The only constant

Is the world changing? Well… silly question. Change is really all there is when it comes to the world, I suppose. One can certainly argue football is an ever-changing landscape. But something new feels to be afoot. I am not basing this on much other than a feeling, really. So here goes…

This summer saw the World Cup go home, in a manner of speaking. Yes, football was born in the UK, we all know that. But once matured, it took off for Brasil and became naturalized there. Or so that was the narrative for a while. Five glorious, green little stars above the sheild. So many greats rolling off the tongue it felt like a language of its own: Didí, Garrincha, Clodoaldo, Carlos Alberto, Tostão, Zico, Socrates, Falcão, Júnior, Romário, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, and now Neymar.

And of course, the greatest of them all: Pelé. He gets his own line.

Brasil will, undoubtedly, continue to produce the world’s most thrilling players for some time. It is a lucrative industry after all, and Brasilian bosses and businessmen are just as fond of filthy lucre as the new masters of the game in such places as Dubai. Money is and of course will always be the thing that drives all recreational sporting ventures. Football feels like life but it’s a game, and truth be told we love our games in the West. And everywhere else in the world, which is why football is sucvh a good business to get into. There’s no end in sight for the crowds this sport can draw. We’re not going to run out of football any time soon, basically.

But the moneyline has never been higher up the side of this particular ship, and one wonders if money won’t drown the game? The next two cups will be held in countries largely devoid of such niceties as civil liberties and human rights, and these bids were won (as they all are, in fairness) with a ton of shmoozing and money. Both are undoubted petro states and leveraged piles of cash to slide the votes in their direction. It’s largely a moot point since FIFA is the world’s governing body for the sport we so love and there is about as much confidence in it as their is hope for transparency and good governance in either of the upcoming World Cup host nations. In a very real sense, they deserve each other. It’s a travesty that we are stuck with them.

And this is so becuase you know that for all of our disgust toward FIFA, we’ll be watching the Euros and the World Cups to come. This is so because we are all hopelessly addicted to it, and FIFA knows this and therefore will not reform, not even under durress. We, the consumer base, demand more of this product by the day and FIFA, as any good pimp or drug dealer would, ensures that the streets are awash in its product.

We hate them but we need them. It’s sick.

It is worth noting just how insanely high the television rights are for just the Premier League this season. $1.6 billion is proper money.

If success and money are twins, and success breeds more success, then the Prem alone will be breeding cash like a chicken coop with a pair of hamsters in it. For the moment, there is no point of saturation. Football has finally managed to really land on America’s shores and looks to be around for good now. The MLS even looks to be growing not only in interest but quality.

Much like the Beatles, England longs to see its sporting ambassador plant a permanent flag over here. The American dollar is still the most coveted currency out there and you can bank your bottom dollar that now that we are seeing the first seedlings of interest are beginning to spring up, there will be a doubling down of investment to promote the global sport here. I’m interested to see which leagues resopnate the most powerfully with the American public. Clearly the Prem is the flashiest, best packaged and most easily absorbed by the curious American consumer. But is there room over here for expansion in such leagues as the Bundesliga, Serie A, La Liga? As for now, we see NBC hosting all things Premier League, with Bein Sports sort of becoming a grab bag for the rest of the Big Four European Leagues. With access on Basic cable to NBC Sports, the Prem has the greatest likelihood for expansion within the American consumer market. Do we see a foray by the Big Four into any of the other US network conglomerates? Conservative catanaccio on Fox? Lusty Latin passing game on ABC? Efficient, by the book ball of CBS?

Probably not. But it’s a fun mental exercise.

And while the Germans still give off that impression of efficiency over art, recent events seem to indicate the opposite. Germany is no longer boring to watch. Brasil is no longer playing beautiful football. The Spaniards are not invincible. So all of that, too, is changing.

