Ronaldo does make enough money… to journalists

Yes, Cristiano Ronaldo is not the most likeable person in the world. And yes, comparing him to Messi, both from a footballing and a personal point of view, is unfair (even if I think Messi may not be the nice guy he is so much portrayed as). And on the pitch he acts as a diva which does little to endear us.

So, when he mentioned he is “sad” after not celebrating the goals against Granada over the weekend, it became only natural not to sympathise with him. The question then became the why: why is he sad? As some immediately wrote, he is young, rich, adored by (some) crowds, he is in his physical prime, he is supposed to be in a nice relationship with a beautiful woman (according to glossy magazines), has a stable personal life, etc. What is causing the sadness?

Is it life at Real? Maybe he does not get along that well with Marcelo anymore. Maybe the different clans in the dressing room are creating rifts amongst the players. There is the chance he was upset for not winning the UEFA award that went to Iniesta (he said no and we have to believe him, he never had any problems in expressing his displeasure with previous such decisions). Then there is the question of money: he wants more.

If so, it begs a different question: can a man who makes so much money actually be sad for not getting even more? Especially in a country with 25% unemployment and with salaries receding? The answer is obvious: of course he can. What others make or not is immaterial. It is true that footballers make outrageous sums, but only a small percentage of them are in that category. The vast majority of professional footballers make little more than the average citizen and at the end of the career they still face a much more prolonged retirement. Besides, if Ronaldo and other superstars make that much money, it is because those people who make so much less do pay to watch them. I would bet that there are families feeling the economic squeeze in Spain who may cut on some food items but who haven’t cancelled their pay-TV subscriptions, especially those involving football.

Besides, one can always be sad. Ronaldo did not force anyone to pay those values to him. They offered him those values. Maybe now he thinks he should be getting even more. If he is denied, why shouldn’t he be sad? The same can be said for the other postulated reasons. If you work with people you don’t get along with, you will be sad, no matter how much you make. If the club secretary called you an asshole to your face and the bosses did nothing, you can also get sad, the salary may help but will not solve the problem.

In the end, the only people who do not seem sad are the journalists. Ronaldo is sad. No matter he preferred not to discuss the subject. No matter it may even be a personal issue (his favourite club mascot died or something like that). No matter nobody outside the club actually knows what is going on. No. Cristiano Ronaldo, the diva, is sad. We can sell that. Let’s rejoice.

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The Olympics (i)

When the Olympic Games are finally over, it is a good time to give my impressions. I will do it about the different sports I enjoy, but also about the overall feeling of the games. Starting with the perception about the organization and opening and closing ceremonies. This post is long, so if you really want to read, press “Continue reading” only if you have the time to spare. Continue reading

Xenophobia, racism, insults and Twitter

We all heard or read about it. Suarez abused Evra calling him a “negrito”, “little black”. Terry did the same to Anton Ferdinand with the delightful expression “back cunt”. Then, Ferdinand’s older brother, Rio, called Ashley Cole “choc-ice” which, I came the discover through all this incessant stream of tirades, means he is black on the outside and white on the inside. And now a player from the Swiss Olympic football team was sent packing after going on a rampage against South Koreans calling them “mentally retarded”.

The thing that initially comes to mind, more than any punishment of the players, is why do we bother? Why is it that we feel that sport (particularly football) should be so sanitized as to punish anyone who says (or writes) what he is thinking about? The question should answer itself, one might say, but I do not really see it like that. Let us look at the situation in two different ways. In one, we can talk about freedom of speech. In the other we can look at double standards.

