Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Africa Tidbits

Being this is a blog about the Road to the 2010 Finals in Africa, let's dive into some African news and see what's going on across the pond, south of the equator.

-- The UEFA Champions League is in full swing, with ties resuming next week. But it's not the only game in town, as the Confederation of African Football (CAF) Champions League begins its annual campaign this Sunday.



The African version of the Champions League is played over a full year, from January to December and features only national champions, much like the old European Cup system. Also like the old European system, there’s a Cup Winners Cup and a CAF Cup for runners-up in national championships.

Egyptian giants Al-Ahly are the defending champions and share the spoils with Egyptian team Al-Zamalek as the club with the most CAF Champions League title wins, at 5.

Unfortunately, the Champions League doesn’t go on without its share of problems.
Many people feel the Champions League should schedule their fixtures to similar schedules as their UEFA cousins. But there is fixture confusion and organizational nightmares for national associations and the CAF. Most African domestic leagues begin their seasons in July and finish around May. But not all, and that’s where the confusion sets in. Some start in September, others end in June. There’s no wiggle room and no one competition can logistically schedule their campaigns around the others.

For instance, Al Ahly begin their defense of the title in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe on Sunday against Zimbabwean champions Highlanders in the second round. (The defending champions do not have to play in the first round.)
But they play their match under an air of controversy over fixture congestion in the Egyptian league which sees them playing again just 24 hours after returning to Cairo next week.
Too many games in too little time means poor quality of games.

Also, many national associations want the competition expanded. The stronger leagues feel more of their teams competing would mean more financial success for the Champions League and their clubs. But not everyone sees it this way and national associations bicker about it.

Then there is the lack of proper pitches to play on, as many dilapidated stadiums serve as homes for national champions. Poor seating, lighting, security and playing fields plague the nations.

For now, sit back and enjoy the competition … if you can watch it at all. Some of the clubs vying for the prize include Tunisia’s Etoile Sahel, Morocco’s Royal Armed Forces and the Ivory Coast’s ASEC Abidjan.

-- Brazil’s World-Cup-winning coach Carlos Alberto Parreira begins his unenviable job of coaching South Africa’s national team for the first time on March 13 when they play a friendly against Swaziland in Johannesburg.

Parreira is an anomaly, living in Brazil while coaching a team around the world that’s reported as being in shambles. The infrastructure may be coming together, but media reports state the team is not in shape, the youth systems are not in place and the strategy is lacking for a country that doesn’t want to get embarrassed on its home territory come 2010.



To his credit, the coach has been watching local league and cup matches in preparation. But is this enough? I’ve watched lots of matches the past few weeks. That doesn’t make me prepared to coach Real Madrid. (Or does it?)

Parreira did a lackluster job with Brazil in the 2006 finals. What’s to say he’ll do better in SA? The South African association was looking for a big name and got it. But it’s a questionable strategy and hopefully, come 2010, it won’t backfire.


-- The African Player of the Year award is to be presented tomorrow. The 2006 finalists are Didier Drogba of the Ivory Coast, Michael Essien of Ghana, and Samuel Eto’o of Cameroon.

Conventional wisdom holds that Samuel Eto’o, winner of the UEFA Champions League with Barcelona and holder of the Pichichi award in Spain as the league’s highest scorer should win it.

He’s flashy, he scores a boatload of goals and he’s got amazingly quick feet. He may be the best striker in the world when healthy.



But my thinking is that the quiet midfielder of Chelsea, Essien, deserves the award. He’s consistently demonstrated his wealth to the club with his brilliant playmaking, his pace, his field intelligence and his purposeful dedication, playing every game for the Blues.

In the words of the Special One, Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho: ‘"Essien is a great player. He can play every position in midfield. Where he is perfect [is] in choices. In football, the most difficult thing is to choose well, and in every situation he chooses well. He presses, stays in position, passes long, passes short, first touch, two touches. He controls the pace of the game, fast or slow. He is midfield-multifunctional, he is dynamic and strong. The boy has incredible physical power, he is super resistant with great speed and unending tactical abilities."

That sounds like a Player of the Year to me.

