Sunday 4 October 2015

The Bundesliga doesn't have or need a 'Klassiker'

Bayern Munich's 5-1 victory over Borussia Dortmund on 4th October underlines not just the Bavarian's supremacy but the lack of wisdom in the promotion of "Der Klassiker".

This is the second time that Bayern have beaten their perceived championship rivals by 5-1 at home this season. However, the difference between the Dortmund win and that against Wolfsburg were like chalk and cheese.

Wolfsburg played well in the first half and were undone in a crazy 9 minutes of football at the start of the second from five goal Robert Lewandowski. Borussia in contrast were dreadful. Thomas Tuchel, in relegating, Ginter in favour of Lukasz Piszczek and recalling Bender as a makeshift centre half may have over thought his tactics. Dortmund fell foul of two long balls that you would expect a team of their calibre to defend and the goalkeeper had a 'mare.

That being said Bayern were and are excellent. Douglas Costa is a sensation down the flanks, Thiago is constantly reassuring, Müller is a force of nature and the team is masterminded by a coach who, unlike his less experienced opposite number usually gets it right for the big games. In my opinion, Bayern would have won the game even if Dortmund had been at their best.

It is difficult therefore not to arrive at the conclusion that Bayern are very much a class above the rest of the league. However, the tendency to overhype this particular fixture as a German classico, runs the risk of cheapening the Bundesliga as a whole by focussing too much attention on a single fixture when German football has so much more to offer.

A couple of hours before the Bayern v Dortmund game,  FC Köln provided a tactical masterclass in counterattacking football by beating Schalke away from home 3-0. It was a demonstration of the cleverness of their coach Peter Stöger and the tactical discipline of their players. Contrast this performance to a similar botched attempt by Tony Pulis’ West Bromwich Albion against Crystal Palace the day before in the much vaunted Premier League.

The Bundesliga is brimming with talented youngsters such as Max Meyer, Leroy Sane, Julian Draxler, Robin Knoche, Maxi Arnold, Julian Brandt, Julian Weigl and countless others. In spite of Bayern's dominance of the league, only five in the starting XI of Germany's World Cup winners were brought through the ranks by the Bavarians. Schalke, Werder Bremen, Bayer Leverkusen and even Kaiserslautern provided the starting point for players in that team and although Mats Hummels was a youngster at Bayern, he made his name at Dortmund.

Most weeks the league throws up exciting, high scoring matches and continues to engage its fans as the high attendances will testify. While it does not make as much money as the English Premier League it is by no means a cash poor league and is very much in rude health. Which makes this attempt to manufacture a traditional classico along the lines of the Real Madrid v Barcelona game or the Derby d'Italia is unnecessary.

Down the years, Bayern have enjoyed a healthy rivalry with a number of different clubs beside Dortmund. Borussia Mönchengladbach, Stuttgart, Werder Bremen and Hamburg among others have challenged Bayern throughout the history of the Bundesliga. However, only Bayern have remained at the top since their emergence as a force in the 1970s. Consequently there has not been a consistent challenger from which a traditional rivalry and in turn a classico did develop.

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The Bayern v Dotmund 'Der Klassiker' seems to be a recent construct based in the fact that for two seasons at the start of the decade, Borussia were a match for Bayern. The term seems only to be embraced by the small but growing international German football media and the Bundesliga itself. There is no perceived history or tradition to the fixture and not much evidence of its use in the wider German football lexicon. 

And while this false narrative may help foreign media provide a focus for the Bundesliga in terms of publicising and promoting the league, there is a risk that the Bundesliga could be cheapened by focussing too much on just Bayern and Dortmund. It could also backfire as it becomes clear that most of the time the same team (Bayern) is likely to keep winning. Potential new fans could be put off by its one sidedness and be left with the impression that Bayern are the only decent team in Germany, rather than the reality which is that there are plenty of good teams in Germany of which Bayern is the best.

The Bundesliga is a strong, progressive league with a plethora of great clubs with histories both long and short. It is also the home of the World Champions. It should concentrate on these qualities and does not need to manufacture rivalries to be successful.

