Monthly Archives: January 2010

Africa Cup of Nations

The Africa Cup of Nations is going on at the moment in Angola, and it could not have started in a better way…in the opening game, Angola was winning 4-0 against Mali after 75 minutes of play…but the final result was an incredible…4-4!

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Unfortunately, the news preceding the game began was not so exciting or happy. The Togo soccer national team was the target of a brutal terrorist attack  after crossing the border with Congo that forcedthe team to leave the country without playing a single game. Three people died.

The attack was initiated by the terrorists of the “ Forças de Libertação do Estado de Cabinda – Posição Militar (FLEC-PM)” group that was born in 2003, after they decided to be a part of the “Frente de Libertação do Estado de Cabinda (FLEC)”. These terrorist organizations fight for the independence of “Cabinda”, a region rich in oil that has been the reason for this controversy since 1975, when Angola became independent from Portugal.

This organization certainly chose the most inappropriate way to call global attention to their region.

As a happy side note, for all the millions of soccer fans spread throughout the world, it is great to see Ronaldinho Gaucho, the Brazilian magician, back in his best form!

War and reprieve for British fans (and Liberals): Price drops in TV soccer on the horizon

The British media was reporting on Sunday (here, and here for example) that fans will be paying less to watch their games at home next season.

The news comes after Ofcom, the regulatory body of the British government, announced measures forcing the TV giant Sky to lower prices perceived as threatening competition. Sky hold a veritable monopoly on football and cricket broadcasting rights; the move by Ofcom would force them to sell significantly cheaper to rival companies. The immediate effect, it is hoped, would be to drastically slash the cost of football and cricket coverage by £10, roughly 40 percent of the actual price for that variety of television programming. The two main rivals of Sky, Virgin and BT, are expected to start a bidding war to lure potentially hundreds of thousands of viewers from Sky.

The news is not without intrigue: Rupert Murdoch-owned Sky are major supporters of the British Conservative Party, currently the opposition party in England. The Conservatives hold power in many areas of British governance, and Ofcom is one of them. This places party leader David Cameron in the unenviable position of upsetting an important contributor to their political success by upholding a ruling in their detriment–it would be unprecedented to overturn the ruling (Sky is naturally expected to file as many legal appeals as possible) and could cause the party major political damage.

While the immediate effect of this would be to take less from the armchair fanatic, what does this say about the political implications of the sport? What we mean is not to measure the political “power” of a sport (for example, to enact social change or revolt), but rather to see it as a “liberal” phenomenon.

When such a sport is spread out into the world at the feet of colonizing industrialists, it comes as little surprise. From River Plate to Athletic Club, all the way to the Marinos of Yokohama or the Super Eagles of Nigeria, there are reminders of the ease with which the sport was globalized, slotting seamlessly into the cultural consciousness of many a distant place. While the original Cambridge rules have gradually been altered here and there, the idea, we like to believe, has been constant. Naturally, there have always been ball-kicking games all over the planet, but soccer as such is a phenomenon of a different world order than, say, the Aztec ullamaliztli or the Chinese Cuju.

Indeed, soccer (and here I am being deliberate with the term to distinguish it from football, whose meaning has to do with any ball-foot game) has become the global king of sports in much the same way that Coca-Cola became a drink of choice. Like Coca-Cola, soccer is better or worse depending on where you are and your tastes. You might find yourself sipping a delicious Coca-Cola in Mexico (made with real cane sugar, of course) yet not enjoy the pace of Mexican football. Similarly, you could be in England and damning the contemptibly oversweet Coke, yet being distracted from it by what you find to be a thrilling encounter in the Premier League in the dingy pub that you are sitting in.

While the smoke is coming out of Rupert Murdoch’s ears, many a British fan will sit down and drink a Coca-Cola before watching one of their freshly discounted football matches from the comfort of their well-molded sofa, knowing that the can of Coke is all the more affordable. Why not go for the two-liter next game? Invite a friend, buy some associated products like Tostitos or some sort of crisp, etcetera. Make sure to do it in your official team kit (last year’s won’t do, everybody knows you can get those for pennies in the bargains bin once the new one is introduced), and so forth.

