Monthly Archives: October 2010

Wednesday Book Review: Soccer Against the Enemy

Kuper, Simon. Soccer Against the Enemy: How the World’s Most Popular Sport Starts and Fuels Revolutions and Keeps Dictators in Power. New York: Nation Books, 2006 (1994).

An Argentine general, upon meeting Simon Kuper and learning the subject of his book said, “Soccer and politics! What an original theme!” (208) In reality, Kuper’s book, Soccer Against the Enemy: How the World’s Most Popular Sport Starts and Fuels Revolutions and Keeps Dictators in Power, is not about soccer and politics. It’s more about soccer and life, or soccer and one particular subculture. To be sure, Kuper’s stories are entertaining, but he sometimes wanders off his point. I’m quite sure that most people can connect soccer to the sectarian violence in Scotland associated with the Old Firm or in the Balkans after the most recent war there. But there are precious few revolutions and even fewer dictators in Kuper’s book. There are, however, a lot of gangsters, superfans, and poor examples set by the English.

Kuper’s book is a product of a year-long journey around the world to various soccer hotspots (and some that were not such soccer hotspots). As a result the book is part travelogue, part match day description, and part investigative report. It is the third part on which Kuper wants the reader to focus. It is true that in some places soccer has assumed a different importance. For example, in Kiev, Dinamo Kiev was more powerful than the city government in the early 1990s. In Argentina, using soccer to cover up the nation’s problems is a tactic that dates to at least 1978. The generals in the 1990s simply used soccer more efficiently. In Africa, soccer was used as a representative example of the dysfunctional nation-state. True, soccer was used by people for various reasons, but there were not a lot of dictators to be found. Kuper wanders off his main point when discussing Croatian fans and the meaning of any Holland-Germany game (like many others, he associated it with World War II). Accidentally, he proved that soccer was a means of defining oneself as a nation.

In the last two chapters, Kuper hammers home his point by jumping around the Middle East and the Balkans. In both areas, soccer is viewed as an expression of nationalism. Like Camp Nou during the Franco era, it is perhaps the only way for people to express anti-regime feelings. Soccer, then, is capable of bringing people together and dividing them. Terrorists, as well, want to use soccer’s global reach for their own awful gains. Kuper paints a horrifying portrait of bombs at the World Cup (this section was clearly revised for the second edition, because it references 11 September 2001). To be sure, soccer is a weapon used by people in power all over the world to keep people in line. National teams, for example, take on an importance in other parts of the world – especially Africa, or new states like Croatia – that is unknown in the United States. Even the Dutch national team, in Kuper’s estimation, are a proxy for the nation itself. Playing Germany is a little war, in which the Dutch can express their resistance, once again. In the end, soccer is simply another political tool for some people, which is not an especially new thesis, but Kuper’s presentation – a comparative perspective – is eye-opening.

Simon Kuper is an excellent writer. He is engaging and eloquent, with often funny asides (though some non-sequiturs are rather pointless; then again, who am I to judge?). He never explicitly connects the dots between areas of the world, but leaves that to the reader. As a result, things can be interpreted in different ways. There are a number of small mistakes throughout the book; some are grammatical while others are factual. It’s also a shame he didn’t have time to visit Central America or Asia (in his defense, soccer wasn’t big in Asia in the early 1990s and South American soccer was more important than Central American soccer).

With all that said, Soccer Against the Enemy is an impressive book. I can see why it won awards, but I wish he had tied everything more concretely to his thesis. Nevertheless, this is a book all soccer fans should own.

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Much ado about nothing

Wayne Rooney in United colors

Wayne Rooney signed a new 5-year deal with Manchester United today, thus ending, temporarily, the speculation of him leaving.

This does not, of course, mean Rooney is United-for-life like Ryan Giggs or Paul Scholes. Both of them are probably rather peeved at the moment. Nor does it mean that Sir Alex Ferguson is changing. He is famous for cutting ties with players who want to leave, and cutting ties quickly. He did so with van Nistelrooy and Stam, to name two. There has to be more at work here, namely Sir Alex’s affection for Rooney.

That said, nobody involved comes out smelling like roses. Rooney is now perceived as greedy. Sir Alex caved (though he may be retiring the not too distant future). United have been saddled with the “unambitious” tag. Perhaps this is a stalling tactic, and Rooney will be sold in the summer, a more agreeable time for all involved. The new contract also gives United leverage in negotiations, meaning a player exchange + money deal with Real Madrid (I read Karim Benzema, Lassana Diarra, and cash for Rooney yesterday) would still be on the table. If that happens, both Sir Alex and Rooney are craftier than portrayed at the moment.

