Thursday, February 28, 2013

Looks Like The Locker Room is Not In Fact All Doom And Gloom

If you've not yet seen this, behold. I'm still not sold on the Berbatov/Jol/Fulham marriage (I mean, for one, it's polygamy), but I'm happy to see Fulham doing what any good, sensible, and functional group of young men on an sports team in this moment in time should do. That's right, a Harlem Shake video. Carry on, indeed.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Pump The Brakes: A Closer Look at Fulham's Win Against Stoke

No one wants to be That Guy.

Your buddy asks out the girl of his dreams, she says yes, and That Guy chimes in with the who, where, and when of everyone else she's ever slept with.

You get the job of your dreams and That Guy can't help but remind you of the attrition rate and low pay.

You and your wife get pregnant and That Guy takes the opportunity to relay to you the frequency of autism cases in today's newborns. 1 in 100, father of Rainman.

Basically, That Guy pisses on your leg and calls it rain, shits in your hand and calls it a free lunch, and generally shoots a hole in every dream you've tentatively floated to the heavens.

I don't want to be That Guy. Really and truly.

Regular readers of the blog are no strangers to my feelings regarding a one Dimitar Berbatov and his importance to Fulham Football Club. For those less informed, I proffer the following: Dimitar Berbatov is a silky conductor of a game written in a time signature known only to him. His genius is unparalleled. His touch is a whisper in a smoke filled speakeasy. His brilliance is a noble rot appreciated by only the most discerning of palates. His treatment of the game is urbane, arrogant, stubborn, and beautiful in a way that Van Gogh, Poe, and Cobain would applaud between quaffs of absinthe and knowing nods in recognition of another artist's genius. In short, Dimitar Berbatov is a superlative talent in a fallible construct. He's Will Hunting in South Boston. Banksy in Bristol. James Agee in Knoxville, Tennessee.

He's Dimitar Berbatov in West London.

A virtuoso in a garage band. 
I write this a number of hours after Berbatov's genius strike sank Stoke City on the banks of the Thames and consigned Tony Pulis's army of Uruk Hai to a Saturday without points and sent Fulham fans into an ecstasy of plaudits that has yet to die down. All day I've read tweet after tweet and article after article and headline after headline recounting Berbatov's quality in Saturday's match and his primacy to a Fulham squad stuck somewhere in the liminal zone between relegation contenders and Premier League competents. I remain unconvinced.

I recognize that this position is unpopular amongst Fulham fans and respect the points and counter points posited by the Cottagers faithful, but I also cannot quietly acquiesce to the status quo even in the aftermath of a much needed, appreciated, and delicious three points gained.

On Saturday Stoke City began the match at Craven Cottage playing three at the back. Geoff Cameron, Stoke's usual right back, was deployed by Tony Pulis as a reserved striker supporting Peter Crouch while Matthew Etherington and Jonathan Walters were deployed as left and right wing players respectively. I'm no fan of Stoke's traditional style of leg breaking, long ball attrition, but I respect Tony Pulis and his record as a manager and I have to give a begrudging measure of respect to a side that has managed a healthy run in the Premier League despite playing a style of football most fans of the game consider anathema to common decency. Pulis succeeds with what he's been given and maximizes his side's strengths with savvy personnel decisions and tactical nous. For a manager of Pulis's pedigree to run out a side such as the one he deployed on Saturday, he must have thought two things. One: The further back I can push messrs Ruiz and Berbatov the more I limit their effectiveness. Two: Fulham lack the pace and guile to warrant me playing anything but three central defenders across my back line.

As we now know, Pulis's gamble didn't work, but it didn't work in part because Matthew Etherington pulled up lame in the opening salvos of the match and Steven N'Zonzi found himself with a broken nose and a spot in Lee Probert's book midway through the first half. Pulis then had to readjust his formation after he was forced to bring on a Premier League debutante in Brek Shea who, until the second half, looked considerably off the pace and then, after Berbatov's wonder strike, was left chasing the game and threw Cameron Jerome and Kenwyne Jones onto the pitch in an effort to limit the damages.

How many saves was Asmir Begovic forced to make in Saturday's match? Other than Berbatov's game winner and Karagounis's set piece screamer, was there a single strike that significantly troubled the in demand Bosnian?

Stoke are a known quantity. They sit deep, hoof the ball forward, and kick and gouge their way to respectable finishes year after year. After Etherington's departure Saturday, Stoke sat deeper than they probably would have before Etherington left the pitch. Fulham were allowed to ping the ball around in front of the Potters' defense and carry it into the attacking third mostly because Stoke allowed them to do so and were trying to scrap a draw out of an away fixture after they'd lost an attacking player to injury and seen a needed covering player booked for a momentary loss of his wits. Berbatov's goal didn't come from any particular genius in attack, build up play, or pace, but rather from a violent moment of artistry from a gifted but horribly flawed albatross.