Don’t get me wrong. Didier Drogba has dazzled this season with his scoring prowess and flourishing maturity. He’s really put his package together and is quickly becoming one of the best strikers in the world. But my thinking is all-world striker Andriy Shevchenko’s presence has a lot to do with that. Shevchenko may be disappointing this campaign, but defenders respect the world-class Ukrainian’s ability and career stat sheet.

For my money, Essien is the man. Let the debate begin.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Friday Tidbit

I'm working again (finally!!) so it's a little harder to spend time on the writing.
Nevertheless, I'm still actively working towards the Africa goal, with the hope this new job will get me the money to get there. I need the money to buy a plane ticket, you see!



No, it's not a job at MLS. But the season hasn't started yet and my resume's just about dusted off. So there's a chance the Red Bulls might take an interest in my longing to work in football and snatch me up. Or ... I'll be here, quietly sneaking a post through the cracks while my boss talks on the phone in the next office.

So what do I have to say?

If you haven't seen this yet, this is the best goal of the first leg of matches in the Champions League. David Villa is the most complete striker in the planet at the moment. Mark my words, this gentleman is a future World Player of the Year. There's nothing he can't do, save headers. And with that, I'll try to keep my words about Valencia at a minimum. I'm excited, yes. But I'm also getting way off-topic. (Maybe I should start a separate Valencia blog? Thoughts? Opinions?)

In Africa news (about time, you say), the long-running dispute between FIFA and the Kenyan government over the organization of the sport in the country appeared to be heading for a peaceful conclusion after successful all-party talks this week.
About time. Kenya, already temporarily suspended by FIFA, faced a far longer ban over persistent troubles, but that now appears to have been averted.

Kenyan soccer has been in crisis for the past six months, with among other things, two rival domestic leagues competing at the same time.
Kenya also didn't honor certain agreements. The government responded by dissolving the federation.

If the talks are successful, Kenya can participate in the African Cup of Nations qualifying. There is hope after all.

I think my boss is off the phone. Time to get back to work. More later ...

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Amunt

I’m still recovering after a rowdy bout of celebration Sunday afternoon.

My favorite club, Valencia spanked the reigning champions of Europe and current villains of my football soul, FC Barcelona, 2-1 at the Mestalla.
It was a complete victory against a team going through a small mini-crisis.
Read this fascinating piece by master Spanish scribe Phil Ball about the crisis at the Nou Camp, which will precipitate their battle for La Liga and their defense of their European championship. Will Barcelona be able to blot out their drama? Or will it consume them, costing them a chance at immortality?



This team looked a lock at securing a run of titles. But as we know in sports, nothing is guaranteed. There’s even talk that Ronaldhino or Samuel Etoo could move on at the end of the season. Keep an eye on this unfolding story as they face off against Liverpool on Wednesday.

As for Los Che, what can I say? They’re the strongest team in La Liga by far, yet injuries and their own internal crisis have cost them points and stability. They find a way to implode when it matters most, against their bogey team Getafe or against smaller clubs like Recreativo. They shine when it’s needed most, against clubs like Barcelona and Real Madrid. For more on this, read Sid Lowe's take on this mysterious, calamitous club.

This Wednesday they travel to the San Siro to face off against another of their bogey teams, Inter Milan.

Inter have knocked Valencia out of European competition three of the last six years.
The Italian giants beat Valencia in the quarter-finals of the 2001-02 UEFA Cup before knocking them out at the same stage of the Champions League the following year.
They then thrashed Los Che 5-1 at the Mestalla in the group stages of the 2004-05 competition.

Not pretty stuff.

Inter are the most on-form team of the season, winning 16 consecutive games in Serie A.

To say I’m nervous is an understatement.

The story of my love of football would be incomplete without the story of Valencia. Although Valencia has absolutely nothing to do with my hopeful journey to Africa, the thought of going to Africa couldn’t have happened without the joy & inspiration Valencia FC has given me through the years.



