Monthly Archives: May 2009

Champion’s League Final: A study in beautiful football?

Head v. heart: who wins? Your head thinks logically, looking at the positives and negatives and comes up with a perfectly legitimate conclusion. Your heart, though, is different. It looks for something that will make it sing. Its conclusions might not be justified logically but, dammit, they just feel right. And that’s the Champion’s League Final in a nutshell: Barcelona, purveyors of beautiful football, versus Manchester United, the most efficient wrecking ball in Europe.

In the last couple of months, I’ve been reading a lot about beautiful football. The idea that Arsenal play beautiful football is absurd, though Holland had a reasonable facsimile on display in Euro 08 last summer. But, really, the only club truly devoted to beautiful football is Barcelona.

Messi v. Ronaldo

Barcelona has the midfielders and the strikers to make it work. And everything is driven by their number 10, the brilliant Argentine Lionel Messi. He brings a simultaneous joy and effortlessness to the game. Your heart wants to see him run down the side and break down 3 or 4 defenders before finally slotting it home. Or, perhaps, it wants to see him make that pass – the one he saw that nobody else could – for an easy goal by Samuel Eto’o or Thierry Henry.

Contrast that to Cristiano Ronaldo. The flopper. The fop. The no-show in big games. The man who always looks grim. Greg Lalas compared the Red Devils to an old Soviet Red Army parade: the weapons were awe-inspiring and nobody smiled. It’s a comparison that only goes so far. The old Red Army was a sham: it was built on the illusion of strength. Manchester United, though, has actual strength. It has been flexing its muscles for the last two months.

If this were a boxing match, the hype man would be shouting Ronaldo! Messi! Stadio Olimpico! The fight of this century and the next! Their individual styles are deceptively complimentary. Ronaldo is the bulldog who can show flashes of the gazelle. Messi is the gazelle who bulldogs when he has to. They are, perhaps, the two best players in the world right now.

I am a huge fan of Messi. You all know that. He’s mesmerizing. He shows up in big games. He has that sixth or seventh sense that I only remember seeing in Wayne Gretzky (and, perhaps, Mario Lemieux): the ability to see where people are going to be in a half-second. He’s a leader and Barcelona’s most influential player, despite Xavi and Iniesta and Henry, all great leaders in their own rights. Messi is the key to Barcelona’s attack and, even if he doesn’t touch the ball, he impacts how the defense reacts.

What does the Final mean, then? For Manchester United, it’s a chance to seal one of the all-time great runs in Europe and England. For Barcelona, it’s a chance to show that Beautiful Football works on, perhaps, the world’s second biggest stage.

Messi versus Ronaldo. Manchester United versus Barcelona. This could be the start of a beautiful rivalry.

Manchester United FC 3, FC Barcelona 2

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Of legalities and Jean-Marc Bosman

Jean-Marc Bosman

There are two landmark legal rulings in club soccer in terms of transfers. The first is the 1995 Bosman ruling. The second is the 2009 Matuzalém ruling.

The Bosman ruling, named after Belgian player Jean-Marc Bosman, had two important effects. First, it banned restrictions of foreign European Union members within national leagues. That is, the English Premiership could no longer count players from EU nations as foreigners, for example. Second, it allows players to move to another club for free at the end of their contract. In other words, it was soccer’s Curt Flood decision. It was a victory for players in that they had more control over where they would play. A secondary consequence was the widespread practice of foreign (i.e. non-EU players) obtaining EU passports.

The Matuzalém ruling is slightly different. It builds on the Webster case, in which Scottish defender Andy Webster used new FIFA transfer rules to extricate himself from his contract with Hearts by paying the club was he was owed (estimated to be about £250,000). Matuzalém moved from Ukrainian club Shahktar to Spanish club Real Zaragoza in July 2007 using that ruling as his basis. Shahktar appealed to FIFA and was awarded €6.8 million. The club, understandably, felt that wasn’t enough for their captain and leading goal-scorer. So it appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).

