Caution: Watch for Minnows

Luton Town: Underdogs but big bite

Luton Town: Underdogs but big bite

If you’ve ever had that feeling that your team is just terrible and that you and your buddies could beat them if they kept playing like that (does this sound familiar Leafs Nation?), move to Europe and take up soccer. The national cup competitions in Europe function unlike anything that we’ve ever seen in North America. Can you imagine a game of amateurs versus professionals that actually meant something? Welcome to the FA Cup competition. While none of the teams left are amateur, the attack of the minnows this week certainly upset the accepted order of English football.

First up was the semi-finals for the League Cup, where League 2 Bradford City eliminated Aston Villa 4-3 on aggregate to become the first 4th tier team to compete in a cup final since 1965. On the way to the final they’ve taken out three Premier League teams and a Championship side. Up next for them is Swansea, while not a minnow, managed to take out Chelsea 2-0 over the two legs (with a little help from their ballboy).

Aston Villa then charitably allowed Millwall to move on  in the FA Cup by losing 2-1 on Friday. The upsets continued on Saturday with Premier League side Queen’s Park Rangers losing 4-1 to League 1 MK Dons, and the biggest shocker of the weekend with non-league Luton Town knocking Premier League Norwich City out 1-0 (the two teams are separated by 85 places in the standings). Just when you thought it couldn’t get any more interesting Sunday featured Chelsea escaping League 1 Brentford 2-2, forcing a replay (another match, this time at Chelsea’s ground). The next match had Championship side Leeds United take out Tottenham 2-1, and in the grand finale of the “cupsets” League 1 Oldham eliminated Liverpool 3-2.

So what does this say about the “best league in the world”? The upsets alone are not enough to indicate problems in the EPL, but there are some other trends that point to some difficult times ahead for the top flight of English football. The first sign was the elimination of Man City and Chelsea from Champions League. Again not too significant, but in a season before the financial fair play rules bite, it will be difficult for the Premier League to remain competitive in Europe with their current salary structure. At the same time, the recent fan revolt by Man City fans, arguing that £62 ($100) was too much for away tickets to Arsenal points to problems that the traditional fan base of clubs are being priced out (particularly worrying for my thesis, as many of the complainers argue that the price is changing the atmosphere of the games). That will squeeze the Premier League teams at both ends with salary demands to keep talent and competitiveness, yet without alienating supporters. Remember that there are enough teams to support multiple leagues and that loyalties are firm, but not fixed.

Yet another issue is Pep Guardiola. Yes, even a single man can be seen as a sign for trouble for the League. Pep’s move to Bayern Munich shows that money can’t buy everything (well, at least for Roman Abramovich). I’m reading Pep’s choice as one that suits him better because German teams do better at developing their own talent. Pep’s background is La Masia, he knows and believes in a strong academy system. He doesn’t play for the short term, he is Barça bred through and through. There was no way he would have gone to Chelsea, who bet everything on the short term – if it doesn’t work sign someone else mentality. While EPL teams still have academies, only a few really use them as a key source of talent, the biggest being tight purse strings Arsenal.

So while this weekend’s display shows that the gap between the top and the rest may not be as big as we would otherwise think, I’m not convinced that it is a case of the rest catching up, but the top falling back. Longer term issues face English football than one weekend’s unexpected results.

 

 

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Welcome Party

This will seem like old news, but I am using my blog to work through a conference paper about Canada’s World Cup Qualifier in Panama last September.

So Panama “welcomed” Canada to their country by staging a all night party outside the Team Canada hotel featuring blaring music, chanting, drums, flags, fireworks, sirens, basically anything to keep the Canadians from getting a decent night’s sleep. This was actually encouraged by the Panamanian FA, and worked to good effect as the Canadians didn’t really show up for the game.

What my paper is about is trying to look at the importance of that performance outside the hotel, not just to the distraction of the Canadians, but as a way of asserting a Panamanian nationalism. There are a few parallels between Canada and Panama in the world of soccer: in both countries, they have a strong national tie to a different sport – hockey for Canada and baseball for Panama. This is in part due to the histories and cultures of the nations – Canada had a long winter and a long history with hockey, summer was for football, or possibly baseball. As for Panama, their cultural sport legacy comes from the Panama Canal. As a virtual protectorate of the US through much of the 20th century, they ended up a baseball nation. Look at the world and you will find that the general division of sport powers follows a pattern where British colonies adopted cricket or rugby (and to a lesser degree soccer), British financial colonies – more influenced by their business in the early 20th c. ended up playing soccer, and American protectorates ended up playing baseball.

