Monthly Archives: June 2014

Luis Suarez: The Rob Ford of Football

suarez fordHe is very, very, very sorry.  Lo siento.  It will never happen again.

Luis Suárez’ pseudo-apology for his bite on Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini is meant to placate the footballing world, but it doesn’t do the trick.  The Uruguayan should be on top of the world, but instead of topping a career season with Liverpool, the striker has had to deal with more of the controversy that follows him around.

As Suarez deals with his demons, so too does a man who has returned to the spotlight in the arena of politics.  Toronto mayor Rob Ford is back on the job today, after several weeks in rehab.  You can’t help but look at the two men’s situations and see the similarities.

Suarez doing what he does best: score.

Suarez doing what he does best: score.

Both are more famous for their behaviour than their job.   Most casual sports fans had never heard of Luis Suárez before the biting incident, or had forgotten about his brazen hand ball in the 2010 World Cup.  You’d be hard pressed to take a group of 100 people at a bar watching the World Cup and get them to tell you Suárez’ club team, or how many goals he scored for them this year.  But everyone remembers The Bite, played over and over and over again.

Rob Ford made Toronto a laughing stock the world over by admitting to smoke crack cocaine, bumping into cameras, and making a drunken ass of himself while clinging on to his vestiges of power.  But almost no one outside Toronto (and sadly, a majority of people in the city) know about his 10-year career as a city councillor, his stance on privatizing garbage collection, property taxes, etc.  He is simply Toronto’s Crack-Smoking Mayor.

The proof that sent the mayor to rehab

The proof that sent the mayor to rehab

They have serious problems.  Before you get upset that I am attempting to link drug and alcohol addiction to a serial biter, know this: any addiction expert will tell you the underlying issue for an addict is a mental anxiety, trauma or compulsive behaviour issue.  The person with these issues might lash out, they might overindulge, they might feel frustrated… but all of them engage in socially unacceptable and, frankly, harmful behaviours.  It is not the sign of a healthy person when a player — widely acknowledged as one of the top-five players in the world — lashes out in a base and animalistic way in front of hundreds of millions of people.

Rob Ford is the mayor of the fourth-largest city in North America.  He is in charge of a government that eclipses other provinces, states and even some nations in economic clout and influence.  Yet this is a guy who showed up at City Hall and in public as drunk as the proverbial skunk.  He was at the height of his power and then threw it away.

I’m sure that both men, when calm and collected, know their behaviour is wrong.  Yet in times of great strain and anxiety, both men act out in ways they know they will regret later.

Suarez consoled by Uruguayan official

Suarez consoled by Uruguayan official

Both are enabled by those closest to them.  When Ford first admitted to smoking crack cocaine, Toronto news station CP24 interviewed his mother and sister.   When pressed about his behaviour, his mother explained that her son had a weight problem, not a drug problem.   His sister also denied that Ford had a drug problem because she is  “a former addict” and she would know.  Before police found a video of the mayor using drugs, Ford and his brother, Doug, repeated until they were blue in the face (or in Rob’s case, very red) that everything was fine.

Suárez has also been enabled… by his club, by his national side, by the very nation he represents.   Liverpool bought him in January 2011, as he was coming off a suspension for his first biting incident.  In fact, LFC negotiated for him with Ajax Amsterdam while he was serving the suspension.  You’d expect the Uruguayan’s behaviour problems to devalue the player, but Liverpool ended up paying £22.5 million, a club transfer record at the time.  The next season, he was suspended eight matches for racially abusing Manchester United’s Patrice Evra.  Liverpool’s response was to have the team practice in Luis Suárez t-shirts, saying they believed Suárez, not Evra.   Eighteen months later, Suárez bit Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic , resulting in a 10-match ban.

Uruguayans are outraged by the latest Suárez ban because they love Luisito.  They love his never-say-die, win-at-all-costs mentality.  To them, FIFA has judged harshly because they believe that a player’s profile and accomplishments must be taken into consideration.  Basically, they believe there should be one set of rules for superstars and another for everyone else.  That is the very essence of enabling.

