Hockey on the Brain: Why North American Leagues Lockout (because they can)

A slight departure this week.

Normally at this time of the year there would be a hum of sports stories flying in the media. At this point the sports sections of the major Toronto papers could effectively be renamed the Leafs section. Alas no. For the fourth time in 20 years the biggest game in town has been shut down by the owners. In that time, the NHL has lost more games to work stoppages than all the other major sports leagues combined, it is also the only league to completely wipe out a season.

Why is my soccer blog venturing outside the realm of footie? I think there is a connection between how the leagues structures of North American sport operate and the work stoppages. Going back to the beginning way back to about a century ago, two continents decided on very different structures of  league ownership. In England (and similarly in much of the rest of Europe), the power of the overarching league control was given to the national federation, the FA. Owners got a seat at the table, but if there was a better team around they could lose out on their spot. While the FA wasn’t exactly a part of the government, it wasn’t a part of the owner’s little racket either. Perhaps it was a cultural trust for authority derived from the state?

North America turned instead to the power of the corporation. In cash we trust. Owners also formed leagues, but to protect their interest, they each got a seat at the board with the governor and decided that it was to work as a secret club, you needed to pass the test of having enough money for a team and then you could receive your membership for life. North American leagues work effectively as cartels; Major League Baseball was actually exempted from US anti-trust legislation. It puts far more power in the hands of the owners than a similar European league.

Now I’m not blind to some of the obvious differences in the geography of the two places. North American cities were separated by vast distances that made the organization of leagues slightly more difficult than say England. Europe was divided politically so that each country insisted on its own league. But I think it was the power of business in the US during the end of the 19th century that settled things for how sport was to be organized here.

The effect has been that NA leagues have stressed inter-city rivalries (Boston vs NY, Toronto vs Montreal) while England makes almost a bigger deal with its intra-city derbies (Liverpool vs Everton, Sunderland vs. Newcastle). It has also calcified the NA leagues and given owners some rather unique powers: Drafts – being able to designate the team rights to certain players and removing the player’s freedom of labour; Territoriality – how is it that Phoenix can still have a team when its pretty clear from demand in Toronto that a new team here would sell out in a second?; no fear of relegation – as much as I like having TFC in MLS, if they played as bad as they do in Europe they’d be in the 6th tier of soccer already and deserve it; and most importantly, lockouts – can you imagine the owners of any soccer league trying to pull this on their own league, fans and players?

No. It wouldn’t happen, short player strikes have happened before; leagues have threatened to hold off without TV rights settled, but the moment the doors close the vultures of every other league in the world will swoop down and destroy the pool of talent those teams possess. For most NA leagues there are few other options. NFL Europe: not really, baseball in Japan: maybe, other basketball leagues: not much of a comparison (but getting better), KHL or Swedish Elite League: maybe to kill time. Given that sort of power and few options for players is it any wonder why there are so many lockouts in NA sport? Owners here have the players over a barrel.

Yes I feel sorry for the millionaires over the billionaires, not by much, but seriously, how have MLSE ever helped the sports fans of Toronto?

Field Research – one pint at a time

How important is geography to watching soccer?: An important lesson in spectatorship on two separate Wednesdays. I don’t need to go up to campus everyday, and so I’ve spent two Wednesdays downtown exploring the places to watch UEFA Champions League games (this was a few weeks ago as I missed today’s games).

My first try was an unfortunate choice, but at least I can chalk it up to experience. Shoeless Joe’s – which I could easily rename Hooter’s lite. The less said the better, but it is clear that its main clientele are Bay St. Lawyers with a passing interest in sports and a serious interest in women. I ended up feeling a little out of place because I wasn’t wearing a suit and sitting alone in a bar like that feels kinda pervy.

Moving on to the next week, I was free from the lawyers and tight fitting uniforms. Instead I was at the Football Factory. I think the name sets its priorities. I walked in and had the choice of seating based not on smoking or non-smoking (remember those days), but on Arsenal – Olympiakos, Man City – Borussia Dortmund, and AC Milan – Zenit St. Petersburg. This is my kind of place. Naturally, I was sitting in the Arsenal section, sipping on a Guinness and eating Bangers and Mash; I felt much more comfortable. And that is geography – I’m associating with a place.

