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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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Another banner moment for Diego

You know Diego Maradona, and might well loathe him, for his infamous ‘Hand of God.’ Now the Argentinian has offered up a new appendage for abomination; his ‘Flying Foot of Fury.

Dirty Diego couldn’t contain his rage when a fan of UAE club Al Wasl kept pushing up a banner to catch a glimpse of the legendary striker, who recently signed a two-year,  7-million Euro contract to coach the Middle East outfit. Seems there was a bit of a communication problem, as the chubby coach wanted the sign kept down so he could have a photo taken next to it. The solution? Maradona mashed the man’s hand with a blinding left boot. From The Telegraph:

“The banner, sent to him by his daughters Delma and Giannina, read: ‘Babu Estoy con vos te amo –Benja,’ meaning ‘Grandfather I love you and I am with you’ and was signed by his grandson Benjamin.

Maradona later apologised to the Al Wasl supporter.

“I am emotional, this is my nature. I’ve always been like this as a player and coach. Sometimes I feel like I’m a player of Al Wasl.

“The sign was a message from my grandson and daughters in Manchester and Argentina and it means they support me in whatever I do. I apologise to the fan I hurt but I wanted the banner to be seen.”

Maradona went on to register his first competitive victory as coach with the Dubai club with a 3-0 home win over Emirates in the Etisalat Cup.”

Oh, Diego. You dozey dolt. This is the dumbest thing you’ve done since…well, since two days ago, when you told fans who might be “scared” after you lost two of your first three matches to “stay at home, watch some DVD or some comedy series.” As The Guardian suggested, “a dramatization of the Argentinian legend’s managerial career would fit the bill.” I think we just got a new episode.

Ian Harrison

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Happy New Year! (Pass the Advil)

Sorry, Lenny…

I’d like to start a new calendar page with two announcements:

1) I still feel like arse after a night of debauchery at Late Night Lenny’s fine sporting establishment, Rails and Ales.

2) At The Rails will be new and improved! By that I mean, we will actually try to post every day. I know, we dare to dream big…

We admit we’ve been lazy.  And I have to admit that yours truly was too, uh, tired to watch any of today’s Premier League games. Actually I caught a bit of the Birmingham – Arsenal game… but I seemed to have missed all the exciting bits.

Speaking of bits (and bobs), here’s what happened in the football world today:

White Hart Becks?

– David Beckham is set to join Tottenham Hotspur but needs permission from the L.A. Galaxy.  It’ll be interesting to see who gets bumped out of an impressive Spurs midfield.  Rafael Van der Vaart? Pffft…. what’s that guy done lately?

– Woy Hodgson insists that he has the backing of Liverpool’s owners and players.   His comments come one day after he apologized to Liverpool fans, saying he hasn’t experienced any of the “famous Anfield support”.    Sing when you’re winning, Roy: you’re not in the posh end of London anymore.

– Diego Maradona’s grandson is not even two years old but he already can kick the ball better than Wayne Rooney… although he made have had a little help, chemically-speaking.  That’s not baby powder!

– At The Rails did not make the Guardian’s “100 Football Blogs to follow in 2011“.  Looks like someone is going to get a tersely-worded e-mail… and perhaps a bag of Mick McCarthy’s “special” brand of caramel.

– Spanish football will go ahead this weekend, despite efforts by the players’ union to suspend the games. It seems that Spanish footballers wanted Sunday off.  Where’s my burrito! Where’s my burrito!!

– I came across this photo of Don Fabio as I researched this article.  It’s enough to make me drink through my hangover (shudder)…

Here’s to a great 2011!

Brent Lanthier

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Batista stakes his claim in Argentina

When Sergio Batista was given the reins of Argentina’s national team on an interim basis, reactions in his home nation were mixed.  Some were still mourning the resignation of national icon Diego Maradona, while others were hoping for a different gaffer, one with some managerial experience in Europe or  Argentina’s domestic league.  After all, Batista was coming off a horrendous experience with the youth squad, having failed to guide Argentina to the World Youth Cup for the first time in recent memory.

