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Thursday, August 17, 2006

A Friendly Way to Waste Our Time

Two years ago, discussing the problem of coping with the loss of essential players at Newcastle, Graeme Souness uttered the words that FIFA fear the most:

“International friendlies are a waste of time – full stop.”

That sentiment has been echoed many times over the years by many managers, and for a long time it seemed like a convenient excuse for managers with huge coffers to explain to the supporters why despite enormous investment in internationals, they still couldn’t get results. This year, Jose Mourinho and Rafael Benitez have taken opposite approaches to the question, abjectly negative and mutedly positive respectively, but one suspects their underlying sentiments remain exactly the same, and not dissimilar to that of “Chop” Suey.

The results of this latest round of scrimmages makes it hard to argue against them. It makes little sense that players who are scarcely fit enough to play 90 minutes for their club (who pay their wages we might add) are obliged to attend a call-up to their national teams, less than two months since the World Cup, for a meaningless pre-season friendly. This after the EPL season last year was shortened by a few days to meet FIFA’s special World Cup requirement of ending all league competitions a full 2 weeks prior to the World Cup. If FIFA are so concerned about over-burdening the players, then why have they allowed this nonsense to go forward?

Club vs Country

Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger made the club-versus-country row famous in England, by creating phantom injuries to reserve key players for important club matches, when their preparations were interrupted by meaningless international friendlies. Nolberto Solano was axed from Newcastle due in no small part to his insistence on playing for Peru. This after assuring Robson, then Souness, during contract negotiations at Newcastle that his days of playing for his national team were over.

Later Sven Goran-Eriksson, ever the wily weasel, made agreements with club managers to use his England stars sparingly to avoid over-exertion, which resulted in the even more absurd practice of unlimited substitions. He once replaced an entire team with the exception of the goal-keeper to keep his promise. Later when he (was convinced) he needed Wayne Rooney for England’s World Cup chances, he went back on his agreement with Man U to allow them to determine Rooney’s fitness and date of return to action following a broken foot sustained 6 weeks before the World Cup. Without concern for club retribution, since he was leaving the post, “Slick” Sven couldn’t have cared less about breaking his word. Nothing like sabotaging the next manager by going back on your word, eh Sven?

Today, the practice continues, but players going on suspension seems to have solved some of the problem, while the lack of intensity in these matches mitigates the risk of injury. It is that lack of intensity that makes the games all the more useless, but clubs still face stiff penalties if they refuse to allow a player called up for national team duty even for friendlies. The respective FAs make a pretty penny from these dressed up training sessions. Players want to play internationals; some for love of country, but most for love of money. The black hand of big transfer fee percentages awaits a run-of-the-mill player who can call himself an international when he's sold to another club, so they can't resist. The only ones that lose are the clubs who can lose a player to injury or fatigue, and the fans who are subjected to these "games".

Results? What Results?

But it’s the utter meaninglessness of these latest results that really opens the eyes to the absurdity of it all. All seems to be well for the McVenables era with a 4-0 drubbing of current European Champions Greece (boy that’s hard to say with a straight face). Given that the victory came in a half empty stadium at Old Trafford, it seems even before the match England fans were taking this game with more than a grain of salt. At the very least, McVenables showed the fallacy of their predecessor’s English galacticos policy, dropping Becks, and being forced into omitting (Joe) Cole, Rooney and Owen due to injury. But if anyone in England thinks this is some kind of harbinger of success, remember that England went to the World Cup with a 6-0 drubbing of Jamaica and promptly put on one of the worst performances in recent memory.

Goals from Terry, Lamps and a pair from the praying mantis Tim Crouch suggests that improvements have been made, but all it shows me is how foolish English hero-worship is and how bad Greece truly are (casting their miraculous victory, and their more illustrious competitors’ inexplicable failures in Portugal, in a whole new light). Aside from Frankie "Four Finger's" blooper-reel goal, which was clearly an own-goal, but was surely “adjusted” to boost the poor man’s confidence, the England goals were down as much to unbelievably poor defending, and a Greek team that was clearly there to pick up a nice pay check for their FA. But that's what you get when the money is guaranteed and nothing is at stake. And while this will no doubt lead to absurd expectations in England, what it ought to lead to is a re-examination of the value of these games.

Spain went all the way to Iceland to waste our time with a 0-0 ballet, highlighted by the shocking revelation that there are at least 12,000 people in Iceland dumb enough to pay money to watch this dog and pony show. The only news from this match was Raul's 100th match for Spain, and based on his performance, hopefully his last. Then again, if you haven't got comic/tragic drama in these games, then you haven't got anything. A free trip to the hot springs of Iceland, and a pay check for the Spanish and Icelandic FAs, yes, but as my father has always told me, “You can always make more money, but once you’ve wasted time, that’s gone forever.” Gone indeed. Does anyone for a second think that Iceland are the equals of Spain? Even Eidur Gudjohnsen couldn't bring himself to play in this game, and he probably could have gotten on the same plane that the Barcelona players did, but most of them had the good sense to avoid this farce.