Aside from the goal, I would suggest that Fulham's play in the match was somewhat limited to clever passes in the middle third with very little end product. Additionally, the most dangerous moments in the match came courteous initially of a pressing attack made up of makeshift frontrunners and then, after Etherington's departure, of a strong, physical side pressing for an equalizer. What does this narrative look like if Schwarzer doesn't save Walters's penalty or if Crouch finishes the gilt edged chance gifted to him by Senderos?

Fulham have yet to play Chelsea, Spurs, Arsenal, Everton, and Liverpool and six of their remaining eleven fixtures are away from home. Berbatov was able to finish his glorious goal on Saturday in part because Stoke were essentially conceding the pitch to the Cottagers all the way to their own penalty area and N'Zonzi, Shawcross, and Wilson all had found their way into Probert's little black book. I doubt injury and cautions will be so kind to Fulham in the remaining fixtures.

Berbatov is an incredible talent - a Champagne footballer - but all is not yet right with the Cottagers and tougher challenges await. The need for a penetrating striker and/or pacey wingers to stretch a defense remains unaddressed and Martin Jol thus far appears content to roll out a side incapable of producing anything other than a prayed for Berbatov master stroke. 1-0 against a Stoke side depleted through injury and cautions does not safety make.  

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Uruk Hai, Predator, "B" Words Premier League Predictions

What a week-and-a-half it's been. I spent most of it in a fever dream hacking up 2/3 of a lung and blowing a brownish material the viscosity of honey from my nose, but apparently a lot happened in the football world as well.

Namely, AC Milan took a 2-0 aggregate lead in their first leg Champions League match against Barcelona and caused most Pompey fans to experience a sudden spike in their experience of anti-schadenfreude. Seriosuly, can you imagine supporting a club in the throes of an epic financial implosion that is seeing them nosedive in a flaming clusterfuck of failures down the league structure while two of your old boys lead a famous club to a famous win over a considerably more famous club in the most famous club competition in the world; a competition your club will likely never again even get a sniff at? It's enough to make your heart arrhythmically beat the Chimes of Pompey. Pouring one out for the Southcoasters as I write this.

What I didn't miss was much Premier League action. Praise Jesus. Eventually, I'll get around to figuring out what my record is in Premier League predictions this season, but I can tell you now without even crunching the numbers that it's pretty good. I'm not one to toot my own horn, but *toot, toot*.

So what's on tap for tomorrow?

Well, the early kickoff sees Fulham play host to Stoke City. What is there to say about Stoke that hasn't been said already before? Well, how about this: Stoke City are like an army of Uruk Hai marauding through the Premier League by surviving on the entrails of those poor Men, Elves, and Hobbits they've kicked to death. That and absolute evil. Mostly absolute evil. I mean, what is that freaking towel-sewn-into-the-jersey thing but absolute evil. It's gimmicky and frustrating and amateurish and it makes my blood boil that it's actually effective sometimes. Mercifully, they've not used it much this year, but they still have Ryan Shawcross and I can't stand Ryan Shawcross. Also, I'm a Fulham fan so take everything I've just written with a Wife of Lot sized grain of salt.

Stoke center back Ryan Shawcross
I want to predict a comfortable Fulham win, but as was discussed on the Cottage Talk podcast earlier today, Martin Jol has yet to figure out the most effective combination for Fulham's attack. As was mentioned on the show, on the one hand it's reassuring that Jol realizes this is an issue. On the other hand, ummm, it's almost March. I feel somewhat like I'm beating a dead horse here, but we lack the combination of pace and guile on the wings to afford us the luxury of playing with two number 10s, and maybe even one number 10. Additionally, Fulham offer next to nothing going forward if a striker a la Hugo Rodallega isn't played in an advanced role.

Hopefully, Jol doesn't go with the 4-6-0 he's deployed all too often this season and Fulham are able to take advantage of a suddenly leaky Potters' defense. I'll call a 2-1 Fulham win with one Stoke Uruk Hai seeing red. I don't think they'll be able to resist kicking Berbatov. God knows I couldn't.

Arsenal take on Aston Villa on Saturday as well. The good news for the Gunners is that Aston Villa does not start with the letter "B". Bradford, Blackburn, and Bayern have all recently taken it to The Arsenal and, having just finished reading Soccernomics, I know Arsene Wenger to be a huge fan of statistics. Rest easy, Arsene, there's not a "B" in sight...unless you count Villa being from Birmingham and employing the Belgian Benteke. Fuck! Still, Arsenal can't lose this one, can they? I call Arsenal 3-1 victors.