Football has been big business for a long time, of this there is no doubt. That glorious footage from the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, where Brasil seemed to glide about the pitch at will, exerting its supremacy and genius over the ball with such aplomb seems to come from a time that the game was, somehow, purer. It had only yet to reach the global audience it is now attaining. The scary part is that there is still quite a lot of room to grow.

In that sense, football has outgrown Brasil’s millions of potential world beaters. Furthermore, World Cup rosters increasingly reflect the breakdown of racial homogenization in the West. The game has truly gone global, and is no longer just a European or South American thing. The nascent Indian Super League offers the intriguing possibility of high-profile (if retired) former footballing greats gracing the pitches in a market of nearly one billion pairs of eyeballs.

While the growth of football is, for me at least, wonderfull as it offers more football at an increasingly affordable rate. I don’t see a super saturation point anywhere on the horizon, although you have to assume there is one.

With so much interest in this game, and with its potential for growth, one sees the enormous possibility for football being a force for good. The sad truth for now is there is little to no hope for that while it is in the hands of such scoundrels as FIFA. Is it too much to hope that the increasing profile of the game, with its subsequent increased scrutiny, might create an environment of greater accountability within global footbal’s governing body?

For now, they have basically ignored all calls for greater transparency. They do so because they know. They know we will watch. We will yell and scream, but when the whistle blows we will sit down and watch. We saw it this past summer in Brasil. Many thought the Cup wouldn’t go ahead, but in the end, we all just wanted to watch the game.

And so it goes: progress thwarted by our fickle loves. Bread and circuses…

All that being said, I am curious to watch this game evolve over the next 50 years. Either the system will grow so rotten as to collapse in upon itself, or something will change. Either gradually or radically.

Let’s hope, though, they do it during half time.

 

Season preview: West Ham United

Here in the US, we have our teams that seem to give off this allure of history and bigness, but have not seen glory in a very long time. Like the Cleveland Browns. West Ham are kind of the Cleveland Browns of the Premier League. Or, if the Indianapolis Colts had never left Baltimore and had stayed sort of ho-hum, then they’d be the corollary I’d use. Because, you see, West Ham are a big side. Their support is rabid, impassioned. They do have a certain allure.

But it’s been a long, long time since the days of Geoff Hurst, Bobby Moore and Martin Peters. It’s all well and good that the Hammers provided the trio to the winning 1966 England national squad that won the World Cup on home soil. But that was, you know, like 50 years ago. And the whole thing about West Ham being a big club holds about as much water as England being a great national squad. It’s all smoke and mirrors and zero substance to it.

So it might come as a surprise now that I think the Hammers will get very close to qualifying for Europe next year.

Please allow me to digress while I express my disdain for West Ham manager Sam Allardyce. While good for a soundbite, he’s pretty much crap for everything else. An absolute disciple of negative, defense-first, punt the ball forward, big ‘un, little ‘un football, Big Sam is, in my book, the high priest of long ball. One look at his team and you see the line of players who have followed him from as far back as Bolton Wanderers: Kevin Nolan, Ricardo Vaz Tê, Jussi Jääskeläinen. I mean, Nolan is his captain. He’s not looking to change his playing style.

But something about the old guy is slowly but surely winning over the Boleyn Ground faithful. Fans of the grand old teams who used to play the beautiful passing game, who hated the very sight of Big Sam from his first day on the job are now beginning to if not warm up at least begrudgingly accept him as a necessary evil.

And that’s fair enough, I guess. Big Sam is a throwback, no doubt. He is not everyone’s cup of tea. He is, however, the kind of guy that will take a stack of average players and make them play well as a unit. That and the old man is a clever operator in the transfer market to boot. The big news is, obviously, the contracting of Ecuadorian striker Enner Valencia. Big Sam is loading up on firepower it seems by bringing in another South American finisher in the form of former Birmingham City and Napoli striker Mauro Zarate. The Zarate kid failed to inspire a resurgence in Birmingham in his last team in the Premier League. It will be interesting to see if he’s grown and improved as a player over the last half dozen years or so. One thing is certain: big man Andy Carroll better get fit soon and come roaring out of the gates come December or he could find himself with a price tag around his neck in the January transfer window.

