Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Passion of Lovers (Part 3)

Blah blah blah football blah blah blah

A lot of England football fans will tell you that FIFA has something against the England team, whether it's through dodgy qualifying draws, bad refereeing decisions, or just the fact that most of us think Sepp Blatter just doesn't like the fact that England invented the game.

However, this last month has seen a different face to FIFA - obvious bias and obvious corruption and thankfully England was not involved (well, almost not). The first hint of commercialism over fair play appeared when FIFA moved the goalposts for the 8 best placed runners up in the qualifying groups. Instead of the promised straight knockout, football's governing body opted instead to seed the 4 'highest ranked' [read: more lucrative] footballing nations. This meant that the Republic of Ireland, Slovenia, Bosnia and Ukraine all had potentially more difficult opposition, rather than just letting fate decide the 4 matches by drawing the balls out like the FA Cup.

The new improved FIFA fate decided that Ireland would get the toughest draw of the lot - France. Arguably the team that FIFA wanted more in South Africa than any of the other 7. The Irish coach Trappatoni made his feelings clear before and after the 'draw' and despite a fighting chance in the 2nd leg, the hand of Thierry landed the devastating blow. 3 of the 4 preferred teams made it to South Africa and Slovenia provided the human interest by knocking out the Russians, of which only the Russians and one Dutch bloke will be overly concerned. (Hiddink for the Red Shite any one?)

It was unfair. It was a low blow. And it stunk of FIFA getting its own way, by any means, especially if those means mean not changing the game to make it fairer and more just. The Irish government can complain until the Kerrygold cows come home, FIFA will not sanction a replay on the grounds of one small incident in a 120 minute long game of football - the precedent would be too horrendous to contemplate. But, something good might come out of this, even if it means the likes of Robbie Keane, Damien Duff and Shay Given will probably not now get the chance to grace the world stage again (Giggs never has, so its not uncommon). You see, the Irish ain't England; they carry a lot of respect in world football - a one time perennial over achieving side, that still 9 times out of 10 is in the shake up for major competition qualification. Their fans are a pleasure to be with; the players are modest and self-effacing and they're currently managed by one of the most respected elder statesmen of football... I was only saying last week that something will happen that will force FIFA's hand into using some form of technology to prevent incidents like this ever happening again.

Steve Claridge made a very good point on Radio 5 last week, when he said that if you look at the amount of time it takes for a referee to placate a heated contention of a decision - despite every single one of those footballers knowing that once a decision is made it takes a miracle of biblical proportions for the ref to overturn it - a 5th match official could be sitting watching the monitors of the television coverage (every major game now is covered), who could make a far more accurate and informed decision and relay it to the pitch ref via head phones. This happens in cricket, tennis and rugby in recent years and oddly enough it hasn't changed those games; in fact, it's made them a damn sight fairer. Yes, there are still some dodgy decisions, but so few as they tend to slip under the wire or cause minutes of debate rather than months.

Something like this could make the game a damned sight more honest than its become. Plus, it would stop wankers like Ferguson and Benitez from bleating about referees' and their 'bad' decisions.

Speaking of SAF, football's most famous timekeeper would probably be dead against this idea. How about a rugby league styled clock system rather than the referee's watch? The clock gets stopped for any unnatural pause in the game - a booking or sending off, an injury, penalty or a substitution. It would continue running for throw-ins, corners, free and goal-kicks. It would mean there would never be any complaints about too much or too little injury time being played and the fans might not feel as cheated, especially when some games the ball is actually in play for less than 35 minutes in a 45+ minute half!

But neither FIFA or UEFA would adopt that policy; it's too prone to not be in favour of the favoured teams. But football's two biggest governing bodies don't like anything that makes the game a more level playing field. A few years ago, the Japanese developed a microchip that weighed something like a tenth of a gram. It was so small and flexible it could literally be sewn into the fabric of a football - it had 100 times less effect on the flight of a ball than mud from a heavy pitch would have, yet FIFA threw the idea into touch solely on the grounds of tampering with the integrity of the match ball.

If FIFA really wants to have a world cup that features just the top teams in the world, then why don't they be blatant about it? They have the laughable Confederations cup every two years, which, to be fair, could disappear into the either and only Brazil would be bothered. They could replace it with a bi-annual World Championship of Football, where the top 8 or even 16 ranked teams in the world play each other in a straight knockout competition. Heck, you could even keep the teams seeded and play 1 v 16, 2 v 15, 3 v 14 and so on until you get to 7 v 8 - just like how Wimbledon is structured to work. At least that way you'd be guaranteed a massive world wide audience every two years and the incentive of the 3000 teams ranked lower than 16 or 8 is that the only way they can appear in this lucrative competition is by improving their national teams and challenging for the competition. But, of course, for this to work, there would have to be a much fairer ranking system and to change the current system is yet another thing football's dictators would never consider doing.