For months, Ford denied he had a drug problem

For months, Ford denied he had a drug problem

Both men and their supporters blame the media for their troubles. The fall back position of many a fallen public figure is to blame everyone but themselves, including the messengers.  Like so many other conservative politicians, the Fords initially blamed the crack video story on the left-wing media, who only wanted to smear the mayor’s good name.  When Rob finally admitted to the drug use, Doug attacked the media for pillorying his brother, saying he had simply “made a mistake” and asking why they couldn’t just leave him alone.

When the Suárez incident first happened, he denied it.  When he was banned, he denied it again.  His national team coach, Óscar Tabárez, cried conspiracy, saying that his star striker was a “scapegoat” who’d been punished because of pressure brought by “English-speaking journalists”.   When Suárez scored his two goals against England, he said that he felt vindicated for the way he had been treated by the English press over his previous biting and racism incidents.

Uruguayans have supported Suarez without question

Uruguayans have supported Suarez without question

Both men have populist support, despite their behaviour.  By now, Torontonians are sick of the over-used “Ford Nation”, an umbrella term for predominately white, older, working-class, conservative voters who live in Toronto’s suburbs.  Ford speaks to this group, continually claiming that he sticking up for the little guy against the downtown, fat cat elites (including the aforementioned media).  His behaviour (“Just having a few beers.”) and his apologies (“Who hasn’t made a mistake?”) have found traction in a group that sees themselves in him, drug problems notwithstanding.

Likewise, Suarez is revered by his compatriots…even his fellow continentals.  After this latest ban, Uruguay captain Diego Lugano called the punishment “barbaric”, saying Suárez’ human rights had been violated and that “not even a criminal would receive this penalty.”   Argentinian legend Diego Maradona — the Suárez of his day — compared the ban to being sent to Guantanamo Bay.   In a nod to his late predecessor’s extreme populist stances, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro invoked the spirit of Hugo Chávez by claiming that “all of South America” rejects the ban against “the son of the people”.  You can’t get much more people power than that.

A media circus has surrounded Ford... and City Hall

A media circus has surrounded Ford… and City Hall

Both men have bit the hands that feed them.  When Ford lied about his crack use, then later admitted it when confronted with video evidence, he eroded the credibility of all who had supported him.  His allies on council turned against him, leaving his own brother to sputter out half-excuses on behalf of his wayward sibling.  He hurt the reputation of his city and made those who had backed him look foolish.  He turned City Hall into a circus, bringing the business of government grinding to a halt as the spectacle played out day after day, week after week.  Local media missed big, but boring, stories in favour of tracking Rob Ford, awaiting another gaffe.  A politician with any sense of shame and duty would have bowed out.  But Ford doesn’t care about the city… he only cares about himself, and won’t let his remaining reins of power go.

Suárez has done no one any favours.  While he almost led Liverpool to its first Premier League title in almost a quarter-century, he has missed 34 matches for his two clubs since the infamous Ghana hand ball game at World Cup 2010, almost one full season out of four.   Despite Liverpool’s support, he sought to abandon the club last summer in favour of a move away.  First he wanted to go to Spain to “get away from England”, then he lobbied for a move to Arsenal… which obviously is still in England.  Meanwhile, for two straight World Cups, Uruguay has rued his suspensions that followed his bad behaviour.  Just as his national side could have used him against Spain in the 2010 semifinal, so too did they miss him against the surging Colombians on Saturday.   You get the sense that Uruguay’s time has come and gone… as their wait for another World title extends to 68 years.

Suarez' apology may have secured his move to Barcelona

Suarez’ apology may have secured his move to Barcelona

Both men have shown contrition at opportune times.   Over the term of his mayoralty, Ford has faced questions about being drunk in public, about assaults, and about drug use.  Each time he was confronted with a transgression, Ford denied…until he was confronted with evidence and overwhelming negative opinion.  Then, he apologized.  And apologized.  And apologized again.   We could have accepted his apologies if he hadn’t been so vicious in his denials, laying the blame elsewhere and threatening those who would think otherwise.  Yet, in the end, the journalists who exposed him have been vindicated, forcing Ford to back pedal.  When a second video came along, Ford finally went into rehab… if only to jump back onto the campaign trail when he finished.