Why do I feel more comfortable in one than the other? Cultural differences for sure. As I said before, Shoeless Joe’s catered to a particular audience and served them well, but me – with a slightly different set of priorities did not find the place as enjoyable. The Football Factory met my needs for food, drink, activity (even if I spent my time sitting on my butt) and community – complaining about Arsenal’s wage structure is a easy way to chat with gooners.

So I now have my personal “field research” plan set up: explore every bar that promotes soccer games in Toronto. That should keep me busy for a long time. Oh the sacrifices I make for science.

Shirts vs. Skins

This feels like part 2 of my previous post. No sooner did I press “publish” on that entry then English soccer suddenly became all about racism.

Earlier in the week several England U-21s were subjected to racist chants from Serbian fans and the team was attacked by Serbian players and staff as they entered the tunnel following the game. The English FA are considering boycotting future matches in Serbia, and both teams are being hauled up for a review of the game at a UEFA meeting in late November.

Then, back in England, Jason Roberts of Reading announced that he was refusing to wear the “Kick It Out” campaign’s t-shirts during warm-up for the match vs. Liverpool this weekend. In refusing to wear the shirt Roberts is protesting what he has seen as a lack of action by the organization. Said Roberts, “I find it hard to wear a t-shirt after what has happened in the last year.” By that he was referring to the Luis Suarez/Patrice Evra incident (where Suarez was banned for 8 games for his racist remarks), and the John Terry/Anton Ferdinand incident (with public trial and 4 game ban for Terry’s remarks). Even the FA’s handling of the two incidents has come under fire with Suarez getting double the games that Terry got, and Terry still being selected to the England team for Euro 2012, while Anton’s brother Rio was dropped from the team (and then England manager Roy Hodgson decided to explain to some random people in a subway that Rio Ferdinand was done with the English squad).

Many other people involved with the game were very supportive of Roberts’ decision not to wear the t-shirt (including his manager; the rest of his team; Swansea and Swansea’s opponents, Wigan Athletic), but not King Alex of Manchester (I mean Sir Alex!). Sir Alex decided that Roberts stand was ridiculous, because Sir Alex as a rich, white, knight and living football legend surely must have a better understanding of racism in the sport than Jason Roberts (Jason Roberts is a MBE, two ranks lower than Sir Alex – so not a Sir). Sir Alex thinks that not wearing the shirt, “sends out the wrong message.” The message that Sir Alex wants to be out there is that the league and all the players are doing their best to get racism out of the game. What he fails to understand is that Roberts is making a very different, but equally important statement. Roberts is quite clearly unhappy with the progress that the FA and Kick It Out are making at getting racism out of the game. Roberts by not wearing the shirt is quite clearly taking a stand against racism, and against the lip service payed by the FA to the issue of racism in the game. By virtue of his skin colour and the country that he plays in, he takes a stand against racism in football every time he steps on the field. By not wearing the shirt he has called far more attention to the issue in the league than he ever could have by simply toeing the line.

Of course this then would have all died down after Sir Alex’s press conference and Roberts walking onto the field without the t-shirt. However, having put himself out there over how important it was to wear the shirt and insisting that his team would all be wearing them; Man U defender Rio Ferdinand then walks out on Saturday without the shirt on. The furious Sir Alex then said that he was disappointed that Ferdinand let the team down and, “would be dealt with.”

Ahh yes, make an example of a black player on a team by punishing him for not taking part in an anti-racism campaign, especially when that player’s brother was the one who was racially abused by the then captain of the England team. As much as I think Rio Ferdinand was a bit dense for not warning Sir Alex ahead of time that he didn’t plan to wear the t-shirt, if there is anyone in that league (besides his brother Anton, or his teammate Patrice Evra) who probably had good reasons for not wearing that t-shirt it was Rio. The optics of Man U punishing Rio for this would look about as good as the FA giving a four game suspension to a celebrated English player for essentially the same thing that they gave a Uruguayan player a 8 game ban. Oh. Never mind.

Playin’ English

Interesting article the other day in the paper about Michael Owen admitting that he’d fallen to get penalties.

What I found so interesting is not how his international career is over (whether he admits it or not), but that at the end of the article he discusses the unfortunate influence of foreign football players on the English game, especially with regards to diving. This is almost exactly the same thing said by Alex Ferguson less than a month ago. Interesting that in less than a month, and just before an international break that two prominent Brits (Sir Alex is a Scot) would discuss the bad influence these diving foreign players are having on the English game.

