Making the Club World Cup interesting

You’re not watching the Club World Cup? You’re not engrossed in every game?

No one is. And that’s a pity, because it’s a grand idea poorly executed.

Want to make it more interesting? Spread it out like the Davis Cup.

Make each game an interesting event. Africa vs. Asia. Oceania vs. North America. Have continents alternate as hosts for the early rounds. And so on until you have at least a few weeks to hype the neutral-site final.

(Which will probably be South America vs. Europe. Or a really interesting underdog story.)

This year’s tournament could’ve been:

September

  • TP Mazembe vs. Guangzhou Evergrande
  • Club America vs. Auckland City

Late October

  • River Plate vs. Mazembe-Guangzhou winner
  • Barcelona vs. America-Auckland winner

This weekend: Final.

The early games will at least be big events for the teams that are hosting. Global interest will pick up a bit with the big guns entering.

Alternate idea: Hold the Club World Cup in odd-numbered years in the summers, when we don’t have the “other” men’s World Cup, the Euros or Copa America.

Thursday FIFA media frenzy roundup

Here’s what everyone’s saying now that we’ve had more than 24 hours to digest the news of a whole bunch of FIFA bigwigs being indicted:

Who’s who, and who’s facing what charge: Good breakdown here from The Washington Post.

The 2010 World Cup: Did South Africa literally out-bribe Morocco? The Telegraph picks up that part of the indictment:

It also said that the former Fifa vice-president Warner was offered $1 million (£652,000) by South Africa’s rival bidder Morocco but that Blazer learnt from his colleague that “high-ranking officials of Fifa, the South African government, and the South African bid committee, were prepared to arrange for the government of South Africa to pay $10 million to ‘support the African diaspora’ ”.

Vindication in Brazil: A lot of critics are happy, says USA TODAY correspondent Taylor Barnes.

The 2022 World Cup: Did the Qatar decision shock the USA into action? (One of several pieces in today’s Washington Post.)

The 2018 World Cup: Also from the Post — Russia mad.

2018 AND 2022: The bid process for those World Cups is the focus of Switzerland’s investigation:

In the Swiss criminal proceedings, opened by the OAG on 10 March 2015, it is suspected that irregularities occurred in the allocation of the FIFA World Cups of 2018 and 2022. … Subsequently to today’s seizure of files, the OAG and the Swiss Federal Criminal Police will be questioning 10 persons who took part in voting on the allocation of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups as members of the Executive Committee in 2010. These persons should be questioned as persons providing information.

For reasons of criminal procedure (principle of proportionality), the procedure coordinated with the requested acts of the U.S. authorities was designed in such a way as to allow the procurement of any criminally relevant data in an effective manner, and to avoid any possible collusion. These measures were carried out simultaneously as a large number of persons involved in allocating the World Cups were currently in Zurich. These legal actions concern two criminal procedures conducted separately by the OAG and the US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York. The Swiss and US law enforcement authorities are not conducting any joint investigations, but are coordinating their respective criminal proceedings.

Blame the game: FIFA’s one-country, one-vote structure — along with the GOAL and FAP system of spreading the wealth — is ripe for corruption, says a FiveThirtyEight analysis.

USA! USA! Slate’s Stefan Fatsis sees a confident nation flexing its muscles to clean up the sport.

Jack Warner, always defiant: I’ll paraphrase – “My lawyers advised me not to say anything, but you have to be naive to think it’s a coincidence that they did this before the FIFA election.” (Maybe they made the arrests now because they had everyone in one place?)

Chuck Blazer and the Warner sons, reluctant whistleblowers? The Guardian paints a picture of absurdity: “Loretta Lynch spent years on the case, in which prosecutors turned to tactics used to fight organised crime – and a scooter chase paved the way.”

Though unconfirmed by prosecutors this week, the Daily News report suggests Blazer even agreed to secretly record future meetings with Fifa officials, allegedly carrying a recording device hidden in a keyring to London’s May Fair hotel during the 2012 Olympic Games.

But Blazer was not the only big fish to succumb to threats from prosecutors. The two adult children of Jack Warner, a former Fifa regional president and Trinidad and Tobago politician charged under this week’s indictment, were caught in equally colourful circumstances.

The prisoners’ dilemma: Michael McCann breaks down the defendants’ legal options, including rolling on the others.

The sponsorship bomb: Visa sounds like a company that has had enough. The BBC includes more sponsor concerns in its roundup.

Is Nike involved? Still hard to say whether the company will face any problems down the road. The indictment lets us connect a few dots but doesn’t spell anything out.

Shopping for prime real estate? Take a look at the properties facing forfeiture, including the Versailles of Loganville.

And from The Onion: FIFA Frantically Announces 2015 Summer World Cup In United States

At press time, the U.S. national team was leading defending champions Germany in the World Cup’s opening match after being awarded 12 penalties in the game’s first three minutes.

So something good will come out of all this …

The Guardian continues to live-blog events as they happen.

Highlights of the FIFA indictment

In case you don’t have time to read all 1xx pages of the indictment against various FIFA-ish people, here are a few items of note:

(All of the following are alleged in the indictment. All defendants are innocent until proven guilty.)

