Tag Archive for Germany

“The Football Crash”: are footballers the bankers of modern sport?

For some time now, the headlines about footballers’ wages have seemed oddly familiar; and, with the publication of a new report, the analogy has finally become clear.  These athletes, with pay packets beyond the imagination or comprehension of the average working person, appear to be the bankers of modern sport.

Dave Boyle, the author of The High Pay Centre’s new report “Football Mad: Are We Paying More for Less?”, writes that “since the creation of the Premier League in 1992, top footballers’ salaries have mushroomed, rising by 1508% to 2010. Over the same period average wages [i.e., those of the ordinary UK worker] increased by just 186%.” Moreover, he notes that “the amount spent by clubs on wages has also increased dramatically. The percentage of turnover spent on players has increased, from 48% of turnover in 1997, up to 70% in 2011.”

These superheated salaries, continues Boyle, have hit the ordinary fan particularly hard. “Fans are now paying up to 1000% more to watch their teams play, all in order to support their club’s gargantuan wage bills,” he writes. “Fans watching at home are similarly seen as a captive market, whilst those who want to watch at the pub are paying more – or finding their local can’t afford it, given the 10,000% increase in pay TV subscriptions.”  Perhaps most alarming is his observation that “since 1992, over half of England’s professional football clubs have been formally insolvent. Most only survived because the wider community received less of what they were owed in order to ensure players continued to get all of what they were promised.”

But why does this matter? Who cares about inequality of pay? After all, pubs were packed for this summer’s Euro 2012 tournament.  The new season has begun in spectacular fashion, sweeping aside the last traces of Olympic fervour with a series of wonderful goals.  And so what if many clubs are living beyond their means?  People are prepared to shell out substantial sums in support of their teams, whose adventures offer an experience that they can’t find anywhere else.  There is also the fact that the overwhelming majority of elite players have come from poor backgrounds against severe odds, and, so the argument goes, are entitled to the windfalls that come from their very short careers at the top of the game.  Most of these players – contrary to the unfavourable contrasts drawn between them and Olympians – are diligent and quietly professional, which is why most of them never make it into the papers.

Strong as these contentions may be, they do not satisfactorily address two of football’s greatest problems: an increasing lack of competitiveness, and of sustainability.  The Premier League is much-heralded for the possibility that any team is able to beat any other: however, a closer look at the statistics gives the lie to this assertion.  In the last three seasons, the bottom three teams in the league have beaten the top three teams in the league in only 7% of the matches that they have played against each other, scoring 41 goals in those 54 games whilst conceding 151.

So what, fans might say: the football, such as Manchester City’s title-winning 3-2 victory against QPR on the last day of last season, is still thrilling.  And they’d be right.  On the whole, supporters have accepted, if somewhat grudgingly, the predictability of league finishes.  The compelling problem relates to the health of the game itself.  Directors, instead of ensuring its long-term future, are chasing quick results, desperate for same-season gratification.  Accordingly, revenues are not flowing down to football’s grassroots; they are not even trickling down.  They are evaporating.

It is tempting, at a time like this, to look enviously at Germany.  There, notes the report, “clubs are owned by their supporters, who must control at least 50+1 % of the votes within a club.   That ensures a degree of accountability to fans (which works to keep ticket prices lower) and has prevented oligarchs and other wealthy individuals taking over clubs.”   There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with a wealthy individual’s takeover – you will not hear many complaints from Chelsea or Manchester City fans, for example – but the question becomes a more vexed one when those individuals, as in the cases of Portsmouth, Malaga and Manchester United, have financial goals that are at variance with the club’s best interests.

It seems that, both on and off the field, Germany get it.  Their clubs perform well, if not exceptionally, in Europe; their domestic league remains reasonably competitive, and their ticket prices remain cheap.  Moreover, they invest heavily in their coaching talent, as Boyle points out: “the ratio of coaches to players in Germany is 1 to every 150 players whereas in England it is 1 to 812…whilst the German FA makes qualifications mandatory, our own FA sets them as ‘aspirations’ for improvement.”

The message from Boyle’s study is clear: just as we had a financial crash, we may soon have “a football crash”.  Football is developing a serious case of tooth decay: however, even as the game is crying out for a round of root canal surgery, we keep on feeding it bowlfuls of sugar.  Sooner or later, this diet is really going to hurt.

 

Euro 2012 gives us a new noun: the “cassano”

Euro 2012 has so far been an extraordinary tournament, for so many reasons. We have seen passing, playmaking and finishing of the highest order; we have seen two of the game’s elder statesmen, Andrea Pirlo and Andriy Shevchenko, at their most lethal; we have seen the Dutch undone, the Spanish stymied, the Germans surging. And that’s only on the field. Off the field, we’ve seen civil unrest, and vigorously-denied allegations of racism. But that’s not all. Euro 2012 has also given us a new noun: a “cassano”.

