Archive for the ‘Morning Links’ Category

The Lead

I’m sure there’s some hackneyed Halloween-appropriate metaphor one could use in relation to Arsenal’s astonishing 7-5 AET win over Reading at the Madejski stadium last night in the *sigh* Capital One Cup™. I’m not up to it. I saw Ghostbusters recently so maybe there’s something in there? Arsenal crossed the streams to asplode the Stay Puft marshmallow man that was Reading’s seemingly unassailable 4-0 lead?

Anyway, someone has to play party-pooper here. First, let’s get the romance out of the way. That is what football should be, and because the Milk Cup is the fourth most important calendar date for the majority of Premier League teams, there is more of a relaxed sense of ease. The nervous, poisonous tension of say of a money-bags contest like Chelsea v Man United in the Premier League is gone. In its place is poor defending on the wings, some ridiculously bad goal-keeping, some incredible spirit (sure), and the most fun game you will see all year, if not in the next half decade.

But, um, back to that poor defending on the wings. And Koscielny’s own-goal. And how Arsenal gave up the ghost at the crucial moment in extra time after storming back from four goals down. Look, none of these things mean anything in and of themselves, so we should be wary of reading too much into those weak tea leaves.

However, that principle cuts both ways. So while many Gooners may want to believe, as Arsene Wenger framed it, this win will be the “spark” that sends Arsenal into the Premier League and European stratosphere, well, I can only say “we’ll see.” I don’t have the data in front of me, but I’m willing to bet that massive comebacks don’t always translate into trophies. I’m thinking here off the top of my head of Liverpool’s 4-3 win over Newcastle, a game that many thought would put the Merseyside club in pole position to overtake Manchester United. And that of course did not happen. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen. But the fact is part of what made the game great was Arsenal’s initial vulnerability. And so, if I’m Nate Silver, I don’t add much to my win probability percentage.

But hey, we don’t get these games every day. NHL lockout be damned amirite? That was a hell of a lot of fun, and football should be fun, as a rule, not as an exception.
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The Lead

While English football sorts out its latest encounter with allegations of racism on a football pitch (Barney Ronay’s take is the most concise and the most relevant), Canadian soccer is left dealing with the decidedly more boring (and arguably more benign) issues of institutional dysfunction.

While most fans in this country have managed to keep a sane dividing line between the problems at the national team level and the disgrace of an MLS club that calls BMO Field home, the sad fact is the ill-health of the one directly affects the other.

This is not to rile the other Canadian MLS entries. Whatever your view with regard to the Vancouver Whitecaps’ supposed disdain for the Canadian player quota, they made the big show of the playoffs first. Meanwhile Montreal has fared reasonably well in their inaugural MLS season. Joey Saputo has built a successful football franchise before; Impact fans should be confident good times will come once again. But the club’s move to heavily court Serie A (and in turn its Italian fan base in MTL) perhaps doesn’t bode well for future developmental ties with the Canadian national mens team.

Toronto FC however was Canada’s first club in Major League Soccer, and produced the first fruits of its youth academy for the national team in Canada’s most populated city. It shares its home—and arguably the larger part of its fan base—with the Canadian national team. The two organizations share a certain level of professional overlap.

Right now, the club is setting up to debrief the assembled press on its worst season ever in MLS, following a trail of mediocrity forged five years ago. Chances are, fans will hear nothing particularly substantial on how the organization will seek to improve its fortunes next year, or over the next five years.

Much of the truth as to why Toronto has failed to produce a team capable of making the playoffs is known only through a glass darkly. There are rumours of a sour trading relationship with the rest of the league. There is hushed talk of an absence of core leadership on sporting matters from the club co-investors Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment. There is also a culture of unnamed sources within the team feeding sometimes vague conflicting messages (always deferring blame of course) to a local press all too happy to help Toronto FC tow its version of the party line in return for “access.” Former players merely hint at Front Office mismanagement, but rarely address it head on.

It’s the same insider-y culture that for too long has marked another paramount organization in Canadian soccer—the Canadian Soccer Association. If it wasn’t for Ben Knight (yes, a single, solitary reporter working for an independent news website), we would arguably know almost nothing about the inner machinations of the CSA board in the lead up to the reform process last year. That in of itself reflects just as poorly on the efforts of the fourth estate as it does on the footballing institutions themselves.

Part of the problem is football is still a niche sport, despite, as evidenced by Sportsnet and TSN sharing the spoils of a renewed Premier League rights deal, the clear interest among a key demographic in this country. That lack of wider, mainstream interest means clubs like Toronto FC are comfortably immune from major press scrutiny. It’s a small group at those pressers, and everyone knows each other. Managers send warm text messages to beat reporters, and beat reporters boast of having the ear of “those in the know.” There is less incentive to dig deep and ruffle major feathers.