The CAS, in its Matuzalém ruling, refined the Webster ruling and scaled back some of the player’s power to extricate himself from his contract. The new ruling takes into account the player’s importance to the team, his salary, and the timing of his departure in determining the compensation owed. In Matuzalém’s case, that compensation is €12 million.

This is a good ruling. It restores some of the balance to the transfer system. Players should have the right to move when their contract ends, of course, so the Bosman ruling is crucial. The Matuzalém ruling reigns in some of the threat to clubs imposed by the Webster ruling; it restores the balance, which is crucial. It also renders moot Sepp Blatter’s asinine comparison of professional soccer players to slaves. This is a good ruling that is good for the game, even if Real Zaragoza disagrees.

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To honor the bottom of the table

Newcastle United is relegated... as they should be

Whenever a team clinches the league title early, speculation abounds over what the manager will do in the final couple of games. Who will he play? The choice is usually between his top players or some of his youngsters lacking experience (I exclude Arsenal from this because all of their players are 12 years old). It becomes a bit more complicated when the final game is the champion versus a team fighting for relegation. This year’s case on point is Manchester United v. Hull.

The problem, as I see it, is that the champion (Manchester United, in this case) is seen as responsible for the “integrity” of the league. As such, those who are not Hull City – Sunderland, Newcastle, and Middleborough – want United to field a full-strength team. They want this because (a) there is probably no circumstance under which Hull could beat a full-strength Manchester United squad; and (b) they’ve failed to make their own chances count over the previous 37 weeks and thus want help from the top. I’m not saying those reasons aren’t legitimate, mind you, I’m just saying that it’s a bit odd to expect Manchester United, in this case, to do to anything other than what’s best for them. That is, Manchester United will most certainly not play everyone because they have one more game that means everything: the Champion’s League Final on May 27.

I can appreciate that managers are friends. I can also appreciate that, with the stakes lowered for one team, another team – perhaps the manager’s friend – might benefit. What I can’t appreciate is a group of people manipulating the concepts of “honor” and “integrity” for their own selfish gain. There’s no honor in demanding that someone else manage their team for your benefit when you’ve played pretty consistently bad over the course of the season. Whining about one’s precarious relegation position is not honorable. And neither are calls for Sir Alex Ferguson to do anything other than what’s best for his team.

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Today’s WTF moment: Wenger to Real Madrid

Arsene Wenger

Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger was asked to comment on managing Real Madrid on the weekend. He said:

“With Florentino Pérez in charge, the project he has put forward would be ­interesting for any coach but I would prefer not to comment on this.”

That is, as the Guardian noted, the first time he’s never come out and said he’s committed to Arsenal. Very interesting. I’m inclined to believe, along with some others, that Wenger is posturing for a larger transfer kitty this summer. That, too, is interesting. In the past he hasn’t usually made a big deal about money, mostly because he’s content to buy infants in pursuit of the never-present “future.”

The change means, of course, that he might be listening to his prize recruit, Andrei Arshavin, who has recently declared that Arsenal need more “players like [him]”. Arshavin means, of course, players who are 27 or so. That is, players who have already developed a little and won’t crack under the pressure of European competition. Arshavin is, of course, correct in his analysis. When has Arsenal played its best since January? With him in the line-up. Granted, he’s a singularly talented player, but it can’t hurt to have a couple of more players like him, with similar experience, on the back line and in the middle of the pitch. Perhaps this vague shot across the bow of the Arsenal board is Wenger’s first signal that he’s ready to supplement his kiddie corps with some able veterans.

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Florentino Pérez states the obvious

Florentino Perez

Florentino Pérez officially announced his candidacy for President of Real Madrid today with the stunning announcement that Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the best players in the world.

I’m shocked.