Grant Holt: Predator lust porn
In another 3:00PM kickoff, Norwich play host to Everton.  It's tough not to read too much into Everton's collapse against Oldham in the FA Cup and I have to admit I'm tempted. Weaker opponent, away fixture, physical team who can throw a big body into the box? I hate to say it, but I see this ending in a 1-1 draw. Jelavic has gone off the boil and it seems just like Everton to travel to a weaker team and only manage a draw. All bets are off, however, if The Predator lands at Carrow Road as he'll immediately hunt down Grant Holt and his massive trophy skull. Let me know ASAP if it's warmer than usual in Norwich tomorrow morning.

Manchester United travel to Queens Park Rangers and are looking to avoid being yet another of the Premier League elite to fall victim to Harry Redknapp and his financially unsustainable menagerie of pensioners. The timing of this fixture benefits Manchester United as there's no way they will be surprised by what QPR can offer. Also, the fact that Manchester United is Manchester United and have thus far proven to be the only Premier League side not prone to the occasional embarrassing hiccup bodes well for the Red Devils. Even though United look to be without the services of Wayne Rooney who has been laid low with a case of the sniffles (I feel your pain, Wayne!), I still think United rolls here. 3-0 Man U.

Reading play host to Wigan and my nonsexual mancrush, Roberto Martinez. In campaigns past, this match would have all the allure of a documentary about llamas on a Sunday afternoon on PBS. For most people it probably still does, but I'm prone to believe that there are goals in this match. What's that sound? You guessed it! It's the William J. Le Petomane Insane Prediction of the Week. I'm calling an edge of the seat, grandstand finish, women swooning, dogs and cats living together, goals bonanza. Why? I have no idea. 3-3. Epic.

In Saturday's final match, West Bromwich Albion take on Sunderland. This is really the tale of two strikers. Can Romelu Lukaku have more of an effect on the day's events than Steven Fletcher? At home, I'm inclined to think that he can. My caveat to this is if Steve Clarke does indeed decide to recall Peter Odemwingie. I can see this going one of two ways, but never the twain shall meet. One: Peter "Don't You Want Me, Baby" Odemwingie is called upon to provide a spark for the Baggies but is booed so mercilessly he sucks the wind out of the West Brom cause and Sunderland steals some points. Two: Peter "Sign Me Maybe" Odemwingie is called upon to provide a spark for the Baggies cause and is booed so mercilessly he finds that extra gear to stick one in shut the up the home supporters. My call? 1-1.


Saturday, February 9, 2013

Premier League Predictions for Sunday, 2/10/13

If I start this post by saying that I was this close to calling Southampton v Manchester City as my William J. Le Petomane insane prediction of the week, no one will believe me. But I should point out that both of QPR's recent massive results against Chelsea and the aforementioned Citeh were called by yours truly. Lend me any credibility? Didn't think so.

Tomorrow plays host to only two matches. First on the docket is Aston Villa v West Ham United. Anyone who can call Villa's results this season is either a master of the dark arts or is in possession of the most finely tuned Magic 8 Ball this world has ever seen. My call? Reply is hazy, try again later...

...It's "later" and I still have zero idea. West Ham can't score away from home and Aston Villa have only undercut their away form with their decidedly poor showings at home. I like Villa to make a run at staying up and predict a 2-1 Villa win.

Too soon?
In Sunday's other match, Manchester United takes on Everton at Old Trafford. The corresponding fixture last season ended 4-4 after a breathless 90 minutes that eventually helped derail United's bid for the league title. With City slipping up today against Southampton, United have a chance to effectively end their neighbor's bid to keep the title in the blue half of Manchester and essentially make the rest of the drama of the 2012-13 season about Champions League spots and relegation battles. Of all the sides in the league, the Red Devils seem the least susceptible to unexpected hiccups and I think they put the Premier League on ice tomorrow. 2-1, United. But wouldn't a Toffees win be delicious?

Premier League Predictions for Saturday, 2/9/13

Play match. Pack bags. Disperse to all corners of the world. Play match. Pack bags. Return to club. Play match.

That's pretty much the last week in the life of a national team soccer player playing in the Premier League and the results from this weekend's fixture list will undoubtedly illustrate how grueling a lifestyle this is to lead. Heavy legs, knocks, jet lag, and rumbly basements (read: tropically induced intestinal trouble) will conspire to sprinkle throughout the team sheets a number of unusual players in unusual positions. Or they won't and instead will conspire to create some unusual performances from usually stellar players. It all makes for great viewing.

