To write well about soccer it is not enough simply to love the game. You also have to appreciate its essential absurdity. You need to understand the time and place in which the game is played, and you need distance from it.


The sport arouses collective passions that are matched by nothing short of war. And unlike any other sport — indeed, unlike almost any cultural phenomenon — soccer is distinguished by its political malleability. It is used by dictators and revolutionaries, a symbol of oligarchy and anarchy. It is politics by other means. It gets presidents elected or thrown out, and it defines the way people think, for good or ill, about their countries.
The national team is the nation made flesh. When people debate the style theirs should play — and in many countries this debate rages ceaselessly — they are often arguing about the kind of country theirs should be.
It is a rare dictator who ignores soccer. Various members of the Ceausescu family adopted their own Romanian clubs; Saddam Hussein's son Uday has had Iraq's players tortured after crucial defeats; Stalin's secret police chief, Lavrenti Beria, honorary chairman of Dynamo Moscow, had players of rival clubs sent to Siberia.
But rulers do not have soccer to themselves. Like the ball itself, the game is always being contested. It can just as easily be used by masses against rulers, particularly in places where the masses have few other means of expression.
A British friend of mine was approached on the street in the Iranian town Isfahan last fall by a student who bombarded him with questions: "You are from England? After Israel and America, you are our biggest enemy. Don't you think George Bush is the biggest terrorist of all for supporting Israel? Do you think Beckham should play on the right for Manchester United, or in the centre?"
Trying to answer at least the last two questions, my friend said: "Sure. On the right?"
"What?" said the flabbergasted student, "And Paul Scholes in the centre?"
The World Cup will be what it always is: a carnival of peoples, the one place where Swedes, Russians, Tunisians and Ecuadoreans will hug and kiss and swap shirts on neutral soil.
Even Americans will be allowed to join the party. If the US forward Clint Mathis scores a beautiful goal, Iranians, Iraqis and Libyans will rave about it. Soccer has many uses, and one of them, fleeting as it may be, is universal love.
        - The One Show That Unites The World, "TheAge.Com"

Racism is the problem. English football may have stumbled on a solution... The question is how English football has achieved this. Yes, it has had laws and campaigns against racism, but so have France, Italy and the Netherlands, yet the situation in these countries ranges from terrible to as bad as Spain, where England’s black players were abused by supporters during a recent friendly.
What English football managed, apparently without even thinking about it, was to make racism seem unpatriotic. Whenever England’s black players were abused during a match abroad, in Spain or Slovakia, their white team-mates complained to the media. They weren’t being liberals. They were just standing up for their mates. But in doing so, they were defining racism as a foreign custom. “We don’t do that stuff,” is how Trevor Phillips, chairman of the UK’s Commission for Racial Equality, phrases the message. This message reached children, the main target audience for anti-racist propaganda, as people form racist views young.
Most anti-racist campaigns condemn racism as bad, or as the first step to another Auschwitz. These aren’t effective messages, because many kids want to be bad, and have never heard of Auschwitz. Making racism seem unpatriotic is a better strategy, because patriotism is a powerful force. The England team is now helping create a colour-blind Englishness.
        - How English Football Broke Racial Barriers, "The Financial Times"

Last Sunday I went to see Arsenal-Newcastle. I have been going to Arsenal on and off for 20 years, and remember the old days crushed in the Clock End watching people like Perry Groves and Martin Hayes become champions of England playing a brand of football that entailed kicking the ball and/or opponent as high into the air as possible while the crowd grumbled. Now Arsenal plays brilliant football while the crowd – mostly the same people as 20 years ago – still grumbles... Even Middlesbrough and Bolton employ some of the finest footballers on earth. For the past two seasons English clubs have done better in European competition than anyone else. It can’t last... One day we will remember this summer as the end of a golden age, like the summer of 1914 or Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee of 1897. Then the English will again be free to whinge about losing. For the moment, however, they will have to try to cope with winning.
        - Simon Kuper

Nick Hornby did once say that whereas Manchester United won prizes because they were a giant club, Arsenal won them only because Wenger was their manager. When he arrived at Highbury in 1996, he brought with him certain competitive advantages. But these have since been eroded.
Before Wenger, Arsenal’s traditional pre-match meal of baked beans and Coca-Cola sent players burping on to the pitch. Wenger got his team eating properly. Today, however, all decent teams eat properly. Wenger used statistics to monitor performance. Whenever Bergkamp complained to him about being substituted, Wenger would show him data: “Look, Dennis, after 70 minutes you began running less. And your speed decreased.” Today most decent teams use statistics. The world’s best players now tend to choose among six clubs: Real, Barcelona, Juventus, Milan, Chelsea and Manchester United. Arsenal dropped off that list after selling Vieira.
        - from "Arsenal Slide from Present to Past" in "The Financial Times"

Football clubs rarely understand what they are. Many believe they are businesses but, apart from Manchester United, few make regular profits. Clubs are not businesses because they exist to win matches rather than make money. To win matches, you need good players. Since some club owners will happily pay over the odds for players, everybody who wants to win has to do likewise. If you do make a profit, you should spend it on more good players, because that is the point of being a football club. Clubs should therefore model themselves on not-for-profit organisations like museums. Financially, all they should aspire to do is remain reasonably solvent. Few even manage that.
        - from "The FT" (Aug'07)