The irony about the Irish result is that neither teams were likely - on current form - to qualify from the group stages in South Africa (unless of course France now get handed a group consisting of New Zealand, North Korea and Honduras) and the French under Raymond Domeneque are a bit like England under Steve McLaren - pretty much a load of shit considering the talent at his disposal. There's also a good chance that Ireland might have had more of a fight in them, so its a shame that they didn't make it.

The thing that is killing true football is the commercialisation of the game by TV companies and the billions of pounds being offered, of which UEFA and FIFA just have dinner plate eyes for. The Europa league is already a joke for many of the teams, especially the British teams, because staying in their respective Premier leagues is considerably more important than playing in a competition where, if you win 19 games, half a Premier League season, you get the Mickey Mouse Champions League trophy and a tenth of what a CL semi-finalist will receive in prize money alone. So, suddenly, the euphoria of getting into Europe is chastened by the realisation that to qualify from the now considerably more difficult group stage, you are going to be playing the pick of the youth team, the fringe players and the tea lady, to stand a chance of getting a point against Wolves the following Sunday.

The Europa League is a joke and frankly if Spurs are 4th, 5th or 6th come the end of April I'm going to be praying that we either win all our games or lose them all. If we can't be there in the shake up for a Champions League place, then I don't really want to be in the Europa league unless we've got a squad that can hack it. Harry Rednapp said recently that he thought the Europa League would do well to return to the old UEFA cup format.
A 128 team knockout competition, with seeding only for the first 3 rounds - the last 16 would just go into a pot and destiny would guide the hands of the ball drawers - now that would maybe interest more neutrals and would probably appease the money grabbing bigger clubs, because they'd be at least guaranteed a quarter final berth. Of course, the drawback to this is the 3rd place teams in the Champions League group stages; they'd just either be eliminated from Europe for another year, or if UEFA want to milk it, they could have a sort of European Vase, where the 3rd and 4th place teams in group stages play each other in a knockout until there's one winner, who gets a trophy and automatic entry into one of the next season's competitions if they fail to qualify by league position.

I also think that the Premier league needs to sort its act out if FIFA isn't willing to move the game forward. The EPL is probably one of the most powerful bodies in football today, purely based on the amount of revenue it generates. But, the EPL is weak and doesn't like change; it has members that are terrified of not being in the EPL and there is a general feeling from fans that it might not need fixing, but it does need cleaning up and polishing.

Despite UEFA requesting we reduce the EPL to 16 or 18 teams (can't quite remember) by the turn of the century, that's never happened and isn't likely to while there is a massive gap in revenue between the EPL and the Football League Championship. Phil Gartside, Bolton's chairman and his idea of a two-tier EPL might sound like him feathering his own nest because his club haven't got the resources to ever be much more than a struggling mid-table team, but the idea isn't without merit, depending on whether or not they made it a closed shop or not. Two leagues of 18 teams, with two up and down from the top league and one down, one up from the Football League, which would be split into 3 regional leagues with play-offs between the winners and the team that finished 18th in EPL2, with a final, and the winner getting into, or staying in EPL2.

The three regional FL leagues would each have 20 teams in, meaning there would be 96 clubs in the league; this would allow 4 teams from the conference to come up and the remaining teams and their two lower leagues would also become regional conferences with promotion to the FL.

The League Cup would change because of this and I think I'd give up the UEFA place in favour of another EPL1 qualifier. Plus 96 teams allows for a totally easy way of organising it. The first round would be 64 teams - the 60 from the FL and the 4 lowest ranked teams in EPL2. The 32 qualifiers would then be put in a draw with the 32 other teams; no ranking or seeding, no exemption because of European commitments - with no Euro qualification hanging on it, the major teams would have to play the majority of their fringe - it could be mandatory that EPL1 teams have to play at least 8 players who have to be under 23.

The FA Cup could be rejuvenated by increasing the prize money, possibly even giving the incentive of a CL place by playing off against the 4th place team in the EPL, especially if they want to piss off fans, but if rugby union can have champions that aren't actually champions, then why can't football deprive the 4th most consistent team of the year a place in football's golden handshake for the sake of a money-spinning one-off?

Anyhow, that's what I'd do if I was in charge of football.

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