The predictions:

"3-2?! Have you gone Berserk?"
Tottenham v Newcastle - The French Revival is well and truly underway for Monsieur (De)Pardew's Newcastle squad and I don't see that slowing down. Tottenham are well up the table, but aren't exactly setting the world on fire with their attacking performances. Clint Dempsey just played 90 minutes in a Honduran sauna, Gareth Bale led Wales to a win over Austria, and Emmanuel Adebayor is barely back from the African Cup of Nations. Newcastle had their own stars away on national team duty, notably Yohan Cabaye and Moussa
Sissoko, but I feel like the pointy end of Tottenham's spear will be rather duller than the pointy end of Newcastle's...even at White Hart Lane. This leads me to this week's Governor William J. Le Petomane Insane Prediciton of the Week (And right out of the gates too!): Newcastle to win 3-2. AVB's beard at three days' growth.

Chelsea v Wigan - My love affair with Roberto Martinez is long and well documented, but with center back issues and the fact that Roberto Martinez still manages Wigan, I don't see the Latics getting anything here...unless they break Demba Ba's nose for the second week in a row. Chelsea to win 3-0.

Please, Santo Jol, you need me up top!
Norwich v Fulham - In their first meeting this season, Fulham torched the Canaries 5-0. Phil Mison at ESPN wrote a great recipe for canary dinner, but I'm not sure I share his optimism. I've been critical of Dimitar Berbatov and the way he is deployed for the Cottagers, especially against superior sides. Norwich is certainly not that, but in the last two matches, both played at Craven Cottage, Fulham has looked much brighter and more confident going forward. In the West Ham match, I attribute this to Martin Jol playing two strikers. In the Manchester United match, I attribute this to Jol not being able to select Berbatov. I suspect Fulham may travel to Carrow Road and revert to the one striker system, in which case Norwich gets the win 2-1. If, on the other hand, Jol bucks up or if Berbatov doesn't pass his late fitness test, Fulham draws 2-2. Gah! Pick one! As much as it pains me, Canaries win 2-1.

Stoke v Reading - When did the Potters decide to start letting in a shit ton of goals? A month ago Asmir Begovic watched his defenders kick, punch, eye gouge, and generally brutalize everything that came near his goal. The Britannia was a fortress. Now it's sort of a decorative shed with a bronzed rooster on top of it. Against Reading, however, I see Stoke getting back to winning ways. 1-0 Potters.

Sunderland v Arsenal - I grow weary even thinking about predicting Arsenal matches. Also, I grow weary of Arsenal fans dissecting my Arsenal predictions. How's this one, Gooners? Arsenal 2-1.

Swansea v QPR - I'll be a monkey's uncle. Here we are in February and QPR are showing signs of life. Granted, it's life that's come at an extraordinary premium, will probably still see the club go down, and then sink into the throes of financial ruin, but it sure as hell is fun to watch now! In the meantime, Swansea can't buy a goal. I call another draw for 'Arry's expensively assembled pensioners. 1-1.

Southampton v Manchester City - I think City knows Pepe Reina gifted them a lifeline in the Premier League chase and a slip up against Southampton is something they simply cannot afford. With Manchester United playing Everton this weekend, City will be hoping for a win and a United hiccup against a very capable Toffees side. I see at least half of that equation as a stone cold lock. Manchester City 2-0.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

A Five Beer Analysis of The USMNT v Los Catrachos

I'm currently coming down (up?) from the emotion of right about 6PM EST and I'm feeling tentatively capable of putting fingertip to keyboard in an effort to process some of my thoughts regarding the US Men's National Team's loss today to Los Catrachos. It helps that I have a six pack of Rogue Dead Guy Ale in the fridge. Well, a five pack anyway. One down.

Two caveats:

1. Due credit to Honduras. This Honduras side is not your grandfather's Honduras side. They qualified for the 2010 FIFA World Cup Finals and they seem dead set on repeating the feat in 2014. They are physical, fast, aggressive, and technically sound. Bonus points for having a jeans and faded polo wearing coach. He's like the anti Jose Mourinho. Many will decry the state of the pitch, the heat, and the humidity as being key, anti-US factors during today's match, but at this level, good teams should be able to overcome such discomforts and the Honduran players seemed to have absolutely no problem with the weather conditions.

Mandatory equipment this evening. 
2. This isn't a death sentence for the USMNT. CONCACAF qualifying is a slog. There are no easy games in the hexagonal round and a 2-1 defeat to Honduras in San Pedro De Sula isn't the worst thing that could happen.

Now that we have some perspective, let's talk about the match in a level-headed, sensible manner.