I am also very much to blame for this. Long content to wear a blogger hat, it’s easy for me to sit and criticize those on the TFC beat, some of whom are doing some incredible work. But that’s going to change over the next few months on this blog as I do my best to pick up on some threads on the culture of blame within the club. Stay tuned…
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The Lead

It’s Friday, the end of a long week. And it’s been pointed out of late that the SSF has devolved into a rotating hall of shame, racism, scandal, and institutional corruption. And sometimes a little bit of football too.

So let’s leave the saucy headlines aside today and instead focus on a single, glorious, rebellious moment, from Daniel Agger of all people. In the soon-to-be-removed-I’m-sure video above, Daniel Agger, following a routine collection by the Anzhi Makhachkala keeper Vladimir Gabulov, decided to suddenly whip round, head the ball out of the keeper’s hands, and shoot directly into the Anzhi net.

Predictably, boringly, the goal was disallowed and Agger received a yellow card for not allowing the goalkeeper to act with impunity.

Those of us either long-in-the-tooth or obsessed with George Best will, watching this goal, instantly recollect the moment, on May 15, 1971 when England faced Northern Ireland in a home international. Frustrated with Gordon Banks, England’s legendary number one who received home acclaim for his heroics against Brazil in the World Cup a year before, decided to strip Banks of the ball and his dignity on a routine goal kick. That too was disallowed, and Northern Ireland lost 0-1.

Not that Agger is in remotely the same class, but it’s nice to see that amid the stodgy, video game-like propriety of the glossy modern game, there’s still room for a bit of cheek. And let’s hope Rodgers wasn’t too displeased with the Dane (Liverpool earned a 1-0 win); LFC need all the goals they can get, from wherever they can get them.
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The Lead

As with many institutional, behind-the-scenes goings on in football, most of what we see at the best of times is through a glass darkly. After several days worth of tabloid space dedicated to the issue of Kick It Out t-shirt boycotts and threats of a breakaway black players union, in addition to speculation the entire affair was in some way related to the FA’s punishment of John Terry, we now have a much better picture of how we came to this point.

And it’s not pretty. From the Independent:

Jason Roberts, the player whose decision not to wear a Kick It Out T-shirt led dozens to follow suit, broke his silence last night to reveal that he was forced to act after the game’s union had ignored a detailed charter for change which he has put to them several times in the past year.

The Reading striker told The Independent that the Professional Footballers’ Association had failed to act on a number of specific recommendations, first formally tabled in the immediate aftermath of the Luis Suarez and John Terry controversies a year ago and repeatedly put forward since. The lack of action from the union led to a group of 30 former and current players arriving to lobby the union two weeks ago at a meeting in which the chief executive, Gordon Taylor, was warned that last weekend’s boycott would take place.

In response to these criticisms, the PFA chief executive has revealed a 6-point plan to address concerns raised by players over a lenient attitude by the union in dealing with instances of racial abuse:

1 Speeding up the process of dealing with reported racist abuse with close monitoring of any incidents.
2 Consideration of stiffer penalties for racist abuse and to include an equality awareness programme for culprits and clubs involved.
3 An English form of the “Rooney rule” – introduced by the NFL in America in 2003 – to make sure qualified black coaches are on interview lists for job vacancies.
4 The proportion of black coaches and managers to be monitored and any inequality or progress highlighted.
5 Racial abuse to be considered gross misconduct in player and coach contracts (and therefore potentially a sackable offence).
6 Not to lose sight of other equality issues such as gender, sexual orientation, disability, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and Asians in football.

The point receiving the most attention is 5, which would allow clubs to sack players for using racial epithets on the field of play. In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine how this rule was not in place years or decades earlier. Would you be allowed to keep your job if you screamed racial abuse at a fellow employee?

The scandal here is that it took an orchestrated protest and threats of a breakaway to get the professional footballers union, which is supposed to protect the players, to act. It should wake up those who think that the work of combatting racism is either finished, or can be solely left to Kick It Out, an organization hampered by a shoestring budget. English football is hopefully now stumbling toward an honest appraisal of the status quo.
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The Lead

We now have a little more insight, if Shaka Hislop can be trusted as some sort of spokesman, into why several black Premier League players refused to wear Kick It Out shirts on the weekend:

“In my opinion, a fine for a player that has, and continues to earn as much out of the game as John Terry, is meaningless. A four-game suspension is a slap in the face of what has been a unified call for stronger action. A call which the FA themselves echo when the accused are fans of other nations.

“And here lies the FA’s dilemma. A dilemma of their own making. By being as soft as they were on John Terry they have contradicted themselves and ostracised the very people and ideals they intended to support and champion.”