Athletic employees are judged almost entirely on their performance. Nick Hornby, in his football fan’s memoir Fever Pitch, lauds sport for “its cruel clarity; there is no such thing, for example, as a bad 100m runner, or a hopeless centre-half who got lucky; in sport, you get found out”. By contrast, adds Mr Hornby, there are “plenty of bad actors or musicians or writers making a decent living, people who happened to be in the right place at the right time, or knew the right people, or whose talents have been misunderstood or overestimated”.
Lilian Thuram, who played 142 football internationals for France before becoming an anti-racism crusader, says he never met a racist in the game: “In football it’s harder to have discrimination, because we are judged on very specific performances. There are not subjective criteria.”
And so, in English football at least, players get paid almost exactly their market rate. The economists Stefan Szymanski and Tim Kuypers studied the accounts of 40 English football clubs from 1978 and 1997, and found that spending on salaries explained 92 per cent of the variations in clubs’ league positions. The better a player, the more he earned. Admittedly, the correlation between salaries and performance is weaker in US sports. Only the truly excellent get outsized rewards. A mere 1,000 or so footballers in the world, and some 200 basketball players, earn more than £1m a year. The total wage bill for English football’s Premier League is about £1bn. That is comparable to the $1.6bn that 116 American banks paid to nearly 600 “top” executives in 2007, according to the Associated Press. Those are the banks now being rescued by the US taxpayer.
        - from "Sport can teach bankers fair play on pay" (The FT Mar'09)

It is probably unsophisticated to expect a "thinking fan's guide to the World Cup" to contain much football. Henning Mankell's fine account of Angola falls down only when he stretches it to include football. He says Angola's presence at the World Cup may help the country, because "if people play together on a soccer team they can hardly leave the game and wage war against each other". Well, the former Yugoslavs managed.
        - from a review of "The Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cup" in "The New Statesman"

It was Munich that changed the sporting climate. Thanks to recent improvements in satellite technology, the Palestinian kidnappers were seen live by hundreds of millions of people. Terrorists everywhere realised that sport could bring them a global audience.
It has been mayhem since. When anti-Castro murderers blew up an aircraft carrying the Cuban fencing team in 1976, they may not have been thinking chiefly about sport, but later terrorists were. Many atrocities are hardly remembered today: the 20 Philippine soldiers killed in a race in 1987, after terrorists posing as volunteers handed them poisoned water; the Canadian killed by a booby-trapped softball bat in Chile a year later. Perhaps the worst atrocity was North Korea’s explosion of a South Korean airliner in 1987, which killed all 115 passengers. "The whole plan was to destabilise the 1988 Olympics in Seoul," says Mizell.
And then there was the big one that did not happen. A fortnight before the football World Cup in France in 1998, European police foiled a plot against it, arresting about 100 people in seven countries. It is detailed in the curiously ignored book Terror on the Pitch by Adam Robinson. Quoting letters detailing the plot sent by the Algerian Armed Islamic Group, Robinson says they meant to strike at the England-Tunisia game on June 15 1998.
Backed by the former goalkeeper Osama bin Laden, the terrorists planned to infiltrate the Marseilles stadium, shoot some England players and throw grenades into the stands. Their colleagues were then to burst into the US team’s hotel and murder players. Others would crash an aircraft into the nuclear power station near Poitiers. It would have been a European September 11, only worse. It is possible to dismiss these letters as a terrorist wish-list, but we now know these people are not dreamers. Another bin Laden biographer, Yossef Bodansky, says one reason that al-Qaeda bombed the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998, killing 224 people, was "the failure of the primary operation, an attack on the soccer World Cup".
        - Terrorists Take Aim for the Global Audience, "The Financial Times"

Frank Trovato, sociology professor at the University of Alberta, was among the first to link suicide with sport. He found that when the Montreal Canadiens ice hockey team was eliminated early from the playoffs between 1951 and 1992, Quebecois males aged 15 to 34 became more likely to kill themselves. Robert Fernquist, a sociologist at Central Missouri State University, went further. Studying 30 American metropolitan areas with at least one professional sports team from 1971 to 1990, he showed that fewer suicides occurred in cities whose teams made the playoffs more often. Routinely reaching the playoffs could reduce suicides by about 20 each year in a metropolitan area the size of Boston or Atlanta... Thomas Joiner, author of the forthcoming book 'Why People Die By Suicide', believes that what protects sports fans is the sense of belonging they get from supporting a team. Take that away — when the playoffs or world cup end — and some of them are at risk.
Joiner has gathered some of the strongest evidence yet that what protects fans is not winning matches but “pulling together”. It’s true that he found fewer suicides in Columbus, Ohio and Gainesville, Florida in the years when the local college football teams did well. But Joiner argues that this is because fans of winning teams “pull together” more: they wear the team shirt more often, watch games together in bars, talk about the team and so on. It’s the shared experience that matters, not the winning. Indeed, Joiner found fewer suicides nationally on Super Bowl Sundays than on other Sundays at that time of year, even though few of the Americans who watch the Super Bowl are passionate supporters of either team. What they get from the day’s parties is a sense of belonging. Most strikingly, in the week after John F. Kennedy’s murder in 1963 — a time of American sorrow but also of “pulling together” — not one suicide was reported in the 29 cities studied. Likewise, in the days after the September 11 attacks, another phase of “pulling together”, the number of calls to the 1-800-SUICIDE hotline halved to about 300 a day, “an all-time low”, writes Joiner. He speculates that “pulling together” through sport may particularly suit “individuals who have poor interpersonal skills (often characteristic of depressed or suicidal persons)”. You don’t have to be charming to be a fan among fans.
        - from "A matter of life and death, after all", "The Financial Times"

