The World of Soccer
Tuesday, September 29, 1998 Stay Tuned
For the last two years, a consistent, if unspoken, theme of this column has been that the soccer traditionalist sometimes is Chicken Little in shorts and shin pads, running around and crying that the sky is falling because a groundskeeper at an obscure club wants to mow the grass on the field in a different pattern. Even considering the smallest of changes in the most insignificant of traditions will inevitably lead to the death of soccer, the end of the world, and probably cavities.
Consider the Bosman rule. It was supposed to destroy European soccer. It merely changed it, for the worse in some ways, but also for the better. A few years back, a strong Manchester United team was eliminated from the European Cup because the old UEFA restrictions on foreigners forced it to bench some of its most important players for a decisive match against Barcelona, which duly won, 4-0. This month, without the restrictions, United and Barca played an exhilarating 3-3 draw in the European Champions-and-Selected-Also-Rans League. Under the old rules, half the players on the field would have been ineligible. Thanks to Jean-Marc Bosman and the European Court, they gave us one of the great games of the decade.
A common misconception is that soccer changes rarely, and slowly. In fact, the game as it is played today is radically different from that played 130 years ago, when English football split off into rugby rules and association rules. ("Association football," by the way, is the phrase from which we get the word "soccer" notwithstanding what any purist prig tells you about this alleged nouveau Americanism, it's more than a century old, and it's English to its very core. You might even say it's traditional.)
Back then, the dispute was over "hacking" the perfectly legal tactic of intentionally kicking your opponent in the shin. One camp wanted to ban it. The old-timers thought they were sissies. They said hacking was a cherished tradition of the game. Hacking was outlawed. The game survived. The game thrived.
A half-century later, the dispute was over offside the three-defender rule was artificially holding goals down to only nine or 10 a game. One camp wanted to reduce the number of defenders between an onside attacker and the goal to two. The old-timers thought they were radicals. They said defense was a cherished tradition of the game. The three-defender rule was changed. The game survived. The game thrived.
Thirty years later, the dispute was over television the brown ball was hard to see against the dark grass on black-and-white screens. One camp wanted to adopt a white ball. The old-timers thought they were communists. They said the brown ball was a cherished tradition of the game. The white ball was adopted. The game survived. The game thrived.
Then, the dispute was again over television viewers had no way to know how severely the referee was punishing a foul. One camp wanted the referee to flourish a yellow card for a caution and a red card for a sending off. The old-timers thought they were pandering. The omnipotent, imperial referee was a cherished tradition of the game. Cards were adopted. The game survived. The game thrived.
A simultaneous dispute was over substitution it was illegal, even for an injured player. One camp wanted to allow two substitutions. The old-timers thought they were aliens. Sucking it up and going the full 90 minutes was a cherished tradition of the game. Substitution was adopted. The game survived. The game thrived.
Now the dispute is once more over television its money and the control it exercises. A small camp of broadcasters wants to determine who will play whom, and when, and where. The great majority of players, administrators and supporters think they are money-grubbing suits blind to the cherished traditions of the game.
The broadcasters will probably win some or all of the control they seek.
The game will survive.
I am not at all certain that the game will thrive.
Certainly, Americans have reason to cheer the ascendance of the TV moguls. Their cable networks bring soccer-starved U.S. fans more games in a week than we used to see in a year. The ABC-ESPN contract will buoy Major League Soccer for several years. U.S. stars today can make real money from endorsements, allowing some of them to stay at home and play for American teams before American fans, rather than head overseas at the drop of a euro.
But whatever television touches, it inevitably alters, and frequently tarnishes. All those televised MLS games must finish in time for all those televised commercials ... hence the unforgivable abomination of the shootout. TV executive Silvio Berlusconi used AC Milan (team slogan: Forza Milano) as a political training ground, vaulting himself to the premiership of Italy (party slogan: Forza Italia). The dueling Mexican TV giants directly control the most glamorous teams, and they shuttle players back and forth from year to year to ensure that one of them wins the title.
So it should come as no surprise that good sources insist that Rupert Murdoch's company, on the verge of buying Manchester United, really has been negotiating to buy Japanese star Hidetoshi Nakata, without bothering to consult United's administrators and coaches. United does not need Nakata, who would likely wither in the reserves. But United is the most popular club team in Asia, and Nakata might mean an extra ratings point or two for the weekly satellite telecasts on Sky Sports Asia.
Nor should anyone be surprised that the campaign for a European "super league" lives on. The idea simply makes too much sense to the programmers. Competitive concerns are secondary.
Soccer has survived its previous changes and generally emerged stronger. That's because those changes were always honorably intended. Regardless of what one might think of expanded substitution or of changes in the offside rule or of crackdowns on tackling, the proponents of those ideas pushed them for the right reason: They sincerely felt the initiatives were needed to make the game better and more exciting.
You can't say the same about the wrenching transformations promised by Rupert Murdoch and his crew. They sincerely feel their initiatives are needed to improve Rupert Murdoch's balance sheet.
That ain't cricket. And it sure ain't soccer.
The U.S. showing at the World Cup painfully demonstrated the gap between the national team and its counterparts at the top of the game. The only sensible approach is that taken by the coaches of the world's national basketball teams, who lobbied to allow NBA stars into the Olympics. Even though they knew their teams would be crushed, they also recognized that the only way to catch up was to take their lumps and learn.
Similarly, the U.S. soccer stars of the future can never hope to play as well as the stars of Argentina and Brazil unless they actually play the stars of Argentina and Brazil. It's seemingly an obvious point, but the traditionally inward-looking U.S. establishment for decades drawn from youth and collegiate administrators who owed their positions more to politics than to accomplishments in the sport is conditioned to be suspicious of internationalizing the American game ... so much so that Contiguglia's rationale for stiffing the Copa America is that it would interfere with the Major League Soccer season.
Of course, far more established and prestigious leagues than MLS routinely work around major international tournaments inconvenience doesn't compel Germany to snub the European Championships, after all.
Contrast the U.S. standoffishness with the agenda announced last week by Enrique Borja, who as the new head of the Mexican federation is Contiguglia's counterpart to the south. The very first item on his five-point list is to reorganize the Mexican league season expressly to better accommodate the national team's international commitments. That's a significantly bigger headache for the Mexican soccer behemoth than it is for the United States; it is, nonetheless, Priority No. 1.
Fifth on Borja's list, by the way, is to improve the federation's public and media relations, a useful example for some of the pre-Alan Rothenberg us-against-the-world holdovers at the USSF who resented Rothenberg's great strides toward broadening the American view of soccer. But even Rothenberg is only one man, and it will take more than his single aggressive administration to haul the United States to within shouting distance of international respectability.
Of Course, Traditions Aren't Always Bad
For one thing, Spurs has always stood for attractive, technical soccer, while Graham is the ultimate exponent of defensive anti-soccer. But worst of all for Spurs fans is Graham's long association with Arsenal, the hated enemy.
There is nothing in American sports with which to compare the Spurs-Arsenal rivalry, certainly not since the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants themselves ancient crosstown champions of socially and economically antagonistic fan bases pulled up stakes and moved across the country 40 years ago. The closest American analogy for Spurs' hiring Graham would be if the Boston Celtics had up and signed Pat Riley during the Los Angeles Lakers' glory years.
One wonders whether Spurs' owner, computer magnate Alan Sugar, was listening to what his own fans were chanting at a recent League Cup match: "You can stick George Graham up your a**."
The last two years have been great fun, and I thank each and every one of you.