However, Panama has been on its own (as much as any Latin American country can truly be on their own with their “good neighbors” to the north) since the US turned over control of the Panama Canal in 1999. Soccer seems to be growing in the nation, I would argue as a response to a distancing of the Panamanians from their US history. Over their history ideas of nationalism have come as a reaction against the US presence in their country. The first martyrs for the country were killed in riots against the Americans back in the 1960s and this moment in Panamanian history serves as an important point for the party outside the Canadian hotel almost 50 years later.

Diana Taylor discusses Latin American performance as a form of repertoire in her book The Archive and the Repertoire. Various performances are examined as a way of transmitting cultural memory and making political claims. In this context I am arguing that the party outside the hotel, by a group that was already attuned to nationalist sentiment by wanting to cheer on the Panamanian team were echoing an act of Panamanian nationalism that is directed toward gringos. Now I know that Canadians are not always included in definitions of gringos, but we don’t exist entirely outside those definitions either. In this case, the Canadian team served just as well to play the part of the gringo for the Panamanians.

There is another important echo in the repertoire of this party: Operation Just Cause. While most of the Panamanians keeping the Canadians awake weren’t even born when the riots against the Americans took place, many of them may remember or would have heard from their parents about the last American intervention in Panama in 1989. Operation Just Cause was launched to remove Manuel Noriega from power, as he was a US ally gone bad. The invasion culminated in a siege of the residence that Noriega was hiding in. The American troops deployed a set of loudspeakers that blared music all night long as a form of psychological warfare designed to hasten his surrender.

Well, 22 years later and Panamanian stereos seem to have contributed to a Canadian surrender on the soccer pitch. The reaction in Canada was interesting with many commentators and fans saying that the party wasn’t fair or good sportsmanship, and a few others that seemed to say “Why didn’t we think of that?” Coming after riots in Toronto around the G20 and a riot in Vancouver around the Stanley Cup, I think there was little appetite for that sort of disturbance in Canada. Another interesting point is the way that Canadian sports analysts described the Panama party as an expected part of playing in CONCACAF. This is in no way reserved to the Latin American nations, during Euro Qualifiers in 2011, the Portuguese team was greeted at the Sarajevo airport by Bosnian fans who particularly enjoyed mocking Cristiano Ronaldo. They also followed the team bus and even used laser pointers on the Portuguese players during the warmups. Gamesmanship is by no means a preserve of Latin America, if Canada is going to play with the big boys we’ve got to be ready to play against (and like) the big boys.

So a quick shout out to the CanMNT, who play on Saturday against Denmark, and Tuesday vs. USA. Go Canada!

Oh, and if I’m on to anything in this paper we’ll see how Panama greets the US this summer during the final stage of World Cup Qualifiers.

Status Report

I’m now just over halfway through the first year of my program, so I’d like to take stock for a moment and see where I’m at and what I have left to do.

  • My topic has changed from looking at the effects of stadium gentrification on local fan communities to the negotiation and performance of space between supporters (and others) at soccer matches.
  • I’ve selected a study site: Liverpool  – there’s a Merseyside derby on May 4, I plan on taking in 3 games total over the weekends 2 at Anfield and 1 at Goodison Park, although I may try to fit in a lower tier playoff if I get the chance (depends on teams and times).
  • As a bonus, my last weekend will be in London so I can check out the fanzones for the UEFA Champions League Final. Should be an interesting counterpoint with it unlikely that the teams will be local (sorry Arsenal, I’d love it to happen, but not likely – and I’m wishing that ManU (not local but English) and Real could eliminate each other).
  • I’m looking into ideas around affect, masculinity, and territoriality for a theoretical frame.
  • Now I need to really start networking with local fan groups in England as possible interview subjects.
  • I have to present my proposal to the department on Mar. 12 (Yikes!), and then get ethics approval before I leave.
  • I should turn my accumulated soccer wisdom to betting so that I can fund this thing. (Joking – wife reads blog)
  • Speaking of which, I should really thank a truly understanding and amazing woman who is going to let me traipse off to Europe to watch 22 men kick a ball around.

So I have a plan, but no tickets except the airline ones. If I can hold on for the next couple of weeks I can get through the toughest part of my courses, and then I can devote full time prep to this.

The Name Game

Greatest of all time? Messi

Greatest of all time? Messi

Greatest of all time? Pele

Greatest of all time? Pele

A new year, a new semester, the recap of the old year that goes with it. Every year the annual rite of passage is to hash out lists of the best of the previous twelve months and what to expect in the next twelve; especially in sports where it is a great chance to sit down and run over the highlight reels and find the moments that still amaze, or hurt, or just make you laugh.

