Football take- Why I dislike Real’s latest megasigning

Thanks to a couple of my coworkers who decided they were too cool to stay at the company and instead went to Brazil to see the World Cup first-hand, I got handed their regular football column where they provided their expert and amusing insight into mostly the Premier League. I can only hope to come close to matching their efforts and wit.

I started before the World Cup, then the column got put on hold for the tournament but was resumed two weeks ago. These are the result of my fledgling, wannabe football punditry so far, starting with the most recent.
Real’s Rodriguez signing might be Galacticos part two but not a success
Back to business for players and clubs after the World Cup
Results didn’t tell the whole story about the European Champions League final- written in May

My column this week was about something that bothers me about football.

Real Madrid is one of the biggest football clubs and the richest sports club in the world, boast a star-laden squad that feature Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, and one of the best football legacies. In other words, they are a filthy rich and talented side. Last week, they went out and signed Colombian James Rodriguez, who topscored at the World Cup and was considered the best player of the tournament by a lot of observers, for 63 million pounds ($107 million). Basically the rich got richer. Big clubs win trophies, attract players, then go out and buy more players, and win more.

The flipside is that smaller clubs often can’t hold on to their players or maintain their success. Because once they achieve any success and their players do well, bigger teams, such as Real Madrid or say, Chelsea or Manchester City, swoop in and buy off their best players. It happens a lot, but the most recent example could be one of the worst instances where a team has its heart ripped out by having its 5 best players leave at the same time for wealthier teams.

I’m talking about Southampton, who are a small team that does not win much but is noted for its youth academy that produces young players who go on to become really good or great (Gareth Bale is one such example). Southampton came eighth last season, which sounds average but is fantastic for a small side, with a young, talented side. Several of their players got called up for the England international team during the course of the season, including an 18-year-old. For their laudable achievement, they’ve had five of their best players, including three England internationals who went to the World Cup and one Serbian international, leave for Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal. That may not be all because two of their other good players are being targeted as well. Southampton did receive a lot of money for these players and may be in the enviable position of having over 100 million pounds to spend on new players. But given their status as a feeder club to the big teams, the question is who can they really spend these big bucks on? As this ESPN piece puts it, Southampton have merely succumbed to football’s unforgiving hierarchy.

Ideally, teams like Southampton would thrive, allowing for more competitiveness and excitement in leagues. And also, strong, wealthy teams would build up their teams around homegrown players and a strong core, rather than keep on buying up good players from other teams whenever they want. The great Barcelona team in the last decade, the fine Manchester United team in the late 90s and early 2000s, and AC Milan’s 2-time Champions League winning team in the 2000s were all built on cores of mostly homegrown players as well as players brought in from elsewhere who stayed for a long time.

UEFA (Europe’s football body) has tried to alleviate this problem of wealthy teams maintaining supremacy by implementing this Financial Fair Play program which sets a limit on the losses teams can incur, thus preventing them from overspending too much and in essence, preventing teams with wealthy owners from having an advantage over other teams that rely more on their revenue. This will affect teams like Chelsea and Manchester City, owned by a Russian and UAE billionaires respectively, who can’t stockpile players now and are actually being forced to balance their budgets. But unfortunately, not teams like Real Madrid who pull in obscene amounts of revenue.

First 9 days of World Cup already a blast

The World Cup is only 9 days old but I feel confident saying that it’s the most exciting one I’ve seen in recent times.  There’re already several big storylines even though it’s only halfway through the group stage.

The end of an era for Spain
The same great team that won Euro 2008, 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 crashed out of the tournament this week after losing both games they played (they’ll play the final group game Monday but it’s only for pride). After being crushed 5-1 by the Netherlands, most people figured Spain had serious issues but that they could beat Chile. Instead, Chile dominated them to win 2-0, bossing Spain around in midfield and capitalizing off poor goalkeeping and defending.
I’m not a fan of Spain (they beat my favorite team Germany in the Euro 2008 final and the 2010 World Cup semifinal) or their tiki-taka playing style (which revolves around continuous short passes and keeping the ball away from opponents), but I still feel a bit of sadness for them. Their squad were the same formidable players who’d won Spain all those titles and boasted so much experience, but who were now looking cowed, hapless and markedly inferior. Their losses weren’t due to absence or injuries to key players or bad luck or shady refereeing, but to being completely outclassed and outfought by their opponents.