The obvious question one could ask is: where is the freedom of speech? Britain and most western countries consacrate freedom of speech as one of the cornerstones of their societies. This means that one is allowed to be an idiot and say stupid things. Certainly there are limits to this. One refers to defamation. If I were to affirm that person so and so is corrupt, I would be making an accusation that I should be prepared to back up. On the other hand, were I to do it instead of, say, Sir Alex Ferguson, and there is a good chance I would be totally ignored as a village fool. And rightly so. Then, why is it that we cannot leave these kind of rants alone and let them die as the idiocy they are fully deserve? Truth is, most people who launch themselves in such verbal attacks are usually venting off and will be absolutely harmless. Morganella’s words were certainly offensive, but did anyone think he was going to follow up on the threat? Or was anyone convinced south koreans are mentally handicaped because of his tweet? Certainly not. These were stupid comments and the only reason anyone outside the followers of the swiss ever heard of them was his expulsion from his team. Sometimes, stamping such attitudes is counter-productive. Freedom of speech exists to allow people to say stupid things, not necessarily to say intelligent ones. it is very much an escape valve. It should not be closed.

Of course, one can argue that a sport must protect its image, but then we enter the territory of double standards. Take Terry’s words. He called Anton Ferdinand a black cunt. Note that he used two potential insults: “black” and “cunt”. i don’t know about you, but I would certainly be more annoyed with the “cunt” than with the “black” (even if I am white… well, whitish). Still, this was the part that did not seem to affect Ferdinand, who heard it on the pitch and shook it off with Terry after the match. It seems it is a common part of the things those delightful characters say to each other, so it must be fine. The black part, however, well, that is another story. You see, Ferdinand is black, so it seems he could not be called that. What would happen if he had been called a “white cunt”? Or a blue one? Or a pink cunt with yellow dots? Would any of those be offensive? And what if Ferdinand had called Terry a white cunt or a black cunt? Would that be racial slur? Truth is, people see racial slur in these sentences because they so wish. Had Ferdinand simply ignored it, it would have been dismissed as the attempt to annoy him that it was. After all, if someone calls me an Einstein I may decide to take offense, even if it is meant as a compliment.
What does the double standard part have to do with this? Well, for one, the FA condemns the “black” but not the “cunt”. It means that it is perfectly at ease with insults, just not all of them. For another, whilst it is attacking (rather stupidly) the racial slurs, it is allowing a whole range of invectives involving sexual preferences. I simply find it easy to imagine one player trying to insult (note I write “trying”) another calling him a “homo”, “gay” or any other synonym that may be insulting. I can also easily imagine Terry being prosecuted for the word “black” alone, if the insult had been “black homo”. If this is not double standards, what is?

Of course, the players and the people in charge of the FA (and other organisations) could simply take the situation described in the image at the top of the post. If you are black, why bother about being called as such? If you are not, what is wrong in being called as such? If someone thinks that such words are offensive, it is their problem, not of the person being supposedly insulted. In the position of Ferdinand, Evra or other black players, instead of being insulted for being called something they are (by people who are not even racist), I would more likely fear being called “a disgrace” by the manager. That is the opinion that should count. The rest is nothing more than frustrated slur.

Are Spain the greatest national side ever?

Weeks after the final and the most recent title for Spain is not the time to provide a balance of the Euro2012. The question I would like to address is much simpler: is this Spain side the best of all times? As in all comparisons, one should start by defining its parameters. In this case, the question is: what constitutes being the best? I’ll try to answer by approaching the question from different angles.

Number of trophies
This is the one more readily pointed as the evidence of spanish superiority over any other country in history. The fact that a run of two European Championships and one World Cup has never achieved is an immediate indication that Spain are on a level of their own. in this aspect Spain has one single rival: the Uruguay side of 1924-30 as pointed by Jonathan Wilson. That was the only side to have won consecutive tournaments in the manner of the spaniards. The question of whether the Olympics can be placed in the same level of the Eusopean Championship is moot. At the time it was an important competition (the only real international one) and involved (in theory) countries from all over the world. However, some countries did not bother to travel to some of the tournaments at the time and it is possible to make the case that the uruguayans did not face as serious an opposition as Spain.
Any other possible contenders (Italy in the 30’s, West Germany in the 70’s) either failed one of the possible trophies in the run or had other blemishes. In terms of simply taking trophies, Spain hardly has rivals. The main question could have been placed by Brazil between 1958 and 1962, but they failed to get the Copa America in 1959 and became thus ineligible, even if in those times this was considered by them as a minor tournament. In any case, Spain could then be considered, using these criteria, as the best national side ever.

