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Friday, December 19, 2008


Let me be clear: I hate calling it “the Champions League”. There are 16 teams left in the competition, and only 5 of them (less than a 1/3) are in fact league champions. I started out watching it when it was still called the European Cup, the previous incarnation of this competition, which was in fact (more than a bit ironically) a CHAMPIONS’ league.

Today, England, Italy, and Spain have produced fully 10 of the remaining 16 teams, and 7 of them are NOT league champions. In fact, 2 of those 10 teams haven’t won their own leagues in at least 18 years. Villareal have only ever won their league once...and that was the Tercera (3rd) Division in 1970 – there isn’t a single player on the books who was even alive at the time…and yes, I’m sorry to have to admit it…my beloved Liverpool hasn’t won an English title since 1990.

So why in the world do they insist on calling it the UEFA Champions League? It makes no sense at all. And if you’ve read this blog before you know that rule #1 in football is this: if it makes no sense on face value, follow the money and you’ll have your answer to what it's all about – no matter how stupid it turns out to be.

In this case, the objective is to explicitly conceal what is so obvious that we have become accustomed to ignoring it. This is, in fact, a “super” league, structured like the domestic sports leagues in North America with divisions, a regular season, and the winner chosen by playoffs – and we’re now in playoffs that will last until May.

So why the subterfuge? Why pretend it’s a Champions League? You have to go back a few years...
20 years ago, UEFA had a double edged sword on their hands: they had a cash-cow competition with the prestige of producing the Champions of Europe, but they only raked in the moolah if (and only if) big clubs, with a lot of independent prestige, and big television fan bases, survived to reach the latter stages of the competition. The little clubs of Europe had to concede their rightful place in the European Cup because one too many of them were crashing the party right when UEFA was opening the champagne. For UEFA it was a financial nightmare.

To remain a legitimate sporting event, they had to find a way to include all members of UEFA. But to keep it a money growing tree for the foreseeable future, they had to figure out a way to give the biggest clubs in Europe the best chance to make it through to the final rounds of the competition.

Enter the UEFA Champions League.

Case in point: the first 5 European Cups were contested by Real Madrid, and with names like Di Stefano, Pusksas and Bento on the roster, they had enough star power to make the competition a huge success. In those days, European football on television was a rarity, and so most of the money came from the stadium attendances. And because if you were Scottish, the only way you’d likely ever see Real Madrid play was if they came to Hampden Park where you and 150,000 other bravehearts could plunk down a week's salary for tickets to view the match. Fortunately in 1960, the bet paid off, and Madrid beat Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 in one of the best European finals in history.

Through the 60’s and 70’s names like Beckenbauer and Cruyff lent their gravitas to the great trophy (3 times each), and through the late 70’s and early 80’s a team that continues to benefit disproportionately from their ancient success, Liverpool, became a household name around the world as something more than just the birthplace of the Beatles. (Speaking of whom, word is only McCartney is a Toffee (scum), while Ringo’s a Red – not a supporter, he just likes the color red – and George and John were disinterested. Harrison once famously said, in the midst of Beatle mania, that there were 3 teams in Liverpool and he liked the other one - brilliant.)

But along came the late 80’s and a couple of communists threw a monkey wrench into this money-making machine that threatened to stop its wheels turning forever: in 1986 Steau Bucharest of Romania took on and beat Barcelona, in Spain no less. And not to be outdone by their fellow eastern Europeans, Red Star Belgrade beat Olympique Marseille in the 1991 final. As if two clubs whose supporters were precluded from purchasing western products wasn’t bad enough, both matches were decided in half-empty stadiums on penalties. The latter was the last year that the competition was strictly a knockout affair. That’s when UEFA said enough is enough and changed the name and structure of the competition to include multiple teams from the same targeted (and by targeted I mean money making) leagues.

But that wasn’t enough for UEFA – because when you make money from something, the only thing you want is more of it. Accordingly, as the years went by, and too often rich clubs with rich fan-bases were matched against European minnows in the late stages, and the mouthwatering match-ups, like the ones we have this year, were too few and far between, the geniuses in Switzerland came up with another wrinkle. The resultant league coefficients and qualifying stages ensured that only a trickle of small fish in the big European pond, made it through to the group stages - they could just forget about the knockout stages altogether.