Holland went all the way to Landsdowne Road to dress dow Ireland 4-0, billed as a grudge match for the Irish exclusion of the Dutch from Korea/Japan 2002, even though only 1 of the 22 men that started the match were even on the rosters at the time. And Dirk Kuyt has once again proven that the friendlies are meaningless because despite his abject inability to produce yesterday, he’s still on the verge of a 10 million pound transfer to Liverpool. Will he become their Ruud van Nistelrooy, or their Baudenwin Zen…wait a minute, they already have Zenden, so I guess that's their Jan Kronkamp...sorry, their Erik Meijer (anyone remember him?) Clearly the Liverpool staff have taken nothing away from this match, and we’ll be seeing Dirk “Diggler” Kuyt, smearing the Anfield cinema-plex with his 8mm game. True Ireland are a quality side, but without Robbie Keane or Shay Given, are we to take this game seriously?

But by far the most ridiculous result, is the 1-1 draw between Brazil and Norway. With a “new-look” side, that excluded the so-called “magic” quartet, the the press-stopping headline reads: “Norway Maintains Its Unbeaten Record Against Brazil”. Now this isn’t a women’s international headline, but the absurdity of it, and/or drawing any conclusions from it, serve as a reminder that in football, the only thing that counts is results in the current competition. Since there is no current competition, it follows that this result is meaningless. No doubt some Swiss bank accounts have been replenished following this highway robbery, but the real surprise is that, given Brazil’s abysmal performance at the World Cup with their “best” players, it would have made more sense if they crushed Norway with their reserves. But even they couldn’t bring themselves to take this more seriously than a pick-up game with shiny red and yellow pennys. If, say, Brazil and Norway played in the final match of the first round of the World Cup in 2010, and a place in the next round were at stake, does anyone think the vaunted Norwegians would maintain their "unbeaten" record? Please.

The Solution

Do away with international friendlies altogether. That's right, just get rid of them. The schedule is already so congested, these games just pose a risk that an important player won’t be able to earn his wages for his club. That FIFA have reduced the weight of these games in their world rankings (and the fact that the rankings aren't used for World Cup seedings anyway) shows just how laughable is the manufactured meaning of these games. The argument against this is that managers need time to “experiment” prior to their Euro2008 qualifiers, but wouldn’t the games be more interesting if real players played with something at stake, without the physical burden of all these other meaningless games. Wouldn't that be a better basis for managers to judge their players? And if all the teams qualifying for Euro2008 didn’t play in these games, wouldn’t the effect be universal, so nobody would be unduly burdened?

There’s only one reason the show must go on, and it’s not so that the teams can “gel”, or to "vet" new talent, who are never used when it counts. They play these games to make some money for their FAs, which they promptly use to either buy vacation homes, promote themselves, or their football - probably in descending order of frequency. This may be good for youth teams within those FAs, or the women's game, but if that's the objective, then let’s really put something at stake. Then the value of these games, both sporting and monetary, would go through the roof.

Set aside a week in the summer of the off-year (2007) for a series of 1-week round robin charity competitions, the money coming from national team sponsors, of which there are plenty, with $10M going to the winner’s FA, to go directly to a fund managed by charities chosen by the players. That way the reason for the games is transparent (money) something is really at stake (money) the games have some bite, the FA’s save money on travel because they all go to one site for one-week only, and we don't waste our time watching these "River-Dance" exhibitions.

Another option would be to play only games that mean something. For example, CONCACAF, Asia and South America would have qualifers for the Gold Cup, Asian Cup of Nations and Copa America, each to be held every 2 years, but restricted to only the 4 teams that qualify, then have a 3 game round-robin, plus a final and a 4th place game. African nationals already do this, but that doesn't stop them from taking the money and running from these international friendlies either. Certainly the big money clubs in Europe, currently in love with young, cheap African talen would welcome the elimination of friendlies that take players who are exploited by their clubs, and exploit them for their FAs.

FIFA and UEFA will never accept this, of course, because they control the FA’s of the world through money, and so they need to offer the guarantee of these friendlies to ensure that the respective FA get their gratuities. Hence the stiff penalties for clubs refusing to allow players to attend. Frankly we’d all be better off if everybody took a little less money (clubs, players and FAs), and eliminated these games altogether. They use up players, they fail to deliver quality soccer, and they’re a big thorn in the side of club teams trying to prepare for their seasons.

Which, by the way, until the next real international competition comes around is all we really care about anyway.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The English FA: Bringing the Game Into Disrepute

There’s a saying that a fish rots from the head. Truer words were never spoken when it comes to the real culprit for the never-ending string of international disappointments for the England team – the English FA.

The English FA are the only FA that refers to itself as the FA – no doubt invoking its historical importance as the founders of the rules of the modern game, and the hosts of the oldest football competition on the planet, The FA Cup. But given their unbearably asanine decisions and influence on the England team over the years, it’s become clear that delusions of grandeur are not restricted to history.