Some, however, remember Batista as the brilliant tactical manager who ledArgentina to Olympic gold at Beijing in 2008.  In the process, he found a way to get the most out of his best players, namely Leo Messi, Angel Di Maria and Javier Mascherano. So how would he perform at the senior level?  The answer, thus far, is magnificently.

Unlike Maradona, Batista has stacked his midfield and defence with more  possession based players, and the results have been astonishing.  Nicolas Ottamendi, Di Maria, and Maxi Rodriguez were replaced by Ever Banega, Esteban Cambiasso, and Javier Zanetti and Argentina has looked unstoppable since.  In fact, following Tuesday’s 4-1 demolition of world champions Spain, supporters of the Albicelestes are no doubt be wondering what could have been had Batista been in charge in South Africa instead of Maradona.

Batista still has a number of upcoming friendlies to justify his appointment as permanent manager, including a match against hated-rivals Brazil. But if the big win over Spain is any indication,  he looks certain to be around for some time.

Hadi Zogheib

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No more donkeys, please

Down the Lane these days, our ’Arry has apparently used up all his goodwill saving Russian donkeys (not named Pavlyuchenko) from parasailing pratfalls, and is lambasting the powers the be for scheduling an England friendly against Hungary too close to the start of the Premiership season for his liking.

With some glaring holes at the back and his club’s inaugural Champions League qualification looming large, the Tottenham boss would rather have his team on the training ground than traipsing around the world for preseason friendlies, or losing players for a few days of international duty. If he wants something else to worry about, Redknapp can wonder whether Spurs will have their plans for a new stadium approved when Haringey Council says yea or nay on Sept. 13.

Tottenham aren’t counting on having Jonathan Woodgate on their 25-man roster when new squad rules take effect this season and, with Ledley King as gimpy as ever, ’Arry is reportedly after Villa’s Curtis Davies, Everton’s Phil Jagielka or Man. Citeh’s Micah Richards to slot into the centre of his back line. As long as they’re not donkeys, ’Arry, you can bring in whoever you like.

City may not be quite ready to let Richards walk, but it seems the new roster rules could force a shocking 30 players out the door at Eastlands, with some paid off by the deep pocketed owners to get the hell out. So much for Welcome to Manchester.

Switching to the Red Mancs, United went south of the border to Mexico but came out a 3-2 loser to CD Chivas in the final game of its North American tour in what must have been a bit of a confusing night for newly-signed Javier Hernandez, who said goodbye to the Goats by scoring a goal for Chivas in the first half, then switching shirts and suiting up for his new team after the break.

Finally, while the departing Diego Maradona makes claims of betrayal against his former employers in Argentina, the AFA has reportedly sets its sights on former Sheffield United midfielder and current Estudiantes manager Alejandro Sabella to take over the pressure-packed post of national team boss.

Ian Harrison

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Maradona’s men meet their match

There were long faces and dark mutterings around the family home of my Futbol Guapa after her Albicelestes met another early exit from the World Cup Saturday, thrashed 4-0 by Germany’s young stars in the day’s first quarterfinal match, a victory that moves Die Mannschaft one step Klose (get it?) to the finals. Even the choripan didn’t taste quite as good afterward, tinged with the disappointment of a title drought that will now last another four years.

Much of the blame will be laid at the feet of the last man to lift a World Cup trophy in Argentinian colours. Diego Maradona, a firebrand striker in 1986 and now a portly coach, at least saved us all the decidedly unwelcome prospect of watching him run (waddle?) naked through the streets of Buenos Aires, which he’d promised to do if his team had won in South Africa. He may have inspired a similar pledge from Larissa Riquelme, which I salute, but Diego’s team selection and tactics were highly suspect. How handy would it have been for Argentina to have Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso to call into Maradona’s attack-minded lineup against Germany, helping to prop up a lonely Javier Mascherano in front of the back four, or replacing the highly suspect Nicolas Otamendi, whose foul led to Thomas Muller’s opening goal after just three minutes. So much for God’s will.

Having said that, these Germans are clearly a force to be reckoned with. The highest-scoring team at the tournament so far, they’ve recorded a trio of four-goal games. Muller, who’ll miss the semifinal through suspension, and fellow midfielders Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira have turned the loss of Michael Ballack into more blessing than curse, while Miroslav Klose’s two goals against Argentina give him 14 in his World Cup career, one more than Pele, tied with German legend Gerd Muller and just one behind Ronaldo for the most ever. Clearly, coach Joachim Loew knows Germany is the pick of the crop.