It was a typical evening of Italian football. Roma and Juventus fans tossed firecrackers over ranks of helmeted policemen on to each other’s heads, while officialdom’s warnings against such practices flitted across the electronic screens. Meanwhile Juventus won – an outcome so inevitable the match was unnecessary – thumping the hosts 1-4. A tradition has been destroyed. Italy used to teach the rest of us how to watch football. The world’s best footballers, playing on sunny Sunday afternoons in stadiums as peaceful as family restaurants, drew Europe’s largest crowds: an average of nearly 40,000 a game in the mid-1980s. This season the average Italian attendance is 22,000, less than in England, Spain or Germany. Last year the great Juventus drew fewer spectators than Wolverhampton Wanderers, who weren’t even in the English Premiership.
Debating la fuga dagli stadi – the flight from the stadiums – has become a national hobby, rather like football itself used to be. Many people blame high ticket prices. There are some tickets for less than €20 but for that price you stand behind the goal dodging firecrackers. A good seat usually costs €70 or more. The other deterrent to going to the stadium is that you can now watch almost every game live on TV. In this country, Berlusconi voters and Berlusconi haters watch Berlusconi’s team thump teams subsidised by Berlusconi’s government on Berlusconi’s pay channels, in a league run by Berlusconi’s right-hand man, Adriano Galliani, before watching the highlights on Berlusconi’s free channel. The only thing Berlusconi doesn’t do is carry out his government’s laws for making stadiums safer.
In England too, tickets are expensive, the league is predictable, and everything is on TV, yet there the stadiums are full. English fretting over a 2 per cent decline in attendances this season baffles Italians: their decline is 13 per cent. Italy has problems that England had 20 years ago. Meanwhile Berlusconi is set to become Italy’s first post-war prime minister to serve his full term and may even be re-elected on April 9, with a party named after a football chant.
        - from "Italy's Passion for Football Wanes", "Financial Times" 30 Nov'05

Manfred Schaefer is probably the last milkman to have played in the World Cup. Like most of the Australian team in 1974, he had to take time off to play in West Germany. This was quite common that year. The scent of money was new to footballers in 1974. Even some of the best had become full professionals only recently. These former bricklayers, house painters and shopkeepers retained many of their off-field habits. There was a hedonism to the international game. An awful lot of players seem to have spent the tournament smoking (Cruyff doing so on the toilet during half-times) chasing women, binge-drinking or all three simultaneously.
        - from "The Last of the World Cup milkmen", "Financial Times" 7 Dec'05

Britons enjoy foreign travel partly because of the national belief that once abroad, none of the usual inhibitions apply. You can start drinking at 6am. You can talk to strangers. Swimming in cash these days, they don’t mind the expense either. Other nationalities are deterred from travelling to games by fear of physical discomfort. Travelling with British fans often involves hangovers, nausea, disgusting toilets, extreme cold or heat, and being tear-gassed by police. For many British fans, it’s all part of “having a laugh”. That’s why an estimated third of the visiting supporters at football’s 2004 European Championships were English. More broadly, sports tournaments are morphing into British cultural festivals. British fans have populated the decor for decades, but they used to feature chiefly as hooligans. Now that they haven’t fought abroad since 2000, but have merely been yobbish and drunken, many foreigners have come to admire their passion and abandon. They wish they too could let themselves go like that. In Sapporo at the football World Cup in 2002, this admiration inspired nymph-like Japanese schoolgirls to queue for photographs with fat, drunken, shaven-headed England fans.
Britain’s image was shaped first by the British gentleman, later by the hooligan, and now by the party animal. Sports fans have tightened Britain’s grip on global youth culture. This helps explain why the country is heaving with foreign students and why bars from Bangkok to Soweto fill for pointless Premiership matches. British fans, like British footballers, are becoming role models to the world.
        - from "Britons win Gold for Ticket Bingeing", in "The Financial Times" (Jan'06)

Most Britons do not hold strong views about Europe, but many do care a great deal about football... It seems reasonable to assume that football could make a difference to British attitudes towards European integration. To begin with, football has put a few living Europeans into the British public mind. Ten years ago, how many Britons could have named a living Frenchman or German? Perhaps Brigitte Bardot, maybe Helmut Kohl, possibly Franz Beckenbauer. By contrast, among the most prominent figures in England in recent years have been Eric Cantona (French, handsome, charismatic, a brilliant footballer, arrogant), David Ginola (French, handsome, charismatic, a brilliant footballer, arrogant, enemy of Cantona), Ruud Gullit (Dutch, handsome, and so on) and Dennis Bergkamp (Dutch, deeply uncharismatic). The high profile of continental European footballers in Britain is far more effective pro-EU propaganda than any of the formal attempts to generate European feeling
The continental Europeans at British clubs have spread the notion that the Continent does things better. In football, ideologies are tested quickly by results. And in recent times the Europhiles have won almost every match. Until the early 1980s, the British could still believe that when it came to football they were best. You just had to look at the trophies. Then, on 29 May 1985 at the European Cup final in the Heysel stadium in Belgium, Liverpool fans ran riot and 39 Juventus fans died. From that day on, the Eurosceptics have been losing the football argument. Hooliganism became known as "the English disease".
        - writing in "Prospect Magazine"