On the pitch
This is a much trickier proposition and one that can be directly answered: no one team could be considered as the best ever. The differences are too great to mention and, furthermore, football itself changes so fast these days that it is debatable whether this Spain team of 2012 could be considered the same as that of 2008. From the back five, only two players remained and one of them in a different position. From the midfield, only Iniesta and Xavi featured regularly four years ago. Whereas that team fielded two identifiable strikers, this one has none. It would actually be a much more interesting exercise to have Spain 2008 play Spain 2012 to see which would come out on top.
Taking thses caveats in mind, one has to compare not with the above mentioned other contenders, but with Brazil 1970. However, brilliant as that side was, it was built for one single tournament and dazzled as much for the yellow shirts appearing for the first time in colour in TV’s all across the world, as for the amazing quality and balance of a team that was not expected to achieve those breathtaking football heights. Spain, at least if considering the core of Casillas, Ramos, Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, have been battering opponents for four years straight, only occasionally conceding goals and never failing in knock-out stages. It is possible to imagine that Brazil 1970 could challenge Spain 2012, but it is unlikely. With a side built to use the ball but without the guile to defend adequatly, Brazil would probably be, as almost anyone else, passed into submission.
In this aspect, a much better case could be made for West Germany 1974. In Holland, the germans faced an opponent built around very much the same guidelines of passing and movement and, on Cruijff, had the individual brilliance that Spain lacks. Still, the germans managed to win, using a mixture of tactics, desire, strength and brilliant football. Furthermore, in Müller they had a striker who would not forgive the few mistakes the spanish back four could commit. In terms of trophies, the germans would come short. In terms of their impact on the game at the time, they could challenge the spaniards.
(A small interlude to explain the impact point. Even though we today remember the Holland side and their clockwork brilliance as much as we now are mesmerised by the passing of Spain, these are extremely difficult levels to achieve that come once every two generations. A much more lasting legacy may come from the tactical or technical innovations that managed to stiffle these sides. Nobody managed to follow the dutch from the 70’s, but the german approach was used to exhaustion and ended up being followed far more widly than the former approach).
Similarly to the germans, the uruguayans could be pointed as possible contenders for the title of best. Due to technical and tactical differences (not to mention physical) as well as the advent of professionalism, there is no chance that a magically transported Uruguay team from 2930 could compete would present day Spain. Still, taking the realities of the time into consideration, Uruguay, with their silky approach to football, could be contenders for the best ever.
In this thought exercise, some space should be made for famous losers. Hungary 1954, Holland 1974, Brazil 1982/86 should all be remembered. In tournaments of only a few weeks where one slip can be fatal, one should forgive somewhat those wonderful teams that captured our imagination more than the eventual winners.

Can we then declare a winner. Not really. Not objectively, in any case. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and in this case it is also true (just replace “beauty” by “greatness”). Spain are, undoubtebly, the greatest national side in the last 20 years. Possibly 50 years. Beyond that it becomes a muddy issue. What nobody can deny is that they belong amongst the greatest ever and are creating a unique dinasty. Much of that may be due to the present laws of the game as much as their youth policy. This, however, is an issue for another time.

 

What makes a football legend?

In When Saturday Comes, the point was raised that Messi, whilst a star, is not quite yet a legend. To explain this fact, it is pointed that people who are considered legends, like Muhammad Ali, Wayne Gretzky, Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan, redefined their sports and thus achieved this status. It was not the records, it was that untangible quality that makes people stare in awe.

Even though I do agree with the conclusion, I believe the article fails to be convincing. The first reason is the comparison of a player from a team sport which fields 11 players on each side, with players from sports of 1 vs 1, 6 vs 6, 1 vs 1 and 5 vs 5, respectively. The main point of the comparison is that the more players on the field you have, the less likely it is to influence the outcome of a single match, let alone one season or a career. That means that boxing, hockey, golf and basketball are more likely to have players who could redefine the sport and mark one era simply because of the influence of numbers: they had less players to dominate at any given moment.