Luis Suárez has also been contrary: he denied that he intentionally raised his hand to block a shot, until confronted with the video.  He initially denied saying anything racist, but then changed his testimony and tack, admitting that he said it.. but that it wasn’t racist where he came from.  Now he’s had to apologize after being confronted with a lengthy ban.  But Suárez’ half-hearted mea culpa is conveniently timed, considering that it is an alleged condition of a potential move to Barcelona.  Instead of being punished, it appears the striker’s apology will get him exactly what he wants.

Despite their setbacks, despite their very public falls from grace, neither Ford nor Suarez has yet to experience a true comeuppance.  But that may still come to fruition.  Ford is back to work today.  He still plans to run for mayor, and polls show he still has a solid base of support.  But it remains to be seen if he can translate that support into actual votes come October 27.  If he doesn’t win, he’s likely out of politics for good.

Meanwhile, Suarez could get his wish of a move to Barcelona.  But after almost a decade of success, the Catalan club appears to be on the downward side of the curve that all teams experience.  He is not of La Masia, the fabled Barça academy… and he does not embrace the concept of team very well.  Suárez may not find the titles he craves… but he may find that his talent and time have passed him by.

Both men may yet wonder what could have been… an awful thing when you’ve been to the places they’ve been.

Too bad… so sorry.

Brent P. Lanthier

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Europe’s Poor Performance… and Other Useless Stats

Ronaldo_2956126bThe major story lines leading up to this World Cup were all about things that had little or nothing to do with football.  Faulty or incomplete stadiums, paltry labour conditions, a populace acting as unhappy hosts, the ever-present whispers of bribes and corruption… this is how we talked about Brazil.

Two weeks into the tournament, however, and the story is very much about the game itself.   Wide-open play has meant a treasure chest of goals, the most ever for the group stage.  Out of the 48 matches so far, only eight of them have been draws, and only five of those have been nil-nil.  Meanwhile, there have been a lot of shutouts (almost half of the matches) but only 13 games have been either 0-0 or 1-0 finals.  For this writer anyway, this has been the best World Cup since France ’98.

However, several European nations might disagree with me.   Out of the 13 UEFA teams in the tournament, only the Netherlands, Greece (a first for Ethniki), Belgium, Germany, France and Switzerland are going to the Group of 16.   For the second World Cup in a row, less than half of the European teams are progressing.  Is this because the former colonial powers can’t play away from their home continent? Maybe… but the European influence has been declining for some time.

If you take the percentage of total participants in each tournament* allocated to UEFA (in 2010, that was 13/32 or 40.625%) and multiply it by the percentage of European teams that make the knockout round (again in 2010, it was 6/16 or 37.5%), you can — imperfectly — see well how the confederation performs.

There are a couple of trends that emerge.  First of all, the number of UEFA spots have pretty much stayed the same, with one or two additions or subtractions.  But as the tournament has expanded, this has meant the Europeans’ share of World Cup berths has declined.  Nothing shocking here.

A familiar sight for England fans over the last half-century

A familiar sight for England fans over the last half-century

What is changing is who are winning the knockout berths.  At least three CONMEBOL teams have qualified for the next round in three out of the last five tournaments; they only got two spots in 1994 and 2002, and Brazil won both of those anyway (FYI the Brazilians have only missed the knockout round once, in 1966… between World Cup victories in 1962 and 1970).   Last tournament, two CONCACAF teams reached the knockout stage; this year, there are three.  For the first time ever, two African teams have reached the Group of 16 in 2014.