We take it for granted that this weekend millions of people across the world will be watching football teams from English provincial towns such as Manchester, Nottingham and Portsmouth. In fact, it is bizarre. This half of a small island produces few great footballers. Since 1985, English clubs have won only as many European Cups (two) as have the Dutch or Portuguese. England’s national team has won one major title, five fewer than Germany. England’s domestic market consists of 50m people, Germany’s of 82m. Yet English football is fast becoming the world’s game. People in bars in Shanghai and Los Angeles today will watch Birmingham v Reading in the FA Cup, not Eintracht Frankfurt v Schalke. The world’s best-known footballer is an Englishman, David Beckham, although nobody thinks he is the world’s best footballer.
Here are the main reasons for England’s supremacy: The accidental genius of the English stadium; English football combines the two industries in which Britain excels: heritage and youth culture. The world’s oldest clubs offer the appeal of tradition, while the players provide youth; English football appeals precisely because English footballers are flawed — Firstly, says Rogan Taylor, director of Liverpool University’s football industries group, the frequent mistakes produce exciting moments in front of goal. Secondly, the English game relies on hundreds of imported foreign players. That gives the world a stake in the Premiership; The British love of the free market — The Premiership is now so much richer than any other league that it has finally bought the best football.
        - from "English football takes over the world" (FT Jan'07)

England can have either an excellent league or an English league, but not both. Fans apparently prefer excellence... As for the foreign imports, one could say that Englishmen get “only” 37 per cent of playing time in the Premier League. Or one could say they get a massive 37 per cent, more than any other nationality in what is arguably the world’s toughest league. Rather than playing too little top-class club soccer, Englishmen probably play too much. The Premier League is becoming a global league, seen on television everywhere, soccer’s equivalent of the US’s National Basketball Association. So players earn millions. So the league is all-consuming. Players have to give everything, every match. A Croatian playing in a smaller league can husband his energy so as to peak in international matches. But English players must peak for their clubs. That means they often start international matches tired and unfocused. Sven-Göran Eriksson, England’s previous manager, argued that fatigue harmed his teams. Hence his ritual analysis of matches: “First half, good. Second half, not so good.” Injuries are common in the intense Premier League. Clubs give players little time to recover. That is why several England regulars missed the Croatia game. If England wants to perform better, it should export players to more laid-back leagues, such as Croatia’s.
        - Simon Kuper, "Fewer English, better for England", "FT" (Dec'07)

Draw a map of the nations that qualified for Euro 2008. In the land mass from Portugal in the west to Poland in the east, every country of more than 1m people, except Belgium, qualified. The nations that didn’t make it are on Europe’s margins: the Brits, most of Scandinavia, and most of Europe’s eastern edge. The farther you get from the core six, the less in touch you are with core European football. Countries on the margins have dysfunctional, indigenous soccer styles... It’s easy to remedy the problem: hire a manager from core Europe. Greece did in 2004. Poland and Russia qualified for Euro 2008 under Dutch coaches. England had their best performances since 1970 under a manager drawn from Italian football, the Swede Sven-Göran Eriksson. But then, fatally, the FA appointed an Englishman. It did so out of “English exceptionalism”: the belief that England is an exceptional football country that should rule the world playing the English way.
        - from "Football's Core Secrets" (Dec'07)

There’s a peculiar advertisement running on Swedish television that touches on the central psychodrama of the 2008 European Championships. It shows Sweden’s coach, Lars Lagerbåck, dressed in the manner of Russell Crowe in Gladiator on a white horse on a battlefield. The real Lagerbåck is a mild bespectacled figure who looks and talks like a Lutheran village pastor, but here he’s saying: “Unleash hell! What we do in this tournament echoes in eternity.” The advert is only partly a joke: Lagerbåck (aged 59) is being presented as father of his nation. It’s the same for several of the older coaches at Euro 2008. Their job isn’t to become European champion. Rather, it’s to fill the long-vacant post of patriarch.
You see it in their nicknames. Greece’s coach Otto Rehhagel (aged 69) is known on good days as “King Otto”. Spain’s Luis Aragones (also 69) is “the wise man of Hortaleza”. Köbi Kuhn (64) of Switzerland was “Köbi National” until his team departed their own tournament after only four days. No mere politician in Europe has commanded such honorifics since Charles de Gaulle stopped being French president and stalked off home to his village in 1969.
Around then, football was replacing war in Europe as the chief expression of the national spirit. Later, mid-sized countries such as Switzerland, Sweden, the Czech Republic and even Spain realised that their national teams probably wouldn’t ever win anything. Rather, the team’s job was to incarnate the nation. The coach therefore had to be a suitable father of the nation, not some nasty winner. Almost by definition, the father of the nation is pretty old... As long as the father of the nation achieves reasonable results, he can keep his job pretty much forever... But there’s another category of coaches here: the professionals. The six countries that came here intending to win the title – Italy, France, Germany, Holland, Croatia and Portugal – employ younger, hungrier coaches. Their average age is just 48, compared with 62 for the 10 coaches of weaker teams. In these countries, if the coach screws up, he’s sacked.
        - Writing during Euro 2008 (FT)