Tuesday 2 June 2015

Is it time to end the Bundesliga Relegation playoff?

Few neutrals who watched Hamburg’s last ditch Relegation playoff survival at Karlsruhe on Monday would argue that it was cracking stuff. It was drama that outstrips anything drafted by even the sharpest Hollywood writing team.

The end of season Bundesliga Relegation Playoff pits the third from bottom of the first division against that third placed second team in a two legged game to decide who plays in the 1st division next season. For the second year in a row, Hamburg were the top tier club and once again they prevailed, this time thanks to an extra time winner in the second leg at Karlsruhe.

But there was a controversial turning point in the second leg when the referee, Manual Grafe,  gave a free kick to Hamburg deep into injury time for a marginal handball. HSV consequently scored and forced the game into extra time.

The result left a bitter taste in the mouth for the KSC players and supporters who felt hard done by. Many neutrals (at least on my Twitter timeline) were also left frustrated that a team as consistently dismal as Hamburg are still in the top flight. As exciting as it was it's difficult to escape the feeling that this play off appears to have rewarded a bad football team.

There have been seven relegation playoffs since its return to the calendar in 2009. Five of those games have gone the way of the first division club. You could say that two of these clubs, TSG Hoffenheim and Borussia Mönchengladbach have gone on to make a significant contribution to the Bundesliga after their brush with death. Borussia have certainly produced a brilliant side that hopefully will grace the Champions League next season.
But the downside is that second division clubs are being prevented from progressing in the top tier. Of the five losing contenders, only Augsburg were able to bounce back from playoff defeat in 2010. Bochum, Kaiserslautern, Greuther Fürth and now Karlsruhe have worked hard and played well to earn their third place finish only to find all their good work undone by a two legged match.

Moreover, there is a danger that smaller clubs are being denied the experience of playing in the first division. KSC had a relatively young squad who, no doubt would have struggled had they been promoted but the experience would have been of great value to the players, coaches and the club. The same could be said for last season's losers, Greuther Fürth, who would have bounced back after one season down in the second division and might have made more of a fist of things second time around.

You may argue that the Bundesliga 2 teams should pull their finger out and win these game. And of course you would be right. But often these teams are made up of younger less experienced players than their Bundesliga 1 counterparts. It seems unreasonable to put their entire season on the line against more experienced professionals.

Besides, it seems unsporting to give bad teams another chance. HSV have been dogshit for the last two seasons and there's no reason to think that they won’t be just as bad next season. I think KSC deserved their chance and it’s a shame that their fantastic season was effectively decided by a questionable call from a referee.

So perhaps it's time the DFL did away with the playoff. As entertaining as they are for the neutral, they have often rewarded bad teams and bad football. The desire to extend the season for a little while longer is tempting but a four team second division playoff would be just as fun and more sporting. Especially if you seeded the higher placed teams at the end of the season. It also has the virtue of sending the crap teams down and not leaving them with the illusion that they have actually achieved something at the end of the season.

Tuesday 26 February 2013

1. FC Köln 2, Union Berlin 0: The Land Of Gluvine and Chocolate

Last weekend I travelled to FC Köln v Union Berlin to watch a bit of football and drink beer. Here's how it went.

1. FC Köln striker Stefan Meierhoffer presents the appearance of a World’s Strongest Man contestant performing a Truck Pull only without the truck. He is enormous but slow and the springs in his legs have gone plunk. If the X-Men villain Juggernaut ever lost his powers he’d be just like Stefan Meierhoffer, a man with little or no inertia and despite looking like it, decidedly incapable of running through walls. Quite simply he was probably the worst number nine I have ever seen play professional football.

So needless to say having spent the entire first half and the break at the RheinEnergieStadion slagging him off, he only went and scored in the second half. I managed to mask my embarrassment with the knowledge that everyone I was with had been just as disparaging as me. We were too red faced with our Gluvine induced hysteria to look ashamed and for his part, Meierhoffer, celebrated like a man who had heard every word.