Taken from this point of view, it begs the question: who would be, under that fuzzy definition, the real legends of football (soccer for those americans unfortunate enough to read these lines)? Well, Maradona and Pelé would be the obvious answers. Who else? Puskas, di Stefano, Cruiff, Beckenbauer, Sindelaar, Yashin? These were undoubtably greats, but were they legends in the sense that they redefined the game? Well, in some cases, the answer is obviously yes, but is is also easy to point other players who redefined it even more despite being somewhat lesser players. For Pelé, read Zagallo, the man who transported almost single-handedly the game from the 4-2-4 to 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 (Alf Ramsey’s 1966 England did much in this sense as well). For Puskas, read Hidegkuti, the man who played the completely revolutionary withdrawn forward role to such perfection that he brought the WM to an unnofficial end. Could they fall under the definition of “legends”? Certainly so, in some quarters or in their own countries, but probably not globally in the history of the game.

Then how to establish this definition? Well, what makes Pelé a great and a legend? In 1970, he played in what was arguably the best national team of all times, a side as ruthless as it was artistic. In 1962, he spent most of the time injured and saw Garrincha destroy side after side and take most of the plaudits. In 1966 he was injured and Brazil were kicked out (literally) of the tournament by very good sides who also aimed at stiffle their quality. In 1958 though, at just 17, he inscribed his name in history books through taking the whole tournament by surprise and scoring some emblematic goals (the most celebrated of which was the 3-1 in the final). Of course, his goals (over one thousand of them by his own reckoning) and a stable and uncontroversial career (as opposed to that of the equally brilliant Garrincha) meant he managed to create his own legend, something very much aided by the emergence of global television and his willingness to appear in movies to further his own image.

That was one side of things. What about Maradona, the man that came to challenge Pelé for the title of “the greatest”? Well, this was a different proposition. Maradona won only one world cup, but differently from Pelé, he dominated it in a way never before seen and playing for an Argentina team that was decidedly average. Furthermore, he imposed not only his football, but also his own will and personality, as exemplified by his “hand of God” comment. On the way to the title, he also scored some emblematic of goals (actually, the most emblematic of them all, followed by an almost equally ridiculously good one against Belgium). Finally, once marked ruthlessly in the final, he created constantly spaces for his teammates by dragging opponents out of position and then made the brilliant pass for the decisive goal. The World Cup in 1986 pretty much encapsulated Maradona’s career (minus the drugs): unbelievably brilliant player playing for an average team and carrying his teammates by pure force of genius and will. The absence of more major tournaments or more individual records become, under this light, unimportant. His term of comparison, in WSC’s article, would naturally be Muhammad Ali.

How does Messi measure up to this then? Well, truth be told, he does not. Not yet. He is far too young and his career has still far too long to go. He may still fall down some celebrity drain and his genius may come to be seen as a light that shone intensely for four seasons and then disappeared. It also looked like Ronaldinho could have challenged the greats, for a couple of seasons at Barcelona, but then parties, the weight of celebrity and his own willingness to leave overcame the determination to suceed and stay at the top level of football. The lack of a World Cup trophy should not be an impediment to Messi’s ascention to the list of legends, because that trophy is not as important as before. It used to be the only chance to see the best players in the world (Pelé is hardly remembered for his Santos career outside South America), but the ascention of global television and YouTube mean that such tournaments are no longer necessary for global recognition.

However, Messi’s bane may also be the lack of a tournament defining performance. Either the carrying an average Barcelona to the Spanish or European title or being the dominating player of the tournament in a Copa America or World Cup that Argentina wins. These are his only paths to legend status. He may break every record in existence and that will not be assured, as it will always be mentioned along the words “yes, but he played with Iniesta and Xavi/Fabregas/Thiago“.

Legend status is not achieved by gods, it is achieved by demigods. As much as Zeus was the most powerful god in Olympus, it is Heracles who achieved the immortality level. It is only the spark of failure that brings certainty of transcendency. Without humanity, this is impossible. And we still need to see Messi’s humanity and frailty before passing judgement on his legend.

Moneyball and football – a flawed premise

There are several moments in Moneyball, the film which documents the rise of the Oakland A’s, when Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt) ignores the joint advice of his scouts and looks at the fictional Peter Brand (played by Jonah Hill) and asks him to recite the statistical data that supports the buying of player A or B. This goes against the advice of the scouts, who say the player has a weird way to pitch, is too slow, too old, has a complicated personality or whatever else. Beane does not care. For him, the stats are everything. The scouts are dinosaurs – a point helped by their age (they all looking like having reserved their spots in the local cemetery) – and their empirical knowledge is essentially useless.

The message is that it does not matter what the years of experience of these scouts bring, only what the raw data mentions. When Sabermetrics, a method for objective analysis of baseball using statistics popularized by Bill James, appeared, it was very much ignored. The scouts distrusted the view that people sitting in cubicles could look at numbers and spot what all their hours in ball parks could not. On the other hand, when the Oakland A’s succeeded, scouts started being seen in the manner described above. Unfortunately, both approaches miss the point completely.

It is very much true that scouts, such as any human being, will fall prey to their own prejudices and preconceptions. If a player is built so-and-so, he cannot play in position A. If he is fast, he has to be a runner. If he has a strong arm, he must be a pitcher. This concept is immediately defeated by the most famous baseball player ever: Babe Ruth. Or by the tall and lean Usain Bolt, who runs mainly against shorter and bulkier sprinters. On the other hand, it is also true that papers filled with numbers do not tell the whole story. One player may excel in his position, but his success may be as much due to his own prowess as to that of the teammate who interacts the most with them. Conceivably it can be seen as the Lennon-McCartney effect: separate they may be good, but together they were geniuses.

Cause and effect
One other point is about the origin of the statistics. It may be true that scouts are looking at style when they should be looking at results, but it was the scouts (and possibly reporters) who came up with the relevant statistics to look at. It may sound silly, but if the statistics are now “base runs” or batting averages”, they could very well be “hand size”, “batting arc” or “average running speed”. Someone came up with the right statistics to look at, because someone figured out the relation cause-effect. That is, someone realized that the higher the batting average, the higher the total points made. Not the other way around.

Some time ago, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanksi published Soccernomics, a book which looked at football from the point of view of an economist, using his tools. There, they realized, for example, that the amount paid in fees for players had little correlation with the success of the team that brought in the players. A much better measure of success were the salaries paid to the players in the team. This indicator provided a very strong correlation, but may not be the whole story. Obviously nobody would expect that if Stoke increase the salaries of the whole squad to Manchester City levels, they would challenge for the title. Still, it may not be clear if the salaries are high because the victories forced the management to increase them, or if the victories came because successful players who earn high salaries were brought in. Once again, cause and effect.

The Liverpool case
The most ironic part of all this is the recent sacking of Damien Comolli. He had been brought in by Liverpool to oversee the implementation of Moneyball-rules to the club. He identified the necessary areas of intervention, identified the players necessary to bring in and did it, apparently with the blessing of Dalglish. With hindsight, the decisions were, mainly, disastrous. Only Jose Enrique and Craig Belamy were successes and Charlie Adam does not feel overpriced (he arrived on the cheap). Naturally, the casual observer will feel aggrieved with the fees paid, but should he? Moneyball was never about bringing brilliant players for peanuts. It was always about bringing players with added value for less than what they could contribute. With this in mind, and considering Liverpool elected to bring in English players, Carroll and Henderson (very young), Suarez and Downing (not old and with important sets of skills) were not bad choices. Maybe overpriced, but if you are willing to pay the price, you should not complaint.

Still, even with a Soccernomics/Moneyball devotee as Director of Football and another as owner, Liverpool haven’t had the highest success. This goes to show how difficult transposing success formulas between different sports can be. It also goes to show that, with it’s simple rules, football can still defy analysis. Statistical tools must know what to look for, otherwise they are simply a nice party trick. On the other hand, when the key issues are identified, a relation of cause and effect must be established, lest one focuses on the wrong side of the issue. In baseball, this is easy but in football the issue is much more complicated due to the multiple interactions between all the players.

This is not to say that such statistical analysis will not be possible, only that it will have to identify the key issues before it can be applied. And, as in everything in human history, the first one advancing the knowledge a bit stands to profit immensely. The question is: who will that be?

Cantre-backs at a paradigm shift

Recently Gabriele Marcotti reflected about the lower quality of centre-backs of top clubs playing in present-day football. As main culprits, he identified the increasing importance of full-backs and defensive midfielders, the decline of man-marking and simple cycles: occasionally the quality decreases. On his analysis I believe he missed one obvious follow-through: the quality of strikers at the moment (Messi, Ronaldo, Huntelaar, van Persie, Gomez, etc, etc, etc) may give the impression that centre-backs are less capable than just a decade ago. On the other hand, of course, it may be that the lower quality makes the attackers shine more. A reflection for another day.

There is however one other possibility that has probably played a role: the changes in rules – or rather the changes in the instructions given to referees. Until about 10 years ago there was still some allowance on the challenges by defenders (and here, “defender” refers to a player who is in a defensive moment of the play). Players could go for hard sliding tackles knowing that they would expect, at most, a yellow card. More often than not they would get a simple slap in the wrist and continue playing as usual. Only out of the ordinary or repeat offending would bring the caution. Red cards were reserved for harsh dissent or violent/unprofessional behaviour. That is how players such as Roy Keane, Patrick Vieira, Ronald Koeman, Diego Simeone, Gattuso, etc, made their living. There is no need to go back to analysing the Crazy Gang and the infamous Vinnie Jones tackle on McMahon.

For many years, the “reducers” were used to intimidate talented opponents, achieve psychological superiority or assert dominance in certain areas of the pitch. These tactics were the ones most used by dominating centre-backs, stoppers who would make clear to opposing attackers what would happen if they tried to take them on. More often than not, tackles which could bring today red cards would warrant little action from the referee. This meant that teams went frequently the standard of one strong and powerful centre-back being paired with a pacey and positionally aware partner. This remains the mould of many sides (Manchester United, Chelsea under Mourinho, Barcelona when playing Puyol and Piqué, etc).

The issue is that with the focus being more and more on letting the game flow and protecting the talented players, football is being changed into a more non-contact sport. Many simple challenges which would be completely ignored in the past are now being called as fouls and some of them even bring yellow cards. Because of this, man marking started being less important (if you cannot perform hard tackles on the opponent there is little point in sticking with him) and movement and positioning took precedence.

Unfortunately such paradigm shift is not achieved easily nor rapidly. Player who have been trained on the art of hard tackling, physical presence and last ditch blocks find it hard to adapt. it is no coincidence that some of the players mentioned by Marcotti are also adept (or started their careers) in other positions. Thiago Silva, Hummels and Kompany played often as defensive midfielders. When Pepe moved from his native Brazil to Portugal it was as a defensive midfielder. Chiellini started as left-back and Vermaelen played often in that position. All of these positions focus strongly on positioning, movement and anticipation, which is why these players have managed to switch easily to the new concept. Other have not been so lucky. Even David Luiz plays extremely well the position when concentrated, maybe because he started as attacking midfielder (which may explain his lapses in concentration).

Of course there are generations which bring brilliant defenders and others which are not so fortunate. Italy has always produced tactically aware defenders and produced the most impressive defensive pairing I can remember watching, that of Nesta and Cannavaro, two players basing their game on positioning, reading of the game, speed and anticipation. Still, in recent years Italy has been little active in that respect, with Chiellini being the most remarkable defender produced in the last 10 years.

Still, even taking these concepts into consideration, we can probably expect more and more players coming through who have been trained within the boundaries of modern football and the quality of centre-backs will again increase. One possible future trend may even be the reassignment of full-backs and defensive midfielders into centre-back positions. On tuesday, at the Barcelona-Chelsea match, we saw how Bosingwa (himself originally a midfielder) adapted perfectly to that role in the absence of an aerial threat from Barcelona. This could be the beginning of a future trend.