Xenophobia and soccer are good ol’ friends. Players and fans in England howled when they removed the limits on foreign-born players, and it was big news when Arsenal fielded a team of entirely non-British players a decade ago. In Italy, a team fired a South Korean player for scoring on them in the 2002 World Cup, and eight years later considered kicking foreign players out of the Serie A to let more Italians play. Spain naively declared they had no racism problems, and then this week the whole sad saga of John Terry and Anton Ferdinand hopefully, finally came to an end. As much as the players and managers play lip service to the Kick It Out message against racism for the fans, they have not kicked it out themselves.

The idea that the English don’t dive is hilarious – surely Sir Alex has had a glance at Ashley Young’s passport on one of their trips? Of course he may have just picked it up from Nani. And that Michael Owen would say that it’s just become a problem in the last 10 years or so is staggering. He’s been injured for something like the last 10 years! So maybe he’s the actual root of the diving epidemic sweeping Britain.

The whole idea that the Brits play a more honorable version of the game is something that I’ve been thinking about recently. In the history of the sport – back in the beginning, the Victorian ideals of sportsmanship and amateur athleticism dominated the English game, some clubs insisted on amateur status as it was unseemly to accept (up front) payment for the game. The English game was seen by the English as a game of toughness and virtue for the players. But then a funny thing happened, other countries found other ways to play and they beat the Brits at their own game. The South American game became about artistry and flair, the Italian about suffocating defense, the Dutch about Total Football, etc. Everywhere the game went it took on slightly different character and tactics, the English tough long ball fell out of favour.

England has it tough, as the inventors of the game they see it as their right to be a good team (totally understandable living in a hockey obsessed nation), but they are just one of many nation in the sport now.  And while their league is the most prestigious on the planet, it is so precisely because it has so many foreign players in it. Do players dive – of course they do, is it something that was brought here by those insidious foreigners – sorry, not gonna buy that one Sir A.

But then there is Suarez.

The Agony of Defeat

I’m speechless. Well that shouldn’t matter, it’s a blog so I’m typing, but what can I say?

8-1.

8-1.

8-1.

It doesn’t seem real. Maybe if I go to sleep I’ll wake up and the game won’t have happened yet. Canada will be about to play Honduras and we’ll still be in the running for the World Cup.

No. I feel it like a punch to my stomach. I can’t even imagine what it must be like for the players. I am proud of them, I thought they had some great moments over the qualification and were even improving over the six matches I saw them play. They had played so strong on defence, that was my least concern, I was worried that they would have trouble scoring today without so many forwards. Today came from out of the blue.

What I am happiest about is the way soccer has received so much more attention over the last few years, and in part this was due to the way the men’s and women’s national teams had played. I worry that this will be a reason to turn away from a sport that we just don’t compete at. My own hope was never the World Cup – that would have been too much of a leap for the program, but a chance in the hex would have kept the interest going for another year. Now it’s back to square one, and a three year wait before qualification begins.

Positives from this campaign:

– Teamwork: Considering the team I saw against St. Lucia back when this all began, the team isn’t even comparable. Back then there were missed passes, no coordination and too many long balls.

– Solid, solid defense (okay today notwithstanding): In all the games I saw over the last two years they only allowed one goal at home – to St. Lucia. Including the friendly against the US (okay considering their recent form maybe that isn’t such a wild accomplishment).

– Aggression: Canada was thrown off by Honduras’ chippy play, flopping and general annoying behavior. Against Panama, Canada gave it as good as it got. (without the flopping) If we want to play with the big boys we’ve got to act like the big boys.

-Fan support: Each game grew the crowd. From 10,000 fans for the game against St. Lucia (far too many of whom were cheering for St. Lucia) to 18,700 fans when we played Cuba (with only a few scattered Cuban fans). It got loud. It became a home field advantage.

What we still need:

-Goals: can never have enough of those.

– A few more years to develop players: This was why the attention was so important – to keep the next generation of players interested.

– Still more fan support: I dream of the day when they have to move the games to BC Place (yeah, I’ll miss them), we need our own Aztca Stadium (Mexico’s national stadium), but BMO will work until then.