Per capita, this country of 1.7m people now has the best national team on earth, say statisticians who adjust Fifa’s rankings for size of population... Some fans fantasise about their teams winning the World Cup but Northern Ireland’s fans fantasised about their team scoring a goal... Then Northern Ireland somehow beat England, and supporting them became a merry affair.
        - Simon Kuper, on Northern Ireland's recent victories, "FT" (Sep'07)

When England get knocked out of this World Cup, an ancient ritual will unfold. Perfected over England’s previous 13 failures to win the World Cup away from home, it follows an all too familiar pattern. Phase one: certainty that England will win the World Cup. Two: During the tournament England face a former wartime enemy. In five of their last six World Cups, they were knocked out by either Germany or Argentina. The matches fit seamlessly into the British tabloid view of history, except for the outcome. Three: The English conclude that the game turned on one freakish piece of bad luck that could happen only to them. Four: Moreover, everyone else cheated. Every referee opposes England. His decisions that support this thesis are analysed darkly and his nationality is mentioned to blacken him further. Five: England are knocked out without getting anywhere near lifting the cup. The only exception was 1990, when they reached the semi-final. Otherwise they have always gone out when still needing to defeat at least three excellent teams. Six: The day after elimination, normal life resumes. The one exception is 1970, when England’s elimination probably caused Labour’s surprise defeat in the general election four days later. Seven: A scapegoat is selected. The scapegoat is never an outfield player who has “fought” all match. Even if he caused defeat by missing a penalty, he is a “hero”. Only after a defeat to Brazil is no scapegoat sought, because defeats to Brazil are considered acceptable. Eight: England enter the next World Cup thinking they will win it. The World Cup as ritual has a meaning beyond football. Usually the elimination is the most watched British TV programme of the year, educating the English in two contradictory narratives: one, that England has a manifest destiny to triumph, and two, that it never does. The genius of “Three Lions”, English football’s unofficial anthem, is that it combines both narratives: “Thirty years of hurt/Never stopped me dreaming.”
       - from "World Cup game England always plays well, "The Financial Times" (Jun'06)

Every football team has a face. The face is the person who embodies the team’s values. He might be Diego Maradona, Roy Keane or Alex Ferguson. But the face of the current England team is a woman: tanned orange, drunk, and brandishing shopping bags while dancing on a bar table at 4am. She is a composite of the players’ "wives and girlfriends", or WAGS, who accompanied the team to last year’s World Cup... Until the 1990s the team’s job was to embody the national sense of decline. However, Britons no longer believe Britain is in decline. Most have long forgotten the lost empire, and after Britain’s 14 straight years of economic growth since 1993, “declinism” has passed to France. Yet the English remain uneasy about their country’s direction. Their rants at the overpaid, over-hyped, underperforming players and WAGS are actually expressions of national self-disgust. Many Britons feel their country has become a perverted meritocracy, which doesn’t deserve its new wealth... Just as traditional classes have dissolved in Blairite Britain, the players and WAGS have ascended from the working class into a new “tabloid class” of celebrities who receive fame and “bling” for no apparent reason. The England team used to fail to live up to the might of British history. Now it fails to live up to the hype of British tabloids. Its manager, Steve McClaren, is an Englishman and therefore an outlier in the new Britain where most responsible leadership posts are given to foreigners or Scots. Appointing an Englishman was a gamble and now looks a mistake... Nobody any longer expects the England team to win trophies. That would be ludicrous. The English merely expect it to beat less hyped, less wealthy footballers from Croatia, Israel and Estonia, but even that may be unrealistic.
        - from "Footballers’ wives: the only trophies the players can win" (FT Jun'07)

Germany are a terrible team — but then they were terrible pre-Klinsmann and will be terrible after him. It’s true they reached the World Cup final in 2002 but they did so without facing a front-rank nation and with a team built around a goalkeeper. That may not happen this year, or indeed ever again. Germany have reached the final seven times in the past 13 World Cups but they won’t this summer. As the football writer David Winner notes, this is the world’s loss. In the narrative that is the World Cup, Germany play the role of villain: the bad guy who kills the good guys, the beautiful teams. “In terms of story the greatest nation in the history of football is Germany,” says Winner. “A World Cup without Germany would be like Star Wars without Darth Vader.”
        - commenting on Jurgen Klinsmann's unpopularity in Germany (Mar'06)

Here is the dirty secret of this World Cup: it's poor. In theory, the World Cup is where you see the best teams in the world. In practice they have adopted a sort of Kyoto protocol for energy conservation. England, Portugal, France, Brazil and Italy have been doing just enough to scrape through. For the superstars, this is their working holiday between two hard seasons. The coaches should pick hungry youngsters instead, but the media forces them to stick with the superstars. Thus England are fielding four superstar playmakers who all want the ball to feet. The two most exciting players here, the youngsters Lionel Messi and Robinho, only appear occasionally as substitutes.
Only Germany, Spain and to some degree Argentina have gone for youth, and they have played the best football here.
The established teams have been able to conserve energy because they are so much better than the others. When Switzerland lost to Ukraine on Monday night, it was the first time a western European or South American team had lost to a team from outside those regions. You could have made stacks betting on this rule. Underdogs at World Cups used to be spectacularly terrible, like Zaire in 1974, or weird, like the Australian amateurs in 1974 with their skintight Aussie Rules shorts, or excellent, like the Cameroonians of 1990 who beat Argentina, the world champions, in the opening match. Now the 13 teams from Africa, Asia and North and Central America are simply mediocre. Terrified of taking a caning, they keep eight super-fit players behind the ball. It turns out that almost anyone can do it.
        - from "A tournament deprived of vigour", "FT" (Jun'06)

