Fuzzy memories of soccer’s good (ironically) old days

You may not have noticed this, but I’m old. I’m not yet in the AARP, but by the standards of modern journalism, I’m a fossil. (How ironic in an age of long life expectancy that our media keep getting younger.)

Today, I wound up in a fun Twitter conversation about soccer journalism, and we wound up winding back to the days in which the U.S. soccer media barely existed. We also had scant access to the U.K. soccer media, so we weren’t able to keep up with the tabloids’ totally fictional transfer rumors or the pundits’ Cro-Magnon dismissals of women’s soccer. (Gee, what a shame.)

But we had a few lifelines. If you grew up in the 70s, you watched Soccer Made In Germany and learned terms like “equalizer” and “relegation” from Toby Charles:

I was vaguely aware that the USA had its own league, the NASL, but I never watched it. I don’t think I was a Eurosnob. I think it was a function of my father controlling the TV and watching a lot of PBS. He also was a biochemist who had traveled quite a bit and had a casual appreciation for the Bundesliga. Or maybe he just liked to say “Bundesliga” in his Virginia/Georgia drawl.

In any case, the bulk of my exposure to the NASL was Soccer Made In Germany‘s report on Franz Beckenbauer signing with the Cosmos. A couple of years later, the Atlanta Chiefs were reborn, and I read game reports in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Never made it to a game, though.

I also learned about the World Cup. When I realized I would be away at summer camp (where we did occasionally play soccer with oddly shaped cube-shaped goals), I asked my mom to cut the World Cup scores out of the paper and mail them to me every day. I dutifully kept group standings in a notepad at my bunk.

Five years later, I was in college, where I had the opportunity to heckle Tony Meola (belated apologies, Tony, but we did these things at Duke), marvel at Mia Hamm, and recoil in horror at the dirty play of Tab Ramos’ N.C. State teammates. I had also discovered Soccer America, which carried standings and scores from leagues all over the world.

Then I was back in the wilderness, rarely getting a chance to catch a glimpse of soccer beyond some assignments to cover high school games. The 1994 World Cup was a welcome relief. After that, a lot of us asked the same question: “Now what?”

Home Team Sports, now a Comcast Sports Net affiliate, provided another lifeline, picking up an hourlong Premier League highlight show. Tony Yeboah quickly became my favorite player, with the last two goals on this reel etched in my memory:

I also occasionally listened to shortwave radio. But at the time, it was kind of random. I knew if I tuned into the BBC on Saturdays, I might hear something soccer-related.

By 1995, I’d discovered the Internet and the North American Soccer mailing list, to which I paid tribute last fall. We argued about the direction Major League Soccer was going as it prepared to launch, and we shared information about any soccer we were able to see — APSL games, USISL games, colleges, broadcast info and so forth. Then I found the wonderful rec.sport.soccer archive site, which looks exactly the same today, and Soccernet, which doesn’t. Thanks to them, I knew what I was watching on ESPN’s weekly games, and I knew when to search for the BBC on my shortwave to hear Coventry City escape relegation once again. (This was 1997, when the Young Player of the Year was a Manchester United lad with swept-up hair named David Beckham.)

Of course, I also set my VCR while I was at work so I could come home and watch this:

(Note the MLS logo that the Clash had to paint over.)

Meanwhile, back in the world of non-broadcast media, a few of us were fighting to get coverage for this long-derided sport. In 1999, at a wire service, I pitched coverage of the Women’s World Cup. A contemporary of mine said, “What?” I explained. He laughed, “We don’t even care about MEN’S soccer in this country!”

(Same guy called Duke a school for Ivy League rejects. No idea how I made it through a year of working there without resorting to violence.)

I moved on to USA TODAY, which had a history of legitimate soccer coverage. But as space in the paper shrank, soccer coverage was the first thing to go. Online, I was sneaking bits of coverage onto the site however I could.