-Discipline: Two bad red cards over the campaign was too many. Yes Occean’s was ridiculous, but we’ll never get a break with CONCACAF refs so we have walk that line even more carefully.

What hurts isn’t that we’re out, that was inevitable. What hurts is both the way that we went out and that I think we could/should have made the hex. Being a Canadian soccer fan means cheering for another country in the big tournaments, but it was nice for a while to be able to cheer for my country.

 

Participant Observation?

I’ve found the potential downfall to my academic research, it will likely be the largest obstacle I face in my field research and I’m not sure how I can approach this difficulty: watching a match.

Last night I watch the Canada vs Cuba game at BMO Field in Toronto. Canada won 3-0, but as I walked out of the stadium I realized that actually being at a game will be a very difficult complication for me if I study fan behaviour – I was totally lost in the match. I’m sure Marcus is slightly embarrassed to have to sit with his dad who yells and screams at the Canadians for 90 minutes, boos the linesmen and ref at appropriate moments and heckles the opposition as they lie on the ground or make the long march to the tunnel following their red card. Once upon a time I was a reserved quiet fan who only made a lot of noise when we scored, but over the last two years of the qualifying campaign I’ve turned rabid. I have become my own research. I’m interested in fan behaviour, but I have become one. Granted I don’t sit in the South End with the Red Patch Boys, but my heart is there.

I’ve noticed the crowd has changed with me over the last two years too. Back when we were playing minnows like St. Lucia, the crowd was smaller, the visitors had vocal support and the team played more tentatively. This year was very different, the team soaked up our encouragement and payed it back at the end, they celebrated playing at home and knew they could count on us to drown out all the visitor supporters. I want next year to have meaningful games, we’ve come so far as fans in Toronto, I don’t want to have to wait and start all over again.

But this brings up the games yesterday. Canada won 3-0 yes, but that was hardly a surprise when all the Cuban subs defected to the US, leaving them with just 11 players on a team that hadn’t scored a goal in the qualifying round and hadn’t even managed a tie. So we won, that should have helped right? Problem is that when Cuba is such a pushover, all the teams have feasted off of them and it hardly made a difference to the pool. More troubling was the 0-0 tie between Panama and Honduras. The conspiracy theorist in me can’t help but think that the tie was planned. Panama plays Cuba next and needs only to draw to qualify, Honduras hosts Canada on Tuesday and the result will determine the group. By drawing Panama, Honduras just needs to win, where if they had lost to Panama they would have needed to beat Canada by at least two goals. Panama just gifted Honduras a lifeline. Oh and Canada will have to get a tie without not only Dwayne DeRosario, but also Olivier Occean (who was given a weak red card by the ref last night).

As you can see I’ve already spent far too long thinking about all the permutations and combinations in qualification. I should actually be devoting my thoughts to midterm papers and readings.

Without You I’m Nothing

I’m in the midst of writing midterm papers and marking assignments, which is going to put a serious crimp in blogging time. Right now I need to get a quick note down that may work into yet another idea for me.

My seminar today was talking about the meaning of place and the the ideas of different geographers and philosophers. I was thinking while we were discussing Bachelard that his idea of place meant created an interior and exterior, in order to understand home and place, you had to be able to differentiate it from something outside. So what if I were to extend this to my subject.

I was thinking about supporters groups and the intense rivalries they create with select other groups. At their base they are all football supporters (thinking English case here, so its football). They differentiate themselves by which team they support and how much they support them. Having created an identity for themselves they are now free to have a rivalry with another team’s supporters. They’ll contest space and identity with these others who often come from the same town as them and in another context could be friends. These manufactured rivalries depend on the ‘other’. Without someone to fight what is the point of the supporter’s identity existing? So these two supporters groups have created a situation mutually sustained hostility. They effectively need each other to survive, as threatening and awful they are to each other, deep down they need that other to validate their own behaviour. Kind of twisted.

Each imagined or real slight informs the long dance that the two group play out with each other. I’m thinking about the Liverpool – Man U match a couple of weeks ago after the release of the Hillsborough papers. The Man U supporters mock the Liverpudlians with songs about murderers (1985 Heysel and 1989 Hillsborough) while the Liverpool fans act out airplane wings for the Mancunians (1958 Munich Air disaster). The memories are collective and help to sustain the animosity between groups.

Is there some grudging respect or acknowledgement of what they mean to each other? Could be fun to find out.