduring images of recent football history.