I don’t think Spain became bad overnight, but that they were just old and exhausted. In terms of age, their key players aren’t that old (midfielder Xavi, 34, and keeper Iker Casillas, 33 being the oldest starters), but they’ve been playing continuously since at least 2008, when they started their era of dominance. Spain have played every summer from 2008 to now, except for 2011, due to their having to participate in Confederation Cups in 2009 and 2013 as European and World champions.
Ironically, perhaps their main strength became their weakness, as they had been dependent on a special group of players, notably midfielders Xavi and Andre Iniesta, playing a special style, that they continued to play these players and consequently they have become too tired, physically and mentally. Spain also had the luxury of an excess of talented players, both established stars in their mid-20s (Juan Mata, Javi Martinez) and promising youngsters in their early 20s (Koke, Isco, David de Gea etc), who have been sidelined or little utilized. Spain will recover of course and become a good team again, though it’s hard to say if they can become great.

Three powers and former champions fighting for one place
This unlikely (putting it mildly) scenario is unfolding in Group D after little-fancied Costa Rica followed up their victory over Uruguay by beating Italy 1-0 yesterday. This means they did exactly what England couldn’t, which is why the latter were the first to bow out of this group. To put this into perspective, Italy (no. 9 in the world), England (no. 10) and Uruguay (no. 7) are all former World Cup winners, with Uruguay (no. 28) having come fourth in the last one and Italy winning the 2006 tournament. England may be a bit mediocre but are a perennial international upper-mid-level team. Costa Rica are a decent CONCACAF (North and Central America, Caribbean) team but playing in only their fourth World Cup with their best achievement being reaching the second round back in 1990.

I only saw Costa Rica’s game against Italy (as I missed their clash against Uruguay) and they deserved their win as they held their own and stifled the Italians. I have no explanation for how Costa Rica are so good but damn, it’d be something if they could go on and do something big. Costa Rica’s goalscorer was Bryan Ruiz, a guy who played for Fulham, the team that finished last in the English Premier League, and in fact he was loaned out to Dutch team PSV Eindhoven while Fulham were relegated. This is in stark contrast with England, whose players are all playing in the top Premier League clubs and begs the question of whether talent or tactics and teamwork are more important.
As it is, Costa Rica have qualified for the second round, which they have already reached before, so maybe they can make at least one step further.

More excitement, more goals
The overwhelming majority of the games have been exciting, interesting or compelling. The games have been noticeably better than in the last World Cup, although for me actually being there (South Africa) at that time colors my memory positively. Teams are playing more positively, preferring to attack rather than sit back and defend in numbers, with the possible exception of Cameroon and Nigeria. And goals are being scored at a very high rate. And teams are finding it hard to defend one-goal leads, since in at least 6 matches, the team that scored first has gone on to lose!
I remember being surprised when the Dutch continued to attack Spain even when 2-1 up, rather than defend their lead, and it paid huge dividends for them. Meanwhile smaller and (supposedly) weaker teams have taken the fight to bigger teams, such as Costa Rica but also Bosnia/Herzegovina against Argentina. The tournament has been remarkable in that up till the fourth day and 13th game, there were no draws. The first draw, a 0-0 game between Brazil and Mexico, was considered by many to be a thrilling affair with the Mexican keeper becoming a star in the process. Unfortunately the same couldn’t be said for the other 0-0 draws afterwards (Iran v Nigeria, Japan v Greece).
Adding to the interest and excitement, but in a very negative way, was atrocious officiating by referees in the first few days, where dubious penalties were awarded while legitimate goals were waved off for dubious offside calls. For instance, in the Mexico-Cameron game, a total of 3 (three!) goals, two seemingly legit goals by Mexico and one by Cameroon, were waved off in the first half though Mexico eventually scored a goal that was accepted and deservedly won the game. Thankfully this problematic refereeing has subsided.

Best game so far: Netherlands vs Australia
I never expected this, and I’m sure hardly anyone did including even the most rabid Australian fans (a former Aussie coworker of mine was stunned as the game went on), but Australia put up a good fight against Netherlands to produce the best game I’ve seen so far. By good fight, I don’t mean being scrappy and playing rough and dirty, but being offensive minded and going for goal right from the start against a supposedly superior opponent, with both teams playing good football throughout. Australia ended up losing 3-2 to the Netherlands, but it was filled with action, lead changes and goals. For good measure, an Australian, Tim Cahill, also scored the best goal so far when he volleyed a powerful shot directly from a long cross with a defender right on him (what makes it extra-special is he did it almost right after Holland went 1-0 up).