I  mean, good God, you've only days before fielded an entirely experimental side against a distinctly inferior opponent and called for calm in the wake of a horrifically amateurish performance using the excuse that it was an entirely experimental side in a nothing match and you were using the opportunity to bleed some young players into the full national team. Today, you run out Tim Chandler and Omar Gonzalez, two peripheral personalities in the full national side and you expected them to perform like precision machined replacement parts in a well oiled machine?

I mean, all week we've been hearing about San Pedro De Sula and how dangerous it is and about how passionate the Honduran fans are and about how hot and humid it is and about how CONCACAF qualifying is a long, arduous, difficult process and about how Grant Wahl was mugged there moments after meeting the Honduran president and about how important senior leadership is in away qualifying matches and about how Grant Wahl can't leave his hotel room and about how huge the strides are that Los Catrachos have taken in the last six years and did I mention how many times Grant Wahl has personally related his story about being mugged there?! And in response, we run out a starting XI that, while not experimental in formation, was decidedly experimental in personnel selection?

Hang on. I'm headed to the fridge for another beer.

Listen, I still have faith in the USMNT's ability to qualify for the World Cup in Brazil, but today's match, for me, was less about an undesirable outcome and more about the odd player selection and the manner in which said players were deployed. With Grant Wahl's unintentional help, I think we've established how difficult CONCACAF qualifying matches are when they're played away from home. In these sorts of situations, veteran leaders are necessarily relied upon for their experience, leadership, and general unflappability. Why Omar Gonzalez was starting in central defense next to Geoff Cameron, a player who hasn't played at center back for a considerable amount of time, is beyond me. Carlos Bocanegra is getting long in the tooth and Gonzalez would appear to be the future, but in this sort of match I want and need Bocanegra's experience and maturity marshaling the back line. On Honduras' first goal, I'm pretty sure Boca would have gone ahead and closed the service after the corner kick instead of tepidly running out to the left edge of the eighteen, having a think, and then crawfishing his way back into the area to nearly get kicked in the face while Juan Garcia posterized him.

Tim Chandler: Cap tied. 
The absence of Steve Cherundolo is more excusable as the right back stalwart and seemingly ageless wonder was ruled out of this match through injury. Having said that, watching Tim Chandler awkwardly run about and look totally out of his depth had me thinking, "This is what all the teeth gnashing was about? No wonder Germany didn't lock him up." He was more Timmy Burch from Southpark than Tim Chandler, saviour of American soccer's right flank. That was a short honeymoon. Chandler is cap-tied now and needs to get his shit in one sock ASAP. I know one game does not a career make, but Chandler looked consistently exposed, gassed, out paced, and decidedly un-Cherundolo like. There was a moment about three fourths of the way through the first half when Chandler was closing the ball down the right flank that I seriously thought was going to end with him on his back and a defibrillator hustled out onto the field. In a team that looked like it was playing underwater, Chandler looked like the manatee.

Hang on. That manatee reference made me thirsty.

Where were we? Ah, yes, the defense. Geoff Cameron is a legitimate talent and an incredibly versatile player. As The Shin Guardian would say, "He's a peanut butter kind of player." That is to say, he's versatile, smooth, and capable of holding different parts of the field cohesively together. While this is true, Cameron has been recently deployed for both club and country as a right back, center back, defensive midfielder, and attacking midfielder, it doesn't mean that he's particularly world class yet at any one position. Next to someone with the experience and leadership of Carlos Bocanegra, playing Cameron at center back is a calculated risk. Playing him at center back in an away qualifying match next to a green international is bat shit crazy.

On Honduras' second goal, Cameron failed to deal with a through ball he probably should have. In another match, maybe he gets away with it if his partner in central defense is alert to the possibility that things don't always go as planned and, hey, the ball could wind up on a platter for the guy I'm supposed to be marking. *Cough*, Omar Gonzalez. I think Bocanegra probably helps deal with that situation either by screaming his head off to make sure Cameron knows he has to deal with the ball or by tracking all the way back to cover behind the onrushing Tim Howard. Either way, he doesn't pull an Omar Gonzalez, start to track his man, think better of it, immediately regret his decision, and then wind up lunging desperately at the ball as Jerry Bengston scores the easiest goal of his international career.

Fuck. Fridge time.

There were some bright spots. Tim Howard did what Tim Howard does and can hardly be faulted on at least the first goal. Clint Dempsey scored a beautiful volley off a lovely chipped pass from Jermaine Jones. Seriously, it's a small thing, but the technique required to turn his foot over to hit that ball with his instep rather than the side of his foot is to be applauded. Classy finish. Jozy Altidore, although he had a serious drought of service, showed enough effort and desire to defend from the front that I think he may have taken to heart what is required to start for a national team. Midway through the first half, he chased a lost ball and put in a hard tackle to force a Honduras throw deep in their defensive third rather than allow the easy clearance back up the field. It sucks that I'm referencing Altidore slide tackles as bright spots, but I'm trying to stay away from the refrigerator for a couple of paragraphs.