The reason for the European decline are fuzzy.  Some blame the flood of foreign players — particularly South Americans — into the big European leagues, pushing home-grown players aside and making big clubs less likely to develop their own youngsters.  Others say European players lack the desire to achieve greatness for country, because they are getting paid so much by their clubs.

However, it could all back to simple maths.  The change starts to be noticeable in Mexico’s 1986 World Cup.  João Havelange had won the FIFA presidency in 1974 on promises to let more developing nations into the tournament.   Twelve years later, Morocco was the first African Nation to qualify for the knockout round along with hosts, Mexico.  It was the first time two teams from one of the “other” confederations made it through with the big boys.   Since then, both CAF and CONCACAF have had at least one team in the elimination rounds, and CONMEBOL get at least 50 percent of its teams into the knockouts.

Capello

Capello thinks about how to spend his millions

What is more interesting is who is out.  The platinum generation of Spanish footballers finally ran out of currency, dropping out at the group stage for the first time since 1998.  Their Euro 2012 final opponents, Italy, missed two successive knockout rounds for the first time since the 1960’s.   The “golden generations” of Portugal and England both finally sputtered out.   Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia still have far to go to match the prowess of their Yugoslavian predecessors.  Russia may be rethinking Fabio Capello’s £6.7M annual salary… although the gaffer claims he did his job by getting the side into the tournament for the first time in 12 years.  In fairness to Capello, he didn’t have his talisman, Roman Shirokov.  Imagine if Óscar Tabárez’ Uruguay had to play with Luis Suarez… oh right.

Some caveats:

– like Brazil in ’94 and ’02, Spain won in 2010 despite a record-low representation by European teams.  However, the other three tournaments that had a low knockout representation by Europe went to South American sides: 1950, 1970, and 2002.

– a more likely determinate of World Cup success is tournament location.  If it’s in Europe, a UEFA team will likely win the whole thing.  If not, look to CONMEBOL.  The only exceptions are South Africa 2010 for Europe and Sweden 1958 for South America (where UEFA had seven of eight playoff births but Brazil still won).

– the set up of this year’s tournament tree means that only one of Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Uruguay will advance to the semi-finals, while the Europeans could still end up having six teams in the quarter-finals.

Brent P. Lanthier

*Only post-war World Cups. The three tournaments before 1950 had no group stage, and were straight knockout competitions.

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The boys do Ipanema before it’s Belo, goodbye to Brazil

Downcast and drunken after England’s early elimination from World Cup 2014, our correspondent Simon Hagens and his Canadian chums cheered themselves up with a side trip to Rio de Janeiro before Tuesday’s dead rubber with Group D winners Costa Rica (WTF?) in Belo Horizonte. Here’s the latest from the lads as their wonderful tour of Brazil wraps up all too soon.

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Rio was pretty much as advertised. Clearly the headquarters for the World Cup, it was filled with fans who came here to settle in and watch, rather than follow their teams across the country.  Ipanema Beach, where we stayed, was a sea of Australian, American and English dudes stumbling around.  It made for great enthusiasm during the matches, but that many stumbling dudes gets old fast.

The highlight of Rio was game of pick-up beach soccer with a bunch of locals. Very tiring, and we left it a little bruised up (these guys play to win), but wonderful fun. We also enjoyed (and thankfully survived) a great innovation in taxi technology – dashboard televisions.

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Here in Belo Horizonte, things are more tame. Nice restaurants, pretty streets … and very few English speakers. We’d been spoiled so far on that front, so for our last few days it was hard to muster more than hand gestures.

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Match day was actually a pleasant surprise. A bit disappointing that England’s trip home was guaranteed either way, but it created a great vibe for the game.  All the anxiety (and later irritation) of the Italy and Uruguay matches was replaced with carefree merriment.  A substantially different lineup, with more youth and veteran Frank Lampard, made for some more interest (if not quality football) on the pitch.

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Why do you go to Brazil? For the Foxes, of course. Congrats to these newly-promoted Leicester City fans on a fantastic World Cup experience.

Always a lover of the natural kingdom, Simon poses with a pair of traditional Brazilian foxes in Sao Paulo.