The German football supporter’s relationship with alcohol is different to the English. In Premier League and Football League grounds, booze cannot be consumed within sight of the pitch. Consequently alcohol is binged in the hours leading up to the match in pubs outside of the grounds or in stadium bars facing away from the pitch. Fans live of the fumes for 45 minutes before piling back into the bars at half time and then back to the boozers at the final whistle. In Germany it is possible buy beer without leaving your seat. As an English football tourist, the novelty of drinking beer while watching a game is too compelling and despite the sub zero temperatures I quickly swapped the warming gluvine (a cross between mulled wine and Bovril) for a chilled Kölsch. This is the stuff of dreams for many an Englander. It’s like being Homer Simpson in the Land Of Chocolate.

Despite the oncoming snow, there was no yellow ball. This is another improvement on the game in Germany. Perhaps not up there with supporter ownership and progressive club licensing but all it takes is the ruffle of hair from an unkempt spectator and the snow ball is out in England. You'd think there was some sponsorship deal or something.

There is no doubt that FC Koln are a traditional Bundesliga club. Their modern stadium held 42,000 on Saturday which is mind boggling for a second division match outside Germany. Reasonable ticket prices have contributed to a loyal fan culture that keeps the punters  rocking up. The booming anthem sung by all before the game maintains a big match spectacle despite the football being pretty ordinary.

Koln’s opponents, Union Berlin, played their City rivals Hertha a couple of weeks ago in front of 75,000 at the Olympic Stadium. Union have a reputation for a vociferous support reinforced by their clubs strong commitment to their supporters and a well defined left wing ideology. Union were based in the old east Berlin and identified themselves as an anti-Stasi club, a position that saw their traditional rivals, Dynamo Berlin, profit greatly at Union's expense.

On the field, however, they're not much cop despite being relatively high up the table. However, given their sharp rise through the leagues it would be unkind to be critical and they would be a welcome addition to the top flight should they continue to progress.

Kevin McKenna scored the opener in a 2-0 win that was impressive by being routine. Coach Holger Stanislawski's team may be unspectacular but they have survived a troublesome start to the season after relegation and are now looking to snatch third spot from a faltering Kaiserslautern. Whether they can gain promotion via the play off with the third from bottom team in the first division is another matter. They may need an upgrade on their striker.

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Thursday 18 October 2012

Tickets Please

The BBC Sport report on ticket prices in the Premier and Football League is most welcome. The price of admission to a football match is one of the most important and relevant aspects of football because of the direct financial consequences it has on supporters.

At its core, football is about going to matches. In fact the very definition of a supporter hinges on them turning up at games, paying through the turnstiles and supporting the team. If for whatever reason, you don’t or can’t then you’re not a supporter, you’re a fan. This is why the cost of admission is so important: it is part of what sets the parameters of the relationship that an individual and a community has with their club.

But I don’t believe the Premier League looks at things in the same way. They look at the relationship between a club and a supporter as similar to that of a business and a consumer. Have a look at Cathy Long’s (Head of Supporter Services for the Premier League) piece for the BBC as an illustration of this perspective. Long talks of adding value to the supporter’s experience (through the creation of “family zones” it seems). To me, this seems like another way of saying “Get ‘em in early and get ‘em spending” although I may be a tad cynical there.

The advantage the Premier League has over other leisure industries is a higher than usual sense of customer loyalty. English football club supporters are prepared to make additional sacrifices to follow the team due to the strong connection to their club. This allows the clubs to set their pricing structure with considerably less caution than a cinema or theme park, for example. After all, who ever heard of an Odeon Supporter? On what channel is the weekly radio phone in show for disgruntled Alton Towers fans?

There is an argument that the Premier League offers world class entertainment because the high calibre players the clubs employ and that costs money, lots of money. This is true to a point. But the fact is that football, usually, does not guaranteed entertainment. Sometimes, even the best teams lose or draw or just play badly. If you follow Man City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Man United then it is unlikely that you’ll leave your home stadium unhappy but the same can’t be said for the rest of the clubs in the league, much less for the clubs in the Championship and below.