Take aways from this match? A lot of attention has been directed at the defense and how it needs to adjust and improve with the looming retirements of Carlos Bocanegra and Steve Cherundolo. I don't think that attention has been unwarranted and this afternoon's showing did nothing to assuage any fears. We're not blessed with a high capacity pipeline of players who can immediately plug into the national team set up. Gonzalez and Chandler have potential, but they aren't there quite yet and were cruelly exposed today.

"How was the game, guys?"
An equally pressing matter perhaps, is the lack of out-and-out wide players on the squad who can serve a ball and stretch a defense both horizontally and vertically. In the 4-3-1-2 the United States started in, with Eddie Johnson playing an odd left sided striker/winger combo role, the team seemed narrow and easily closed down (Landon Donovan). Klinsmann undoubtedly was counting on Fabian Johnson and Tim Chandler (Landon Donovan) to provide some width, but neither of them was able to get into the attack effectively and generally showed no impetus to do so (Landon Donovan). With legitimate wide threats (Landon Donovan), Klinsmann could have made a tactical adjustment to take some of the possession pressure off of the central midfielders and pin the Honduran attack back on the flanks (Landon Donovan), but all that was in his back pocket was Graham Zusi and Sacha Kljestan (Landon Donovan), two players naturally suited and more comfortable with central roles. The result was predictable. Needing a goal late in the game, the US was unable to find any width, stretch the Honduran defense, or serve a single quality ball into a dangerous area (Landon Donovan). If only we had a seasoned international with pace and the ability to play on either flank and produce quality service. Maybe one of these days.

Ugh. I want to end this with a carefully crafted and curled bow cascading in red, white, and blue, but I'm currently left with more questions than clear or even vaguely clear answers. Like I said before, today's result isn't a death sentence, but it was certainly an alarming knee-buckler. Here's to hoping we can get it sorted out. Was that a toast? I'm headed back to the fridge.


Monday, February 4, 2013

How to Fix The Fixing: A Problem With One Impossible Solution

The European Police Intelligence Agency (Europol) announced the conclusion of a nineteen month investigation today at a press conference in which they revealed that 680 global matches from 2008 to 2011, including 380 matches in Europe and a Champions League match played in England, were deemed "suspicious of match fixing."

Rob Wainright, Director of Europol, at The Hague today. (AP)
You're wondering right now if you watched one of these matches, had a rooting interest in one of these matches, or if any high level talent was involved in one of these fixes. Statistically speaking, yes, yes, and yes.

Kind of a punch to the gut, no?

While the average soccer fan would philosophically be able to wrap his/her mind around the fact that sporting events are bet on, and that because they are match fixing does take place, he/she would also probably balk at the suggestion that players from his/her club or national team or even referees in charge of matches in his/her league of choice were somehow involved. What we've found out today is that this is likely not the case.

The number of matches deemed suspicious seems staggering, but callers for calm will undoubtedly point out that in only one Premier League season 780 matches are played. This investigation spans multiple years and, ostensibly, although Europol is being frustratingly vague with concern to the dirty details of the investigation, all levels of the professional game on a global scale. While this statement of scale is true, it assumes that the Europol investigation uncovered 100% of the incidences of match fixing and does nothing to address the incidences of corruption before 2008 or after 2011. In other words, the size of the problem is likely much, much bigger than the big problem Europol announced today.

That's two punches to the gut.

Moreover, the organization most likely tasked with undertaking the brunt of the work required to try to rid the game of match fixing scandals associated with betting is FIFA. Yes, notoriously corrupt, cronyism personified, forever-embroiled-in-its-own-bribery-du-jour scandal FIFA. Many will say, FIFA included, that this should be a joint law enforcement/governing body issue and that the quest to rid the game of match fixing requires strong legal action including arrests, convictions, and jail time, and while I agree with this, the logistical nightmare of arresting, extraditing, trying, and convicting those responsible for match fixing from amongst any one of dozens of countries all with their own laws, treaties, and varying levels of motivation to do so is staggering. As Declan Hill has repeatedly pointed out, both in his book The Fix: Soccer and Organized Crime and on his blog found at, knowing who is responsible for fixing the matches isn't the issue. Getting reluctant governments, who are reluctant for any one of a hundred reasons, to extradite wealthy, powerful organized crime bosses is another matter altogether.