So what we have today is this: Inter Milan and Man U (can go jump in a lake) are 2 of 5 actual league champions who’ve made it through to the knockout stages, and their reward is playing each other. Meanwhile Lyon, six-times champions of France (on the trot, I might atdd) get to host probably the best team in the world, at the moment, in FC Barcelona. And while Bayern Munich and Sporting Lisbon may both be breathing a sigh of relief at their draws, it’s more than mildly ironic that they’ll be delighted to have drawn one of the remaining league champions, and not one of the non-champion colossuses of Juventus, Real, Chelski, Liverpool, Barcelona or Arsenal. Even Roma, the red-shirted step child of the Serie A titans, would have been preferable to these other behemoths, so I have a sneaking suspicion that this year, we could very well see yet another first, second...even THIRD runner-up winning the so-called Champions League.

For my money, if UEFA are so concerned with tradition and history that they’ll do away with the confetti ridden, fireworks accompanied on-field celebration, and force the losers to form a line of honor in their moment of greatest despair, they’d be better off doing away with the ridiculous concept that this is a champions’ league. Call it what it really is, The European Super League, and leave out all the clowns you don’t want in the competition anyway – what are they going to do, quit UEFA?

Or they could make it an actual European cup, and go back to a single elimination cup competition, and call it the European Cup. In the this case the games will be INFINITELY more interesting because more will be at stake, and in the former case, people from all over the world, that have vicarious skin in the game (like me, for example) will want to watch their teams play against the true cream of the European crop, instead of CFR Cluj-es of the world (and not for nothin' Cluj are also from Romania, from whence all this non-sense started in the first place).

Either way, let’s just stop with the pretense and give it a name that doesn’t sound as stupid as the Union of European Football Associations Champions League, because it’s a deceptive mouthful that by any other name would not sound as stupid.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


They have Kaka, Seedorf, Pirlo, Ronaldinho, Pato, Shevchenko and soon Beckham - but the one they love the most, the one who eats, breathes and sweats Rossoneri, and the one who may very well be the reason things are not so good in the red half of Milan this year, is their not-so-secret secret weapon. Hiding there in plain sight, until his impact is only fully appreciated in his absence, is a little phenomenon called Gennaro Gattuso.

You've heard of him, you've seen him play and you've told yourself that he's the "heart and soul" of Milan, but be really mean that as the only compliment you could give the least aesthetically appealing member of squad.

Well, here's a post I found on him that is so elegantly constructed, it may just change what's in your heart the next time you utter this compliment.

A link to this site will reside permanently on the left-hand navigation of The Soccer Column, and I hope you enjoy the posts as much as I do...

Friday, December 12, 2008


Much as it pains me to admit it, I don’t think there's a more obvious choice for FIFA World Player of the Year in 2008 than Cristiano Ronaldo. With deference to Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, it’s unlikely that any other player would command the same transfer fee or salary as Ronaldo, and based on his performances in the 2007 and 2008 season, it’s fair to say that this award is well deserved. To me, it appeared Messi had some lingering effects from not being selected as the Europe's best, as he trudged ignominiously through a league match against Valencia last weekend, but it’s also a safe bet that he’s in the running for next year’s Ballon d'Or and FIFA's POTY.

When Cristiano Rolando arrived at Man U as a replacement for David Beckham, few could have imagined that this free-styling bafoon would make it in the man’s game of professional football, and fewer still believed he could do it in England – after all, it’s the last place in the world you’d think such skill on the ball as he has exhibited, would be even possible, let alone appreciated. Fortunately, 17 touches in the span of 3 seconds, fabulously enthralling as it may be, is not why he has been deemed the best in the world.

43 goals in all competitions – that’s why.

At the end of the day, by winning the Champions League with Manchester United, despite missing a penalty and appearing to wilt under the pressure of the big match, Ronaldo’s star shines brightly, and few could argue against him as a worthy recipient.

But what does this say about the balance of power in football?