Yet, we cannot underscore the symbolic value of the sport. While we can see it as a source of economic exploitation, we can also see it as something that is served, even created simultaneously by the consumer-spectator. Are we to believe that the world is nothing but Homer Simpsons and Peter Griffins lining up to give away their money and their freedoms? Yet would such characters be funny if there were no truth in them? We identify with them as we do with CR7 breaking out a new muscle-pose or Messi scoring a Maradona-goal every so often. And the truly buffoonish nature of our desire is revealed.

In the case of David Cameron (sorry, soccer fans, no relation to Avatar), he is balanced in a position that reveals this dialectical nature of the soccer phenomenon. On the one hand, refuse to stick your neck out for a very wealthy and powerful supporter in Murdoch. On the other, you fear the reprisals of a multitude that you can never quite trust to be completely complacent.

While in some cases soccer has been a protagonist in military wars (as in El Salvador, Algeria, Angola, or even in the hard-hitting hooligan era of 80’s England), the news today is about a bidding war. The hostilities are between large media conglomerates jostling for size in, as the cliché goes, “an increasing global world.” The interventions of a Liberal institution to offer a minimum degree of protection to the constituents of government.

What is most clear though, is the hope that watching English football becomes easier for those of us who have less important addictions. Is this the dawn of the era of a new Fandom-political citizenship?

David and Goliath? Again? Villarreal eliminated by second division strugglers Celta

On paper, the upset of a regular top-4 side like Villarreal by strugglers languishing near the bottom of the rather unglamorous Spanish second division seems impressive. Real Club Celta de Vigo, from the rapidly growing and impossibly gray industrial city of Vigo, are currently in 14th place in segunda, just 4 points from the drop zone. [let’s not forget that demotion from the 2nd division means wallowing in the entrails of the infamous segunda B, veritable quagmire of further ignominy]

Villarreal are in themselves a curious story. The town they are based in, Vila-Real, barely has 50,000 inhabitants (compare that to Vigo’s population of nearly 500,000). Their stadium, El Madrigal, has a remarkable capacity of 25,000 people. Imagine: if the stadium were to sell out at any time, that would represent 50% of the populace of the town. I could just imagine the Camp Nou filled with 800,000 spectators, whistling at their team for failing to connect 24 passes in a row, or for not signing the latest Dutch successor to Cruyff…

Despite their unlikely size, the team from Vila-real has been a staple in recent European competitions, stopped only by Arsenal in the semifinals and another time in the quarterfinals of the Champions’ League. Some of you might recall Eeyore-like midfielder Juan Roman Riquelme’s infamous penalty miss: the color flushed out of his face and he appeared like he was about to vomit for the entire run-up to the failed spot kick. Had he scored the kick, we might have seen another all-Spanish final pending the outcome of extra time (Arsenal went on to lose to Barcelona).

A big reason for their continued success has been the retention of key players, despite losing some big names to bigger teams. Despite losing Pepe Reina, for example, to Liverpool, they replaced him with a more-than-qualified Diego Lopez, a backup at Real Madrid, and made a handsome profit in the process. Similarly, Diego Forlán’s absence has been readily filled by Giuseppe Rossi, Italian international striker, and Nilmar, a current Brazilian international. This is a team that was able to offload their biggest star ever, Riquelme, who was blacklisted by then-coach Manuel Pellegrini. Perhaps their biggest blow was losing their Chilean coach to Real Madrid; this season started horribly for them, as they adjusted to the coaching change. Since then, going into the winter break, the team has reorganized under Ernesto Valverde, and the proof was in their impressive 1-1 draw with Barcelona just over a week ago.

Celta, on the other hand, had a much more illustrious past in the Primera (I refuse to use the improperly anglicized “Primera Liga,” the “First League,” because it makes no sense, and is not what the league is called in Spain: la Primera División). The team earned the nickname “Eurocelta” for their exploits in Europe in the early 00’s, knocking out some big teams in the UEFA Cup, while at the same time playing some of the best football in Spain. Big names came and went for Celta as well. Santiago Cañizares once tended goal for Celta. Michel Salgado was the hometown boy before also being snapped up by Real Madrid. The great Claude Makelele made his name playing in Vigo (not to mention wrecked his first Ferrari there). [on a side note, this brings us to the growing issue of major stars wrecking Ferraris and other overpriced sports cars. Cristiano Ronaldo, Rio Ferdinand, Karim Benzema (TWICE now!)]