In an increasingly corporate sport, Romario's selfishness was almost heroic. His quest (for 1000 career goals) offends football’s collective ethos.
        - Simon Kuper, "Scoring Genius of Brazil's Selfish Giant" (Mar'07)

Next Wednesday, Olympique Lyon must beat Rangers in Glasgow to survive in this year’s Champions League. Jean-Michel Aulas, Lyon’s president, told me they will win Europe’s biggest prize some day. But already, this once nondescript club has achieved what every nondescript club dreams of. Lyon have won six consecutive French league titles, a feat unmatched by any other club in any of Europe’s five biggest national leagues. This season they will win their seventh... here are Lyon’s secrets:
Exploit the inefficiencies of the transfer market. The main inefficiency is that the premiums paid for big-name players are too high: the big name might cost five times as much as a promising youngster, but he isn’t five times better. So Lyon happily sell stars for a good price; Replace your best players before you sell them. This avoids a transitional period or panic purchase after the player leaves; Transfers should be decided by people who are at the club for the long term, not by whoever happens to be the current coach; Buy Brazilians. They are the best footballers; Then help the Brazilians adapt. Many Brazilians flop at European clubs because they are unhappy. But Lyon have staffers who help the Brazilians settle in apartments, learn French, cope with homesickness, etcetera; Give homegrown players the same opportunities as big signings. Aulas long refused to buy a big-name centre-forward, because he thinks the market overprices centre-forwards. Now Lyon’s homegrown teenager Karim Benzema plays the position and scores non-stop; Grow gradually. Avoid big debts: success in football is so uncertain that you may fail to repay them.
        - from "Lyon offers recipe for football success", "FT" (Dec'07)

I found that mixed soccer at an East Coast university was like normal football plus some unwritten rules:
1. When a female team-mate scores a goal, just pat her on the back. Falling on top of her as if you were both playing for Argentina in the World Cup final could get you kicked out of the university, which would mean no more mixed soccer.
2. When marking a female opponent, remember that this is not normal soccer. That is, do not grab her shirt, waist or any other part of her, nor elbow her in the nose. All this, too, can get you kicked out of the university.
3. Always be circumspect. I remember once receiving the ball, turning, flailing my arms in the usual manner, and bulldozing through an opponent. While doing so I reflected that this opponent lacked the hard edges and height that one associates with the male body. Clearly the opponent was either a midget wearing padding, or a woman. I wasn't kicked out of the university, but it was probably a close thing.
        - Simon Kuper, "Team-mates from Mars and Venus", "The Financial Times"

The other morning, on a dirt field just outside Paris, you could have seen a curious sight. A pudgy, middle-aged man in shorts and a green Ireland replica shirt lumbered around shouting obscenities at younger men wearing Argentina replica shirts, occasionally trying to kick them but always arriving too late. That man was me. I felt ashamed not merely after the match but during it. I realised then that, at 37, I needed to retire from football, or at least from young men’s football. This would be just one man’s sad story except that in some form or other it happens to all of us. Retiring from sport is one of those little deaths we experience on the road to death... Football is probably the thing in life that brings me closest to the seven-year-old who used to wake up before dawn on Saturdays, dash to his club’s ground and hang on the locked railings outside until, finally, at eight o’clock, someone opened them.
        - Simon Kuper, writing in December '06

Compare the Queen with Wayne Rooney. Twenty years ago, her traditional speech on Christmas day drew 28m viewers. But last Christmas she attracted only 8.5m. As she has fallen, football has risen: nearly 21m Britons saw Rooney break his foot against Portugal at Euro 2004. Next weekend’s qualifying matches for Euro 2008, played all over Europe, will be among the continent’s most-watched TV programmes this year. National football teams now provide our biggest communal experiences... Football is conquering new territories: in France, historically indifferent to the game, the nine biggest TV audiences of 2006 were for football matches. Chinese, Japanese, Indians and Americans are all catching on to football, too. True, in 2003, American football’s Super Bowl was the world’s most-watched sports programme, with 93m viewers. But 13 matches at Euro 2004 drew bigger audiences... The Super Bowl remains America’s great communal event, watched by nearly a third of Americans. However, Holland’s match against Rumania next Saturday – a mere qualifier – should draw almost as big a slice of the Dutch nation.
        - Simon Kuper, "Glued to the Box", "FT" (Mar'07)

