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Team GB: About a Name

November 17th, 2012 SB Tang No comments

You may have noticed a sporting event going on in London this summer — joyous, celebratory and proudly patriotic without ever veering into jingoism, the 2012 London Olympics was an event which Londoners and Britons are justifiably proud of. The greatest summer games ever according to many.

But, can anyone outside this sceptred isle correctly state the home team’s name?

At the opening ceremony, the official sign carried in front of the home team as they marched into the stadium read “Great Britain”. The team’s official website referred to them as “Team GB”, a shortened name frequently adopted by the BBC’s commentators during the Olympics.

Both those names are inaccurate.

The fact that they are says much about the important, but subtle to the point of being inexplicable, concepts of nationhood and nationality in the British Isles.

Before I have a go at explaining them through the prism of sport, it will be necessary to provide a brief primer on the concepts.

At present, in public international law, the full name of the country which hosted the 2012 London Olympics is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (the “UK”). Great Britain consists of England, Wales and Scotland. Collectively, England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are referred to as the four “home nations” and people from the UK are referred to as British. The UK does not include the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, although Channel Islanders and Manx carry British passports and compete for Team GB at the Olympics.

It is the UK — not England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland individually — which signs international treaties. It is the UK which is a member state of the UN. It is the UK which occupies a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. It is the UK which has the power to declare war on other countries. It is the UK which controls its own borders and decides whether it will issue visas to foreign nationals.

“But,” I hear you say, “don’t England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland play international football as separate and independent nations?”

Yup, they do.

Broadly, in the major international team sports, the four home nations exist and compete as separate entities, whereas, in most individual sports, participants from the UK compete under the British flag. However, this is a generalisation which is itself subject to exceptions at every turn.

The Olympics fall under the general heading of individual sports and the relevant governing body is the British Olympic Association (“BOA”) which is the National Olympic Committee (“NOC”) for the UK.

So, the Olympic team names “Great Britain” and “Team GB” are obviously inaccurate — they exclude Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK.

However, Northern Irish-born athletes are given the choice to represent Ireland or Team GB at the Olympics. In London, of the five Northern Irish athletes who won medals, three represented Team GB and two represented Ireland.

Northern Ireland, understandably, asked the BOA to change the team name to “Team UK”. Their request was denied. According to the BBC, the BOA stated two main reasons for denying the request.

Firstly, the BOA argued that “[s]ponsors understandably feel that there is more intrinsic value in sponsoring the team and not the BOA and the Team GB mark is now an item of intellectual property which has developed over three Olympic cycles”. This makes sense, particularly when one considers that the BOA receives no government funding and as such relies exclusively on the funds which it is able to raise itself privately, commercially and from members of the public.

Secondly, the BOA argued that neither “Team GB” nor “Team UK” are strictly accurate since the team includes members from places that are geographically part of neither Great Britain nor the UK — for example, the Isle of Man, Jersey and some UK overseas territories. As a statement of fact, this argument is true, but as an argument it is invalid. The argument implicitly accepts that technical inaccuracy in the team name is undesirable. That being the case, logically, a lower degree of inaccuracy is preferable to a higher degree of inaccuracy. Yet, the argument then goes on to conclude that a name with a greater degree of inaccuracy — “Team GB” excludes Northern Ireland and the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man — is preferable to a name with a substantially lower degree of inaccuracy: “Team UK” would still exclude the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, but at least it’d include Northern Ireland.

The Channel Islands’ and the Isle of Man’s legal relationship with the UK is a bit like Puerto Rico’s with the United States. Except that the Channel Islands don’t have their own independent football team who beat England at major tournaments — you know, the way Puerto Rico beat a Team USA basketball team containing Allen Iverson and Tim Duncan by 19 points at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

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Interestingly, although the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man are sparsely populated (their approximate combined population is 240,000), they provided Team GB with one of its biggest names — the sprint cyclist Mark Cavendish, born and raised on the Isle of Man. Cavendish may not be that well-known in North America, but in Britain and Europe, he is a bona fide superstar — the man dubbed the Manx Missile is the reigning BBC Sports Personality of the Year and road World Champion; in 2011 he became the first Briton to win the green jersey awarded to the Tour de France’s best sprinter; and in 2012 he was hailed by no less an authority than L’Equipe as the Tour de France’s greatest ever sprinter.

Cavendish came into the London 2012 Olympics with an air of thwarted destiny, having famously left Beijing as the only member of the all-conquering British Olympic track cycling team without a medal. In Beijing, Cavendish and his partner Bradley Wiggins were the gold medal favourites in the two-man Madison event. But, Wiggins, exhausted from winning gold in the 4,000m individual pursuit and the team pursuit, ran out of puff in the Madison. Cavendish was understandably displeased. The pair did not speak for more than two months, until Wiggins texted Cavendish to ask, “Hi, do you remember me?” to which Cavendish replied, “Ha, ha, of course I do.”

In the four years between Beijing and London, both Wiggins and Cavendish continued their respective ascents into the European sporting stratosphere. Cavendish established himself as one of the world’s greatest sprinters, whilst Wiggins established himself as a genuine contender to become the first British cyclist to win the Tour de France. In a final twist to the tale, when, less than a week before the London 2012 opening ceremony, Wiggins wrote himself into the annals of British sporting history by winning the Tour de France, it was Cavendish who played a key supporting role as a domestique, literally fetching and carrying the drinks from the team car for his teammates. Cavendish dutifully performed his job as the most over-qualified donkey in world sport, and in so doing, helped Wiggins become a legend. The Telegraph’s Ian Chadband observed: “It felt about as incongruous as watching Cristiano Ronaldo doing a holding midfielder’s job.” Cavendish described the domestique work he did on this year’s Tour de France as akin to “putting Wayne Rooney in defence”.

However, Cavendish’s noble self-sacrifice would be repaid in full — his Tour de France teammates Wiggins and Chris Froome (the runner-up in this year’s Tour de France) would, along with David Millar (a multiple Tour de France stage winner and a former British national road race champion) and Ian Stannard (the reigning British national road race champion), put themselves at Cavendish’s service in the Olympic road race, doing the hard graft to get the Manx Missile within striking distance of the leading pack at the finish, where he could unleash his devastating speed to win the gold medal. Scheduled for the day after the opening ceremony, the men’s road race would get Team GB’s home Olympics off to the perfect start, provide a deserving coronation for King Cav on the Mall, and erase, once and for all, the hurt of Beijing for Cavendish.

That was the plan at any rate.

It didn’t work out.

As it happened, every other nation was wise to the simple but effective plan which the Brits had executed to perfection at the road race world championships in Copenhagen last year. Accordingly, the other countries declined to help the Brits with the hard graft in the peloton. Moreover, unlike Copenhagen, the London Olympic course featured a number of hilly climbs and each team was only allowed five riders (instead of the eight allowed in the world championships), so, in the absence of any help from the other nations, not even the four-man supporting cast Cavendish himself described as “a dream team” could get him within striking distance of the leading pack at the finish line on their own.

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The most prominent example of the four home nations competing as separate and independent entities in international team sport is football — England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each have their own national teams, national anthems and national governing bodies (known as “football associations”).

Indeed, England versus Scotland is the oldest international rivalry in football. The two nations played the very first official international football match on 30 November 1872 at the West of Scotland cricket club’s ground at Hamilton Crescent in Partick.

Little wonder then, that the home nations’ football associations (“FAs”) tend to guard their independence with a certain patriotic zeal. This created a dilemma for Team GB at the London 2012 Olympics. Since 1972, Great Britain has not even attempted to qualify for the Olympic football tournament — the last time a Great Britain football team competed at an Olympics was 1960 — because Great Britain does not exist as an entity in international football.

Even on the three occasions when one of the home nations’ performance in the UEFA U-21 championships — Scotland in 1992 and 1996, and England in 2008 — was sufficient to qualify for the Olympic football tournament, Great Britain opted not to send a team.

However, given that the 2012 Olympics were being held at home in London, there was a push to field a home team bringing together the best under-23 players from the four home nations, in order to satisfy the Olympic host nation’s requirement to compete in every discipline. FIFA President Sepp Blatter gave assurances that the fielding of a unified Team GB Olympic football team would not threaten the footballing sovereignty of the four separate home nations. Nevertheless, all the home nations’ FAs, except for England’s, remained implacably opposed to the very notion.

As it turned out, some of their players did not feel the same way — five Welsh footballers played for Team GB at the London Olympics.

However, their representation of a nation distinct from that which they and their ancestors have proudly represented for over a century, caused confusion for both the players and the home crowds.

At Team GB’s opening Olympic football game against Senegal at Old Trafford, a close to capacity crowd of 72,176 had to work out what to sing and chant. After all, the songs and chants normally used to support England may have discomforted or worse, offended the Welsh footballers representing Team GB. Eventually, the crowd plumped for an unfamiliar-sounding chant of “GB” augmented by some hand-clapping.