They’ve allowed my love of football to grow exponentially.
Before Valencia came along, I didn’t have a cause to support, a club to hang my hat on, a team to pain over.
Now I know what it’s like to see devastating losses and painful defeats. But I also know the elation of championship runs, beautiful goals and victory celebrations. It’s utter stupidity at times, rooting for people you only know by name and number, an ocean away, kicking a ball without a personal thought for who you are (although in my case, I’ve met a handful of Valencia players).
But the weekly unfolding of the story gives life a little order, makes it just that much spicier.

I cheered vigorously for my boys on Sunday, my voice the lone one in a sea of azulgranas.
But I was loud, I was cheerful, I was grateful to lend my voice to Valencia’s claim to the title. I also drank way too many beers and my headache the next day attested to that.

It’s not always easy to root for a team that has no fans. Well, let’s not say it that way. Go to a bar in New York to watch the matches, and you’re surrounded by Manchester United, Barcelona and Real Madrid fans. You have your Celtic clan, the Arsenal group and the Chelsea boys. But where are the Valencia supporters? Where were they when the won the title in 2002, 31 years after their last championship? Where were they when they lost the Champions League in 2000 to bitter rivals Real Madrid? Or lost the final on penalties to Bayern Munich in 2001, Cañizares crying into his towel after the final penalty miss?



I sometimes wish I could watch a Valencia game with a throng of Valencia supporters (duh, go to Valencia you might say! You know what I mean though … ), hear the loud cheers when Villa scores, like I do at Barcelona games when Ronaldhino scores. But for now, it’s just me.

I’m often the only one supporting Valencia. I’m the one wearing the safety orange shirt or the red-and-yellow clown kit that fronts as the Valencian flag shirt. I’m known as Aimar by some, a fake Real Madrid supporter by others. I’m clapping alone, hooting and hollering when I see a great play or a defensive stop.

But there’s one thing I know. Valencia made me super proud this weekend. This blog, this dream of mine couldn’t have happened without them

Hopefully they’ll continue to inspire this week against Inter.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Status Report

I’m sitting here, sipping a coffee, glancing into the far-off, wrinkling my brow, stroking my stubbly chin, wondering how far I’ve come since I started the blog.




I’ll be the first to admit I haven’t gotten very far.

Africa’s still a distant land. I’m closer to being signed by Manchester United than I am to visiting Kenya or South Africa. But the intention is there. And with the intention comes synchronicity.

Doors have opened up. The readers have been supportive and kept me writing. I thank you all dearly for that.

My passion for the game has only become stronger. But I’m trying to see things differently. I’m trying to see the sport more objectively, with an eye towards the business and societal impacts of the sport. The events in Italy show us how football affects society. Major League Soccer’s signing of David Beckham and the increased American investment in the Premiership are all interesting trends to follow.

I’m also trying to find a career in the game. That may mean further schooling, maybe an entry-level job at a soccer company.

I admit to regressing at times, though. This weekend marks the top-of-the-table clash between Barcelona and the champions of my heart, Valencia.
I’m as excited for this match as a child waiting for Christmas Day to unwrap his presents. I never want to lose that feeling. When that emotion evaporates, I’ll lose that special innocence that comes with unraveling the nuances of the game. Let’s hope it never happens.

The focus needs to become clearer. Maybe planning a trip to the African Cup of Nations next year will ignite my concentration. Or writing all the African FA’s, as I’ve stated before. A book is a great idea. But what do I focus on? My trip? My volunteer work? The goal of getting to the Final? Or do I write a piece about the history of African football? You see, there is so much material, it is hard to focus on just one piece of it.
The goal of getting to the Final in 2010 is so far off; I need carrots to keep me going in the meantime. So much thinking to do!



Until then, I watch games. I imagine the beauty of a far-off land. I root for Valencia as passionately as I can, hoping they can hear my cheers an ocean away. And I write in this blog with the intention and desire to reach my goal and sit in the stadium as the World Champions lift the trophy in 2010.

The road there may be more difficult than I imagined.

*Small side note: Valencia goalkeeper Santiago Cañizares has re-signed with the club until 2009, when he’ll be 39 years old.



I’m a great admirer of ‘El Dragon.’ Not only is he a top goalkeeper, he’s also a classy person.
He gave me one of my most memorable moments during my time living in Valencia.