A brief review of all players of the year since FIFA decided to encroach on the Ballon d’Or’s territory, reveals that EVERY SINGLE ONE was playing, and lighting it up, in either La Liga or the the Serie A.

As a matter of fact, there are only 5 teams who have ever had a world player of the year, and they read like a who’s who of the biggest clubs in the world – the clubs who’s jerseys every young player aspires to wear one day:

AC Milan
Inter Milan
Real Madrid

Financially, although Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelski all fare as well or better than the teams in this aforementioned list, the fact remains that these 5 are the standard bearers in world football in terms of prestige, and FIFA’s bias towards them is an indication of such.

But in 2009, that’s about to change.

For the 4th year in a row, all 4 English teams entered in the Champions League have progressed to the knockout stages – neither La Liga nor the Serie A can boast such league consistency. And moreover, an English team has contested the final for 4 years in a row as well. Last year, the international humiliation was complete when two English teams contested the final – guaranteeing the first English champion since my beloved Liverpool lifted their 5th European Cup in 2005.

So let’s, for the record, take a look at what the EPL can boast in the debate over the best league in the world:

1. 3 of the 4 richest clubs in the world are English (Man U(seless), Arsenal and Liverpool) and the richest of the rich is Manchester United
2. All four of England’s Champions League representatives have contested the final in the last 4 year (2 have won – Liverpool and Man U(re))
3. 2 of the top 10 average stadium attendance teams are English (Man (F) U and Arsenal)
4. Of the 4 leagues who have had players nominated, but never won, the FIFA World Player of the year award, England have the most with 11
5. 25% of ALL PROFITS IN EUROPEAN FOOTBALL are generated in England.

So it appears the only thing left for the EPL to win is the FIFA World Player of the Year, which we should expect shortly, and it's no small irony that he's not English. The fact of the matter is that the balance of power in international club football, if not international football, has gone beyond shifting to England, to now residing in it. Without going on another extended tirade of why I think the England team are crap, I doubt it will translate into the success at the World Cup or European Championships (assuming of course, England qualify) but that’s about the only thing left that we could reasonably use as an argument against English dominance of the game altogether.

Of course Brazil do, and probably forever will, produce better players than the English, and Italians clubs will probably win more in Europe, and La Liga will likely continue to host the biggest stars; but in the terms that matter the most in professional football (that being moolah) there’s no doubt that the balance of power has shifted to England.

(Not for the first time) God save (the rest of us from) the Queen.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


I was watching Barcelona beat up on Valencia this weekend, and I was struck by the extent to which an American commentator, Phil Schoen, was trashing Thierry Henry. Before he had scored his first (of 3) goal(s), Schoen took every opportunity he could to point out how the “old” Thierry Henry would have done this, and the "old" Thierry Henry would have done that. Thankfully, Ray Hudson, that over-enthusiastic former MLS guru had the good sense to point out a couple of things that if Shoen knew a thing about football, would have shut him up...of course, we would have no such luck.

It’s not the first time Henry has been castigated for his performances in Barcelona, but for the life of me I really can’t understand why. All he’s done since he arrived is lead the team in goals in all competitions last year, this despite coming to the club and playing with a back and groin injury his first 3 months, and furthermore, playing in a new position in deference to Samuel Eto’o who, suddenly can do no wrong. I should point out that Shoen (as have other Barca supporters, for that matter) has been critical of him too – go figure. I guess, 90 goals in 119 appearances isn't good enough. For someone who has (clearly) never played the game at probably any level, and certainly not professionally, it’s easy to throw stones at the best players of a generation when your expectations are so out of proportion with the realities of the professional game – it’s a bit like a day-trader thinks it’s easy to make money in stocks when all he’s experienced is a bull market, then when the bears come rumbling through, suddenly nobody knows what they’re doing.

I would beg to differ.