The situation was no less confusing for the Welsh players who, before kick-off, opted not to sing God Save the Queen, the national anthem of the UK and England. Although Wales is a part of the UK, Wales has its own spine-tingling national anthem, Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, which is traditionally sung before international football and rugby matches when Wales is playing as a separate and independent nation. Growing up, the Welsh footballers representing Team GB would have seen and heard God Save the Queen as the national anthem of a rival international team — England. So it must have been weird for them to suddenly be asked to sing it before an international football match. Robbie Savage — as proud a Welshman as you’ll find and capped 39 times for Wales in international football — was working as a studio pundit on the BBC’s telecast of the match and opined that the Welsh footballers should have sung God Save the Queen because they were representing Britain.

Although the Team GB Olympic football team failed to win a medal, they gave English and Welsh football fans and players, a tantalising glimpse of something previously buried in the darkest recesses of their mind, a treasonous thought which they would not have admitted to harbouring under pain of death — the potential for greater international success offered by a combined England and Wales football team.

Wales (current population: 3.1 million) has always been too small to consistently produce whole international football teams capable of qualifying for major tournaments.

In its entire history, Wales has qualified for just one World Cup.

However, despite football ranking a distant second behind rugby in the winter sports hierarchy, Wales has, in almost every generation, produced a handful of truly world-class footballers who have won just about everything there is to win at club level with their English and European employers — John Charles in the black and white of Juventus in ’50s and early ’60s, John Toshack in the red of Liverpool in the ’70s, Ian Rush in the red of Liverpool in the ’80s, and Ryan Giggs in the red of Manchester United throughout the ’90s, noughties and whatever we’re calling this decade. Today, the likes of Aaron Ramsey at Arsenal, Gareth Bale at Tottenham and Joe Allen at Liverpool are poised to continue that tradition.

The problem for Wales as an international football side has been that, in every generation, those two or three world-class players are surrounded by honest, hard-working yeoman from the lower leagues.

England has the equal and opposite problem to Wales — with a population of 53 million, England has always had a sufficiently large player pool to produce solid international football sides composed of players from the top-tiers of Europe’s best football leagues, capable of consistently qualifying for major tournaments and getting past the group phase. But, England has been unable to consistently make the semi-finals and finals of major tournaments. They have only won one major international tournament — the 1966 World Cup.

One theory for England’s inability to consistently contend to win major tournaments is the absence of one or two truly world-class players who make the difference at the top level. This theory is supported by the historical fact that English clubs have consistently contended for the European Cup and those who have done so have typically had the requisite handful of world-class players, but they have often been of a non-English, British nationality — George Best (Northern Irish), Denis Law (Scottish) and Ryan Giggs (Welsh) at Manchester United; John Toshack (Welsh), Ian Rush (Welsh) and Kenny Dalglish (Scottish) at Liverpool; John Robertson (Scottish and pudgy-looking but brilliant at football), Martin O’Neill (Northern Irish) and John McGovern (Scottish) at Nottingham Forest.

To add an extra layer to an already enticing Indonesian layer cake of irony, the handful of world-class footballers produced by Wales in every generation have often occupied the very positions in which their contemporary England sides have been deficient — in the 90s and 2000s, it was Ryan Giggs on the left-wing, nowadays, one could point to Gareth Bale on the left as well as Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen as tidy, efficient ball-retaining distributors in central midfield.

A combined England and Wales football team would appear to offer a cure for both nations’ respective perennial ills — England would get a sprinkling of Welsh stardust and Wales would get a solid squad to sprinkle their stardust onto.

But, it will never happen. In football, the separate identities of the four home nations are too well-entrenched to ever admit the possibility of a permanent union between any two or more of them.

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By contrast, in cricket, England and Wales have always combined to form one international side, although the team’s name in all the official records is “England”, the team is always referred to as “England” (never “England and Wales”), the team’s coat of arms is the three lions and the commonly used acronym for the governing body is the “ECB”, despite the ECB’s full name being the England and Wales Cricket Board.

Scotland is an entirely different matter. In cricket, Scotland fields its own separate and independent international team and for the purposes of International Cricket Council (“ICC”) and ECB rules and regulations, Scotland is regarded as a country separate from and independent of England, and Scottish cricketers are, with the obvious exception of their automatic satisfaction of the disjunctive threshold requirement for a British passport, treated as foreigners in terms of their eligibility to play cricket for England.

In cricket, Ireland, like Scotland, fields its own separate and independent international team. Because the relevant ECB regulation governing qualification to play cricket for England treats an Irish passport as equivalent to a British passport (despite Ireland not being part of the UK, having gained independence on 6 December 1921), broadly, in terms of legal eligibility to play cricket for “England”, Irish cricketers are treated the same as Scottish cricketers — even though Scotland is part of the UK, whereas Ireland most definitely is not — and both Irish and Scottish cricketers are treated less favourably than Welsh cricketers who are treated exactly the same as English cricketers.

The “Ireland” cricket team unites Northern Ireland (which is part of the UK) and Ireland (which is most emphatically not part of the UK). This unified status could not be more different from football, where the continued existence of separate Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland national teams remains an unfortunate lightning rod for sectarian tensions. Some still see the Northern Ireland football team as representing Protestants in Northern Ireland and continued political and economic union with the UK.

In 2000, a Northern Irish Catholic midfielder named Neil Lennon moved from Leicester City to Celtic Football Club. By that stage, Lennon had, as he later told The Guardian, already “represented my country [Northern Ireland] 36 or 37 times and … enjoyed the full support of our fans.” That all changed after he joined Celtic, the club seen to represent Irish Catholics. Lennon explained: “Now I was aware of being jeered by our own supporters every time I touched the ball.” In 2002, when he was due to captain Northern Ireland for the first time, a death threat was made. Lennon quit international football.

Yet, in international cricket and rugby union, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are able to unite to form a national team called “Ireland”, without any such sectarian problems. And cricket and rugby union — two sports played predominantly in the former colonies and dominions of the British Empire — arguably have a much more pronounced British imperial hue than football, the game played in every corner of the globe.

In international rugby union, there are normally four separate national teams in the British Isles — England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland (which combines Northern Ireland and Ireland). However, every four years, a special team, bringing together the very best players from those four otherwise separate rugby nations, is selected to tour one of the three southern hemisphere powerhouses of international rugby, South Africa, New Zealand or Australia.

This team’s full name is the British and Irish Lions. They have a rich and proud history which stretches back to 1888 and they are an enormously successful commercial brand. They are sometimes called “the Lions” for short, although they are also frequently (and erroneously) referred to by fans and the media as the “British Lions”.

Despite these quasi-Freudian slips, many Irish players have proudly and successfully played for the British and Irish Lions — indeed, several of the Lions’ recent superstars such as Brian O’Driscoll, Keith Wood and Ronan O’Gara have been Irish — and Irish rugby fans have travelled abroad in large numbers to support the Lions, although, unlike their English, Welsh and Scottish counterparts, a small number of them choose not to wear the red Lions jersey, instead donning the emerald green of Ireland.

Red, of course, was the colour worn by the soldiers of the British Empire, the very political entity that what is now Ireland fought in a bloody war of independence which ended with Ireland gaining independence from the UK by treaty on 6 December 1921. During the Second World War, Ireland stayed officially neutral, even going so far as to refer to the war as “the Emergency”. To this day, Ireland is neither a member of the Commonwealth nor NATO.

In light of the difficult historical relationship between Britain and Ireland, one might think that the continued inclusion of players born and bred in Ireland in the Lions team might cause something of a ruckus with fans, players, administrators and/or the media somewhere in the British Isles.

It doesn’t.

It’s not an issue.

Chalk this down as one of the many impenetrable mysteries of national identity in the British Isles.

Nonetheless, the fact remains that Ireland is an independent country which is entirely separate from the UK and that, in turn, poses the dilemma of what national anthem the British and Irish Lions should sing before games.

The solution is both elegant and apolitical — no national anthem is played for the Lions, instead they stand in a line with each player placing his arms over the shoulders of his teammates next to him in a silent display of unity.

Thus, the Lions — who represent a collection of nations who are not unified in a single political entity — have simply gone one step further than Spain — a nominally politically unified nation that is comprised of a disparate collection of different cultures and ethnicities, some with their own languages — which opts for a national anthem without lyrics.

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In individual sports, such as tennis, cycling and formula 1, British participants compete under the British flag and, insofar as a national team for international competition is called for, the relevant team is called Great Britain.

So, when Andy Murray, a Scot, plays tennis at grand slams, his country is listed as Great Britain, and when he plays Davis Cup, the national team he represents is Great Britain. Early in his career, Murray was asked who he’d be supporting at the 2006 football World Cup (Scotland failed to qualify) and he flippantly replied: “Whoever England are playing, ha, ha.” His tongue-in-cheek remark didn’t go down too well in Middle England.

Murray learnt his lesson from that early storm. Since then, he’s taken to draping himself in the Union Jack at every available opportunity, especially at Wimbledon time.

Team GB’s flag bearer at the London opening ceremony was a Scotsman born and raised in Edinburgh, Sir Chris Hoy, a then four-time Olympic gold medallist track sprint cyclist and already an officially minted British hero. By the conclusion of the London 2012 Olympics, Sir Chris was a six-time Olympic gold medallist and Team GB’s most successful Olympian of all-time.