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Questions about Wayne Rooney

Wayne Rooney in United colors

I’m going to start with two immutable truths that will guide my analysis.

1. English players are overrated, especially by the English press.

2. Manchester United’s debt is far more crippling than David Gill will have you believe.

Stipulations: Wayne Rooney wants to leave Manchester United. He says he wants to leave because United aren’t showing ambition anymore. I can accept that reasoning, although Sir Alex did spend £7 million on Bebé (which is basically the same as burning it, IMO) so there must be some money to spend. Furthermore, United are tremendously in debt, despite what David Gill says about the actual money in the bank (approximately £165 million). At the same time, I don’t believe Sir Alex wants Rooney to go, despite his notoriously hard heart. I think he has a soft spot for Rooney, which may or may not be affecting his judgment.

Which brings us to the salient questions:

1. Why didn’t Sir Alex sell Rooney in August, after Rooney informed the board that he would not sign a new contract on 14 August?

The short, simple answer is that Sir Alex thought that Rooney would change his mind. That’s a reasonable assumption, because people change their minds all the time. In particular, Ferguson was relying on Rooney’s affection for the club and for the manager (they have had, apparently, a good relationship since Rooney arrived). Ferguson probably thought he could make a couple of moves to convince Rooney of United’s ambitions (i.e. to compete for the Premiership and Champions League titles). But he proved unable to sign anyone he targeted, save Bebé and, more importantly, Javier Hernández. Yet neither of those players are world-class, and neither is Chris Smalling. So if the summer signings aren’t going to convince Rooney to stay, what else can Ferguson do? He could hope for a good start to the season, or that Rooney changed his mind and signed a new contract, neither of which happened.

The fact remains that Rooney was seemingly intent on leaving and Ferguson had two weeks to sell him, and he didn’t. I have to add this to the list of Ferguson’s questionable summer decisions.

2. Wayne Rooney called United unambitious. Is that true?

No, it’s not true. United under Ferguson still wants to win the Premiership and the Champions League. The club still sees itself as one of the world’s elites and still sees itself competing for players like Mesut Özil and others. The real problem is the finances. United are crippled by the debt taken on by the Glazers to buy the team. At first, this wasn’t a problem (at least on the field) as United went on a long run of success. But now, like Barcelona, United’s debt is becoming a major problem and affecting things on the pitch. It was the debt, not a lack of ambition, that prevented Ferguson from spending in the summer (his questionable decisions are a topic for elsewhere).

3. Will Rooney be sold in January?

Highly unlikely, mostly because he is cup-tied, but also because teams rarely add such important players in the winter (except in Football Manager). That said, Ferguson would be foolish to turn down a monster offer.

4. Who does United have coming through the system?

Admittedly, I don’t know every prospect, but the only player who could conceivably step in right away is Tom Cleverley. And he’s a midfielder. So that doesn’t help. Gabriel Obertan is a winger and, at a big club, a part-time player. Hernández can start and play in every game, but he’s not a traditional striker. And Federico Macheda appears to have talent, but isn’t close to being near Rooney’s level. Danny Welbeck and Darron Gibson are eminently expendable.

5. Who will replace Rooney?

If the debt is as crippling as I think it is, there will not be a large purchase. But politics will almost force United to spend a chunk of change on at least a couple of replacement players. The easiest thing to do is take a combination of money and players back in exchange for Rooney. I’m thinking, in particular, of Real Madrid, which could offer Karim Benzema, Mesut Özil, and about £40 million. Edin Dzeko would work, but Wolfsburg don’t want to sell him, while others suggest Sergio Agüero from Atlético Madrid (the former would be nice, but the latter isn’t a straight-up replacement for Rooney). In the end, the replacement will depend on the fee United receives, which depends on the contract situation. That is, it becomes more difficult to get a lot of money for him next summer when he has only 12 months left on his contract.

Which brings us back to the first question regarding why Ferguson didn’t sell him in the summer. In the end, that may be his biggest mistake.

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Well, that figures

Of course it happened this way. The day after I write about how there’s absolutely no possible way that Wayne Rooney can leave Manchester United, Sir Alex goes out and confirms it. By ESPN’s count, Rooney would make the third world-class striker to leave in two years (ESPN says Cristiano Ronaldo is a striker [he’s not] and that Carlos Tévez is world-class [he’s not]). This, however, remains a massive problem for a multitude of reasons.

