Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Beautiful Game vs the Kicking Culture

The Champions League Draw -- A thing of beauty!

Group C is easily the toughest and the most interesting: AC Milan, Real Madrid, Marseille & FC Zürich

The Milan vs Madrid game is one for the history books as the two most successful European Cup winning teams take to the field. Also, the game marks the return of Kaka to his former club. But Milan are not the team they once were so Marseille have a great chance to take second stop. On the other hand, fans of FC Zürich are in for a treat as they will witness their team take on some of the best players in the world.

Group A is the second toughest with the games between Bayern, Juventus and Bordeaux likely to be tight affairs. Maccabi might not be able to spoil the party but they will likely score some home goals.

Group E provides a bit of a challenge for Liverpool. On paper, Liverpool and Lyon appear to be favourites but Fiorentina might be able to ring a surprize. It will be interesting to see if Liverpool can continue their CL luck from past years.

Group C rematches Chelsea with Porto for only the 100th time. Well it feels like the 100th time. Chelsea should easily win this group although Atletico Madrid need to show more consistency if they are to take second spot. What can APOEL do? They will certainly have a noisy home crowd behind them but their best chances of points are at home to Porto.

Group G appears to be a bit evenly balanced but Stuttgart and Seville should advance. Rangers have to secure an away win against one of these two if they want to take 2nd spot.

Reunion is the flavour in Group F: Barcelona, Inter Milan, Dynamo Kiev, Rubin Kazan

Both Eto'o and Zlatan face off against their old teams while Jose will surely be greeted with some boos at the Nou Camp. Both Barca and Inter should advance from this group with some ease, although Inter will drop points away from home.

Now to Group B: Manchester United, CSKA Moscow, Beşiktaş, Wolfsburg.

Just like every season for the past decade, Man Utd get the easiest draw. Man Utd should easily win this group. And even if they are not playing well, they will still carve out a 1-0 or 2-0 win.

And finally, Group H: Arsenal, AZ Alkmaar, Olympiacos, Standard de Liège

The second easiest group after Man Utd's. Even if Arsenal have injury problems, they should advance. The second spot is up for grabs but Olympiacos should take that. AZ Alkmaar can cause an upset or two.

The entire uproar over Eduardo's dive is insane. Yes diving and cheating are ruining the game but why were the British press not upset when Rooney or Steven Gerrard or Ryan Babel dove to earn a penalty? And why was nothing ever said about the multiple dives by Ronaldo in every game when he played for Man Utd? The answer is that the British press always protect their own players and any player who plays for Man Utd or Liverpool because these teams represent some sort of English identity. Arsenal don't get that treatment because of the huge number of foreign players they have.

Another frustrating aspect is that the British always turn a blind eye to the excessive number of fouls their players commit in every game. When Eduardo's leg was broken by Martin Taylor in Feb 2008 because of an awful inept tackle, the British press jumped to Taylor's defense. They didn't want to discuss why the game is being ruined by players like Taylor or the numerous incompetent players who ply their trade for Blackburn, Bolton or other teams with no skill. The British press consider excessive fouling and kicking as part of the game. This goes back to the old days when the British game was nothing but tackles and long balls. A perception in the English game prior to the 1990's was that foreign players were considered too weak to withstand the physical part of the game. It was believed that players had to be men enough to take the kicks, get up and carry on. And if a player complained about getting kicked too much? He was considered weak. These narrow views have changed slightly in the last two decades because of an influx of skillful foreigners who came into the English league and improved the overall style of the game. One can still find commentators refer to some players as having a “silky touch” yet not being physical enough.

The kicks are also incorrectly considered as showing "commitment". When Celtic’s players kicked Arsenal every chance they got, the only thing the commentators kept repeating was that Celtic’s players showed tremendous commitment. In Gianluca Vialli’s insightful book, The Italian Job, he examines the differences in Italian and English footballing cultures and management styles. In one section, Vialli mentions how English fans applaud a player attempting to run after a lost ball (meaning lost cause) and consider that attribute as part of a player’s commitment. They wrongly believe that “the player is giving it his all”. Whereas, in Italy fans consider that player as wasting his energy. Such false sense of commitment also applies to kicking in the English game. English managers often tell their players to “give it their all”, to “get stuck in”, etc. Now, each player will interpret these instructions as per their ability. And the inept players consider kicking and breaking another player’s leg as part of their commitment. The fact that their managers, the fans or the press don’t condemn such kicking only reinforces their belief that they are a worthy player.

One reason that Hleb left Arsenal was because he could not withstand the constant kicks he got. He was one of the most fouled players in England because of his ability to dribble and spin past players. Who knows if Ronaldo felt the same? He was one of the few players who spoke up Eduardo’s leg was broken. Maybe he feared the same treatment. Although it won’t happen, but it would be nice if all the foreign players left the English league. Then the British game can enjoy the Blackburn or Bolton style of “commitment” and “getting stuck-in” while the rest of the world can enjoy the beautiful game.

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