Big Sam has also landed the services of former Arsenal defensive mid Alex Song on loan from Spanish giants Barcelona. So there is the gradual uptick in quality being added to the Hammers’ ranks, something that I believe will carry them right through the season. Allardyce will want to win something for the fans to reward them for their patience and I could see them making a go for it in the League Cup. So no real fear of the drop and a decent cup run. I’m predicting a top ten finish for the Hammers, specifically ninth.

Season preview: West Bromwich Albion

There is an air of desperation around the Hawthornes. Alain Irvine, long time and able second in command under David Moyes during his time at Everton, has been brought in to oversee what is looking more and more like a dismal dismissal from the League. It’s kind of people coming through the door that give this impression: Giorgios Samaras (Celtic). Joleon Lescott (Man City). And then there’s the guy from Heracles. Players coming from mid-to-lower table opposition in such leagues as the Eredivisie or the Tippeligaen. Players that were not favored at bigger clubs after the second season of their contract finished. Too many gambles, too many second chances on veterans who just couldn’t cut it. It just does not bode well.

But then again it hasn’t all been crap coming through the door. The club broke the bank to conscript Brown Ideye from Dynamo Kiev. A quality striker who has bagged 74 goals in the last 182 games, Baggies coach Irvine is holding out hope for great things from the speedy Nigerian.

But it is not the same across the rest of the squad. Craig Gardener, while a decent guy and all, is hardly the sort of world beater the Baggies need if they truly want to progress. All around the team you have players who can do a job. They are all honest, hard working lads. Not much quality but plenty of endeavor. Kind of like a David Moyes team, really.

It’s sad as the Baggies have had some pretty fun teams over the years. For a spell there, they had something going, as when Roy Hodgson was at the helm. But there seems to be an impatience with promising managers at this club. Roberto Di Matteo stands out, as does Steve Clarke. Pepe Mel came over from Spain and managed to keep the club up, but he too was dismissed.

And in the off season they had Tim Sherwood, formerly of Tottenham, on the line. For reasons unknown he decided to not take the bait. It might be that the club’s leadership know the fun’s about to end and are already preparing to spend several seasons in the lower divisions.

I don’t see this as the year they go down. And that day might not come the next year. But what I see here is a club that looks at each season from the vantage point of “how can we avoid the drop?” rather than “how can we kick on?” Teams who subscribe to the former include the likes of Birmingham City, Wolverhampton and Reading. WBA are a team of that size. If your reality is that every season you are liable to court the drop, why not put on a show? Perhaps reckless abandon is utter foolishness, but if we’re all a little honest we will admit that football is about the stories and drama, the glorious wounds suffered on the field of battle.

But that is not Alain Irvine, and that is not this team. My prediction is WBA will stay up, finishing up in fifteenth. I wonder how long they can keep this up.

Season preview: Tottenham Hotspur

Full disclosure: this is, in my opinion, the most loathsome team in the league. This takes some doing as I would, naturally, as an Evertonian save that particular distinction for Liverpool. Yet, there is just something… I don’t know… icky about this club. Maybe it’s their owner. He looks like Gollum. And I’m sure he’s a turd.

And how, pray tell Phil, do we know Daniel Levy is a turd? We don’t. We addume, because, well, we do. I That and in the thirteen years he and his ENIC International, LTD company have run the show in North London, Spurs have seen eleven managers come and go. Levy also has a penchant for going through players the way some club owners go through managers. Oh wait, only he goes through them the way he does…

But this season looks different, at least on the players front. Below is a list players who have left White Heart Lane this summer:

Jake Livermore (Hull)

Michael Dawson (Hull)

Gylfi Sigurdsson (Swansea)

Iago Falque (Genoa)

Heurelho Gomes (Watford)

Giancarlo Gallifuoco (Swansea)

Cameron Lancaster (Stevenage)