I lived with three girls in the heart of Valencia. One of the girls’ boyfriends was the physical therapist for the football club. I was soon leaving to come back to the States. The girl wanted to surprise me with a small gift. She arranged for her boyfriend, Juan Angel, to meet me at the Valencia training facility and present me some souvenirs.
I’d never been to the facility and giddily made my way there.

We arrived. The place was dead. No one was around except for a bored receptionist. I’d hoped to catch a glance of Cañizares, to see him hopping around, catching some balls. But it wasn’t to be.
I asked for Juan Angel and waited for a few minutes.
Finally, out of the training room door came Cañizares, in full ‘keeper regalia.
He looked around, walked towards me and said, ‘Cesar? From New York?’ in a deep Spanish accent.
I almost fainted. The man who that year cried when they lost the Champions League Final to Bayern Munich, who’d made all those incredible saves on TV, was asking for me.
I gulped and said yes. He shook my hand, posed for photos, and signed a few postcards. We shook hands. I thanked him a thousand times over. He smiled and said no problem.
A brief encounter (I’ll tell you all about another encounter in a later entry.) but a memorable one.

He remains my favorite footballer. I’m excited he’ll be patrolling the nets at Los Che for the next few years. Thanks, Santi. You made my day a few years back and I’ll never forget it.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Love Day Tidbit

Look at this tidbit from the New York Times ...

"Last week’s friendly match between the United States and Mexico in Glendale, Ariz., drew record television ratings. The English-language broadcast on ESPN2 had a 0.7 share and 1.1 million viewers, the highest rating for a non-World Cup soccer game on the network. Univision reported more than two million viewers, making it the No. 2 most-watched Spanish-language sports telecast in TV history, outdrawing the Super Bowl among Hispanic male viewers and all viewers ages 18-49."

Do I really need to say more?

Now stop reading the blog! Go out there and make love, not football hooligan-inspired war ...

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Team America

Maybe we’re hip and on to something here. Maybe we’re on the cutting-edge, trendy and all the rage, more chic than we ever imagined.

Read this fascinating article by Greg Lalas on SI.com.

American businessmen are buying football clubs in droves for a reason: global appeal. They can make money off these brands, unlike American sports brands, which have little global recognition.

Our beloved sport’s been on the cutting edge for so long. When will it ever break through? Are these purchases a sign of progress, of the mainstream appeal of the sport? Will the arrival of David Beckham begin the Age of Soccer in America?




That’s all well and good.
But it begs a further question: Do we really want it to break through?

Do we really want to see football/soccer become a mainstream American sport?

The Americanization of football isn’t something I want to see.
I like the niche feel of the sport. I enjoy being a football expert in the popular community.
I like how the sport’s an outsider, not all the rage. Do we really want every Tom, Dick & Harry knowing about the allure of La Liga or the beauty of Argentinian football?
I like the foreign flavor, how I can easily relate to people from Albania to Zimbabwe, all because of football.
I like going to the pub and watching the match with 500 like-minded souls.
I like talking about the matches with these like-minded souls into the wee hours, bickering about all the small nuances of the 90 minutes.
I enjoy being stuffed into a dark bar at 2:30 in the afternoon as the world goes on around me, because I can’t live without my dose of the Champions League?

Basically, I want football all for my own.
It’s my child, so lay off.
Get your own sport.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Quickie

A quick one here, to let you in on some info.



Here's an article from Paul Doyle about the Ghana-Nigeria derby in Brentford, England last night.
Looks like Brazil-Portugal wasn't the only game in town.

I love this line in the article regarding the swollen crowd trying to get into the stadium: 'Kick-off was delayed by 35 minutes to allow roughly 6,000 ticketholders to pass through the turnstiles and hundreds of non-ticket-holders to try to blag their way past Griffin Park's exasperated security staff. 'I've had four Nigerian sports ministers, 10 ambassadors, about 40 FA chiefs and f*ck knows how many players' brothers, wives and grannies," claimed one gatekeeper who was clearly out of his depth.' '

Spain play England today and I'm off to the local to watch it. It's a friendly and not worth too much, but I hope there aren't any racist chants along the lines of their last meeting at the Bernabeu a few years back. More on that later.