Of course, to reach the final, the Germans still have to get past Spain, who withstood a strong and resolute Paraguay, with David Villa’s late goal proving decisive in a 1-0 final that denied us all to see a little bit more of the aforementioned Ms. Riquelme.

It wasn’t easy for Spain, up against a team who, as our Dr. Z has pointed out, knocked off Argentina, Brazil and Chile during CONMEBOL qualifying and were clearly not overawed by the prospect of facing the reigning European champions. Paraguay will probably feel a bit hard done by that they were denied the opening goal after Nelson Valdez scored shortly before half, only to have the strike disallowed because teammate Oscar Cardozo had been offside, and leapt for the ball as it came into the area.

The second half saw a bizarre sequence of penalties, with Gerard Pique using both hands to haul Cardozo to the ground, but Casillas saving and holding the shot. Seconds later, Villa was bundled over at the other end, but Xabi Alonso’s strike was ruled out because Spanish players had encroached into the penalty area. Replays later showed the same was true of Cardozo’s missed penalty, something that apparently eluded referee Carlos Batres of Guatemala. Alsono tried again, but Justo Villar made the stop, then escaped further discipline for crashing into Cesc Fabregas as he went after the rebound.

All that wackiness set the stage for an 83rd minute goal as wild as any at this tournament. Andres Iniesta left two Paraguayans in his wake with a driving run up the middle, laying the ball off for Pedro, whose shot rebounded off the post to Villa. The Golden Boot candidate also hit the post but got a more fortunate bounce, and the South Americans were sunk. Sure, Casillas was called on again to deny Roque Santa Cruz in the final minute, but Spain were otherwise comfortable in possession with the lead.

So, at a World Cup where we were once marveling at South American success and scratching our heads over European ineptitude, Uruguay is the last South American team standing as we head to the semis, with three European sides, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain, still going strong. You’d have to favour the Dutch against Uruguay in Tuesday’s first semifinal, while the Spain-Germany clash on Wednesday looks like a can’t-miss classic.

Ian Harrison

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Make or Break for Maradona

Diego Maradona ... refused to speak at the press conference until Thomas Mueller had left the stage.

Diego Maradona hasn’t been able to stop smiling since arriving in
South Africa. After all, vindication feels pretty damn good. Wasn’t
he supposed to lead his beloved Argentina to certain doom? That’s
what most pundits believed before this tournament began. Instead his
albiceleste have been tearing opponents to shreds with wonderful
positioning, passing, and finishing that’s been a joy to watch.

That being said, Maradona’s ultimate test will be on Saturday versus the
equally impressive Germans. It’s one thing to bully Mexico or South
Korea, but the big bad Germans are a totally different animal (ask Mr.
Capello). And to move on, Diego will have to choose between two
different Argentina teams.

The first option is the Argentina we’ve been accustomed to watching these past two weeks: let’s call them Argentina 1. It features a rampaging Angel Di Maria up the left hand side, Maxi Rodriguez or Juan Veron on the right to distribute, and the three-pronged attack of Messi, Tevez, and Higuain.

This is the fun Argentina, always looking to attack and pelting opponents with shots from every angle. The problem with this team is that Javier
Mascherano is left to defend a heck of a lot of field all by his lonesome in the middle of the park. This may play into the hands of the Germans on the counter attack. Don’t think they can counter with speed? Check out their last two goals versus England.

Instead, Diego may — for the first time this tournament — consider fielding Argentina 2. This is the team that defeated this same German team 1-0 in a friendly in Berlin earlier this year. This squad is much less attacking and
consists of having an extra midfielder in place of one of the three
strikers (probably Tevez). The extra midfielder will provide help for
Mascherano in front of the back four.

So, Mr. Maradona, will it be Argentina 1 which has been successful against lesser opponents so far? Or will it be Argentina 2, which has already beaten the Germans once this year?

Your managerial reputation is on the line….

Hadi Zogheib

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