In his first season in the Catalan capital, Henry made 42 appearances, many of them as a substitute, and scored 19 times – that was good enough to lead the team in goals, and a strike rate of nearly a goal every other game, that most strikers would sell their first born children to have. This year, he has 9 goals in 19 appearances, many of those were also as a substitute, but somehow that’s not enough for the likes of Phil Schoen. By comparison, Bojan Krkic has scored 10 in 36 and everybody’s favorite eskimo, Eidur Gudjohnsen has the same number of goals in 53 appearances. Even Lionel Messi has only 40 goals in 89 appearances, a worse scoring rate than Henry, but because everybody loves him at the moment, nobody seems to care that his strike rate is not even the equal of Henry currently, and doesn’t even compare to what Henry did at Arsenal in his physical prime. Eto’o is clearly the gold standard – it kind of makes you wonder why on earth anyone at the club was considering selling him this summer .

There are a lot of reasons why the expectation that Henry would score goals as freely at Barcelona as he did at Arsenal, were a recipe for dashed hopes, but the example of Eto’o, and the case for Henry himself, shows that Barcelona would do well to consider those factors before jumping off the Henry bandwagon just yet.

First, he is at a new club and in a new league. Even the great Zidane had his worst seasons the first seasons he moved to new clubs, and look how he turned out. The EPL, as good as the top teams are, is hardly comparable to La Liga, particularly when it comes to the mid-table teams. Most of them would likely be competing for European places if they were transplanted to another league, but in Spain their quality and skills are mostly in vain. A new team that doesn’t center around Henry makes it impossible for him to get the same level and production of service as before, and knowing your defenders is as important to consistent goal-scoring in Spain as it is anywhere else, so time for adjustment is probably the best prescription for success. The slower pace of the game in Spain probably contributes to fewer goal-scoring opportunities, and different ones, making the need for adjustments even more important.

Second, he is playing out of position – at Arsenal he was a center forward who drifted to the wings to find space for himself, coming back into the middle to score his goals. At Barcelona, he’s got white powder on his heels for all the time he spends starting out on the wings. Defenders are taught to defend from the middle out, so a center forward drifting wide can more easily escape his markers, than a winger working his way in. And even if he played in the middle, there’d be another winger out there taking up the space he normally found for himself at Arsenal. Thus the formation and positioning at Barca presents difficult challenges to scoring in the same way he did at Arsenal. As such, he has to find new ways to be effective – ways he hasn’t had to come up with for probably 7 years. Speaking of which….

Third, Henry is 31 years old. Now he can still run like the wind, and to me he looks the same as he did before, but anyone who’s crossed this terrible threshold in age knows that acceleration, resilience and recovery time all suffer with age, so his appearances will diminish, and as such, so will his goal tally. Furthermore, as you get older, and your body starts to fail you in oh-so-many little ways, you begin to lose confidence in yourself physically – that hesitation is the difference between 20 goals and 30, and another good reason to mitigate our expectations.

Finally, I don’t think Henry’s teammates are looking to him to be the savior as he was at Arsenal, and as such, they seem to use him more as an outlet than as a go to guy. Furthermore, I’ve noticed that Messi can be a bit greedy when he gets past the first defender, which is fine if you’re only value is as a scorer (like Eto’o) but that kid’s value lies as much in what he does to make his teammates better, as the goals he scores. I’ve never seen a guy get a standing ovation from his supporters without even scoring, as he has on several occassions this season, and that’s because everyone can recognize his value even if he’s not tallying goals. The same cannot be said for Henry – I would venture to guess that if you took him off the field, Eto’o and Messi would suffer from more defensive attention, and probably the team's performance wouldn't be so good. Well, look how they did without a fully performing Ronadinho last year.

At the end of the day, perhaps Henry and his Gillette commercial contemporaries (Roger Federer and Tiger Woods) suffer from the same weight of expectations that makes perfectly good results for the average player look like a bad year for them. After all, 226 goals in 369 games is enough to make anyone look like he just came down from Mount Olympus, but does anyone expect Gudjohnsen to score 29 goals in 66 appearances? I doubt it, and if he did, he’d be hailed as a Barca’s unsung hero. But this is Henry’s tally in the blaugrana, and you’d never know that he was performing so much better than his (most of his) teammates by the comments of idiots like Shoen.

Ask yourself this – would you rather have Henry at 70% or Gudjohnsen at 100%? If you’d take the latter, you should probably take up bird-watching, rather than football.