What will most likely happen is what typically happens in situations where an obscene amount of money, ill begotten, is at stake and institutions of public trust are in the balance. The midlevel guys will fry and the string pullers, the guys no one has ever heard of before, will walk. This looks like lifetime bans handed down from FIFA for players, coaches, and referees. Maybe a few guys in suits with expensive lawyers will face jail time. But the guys at the top, the Dan Tans of the world, will largely survive to make it all happen again.

There's simply too much money at stake. As long as there is sport, there will be people who want to bet on sport. And as long as there are people betting on sport, there will be people gaming the system, to include fixing the outcome, to get as much of that money as possible while eliminating as much risk as possible. In his book The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer, David Goldblatt describes the culture of betting, specifically betting on soccer matches, that exists in Southeast Asia where much of the Europol investigation leads:

"Legal gambling exists only in Hong Kong...Yet the Asian betting industry is turning over $100 billion a year. That is three times the GDP of Vietnam. The vast majority of this is illegal. On an average weekend during the European soccer season $150 million is wagered with the main underground bookmaking networks of South-east Asia. These are concentrated in Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia. Betting really takes off during the big international tournaments. Since the arrival of live television coverage of the World Cup in 1998, the volume of bets has grown enormously. During Euro 2004, for example, Thais gambled around $800 million in three weeks; that is half a per cent of the country's GDP. In Singapore $294 million was laid out; that's $70 for every man, woman, and child." 

We're talking enormous sums of money made all the more enormous by the particular economic and social conditions of the regions in which these bets are placed. You'd be a pretty horrible crime boss if you weren't doing everything in your power to take advantage of this situation. You'd be a pretty great and well protected one if you did. 

And this is not just a seedy Southeast Asian crime problem nor, indeed, a soccer problem. During last night's Super Bowl, sports betting conspiracy theorists the world over likely paused to mull over the possibility that the Superdome's sudden power outage, which took place right at the moment the Baltimore Ravens looked poised to run away and hide with the Lomabrdi Trophy, was somewhat less than accidental. Power outages that occur once a desired score line is achieved and that officially end a contest are an old standby favorite of the fixers.   This is not to say that the Super Bowl was fixed, but the culture of fixing and the historical instances of such are both long established. It's a sign of how much so that Twitter and Facebook exploded the moment the lights were shut off with all sorts of theories and accusations regarding a fix. Even Goldblatt's book, outwardly a history of soccer, could also accurately be described as a history of match fixing. Every few years there's a massive scandal and no region, league, or club should be naive enough to think themselves immune.

What makes soccer so different, and what makes the problem so difficult to solve, is the game's global appeal. Who would have ever thought a crime syndicate in Singapore could fix a match in England? Who would have thought there would be a reason? Who has the authority and clout to stop them from doing it? 

I have my doubts about FIFA as they've proven over and over for years and years to be rotten from the top down, and, at any rate, throwing the book at referees and players doesn't cut the head off of the snake. Europol, and by extension Interpol, has the tools to name those responsible but needs cooperation from individual governments, governments not always motivated for any number of reasons, to do anything with teeth (ie, arrest, extradite, try, convict, and sentence). 

That leaves the fans. The punters. The people enthralled by the sport and willing to wager their money on a hoped for outcome, an outcome that should be a mystery to everyone equally. The source of all the money in this whole enterprise in the first place; from player salaries to ticket sales to video games to IPOs to transfer fees to jerseys. The passion that fuels the enterprise. No passion for the game, no betting. No betting, no money. No money, no match fixing. Hurts, doesn't it?

That's three punches to the gut.  

Friday, February 1, 2013

Transfer Window Heroes and Goats

Transfer windows typically slam shut; that's the cliche anyway. I've never heard a breathless Sky Sports anchor announce that a window has been gently and quietly closed or that, at the appointed hour, the transfer window has been carefully shuttered and the football world is off to bed after a warm glass of milk. Doesn't quite build the drama, does it? Fans of every club imagine that, right up until the final second of the final minute of the window, their manager and owner are wildly fielding phone calls and tending to faxes and firing emails out across the globe to get that one special piece of the puzzle that is going to take the club to unimagined heights by May. It's the floor of the New York Stock Exchange until the window slams shut and all deals have to be plated and presented for judgement.

Well, this year the window slid smoothly and soundlessly in its sill and is now latched. Good night.