In my day (no, you can’t get through this without reading that phrase), there was no such thing as a “soccer journalist.” Steven Goff had other duties at The Washington Post. Online, the Post’s site featured editor Alex Johnson’s World of Soccer column. Grant Wahl mixed soccer and college basketball at Sports Illustrated. Jeff Bradley was more or less the voice of soccer at ESPN’s site, though he was busy with other beats.

Nothing in this story should be surprising. But I find it’s often forgotten. We wake up Saturday mornings and flip on the TV to hear Rebecca Lowe introducing the first of three EPL games, and we forget how far we’ve come.

It’s too easy for today’s Twitterati to think soccer journalism in the USA started with MLS. (Some in the Twitter world actually think all soccer journalists in the USA are employees of MLS, which will surely make local newspapers, SI and a bunch of newly flourishing websites wonder why they’re paying all these people.)

Some of us grew up on the world’s game and followed it any way we could. We watched the Bundesliga and the Premier League, then went out to see USISL games with 30-minute stop-action countdown clocks and a “shootout” on the seventh team foul.

That’s the way it was and … well, I wouldn’t say we liked it better than today’s 24/7 soccer landscape. But it’s an experience we’ll never forget, and it helps us appreciate what we’re seeing today.

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Are UK taxpayers subsidizing poor spending habits in the Football League?

Yes.

on-level-termsWell, I think so. That’s the conclusion I reached after reading Chapter 7 of Ted Philipakos’ excellent forthcoming book, On Level Terms.

That might not be Philipakos’ conclusion. He’s an agent and an academic who clearly has a solid grasp of the 10 cases he discusses in the book, but he plays the role of dispassionate reporter here, passing no judgment but simply summarizing these complex cases in plain English — a difficult task he does well.

He starts with U.S. cases, leading off with the big one, Fraser v MLS — the players’ 1997 lawsuit against the then-new Major League Soccer. That suit is a full chapter in my book Long-Range Goals, and I was flattered that he cited me. But he adds valuable insight, especially in following the case through the Court of Appeals and diving headlong into the murky world of single-entity law.

Next up: two cases from the old NASL that might change some impressions of the good old days, one more antitrust-ish case and a concussion case still in progress.

The European cases are another interesting grab bag, ending with a TV-rights case I’d never heard of. As you’d expect, Philipakos has a good solid chapter on the Bosman case, which established greater player movement and wiped out a lot of restrictions on foreign players. That case made the Premier League the melting pot it is today, and the federation arguments made at the time sound positively quaint even though they weren’t made that long ago.

So what’s the deal with Chapter 7 and my clickbait headline?

The issue here is the Football Creditors Rule, which ensures clubs seeking protection from creditors must pay off their “football creditors” — players, clubs to which they owe transfer fees, etc. — in full. Other creditors — say, the UK tax agency known by the cumbersome name Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs — might only get a few pennies.

Seems fair — until you see how many clubs abuse it. “Sure, we’ll sign you to a multimillion-pound contract even though we don’t get EPL TV money and we only draw 8,000 fans per game. If we go broke, we’ll just go into administration and tell the rest of our creditors to shove it.”

So as I’m reading it, Football League clubs can still keep paying 90 percent of their revenues in player payroll, and if they can’t pay their taxes, that’s just too bad for the rest of the country’s taxpayers.

Am I wrong? And does anyone find that disturbing?

English soccer: Everybody’s got problems

One of the joys of visiting England and taking in the soccer scene is that you realize how wonderful it is — and how different it is from the conventional wisdom of those who think the version in the USA and Canada can’t compare.

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My trip to Reading’s Madejski Stadium and my happy purchase of When Saturday Comes at non-import prices reminded me of a few things …

1. English soccer doesn’t turn its back on kids. Reading had a small “family stand,” but honestly, the whole place is family-friendly. The ample concession stands had plenty of options for young ones, along with the beer that has to be consumed in the concourse. Outside the stadium, mascots roamed about, and kids could take a few kicks to see how fast or accurate they were.

At halftime, a youth team piled onto the field and split in two. On each half of the condensed field, players took turns taking a pass from a coach and taking a shot against a goalkeeper. They called this exercise “American-style penalties.”