Kevin Stewart (Liverpool)

Alex Pritchard (Brentford)

Shaquile Coulthirst (Southend)

Tom Carroll (Swansea)

Ryan Fredericks (Middlesbrough)

Zeki Fryers (Crystal Palace) source on all the above The Daily Mail

 

And here’s what’s come in:

 

Federico Fazio (Sevilla)

Ben Davies (Swansea)

Michel Vorm (Swansea)

Eric Dier (Sporting Lisbon)

DeAndre Yedlin (Seattle Sounders – will join in summer 2015) source is same as above

 

Why so quiet, one wonders? Well, it is transfer deadline day and so I reckon we’ll see a few coming in the door, maybe a couple others on their way out. But Spurs have a new manager (again – we’ll see if he lasts longer than Ted Lasso), and he must be in the market for new recruits. Their 3-0 defeat at the hands of Liverpool over the weekend sounded the end of their 100% start to the season, and they looked fairly pedestrian in it despite playing at home.

Mauricio Pochetino is a decent coach and if given time (big if here) he should be able to instill his brand of attacking football on the squad. That being said, he works for the most trigger happy owner in the league, and is as likely to lead Tottenham on a charge up the table and challenge for top four honors as he is to be in the unemployment line come the third week of November.

My guess is it will be the latter and the bald idiot Levy will recruit some other chump who is fed the line that Tottenham are really a massive club and “look at this transfer kitty” and they’ll make some kind of turnaround in the second half of the season to finish up tenth in the table. But that’s just a guess.

Season preview: Swansea

It’s pretty goofy to try to wrap up these predos on the last day of the transfer window, but whatever, life is busy. So, Swansea next.

The Swans have been extremely busy and have spent quite a bit this summer. Many in, many out, likely too many to talk about, but let us focus on a few. The notable departures are Ben Davies and Michael Vorm (to Tottenham) and Michu (to Napoli). In the first clutch, it was two players going to the same club, with midfield maestro and fan favorite Gylfi Sigurdsson coming back to the Welsh side for a second spell. As part of their perennial spend-then-sell spree at White Heart Lane, Sigurdsson is one of those oddities who has undoubtable class, but failed to impress two of the three managers that were there during his brief stay (starting out with Andre Villas Boas, who rated him enough to sign him, then stand in Tim Sherwood, who didn’t know how to utilize him, then current boss Mauricio Pochetino, who couldn’t be bothered). He is hardly the first player who has wasted time at Spurs, so I am happy to see his misery come to an end. It is also notable that he decided to go back to Swansea instead of ply his trade elsewhere. The club has a pull because of its wonderful fans and its culture, and we’ll discuss that in a second.

It is a surprise, then, to see one of their better players in Michu leave, and on loan at that. It would be interesting to see what happened there. Michu is versatile – able to lead the line as a striker, but also able to play in an attacking midfielder role. I am disappointed to see him go. It’s true that last season he didn’t do great, but he was largely limited by injuries. His attitude has not been off, he doesn’t seem to be a troublemaker. But perhaps Garry Monk did not take to him, and saw fit to move for Bafetembi Gomis, a more all-action sort of player than the perhaps slightly more refined Michu.

I like Swansea: they play proper, passing football with flair and style. Chairman Huw Jennings has instituted the right sort of footballing culture and structure at the club that accepts its inevitable position as a selling club, but has managed to attract the right talent on and off the pitch that buys into its footballing philosophy. He is also ruthless: if you don’t produce, now, then adios. Through the doors of the Liberty Stadium have come many a manager that went on to great things: Roberto Martinez of Everton and Brendan Rogers of Liverpool’s other team both came through the doors there. Martinez was a former player who moved on to management, as was Monk, which shows Jennings has an eye for promoting from within, always a laudable trait.

I see Swansea pushing on this season, and am expecting a decent cup run (maybe a final in the League Cup or a semi in the FA Cup) and a ninth place finish in the Prem.