You old charmer, you!
Other than Golden Balls moving to yet another of the World's Great Cities and immediately charming the culottes off of the French media by announcing his entire salary would be going to a children's charity, there weren't too many blockbuster deals to speak of. There were, however, Heroes and Goats:


Liverpool - The big question with Liverpool was where, other than Luis Suarez, the goals were going to come from. Last transfer window they spectacularly missed out on Clint Dempsey and then loaned Andy Carroll to West Ham leaving Luis Suarez as options A-Z to spearhead the Reds' attack. The addition of Daniel Sturridge gives Brendan Rodgers' side another vetted goal-scoring threat, and the signing of Philippe Coutinho injects a creative element in midfield that hasn't existed at Anfield this season. If I'm a Liverpool fan, in spite of the cost associated with bringing these two players in, I'm excited for the future. Coutinho is only 20 and Sturridge is only 23 and they're being added to a side that is already full of very young players.

Brek Shea - If it wasn't obvious from his grintastic car interview with Sky Sports, Brek Shea is really, really, really, really, really happy to be out of Dallas and away from Schellas Hyndman. The Texan will join Geoff Cameron at Stoke City and should be afforded every opportunity to make a position his own. He's fast, skilled, and has the ability to score some fabulous goals if not the ability to sport a decent hairstyle.

Arsenal - I know, I know Arsenal only brought in one player! How can they be heroes if they only brought in one player? Well, that one player is Nacho Monreal. No, Nacho Monreal is not a Tex-Mex restaurant in Quebec. Nacho Monreal is a Spain international who comes over from Malaga and will, in all likelihood, insure that Andre Santos never sees the pitch again. For that fact alone, this may be the most genius move of the transfer window.

Shane Long - Long has found consistent starts hard to come by this season, but with Peter Odemwingie's bizarre and futile attempt to force a transfer through to QPR, the Irishman may suddenly find a few more opportunities to play up top for West Brom. At the bare minimum, he's a Baggies striker not named Peter Odemwingie and that's a very good thing indeed.

Newcastle - The Magpies did a little anti-Villa and actually picked up three important players who should help see them up the table and clearly into safety. Moussa Sissoko, Yoan Gouffran, and Mathieu Debuchy are all classy players who can start and produce immediately. The biggest coup for the Northwesterners, however, may be that they were able to convince Fabricio Coloccini to stay until the end of the season.


Peter Odemwingie - There are so many things wrong with what Odemwingie did on deadline day that I'm note entirely sure where to start. He wasn't given permission to discuss terms with QPR, but he loaded his agent into the car and drove all the way to West London anyhow in the hopes that he could force West Brom's hand. QPR wouldn't see him, the window closed, and there's Odemwingie having to drive all the way home to face the fans, teammates, and employers he tried to run out on. And he did all of this to force a move to QPR?! Bottom of the table, past their sell by date, overpaid, sinking ship, Harry-Redknapp-called-yesterday-and-tried-to-sign-me QPR.

This is what winning Twitter looks like.

QPR - Harry Redknapp is running a Queen's(Park Rangers) Gambit and continues to make what are, for my money, suspect buys that have the potential to ruin the club financially if they aren't able to stay in the Premier League. I still think QPR will go down and if/when they do, Harry's reputation for driving clubs into administration has to rise to at least equal his reputation of keeping them up. Christopher Samba fills a need with the looming departure of Ryan Nelsen, but his wages are through the roof and only further destabilize an already shaky pay structure. Loic Remy was a decent signing, but the arrival of Jermaine Jenas from Tottenham has me scratching my head. Good luck, Rangers fans. You're going to need it. 

Pajtim Kasami -  Kasami is a Fulham youngster who can't get a game since arriving at the club back in 2011. The 20 year old was hopeful a move to Serie A side Psecara would materialize yesterday, but apparently a faulty internet connection at the hotel where his agent was staying scuppered the move. How Fulham. 

Fulham - Speaking of Fulham and completely Fulham things to happen, Fulham got totally Fulhamed on deadline day. Of the substantial moves the Cottagers made this window, 4 of the 5 are loan deals and, although each deal sees the addition of some quality young players, I'm not terribly confident that Martin Jol was able to address his most pressing team needs. I wrote earlier about what I believed was Fulham's need for an out-and-out striker, and that need went completely unaddressed. Additionally, the only big name signing Fulham was trying to make was for Maarten Stekelenburg of AS Roma. I like Stekelenburg and think he's a functional goalkeeper, but I'm not convinced that he would have been a solution to a problem that may not even exist. Regardless, he got Fulhamed when he boarded a plane in Rome, took off for London, and then was incommunicado somewhere over Europe when Roma decided to pull the plug on the deal as they couldn't line up a viable replacement. 

Aston Villa - Villa are in free fall down the league table and had the opportunity to buy a parachute or a balloon or some wings or even a huge bed sheet with some handles sown onto it and instead they chose to do nothing, which, in their current situation, is a little like buying an anvil. They didn't even offload Darren Bent. Boo, Villa.