With TV revenues significantly lower in the Football League, Championship clubs need to keep the cash coming in to try and maintain a manageable gap in the quality of players between the League. Is it any wonder then that it costs more considerably more money to watch a team like Crystal Palace than two times Bundesliga Champions, Borussia Dortmund? This may not be the actual reason why it costs around £30 to enter Selhurst Park on a match-day but it must surely be a factor.

Ultimately, the reason why it costs as much as it does to watch football in England is because enough people are willing to pay. In fact, football has an in built mechanism to keep the prices high and that is set by supporters themselves who regard non-attendance as disloyalty. If the relationship was one of club and supporter then that would be fair enough but it’s not: it’s business and consumer. To be blunt, clubs are exploiting a relationship between themselves and the fans that either does not exist or is not reciprocated.

So what is to be done?

In Germany, there are frequent boycotts by supporter groups in protest against rising ticket prices. However, most clubs in Germany are owned in the most part by the supporters. This has contributed to a culture whereby supporters have a greater influence and whose voice is taken more seriously. Clubs are clubs and not businesses  They are run for the benefit of themselves and their own ends. This culture and the relationships it creates do not exist in England, as far as I can make out. The notion of organising any form of boycott would be regarded disloyalty not just by the clubs but almost certainly by significant sections of the supporter base. Reflect for a moment on the situation at Cardiff City where supporters are divided over the club’s recent change of colours and crest. It is easy to imagine similar unpleasantness occurring about direct action over ticket prices.

Another option is to form a breakaway club. Ultimately, AFC Wimbledon and FC United Of Manchester were formed as a reaction to corporate excess ruining their match day experience. Why not form a new club at a lower level? The trouble with this idea is that it too is divisive and denies the supporters top quality football.

Then of course there is regulation (thank you, I’m here all week). But seriously, a practical suggestion may be compel the Premier and Football League clubs to take a slice of their TV revenue to offset against ticket prices. A “TV Subsidy” if you will.  This idea has the virtue of being straightforward and something that every supporter can get behind, irrespective of club.

While top slicing the Sky money and giving back to the supporters in the form of subsidised ticket prices will negatively affect club’s bottom line, it will make it harder for them to criticise the idea. They’ll probably start by saying that they would have to reduce solidarity payments to the lower leagues but this too can be protected with better regulation.

The final (and most likely) option of course is to do nothing. Perhaps, sooner or later, the middle class forty-somethings who can currently afford a ticket will get bored, suffer one moral outrage too many, lose their jobs or just figure that they're getting too old for this sort of thing and go an find something else to do with their time instead like go to the pictures, maybe. That might do the trick. 

Sunday 16 September 2012

I can't believe he missed Andy Gray: A foreword

As a leaving present for Chris Oakley upon his departure to New Zealand, Graham Sibley and I published a book containing his complete Friday List Of Little Or No Consequence posts for Some People Are On The Pitch and the Football Fairground. Below is the foreword, penned by myself. 

“Anything with Garlic.” replied Archie Gemmill to the now classic “What’s your favourite food?” question asked of all professional footballers honoured to be the subject of the now defunct “Shoot!” magazine’s Q and A section. The answer immediately conjures images of the rampaging Scotsman, wilting the Dutch players on that infamous night in Argentina in 1978, with his garlic fuelled breath, as the wee man met his destiny and Scotland met their end.

I never read “Shoot!” as a boy and only found out about Archie’s appetites through that stalwart of mental ephemera that is The Friday List Of Little Or No Consequence which for five years ran in Chris Oakley’s football blog, Some People Are On The Pitch and later the Football Fairground.

Every week, the list would provide a portion of empirical factitude delivered by the author. The list was aptly named and exemplifies the true spirit of a fan’s passion for the game. For most of us, football is a matter of little or no consequence but the the lists demonstrate the power the beautiful game has over us when we choose to seek knowledge and understanding for no reason other than because it is there.