In contrast to Villarreal, we can’t say that Celta were wise about replacing players in a profitable fashion. The team, overextended in European competition and at home, was finally broken by a lack of top-class players and a relatively successful yet taxing Champions’ League campaign and went down to Segunda that same season. And things haven’t looked much better since. Likewise, the city of Vigo worries about its industrial bases. The fishing industry, Vigo’s biggest, looks tired amidst worries about overfishing, dwindling fish stocks, higher oil prices; the car industry [Citröen sponsor Celta and have one of Europe’s largest factories in Vigo] is equally important and imperiled.

With all the talk of the financial crisis, we can think about the idea of the club being a bad business; Soccernomics, a recent book by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, discusses this issue in detail, raising questions about just why people continue to invest in this money pit of a sport. Owners are a beleaguered bunch, they emphasize, and considering the heavy crisis already being felt by many small team owners, debt-ridden and struggling to make a profit, things have gotten worse for even big teams in European leagues. A recent Guardian article points out that a team like Manchester United is disastrous on many levels, with dubious administration and massive debts that look like they might go unpaid.

For the small team, one explanation is provided as to why people continue to invest in soccer: it is a cultural institution that provides thrills and joy, heartbreak and defeat. Celta beating Villarreal won’t turn the tides of minnows struggling against the current of the global marketplace; such a victory does, however, vindicate the idea that “anybody” can win, though we shall see how far this fairy tale goes for the celestes in 2010. As I consider them my hometown club, having witnessed the glorious “EuroCelta” years, a part of me wants to not be deceived by false hope!

Iranian Football Protest

Thanks to my friend Negar Mottehedeh, and via a post from Enduring America, here are two videos from a January 6th game between Iran and Singapore, during which Iranian fans chanted anti-government slogans — “Ya Hossein, Mir Hossein,” in support of opposition leader Mousavi in the 1st video, and “Marg Bar Dictator,” (“Down with the Dictator,”) in the second.

Since last summer, when the Iranian national team wore green armbands in protest of the June election results — something you can read about in detail here at one of our “Soccer Politics” pages — football has become a forum for protest, to the point that in September a game was actually broadcast in black-and-white on Iranian state television so that viewers would not be able to see fans wearing the color green, the symbol of the “Green Revolution” in Iran. Apparently, on January 6th, Iranian television broadcast the games without sound so that the chants could not be heard. I also remember reading, in one of the excellent “Green Briefs” from late this summer, that one of the first games in the Iranian premier league was actually held without any fans in the stadium, as the authorities feared the match would become a forum for protest.

Iran defeated Singapore 3-1 to secure a berth in the 2011 Asian Cup competition, as you can see in the third video below. For the fans chanting in the stadium, meanwhile, support for the Iranian team was a way of supporting a different future for the Iranian nation.

This game took place in Singapore. In March, however, Iran plays Thailand in Tehran. What will the stadium sound like then?

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Anarchist Football

John Turnbull, editor of The Global Game, shared with me some fascinating information about “three-sided football.” In early November, as part of the Bienniale d’art contemporain de Lyon, a tournament showcasing this unique sport was held in Venissieux, a banlieue of Lyon. The game was invented in the 1960s by a Danish Situationist artist, Asger Jorn. The goal is to subvert the antagonistic duality of traditional football by having a hexagonal field and three teams, as well as three goals. As a result, the game turns into a complex swirl of temporary alliances and understandings. Two teams can go against one, collaborating at least for a time, but also change tactics and friends as the situation warrants. And the winner of the game is not the team that scores the most goals, but the one which, through its tactics of collaboration and alliance, manages to suffer the fewest goals.

Click here to read the full rules.

Watch a news report on the recent tournament in France, with footage of the game.

The political statement embedded in the game, according to the explanation provided on Wikipedia, is as follows:

“The game purports to deconstruct the confrontational and bi-polar nature of conventional football as an analogy of class struggle in which the referee stands as a signifier of the state and media apparatus, posturing as a neutral arbitrator in the political process of ongoing class struggle.”

Who says Marxist theory, contemporary experimental art, and football can’t all live happily together?

The game has had sponsors in England and France, as well as other European countries. Clearly what it now needs is a league in the U.S. Any takers?

Africa’s Game

Check out this preview for Stevan Lovgren’s documentary-in-progress on football in Africa. It looks like it will be a wonderful film, which should be ready sometime this Spring in the lead up to the 2010 World Cup.

You can read a bit more about the film on an earlier post on this site and at Lovgren’s blog.

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