No World Cup? Get Lost!

Most of the younger people who watch football today (those born after 1985 to be specific) have had the privilege of easy access to top level football in a manner that wasn’t always the case. They have access to the best in club football. There is often a price attached that access but if you can afford it, you can see the biggest, most popular clubs regularly.

Super-hyped club competitions, i.e. UEFA Champions and Europa Leagues, and publicity tours masking as pre-season training for the world’s top European club sides have helped changed football viewing for the common fan. These ventures are supported by bloated budgets – unheard of even as recently as the early 1990’s. There are massive amounts of money available that clubs cannot ignore. It was inevitable that so much money would influence the views of those with stronger ties to club football than to international football.

The majority of football fans lived a big chunk of their lives during a time when there wasn’t such widespread coverage, especially not coverage of club football. Growing up in the United States made it even harder to access because of the unpopularity of and frankly, aversion to the sport – up until the early to mid 1990’s soccer was ridiculed as a sissy sport. Since the World Cup is aired free of charge, one could easily watch the best players in the biggest competition. World Cups provide lasting memories for all involved, especially viewers from less developed parts of the world. World Cups are a very big deal to people who haven’t got ties to a major football league or a big, successful club.

When there’s an international break, I often read dissenting views from those who do not value international football. They feel that international football has passed its usefulness. I can never see it that way. As die hard an Arsenal fan as I am, I cannot see a world without World Cup competition.

Is it just an anti FIFA thing? Is it wholly an anti international football thing? Is it a generational thing?

To me it matters little what the gripe is or that it’s coming from people who have not had to wait for magazines to hit newsstands for their football fix. Nor does it matter to me that these people can point and click their way to news in an instant that for generations people had to wait to read in newspapers. I’m all for the technological advances that give easy access to the sport we all love. The sport benefits. We all benefit. To say however that there’s no longer a place for international football is short-sided at best.

The reason that we have to watch lesser nations (in football terms) play is because they are part of the football landscape. They are no less a part of it than Derby were part of the EPL two seasons ago. Granted Derby has a rich history while Andorra and Armenia do not. Nonetheless, the aspirations of the lesser football nations should not be any less than those of Sheffield Wednesday or Leeds United to make it (back) to the top level. It is crass for the privileged fan of a top European club to tell a supporter of a small club that might never play in an international club competition that his club has no right to do so. It’s equally crass to tell Tahiti or Tajikistan or Panama or Palestine that their matches are a burden on the club calendar.

Football is about uniting not dividing. I’m not naïve enough to suggest that there aren’t priorities and that money makes the world go round and all that but to categorically deny a nation and its fans a chance to play what to them is as meaningful as any Arsenal vs. Man Utd or any Arsenal vs. Spurs match is beyond selfish. International football has not suddenly lost anything. Money has placed a wedge between the attractive and the unattractive and in the mind of the younger fan, there is no basis for continuing something that they have not been a part of.

They have no strong ties to the international game because they’ve been on a steady diet of club football. They haven’t got a memory bank full of exciting World Cup matches, hence the disconnect. That is the real issue.

In my opinion, doing away with the FIFA World Cup, the European Championship, Copa America, the African Cup of Nations, the Asian Cup, etc. would be tragic. I believe that there’s room for both domestic and international football to thrive. It’s pursuit of more and more money that makes it increasingly difficult to accommodate both.

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Release the Stats

“United are unhappy about the leak of ProZone statistics proving that Wiley ran further than all but four of their players in the Sunderland match. The club consider the leak to be a breach of their contract with ProZone, who are contractually obliged to keep match information confidential, but are undecided on whether to take up that issue legally.”

Let’s ignore the Republican-like tactics by Manchester United for the moment. Clearly, Ferguson was in the wrong and probably won’t be punished heavily for it. They’re Manchester United after all.

It brings me to a more puzzling conundrum in the modern game.

I am an American. As an American sports fan, I follow other sports like baseball and basketball.

Baseball has always been a sport tailor made for statistics. Unlike almost every other sport because of it’s sample size, statistics can actually tell you a great deal about a baseball player, even if you’ve never seen the player play. Obviously, they can’t give you a complete picture, but it’s better than nothing. There are various advanced statistics in baseball that have been formulated by stats freaks like Bill James and the people at Baseball Prospectus. This sort of advance in reading a baseball game has led to the deification of figures like Billy Beane and Theo Epstein, young general managers who took that knowledge and applied it to their own teams. Billy Beane was even invited by Premier League clubs to see if they could apply the stats methodology to improving football clubs.

Following this trend, basketball teams have started hiring statisticians to come up with formulas to better assess basketball players. It doesn’t work nearly as well for basketball as it does for baseball, but there are up and coming number crunchers who feel that they can make a better assessment with these statistics.

Which brings me all the way to ProZone. ProZone is a private company that many footballing clubs get statistical analysis from.

Frequently during Champions League matches, they show the “distance covered” statistic and that comes directly from ProZone, something that the newspapers used to prove that Alan Wiley wasn’t “unfit” for refereeing duties.

I’ve always wondered why I couldn’t get my hands on statistics like this. In fact, when it comes to statistics, football seems to be in the dark ages, at least for public viewing. You go to any major footballing website, and all they will have are goals and assists. The ACTIM stat index is available on the Premier League website, but even that is a confusing way to gauge a player because they don’t explain what is going on clearly enough.

I know fully well that there are advanced statistics in football. Wenger once spoke of the Castrol Football Index which allows him to pinpoint exactly how fast a pass a player can deliver. He uses that system to determine who may or may not be fit, help evaluate a future player for Arsenal, and see areas of improvement. This is a worthwhile feature to have available, but it’s not necessary for public viewing.

I just want the simple statistics readily available. Things like pass completion rate, number of interceptions, key passes, distance covered, and stats of that nature.

The Guardian chalkboard is a handy tool, but it’s nowhere enough compared to the amount of information I can easily find about baseball players. It’s silly that a Fantasy Football site can tell me more numbers about a football player than a site like the BBC or the Premier League site can.

I’m well aware that having access to these sites won’t necessarily enhance my knowledge of the game, but it could. Perhaps there would be more thought placed into some blogs, rather than trusting on what your gut instincts tell you. The example of Denilson should be enough for me to show why this access might make for better analysis.