Oddly enough, when both Murray and Sir Chris won gold in glorious fashion in London, the final verse of the UK’s national anthem, God Save the Queen, was not sung at their medal ceremonies:

Lord grant that Marshal Wade
May by thy mighty aid
Victory bring
May he sedition hush
And like a torrent rush
Rebellious Scots to crush
God save the King

Ironically, the lyrics to Rule Britannia, the unofficial anthem of the British Empire, were written by a Scot, James Thomson.

Fortunately, the Stella McCartney designed Team GB tracksuits were, whether intentionally or not, a tad more friendly towards Scottish national sensitivities, embodying a sleek “Blue Steel” look which featured the Union Jack, but sans the colour red from the St George’s Cross (the national flag of England). Indeed, if Alex Salmond, the leader of the pro-independence Scottish Nationalist Party, tilted his head left slightly, he could’ve blissfully imagined that he was looking at a pair of Scottish Saltires superimposed on top of one another, rather than the Union Jack.

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If all of the above sounds peculiar, anachronistic and downright inconsistent, well, that’s because it is.

And, yes, the next time someone raves to you about London 2012, you can inform them that the home team’s name was technically wrong.

But, when it comes to the mysteries of nationality and nationhood in the British Isles, tread carefully and when — not if — you eventually make an erroneous statement on the subject, you can at least console yourself with the knowledge that even some of history’s greatest Britons got it wrong occasionally.

The Beatles’ A Day in the Life, first released in 1967, refers to “the English army”, which had not existed as a separate and independent entity since 1536.

Before the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, Vice-Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson, famously signalled the British fleet, “England expects that every man will do his duty” — even though the Acts of Union forming the United Kingdom of Great Britain were passed in 1707 and the British warships were flying the Union Jack!

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To recap: England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland all play international football as separate and independent nations. And each of those five nations zealously protects its independence.

But, in international cricket, the English and Welsh happily play together as “England”, the Scots play by themselves and the Northern Irish and Irish play together as “Ireland”.

As far as international rugby’s concerned, the Welsh would sooner elect a sheep to parliament than unite with the English in one national team, and, most of the time, England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland (which combines Ireland and Northern Ireland) play as four separate nations; however, every four years they happily unite to form the British and Irish Lions and go off and attempt to conquer one of the southern hemisphere colonies, wearing the red of the British Empire.

When it comes to individual sports, such as the Olympics, the English, Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and even Channel Islanders, generally compete under one and the same flag — that of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

All of them — English, Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and miscellaneous Channel Islanders — will happily and bravely fight alongside one another, under the same flag, for the same regent, in times of war: from the beaches of Normandy to the jungles of Malaya to the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan today.

Just, um, don’t ask them to play international football together.

Rational Expectations: A Tale of Two Lucases

January 20th, 2012 SB Tang No comments

Saturday the 22nd of November 2008. Liverpool lie second in the league, behind Chelsea only on goal difference. The afternoon’s fixture is a home game against Fulham, a side sitting mid-table who have collected just one point on the road all season. Thirty-five minutes pass and it is still 0-0. A young Liverpool midfielder receives the ball, plays a poor pass and loses the ball. His name is Lucas Leiva. The crowd’s response is instantaneous: a chant of “Xabi Alonso” rings out across the ground. The match finishes 0-0. Lucas, just 21 years of age, trudges off the pitch to a most peculiar sound — a chorus of boos. The Anfield faithful, famed for their patience and loyalty, are booing one of their own.

Sunday the 15th of May 2011. Liverpool’s final home game of the season ends in a 2-0 defeat to Spurs. After the game, Lucas is presented with a Golden Samba by the influential fan site Red All Over the Land to commemorate his victory, with an extraordinary 75 per cent of the vote, in their player of the season poll.  A packed Anfield cheers at the very sight of Lucas. After accepting the award, Lucas, with his baby boy cradled in his arms, walks along the edge of the packed stands to graciously accept the adulation of the delirious crowd, like an American President working a rope line after a glorious, landslide election victory. Nine days later, Lucas is crowned Liverpool’s official Player of the Season for 2010–11 after winning an astonishing 40 per cent of the 129,774 votes cast in the official fan poll.

It is the most remarkable of turnarounds.

But why was the Anfield crowd booing Lucas in the first place and was it justified? How did Lucas manage to win a seemingly impossible case in the once hostile court of fans’ opinion? What is the explanation for such a radical change in collective opinion?

The answers to these questions have as much to do with expectations as actual performances.

When Lucas arrived at Liverpool in the summer of 2007 for £5m, he was arguably the best-credentialed young midfielder in South America. As a 20 year old, he had just led Gremio to the final of the Copa Liberatores and become the youngest ever winner of the Bola de Ouro award for the best player in the Brazilian National Championship. The four preceding winners of the coveted award read as follows: Carlos Tevez, Robinho, Alex and Kaka. Lucas captained a Brazilian U-20 side containing Pato to victory at the 2007 South American U-20 Championship, scoring 4 goals, including the opener in the title-clinching 2-0 win over Colombia, along the way. With a CV like that, it was little wonder that Liverpool had to beat the likes of Inter Milan in order to secure his signature.

Naturally then, the general expectation amongst Liverpool fans was that Lucas would be an attacking force. At the very least, he was expected to deliver assists and goals. Moreover, as a highly-rated young Brazilian attacking player moving to an English club, he was subject to the perception, widespread in the English-speaking world, that he would play in a style similar to that exhibited by the likes of Kaka, Robinho and Ronaldinho who are distinguished by their exquisite touch and technique, and their ability to dribble at pace and beat defenders.

However, the reality is that at Gremio and for the Brazilian underage national sides, Lucas played as a box-to-box central attacking midfielder with a licence to rumble forward. He had many virtues: he knew when to time his forward runs; he scored goals; and like all modern Brazilian central midfielders, he had a phenomenal engine and a terrific work-rate. Technically, he was solid, but he was never a playmaker or a dribbler. He was a completely different style of player to that which many Liverpool fans expected. Bryan Robson would have been a more appropriate analogue for Lucas than Kaka. The trouble is that many fans expected the latter.

Accordingly, even before Lucas had kicked a ball for Liverpool, he was subject to the expectation that he would be something that he is not and never was, namely, a Kaka/Robinho style player. Once he arrived at Liverpool, this gap between expectation and reality was widened by his deployment in a position in which he’d never previously played, requiring him to both change his style of play and learn new skills, all whilst taking the place of one of two regulars who had spent a lifetime in that position.

For the bulk of Lucas’s early Liverpool career, Rafa Benitez favoured a 4-2-3-1 formation. In such a system, there were only three positions which a career central midfielder such as Lucas could conceivably fill — the two deep-lying midfield berths (occupied by Alonso and Mascherano) in front of the back four and the central attacking midfield position (occupied by Gerrard) in the bank of three behind the lone striker.

The problem for Lucas was that each of those positions was occupied by a world-class player with a particular style and peculiar strengths which Lucas did not necessarily share. Mascherano was one of the best pure stoppers in the world. Alonso was a deep-lying playmaker with the technique and tactical awareness to both elegantly stroke 30 yard passes and diligently perform his defensive duties. Gerrard was an all-out attacker with a scoring record which put most strikers to shame.

Lucas did not have the technique and passing ability required to function as an Alonso-style regista. Having spent his career up to that point as a box-to-box attacking midfielder, he did not yet have the tackling technique or positional know-how required to effectively play the Mascherano pure stopper role. He was probably best suited to the central attacking midfield role but he could not play there because, well, that’s Gerrard’s position. And he most certainly could not occupy one of the two wing positions — he was born and raised in a country where wingers are long extinct.

On the infrequent occasions when Lucas did get the chance to start, it was typically as a holding midfielder in place of Mascherano or Alonso — that was the case that chilly November afternoon against Fulham as Benitez opted to rest Alonso, a man in the form of his life. Lucas struggled in a new and unfamiliar position. He did not seem to know how and when to tackle or where to position himself as a holding player. He picked up a lot of yellow cards and gave away unnecessary free-kicks in dangerous positions. He struggled to move the ball out of defence, often passing the ball sideways and/or backwards rather than forward.

During this difficult early period in Lucas’s Liverpool career, it was difficult to see what, exactly, his strengths were, but, even then, they were visible if one looked hard enough — pace, stamina, work-ethic, mental fortitude, reservoirs of self-belief and crocodile-thick skin. Unfortunately, much of the time, he employed these abilities to run around like a headless chook making poorly-timed and awkward-looking challenges.

So, yes, some of his early performances in a Liverpool shirt were objectively poor and, like any player who delivers such performances, he was fairly criticised as a result. But the criticism of Lucas, as the Fulham game example above illustrates, went much further than this. Even at a club as successful as Liverpool, there have been many players who have performed poorly — it happens, even when players giving it their all. Names such as Djimi Traore, Igor Biscan and Jan Kromkamp spring to mind as obvious examples. None of them were booed by their own home fans like Lucas was.

So performances alone, no matter how objectively poor, cannot fully explain the vehemence of the criticism directed at Lucas.