– Former CONMEBOL president Eugenio Figueredo obtained U.S. citizenship in 2006. He claimed he was exempt from the English language and civics exams because of a mental disability, specifically severe dementia. Seven years later, he was CONMEBOL president and a member of FIFA’s executive committee.

– CONCACAF president Jeffrey Webb owns a residence in Loganville, Ga., along with other property in Stone Mountain and Conyers. Unless you really want to own property in Clint Mathis’ hometown, I have no idea what would possess someone from Cayman Islands to do that.

– Allegations against Jack Warner: He “established and controlled numerous bank accounts and corporate activities in which he mingled his personal assets and those of CONCACAF, CFU and (Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation).” Then “(a)mong other things, Warner began to solicit and accept bribes in connection with his official duties, including selection of the host nation for the World Cups held in 1998 and 2010.” Then there’s the condo in Miami, bought “with money drawn from an account held in the name of a soccer facility that was ostensibly affiliated with CONCACAF.”

– CONMEBOL’s Nicolas Leoz “began soliciting bribe payments” for Copa America and other things. “Co-Conspirator #2” (identified not by name but as the “founder and owner of the Traffic Group,” which would be Jose Hawilla unless someone is dramatically misidentified) then agreed to pay tens of millions in “Copa America contracts, media and marketing rights to other South American soccer tournaments, and sponsorship rights acquired by United States sportwear companies.”

– “Co-Conspirator #2” relocated to the USA and negotiated with Jack Warner to get marketing rights to the Gold Cup. Traffic got the rights to the Gold Cups from 1996 to 2003. “In connection with the acquisition and renewal of those rights, Co-Conspirator #2 and Co-Conspirator #3 together caused bribe payments to be made to Warner and Co-Conspirator #1.” (Co-Conspirator #1 is identified as the general secretary of CONCACAF from 1990 to 2011, which would be Chuck Blazer. Co-Conspirator #3 is “a high-ranking executive of Traffic USA.”)

– More Traffic bribe allegations.

– And other sports marketing groups joined the fray, including Sports Marketing Company A, a New Jersey-based company owned and operated by Co-Conspirator #5. This company got the marketing rights to the Copa Libertadores.

– When Warner and Leoz departed CONCACAF and CONMEBOL, “(t)he change in administration at CONCACAF and CONMEBOL did not usher in an era of reform at those organizations. Instead, the new leadership continued to engage in criminal schemes in violation of their fiduciary duties.”

– The Webb allegations hinge on the way Traffic got the rights to Gold Cups and CONCACAF Champions Leagues since he took office.

– Here’s a big one: “In connection with the acquisition of the media rights to the Copa América and Centenario tournaments from CONMEBOL and CONCACAF, Datisa agreed to pay $110 million in bribes to the defendants JEFFREY WEBB, EUGENIO FIGUEREDO, RAFAEL ESQUIVEL, JOSÉ MARIA MARIN, and NICOLÁS LEOZ, and several other soccer officials. Datisa agreed to make these payments at various times over the life of the contracts. At least $40 million has been paid to date.” (Datisa, we learn much later, was created in 2013, with Traffic, Torneos and Full Play each holding a one-third interest.)

– Many other tournaments’ marketing rights follow in the next several pages. The paper trail on World Cup qualifiers is interesting.

– When does this leave the realm of the Americas and into broader FIFA stuff? That would be page 80, where you won’t be surprised by what you read about Warner but perhaps a little disappointed in South Africa.

– Page 89: “In or about March 2011, Co-Conspirator #7 declared himself to be a candidate in the FIFA presidential election.” That would be a high-ranking official in FIFA and AFC. In May, that candidate was denied a visa to go into the USA, so he wound up in Trinidad and Tobago, where Warner advised Caribbean officials they could pick up a “gift.”

– Money went toward Jeffrey Webb’s pool at his house in Loganville? That’s page 98.

– For recent Gold Cup and CONCACAF Champions League rights: “Thereafter, the defendant JEFFREY WEBB and Co-Conspirator #4 discussed the best way to effectuate the bribe payment in a manner that would conceal its nature. Ultimately, WEBB decided to use an overseas company that manufactured soccer uniforms and soccer balls (“Soccer Uniform Company A”), the identity of which is known to the Grand Jury. Co-Conspirator #23, like the defendant COSTAS TAKKAS a close associate of WEBB, had a connection to Soccer Uniform Company A. WEBB eventually instructed Co-Conspirator #4 to submit a false invoice to Traffic USA for $1.1 million to be paid to Soccer Uniform Company A, which Co-Conspirator #4 did.”  (A little while later, we learn of a wire transfer to a Soccer Uniform Company A account in Panama.)

So now I’m wondering who gets the marketing rights to all these upcoming tournaments.

And what happens to this house in Loganville.

Finally, one word that appears absolutely nowhere in the 164-page document: “Blatter.”