2. English supporters aren’t all that demonstrative. The Rose City Riveters posted a thoughtful piece on women’s soccer supporter culture, lamenting that their percussion and chanting wasn’t enough to turn all the kids at Sky Blue’s Yurcak Field into authentic supporters.

First of all, give the Riveters full credit for turning the Proclaimers’ classic tune into a chant about hauling a drum 3,000 miles. That’s beautiful. And it would fit right in at the Madejski, where Reading supporters answered Leicester City supporters’ boasts about being promoted to the Premier League with a reminder that Reading holds the record of 106 points in the Championship — one that Leicester can’t quite catch. (A couple also yelled that Leicester will be back in the Championship again after one season up, and if Leicester doesn’t come up with some skill to match its speed, they’ll be right. The ball goes inside the touchlines, guys.)

Drums? Maybe one. Tifo? Nah — Leicester had a couple of banners that said “Leicester City” just so you’d know which stand was the away stand. Standing? Against the rules.

American and Canadian fans really shouldn’t be self-conscious about their supporters culture. We’ve taken bits from everyone — chanting from England, drums and tifo from elsewhere, sawing giant logs from … well, that’s unique. And that’s good! D.C. United’s supporters groups set the standard in the early days, and now everyone’s adding a twist.

3. You don’t need Liverpool or Man City to have an entertaining match. Leicester City will be in the Premier League next year. Reading is still trying to scratch its way into the playoffs. But these teams are far from fantastic. Didn’t matter. Maybe it wasn’t terrific TV, but it was a fun game to watch in person.

And the next time I read some “I tried to give MLS a chance by watching D.C. United play New England, but it wasn’t as good as Liverpool-Arsenal” piece, I’m going to be either violently ill or just plain violent. I went all the way to England and watched a Championship game because I couldn’t get Premier League tickets (a little sad, given that I was staying within walking distance of Arsenal), and I enjoyed it. You can get in your bloody car and go to a live soccer game. If you only have an NASL or USL Pro team within driving distance, go to that. Get over yourself.

4. England has some crap-ass owners. You think MLS teams are alone in trying to make money? Consider Blackpool. WSC has a shocking piece about Blackpool supporters’ protests against their majority shareholders, the Oyston family. They’ve paid themselves an awful lot of money. They’re making loans from the club to “various loss-making companies owned by the Oyston family,” the story reads. Investment in a new training ground? Forget it.

Now consider this — MLS teams don’t have a century of stability on which to draw. Blackpool shared in Premier League TV money a few years ago. MLS is still building its infrastructure from scratch and still recouping the money sunk into the sport in the mid-90s and early 2000s. So you can excuse MLS owners for trying to pull out of the red. What’s Blackpool’s excuse for squeezing pennies?

5. English clubs’ youth pipelines are clogged. From WSC: “Following the departure of Emmanuel Frimpong this January, just two players from Arsenal’s 2009 Youth League and Cup double-winning side remain contracted to the club.”

6. Debt-ridden clubs face extinction. WSC tells the sad story of Bashley, a non-League club that may be next in a “swathe of winding-up orders” as HM Revenue & Customs pursues footballing debts.

7. The Bundesliga is lopsided. Bayern Munich ran away with it this year. Ratings are dropping. Oliver Kahn suggested “US-style play-offs” to make things more interesting. (WSC story: “Competition time.”)

8. The Championship teams are bickering over Financial Fair Play. Is everyone actually adhering to it? Can a team playing under FFP in the Championship turn around the next year and compete in the Premier League?

None of these problems will kill the game. The point here is that simple solutions don’t solve everything. You can’t just “be like England” and expect issues of finances and fairness to go away. MLS is struggling with the balance of parity and excellence. So is everyone else.

We’ll address MLS a little later this week. It’s a CBA year, you know.

WSC has several other good reads, including one in which a Scottish university team now has the opportunity to win promotion into the professional ranks. Tempting to wonder what would happen if Akron had that opportunity, isn’t it?