The news comes as the Chelsea captain is set to lead his team in the Champions League, beyond the realm of the Premier League’s four game suspension. Paul Hayward noted the bitter irony:

 

Armbands and t-shirts. Outward gestures masking an ineffective effort on the part of football’s governing authorities to finally take racial abuse with the utmost seriousness. I don’t want to grind down the same arguments over and over, so I’ll try to be brief.

First, this is not the inherent fault of a single organization known as Kick It Out. As has been noted, the group does excellent work particularly at the grassroots level to encourage children of all backgrounds to play and learn football across England. Instead, the problem is that Kick It Out should not be the face of the FA’s, the Premier League’s, or any individual club’s efforts against racism. Kick It Out should offer clubs help with best practices, but any outward gesture, and any effective action, must be taken on by each organization in turn.

Second, the litigious nature of any allegation of racial abuse in the UK unwittingly puts the burden of proof on the FA in determining appropriate disciplinary measure in these cases. Because Terry was acquitted in his criminal trial, the FA was somewhat hampered in their efforts to mete out an effective punishment, tasked as they were with producing a thorough report of the case and its circumstances in order to appear “fair.” This is one of several noxious side effects of the criminalization of speech. This, you’ll note, again has nothing to do with Kick It Out as an organization.

The latest news is Rio Ferdinand is considering forming a breakaway union of black footballers to protect their interests. That we’ve had to come to this is in of itself hard evidence the status quo is no longer acceptable.
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The Lead

Just when I thought Canadian soccer had let me out, it pulls me back in.

To make some short notes about the Vancouver Whitecaps qualifying for the 2012 Major League Soccer post-season. I’m in the Massey camp on this one. It is historic, sure, in that it’s a first in a league that has existed for 16 years. But as a Canadian with more than his fair share of sympathy to the BC soccer scene, it’s hard to fist-pump.

For one, Vancouver squandered their big chance against Portland to celebrate the playoffs in front of their home crowd, losing 1-0 and praying Seattle were in a battling move (they needed their friends in Washington to beat FC Dallas and did, 3-1). Their less-than-convincing display, losing the Cascadia Cup to Portland, reflects, as Ben pointed out last night, that “Being the first Canadian MLS team to make the playoffs is a tribute to Toronto’s historic incompetence, not anything to do with the Whitecaps (or the Impact).”

Particularly as 55% of teams within the Western Conference qualify for the post-season as a matter of course. And the Montreal Impact are currently on the same points total and are already well out of any post-season contention, seven points behind the also eliminated Columbus Crew. What matters now is whether Vancouver are a post-season team. And there’s the rub; if the Whitecaps lose against the LA Galaxy on as many predicting they will, will this retain its “historic moment”-ness?

But then again, it’s a one-off, and this is football, which means Van City has as good a chance as any to progress to the Conference semis. But the final word here is that the “race to playoffs” for Canadian clubs was only ever meaningful because Toronto FC is a terrible, terrible soccer team. So don’t party yet, friends in the West. Give it the next three matches, if we get to that stage.
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The Lead

It’s over. The long-running saga of a heated exchange that, in a moment in a hotly-contested football match that Chelsea desperately needed to win, saw Chelsea and erstwhile England defender John Terry’s heart rate, blood pressure, and levels of adrenaline and noradrenaline increase, causing him to override his inner censor and (likely) use a racial epithet toward Anton Ferdinand, leading to a criminal trial and an FA four match ban, is at an end.

Why? Because he said sorry:

Chelsea defender John Terry has decided not to appeal against a four-match ban and fine of £220,000 ($354,000) for racially abusing QPR defender Anton Ferdinand.

The FA fined John Terry and benched him for four matches for a racial slur against Anton Ferdinand.
Terry had until 12 noon ET on Thursday to contest the sanction issued by an independent Football Association regulatory commission.

However, in a statement released via his representatives Elite Management, Terry said: “After careful consideration, I have decided not to appeal against the FA judgment.”

He added: “I want to take this opportunity to apologise to everyone for the language I used in the game against Queens Park Rangers last October.”

My thoughts are already on the record when it comes to legislating crimes of speech, so I won’t haul them out again here. But Terry’s apology should have come just under a year ago, ideally within a week of the initial incident caught on tape.

In an alternate universe, one where the law need not be recourse for heated words exchanged in a soccer game, John Terry may—certainly not would—but may have felt free to come clean and apologize then and there, preventing a year’s worth of headlines, trials, resigned England managers, and delayed FA investigations, allowing Chelsea along with the FA to punish him accordingly, and opening the way to an honest conversation about the utter unacceptability of racial abuse in any context.

We’ll never know for certain, but I can’t help but think there are far, far better ways of addressing this issue.
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