This noun is named after Antonio Cassano, the Italy forward who this Tuesday was asked what he thought of the rumour that there were two metrosexuals and one homosexual in his squad. He was somewhat wary of the query – “the (national) coach had warned me that you would ask me this question,” he said – but was still game enough to give an honest response. “If I say what I think … I hope there are none”, he replied. “But if there are queers here, that’s their business.”

These comments had the predictable effect. Cassano, seeing the media ablaze, quickly issued a fire blanket of a press release. “I am sincerely sorry that my comments have caused controversy and protests among gay groups”, he said. “Homophobia is not a point of view that I share. I didn’t want to offend anyone and I absolutely don’t want to put a person’s sexual freedom under discussion. I only said that it was a problem which was nothing to do with me and I don’t let myself express judgments on other people’s choices, which should all be respected.”

This press release is a textbook cassano: a retraction of an offensive statement, a retraction which occurs even faster than that very famous Dutch dragback. Typically speaking, a cassano is beautifully drafted, yet strangely unsatisfactory, as if it did not truly acknowledge the degree of offence that was caused. It wasn’t only “gay groups” – read, special interest whingers – that were put out by the forward’s words. It was a whole lot of regular people. What’s more, the presence of gay people in a football squad should not be “a problem”, as was implied in the cassano; and given the apparent contempt with which the Italian used the word “queer”, it seems unlikely that his press release was prompted by a genuine change of heart.

This is not his finest few hours, it must be said; and most people seem content to let the matter rest there. In the wider scheme of things, then, let’s look on the bright side. This forward, who has produced several memorable moments since he first emerged at Bari, has given us a new word, and has thus added to his legacy in the unlikeliest of ways.

The New York Times: A Dutch surprise

This piece originally appeared in The New York Times Goal blog, on 7 July 2010.  The link is here: http://goal.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/07/function-over-style-a-surprise-from-the-dutch/

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The Dutch are not behaving themselves. Just look at their victory over Uruguay. If someone had told you before the World Cup that the Netherlands would enjoy a 3-2 triumph at the semifinal stage, you’d imagine a game replete with skill and thrill.

But that’s not what we got. If this game resembled any kind of art, it was graffiti on a gray wall; the odd, vivid, angry outburst illuminating what would otherwise be gloom. This was typified by Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s opening goal: the ball rolled to him around 40 yards out, not as a result of a typically wondrous sequence of Dutch passing but as a hasty escape from a Uruguayan challenge. Well wide on the left, striding forward as if feeling the need to bring some beauty to what was banal, Bronckhorst crashed an astonishing drive — high, flat, and straight — in off the right-hand post.  Rarely this tournament has the Jabulani flown with such integrity.

Van Bronckhorst’s goal was, so the cliché goes, a goal fit to win any game, and for some time, the Dutch behaved as if it had. This is the only thing that can explain the complacent feet of their goalkeeper, Maarten Stekelenburg, who was too slow to shuffle across his area when Diego Forlán struck from distance in the 40th minute. The Netherlands, therefore, went into halftime haunted by familiar moments of capitulation, but to its credit it held unusually firm.  Just how unusual was typified by the two goals that the Dutch scored in the second half.  The first, a shot from Wesley Sneijder that ricocheted its way inside the far post, was not so much Total Football as Total Pinball; the second, from Arjen Robben, was, of all things, a header.

And that’s the odd thing about this most un-Dutch of World Cup campaigns.  No offense to Robben, whose range of attacking gifts is almost without parallel, but the only thing stranger than watching Robben score a header is, well, watching Sneijder score a header.  (Which, of course, he had done in the previous round against Brazil.)

So the Dutch are not behaving as expected.  Where is the highlight film from Robin van Persie, the elegance of Rafael van der Vaart?  While hardworking, they’ve barely scored or raised pulses between them. Their star player – apart from the irrepressible Sneijder, who has helped himself to five goals – has been Dirk Kuyt, which just about says it all.  Some footballers are Rolls Royces; Kuyt, purposeful and pragmatic, is a Range Rover.

It’s not as if the Dutch have been alone in being noncomformist. Take Brazil. Though it arrived in South Africa with the fanfare of the favorite, Brazil’s World Cup dreams abruptly turned out to be much vuvu about nothing. Take Germany. It was supposed to mount a cute but doomed assault upon the second round, but though its efficiency has surprised no one, its beauty has won it admiration.