As much as chalkboards, tactical breakdowns, player profiles and historical & cultural contexts allow us to understand football, the accumulation of hitherto buried trivia gives the game substance. From the sixteen teams in the 2008 Africa Cup Of Nations in Nickname Form to England one cap wonders to ten stickers missing from his “Football 1981” Panini album to 27 Statistics mentioned during the Guardian Football Weekly podcast of 29 December 2011, every Friday the List gave the reader possibly one of the greatest gift anyone could receive: consequence free knowledge; innocence on a web page.

As Chris embarks upon a new chapter in his life, he leaves his disciples these lists, collected in a single volume, as a fitting legacy and tribute to a man for whom no fact was too small, no event too obscure and no genre too niche.

Happy trails, Oakers.

STRIKER: Raging Against The Machine

This post was originally published on 8th September 2012 for the Football Attic.

Steve Earle’s Copperhead Road, Socialist Worker, Ernest Hemmingway’s Men Without Women, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Lethal Weapon Pinball, Selhurst Park, Guinness and Super Nintendo (SNES). If you were to evacuate my conscious mind in the early Nineties and reassemble its elements as some grotesque Mental Pinterest then those fragments of ephemera are what would be displayed. But if I were to place an extra large pin on one of those elements to give it extra significance it would be the Guinness. However, I’ve not been asked to write about Guinness. I’ve been asked to write about an old video game, so for the purposes of this tortured preamble, I’ll say it would be my SNES.

Purchased from the Virgin Megastore in Tottenham Court Road, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System introduced me to NHL Ice Hockey, the glory of World League Basketball (NCAA for readers in the US) and the worst Rugby video game in the history of all games ever created (everyone knows time is not up until the ball goes dead. EVERYONE KNOWS THAT!)

Then of course, there was the king of all football video games, the timeless classic: Sensible Soccer. However, SS looked stupid with its plan view pin pricks for players, stupid sound effects and rubbish player names (who the fuck is Alan Shiarer?) After a week I’d decided that this was a game for people who took this sort of thing far more seriously than me and took up STRIKER instead.

The first thing to say about STRIKER was that it was produced by a company called RAGE Software. For angry Trotskyite class warriors, as I claimed to be at the time, anything produced by something called RAGE was brilliant. RAGE was a force for good. RAGE made a difference. RAGE would kick the Tories out. RAGE would smash the State and end injustice. Whatever else you can say about the name RAGE, it was ideologically sound.

The next thing to say about STRIKER is the gameplay which had an agreeable 45-degree view, sticky balls (if you’ve played Kick Off or listened to the latest Attic Podcast then you’ll know what I mean) and crunching tackles. If there was a normal tackle button, I never pressed it. The sliding tackle was designed to clean out the opposition player and emerge with the ball at your feet. The action generated a satisfying squelchy slippy noise which elicited a feeling of great and surprisingly wholesome satisfaction. There was no commentator (thank Christ!) but whenever something extra cool happened an electric scoreboard would pop up with encouraging exclamations like “OFF THE BAR!” and “WHAT A TACKLE!” and “PENALTY!” and “GOAL!!!”

The games were accompanied by an “authentic” crowd noise which responded to the shifting patterns of play and had a curious reverb that was a little freaky when you played the game on your own. However, when the ball hit the back of the net the crowd would go wild and once you’d figured out how to strike the ball with the correct amount of backspin, straight in front of goal and from just outside the area that net took one hell of a beating.

Having found the game's weakness, I took Palace to League and Cup glory. England won the World Cup averaging nine goals a game. The game had customisable kits and clubs but I didn’t go in for that. I was only interested in the glory of pummelling Arsenal and beating the Germans 9–0.

Football game purists will be spinning in their graves (especially the alive ones) to read this but what made STRIKER so appealing was that it was easy and conveyed a sense authenticity without being authentic. It had an indoor training mode where the players' trainers squeaked which may have been a first for non basketball games. Granted, STRIKER was not as clever as Sensi Soccer but it made you feel a lot better about yourself when you played it. Like left wing politics, STRIKER kept it real and had easy answers. Sensi Soccer, where the basic graphics disguised the realistic game play and advanced engine was more suited to working class Tories for whom, all suffering is necessary. Neither game was entirely healthy and if you’re still playing either today, stop.