It’s hard to comprehend how, since 1966 (40 years in the wilderness) the FA from the country with the richest league on the planet, have managed to miss out on any international success, while comparative world football minnows with no pedigree to speak of like Denmark and Greece (yes, that’s Greece) have a European Championship each to their credit. But then again, it’s hard to imagine the same three-ring circus at any other national football association.

The Rub: PR vs Results

The problem boils down to the following – while other football associations are concerned primarily with results, the same cannot be said of the English FA. The FA is run by PR whores who are only concerned with promoting English football and will do anything for publicity, up to and including creating the worst possible environment for success. The irony is that nothing would promote English football more than an international victory of some kind (any kind), but that of course, is the least of their concerns.

If there is any doubt, consider the extent to which meaningless friendlies are hyped in England beyond the limits of credibility, and it comes as no surprise that results, whether or good or bad, and are exaggerated by media, managers and players alike. Is it any surprise then that the friendlies are treated as either dressed up training sessions (with limitless substitutions) or monumental clashes of the titans (like those with Germany and Argentina)? The relentless stream of absurd records and streaks that strain common sense (“England haven’t conceded a first half goal to S. American opponents outside of Wembley since 1963”) says it all. Listen for them in any Sky Sports studio broadcast (the FA's co-conspirators in this sordid tale), and you’ll see just how far out of context the FA and the English seem to put everything. The result? More hot-air than russian sauna and absurd expectations like, "We've really got a chance to win the whatever", that makes England players choke when things are really on the line. Nobody but Jerry Seinfeld cares so much about nothing.

As the FA Turns: The England Captain”cy”

If you’re not convinced, consider the role of the England captaincy in the FA. First off – who’s ever heard of a captaincy? What’s that like, a presidency? And how many times have we had to listen to meaningless interviews from David Beckham or Alan Shearer over the years, just because they’re the England captain? People act like the England captain is the prime minister, with the unheard of “vice-captaincy” recently given to Steven Gerrard as a kind of consolation prize for losing out on the “honor” to John Terry. Have you ever heard of a “vice-captain”? Of course not – only the English. The reason of course, is that in their never ending effort to promote English football, rather than go in search of real results (which is the base of the popularity of the Brazilian, Argentine and French) they’ve taken the easy way out and promoted English stars. How? They take the most popular EPL Englishmen, and trot them out as the stars of the England team, and attempt to pass off this band of under-achieving chokes as a star-studded line-up.

As such, the role of the captain has taken on a meaning all its own – completely out of context. Attaching all these contrived statistical "accomplishments" to it is just another way for the FA to say how great English football is – and that’s how you get a vice-captain named Steven Gerrard. Look, every team’s got to have a captain, and Steven Gerrard is as good as any, but when you get Steve McLaren paying a visit to Gerrard at Melwood to “inform” him of this “crucial” (which loosely translated means “important only in the eyes of the delusional English”) decision over which he’s pondered since taking the reigns, you get a dog and pony show that Barnum and Bailey would be proud of.

Have you ever heard of a captain “resigning” at a press conference, and then announcing to the world that he still wants to play for England (David Beckham 2006)? What's next? He gives us the V sign before boarding Air Force One and opening up a "captain-ential" library? How about a captain announcing before the competition that this will be his last in a shameless attempt to “good-will” himself into a permanent place in the tournamen (Alan Shearer Euro2000). This is all part of the surreal hype-machine that is the English FA, and makes coaches in other leagues do double-takes when they get the feeds from Sky Sports. Only in England my friends, only in England.

Eriksson and the FA: A Match Made in PR Heaven

And how about the 6-year reign of Sven-Goran Eriksson? He himself is a shameless, albeit tireless, self-promoter. That’s how he got caught betraying everybody including Aston Villa (a team with which he had no association, mind you) on an imaginary Arab oil-sheik’s yacht, while positioning himself to become the next manager of the club. This was nearly 5 months before David O’Leary got his bum off of that titanic. In fact, in their pathological obsession with self-promotion, the FA and Eriksson was a match made in PR heaven. The Swede never saw a microphone he didn’t like, made a deal with the devil called Becks, and even came up with the brilliance to drop Jermaine Defoe for Theo Walcott, who (surprise, surprise) didn’t step on the field once for England at the World Cup. This was right around the time when the rub on Eriksson was that he didn't take risks. All the while he's saying, “I know it’s a risk - a big risk - but sometimes in life you have to take risks.”

Yes, I’ll take “grabbing the headlines” for 1000 Alex.
This Swedish born manager, grabbed this headline, but took no actual risks, when he took 17-year old Theo Walcott to the World Cup, and never bothered to play him.
What is “Sven, the Risk-Taker?”
Correct for 1000 imaginary credibility points!

The truth is that in their obsession to promote the game, by building up their players beyond recognition, the FA created an unhealthy atmosphere of obsession with individuals, and this started long before Eriksson took over.

