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Toronto’s Footballing Folk Heroes?

TFC

The football media in North America went into overdrive this afternoon over a report that has been brewing for months.  Now, the continent’s worst-kept secret is almost completely out of the bag. Everyone is expecting England international Jermain Defoe to sign with Toronto Football Club from Tottenham Hotspur.  The striker has been unhappy for months because of his almost-permanent place on the substitute’s bench during league play (although he’s been well-used in Spurs’ cup adventures).  TFC will end the speculation on Monday when they unveil the striker at a press conference.  Here is Toronto FC trying to be coy on Twitter:

However, the “Big Deal” may be even bigger.  There is word that Defoe is not the only big-name coming to Hogtown.   Both SI.com’s Grant Wahl and ESPNFC.com’s Jeff Carlisle write that USMNT member Michael Bradley will leave Mediterranean shores for Lake Ontario beaches, for virtually the same reasons.

The pair will reportedly cost $100 M dollars, with Defoe earning an estimated $148,000 US per week, or about $7.7M US for the season.  Other reports say Bradley’s salary is on the same street, not including the $7M-$10M that TFC will pay AS Roma for the midfielder.  All in all, it’s a lot of coin for a club worth only $120M.   There is also the small matter of the salary cap, and having to fit in four Designated Players into three spots: Defoe, Bradley, Gilberto, and Matias Laba, who looks to be the odd-man out (ironically, considering all the hype and hurdles that surrounded the Argentine’s signing last spring).  But that’s for the accountants to work out.

TFC's Three Wise Men

TFC’s Three Wise Men: (L-R) Bezbatchenko, Leiweke, Nelsen

What you do have to admire is the gusto with which the club is making changes.  No doubt, this is down to the arrival of new Maple Leaf Sports Entertainement CEO Tim Leiweke.  The former Anshultz Entertainment Group boss revamped the sports landscape in Los Angeles, in a way that benefited both the product and the bottom line.  That appears to be the motivation here as well.

Defoe would be TFC’s first really big soccer “name” who, despite sitting out much of last season, still has some love to give.  He’s only 31… not exactly a player ready for the elephant graveyard that is often Major League Soccer.   It will be interesting to see if he and Gilberto become the club’s starting strike force, although with the wages they are on, you would expect that formation to be a no-brainer.

Meanwhile, Bradley adds much-needed grit in the middle of the park.  He’ll be joined in the midfield by Canada’s best-ever player, Dwayne DeRosario, who gets unveiled by the club tomorrow.   The changes are radical… but radical changes are needed.  After seven seasons, Toronto FC has never made the playoffs.  That is offensive to a fan base that was amongst the league’s most vocal and loyal until they swallowed almost a decade worth of disappointment.  With this in mind, the club has acted boldly, even going so far as to delay season-ticket sales so they could show off their newest acquisitions.

The moves are basic sports business wisdom:  the win column is full of dollar signs.  However, it’s more than that.  Leiweke knows that sports fans want heroes.  This is especially true in Toronto.  How else do you explain the Danny Dichio phenomenon, a journeyman who came here and became bigger than he ever was in Europe? You only have to look at the Toronto players who have been idolized by the faithful:  the Maple Leafs’ Tie Domi and Wendel Clark,  Roy Halladay for the Blue Jays, the Raptors’ Alvin Williams.   Toronto loves their blue-collar players; call it a product of the city’s Scottish Presbyterian roots.

So sure, Toronto FC supporters want to win. But even more than that, they want players they can get behind and build mythologies around.  Defoe, Bradley, DeRosario: those are Toronto’s kind of players.  Now let’s see what they can do on the pitch, come March.

Brent P. Lanthier

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Even better than the real thing?

Hadi Zogheib

Following Tuesday’s announcements of preliminary squads for World Cup teams, there is no doubt anger from various couch potato managers around the globe. Some are unhappy with players who were included, while other will be upset by the rejects, a talented group now set for a summer stuck at home. In honour of all those armchair managers who think they know best, I’ve come up with a list of the 23 top World Cup rejects:

Goalkeepers

Sebestian Frey (France – Fiorentina): A model of consistency, one of Serie A’s best keepers year in and out

Diego Lopez (Spain – Villareal): Usually Spain’s number 3, was usurped by Barca’s Victor Valdes this year. Would be a number 1 or 2 on most national teams.

Andres Palop (Spain – Sevilla): Is it me or does Spain have way too many great keepers? Must be something in the water.


A superb season with Inter wasn’t enough to get Zanetti to South Africa.

Defence

Javier Zanetti (Argentina – Inter): Far and away the biggest shock of all. Having an unbelievable season. Is arguably the most consistent performer on one of Europe’s best teams.

Gary Neville (England – Manchester United): Not the most popular player in England, but his experience would be invaluable in the biggest tournament on Earth.

Nicola Legrottaglie (Italy- Juventus): A victim of numbers. Italy has many great defenders and there was no room for him. Not a bad reserve on my team, though.