Also, the United States plays Mexico this evening in a friendly, if you can call it that. This is a fierce continental rivalry that culminated in a World Cup elimination match a few years back won by the Americans. If you want to get a taste of what a football rivalry feels like in your own backyard, tune into ESPN2 this evening at 9. Should be a good one.

Big news yesterday as a group of American businessmen bought the rights to Liverpool FC. This makes the third major English club to be owned by Americans (the others being Manchester United & Aston Villa). Interesting to see Americans taking an interest in English football. The investment money is there, as is the potential for growth. Let's see how this plays out for Liverpool. On a side note, great Americanized nickname for Liverpool, courtesy of the Guardian: the Mercyside Redskins.

Last bit of info concerns the transfer of centerback Roberto Ayala from my club, Valencia CF to local rivals Villarreal CF. It's a shame that such a quality player will ply his trade so close to home. It's like an ex-girlfriend dating your best friend weeks after your break-up. I think Valencia will rue the day they let Ayala go. But that's the way the ball bounces, so they say.

I'm off to wish the Spaniards (in particular, Valencia players David Villa, Fernando Morientes, David Silva, David Albelda & Miguel Angel Angulo) good luck. More to come.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Not So Beautiful


It’s freezing in Brooklyn this afternoon, with temperatures below 19° F and I realize how far away from Africa I am.

I imagine sunny fields, moist lakeside shores and arid deserts.
I imagine kids running with homemade balls at their feet, smiling and galloping towards the net. I imagine the temperature being a little bit higher than this, because this weather is ridiculous.

I know this sounds like a stereotypical view of Africa, but please excuse my ignorance. I’ve never been there and only know what I know from documentaries and second-hand experiences related to me. I have this vision of getting there and I’m aware what I see today and what I experience in due time will be vastly different. I am prepared to be amazed.

--------------------------------------
The Super Bowl was played last night, the most-watched event in American sports.
Over 75,000 fans crammed into Dolphins Stadium in Miami, rooting their teams on to victory in the American football championship game. Not one noted case of fan violence came out of the game.

But in Italy, fan violence has once again claimed the life of a citizen. During the Catania-Palermo Sicilian derby Friday night, a police officer had an explosive device thrown into his vehicle. He died and another officer was seriously injured. Over 150 fans were wounded in the melee. The Italian football federation cancelled this weekend’s games and no one knows when action will resume.



Why this violence? What sparks this outpouring of emotion in physicality against another human? The Super Bowl in Miami last night certainly had emotion and drama. Two teams, locked in battle, dueling in one of the most physical sports known to man. Yet there are no accounts of fan violence in the stadium. Is it that the police presence is so huge at the Super Bowl that no one even thinks of starting something? That definitely has something to do with it.

Is it disenchantment with authority, as Roberto Gotta suggests in this fine article from soccernet.com? Is it real tribal hatred? Pure, bloodcurdling loathing of supporters of another club? An Italian version of a gang war? I really can’t answer these questions. I believe it has a lot to do with these things and many more: Dirty, aged stadiums. No logical ticketing policy. Lack of a major police presence. And the attendance of Ultras, radical club supporters, usually political, sometimes violent, who exert a powerful influence on Italian clubs.

At the heart of it, the Italian game is broken. The Italian national team reigns supreme as champion of the beautiful game, but the Italian football league and the people running it can’t get the domestic game straight. Every weekend we’re treated to more reports of fan violence. Stupidity runs amok, with corruption scandals and talk of match-fixing (a la Juventus and Milan) a common theme. Italy is bidding to host Euro 2012, but how can UEFA possibly award the tournament to a nation that can’t contain their fans?

It’s a sad reality in Italian football but not a situation that can’t be corrected (England’s hooliganism problem of the late 1980’s).
Soccer holds a mirror to society, but the image staring back at Italy is very ugly right now. How they move forward from here will tell a lot about the Italian people and Italian society.