The Untouchables

We all remember that Alan Shearer, the anointed one, scored some goals at Euro96, but does anyone remember that he hadn’t scored for 20 months before that competition? So why was he an automatic selection for the next four years? Only the FA knows.

In 1996 there were 4 English players who had scored 25 goals or more in the EPL: Alan Shearer, Robbie Fowler, Kevin Phillips and Andy Cole. Guess how many featured at Euro96? You guessed it – 1 Alan Shearer. Why, you may ask?

Yes, I’ll take sucking up to the anointed one for 800 Alex.
Terry Venables did this in Euro96, because it was the only way to fulfill the FA’s dream of their poster boy lifting the trophy on home soil.
What is “picking Teddy Sheringham?”
Correct for 800 fleeting publicity points!

In fact Fowler and Phillips each had 3 season of 30+ goals in all competitions in the 90s, but in the Shearer-worship era of the modern FA, none of them got a serious chance to play for England, and so England’s results went as Shearer did. If he scored, they did well, if he didn’t they lost – no substitutes, no third strikers, they just lost.

Then it became Michael Owen’s turn to occupy the untouchable chair, following his publicity gold mine goal against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup, and he proceeded to give England plenty of goals in friendlies, and exactly nothing at all when it counted. I think Graeme Souness said it best when he stated, “International friendlies are a waste of time, full-stop”. Full-stop indeed, because when it counted, Owen was about as useless as a one-armed man in a push-up contest. But didn’t he make the English proud when they beat Argentina in that “crucial” friendly against last year?

And how about David “the King of the media-whores” Beckham? Why, oh why was it so “crucial” for him to play every minute of every game in Germany 2006? Other than a few nice free-kicks, what did they get from him? When Aaron Lennon went into the game, and made Beckham look like he was playing with lead shoes, his wife Sven stood by her man, and moved Becks to…right-back? And when the English needed a spark in the quarterfinal against Portugal, they had to do it 10 with men, due in no small part to its obsession with an ill-tempered (is there any other kind) Wayne Rooney just coming off a six week vacation. Absurdity - pure absurdity.

Why did he do this? Because after promoting Captain Beckham to cabinet minister status, and Michael Owen as the “next” England captain, and Wayne Rooney as the second coming of Zeus, they couldn’t possibly drop all of them even, if it were in their best interest, because the manager, and by association the FA would have taken all the heat if they lost.

See, losing with a mix of "stars" that every team has, and workers that every team need, there is always the lingering question of, "Did we give it our best chance?" But when you lose with a team full of stars, the stars underperformed. Either way, if they lose, which they had to know they were going to lose, the heat's off the FA because they're doing what everyone want them to do - put the 11 biggest stars on the field at once and have at it. Never mind that any Guinness drinking imbecile in the UK could manage, if it were so simple. Managing is about preparation and then getting the chemistry right - that's what the manager is paid to know because it's hard to know. That's where the risk-taking comes in.

Well, as it were, they rolled with dice and they lost anyway, but luckily for them they had a welcome scapegoat in Cristiano Ronaldo, who I’m sure will be “bringing the game into disrepute” some time this September. As they say, watch this space. If Ronaldo doesn’t break a bone or bleed profusely from wounds caused by any tackle that sends him to ground, you can bet the FA will trot out their, “bringing the game into disrepute” bag just to show how tough they are on ill-disciplined players.

Never mind that Rooney and Scholes are now serving a 3-match bans for violent conduct in Amsterdam. Never mind that Rooney gets away with cursing visibly at every referee in the EPL, and never get so much as a caution. Never mind that he gets a way with shoving and intimidating anyone with a 3-yard radius every week in the EPL, but as soon as he mouths off in Europe, or steps on somebody’s groin in the World Cup, he’s rightfully sent off by referees who don't care that he's the English golden boy, just as the referees in England shouldn't. The FA take no responsibility for that absurdity, or the complicit referees who have one set of rules for foreigners, and another for British players. But say one bad word about Mike Riley, who somehow winds up refereeing and awarding phantom penalties to Man U every time he’s on the whistle, and it’s a 3-match ban for “bringing the game…”, well you get the point.

The Left Midfield Problem

Google it and you’ll (literally) get a million hits, most of them from English IPs. What’s this all about, you may ask? Well, an obsession with star quality, fomented by the FA, created a masochistic obsession with the left midfielder that never was – one Ryan Wilson Giggs. Giggs was the most popular young player in the EPL in the years 8-1 BC (that’s “Before Captain” Beckham) and actually turned out for England schoolboys before becoming an EPL star, a fact the FA wasted no time in pointing out over and over again - I'm sure it's still on the FA site. All the while hoping some of his popularity would still rub off on the England team, no doubt.

This created the unintended consequence of focusing the country’s attention on the “who is our Ryan Giggs problem” disguised as the “left midfield problem”. Sven tried everyone in that position, a bunch of clowns with good promo value, but no quality, and of course somehow the English convinced themselves that this was the missing piece of the puzzle.