Griping that college sports are out of control is yet another American tradition, dating back to the late 19th century...
Colleges increasingly compete to recruit kids on athletics scholarships in sports ranging from women’s soccer to men’s lacrosse. Nowadays a fifth-grader can hardly throw a basket in his driveway without being illegally videoed by rival college assistant coaches. The whole edifice of college sport is built on a series of demonstrable fantasies. For instance: “My kid will win an athletics scholarship.” In fact, perhaps one in 200 high-school varsity athletes does. “Athletics is my kid’s best chance of a free college education.” In fact, there is about $22bn annually on offer in academic scholarships, or 22 times as much as in athletics scholarships. “Later my kid will turn pro.” The chance decreases to one in several thousand.
Colleges suffer from their own delusions. For instance: “By recruiting this kid, we will win more games, get lucrative television deals, and persuade alumni to give our college more money.” In fact, by the recent admission of Myles Brand, the NCAA’s president, only about a dozen schools break even in athletics, though many pretend to make profits by hiding capital spending. Nor does it seem that a winning football team prompts alumni to donate to the academic side of a college. If they give more, it’s to football. Another delusion: “Campus will unite around our sports teams.” In fact, athletics often divides campus, because of the growing social gulf between athletes and other students. Final myth: “Sports build character.” It didn’t work for Mike Tyson, Diego Maradona, and all the other badly behaved superstars. Yet even the Ivy League universities have succumbed to these fantasies, as Bowen and Levin demonstrate. Fourteen per cent of Ivy students are now recruited athletes. Hysteria surrounds big-time sport all over the world, but only in the US does it also surround small-time sport
        - Simon Kuper, "Sport Edifice on Fantasy Foundations", "The Financial Times"

When the sport went professional in 1968, unleashing a new breed of players out to make money, the situation was almost designed to create rebels. The new stars duly clashed with the blazers. The male players lowered their shorts, swore at umpires, or – with a wink at rock stars – smashed rackets. The two best women, Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, turned out to be lesbians. These new stars were mostly rich, good-looking and often had lives outside tennis: Arthur Ashe, for instance, was a civil rights hero. Fans loved it...
The other problem was that professional tennis changed again in the late 1980s. From 1985, professional umpires began replacing the retired colonels and bank managers who had previously officiated at tournaments. Players were now allowed to wear weird clothes, except at Wimbledon, but were punished for misbehaviour. It became almost impossible to be a rebel.
The new players were a different lot, anyway. The tennis career had been redefined: it now began at about age two, under the tutelage of a father-coach, passed through an adolescence spent in a sort of tennis labour camp, then peaked for a few weeks about age 21, before tailing off into injuries and then retirement in the late 20s with a ruined body. The new model player was probably better at tennis than his predecessors, but was less inspiring to fans.
        - Simon Kuper, "Hardly Anyone For Tennis, These days?", "The Financial Times"

The Ashes Test series has gripped England and Australia but most of the planet hasn’t noticed. The English enjoy the Ashes partly because the series lets them escape from the world. Anyone who thinks we have all been globalised should search for “cricket” on the Google news websites in various languages. On Google’s Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Swedish and Norwegian sites I found zero articles about the Ashes, though I did discover that Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela was sending Caribbean countries millions of dollars to improve their cricket stadiums, which must have cheered up poor Venezuelans... one American newspaper reported: "Two of the men who carried out the 2005 suicide bombings of London’s transit system reportedly had planned to unleash the nerve agent sarin that year during the Ashes cricket match between Australia and the United Kingdom." As you begin to explain that it wasn’t the United Kingdom but England, and not a match but a series, you suddenly decide not to bother.
        - Simon Kuper, "The game that globalisation forgot" (FT Dec'06)

A century ago, there were sporting legends who could have eaten today’s streamlined players as a pre-game snack. The Victorian cricketer W.G. Grace wielded his belly as proudly as his bat; his contemporary, the Chelsea goalkeeper William “Fatty” Foulke weighed 24 stones; and in baseball, Babe Ruth reportedly once limbered up for a Yankees game with four porterhouse steaks, eight hot dogs and eight sodas. Few minded. In 1958, when Real Madrid were courting the great Hungarian footballer Ferenc Puskas, he told the club’s president: “Listen, this is all very well, but have you looked at me? I am 18 kilos overweight.” Real signed him regardless. In the 1970s, when a physical trainer approached the football manager Brian Clough and boasted that he could make his fittest player physically sick in 10 minutes, Clough replied: “The moment the league starts awarding two points for that, I’ll give you a job.”
As late as the 1990s English football featured pregnant-looking players such as Paul Gascoigne or Julian Dicks. Fans sang, “He’s fat, he’s round, he bounces on the ground,” and “Who ate all the pies?” Secretly, they liked sportsmen who looked like them...
Admittedly, there always were puritans who persecuted fatties. When a woman chided the baseball player John Kruk for being a tubby smoker, he famously replied, “I ain’t an athlete, lady, I’m a ballplayer,” a response so good he later used it as the title of his autobiography. In 1995 Kruk retired, soon after telling a newspaper that he wanted to spend the rest of the year “eating at the Sizzler’s buffet”. Fat athletes were wobbling off stage.
Coaches had got hold of computers and were starting to measure more things. They followed Damon Runyon’s dictum: “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet it.” While the rest of us got fatter, athletes went the other way. Baseball players started using steroids. In football, Arsenal ditched its traditional pre-game meal of baked beans and Coca-Cola (not a joke). Even cricketers discovered the gym. In Basel during the 2008 European Football Championships, two leading managers had a quiet chat at a sponsor’s evening. The content: “How many kilometres do your full-backs run? And your central midfielders?”
Teams began blaming failures on lack of fitness. Brazil flopped at football’s 2006 World Cup with two strikers, Ronaldo and Adriano, who looked like blow-up doll replicas of themselves. No team of that stature will ever weigh that much again. To find fatties in sport today, you either have to admire the recent photos of Ronaldo or scour some obscure teams...
One day last February, when Ronaldo was still playing for AC Milan, Daniele Tognaccini, one of the club’s trainers mused about that. Tognaccini was sitting at the pristine Milanello training ground listing Milan’s keenest runners. “Cafu, Kak – he is the kilometre man – and Gattuso.” He risked a joke: “Ronaldo, no.” But then Tognaccini revealed a counter-intuitive truth about soccer: there was no correlation between running lots of kilometres and winning matches. He said: “Often, it’s better if you don’t run.”
Another Milan official in the room joked: “So Ronaldo is fantastic?”
“Yes,” said Tognaccini seriously. “Football is not a physical sport.”
The Oakland A’s reached the same insight about baseball. In the book Moneyball, Michael Lewis explains how the A’s signed fatties whom no other team wanted. None of them could “outrun the hot dog vendor in a 60-yard dash”, but that didn’t stop them hitting baseballs...
The Milan Lab, after measuring everything measurable in football, concluded that the key quality in the game was not body-fat percentage but “sensory perception”: the ability to assess the field of play in an instant. “Ronaldo,” says the Lab’s director, Jean Pierre Meersseman, “can perceive a situation so fast and react to it, it’s just amazing.”
        - from "Teams should think twice before shedding their fat players" (Dec'08)