The answer can be found in the theory of rational expectations — the simple-sounding but powerful idea that people’s behaviour is determined by their present-day expectations of the future and those expectations are formed by people constantly updating and reinterpreting all available information.

When Lucas first arrived at Liverpool, many fans expected the new Kaka; instead, they got what initially looked like an undersized, wannabe Gattuso trying to fill the boots of the world’s best deep-lying playmaker. Hence, the depth of their disappointment which in turn fuelled the vehemence of their criticism. By contrast, with respect to the likes of Traore, Biscan and Kromkamp, the fans never expected very much in the first place and hence were not especially disappointed when they delivered very little.

So, with respect to Lucas, what’s changed between then and now?

The short answer: newly available information has caused fans’ expectations to adjust in a rational fashion.

Initially, fans had very little empirical data on Lucas (because Brazilian football is not widely televised in the UK), therefore, mistaken expectations, perhaps better described as stereotypical perceptions, were formed. People acted on the basis of these mistaken expectations: this explains the Fulham game. However, as time has passed, Lucas has played more and more games as a holding midfielder in a Liverpool shirt following the departures of Alonso and Mascherano, allowing the fans to gather more empirical data on him. They have seen him improve as he has learned to adapt to a new and unfamiliar role by both applying his pre-existing strengths (for example, his mobility and work-rate) to that role and working to acquire the additional abilities required to excel in that role, most notably, a vastly improved tackling technique and quicker, more incisive distribution. All this new information has been taken into account by the fans and expectations have adjusted accordingly.

Now, rational expectations align with reality — the fans expect and receive one of the most effective holding midfielders in the Premier League. Fittingly then, it was another Lucas, a Professor Robert E Lucas Jr of the University of Chicago, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics for “for having developed and applied the hypothesis of rational expectations”.

Looking forward, the rational expectation now is that Lucas, already an outstanding stopper, can and should get even better once he recovers from his knee injury. In acquiring the defensive steel required to succeed in the holding role he now fulfils with such distinction for both Liverpool and Brazil, Lucas had to shed the goal-scoring prowess he showed in his youth. If Lucas can somehow marry the defensive steel he has learned in England to the attacking powers he showed in Brazil (assuming that Kenny Dalglish and/or Mano Menezes give him the tactical freedom to do so), then he has the potential to become, not just one of the most reliable stoppers in England, but one of the best all-around midfielders in the world, a box-to-box colossus who combines the defensive acumen of Busquets with the attacking verve of Gerrard.

The Least Worst of a Mediocre Bunch vs The Greatest of All-Time?

May 28th, 2011 SB Tang No comments

In a matter of hours, Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United will face a Barcelona side with legitimate claims to being the greatest club side in the history of the game. Since Pep Guardiola inherited the managerial reins in 2008, Barcelona have won three consecutive league titles, one Copa del Rey, the Supercopa de España, one UEFA Super Cup, the FIFA Club World Cup and one European Cup. Indeed, many Barcelona fans are adamant that, but for an ill-timed volcanic ash cloud late last season, they would be contesting their third consecutive European Cup final. And this comprehensive list of honours does not even include the two league titles and one European Cup won under Frank Rijkaard whose Barcelona team already featured current-day stalwarts Valdes, Puyol, Xavi and Iniesta — the former two as starters, the latter two as important squad members.

But it is the style of football practised by Barcelona in constructing this astonishing record which has sent purists and pundits around the world into paroxysms of joy. It is a style which marries the technical proficiency of pass-and-move to the athleticism of a hunt-in-packs pressing game — Barcelona do not only keep the ball like no other, they work their socks off to win it back the moment they lose it. This latter virtue is often forgotten by people entranced by Barcelona’s intricate, one-touch, tiki-taka passing, but it is no less important to their success than the aesthetically-pleasing passing which it enables. By first denying their opponents the ball, then increasing the velocity of their collective circulation of the ball to dizzying levels (the “passing carousel” which Sir Alex Ferguson famously referred to in the lead-up to United’s last European Cup Final encounter with Barcelona), Barcelona, as a matter of logic, make it extremely difficult for their opponent to get a foothold in the game, much less score the goal required to win a football match.

This style is the ultimate modern evolution of the Ajax Total Football philosophy brought to Barcelona by Rinus Michels and the once-and-always Philosopher King of Catalonia-Netherlands, Johan Cruyff, all those years ago and faithfully passed down to latter day disciples such as Guardiola, Xavi and Iniesta via La Masia. The traditional virtues of technical and tactical proficiency are allied to the modern virtues of speed, endeavour, fitness and stamina.

Personally, I enjoy Barcelona’s style of play, but I certainly do not subscribe to the broadly disseminated totalitarian view that everyone must do likewise. The selection of a style of play is ultimately a matter of taste and opinion. Provided that no laws, bodily limbs or fundamental moral precepts are being broken, there is no strict demarcation between “right” and “wrong”, merely a broad spectrum of justifiable opinions and certain well-established schools of thought. Barcelona’s style is my cup of tea but it doesn’t have to be yours. There are plenty of different types of tea out there and people are perfectly free to choose which is their favourite. That’s the beauty of football — and liberal democracy for that matter. Indeed, you may even prefer a bitter cup of Italian espresso with the likes of Helenio Herrera and Luciano Moggi.

Facing up to Barcelona, is a United side which, despite sealing the club’s record 19th league title, is still widely seen as a less-than-vintage-crop. It’d be easy to dismiss this United side as merely Ferguson’s third great United side minus Ronaldo and Tevez — a work in progress, a version 3.5 which has overachieved in the face of underwhelming opposition within England and one of the easiest European Cup draws in Ferguson’s long reign. But this would be unfair.

In England, United have been the least worst of a mediocre bunch of contestants — this is a true fact and various expressions of it are routinely cited to support the argument that this United side are somehow not deserving league champions. However, when you turn your mind to it, any such argument is a fallacy because all comparisons and all competitions in sport (and, indeed, in life) are relative — after all, you can only beat the opponents that you’re presented with. United were competing in the 2010–11 English Premier League season, not some academic Greatest Football Team of All-Time Cup. So the fact that they were the least worst of an admittedly mediocre bunch of contestants logically means that they were the best team in the league and, therefore, thoroughly deserving champions of that particular competition in that particular season.

Surely, it is United’s domestic rivals who are to blame for their many and varied self-induced problems — a competent but geriatric Chelsea side could barely win a game in the middle third of the season after their benevolent owner inexplicably and suddenly sacked an assistant manager who had done no wrong, a perennially young and promising Arsenal side choked again when the trophy-deciding games arrived in the New Year, Tottenham got distracted from the bread-and-butter of the league by their swashbuckling run in the European Cup in their first appearance in almost 50 years, and Liverpool were in crisis for the first two-thirds of the season following the seventh place finish gifted by Rafael Benitez in his final season in charge — not United for having the basic professional competence to take advantage of such mediocrity. United’s competence in the face of their domestic opponents’ gross incompetence merits respect, if not outright praise.

Even if one broadens the comparison to include past league champions, Ferguson’s United version 3.5, whilst having a higher-than-average number of substantive flaws, including but not limited to an atrocious away record, an at times plodding midfield and a Scouse superstar with a messiah complex who was a passenger (and a whiny, troublesome one at that) for the first two-thirds of the season, also have many of the annoying virtues associated with Ferguson’s league champions of the past — the ability to steal three points in broad daylight when playing like rubbish early in the season, ruthless flat-track bullying at home, a deep squad where someone always steps up when needed to effectively ameliorate out-of-form teammates’ poor performances and, most importantly of all, the ability to go up a gear for the big, trophy-deciding matches.

When one examines the broader political and economic context in which Ferguson was operating, this side fares reasonably well compared with Ferguson’s earlier United sides. Ferguson’s net spend since the departures of Ronaldo and Tevez has been surprisingly low compared with the tens of millions of pounds he was splashing out in the late 90s and early 2000s on the likes of Stam, Cole, Yorke, Veron, van Nistelrooy, Ferdinand and Rooney. By contrast, over the same period, Chelsea and Manchester City have continued to spend like drunken sailors.

Turning to tonight’s match, everyone it seems has an opinion on how Ferguson should tactically set up his side. Rumour has it that Ferguson has a surprise up his sleeve for the Catalans. No less an authority than Kenny Dalglish was quoted as saying, “I am sure Fergie has recognised some chinks in their armour.”

Well then, here’s my worthless, amateur opinion. The last time United played Barcelona in a European Cup final in 2009 they were overrun in midfield as the in-form Darren Fletcher was suspended and Carrick and Anderson failed to sufficiently harry the Barcelona ball carriers — even today, the latter two’s reputations amongst United fans have yet to fully recover from that night in Rome. The first priority for United then, must be to win the ball. Accordingly, Ferguson should play five in midfield. In terms of the composition of that midfield five, the preference must be for fast, mobile midfielders capable of snapping at the heels of the opposition ball-carrier thereby denying them space and time on the ball.