Clearly, the reason Rooney wants to leave is money. It may not be over a new contract (he’s paid approximately £100,000 per week and would probably ask for £150,000-200,000 in a new contract) but it’s probably over United’s transfer policy during the summer in which Sir Alex did next to nothing.

UPDATE, 20 OCTOBER 2010: Wayne Rooney gives his side of the story. It is, indeed, about money, but it’s also about trophies. Apparently, three straight Premiership titles and a Champions League crown only buys about 18 months of good will from a player these days. I’m not sure what to make of this, other than the fact that neither Rooney nor the board are going to come out of this clean.

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Barcelona’s massive debt

Apparently, Barcelona’s debt is a staggering $563 million.

The soccer end-times are coming for the big teams that are drowning in debt. Mark my words.

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Rooney to leave United?

Wayne Rooney (AP Photo/Martin Rickett/PA)

It’s interesting what happens when a player stops producing at a level to which he was accustomed. It’s interesting that, suddenly, his relationship with his manager is questioned and there is talk of him leaving the team. The player in question is Wayne Rooney, who clearly isn’t himself, and hasn’t been himself for several months. The fault lays with the manager or the player, or perhaps with the media (what with the incessant wondering, by British tabloids, about Rooney’s marital life, which may or may not be fair game).

All of this means that, with Jose Mourinho’s desire for a Drogba-esque striker (and because the man himself isn’t going anyway), Rooney to Real speculation becomes the norm. So, what do we know?

1. We know Rooney’s form has been, to say the least, off. And it has been off for several months.

2. His form may or may not be affected by his straying from his wife.

3. He may or may not have an ankle injury. This is the key point of contention in Wilson’s article, and the key point in transfer talk. Rooney contends that he doesn’t have a lingering ankle injury, while Sir Alex says he does.

4. The point in number 3 may or may not have led to an argument between Rooney and Sir Alex. And players who disagree with Sir Alex are not long for Old Trafford.

5. Rooney wants a new contract, and he wants on the order of £250,000 per week. He is not in a good bargaining position given his terrible form, but he is helped by the fact that his contract ends in 2012. So it’s likely a stalemate, though it’s clear that United and Rooney don’t really want to part ways.

6. All of that leads to this.

The context for the Rooney speculation is United’s terrible financial situation, and the lack of activity after the Ronaldo transfer. Antonio Valencia is a nice player, but he’s no Ronaldo. Same goes for Michael Owen, Nani, Bebé, and Chris Smalling. Sir Alex did get one right when he brought Javier Hernández in from Chivas, but that’s not enough.

No matter what Sir Alex says, there has to be pressure to save money given the club’s staggering debt. I understand selling Ronaldo, and I think it was a coup given the price received. But if United expects to contend for the title every year, it has to plug holes that are painfully obvious. Otherwise, the side will become similar to Arsenal (witness Arsène Wenger’s refusal to buy a keeper this summer). Sir Alex has obvious holes at keeper, center back, holding midfielder, and winger. It’s clear now that he has to rebuild the squad on the cheap.

Which brings us back to Rooney. Sir Alex could sell him for about £40 million, because Real Madrid would pay that in a heartbeat. It would devastate United, but it might be worth it. Even though I don’t think Rooney is going anywhere in January.

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US focusing on 2022 World Cup bid

In the official report, that goes down as a Ronaldo-style laser into the back of the net

The United States withdrew its bid to host the 2018 World Cup in order to focus on the 2022 finals. That means two things. One, that Europe is guaranteed to host the 2018 World Cup (England, Russia, Netherlands/Belgium, and Spain/Portugal are the only remaining bidders). And two, that the US will likely get the 2022 World Cup, which is fantastic. Granted, the latter is only my speculation because I don’t think the US would withdraw unless it got Europe’s support. Then again, since Europe is now competing against itself, who knows if there was a deal made (I do think the US will support England for 2018, with the reverse being true for 2022).

So, what of 2022? The remaining bidders, other than the US, are Australia, Japan, Qatar, and South Korea. Of those, I think Japan and South Korea are longshots at best, simply because they hosted the World Cup in 2002. Australia may or may not have the stadiums (there are five with capacities over 45,000 and eight between 20,000 and 31,000). The weather will be fine, though, which is nice.

I figure Qatar will be the main competition, if only because of the money it has. The problem is the temperature, which is about 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit), during the World Cup. That will necessitate covered stadiums, or very odd game times. Speaking of stadiums, there is only one 50,000 seat stadium in the country, while the others are either 20,000 or 25,000. I still think Qatar will be a serious bidder, but that the US will win out.

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