 

So it is with soccer and FIFA held their annual gala on Monday to recognize the best of the year: best players, best coaches, best team, best goal. To absolutely nobody’s surprise (except Cristiano Ronaldo’s) Leo Messi was again awarded the Ballon d’or for a record 4th consecutive year. Abby Wambach (USA) won the women’s Ballon d’or, and her former coach Pia Sundhage won the women’s coach award. The men’s coach award went to Vincente del Bosque from the Spanish Nat’l. team. Miroslav Stoch (Slovakia) won the Puskas award for best goal of the year.

But what I found the most interesting part of the evening (apart from Pia’s singing) was the World Best XI: the entire list was from one league. If you didn’t play football in Spain this year, you weren’t playing the best football in the world according to FIFA. It seemed a terrific snub to the EPL, Bundesliga, and Serie A, that not a single player who plays in England, Germany, or Italy – the world’s other top leagues could make the all-star team of all-stars. But then that’s what these lists are, talking points, snubs, accolades and nothing more. This Best XI will never take to the field anywhere except on some kid’s FIFA13 video game. But what this does is keep every sports pundit busy for the next week talking over who is the best player, what is the best league and can Messi be considered the best player of all time?

Oddly enough I was then confronted with a strange parallel in my own studies. In beginning my new geography course, I found my readings essentially traced important names in the field of geography. It is not too much different than the all-star list of geographers. And in that light, while reading the debates over whether Pele, Maradona, or Messi is best, I began to think a little more critically than I normally do as to who makes this list and why is it important. Now ultimately my prof sets the readings, so the final list comes down to their personal choice, but if it is at all like FIFA, is there a sense that it could be skewed a bit to favour one style of play, or in this case one style of geography?

All-star geographer?D. Harvey

All-star geographer?
D. Harvey

As in the case with most of these lists some names stand out regardless. You can’t discuss human geography without David Harvey coming up at some point – perhaps the Pele of Marxist geography. He would be on any list, but then there are others that are more positional (continuing with a soccer metaphor do I use a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 formation) and suddenly the introduction of tactics complicates the list. My course is about critical geography, which would then differentiate the list of thinkers from a course in say economic geography (although I think you’d still find Harvey on both).

This then brings me to my more critical analysis of the names and readings for the course. For the next twelve weeks I will get the overview of a number of these geographical thinkers, the highlight package if you will for a number of them. But at the end it is up to me to be able to sort out the best XI (don’t worry, doesn’t literally have to be 11) for my own studies. I’ll need to be able to defend my choices, but then I can sort out where I am headed in my field.

Apparently I’m not the only one concerned with space

Man City getting ready for Stoke at the Etihad.

Happy 2013! It’s been a while since my last post, but I’m back. It’s been hard to post as I haven’t been able to justify taking the time to write with papers that need to be written, but as I am just about caught up on those papers I finally feel motivated to get back to the blog.

I am studying geography. Geography is all about space, but then so is soccer. Marcus’ coach is constantly talking about creating space and taking it away. While I’m interested in the fans and how they use space, Manchester City has given a far more practical treatment to off-field space in their recent home Premier League match against Stoke.

The picture shows Man City’s preparation for visiting Stoke, who are known to use long throw-ins. The crew in the photo are rearranging the advertising hoardings at the stadium to put them as close as they were allowed to place them to the sidelines of the field. It effectively prevents the run-ups needed for the long throws and forced Stoke to use more traditional methods of putting the ball in play.

How effective was it? Apparently, according to 101gg.com, Man City have used this approach against Stoke for the past three years. The long throw specialist for Stoke hasn’t actually played this season (Rory Delap), and the other player who does long throws (not sure who that is), wasn’t dressed for the game. Was he left out because of City’s ground preparations or was he off for another reason?

It is interesting that there is such variability in soccer field dimensions. In some ways it is a bit like baseball, with some basic ground rules (pardon the pun), and then it is up to the club to determine the field that best suits their needs. Soccer fields can vary in length and width within certain parameters so long as the boxes maintain their proper dimensions. It does give the sports some character as each stadium then has its own personality. Would Fenway Park be the same without the Green Monster, or Wrigley Field without the Ivy. In designing the Allianz Arena (home of Bayern Munich, 1860 Munich and the German National Team), Jacques Herzog hoped to replicate the feel of many of Archibald Leitch’s old stadium designs by extending the seating as close to the field of play as possible. Certainly in the case of Man City the field of play was not affected, just the area outside of play, so whatever small advantage Man City hoped to gain from this change was well within the rules of the game.

Of course with a team value of around £360 million more than Stoke, you could say that the advantage was already with Man City.

Probably the most dramatic effect of moving the hoardings was to make the advertising that much more visible to the television audience – much to the delight of sponsors. Right now I’m sure all the marketers are hoping that Stoke draws Man City in the next round of the FA Cup too.