This means that there is only room for, at most, one less-than-mobile foot-on-the-ball playmaker in that midfield five — on current form, that spot would have to go to Giggs over an unlucky Carrick. Assuming that everyone Ferguson has named in his squad is match fit, the other four spots should go to United’s two fastest and strongest central midfielders (Anderson and Fletcher) whose job will be to harry and chase Barcelona’s midfield maestros, and two quick and strong wingers (Valencia and Nani) whose job will be to use their pace, stamina and skill to not only attack Barcelona’s defensive weakness at full-back (Dani Alves loves to bomb forward at right back and Puyol will be playing out-of-position at left back), but track back wherever possible.

If Ferguson plays two of Giggs, Scholes and/or Carrick, whether it be in a midfield four or five, United will get overrun in midfield as they typically have every time such a midfield has been faced with an opponent fielding two or more quick, mobile, hardworking central midfielders over the past few seasons. The prime example would be Liverpool who, despite their terrible league position over the past two seasons, have comfortably beaten United at Anfield by fielding two of Lucas, Mascherano and/or Spearing in central midfield.

The rest of the United starting XI picks itself — Rooney as the lone striker; Evra, Ferdinand, Vidic and one of the da Silva twins as the back four; and Van der Sar in goal.

Personally, as a Liverpool fan, I sincerely hope that Ferguson’s rumoured tactical surprise will be to include Hernandez in a 4-4-2 (or 4-4-1-1, depending on how you characterise it) and deploy the same XI he used to beat Chelsea in the quarter-finals, with Giggs and Carrick in central midfield. Nineteen plus four in one season would just be too much to bear.

Barcelona would make for satisfying executioners because the mere mention of the word “Barcelona” is sufficient to trigger, in even the most intelligent and well-balanced United fan (yes Joseph, I’m looking at you), an epic rant laced with the kind of jealousy and resentment more typically associated with schoolgirls than grown men. The reason for this is that Barcelona seeks to, and, as a matter of fact, does, occupy the same moral-philosophical space in the footballing world that United fans see as their exclusive domain — that of the guardian of the sacred flame of aestheticism. This kind of messianic philosophy is inherently exceptionalist in nature — if you are messianic enough to see yourself as the light of the footballing world, then you probably also believe that you are the only true light.

Therefore, in the eyes of United fans, Barcelona with their tiki-taka style, are intruding into their exclusive philosophical domain by attempting to propagate the same set of aesthetic values to largely the same global audience. It is a simple case of two exceptionalists stepping on each other’s toes and, more specifically, one exceptionalist comprehensively surpassing another who was there first — not dissimilar really to the growth of anti-Americanism evident in France over the past century as the US has taken what the French intelligentsia see as France’s rightful place as the self-anointed light of the world.

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What’s Torres Thinking?

January 31st, 2011 SB Tang No comments

First, full disclosure — yes, I am a Liverpool fan.

Nonetheless, in the same way that, as a lawyer, I try (successfully, I hope) to provide the same logical analysis of the merits of their case to clients regardless of my personal feelings towards them, the words which follow constitute my honest, good faith attempt at a rational and dispassionate analysis of the Torres transfer saga unfolding before our very eyes.

I have only two points to make.

Firstly, assuming that his motive is to win major trophies, the proposed move to Chelsea is not in Fernando Torres’s own best interests. It will not increase his chances of winning the league or the European Cup. Chelsea are currently 10 points adrift of league leaders United with an inferior goal difference. They have spent the past several months sliding inexorably down the league table. Their best players are all the wrong side of 30 — Drogba, Malouda, Lampard, Anelka and Terry. Lampard (32 years of age) is two years older than Gerrard (30 years of age). Luis Suarez is 24 years of age, whereas Didier Drogba is 32 years old and practises a style of play which relies heavily on speed and strength — the kind of physical virtues which deteriorate most with age.

Chelsea are not financially self-sustainable — in the absence of Mr Abramovich’s cash and propensity for converting interest-free loans into equity, they would be in deep financial trouble. But, Chelsea fans protest: Mr Abramovich is not going anywhere anytime soon, so the risk of their club financially imploding is minimal. Such an opinion is based on a rosy assessment of the political situation within Russia. However, the truth is that all political assessments are inherently uncertain, particularly where they concern a nation which has a recent history as traumatic as Russia’s. I live in Moscow. I sincerely hope that Senor Torres is aware that Moscow has suffered no less than eight major terrorist attacks over the past decade. So he should think very carefully before he places all his eggs in the basket labelled “Abramovich”.

By contrast, Liverpool have just been purchased by John W Henry’s New England Sports Ventures. Mr Henry has been one of the most successful owners (both on and off the field) in American sports over the last decade, breaking the Boston Red Sox’s 86-year Curse of the Bambino whilst maximising internally-generated revenue. He made his fortune legally via hedge funds. His teams are financially sustainable. His assets are not at constant risk of seizure by the state. He has just authorised the acquisition of one of the most highly-rated young strikers in Europe.

Secondly, as much as it pains me to say it, the available evidence demonstrates that Torres’s personal conduct, even in this modern day and age, is morally questionable at best, and downright dishonest at worst.

During Torres’s three-and-a-half year stay at Anfield, he took every opportunity to not only reiterate this appreciation, but pledge his love of, and fealty to, the club and its fans.

In a January 2009 interview with The Daily Mail, Torres declared (emphases added):

Liverpool is a massive club in reputation, but as soon as I came here it felt like Atletico to me. … I had many offers in football, I had many big clubs to choose from, so I decided on something more than football.

The people here, the history, the way everybody comes together, I looked at that and I thought we have the chance to make this one of the greatest clubs in the world, again.

Now I feel Liverpool is my English club, the way Atletico is my Spanish club. I would not like to play for another English or Spanish club. This feeling is very important to me.

In October 2009, Torres told The Guardian (emphases added):

One of the reasons I chose to come to Liverpool was because of the mentality of the club. It’s a working club and a working city. I don’t know why but I feel like one of the people here.

It is so important for me to get my first club medal with Liverpool

When asked in a November 2009 interview with The Telegraph whether he was at Anfield to stay, Torres replied: “Who knows. But for the next four years, yeah. Deffo.

For the avoidance of doubt, on 9 January 2011, Torres stated (emphasis added):

More than ever, we need to stick together. We must live in the present, from match to match.

We need to add more points, win matches and improve our standing in the table. That is our challenge and I demand the total help of our supporters in doing that.

My head is in Liverpool and on helping save our season. I am professional and I always fulfil my deals. I haven’t considered leaving, although in football that depends on the club.

These comments are entirely inconsistent with his submission of a transfer request less than three weeks later.

My first moral proposition is a simple one — if you want to leave, fine, but at least be honest enough to admit it and, if you can’t do that, at least have the decency to not say that you want to stay. In short, please don’t lie.

My second moral criticism relates to the timing of Torres’s transfer request. Instead of submitting his transfer request last summer, early this January transfer window or early next summer, Torres chose to submit his transfer request a matter of days before this transfer window closes. I am assuming that he is an intelligent young man. Therefore, he would be aware that by submitting his request at the last minute, he is depressing his own transfer value (and inflating his own wages) and denying the club full compensation and the reasonable opportunity to find a replacement.

The last minute nature of his transfer request means that there is only one bidder — Chelsea. If he’d submitted his transfer request last summer, early this January transfer window or early next summer, there would be multiple bidders — Manchester City, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Inter Milan at the very least. It doesn’t take a PhD in economics from MIT to work out that:

  • multiple bidders = higher sale price; and
  • lower transfer price = more money for a player’s wages.

Finally, Senor Torres should keep in mind that, unlike Chelsea, Liverpool is a club with a rich history and deep support, not only in England but all around the world in places like South Africa, Singapore, Australia, Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. I would advise Senor Torres against taking any extended trips to any of these destinations in the near future. Indeed, Spain, west London and the Tverskaya region of Moscow might be about the only places where he’ll be welcome for the foreseeable future.

My two cents is that if Ronaldo is worth £80 million and Ibrahimovic €69 million (plus Samuel Eto’o), then £35 million for Torres is laughable. Liverpool should hold out for at least £60 million, even if that means having to wait till the summer to sell him. In the meantime, it’d be in his own interests to play well to make himself a desirable acquisition for suitors. And if he doesn’t play well, benching him for a couple of months is unlikely to significantly adversely affect his transfer value given his achievements over the past three to four years.

Now that Torres has unequivocally stated in writing that he doesn’t want to stay, no efforts should be wasted on trying to convince him to stay long-term. However, the club must ensure that it gets, at minimum, fair market value for a striker who is still just 26 years of age (that is, younger than Ibrahimovic at the time of his €69 million transfer from Inter to Barcelona) and, unlike Ibrahimovic, boasts European Championship and World Cup winners’ medals and an exceptional Champions League goal scoring record.

If Torres wants to cynically treat Liverpool Football Club like a means to an end, then he will be treated like what he truly is — an economic asset owned by the club which will not be disposed of unless its sale price has been maximised in a public auction. Senor Torres should not easily forget that he works in the land which gave birth to the modern liberal market economy and now that he has shown his true colours, his departure should be treated dispassionately and rationally for what it is — the disposal of a valuable economic asset by its legal owner.