Always a lover of the natural kingdom and its varied inhabitants, our winsome correspondent poses with a pair of traditional Brazilian foxes in Sao Paulo.

Costa Rica was not as fun to watch as in their previous games either, but it sure would be nice to see them do well going forward. This match did feature the best fan cheering and singing of the tournament, with a personal highlight being a sincerely delivered version of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” Also good was the fond farewell given to the England fans section by the team at the final whistle.

So long, Engerland. Best of luck in Euro 2016 qualifying.

So long, Engerland. Best of luck in Euro 2016 qualifying.

We’re off for the long journey home now too.  You’re welcome Brazil.

Simon Hagens

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On the road: Sadness in Sao Paulo

The Three Lions may be all but done at World Cup 2014, but our correspondent is far from finished. In the latest of his (only slightly drunken) diaries Simon Hagens checks back in from Brazil with a report on England’s defeat at the hands of Luis Suarez and Uruguay. 

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Well, to get it out if the way, that match was rubbish.  Rubbish, at least, from the perspective of an England supporter who is now looking at a meaningless match against Costa Rica in a few days.  If you like superb finishes by Luis Suarez and the colour baby blue, then you’re likely more pleased. But enough said about all that.

The logistics of the whole match day experience here in Brazil continue to be better than advertised.  For all the worries of the World Cup throwing things into chaos, it was probably a bit naive to think that 50,000 football fans would rattle a city of 25 million.  The train whisked us from Luz station through a mix of neighbourhoods to the relatively poor area where the new stadium stands.  It rises from a sea of ramshackle buildings.  Very beautiful and impressive … and nearly finished.  Arena Corinthians, which is now home to the popular Corinthians club, sits on a huge piece of land and is attached to an upscale mall.  Massive amounts of white marble make it gleam on the inside, increasing the contrast to the surroundings.  At least it will see some good use going forward, which may not be the case for the site of our first match in Manaus.

Eric shows how he and fellow England fans washed away their sorrows on the heels of defeat to Uruguay.

Eric shows the selection of liquids he and fellow England fans used to wash away their sorrows on the heels of a 2-1 defeat to Uruguay and an early exit from further World Cup contention.

Despite the England loss, there was a generally good atmosphere and camaraderie with Uruguay fans, I got myself some new shoes, and the residents of this city proved they still love a good party.  So when in Rome, you might as well put your sorrows behind you.

São Paulo has been a fantastic part of this trip.  Art, food, architecture, bustling markets, nightlife and friendly, worldly people who love to talk politics, culture, or whatever.  I could spend a lot more time in São Paulo.  Off to Rio now for a few days before Belo Horizonte on Tuesday and our final match.

Simon Hagens

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Accept All Substitutes

FellainiDay Six was not the most scintillating day of football that we’ve seen in this World Cup, although after only a week, the bar has been set pretty high.  Today featured two games that likely would not have been close, had the managers of the favourites put out more dominant sides.

Mertens hearts something...

Mertens hearts something…

Algeria decided they would put 10 men behind the ball against Belgium, only making a serious break about 20 minutes in.  Jan Vertonghen took out Sofiane Feghouli, the referee gave the penalty and Feghouli put it away.   Then the Desert Foxes really started playing defensive.  After the break, Marc Wilmots put on Dries Mertens  — who probably should have started in the first place.  Romelu Lukaku’s performance was a shadow of his Premier League form… so off he came in the 58th.  Then Marouane Fellaini came on for Moussa Dembélé.  Five minutes later, Wilmots’ substitutions paid off.  Fellaini scored one of his trademark headers (where has that been all year?) and then Martens scored off Eden Hazard’s pass off the counter. It was a game that was exciting for 15 minutes… and that was enough for Belgium’s nervy World Cup return.  Belgium 2-1 Algeria

Uh-oh...