7 years AD (“Anno Disastrum”) Joe Cole seems to have cemented that position as his own, but has it resulted in any international success? So what happened to the “left midfield problem”? Well, as Giggs aged, all that hot air about the left midfield problem dissipated, revealing what was obvious – that the problems with the England team go a lot deeper than some twinkle-toes and a permanent 5’clock shadow.

Manage England? No, O brigado!

When they had a chance to hire a real international manager with a proven record, and the England team’s number, I might add, they found a way to blow that too. It was all on the cards to sign Big Phil Scolari – a World Cup winner with Brazil, and the man responsible for the resurgence of the Portguese national team to greater international success than the English, with a much worse league, I might add.

But the FA being slaves to publicity, which also means being slaves to the British media, were so obsessed with looking like everything was in working order, insisted that Scolari announce his intentions before the World Cup, after embarrassingly having to sever ties with Eriksson 2 years before the end of his contract. Now, the hyperbolic media maelstrom that ensued aside, imagine you’re Scolari, you’re managing Portugal in the World Cup, and you come up against an England team you’ve announced you’re going to manage after the World Cup? What questions would be raised about your professionalism if you lose? What if your players foul the hell out of the English players, sending a couple of players to the MRI booth, “ruining England's World Cup dream” as it would have undoubtedly been portrayed in the media?

Only an imbecile or PR slut would welcome that situation, and if the roles had been reversed, I’m certain Eriksson would have obliged. But even the prospect of being the highest paid national team manager in history wasn’t enough to lure Scolari to soccer’s version of the cirque du soleil. And for that matter, rather than admitting that Eriksson was the wrong man for the job mid-way through his term and hiring A.B.E (anybody but Eriksson) the FA couldn’t resist the need to appear to be the wise and steady hands, and stuck with Eriksson through fornication with their secretaries, crap results, and no entertainment value to their football. In fact the only thing that forced their hand was, not six years of missed opportunities, but an MTV real-world sting operation by some hacks from the tabloids. And the rest they say is history.

Just like the FA’s importance.

New Manager, Same Story

And the signs are as clear as day that McLaren, who although he made the obvious decision to drop Beckham, is falling down the same path as his predecessor. No sooner was he picked, than the immediate label of sloppy-seconds was splashed all over him. Five minutes later they were asking him who would be his next captain? The FA, trying to look like they’re just keeping the ball rolling, have picked an international manager with a dubious managerial record, and whose only international record is that of being Eriksson’s number two…pun intended. And with all the changes that he’s making, one wonders what the hell those two geniuses talked about in the boot room?

Further more, rather than taking the obvious decision to drop Lampard and play Gerrard in the middle with Hargreaves, he’s chosen to play Gerrard on the right. On the right! At Liverpool that may make sense some of the time. But they don’t do it all the time, and certainly wouldn’t if they had Aaron Lennon available (insert Jermain Pennant at Liverpool). Instead he puts Gerrard on the right, and keeps Lamps in the middle, and voila – you’ve got your headlines!

“Come watch this meaningless friendly for England with EPL stars, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and the current English flavor of the month ____! (Enter appropriate flavor of the month: Shaun Wright Phillips, Andy Johnston, Dean Ashton, etc.)”

The circus comes to Old Trafford this week, until the other FA brainchild – the new Wembley stadium – completes its design phase. Frankly I could give less than a damn about the England team, because my interests are only in the EPL, which I can’t get enough of, but that is no thanks at all to their albatross: the English FA.

The sooner heads roll at the FA, the sooner England will have some silverware to show for all their resources.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Soccer’s Greatest Myth

The biggest myth in the game of soccer is the presumed relationship between the quality of a domestic league and the quality of a national team. Nowhere on earth is that myth more zealously purported than in the US. And given the quality of results we’ve seen last month from MLS teams against international opponents, the inevitable round of nonsensical predictions about the impact these results will have on the US Men’s national team is in full force.

From the MLS All-Star victory over Chelski, to DC United’s 4-0 shellacking of Celtic and 1-1 draw against Real Madrid, the unbearable punditry postulations are flowing like unruly away supporters from a tear-gassed section of the stands. An unfortunate side-effect of the current deluge of soccer available on US television, is the commensurate barrage of idiotic commentary from American analysts who are either ignorant of soccer's greatest myth, or just plain ignorant.

The theory goes as follows: in order to have a strong national team, you need a strong domestic league that serves as a convenient feeder of quality players, which translates into to success in international competitions. This theory, which upon examination is so vigorously sold around the world, not just in the US, one wonders who is responsible for its perpetuation and for what purpose.