Luke Wilkshire Interview, Khimki, Russia, 23 November 2010

November 25th, 2010 SB Tang No comments

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to catch up with Luke Wilkshire of Dynamo Moscow and the Socceroos on Tuesday near Dynamo’s training base in Khimki on the outskirts of Moscow. Luke was kind enough to wait for me as Google Maps uncharacteristically led me in the wrong direction on my trek out there and, upon my arrival, I proceeded to make an arse of myself as I struggled to operate the hi-tech dictaphone I borrowed from my law firm. Many thanks to Luke and his agent, Darren Jackson of Inspire Sports Management, for agreeing to the interview and for being so generous with their time and to my current employers, Linklaters, for allowing me to use their dictaphone and to take the afternoon off to go meet Luke.

The full transcript of the interview is set out below:

SB Tang (“SBT”): World Cup 2010. First, congratulations on a great performance. We finished level on points with Ghana in a group also containing Germany and Serbia. Just going back to that opening match against Germany. How did the players feel about the way that we were tactically set up — was there any frustration after the result?

Luke Wilkshire (“LW”): No, of course, there was frustration and disappointment — we lost 4-0 in the opening game. We thought that we can do a lot better than that and we can. Had we played at our full potential, I’m sure we would have gotten a better result. But, you know, it is what it is. That’s football. It doesn’t always go to plan. And it was a bad night for the Socceroos that night.

SBT: But to us at home, it actually seemed that the lads played pretty well, but the tactics …

LW: I think I’d say that a lot of people back home can sit on their sofas and see things and make their own judgments and opinions on things. The players were comfortable knowing that we played the system that we played. We knew our jobs, but we didn’t stick to it. The early goal rattled us a little bit. I think that did shake us because we had started the game reasonably well — we had a couple of good chances. But, I mean, I wouldn’t talk tactically. Pim did a great job with us. Everyone knew our roles. We qualified for the World Cup with an amazing record so I don’t think that [ie tactics] is any kind of excuse at all.

SBT: In the second phase of Asian qualification we didn’t concede a goal in a live match so …

LW: Yeah, you know, we learnt a lot under Pim. How to perform, not just in one-off games, but over the course of many games and that’s what it’s about. Going away to difficult places in Asia and to be able to get a result like we did. It took a lot of tactics. Very smart play. And, I think, Pim guided us very well through that.

SBT: Second game against Ghana. Going a goal up early, then went down to 10 men later in the first half courtesy of some strange referring. But full credit to you guys, you bossed the game with 10 men and the score at 1-1, particularly in the second half, and you played a big, big part in that. You swung in a great cross for Scott Chipperfield who headed over seconds after coming on as a sub. And you had that shot saved when you were one-on-one with the keeper. I have to ask — do you still think about that shot?

LW: Nah, only when someone mentions it — obviously I try not to!

SBT: Yeah, sorry!

LW: That’s alright, there goes my confidence for the weekend’s game. I’ll boot it up next month!

SBT: But I think The Australian, The Age and The World Game said that you were the man of the match so …

LW: Yeah, we played well — the response from the players was brilliant as you’d expect from our team and as we expect from each other. It was disappointing, the result, obviously. We didn’t have a great deal of luck throughout the whole World Cup in regard to decisions. Sometimes, you need a little of luck, especially at the top level, you need a break every now and then. And we didn’t get it. Again, that’s football, you gotta get on with it.

SBT: I was in London at the time and I think the word used by all the London papers after that match was “brave”.

LW: Yeah, you’re playing for your country and it’s about making Australia proud. You want to make Australia proud — you’re there to represent your country. And I think all the Australian people I know, the people in the stadium were very proud and felt good about it — as did we, and that’s the main thing for us.

SBT: Well, you definitely did [do us proud], because the third game against Serbia, I was in a pub with a bunch of Australians at Wimbledon. We’d just stopped watching that marathon Mahut-Eisner match and we went out to a pub to watch you guys. We were going mental after you swung in a great cross from the right for Timmy Cahill to head home then Brett Holman put us 2-0 up with a screamer from 30 yards. At that stage, did you guys believe?

LW: Yeah, of course, we went into the game believing. There’s no point going on the pitch if you don’t believe that you can get a good result — of course we did. We knew it was going to be tough. We knew we were up against it but of course we believed. There’s just no point playing the game if you don’t believe.

SBT: It was a brilliant cross for that first goal by Timmy Cahill by … yourself …

LW: Yeah … I regularly make him look good!

SBT: Yeah, surely by this stage, that’s a rehearsed training ground move for us isn’t it — the cross to Timmy Cahill?

LW: Yeah, you gotta play to your strengths don’t ya — Timmy can’t kick a ball so put it on his head! Haha, you know, jokes aside, he’s great in the air. That’s our strength. Same with Joshua Kennedy when he’s there playing up front. You want to be getting crosses in because that’s gonna cause problems and there’s where we’re going to get goals.

SBT: I seem to remember that Timmy was being marked by Vidic in that match who’s meant to be one of the best aerial defenders in the world …

LW: Ah well, he can’t quite jump like Timmy!

SBT: Following the World Cup, Holger Osieck’s taken over from Pim Verbeek as Socceroos manager. Are you enjoying his slightly different, perhaps more attacking style of play?

LW: Ah, you know, look it’s still early stages since the new boss has come in. The players are starting to understand and get to grips with what he’s after. We’ve had some decent results in the beginning, aside from that Egypt game which was reasonably poor but that’s something for us to learn from. I must say that it was sad to see Pim go. I think everybody really enjoyed their time playing under him. But it’s a new era, it’s a new time and we hope for positive times under the new boss.

SBT: You mentioned the Egypt game. Firstly, nice block — you can’t do much about rebounds! But as it was just a friendly, was Osieck’s focus maybe more on the performance rather than the result in the lead-up to a big tournament in the Asian Cup?

LW: It’s a habit of winning. You want to be in the habit of winning. You always wanna win. Of course, performance is also important. But it was a good game for us to have — they’re a very good team. Difficult circumstances with players coming in 24 hours, 48 hours before a game. It’s always difficult, but like I say, it’s a disappointing result and it’s one that we put behind us now and we try to learn from it. I’m sure we’ll be evaluating it when we meet up before the Asian Cup. And then we move on because we got a big month of football coming up in January.

SBT: You mentioned the Asian Cup coming up in January — what’s the target for the boys?

LW: Look, we’re ranked number 1 in Asia and for a reason, you know, so expectations are going to be there again with the team. Rightly so but, ultimately, it’s down to us to go and make sure we perform to our level and if we do that then I think we can have a very successful tournament.

SBT: We’ve been grouped with India, Bahrain and Korea — so I’m presuming that Holger Osieck’s already given Carl Valeri a poster of Ji-Sung Park with a giant target sign painted over his head?

LW: Aaah, I don’t know about that!

SBT: Looking even further ahead to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. By then, most of the Golden Generation who formed the core of the 2006 and 2010 World Cup squads will be in their mid-30s. Timmy Cahill will be 34. Harry Kewell will be 35. You, on the other hand, will be a relatively sprightly 32. Looking at the XI who started against Japan in 2006, you may be the only one left — does that worry you at all?

LW: No, not really, of course, you know, that’s football — players retire and move on. Hopefully, between now and then, there’s going to be a lot of football played. There’s hopefully going to be a few more of the young up-and-coming players to really come and put a foothold in and try and challenge for spots in the team because it’s important. We’ve got a few at the moment, that have the talent, that are promising but there’s a big difference between a bit of talent and promising to being able to hold down a spot in the national team and to be able to perform at the top level.

SBT: You mentioned promising young players — the name on everyone’s lips right now is Tommy Oar. Have you had the chance to train and play much alongside him?

LW: Yeah, I’ve seen a bit of Tommy. He’s been in camp a few times. He’s definitely one — he’s definitely got a lot of talent and potential there. It’s up to him to take that talent and potential and to be able to develop into a real top player who can perform not only at international level but at club level first of all, to hold down a spot at his club, Utrecht, to be playing before you can expect him to step up into the national team and start performing on the world stage.

SBT: You mentioned those younger guys coming through, will you be looking to take on more of a leadership role with them both on and off the pitch as one of the senior guys?

LW: Nothing really changes for me — I’ve been around a long time now. It feels longer than it actually is! The team’s always good together and everyone helps everyone along, especially us older players with some of the young boys. It’s up to them as well, they’ve gotta be wanting to learn and to see and to take on things from the older boys.

SBT: Growing up in Wollongong, did you ever think that you’d be sitting in Moscow discussing representing Australia in a third successive World Cup?

LW: Nah, definitely not. I didn’t expect half the things that have happened in my life — you dream about it, but you don’t necessarily believe that they’re going to come true. But fortunately enough for me, it came true, and through a lot of hard work and determination and sacrifice, I can now say that I’ve been and done quite a bit of it. Hopefully, the journey’s still got a few more years left in it!

SBT: You mentioned hard work and sacrifice. When you first went to Europe, you went to Boro and then you moved to Bristol City in search of first-team action. They were then in the third-tier of English football. That’s maybe not the most obvious place to discover an international class footballer. So how did Guus discover you for the 2006 World Cup? Did he send out Johan Neeskens to watch you at Bristol City?  