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Into the labyrinth

I don’t know a lot about Asian soccer so you’ll have to excuse me if I start talking out of my ass but it seems to me that the recent Asian Football Confederation (AFC) election to determine would be the region’s representative on the “all-powerful FIFA Executive Committee” is a microcosm of how FIFA itself works. To wit, there was an extraorinarily public catfight between the current representative, Mohamed Bin Hammam, and his challenger, Sheikh Ahmad Al Fahed. There were allegations of vote buying and vote denying. And both Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini showed up, probably for political reasons (Hammam is seen as one of Platini’s main competitors for Blatter’s job when the latter finally slinks away).

That seems to be business as usual for FIFA organizations. Leaders treat the organization and its arms as their own personal fiefdom and spin the results as positively as possible. In reflecting on the absurdly close 23-21 victory for Hammam, Blatter said, “I like close votes as it shows that football’s democratic system is working.” On the one hand, yeah, he could be right, but only if the vote’s closeness is a result of genuine democracy. Instead, the AFC vote appears to denote a dysfunctional federation bent on cleaving itself in half.

I don’t think all of FIFA is broken; I do think that it suffers from UN Disease. That is, too many chefs are spoiling the broth. Perhaps a streamlined organization would help. Perhaps clearer election protocols. Perhaps even more Swiss lawyers – those paragons of integrity – to monitor elections. I hope, for the AFC’s sake, that it gets its act together.

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On MLS expansion, briefly

It’s easy to dismiss the notion of a second MLS team in the Greater Toronto Area as typical Toronto self-centeredness. Except that it kinda sorta makes sense, especially when seen in light of the 2007 U-20 World Cup held in Canada. By all accounts that tournament was a pretty good success, at least in Toronto. That is not to say that a second team should be added now, but it should perhaps be considered in the future.

One thing that is worrisome is MLS’s desire to expand quickly. The ideal number of teams is probably 20; it will have 18 by 2011, with the addition of Philadelphia, Portland, and Vancouver. It needs to be careful now and cultivate the game’s grassroots in English-speaking North America. That means better quality facilities and clarifying the role of youth academies and the NCAA (and the CIS). It also likely means a salary bump for most players, especially those at the bottom. The Canadian Soccer Association also needs to get its act together and work with MLS and the USSF to ensure Canada isn’t left behind.

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Beautiful football… or not

I’ve been reading a lot lately about beautiful football and how Barcelona and Arsenal supposedly play that way. Now, Barça I can understand. They do the tic-tac-toe build up with ultra-talented midfielders and very capable strikers. They have Messi to make sparkling runs whenever things get clogged. They have capable fullbacks who can make a stop and make the right pass. Arsenal, alas, has none of that.

Arsenal’s infants are talented – which is because Wenger’s scouting system is first-class, I’ll give him that – but they have neither the experience (since they’re all under 22 and just got done playing in their local house league) nor the technique (because they haven’t had time to learn it). I can appreciate that Wenger wants to play a certain way; but you need to go get players to fit in to that way. In Arsenal’s case, everything revolves around the central midfield. Cesc Fàbregas is an outstanding player, perhaps one of the top 25 in the world, off the top of my head. But he can’t do it all himself. Thus, as in Football Manager, Arsenal’s midfield needs balance; it needs a holding mid with power and poise. In short, it needs its own Genaro Gattuso. Unfortunately, because of Wenger’s asinine transfer and contract policy, he’s not able to hold on to players when they reach their prime. Thus, Arsenal’s desire for beautiful football – meaning flowing runs and passes right onto the feet of those runners – is stillborn.

That is not to say that the potential for beautiful football isn’t there. Theo Walcott is a gifted athlete and a talented player but in no way can he be considered a world-class player. His skills need refining so Wenger should look for a technically gifted winger on the downside of his career to come in and tutor Walcott for a couple of years. It would do wonders for the boy and, perhaps, for Arsenal’s vision of itself.

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Filed under Champions League, Premiership