Let’s start with the supposed best leagues in the world today in no particular order:

The EPL (England)
La Liga (Spain)
Serie A (Italy)
The Bundesliga (Germany)
Ligue 1 (France)
Eredivisie (Holland)

At first glance, the myth rings true, since next to the names of the leagues are some of the best national teams in the world. But curiously absent are a few countries that are perennial favorites for every international tournament they enter, as well as a few notable absences that have actually won something with rather mediocre leagues and a few anomalies to the theory that bear explanation, and we'll get to later.

The following is the first installment in a series of posts that dispels the greatest myth in soccer, provides an explanation for why it isn’t true, and concludes with some ideas of what actually makes a great footballing nation that consistently or even just periodically, challenges for international titles. Ultimately, the last post will examine MLS, the US national team, and what, if any, ought to be the relationship between the two, and why it’s currently so out of synch.

The Problem with England

The problem with England is that it's probably the only country in the world whose media and out of control PR black hand, by their hype of anything they can get their hands on, contribute to unreasonable epxectations, unbearable pressure and one big failure after another. By far the biggest example of the league to national team myth is the EPL, the old English First Division, and the England team. Remember that England haven’t won anything in 40 years (1 World Cup on home soil - nothing before and nothing since), while the EPL, according to an audit by Deloitte & Touche in 2002 accounts for 25% of all profits in European football. One explanation of why England have failed so miserably internationally, despite having the most financially successful league in the world, is that the EPL, in terms of footballing quality is simply over-rated.

Now anyone who’s ever suffered through 90 minutes of an EPL classic between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Southampton may commiserate. But inconvenient to this explanation is the fact that Manchester United and Liverpool have both won the European Cup in the last 7 years, and English teams have been in the European Cup semi-finals or quarter-finals every year since the 1996-1997 season. Modern economic considerations aside, it is on historical analysis that this theory really falls on its face.

Consider that between 1974 and 1985, long before the EPL began, English teams won an astounding six European Cups in a row, 7 out 11, and an equally impressive 9 final appearances, between Liverpool, Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa and Leeds United (Liverpool won 4 of 5 finals in which they played, while Leeds played in and lost their lone final in 1974 to the great Ajax team). So from all that interational pedigree and all that success, what exactly did the England team win in that period? You guessed it, a nice hot cup of jack squat.

Now the cynic would suggest that the best players in those Liverpool teams weren't even English. A sampling of the Liverpool stars from that period suggests as much (Kenny Dalglish, Alan Hansen and Graeme Souness are Scottish, John Toshack and Ian Rush are Welsh, not to mention all the Irishmen). You may also say that the EPL is currently overloaded with foreign talent, English players don’t make up the best teams in the EPL, and thus the national team doesn’t stand to benefit from the success of those teams. But take a look at the following list of players, and ask yourself what international manager wouldn't like to get his hands on the following players:

Wayne Rooney
Paul Robinson
Gary Neville
Ashley Cole
Sol Campbell
Jamie Carragher
John Terry
Rio Ferdinand
Steven Gerrard
Frank Lampard
Joe Cole
Jermaine Jenas
Aaron Lennon
Peter Crouch
Michael Carrick

What do these players have in common? They were all regulars in the top 5 teams in the EPL. In fact, that list doesn’t give the entire picture, there are more players not included, in this list, that either came from the EPL (David Beckham) and/or are in teams not in the top 5 (Michael Owen), or just weren't even included in the National team at all (Jermain Defoe, Shaun Wright Phillips). You could argue that this is, in fact, an embarrassment of riches - and you'd be right.

Curiously, the best English players on the best English teams, are precisely the players who have miserably under-achieved for England. Frankie “Four Fingers” Lampard didn’t see a shot he didn’t like in Germany – he also never saw his name on the scorer’s sheet, despite playing every minute of every game for England, and literally taking more shots than anyone in the tournament. And while Gerrard made a good account of himself in the first 3 games, he faltered in the knock-out stages. For that matter, who can forget his ghastly give away to Thierry Henry that cost England a point against France in Portugal 2004. Joe Cole looked great for about 15 minutes against Sweden, and Becks was his usual useless self for all but the 60 seconds he spent taking every free kick awarded to England for 5 games. Rooney got himself sent off when it counted, as did Beckham in France 1998. In fact, thanks to the extraordinary David Seaman’s very ordinary positionary sense (a la Peter Shilton in 1990) in Korea/Japan 2002, England squandered a chance to overcome a 10-man Brazil team. This is by no means a complete list; it's merely a taste of the littany of failures for the England team at major international competitions.

Frankly, what looks like a choke, acts like a choke and sounds like a choke is…well a choke. And that’s precisely what England players have given us since 1966. Don’t believe me? How many penalty shoot-outs have England won in international competition? How many England players regularly take penalties for their clubs? The answers: none and a lot, and 2 of them missed theirs in Germany 2006 against Portugal. Here a choke, there a choke; choke, choke everywhere.