Uh-oh…

Meanwhile, the Russia-South Korea clash was less than satisfying… exactly as expected.  The South Koreans were quick, but the Russians played Fabio Capello’s cautious defensive tactics.    The South Koreans scored because of a clanger by Igor Akinfeev, probably the goalkeeper gaffe of the tournament.   It’s also interesting that Igor Denisov, Alan Dzagoev, and Aleksandr Kerzhakov — three of the better players on a dour Russian side — started on the bench, and that the goal came after their substitution.   Either side will fancy their chances of progressing.  Russia 1-1 South Korea

Brent P. Lanthier

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Street party in Sao Paulo

Intrepid World Cup traveller Simon Hagens and his band of merry men have moved on from Manaus to Sao Paulo, where they await England’s pivotal clash with Uruguay on Thursday. In between cultural outreach sessions at various bars and eateries, the lads took time out on Tuesday to watch the host nation fight to a goalless standoff with Mexico.


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Game day yesterday was insane.  Anyone who was working, which was almost no one, knocked off at 1:00 p.m. (a tidy three hours before kickoff) and streamed toward the bars to watch the game.  We set up in a window seat at a bar in the Vila Madalena neighbourhood.  The bar filled up, and soon the street behind the window filled up as well.  Soccer and a huge party appear to be the same thing.

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I want YOU to come drinking in Brazil. Stephen of @the_handbags models the latest in Cursor & Threat neckwear.

I want YOU to come drinking in Brazil. Stephen of @the_handbags models the latest in Cursor & Thread neckwear.

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The crowd was disappointed by the draw with Mexico, but it did nothing to dampen the mood.  The street next to our bar was filled with revelry.  Fifty metres up the hill , the crowd was a full on writhing mass,  fuelled by guys with monster car speakers and street beer vendors.  A good night.  We’re beginning to wonder if we should just come to Brazil for every World Cup from now on.

Simon Hagens

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More Iberian Misery, and the USA is A-OK

Pepe-MullerThe highly-anticipated Germany-Portugal match turned out to be a rout, even before Pepe’s flash of anger got him sent off.  The Germans were all over the team in claret, dragging them this way and that.  Portugal’s first bad decision came when João Pereira pulled down Mario Götze in the box.  Up steps Thomas Müller… and in goes the ball.  Twenty minutes later, Mats Hummels got a running start off a corner to head the ball in… 2-nil.

Hummels rising like Eine sprichwörtliche Lachs

Hummels rising like whatever the German word is for salmon.

Then came Müller’s obvious theatrics, which raised Pepe’s ire… but why he let the blood rush to his head, we’ll never know… probably because that’s what Pepe does.  Portugal are down to 10-men and Müller goes on to score two more goals, rubbing salt in Portugal’s wounds.  After the match, coach Paulo Bento claimed the referee was biased against Portugal, but that’s pretty rich considering their record for flopping around (and taking pride in it).  Germany 4-0 Portugal.

The other match in this group featured two teams trying to capitalize on Portugal’s slip.  The U-S-A came out as expected, playing organized and physical football.  Clint Dempsey gave the Stars and Stripes a dream start with the fifth-quickest goal in World Cup history.  After that, things calmed down a bit.  A couple of USA injuries (Jozy Altidore’s tournament appears to be over after a hamstring injury, Matt Besler came off at the half) meant that Jürgen Klinsmann had to make subs earlier than he would have liked.   Ghana got a kick start in the second half when Kevin-Prince Boateng came on (it was surprising that Akwasi Appiah started neither Boateng nor Michael Essien in midfield).   The Black Stars’ shots started flying in, albeit most of them from way outside the box.

Brooks in disbelief

Brooks in disbelief

After being down for 80 minutes, Asamoah Gyan gave a lovely little backheel pass to Andrew Ayew who flicked the ball past Tim Howard with the outside of his left foot.  Pandemonium amongst the Ghanaian support.  However, just four minutes later, the American substitute John Anthony Brooks — a man born and raised in Germany — scored a header off a corner… and earned himself his own Wheaties box.  USA 2-1 Ghana

Brent P. Lanthier

 

 

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