Unprofessional Foul


January 4, 2010

Gang of Four: The Worst Things About Soccer, 2000-2009

A Portrait of James T, circa late 2009

I realize this should have been posted at the end of 2009, but what are you gonna do?

As much wonder as we’ve experienced in the soccer world this decade — from transcendent players to breathtaking teams to memorable tournaments — there has been a steady stream of ugliness to go with it. We accept that, and we must move on, but not without paying homage to some of the unseemly things foisted upon us, the fans, in the first decade of the “noughties”.

Time to get grumpy!

The Proliferation of Diving
The art of simulation, dark and unsporting as it is, has been around for decades in one form or another, and in this decade it worked its way through every country and every league at every level. From pub leagues to the World Cup, the Archer’s Bow is now everywhere. It is the style of the day; trick a referee once, trick him again, and soon enough, everyone’s doing it from Didier Drogba to Steve from Accounting in your Wednesday night co-ed rec league.

Long since upheld as some continental phenomenon exported from the Mediterranean and South America, it is now firmly entrenched in just about every soccer-playing country and the English, always fast to condemn any simulator, are as good as any these days. One need only examine a Steven Gerrard or Wayne Rooney highlight reel on YouTube to see why.

The crushing pressure to win and succeed leads naturally to gamesmanship – players try to pretend they’re innocent when they commit a nasty tackle, or they beg mercilessly for a throw-in when they know the ball touched them last. No matter how abhorrent or inexcusable diving might be, it’s firmly here to stay.

Vanity Owners
We’ve all had bad bosses in the workplace, and soccer is no different. Normally, the morons only went as high as the manager’s chair and were frequently turfed out and replaced, but idiocy is now firmly entrenched in the boardroom. It’s easy to lose track of the number of dreadful, clueless owners sucking soccer teams into their investment portfolios and running them with reckless abandon, because they’re everywhere.

These owners come in several guises: there are the shadowy, anonymous consortiums, the Americans and their wheeling-dealing, loan-crazy ways, the rich oil barons who care little for the day-to-day running of the club, and there are the men with more money than sense, eager to build their League Two side into a dynastic Real Madrid clone overnight.

All of them bring a special kind of idiocy to the job, but their presence has a singularly destructive effect on the game. Clubs go bankrupt, weighed down by leveraged, precarious debt, whole squads get sold, and teams disappear overnight. Leeds, Notts County, Liverpool, Newcastle United, Manchester City, Portsmouth… all of them began with grandiose, outrageous plans and have descended into farce. Whether it be through ridicule or relegation, these clubs are not what they could, or should be.

Poll any fan of these clubs and ask them just what they think of their owners. All they want for Christmas is a competent owner running the club they’ve loved for decades. Not much to ask, is it, especially when you consider that American sports leagues have thorough vetting processes for potential franchise owners and that England is supposed to have a Fit and Proper Persons test for stopping such things from happening.

The money talks loudest, and so any fool with a few million can buy himself a slice of soccer history, run it aground, and move on without compassion. Clubs are playthings for the rich, and while some of the new wave of owners have done rather well (Randy Lerner at Aston Villa, and arguably Abramovich at Chelsea), most are unconcerned. Raise a ticket price here, sell a beloved player there, bump up your stock and sell up in search of the next big thing. While it provides us bloggers and pundits with plenty to mock and write about, it’s a bit of a stain on the game.

Sepp Blatter
Ahh, Sepp. Grandfathered into your job by close friend and predecessor Joao Havelange, there’s nothing you won’t do to swell the FIFA coffers, regardless of its rippling effect through the sport you claim to love. Sexist comments and sheer insensitivity are but the most prominent tips of the iceberg; every tournament is doled out to the highest bidder regardless of readiness (good luck with South Africa, by the way; one can only hope that fried bits of brand-new single-use stadia can solve hunger problems amongst the nation’s destitute masses) in exchange for votes, and nary a day goes by in soccer without there being a major controversy that your government fails to properly address.

If it’s not the absurdly late decision to seed playoff games to protect big soccer nations and ensure them an easier passage to the World Cup, it’s the coterie of yes men installed at every major confederation who display the same brainlessness in their business.

Take Euro 2012, for example, and the hasty decision to build a new stadium on what was hallowed Jewish burial ground. To them, such histories are insignificant. Anything goes if it brings in a profit. 80m spent on promoting youth soccer and fitness, and then a 90m marketing contract with McDonalds. Inconsistency be damned! The fact that FIFA’s home base is in Switzerland says it all. No-one will ever quite know how much money soccer’s ruling body is sitting on, but judging the amount of five-star travel its high-ranking officials do, their per diems must stretch to infinity and back, not to mention the expense accounts.

Here’s hoping that you get your wish for women’s soccer – shorter shorts – sometime in the 2010s. I fear we have a steady diet of Seppsis and his blissful incompetence at FIFA for the next decade.

Games and Tournaments for Money
Top players get injured a lot more these days, and it’s not hard to see why. The number of games played each year by top-flight clubs is steadily increasing, thanks to all the tournaments in play. Advertising and TV revenue is hard to pass up, especially if you’re one of those big clubs with debts to pay or money that must be raised for fun in the transfer market, and so we get far too many competitions to possibly care about at once.

Between the league and European competitions, that’s almost enough; add a couple of domestic trophies to the mix, a pre-season trophy, a Community Shield (if you’re in it), the European Super Cup (Champions League winner plays UEFA Cup/Europa League winner), the Club World Cup (continental champs play in a knockout tournament somewhere in Asia, so all the games happen at 11am or 3am), and any other mid-season jaunts you care to schedule, like Manchester United’s jaunt to Dubai or Aston Villa’s spa trip to the United Arab Emirates.

Then, throw in the national football associations who also need to raise money outside of World Cup or other tournament qualifications. We get two-week international breaks chock-full of meaningless friendlies (Canada v. Macedonia! France v. Jamaica!) which just represent more opportunities for players to pick up or aggravate injuries because the FAs get to pull players despite opposition from their club employers. Arsenal are without Robin van Persie for months because he had his ankle shattered in a pointless exhibition game. Fernando Torres’ groin injuries always seem to occur while he’s with the Spanish national team on a club break.

Add the U-17, U-20 tournaments, as well as the mid-season African Cup of Nations every two years (though to be fair, these tournaments not only provide the best football to watch but can only really happen in the winter due to the searing summer heat on the continent), and seemingly endless qualification games for the World Cup or Gold Cup or Copa Sudamerica or CONCACAF Champions League or whatever’s up for grabs, and we end up with exhausted, wrecked players, tournaments we can barely remember, and tons of money for those in charge. More shirts they can sell, more tickets than we can afford to buy, more sponsorship dollars they can seek, more TV money, more of everything except for quality soccer.

Did anyone watch the Club World Cup this time round? Besides Barca/Estudiantes, I struggle to remember any other teams that took part. Maybe Auckland United thumped the Pohang Steelers. Couldn’t tell you.

I normally wouldn’t complain about a saturation of regular soccer, but the line has to be drawn somewhere. When a hardcore fan can’t even recall the name of the tournament, that’s a problem, right?

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About the Author

James T