Ol’ McEngland had a team that can't pull it off when it counts – and that’s why, despite having some of the best players, in the best league in the world they haven’t won the big one. Any big one. Can that change? Sure, but does it have anything to do with the quality of the league? Absolutely not: it has to do with the character of their players, or more precisely the lack thereof in the clutch. Every great international team has had one or more great players that rose to the occasion and lifted their team to the promised land – every great international team except England’s, that is.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Musical Clubs: The Transfer Market Winners and Losers of 2006

Until Lucky Luciano Moggi got pinched talking dirty on the phone to the referess, many of the transfers resulting from the Italian job were unimaginable just six months ago. But in the 40 days and 40 nights since the announcement of the scandal verdicts, we have been and will be treated to one of the most surreal transfer seasons in recent memory.

Van Nistelrooy to Real Madrid

Undoubtedly the most notable transfer of the season is Ruud van Nistelrooy to Real Madrid. There is no doubting the quality of a striker, who has, in 5 short years with United, scored 3 goals in 4 games on average, but all good things must come to an end, and this one is (finally) over.

With service from Beckham and loads of possession to keep the chances coming, this is a good move for the player, whose untouchable status at United dissipated like a Dutch fog towards the end of last season. Highly motivated to prove his worth, and in need of performances to impress a stern boss, Ruud will have everything to play for, including Euro2008, and it’s likely that Capello will find it as difficult as Ferguson not to play him.

Showing incomprehensible dedication to Ibrahimovic, who gives the ball away as often as he keeps it, the harsh exterior of the man at the helm of Real belies a keen sense of pragmatism, and nobody can ignore the Dutchman’s scoring rate and obvious synergy with the qualities of David Beckham, who will likely stay put under Capello, on the right to serve his signature balls into the area. Now he won’t have to aim for a gap between two enormous teeth (Ronaldo), or a midget whose nose is longer than his legs (Raul).

For United, the loss of van Nistelrooy will be difficult, given the sporadic scoring of their current strike force (including Rooney) and no comparable replacement in sight. Look for United to struggle early on as they come to terms with the absence of an average 30+ goals per season from one of the most selfish players in the world.

Sheva and Ballack to Chelski

I’ve always wondered how long Frankie “Four Fingers” Lampard can go on scoring 20 goals a season for the Blues, and now I know that Mourinho has wondered the same. At 30 million pounds, Andriy Shevchenko is worth every penny, and has given Chelski the chance to win the Champions League as well as repeat as EPL winner the third year on the trot. While Drogba is a blunt instrument, Shevchenko can give Chelski the clinical finishing they need to win tight matches they’ll surely have in Europe and the EPL, and can there be any better option for a single center forward strike force than Sheva receiving crosses from Robben and Cole? For the club it’s a big win.

It’s hard to imagine that Sheva could have it better at Chelski than at Milan, but the 3 million he pocketed from the transfer will do his bank account no harm. From a footballing perspective, he’ll have just as much possession and service as he had at Milan, and there’s no better scorer in European competition. Strong, fast and relentless, he’ll have no problems adjusting to the Premiership – really there’s no downside for him either.

In Ballack, there’s no better passer in the world, and his age and form make him a great pickup for Chelski both domestically and in Europe, where his goal scoring could add to a paltry total from Lampard on that stage. The style of play and professionalism is similar to what he had at Bayern, and he is unlikely to have any problems adjusting to the style in England. However, there is a small question of a partnership with Lampard – I see Lampard being just as selfish as he was with England. Never seeing a shot he doesn’t like, Lamps is likely to clash with Ballack tactically, and that could make things hard for Ballack. Not to mention how they’re going to fit him in a center midfield with Essien and Makelele – who may find himself at stopper to make room.

For Chelski, it’s a brilliant move – tactically and in terms of what he brings to the team, Ballack is a perfect fit. Tight defenses in the EPL will put a premium on the quality of long pass to the wings, a Ballack specialty. Any injuries to Essien, Makelele or Lampard could see him becoming very prominent very soon. Question: will Mourninho be able to drop Lamps if he still playing as poorly as he did in the WC? I have no doubts, but for this transfer it’s the only question mark as any team in the world would love to have him.

Juventus Exodus

So far they’ve lost Cannavaro and Emerson to Real, Thuram and Zambrotta to Barcelona and Vieira to Inter, with Ibrahimovic and Trezeguet likely to follow. Frankly, I’d be surprised – no shocked – if they made it back to the Serie A next season with a 17 point penalty. Cannavaro and Emerson give Madrid the one thing they’ve lacked since the departure of Makelele: steel in the spine of the team. It remains to be seen how long Emerson will last with injuries, but Cannavaro is a no-brainer for Real.

Zambrotta may be the best right back in the world, so for Barcelona to be able to replace the likes of Belleti and Oleguer with a World Cup winner like him, is brilliant. The Thuram question is a little trickier – the Spanish game is a little faster than Italy, and while his pace has dropped off, at the World Cup he had Gallas at his side as a minder, and did pretty well on his own. Who will he displace in the center of defense: Puyol or Marquez? Tactically there’s no question that Puyol should take a long walk off of a short plank, but it’s hard to see Riijkaard dumping his captain. Look for Thurman to share time with Marquez until a Puyol injury makes the decision for him and then the proper combination will emerge of its own momentum.