"Gulag camp bosses, arbiters of the life and death of thousands upon thousands of human beings... were so benevolent to anything concerning soccer. Their unbridled power over human lives was nothing compared to the power of soccer over them."
        - Nikolai Starostin, founder of Spartak Moscow

Enough has been written about football hooligans, other fans are much more dangerous.

A Dutch journalist once called the Soviet team of the 1980s 'born losers': he meant that they had no Soviet Stuart Pearce willing to sprint 30 yards to clog an opposing striker and save a goal, no Jurgen Klinsmann who would dive the way to an undeserved victory, no Graeme Souness throttling his team-mates for not trying.

Martyn Merezcv as a referee in the 1920s, had once sent off Lavrenty Beria, and he was very upset when the offender became chief of the secret police.

"To be a fan, is to be gathered with others and to be free."
        - Levon Abramian, on being a football fan under Communism

In a Communist country, the football club you supported was a community to which you yourself had chosen to belong. The regime did not send you to support a club, and you could choose your team. It might be your only chance to choose a community and in that community you could express yourself as you wished.

"Dynamo Kiev have licences to export nuclear missile parts, two tons of gold per annum, and metals including platinum. "
        - Roman Obchenko, Head of Internatnal Relations, Dynamo Kiev

Football is the one chance Africa has to beat the world.

When England knocked out Cameroon in the quarter finals of the World Cup of 1990, a Bangladeshi man died of a heart attack and a Bangladeshi woman hung herself. 'The elimination of Cameroon also means the end of my life', said her suicide note. Cameroon's success was not just the success of Africa, but of the entire Third World.

Cameroonians agree that football is politics by other means.

The first lesson of the African history of the World Cup is that the Africans have done better than we realize. The second is that only rich, stable African nations do well. The spread of wealth in Africa closely matches the spread of footballing success.

"I admire our President. He is our President. When he goes there will be another President whom I will admire."
        - Roger Milla on Cameroon President, Paul Biya

Over 20 African nations either did not enter for the World Cup of 1994 or failed to complete their qualifying matches. For most the obstacle was poverty or civil war (or both). An African nation that is not at war, and that can afford to enter the World Cup, and that remembers to do so, and that completes its schedule, turning up at every match with at least 11 able-bodied men, had already outdone most of its competitors and has a fair chance of reaching the finals.

Without any further evidence, I could have deduced from the soccer match that the British had colonized Botswana and the French Niger, for the Botswanans played like and English third division side while the Nigerians showed distaste for all physical contact. African football has its Dover-Calais divide too.

Argentina met Peru in a second round group match in the World Cup of 1978, and had to beat them by at least 4-0 to each the final. This appeared to be out of the question, Peru being a decent side. But Argentina had to win the World Cup, and the Peruvian genrals were short of cash and happy to help a fellow junta. Argentina shipped 35,000 tons of free grain to Peru, and probably arms too, while the Argentine central bank unfroze $50 million in credits for Peru. Argentina won 6-0, in what may be the only World Cup match so far to have been won with a bribe.

The most devoted foreign fans admire British fan culture. Some of the foreigners try to imitate the British, which explains the Union Jacks on terraces all over Europe...
British fans are unique. In Britain, football itself is almost incidental to fan culture. The British fan's main virtue is devotion (to his or her team). Nothing else in football matters nearly as much to him.
British fans are also historians. When two British sides play each other, their histories play each other too. When John Motson, the famous English TV football commentator tells us that 'these two sides last met in the Cup in I954, Rovers winning 1-0 thanks to a 31st minute own goal', he is making a very British point.

"English football has a class, a decency to it which does not exist anywhere else in the world."
        - Richard Moller Nielsen, manager of Denmark, 1992.

The year after the Falklands War British journalists voted Maradona the best player in the world. Argentine journalists would never have done that.


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