Gabriel Milito (Argentina – Barcelona): Coming back from a horrific spate of injuries that sidelined him for months, is back to his best form. A mistake by Maradona to omit one of Messi’s best buddies.

Joleon Lescott (England – Manchester City): Again, the result of being the odd man out on a team with too many good defenders. Strong and good in the air.

Marco Materazzi (Italy – Inter): Who else is going to complement the opposing star’s sister?

Midfield

Samir Nasri (France – Arsenal):Great in possession. Can play either on the wing or in the middle.

Esteban Cambiasso (Argentina – Inter): Was much better all season than Maradona’s captain, Javier Mascherano. Deserves to be in South Africa.

Diego (Brazil – Juventus): Creative midfielder would be on any other squad except Brazil’s.

Ever Banega (Argentina – Valencia): Young, fast, can tackle, pass, and shoot. One of Valencia’s stars this season.

Francesco Totti (Italy – Roma): Can play up front or just behind the forwards. Just too talented to be omitted by Lippi.

Mikel Arteta  (Spain – Everton): Once again, the victim of coming from a country that is so deep in talent. Would walk onto most squads in the world.

Owen Hargreaves (England – Manchester United): We had to include one Canadian, didn’t we?


Two-time Player of the Year Ronaldhino isn’t wanted by Brazil.

Forwards

Pato (Brazil – AC Milan): One of the best in Europe. Didn’t fit with coach Dunga’s system.

Lisandro Lopez (Argentina – Lyon): Voted France’s best club player this year. Far more consistent than Ezequiel Lavezzi, who Maradona chose instead.

Ronaldinho (Brazil – AC Milan): Two-time World Player of the Year is another victim of Dunga’s counterattacking system.

Antonio Cassano (Italy – Sampdoria): One of Italy’s most talented players, but a controversial figure in the locker room.

Karim Benzema (France – Real Madrid): Incredible talent, but judged to have not received enough playing time to garner a call up.

Ruud Van Nistelrooy (Netherlands – Hamburg): Maybe a little old, but would be great coming off the bench in the final ten minutes when his team needs a goal.

Fabrizio Miccoli (Italy – Palermo): Nineteen goals for Palermo this season. Never stops running.

Starting eleven:

Frey

Neville, Lescott , Milito, Zanetti

Arteta, Cambiasso, Banega

Totti

Benzema, Lopez

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Time to rewrite Serie A obituary

Hadi Zogheib

It seems the death of the Serie A has been greatly exaggerated. Just four years ago the top flight of Italian football was mired in a match fixing scandal, the Calciopoli, one that threatened the viability and reputation of the league’s very future. And even though it served as a rallying cry for the Italian national team, who so admirably put the scandal behind them and played their way to a fourth FIFA World Cup crown in Germany that summer, the fallout in the Serie A itself was difficult to ignore.


Photo from fOTOGLIF

In the three years following, the Serie A bore witness to one calamity after another, all of which threatened to label Italian football as a “has been” league. Having Juventus stripped of its 2006 title was just the beginning. Rapidly declining attendance throughout the league soon followed. Italian clubs began finding it difficult to lure bright, young talent, as many starlets opted to play in Spain or England instead. Serie A was quickly garnering a reputation as a league for world stars whose skills were on the decline. There was no Messi, no Ronaldo, no Rooney. Instead, fans watched an aging Beckham, an overweight Ronadinho, and the volatile Adriano.

The once feared European giants of Inter, AC Milan, and Roma couldn’t get a sniff of late round Champions League play in the years following the 2006 World Cup. Time and again they found themselves a step behind Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Lyon and Bayern. Worst of all, the league is on the verge of losing a Champions League berth to the Bundisliga. (Serie A currently has four Champions League spots compared to three for the German league).

This year, amid the doom and gloom, something changed and Serie A found its feet again. It’s hard to put your finger on one event that caused the turnaround. Maybe it was the arrival of Jose Mourinho as manager of Inter. Perhaps it was the the rebirth of Juventus through crafty management, or the ability of the lesser teams to scout talent from under the noses of the Spanish or English giants. All of a sudden the Serie A is the place to be once again. Attendance is up in many stadiums. Young stars such as Marek Hamsik, Mario Balotelli, and Javier Pasatore are lighting up YouTube. The league is the most competitive it has been in years, with 10 teams vying for the fourth Champions League place, separated by just eleven points. At the top, there’s a thrilling title race between the three time champions Inter and Roma, who carry one of Europe’s longest domestic unbeaten streaks at 22 matches.

And Italian teams are once again being noticed in Europe. Fiorentina eliminated Liverpool from its Champions League group. AC Milan waltzed into the Bernabeau and handed Real Madrid a rare home loss. And Mourinho’s Inter salvaged Italian pride by marching Inter into the semi-finals of the Champions League, allowing the Serie A to retain its four qualifying places, at least for one more season. Yes, 2010 has been quite a year in Italy.  And with another World Cup just two months away, other nations are no doubt sweating.



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