Vieira to Inter is interesting – Cambiasso should make sure his parka still fits, because there’s no way you can play him before Vieira, but Inter have an amazing knack for getting it all wrong when it counts. Interestingly, midfield is probably where Inter are weakest, and his arrival could give them their second scudetto in 2 years – maybe this time they’ll be able to celebrate it. BTW – do you think there’ll be any fireworks between Vieira and Materazzi (the animal) in training? You better believe it.

Carrick (not) the New Keane

At first glance the 14 million pound transfer seems on the high side, but consider a few things: he’s 25 years old, his tepid performance at the World Cup lacked bite, but not quality, remember the premium Man U pays on all major transfers, and Ryan Giggs, a converted winger, probably wouldn’t make the first 11 as a center midfielder on any of the other top 5 teams in the EPL. As such, the price for Carrick makes a lot more sense. Clearly the weakest link at United is the center of midfield, and they will need a steady production of quality passes (where Giggs is more adventurous than needed in that position by nature) to spring their strikers and wingers. Let’s not forget that with Scholes and Giggs past 30, this is a move as much for the future as it is for the coming season.

Carrick wins big both financially and professionally. Reportedly bagging a 50,000 pound a week salary, he’ll make just a bit less than Roy Keane did before he moved to Celtic. Truth be known, Carrick is one of the best kept secrets in English football, with only Tottenham fans truly recognizing his talent. It may be the spring board Carrick needs to finally be considered for a place in the England midfield, something he was rarely afforded in the reputation-laden Eriksson era.

The key will be how quickly he can gain an understanding with Scholes and Giggs, as they will certainly take up a majority of the play through midfield. If Carrick can add some steel to his game, with hard tackling and tracking a desperate need for United with the departure of Roy Keane, he may very well turn out to be the best transfer of the EPL, and given that he’s likely to be the only big transfer for United, he will need to be.

Ruthless Rafa

The rap on Benitez is his penchant for buying cheap from the markets he knows. And with the majority of his signings coming either from the EPL, or La Liga, that assessment isn’t far from the truth. But if nothing else, Benitez is ruthless. In the two years he’s been at the helm of the would-be title contenders, Benitez has signed and dumped Morientes, Pellegrino, Nunez and Josemi. All highly praised upon arrival from Spain.

Nobody would dispute the wisdom of those decisions, which demonstrates a double edged-sword – he may not get it right, but when he gets it wrong he’s not afraid to admit it. Add to the list the litany of Gerrard Houllier’s sloppy seconds, and Benitez has given the chop to more people than the French revolution. Gone are Owen, Baros, Cisse, Diao, Cheyrou, Kirkland, Le Tallec, Sinama-Pongolle, Vignal, Biscan, Whitbread and Mellor. This list is by no means complete, but gives you an idea of how willing he is to bury players while they’re still (professionally) breathing, although the Owen decision was out of his hands. What isn’t so well known is his willingness to buy British talent. With Fowler, Crouch, Bellamy and Pennant, Liverpool have bought more British talent than Chelski, Man U and Arsenal combined, and shows his appreciation for players that can function in the strange EPL environment, which for all it’s foreign talent, retains the characteristics that distinguish this league from those on the continent – fast, fast and faster. To do this he’s had to take huge risks.

This year we’re treated to unknown foreign transfers Mark Gonzalez, a Chilean who recently received his work permit, and would have had an easier time crossing the Rio Grande than the English Channel, Fabio Aurelio a Brazilian who excelled at Sevilla and Gabrial Paletta who will be the best defender at Liverpool in 2 years time. Of the 3, Gonzalez is the most likely to feature in the first team, although his arrival may light a fire under Harry Kewell in a way only the risk of being dumped can. I would be surprised if Aurelio lasted 2 years, because Riise will push, and if Traore can’t find a new team, it could be very crowded at left back.

But it is the two British transfers that will be the difference this year. In Bellamy and Pennant Benitez couldn’t have bought two faster more aggressive attackers in England, but he has also taken a huge risk given their disciplinary records. Both will benefit enormously from the move, as they’ll get better service/finishes than their previous teams, but Liverpool would be the clear winner if Pennant puts in as many crosses as he did last year (more than anyone in the EPL) and if Bellamy continues his impressive goal every-other-game scoring rate.

The biggest problem I see is how to put Gerrard, Sissoko and Alonso on the field at the same time while playing 2 strikers. With just one, Bellamy could find himself on the right, something he hated about Newcastle, and Pennant would have too much time on his hands for my taste. This midfield trio may be the best in the premiership after Chelski’s, but playing all 3 at once may force off a striker, making life very hard indeed for Liverpool’s strikers. If a formula is found, such as playing a 4-3-3 , we could see more goals and a real title challenge from Liverpool this year.