But the final thing to say about STRIKER is the theme tune. This game's release coincided with the birth of the FA Premier League. Football was entering its modern era and much of the old game was being swept aside for all-seater stadia, satellite TV, Richard Keys and high ticket prices. The one link to our past was Match of the Day and Barry Stoller's classic theme tune which was played at Agincourt, if the legend is to be believed. The STRIKER theme (still in use today as the theme to the Sound Of Football podcast) evoked that old anthem, and its reassuring subtext, beautifully. Here was a game that looked ahead to a world of football that demanded its gratification in instant form or sack the coach. But it also knew the value of nostalgia and a compelling melody. Truly it was a product of its age.

Sunday 12 August 2012

Comparisons between Olympic Medalists and Premier League Players are unfair

Probably for the first time since its early years, the Premier League enters a new season with a somewhat muted fanfare. For one, the London Olympics have just finished and the UK is still flushed with the success of its medalists. For two, the English game is undergoing a modest period of revisionism after the conduct of Team GB's Olympians throws the behaviour of the Premier League all-stars into sharp focus, both on and off the pitch.

Compare, if you will, the foul mouthed glory hunting antics of Chelsea's John Terry against the shining bright eyes and wholesome image of Jessica Ennis, who didn't need to gate crash her medal celebrations as Terry did at the end of the Champions League Final, a match for which he was suspended. In fact the recent court case in which Terry was forced to defend the charge of racially aggravated assault, successfully, only served to underline the culture of abuse that exists in the game, even at the highest level.

Yes it's fair to say that English football is in the dock with the great and the good crawling out of the floor space calling upon the players to evoke the Olympic spirit, mind their manners, wash their mouths out with soap and generally behave to the standard set by the athletes of Team GB. And while I am sure that professional footballers can learn a lot from the British Olympians, much of the criticism, implied or otherwise smacks of sanctimony and middle class condescension.

Most Olympians, spend four years quietly building up to their big moment and for the most part they are left undisturbed by the media and public at large. They will pop up from time to time to compete in their European and World Championship but will then return to the relative peace of preparation before the eyes of the world turn on them for a couple of days. If they win, they become instantly famous and loved. They get to appear on cereal packets, lucrative sponsorship deals but ultimately, they get to got back to the business of preparing for the next event in six months, a year or even two years hence. Professional footballers have no such luxury.

Your average Premier League footballer enjoys a few weeks of respite during the Summer if he is lucky. Apart from that he must perform to his absolute maximum once or twice a week. Imagine Mo Farah having to race against a field of top class athletes week in week out in front of huge crowds and a global audience of millions. I'm not suggesting that he couldn't if he had to but over a ten month period it's fair to say that the pressure would take its toll, especially as his performance would be under constant scrutiny. It is possible that our perception of him may change over time and who knows, perhaps we will see a side of him that is at odds with the Olympic Spirit.

This is not to excuse the behaviour of Premier League players but it is unfair to compare their actions unfavourably with Olympians. While much is made of the money footballers are paid, it should be remembered that with huge wages comes massive expectation. Wayne Rooney, Theo Wallcott, Robin Van Persie, Carlos Tevez, Steven Gerrard, Andy Carroll, Mario Ballotelli and the multitude of others are under intense pressure to deliver performances and results, not once every four years but every week. I think of myself at 23 and can't imagine myself being able to manage that sort of pressure. Small wonder then that some of them tend to present the appearance of beings from another planet and that some will go off the rails.

So yes, you can expect to see play acting, imaginary cards, referee baiting, dissent, bad tackles, feuds, mind games, aggressive behaviour and the occasional off the pitch scandal. You will also hear tens of thousands of spectators baying for nothing less that 100% total commitment from these players and nine times out of ten that is what they'll get. Every week these guys walk off the pitch with nothing left but skin and bones. That's why people watch top class professional football and thats why it's brilliant. Perhaps if they only had to play once every four years, they might be able to show us their better sides.