LW: Nah, I mean obviously when he took over the national team I’d been around the national team already, not playing so much but I’d been in a lot of camps under Frank Farina and Graham Arnold. And then when Guus took over, in the first games, he wanted everybody, he wanted about 30 players — anyone who’d been involved in the national team he wanted to see for himself. He made his opinions based on what he saw with his own eyes in training camps and things, and that’s where I got my opportunity because he thought that I adapted and that I fitted well into the team structure.

SBT: And you really built on that, after the 2006 World Cup you moved to FC Twente in the Dutch Eredivisie. You had a brilliant 2 year stint with them — you helped them qualify for the Champions League for the first time in their history. How did that come about — moving to a club like Twente?

LW: Yeah, that was through Guus as well. He had a contact, a coach who was at Twente at the time, Fred Rutten — that made a good opening for me. It was ideal for me at the time. I had a great two years there. I still have many good friends there. It’s a great club. I really enjoyed my football there, there’s no doubt about it.

SBT: You must’ve been stoked for them when they won the Dutch title?

LW: Yeah, I was delighted for them. Like I said, I’ve got really good friends there who I still keep in touch with and see regularly. So I was really happy for them. I’ve often been asked if I wanna go back there, they’d like to bring me back. You know, maybe one day I’ll go and say hello to them again!

SBT: Yeah, they’re doing very well for themselves. They’re in the Champions League again this season. Just going back to Wollongong, did you and Scott Chipperfield know each other growing up in Wollongong?

LW: Nah, not until meeting up in the Socceroos.

SBT: Arsene Wenger has said that technical ability can only be acquired before a player hits their mid-teens. How and where did you and Scott Chipperfield, two of our most successful players, acquire your technical ability — are there secret underground futsal pitches in Wollongong?

LW: Ah, nah, I guess, the little bit of technique that I do have I got from my backyard with my brother. Haha, that shows how I little I got — nah, you know, I did a lot of work in the backyard with my brother!

SBT: I heard you being interviewed a few weeks ago by Russia Today about our chances of hosting the 2022 World Cup. How do you rate our chances given that we’ll be up against USA?

LW: Yeah, I think we’ve got as good a chance as anyone. We’ve got everything that anyone could want to host the World Cup. Our nation — the facilities, the people, the climate, everything’s there with the structure. I think it’d be fantastic for Australian football, for the Australian people to be able to host it. I think it’d be fantastic for the world of football for everyone to be able to come Down Under and experience a World Cup in Australia. Fingers crossed we get a good decision.

SBT: Yeah, shame about the time zone though.

LW: Yeah, compared to Europe the time zone’s not great, but to Asia it’s good. You can look at it in many different ways. I’m sure the FFA’s done everything they possibly can. Mr Lowy’s put his heart and soul into it and I really, really pray that we get a good decision.  

SBT: Yeah, I think the preliminary reports came back and we got graded really highly so touch wood.

LW: Yeah, like I say, it’d be a massive thing.

SBT: Final question — any plans to head home to the A-league in the distant, distant future, maybe even to a new Wollongong-based A-league team?

LW: Ah, who knows, at the moment, I’m here at Dynamo. I’ve still got a contract here at Dynamo for a few more years and I’m not really looking beyond that. I’m very happy here. And what comes after that, time will tell.

SBT: Thanks very much for your time.

LW: No worries. 

From Underacheivers to Overwhelming Favorites: What Could a World Cup Win Do for Spain?

June 16th, 2010 Joaquin Bueno No comments

As Spain prepares to take on Switzerland on Wednesday, the world is abuzz with anticipation.

Not only are Spain joint favorites with Brazil, but the tournament needs the Spanish team like a fish needs water. After one of the drabbest opening rounds in memory, fans everywhere are looking for reasons as to why things are so awful this time round. The long European season, the austral winter, the security concerns and the stress it creates, the ultra-defensive attitudes, and the worst ball in history that was still round: the Jabulani. Thanks, adidas, for a World Cup with no shots on goal.

The prospect of the Spanish team being true to its image, thus, serves as a necessary riposte from the otherwise disappointing level of play seen so far. The Spaniards seem to be on the rise, even considering their incredible record winning and unbeaten streaks, as well as their scintillating win at Euro 2008.

Having seen the Brazilians struggle to beat North Korea 2-1, the Spanish side brings a promise of a real jogo bonito. The coach, Vicente del Bosque, seems more than likely to be faithful to their image of artful prodigies of world football. Despite coming off the success of 2008, the 2010 squad is one that is still tremendously youthful and not bound to the stereotypical cynicism associated with defending champs who refuse to sacrifice anything in their bid to retain. With enough talent to build two squads, it is easy to forget that Spanish football itself is defined by its strict divisions, often with its bitter political roots.

In the case of this current squad, there is a strong base along the Real Madrid-Barcelona line, with as many as 9 starters featuring from these two banner teams. At the same time, there is also a significant infusion from other Spanish teams such as Athletic Bilbao and Sevilla, not to mention the small but brilliant British contingent in Torres and Fabregas. It is a team filled with Catalans and madrileños, with Basques from Guipúzcoa and Vizcaya, with stars from La Mancha and the Canary Islands.

This diversity of linguistic-ethnic groups has long been associated with an underperformance of the Spanish national team at big tournaments. However, Euro 2008 showcased a side that seemed to be driven much more by professional, global ambition, than by regional differentiation. The team was able to assembe around a single footballing language that made sense not only to them, but to the world.

Laurent Dubois, an avid football fan and historian at Duke University, speaks about the idea of football and the French empire in the 20th century, his study Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France culminating with a discussion of the impact of the World Cup triumph of 1998 on society and politics. Among other things, the triumph (and the run) of the epic ‘98 French team generated a maelstrom of political and social debate that went down to the bone of French identity.

The fact that the team was composed of an unprecedented mix of ethnic backgrounds, mostly descending from the French colonies, was a source of contention during their famous run. At the same time, the French victory created a platform for unification, in which the idea of France gloriously embraced post-colonial realities. A once homogeneous identity became multicolored, and under its figurehead Zinedine Zidane, son of Algerian immigrants, realized the possibilities of a truly race-less society.

And yet, Soccer Empire also brings up the question of how long such a feelgood moment lasts before society reverts to its previous patterns, moving on to other, perhaps more immediate concerns.

In the Spanish case, it would be fascinating to see how the politics of autonomous communites play out alongside the progress of the national team. What would happen to the vociferously separatist contingents from the Basque Country and Catalonia? More importantly, what would happen in terms of the public opinion of the masses who follow football, whose opinions are not always represented by their most vocal politicians even in areas with anti-Spanish nationalist ambitions?

Unification seems like a naïve ideal, especially in the context of what many will consider merely a sport, a diversion. Nonetheless, one cannot negate the reality that this sport is a phenomenon resulting from innumberable cultural conditions, and is an important part of the social fabric, occupying not just stadiums, but imaginations and everything that derives from that. Ideas about masculinty, sex, discipline, beauty, violence, and so forth, pass through and are perpetuated by the global game.

For the Spanish team, while we cannot predict the impact they will have on politics and society in general in Spain should they do well, we can certainly know for sure that a deep Spanish run will certainly bring the footballing public a great deal of joy.

Sweetness and Light: Football as Popular Narrative

April 25th, 2010 Bartleby No comments

One week last February, potential members of the English national football team took us through a highly maudlin, yet entertaining, narrative arc. John Terry – England’s then captain – tacitly admitted to cheating on his wife with, feasible World Cup teammate, Wayne Bridge’s girlfriend. Bridge, in turn very publicly denied Terry a handshake at the beginning of a match between their two club teams, Man City and Chelsea, presumably communicating a message of “thanks but no thanks” to a position alongside Terry on the World Cup squad to English trainer Fabio Capello. And Ryan Shawcross of Sunderland cried on the pitch after breaking the leg of young Arsenal hopeful, Aaron Ramsey, the day before he, himself, was to be named as Bridge’s replacement on the national team. All the while, a slight, well-dressed, Portuguese man was preparing to go to London, where he would beat up on a team that he admitted to being his own and then, post-match, would make vague claims about being “the chosen one”.

Few could argue that things in football’s home country have not gotten weird. Even fewer could argue  with the fact that we are finding ways to entertain, and communicate with, ourselves through this medium that span well beyond the importance of the final score of a match or the current standings in league tables.

While the common perception of popular narrative’s evolution is that it shifted from oral culture to the written word with the invention of the Gutenberg Press and the later massification of literacy, and from the written word to new media with the popularization of the Internet and digital mediums, this column will create a forum for articles that point to football as a simultaneous medium of all of the above, as we preserve, and entertain ourselves with, classic, massive, and ludic tropes and themes through the global game.