It’s almost as if the Dutch have come this far by capturing that most German of concepts, the zeitgeist. Sensing that this would be a tournament in which the form guide would often be useless, they decided to play in a functional manner that no one would expect of them. They have been so successful doing so that they now find themselves on the brink of a World Cup wonderland. As Alice would say, “curiouser and curiouser.”

The New York Times: Germany 4 England 1, match report

This piece originally appeared in The New York Times Goal blog, on 28 June 2010.  The link is here:

http://goal.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/28/when-passion-turned-reckless-england-paid-the-price/

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“When Passion Turned Reckless, England Paid The Price”

The game is up.

Much emphasis — too much emphasis — is placed upon what is supposedly the England soccer team’s greatest asset, its passion. Readers of the domestic news media, and in particular its tabloids, are regularly assured that few if any footballers are more dedicated to their cause than those in English causes. This is a false orthodoxy on which many onlookers may choke — it’s not as if say North Korea were devoid of intensity during the national anthem before the Brazil match — but it’s also something of an irrelevance. During its 4-1 defeat to Germany, England was not beaten because of inadequate passion, but because of its lack of two other Ps: proper passing and positional sense.

At first glance, the pass completion rates of Frank Lampard (78 percent) and Gareth Barry (75) in central midfield compare favorably with those of their Spanish counterparts. Xavi, rightly lauded for his role in Spain’s stellar qualifying campaign, had a completion rate after three matches of 78 percent, while Xabi Alonso had one of 81. If we are conducting a postmortem of England’s World Cup campaign, the truth is not to be found immediately in the midfield passing figures.

One part of the England game that could usefully be eliminated, but for which there is sadly no readily available statistic, is the scoop. The scoop is a slow pass, lofted around waist height, that is hit over the distance of 10-15 yards. Viewed in isolation, the scoop looks fairly innocuous; but if it’s launched at a fellow player in a congested area or, worse still, hoisted across the face of a player’s own back four, it is very difficult to control, and is thus a threat to both the team’s possession and to its defense.

We saw plenty of the scoop from England against Germany. We also saw plenty of the slash — the sliced, arcing, pass hit deep from one wing to the other. This is a technique that England’s players execute with impressive and professional regularity in the Premier League, but that too regularly ended up at the feet of an opposing defender or in touch. Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard and Barry were all anxious and unsuccessful purveyors of the slash; on a handful of occasions, they selected these passes when a simple square pass would have sufficed.

The other main flaw was England’s positional sense, and here we may have had cause to rue the lack of genuinely defensive midfielders. Germany’s third and fourth goals arrived from counterattacks of beautiful simplicity, the result of English players left hopelessly exposed in space and without support. Take Thomas Müller’s first, which gave Germany a 3-1 lead. Here, Gareth Barry found himself on the edge of the opposition penalty area, several yards ahead of Lampard, who had just taken a charged-down free kick. Barry’s failure to play a telling through-pass was punished swiftly and severely, as Germany surged into the space directly behind him. Before Müller’s emphatic finish, we saw Lampard embark upon a futile 70-yard sprint toward his goal, at one point covering three attackers.

Muller’s second, and Germany’s fourth, told a tale of a fullback caught short by the length of the field. When the ball was floated clear of the German penalty area, it fell to the gleeful feet of Mezul Özil. The Germans found themselves in a race with John Terry. Terry has many qualities, but chasing down playmakers as quick as Pegasus is not one of them. Glen Johnson, England’s right back, was stranded a few yards from his opponent’s goal; when Germany scored, the next player to arrive back in the area after the forlorn Terry was Ashley Cole, who had made a fruitless pilgrimage from the left flank.

In the final analysis, it seems that England was undone by a surplus, not a surfeit, of passion. The positional mistakes that they made spoke of a desire and a desperation to do with their feet what the ball could have done both more safely and effectively. On one notable occasion in the first half, James Milner — a right-wing in England’s 4-4-2 system — was closer to the left touchline than Gerrard, who started on the left. In a split second of reflection, Germany’s counterattackers might have looked up ahead of them at the unguarded pastures ahead, and silently formed a plan.

And so the game is up. While the cacophony of rage over Lampard’s disallowed first-half goal will continue, as will the supposedly jovial jingoism aimed at Germany by English tabloids, a silent and stark truth will eventually stand out. In a tournament where most hotly tipped teams lined up with one genuinely defensive midfielder (Argentina’s Javier Mascherano) or even two (Brazil’s Gilberto Silva and Felipe Melo), England sacrificed such pragmatism on the altar of reckless tempo. Furiously kinetic, they have been eliminated from the World Cup, playing in a fashion that while true to their buccaneering traditions was cruelly and wholly exposed. At least, as they return home, they can tell all who assail them with criticism that they went out, if not in style, then certainly in their own.