World Cup- let the games and viewing begin

As I write this, I’m watching Colombia play Greece on TV, winning 2-0 in the second half. For those who don’t know, this is a World Cup game. The tournament started on Thursday (Friday morning in China) which meant I came home from work, stayed up till the opening ceremony, then watched the opening game and went to bed at 6am. Then Saturday morning, I came out to watch the Netherlands-Spain game with some good colleagues. It was the biggest game of the first weekend, pitting the defending champions against the runners-up, in other words this was a rematch of the final of the last World Cup. Well, it was an incredible match that ended 5-1, with Spain being dealt a humiliating defeat. It was especially crushing given Spain had scored the first goal and had looked to be in control for a while. That is until minutes before the end of the first half when Robin van Persie scored a crazy leaping header which saw him arch forward in the air like a seal to meet a long cross from his teammate and head it over the Spanish keeper. Then the Dutch scored four more goals in the second half, while Spain seemed to disintegrate, not helped by some terrible goalkeeping mistakes. Already, the media is awash with proclamations of the end of an era for Spain’s domination and “tike-taka” style of short, continuous passing.

By the time it was over, it was bright outside even though it was just a little after 5am (and yes, I’m a bit too old to be walking back home at 5 in the morning but this was for a legit reason). It was pleasant walking back home, passing Sanlitun which was busy with people leaving the bars and clubs in the area, while taxis clogged the roads. This pleasantness was in contrast to my walk to the place, when I encountered the usual shady touts along the bar street, with one persistent older guy following me for almost 10 minutes, even entering the compound where the place I was going to was in. As I neared my destination, which was at the far end and dimly lit part of the compound, he finally stopped following, but uttered a soft but audible “shabi.” So yes, the guy followed me continuously, trying to get me to go to some club and get a girl despite my lukewarm responses saying I was going somewhere, and I’m the stupid c*nt. The sheer audacity and hypocritical outrage of some folks here is something I need to get used to, but can’t for now.

Another decent football article, this one looks at the Ivory Coast, one of Africa’s best teams in the past decade, and also one of the most underachieving. However, the big deal with them goes beyond sports and that’s what the article examines. The football team is credited with helping end a brutal civil war in the country that went on for over 6 years during the early 2000s. Didier Drogba, the team’s longtime talisman, star striker and captain, has been given a lot of credit for this, speaking out to his countrymen to stop fighting and advocating for a game to be played in rebel-held territory at one point. The writer visits the country, talks to people, watches football at roadside bars, and finds out the truth is complex, that divisions in the country are serious but not based on so much on tribal or ethnic identity, though this does not mean the divisions have diminished over time. My Africa team is Ghana, which I respect both as a country and a football team, but I hope Ivory Coast can have some success this time and not crash out in the first round as in the last two World Cups, having been in Groups of Death then but not this time.

A fantastic and flawed World Cup, and good football reads

The World Cup starts in one day (Thursday June 12) in Brazil, and it might be one of the most exciting and eventful ones in recent time, but for both good and bad reasons.

First, it’s being held in Brazil, for whom football is like a national heritage and is fittingly the one most strongly linked with the sport. All the other big nations like Germany, Spain, the Netherlands and Argentina will be there, as well as regional powers like Mexico and Ghana, as well as dark horses like Belgium and Colombia. The world’s best two players, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Argentina’s Lionel Messi, are in their primes and desperate for World Cup success. Most desperate for the World Cup will be Brazil, whose last turn as host was all the way in 1950, when it lost to Uruguay in the final, a tragedy it has never recovered from. I mention all this in my column about the World Cup.

But the country has been rocked by huge and frequent protests and strikes, all fuelled by anger over the massive spending (over US$11 billion) on hosting the World Cup. The issue isn’t just the spending, but that the money was needed for more important services such as hospitals, schools, and other social resources. These problems had been ongoing for years, but the World Cup spending served to highlight this issue and serve as a lightning rod for many Brazilians’ anger. It might seem strikingly ironic that so many Brazilians are opposed to a World Cup in their own country, but it also shows the extent of their anger. There are underlying tensions in the country with racism, poverty and inequality.

I have to say all this took me by surprise.While I am slightly aware of some of these issues in Brazil, I was surprised by the protests and by the anger behind it. For instance, for the last World Cup in 2010, South Africa did not face such large protests despite being in a similar situation as a third-world country with serious poverty and inequality having to spend a lot on hosting the tournament (ultimately it was only about one-third what Brazil has spent). Don’t get me wrong, there were many South Africans who didn’t appreciate the government spending either, especially on fancy, new stadiums that looked good but were useless after the World Cup. For years, I’d been reading about how good Brazil has been doing economically and that its international profile had been growing to the point where it’d become a member of the BRICS emerging powers (the others being Russia, India, China and South Africa). Now, I suppose I hadn’t been paying enough attention but also, I’d say the news and journalism I’d come across on Brazil hadn’t been too accurate.