Press roundup: Messi can lead to divorce, Cristiano Ronaldo “greater than Messi,” England looks to the “clásico;” Dani Alves on life and literature

April 9th, 2010 Joaquin Bueno No comments
  • According to Barcelona’s SPORT, the appropriately named Bigboy Cheverevere, a South African football fan rushing back home to watch the Barcelona-Arsenal match, caused quite the spat when he arrived to find his stepsons watching something other than football. The ensuing melee resulted in the channel being changed and the police being called by his wife, Grace, who is intent on divorcing her Messi-obsessed husband.
  • Cristiano Ronaldo has unsurprisingly claimed that he is bigger than Messi. Indeed, he admits, he is not only taller, but wider than him.
  • The English Imperial Press, much like its Spanish Nationalist Cousins, are wont to admit that the accomplishments of another nation’s league could usurp their own. Though when it comes to the “clásico,” they won’t miss a moment to do some reconnaissance on their lesser continental neighbors. From the Guardian to the Times, a smattering of paraphernalia in preparation for Saturday’s Big One.
  • A curiously compelling interview with Brazil and Barcelona’s Dani Alves from The Guardian’s Man in Spain Sid Lowe, in which they discuss greatness, literature, and Wayne Rooney.

Stereotyping the African: 99 Days to a Change of Imagination?

March 4th, 2010 Joaquin Bueno No comments

An article by Jonathan Wilson in the Guardian today asks an interesting question for those of us who grew up in an era in which West African football was the realm of skilled artists such as Abedi Pele, George Weah, Roger Milla, and exciting teams like the “original” Nigerian Super Eagles who played swashbuckling, imaginative football. In a piece that starts out by discussing Egypt’s tactical formation (very interesting as well), he goes on to ask:

So where have Africa’s creators gone?

That then raises the issue of where the creators have gone; why west Africa has, in a generation, not produced a player like Jay-Jay Okocha or Abedi Pele. Okocha blames the attempt to impose discipline and adopt a “European model”, but that has not prevented European nations from producing gifted creators. Manchester United’s scout in Africa, Tom Vernon, who runs an academy in the hills above Accra, suggests that the fault lies partly with European clubs, who tend to have what he terms “the Papa Bouba Diop template” in mind. The African players who have succeeded in Europe in the past have usually been big and robust, and so clubs look only for something similar. Players called up by European clubs at a young age develop faster and have a higher profile, and so it is they who make it into the national team.

Indeed, a superficial survey of some of the West African players in leagues like the Premier or the Primera División of Spain will confirm this tendency; robust, very physical, big players often placed into combative roles. Think Essien and Mikel at Chelsea, Toure Yaya and Keita at Barcelona, Abou Diaby and Song at Arsenal, M. Diarra at Real Madrid, and so on. Even African players, like Drogba at Chelsea, who play in other positions seem destined to rely on their athleticism and power; in very few instances do you see a “creator” or creative midfielder from Africa.

Of course, fans of football are no strangers to stereotyping, often of racial nature, when it comes to players at the international and club level. In England, there are stereotypes of what nationalities will succeed and which ones won’t. In England and Spain, there is an obsession with West African hard-working midfielders, yet there are few Italians (though you will find West Africans in Italy). You see a crop of Brazilians in Spain yet they are seen as difficult to adapt to England. And so on and so on.

The idea, though, becomes interesting when one starts to wonder to what extent such ideas influence the way a team thinks of itself. There is no doubt that racism towards West Africa (and elsewhere) exists, that European clubs are looking for their “Makelele” or other player willing to do the unglamorous, slavish dirty work so that their starlets may thrive. But how does this affect the way a national team, for example, envisions its own football?

Manchester United’s scout, quoted in the article, readily admits that players in these African national teams are often in a hierarchy related to who plays abroad and where. When you have such an economic force as European club football drawing up players from Africa to play in roles determined by the European footballing imagination, what impact is that going to have on the national teams?

The scout, Tom Vernon, goes on to speculate that the way kids play on the street in Ghana might have something to do with it, as in his opinion playing on tiny pitches forces them to “play through the middle” and sacrifice creative wing play. Of course, anyone familiar with Brazilian football, to cite just one example, can write that off as nonsense. In Brazil, one can witness football being played just about anywhere there is flat ground, regardless of space. The greatest players from there have hailed from inner-city squatter ghettos where space is at a premium; it is precisely that lack of space that is a driving impetus for imagination and creativity.

In the case of Brazil, these players seem to transform when they put on their yellow jersey to be a part of the seleção; while the commentators during this upcoming World Cup might talk about the Brazilian footballing blood in their veins, I would say to think about the culture built into the minds of these players. Players of diverse racial backgrounds who are playing under the idea of being Brazilian, in a culture that deifies anything related to the supposed jogo bonito, the Brazilian “beautiful game.”

Naturally, anyone who has witnessed football under Dunga, especially in ‘94, knows that the Brazilian national game can be anything but beautiful, and that their best results are the fruit of grim determination, discipline, physicality, and efficiency even more than artistry. The Brazilian team of today emphasizes this even more clearly, as Dunga coaches them into South Africa.

For the African teams in South Africa in 99 days, success will be a measure of how well they can overcome the typecast images of themselves that dominate their football history. It will be a test of how this idea of hard-working journeymen playing on chaotic, disorganized African teams can be overturned and how new ideas can be formed. To the extent that these are external, cultural ideas, accumulated and enforced through the brutal economics of football, one can say that it will take something truly special to pull it off.

And yet, from time to time we see teams overcome the burden of history to change the course of their destiny. Most recently Spain, in 2008, overcame the “perennial overachievers” tag to capture their first senior international triumph in 44 years. Last summer, the USA very nearly pulled off a worldwide shockwave by going up 2-0 against feared and revered Brazil in the Confederations’ Cup final, before falling victim to their own tactical naïveté (though the second American goal will live long in my memory as perhaps the finest counterattacking goal I’ve ever seen).

For many (myself included), the first African World Cup will be a fascinating stage on which some of the dominant myths of international football could well be overturned. I, for one, wonder if it will be a time for players like Essien and Toure Yaya to break their shackles as huffing-and-puffing defensive midfielders and play to their true potential as creative, imaginative geniuses that I know they can be.

originally published at the Soccer Politics blog

Categories: Africa, European Football, World Cup Tags:

Anti-Spaniards for Spain: Irony, Terrorism, and La Roja

February 19th, 2010 Joaquin Bueno No comments

The whole army of Spanish media outlets has been splashed with this bit of news, regarding the facebook page of suspected ETA members–ETA being, for those unfamiliar with Spain, the Basque separatist-terrorist group responsible for thousands of acts of violence since their establishment during the Franco dictatorship. From sports dailies such as AS to Marca, to dailies such as El Mundo and even regional papers like La Voz de Galicia, most everyone had a shot at this piece.

The story stems from a photo on a facebook profile of one of the suspected terrorists, Jon Rosales, along with another suspected member, Adur Aristegi, in which both are wearing new Spanish national team jerseys and are posing with a third person also wearing the jersey. Underneath the image, a comment from Rosales saying “WE CAN DO IT” ["Podemos"].

The intrigue begins at the hour of deciding upon whom the joke has actually fallen. The mainstream media seems to interpret the situation as a one showcasing the comical ineptitude of modern-day ETA. The fact that terrorists would have facebook pages is being presented as a hallmark of the stupidity of the terrorists (though we really know that we should be suspicious of those amongst us who don’t have a facebook page).

I lament the fact that so many of the aforementioned media sources overlook the richest piece of evidence here: the photo itself. In it, the two suspects appear to be having fun–whether they are aware of their irony or not. Are they cheering for Xabi Alonso? Reveling in the glorious past of the Clemente era, when Spain were coached by a proud and impossibly red-faced chain smoker who happened to be Basque?

Javier Clemente, from AS.com

Those of us who remember the Clemente era will now light up in a frenzy of conspiracy theories. Maybe ETA long-ago penetrated the “Roja”in an attempt to sabotage Spain’s chances in the World Cup? Of course! That would explain Spain’s ignominious 1998 failure at the hands (literally) of Andoni Zubizaretta (cue similarities with Fabianski’s own goal yesterday). And the absence of Basques in the Euro 2008 starting lineup would explain why Spain did so well (though this aspect invites the possibility of a Catalan conspiracy to take over Spain through it’s tiki taka football).

Back to the photo: so are they being sarcastic here? If so, this is a pretty long way to go to be sarcastic. Walking into a store, befriending the clerk, trying on jerseys, all at the same time (what coordination!), hamming it up for the camera. It seems like one of those jokes that is intrinsically sick because it is more the playing out of a true fantasy than the dismissal of some idea (in this case, that Basque separatists could secretly love Spain).

And even more questions: did they actually end up buying the jerseys? (I wonder if ETA would fund such a thing in such economic times when the pirated versions are so much cheaper). Even more importantly, do ETA followers cheer for Xabi Alonso (a native Guipozcoan) when he plays for the national team?

Finally, it is worth mentioning one paper that didn’t include the news on the front page: Sport. Their headline: Guardiola wants to coach the national team. Which one? Well, Sport says loud and clear, he doesn’t say!

Guardiola in Sport

Guardiola in Sport

Coincidence or not: the people who arrested the ETA members were, of course, Catalans from the mossos, Catalunya’s regional, autonomous police force.

Discuss!

Categories: European Football, La Liga Tags: