Saturday, 30 January 2010

The One That Is Disgusted. . .

I was going to write about Kent police admitting that their actions at the Kingsnorth climate demo were illegal. I've not much time for the ecomentalists, but they were treated in a shocking fashion that sets worrying trends for demonstrations of any ilk in the future. Will anyone be held to account? Doubt it.

I could have mentioned the suspension of the issue of student visas in northern India, Nepal and Bangladesh, but to be honest, that's like barring the windows on your house when your front door is painted blue with gold stars and hanging off its hinges.

What I am writing about connects to a posting I made the other day about Togo's withdrawal from the African Cup of Nations; the final of which is to be played tomorrow evening.

As previously stated, football is a game I love, and I have been dipping in and out of the tournament. It has been an odd affair, some superb football, quite the worst pitches I can remember seeing in a major tournament in years, some terrible refereeing and some equally poor lapses in discipline from the players coupled with crowds that some English 4th division clubs (I still work in old money) would be disappointed with.

African football is a riddle, and it is easy to be patronising about it. For many the zenith will be the memories of Cameroon's incredibly entertaining squad making the quarter-finals at Italia '90 before a couple of poor defending decisions allowed England to eliminate them. They were certainly a very popular side; the tournament began in Milan with them causing a huge upset by defeating the defending champions Argentina, although their tackling was brutal, including what amounted to an assault by Benjamin Massing on Claudio Caniggia. He got a standing ovation for it, and his second yellow of the match.

The European press were cooing about them, talking about their positive, attacking and care-free football. What they really meant was tactical naivety and them being an entertaining sideshow, as long as they didn't really hurt the established nations. It was almost as if they were the warm up act for the real footballers. African football was fun, but it was disorganised and should know its place.

Twenty years on, and things have changed a great deal. Those Cameroon players of 1990 were journeymen, in the main earning their living on the fringes of France's first and second divisions. No African had really, really made the grade, Eusebio being the exception who had left Mozambique as a youngster for Lisbon and represented Portugal. Now African players are amongst the leading stars of the leading clubs. It is hard to imagine Barcelona's recent success without Samuel Eto'o (now at Inter Milan), or Chelsea without Didier Drogba, Jon Obi Mikel, Michael Essien. These are accomplished professionals at the top of their game and the envy of other clubs and other professionals around the world.

And yet, something seems to happen when the Cup of Nations rolls around every two years, there's always one or two events which gives the tournament an element of farce. A little switch goes off which seems to make those involved think, 'Ahhh yes, Zaire vs Brazil 1974, that's what we need more of.'

It's a shame, because African football deserves better than that. But is it any wonder that this clowning, this reverting to stereotype happens when the African games is run by the biggest clowns of all?

At the time of the attack on the Togolese bus my immediate reaction is that they were right to pull out of the tournament, that the tournament should have been pulled and that it was madness to host it in Angola in the first place. To be honest, the fact that the tournament happens every two years devalues the tournament (as it does with the Copa America, where many of the European based players stay at home) as does the fact that it is held in the middle of the season, taking the players away from the clubs that pay them an awful lot of money to do their job.

However, the game's governing body, CAF have acted in a very shoddy manner by announcing that Togo will be banned from the next two tournaments as a result of withdrawing from the ACN because their bus was attacked by some nutter with a machine gun, resulting in fatalities.

It leaves me almost speechless, it is amazing that having been put in very serious danger and paying for it with their own blood, that they are then punished. Togo's government (more of which in a moment) are understandably pretty bloody un-chuffed and are talking about legal action. The European clubs will be delighted, it means they'll not lose so many players at the busiest time of the year, watch the value of Togolese players sky-rocket if this ban sticks.

And here's the rub, from the early days of players in England travelling in third class whilst the directors sat in the first class carriages on the trains to games, to now when the administrators feel that their decisions, their tournaments and their incomes are more important than the players and supporters and their safety; football, not just in Africa, is in danger of eating itself.

FIFA will probably not be happy with CAF's actions. What they will be less happy with will be Togo's government getting involved, FIFA hate this. Any intereference from the government in the national federation of any country means instant suspension, getting FIFA to abide by any court decision is very difficult, even the international court of arbitration for sport. They view their grip on the game as absolute, they will tolerate no dissent, but football is too important for that. Battles between the EU and FIFA/UEFA have been avoided thus far, but it is inevitable.

The next big one will be the issue of TV rights, and clubs, rather than leagues, owning the rights to sell coverage. It is a foregone conclusion. The clubs will win, it is them after all that people want to watch, not a committee of old men in blazers. The relationships between companies like Adidas and Nike (the latter pretty much own the Brazilian national team, whilst the former are so closely integrated into FIFA as to be almost symbiotic, Sepp Blatter is an Adidas man through and through), the confederations and clubs is an interesting one, but when push comes to shove, clubs pay the players and people watch the clubs.

When the TV debate is won by the clubs, then football as we know it will be dead within ten years. The administrators can't see it. The club shareholders don't care. The fans won't realise until too late. Competition and player development will die as the clubs who cannot sell their rights, or generate sufficient income from the sales will die out. With that so will the sport, except in one country - the USA.

The American Major League Soccer has very shrewdly followed the plan set out by the most succesful sporting franchise model in existence - the NFL. American football follows some very anti-American practices to ensure its business is sound, its advertising revenue is strong, its TV packages equitable and most importantly that its league is competitive and fair. The Superbowl is next weekend, at the start of the season, no-one knew who would be going to Miami, it could have been any one of the 32 teams, and the same will hold true next season (except the Cleveland Browns, who are always, always terrible, I don't know how they do it).

When football collapses, the MLS/NFL model and the Americans will take over the football world. It'll be a huge shock, but will probably be for the better.

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