The situation in Brazil is hugely interesting but there’s also some good stuff on other issues in football. Here’re two great articles that show there’s more to football than just sport. The first is about racism in Italy, which sadly is still strong in parts of the nation and society, especially football. There’s some touching account of the blatant racism black players, which even star Italian striker Mario Balotelli faces, as well as revolting descriptions of deep and unabashed racism in parts of the country. To balance this, here’s a nice feature about Belgium and multiculturalism, which is most apparent with its young, talented team made up of players with roots in Africa and the Caribbean. Belgium is well-known for being a wacky sort of nation, one that’s almost artificial and deeply divided on ethnic and linguistic lines, and the article confirms this, but it also raises the prospect that the team represents a new generation that bridges this.

Finally, just as how exciting, fun and incredible the World Cup can be, the organization that runs it is equally as corrupt, dastardly and shady. Don’t take it from me, take it from British comedian John Oliver and his hilarious, but mostly true and apt take on why FIFA is so appalling.


Random links- Vietnam IT scene, Asian books, Indian soccer, and sleep

By now many of us have heard of Flappy Bird, the simple bird game for smartphones that became a sensation before being pulled off of app stores by its creator, who claimed the game’s popularity and the revenue it generated had made his life a nightmare. Flappy Bird’s creator is Vietnamese, and his government is intent on having more similar successes. Well not exactly, but Vietnam is trying to create its own Silicon Valley. It’s still in the budding stages though there are some interested youngsters who seem willing to be involved. Of course, the article raises at the end the not-so-insignificant fact the country is ruled by an authoritarian regime, just like China, which makes it kind of difficult to imagine facilitating enormous creativity. It’ll be interesting to see how this project turns out.

There have been some interesting books recently, such as from Indian authors. Even then, China is not surprisingly the main subject for one of these books. A Great Clamour is Pankaj Mishraj’s book about trying to understand the rise of China from a societal point of view and includes accounts of his travels to neighboring countries. Mishraj’s main mode of analyzing modern China is based on talking to moderate critics, those who don’t hesitate to call out the government but aren’t radicalized enough to be considered dissidents or put in prison. Punjabi Parmesar focuses on Europe from an Indian perspective, though the China connection is still present with the author, an Indian journalist, being a former China correspondent and her previous book being about China. From the reviews, the book doesn’t seem to be very admiring or complimentary of Europe, but blunt and critical as the following quote from the book shows:
Europe for a lot of people is like a picture postcard for holidays and I think Europe is great at holidays. However, it is in great danger of becoming an ossified museum — a place which is very pretty, has cobble stones, beautiful cafes and museums but in itself is turning into a museum.”

The Asian Review of Books, which I sometimes write for, always has a good list of book review links, in addition to its own book reviews, regularly such as this about China and Japan books.

India and football (soccer) are two things that don’t go together at all. And from this BBC article, it seems it’ll stay that way for a while despite the efforts of Pune FC and the fledgling league it plays in. However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. India is crazy over cricket, and is a strong though inconsistent force on the global stage.  Which is more than can be said for China and any international team sport.

And finally, sleeping too little is harmful for us, especially our brains, but so is sleeping too much! Luckily the latter is defined as 10 hours, so I think I’m good. The article has some interesting info, specifically about how our brain cleanses itself during sleep, flushing toxins away from brain cells (the idea of toxins in our brains does sound a little ghastly, now that I think about it).

Random China links

A bit late, but still I thought it’s good to note that China has accomplished another success in sports- its first world boxing champion. Xiong Chaozhong, from Yunnan province, won the WBC minimumweight belt on home soil Nov. 24, beating Mexican Javier Martinez. To be honest, I’ve never heard of this “minimumweight”(also known as strawweight) weight class but as its name suggests, its very small – below 48 kg. Well, good for Xiong, an ethnic Miao born and raised in Wenshan, Yunnan, and hopefully he’ll have a long reign. You don’t hear of many Chinese in international boxing so it’s not surprising that it’s only now, China’s got its first world champion.

I know, as do many, that China is still not a middle-class nation and that its GDP per capita is very small. Yet I had no idea that just 10 years, it was basically US$1000. This chart by the UK’s Guardian shows a comparison of China in 2002 and 2012 in different areas. Whether it be GDP per capita, the number of billionaires, or tourists, all these numbers skyrocketed in these past 10 years. For all the criticism that China, its leaders, and Hu Jintao in particular, have received, I’d have to say that increasing the overall GDP per capita by 500 percent in 10 years is really damn impressive.

Finally, earlier this week, China’s Navy landed a jet fighter onto its aircraft carrier successfully. The fighter also took off the carrier. This is an important step towards being able to utilize the aircraft carrier, as it is the carrier’s aircraft that are its most potent weapon. Also, landing on a carrier is no small task since it requires landing a jet onto a small platform on a moving ship in the wide-open sea. Skills, coordination, and technology, in the form of arresting wires that latch onto the tailhook on the plane to stop it when it lands, are all necessary.