 

Solo’s Seattle socks and shorts

Started with a tweet yesterday:

And a follow-up:

Here’s what FIFA rules say: “Each goalkeeper must wear colours that distinguish him from the other players, the referee and the assistant referees.”

That seems to allow some wiggle room — if you’re wearing black socks along with your teammates, are you really not distinguished from other players? If the ref is wearing red socks, do you have to change to blue?

Typically, goalkeepers these days wear some insane green or yellow shorts and socks that no one else would wear. But I did find at least one instance of a keeper wearing similar shorts to those of his teammates in the Bundesliga and another from the Premier League.

But let’s get back to the NWSL. What do the rules really say?

10.2.3 GOALKEEPER UNIFORM AND EQUIPMENT The goalkeeper’s uniform should feature different colors than her teammates, opponents and the Game Officials’ uniforms. The Goalkeeper uniform and equipment will conform to FIFA. The goalkeeper’s dominant jersey color(s) will be completely different than her Team’s jersey color(s) and that of the opponents Team. While the goalkeeper’s shorts and socks may be the same as the rest of her Team, the League Office strongly encourages the Goalkeeper to wear an entire outfit that completely contrasts that of her Team’s. Each Team should carry an extra, unnumbered Goalkeeper jersey for a Player not normally a goalkeeper who is substituted at goalkeeper for whatever reason.

MLS has the same rules.

So … someone was telling Hope Solo the wrong rules?

Huddersfield Town GK jersey from 20 years ago, courtesy oldfootballshirts.com
Huddersfield Town GK jersey from 20 years ago, courtesy oldfootballshirts.com

One note: Colors are all determined well in advance of each match, and the referee is supposed to enforce them. Another possibility: The same ref who failed to look at the assistant refs frantically signaling an obvious offside call or hand out cards for blatant infractions (Veronica Perez’s judo throw, Solo’s repeated refusal to put the ball back in play while the ref waved his hand) made another procedural mistake.

In any case, lines were crossed somewhere along the way.

Personally, I just miss the days of garish Campos-style goalkeeping jerseys. I still have one.

Update: OK, we can’t blame the ref. Or NWSL rulemakers. Or WPS, retroactively.

I can just bring these to the Soccerplex, you know.
I can just bring these to the Soccerplex, you know.

Seattle and Washington currently have only two colors of goalkeeping socks — black and white. That left only three colors — red, black and white — to be worn among Seattle’s field players, Seattle’s goalkeepers, Washington’s field players and Washington’s goalkeepers. Someone had to match socks. So the league consulted with PRO, which oversees officials, and they determined that if someone had to match, it should be Seattle’s goalkeepers and field players.

As far as I can tell, this action violates neither the letter nor the … um, spirit … of either the FIFA Laws of the Game or the NWSL rule book. And fortunately, no one attempted a jiu-jitsu leglock during the course of the game. (Veronica Perez completed a throw that was closer to judo, not jiu-jitsu.)

Seattle’s “berry” goalkeeping socks have not yet arrived.

The next time an NWSL keeper is in Washington and needs socks, please let me know. A few of my socks are pictured here — solid green, red-and-black stripes. I also have a few pairs of solid black and could possibly dig up some blinding yellow.

FIFA boldly … asks for clarification on Nigeria’s lesbian ban

The Nigerian women’s soccer team went into the 2011 World Cup with the momentum of having ousted lesbians from the team.

The FIFA response at the time: “Huh? What? Oh. OK, we’ll talk to the coach.”

Now, with reports that Nigeria has banned lesbians from all levels of football, FIFA … wants clarification.

The issue has deep roots in Africa, where legal bans remain and men still use “corrective rape” to try to convince lesbians to change.

So, once FIFA gets its “clarification,” the question will be whether FIFA wants to make a statement — one that may force some attitudes to change.

Best reads on FIFA/CONCACAF crisis

Yes, I feel rather frustrated that we in the U.S. media just don’t seem to have the time or resources to do this story justice. A lot of questions are just begging to be answered, and a lot of powerful people need to be asked to tell the truth.

But we have a few good works to share, starting with NYT columnist George Vecsey’s perfect metaphor:

Watching the charges of deals and payoffs, Americans can feel like the naïve young cyclist in the classic movie Breaking Away who wants to participate in the world sport, only to have a more seasoned Italian cyclist stick a pump in his spokes.

Also at the NYT, Jere Longman rounds up pertinent comments from Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism author Andrei Markovits and others.

At Yahoo, Martin Rogers highlights today’s blockbuster from Germany, whose federation president is demanding an investigation of Qatar’s winning World Cup bid.

Soccer America finds the latest from interim CONCACAF president Lisle Austin, who keeps insisting that he has fired general secretary Chuck Blazer. (Article 28c of the CONCACAF statutes would beg to differ.)

At a lower level in the FIFA/CONCACAF org chart but with an interesting story to tell, it’s Puerto Rican federation president Eric Labrador, explaining what led him to turn in evidence. That’s from Puerto Rico’s Primera Hora, which graciously allowed IMSoccer to run an English translation. As a follow-up, IMSoccer spoke with the journalist following the story.

The most comprehensive and timely roundups have come from BigSoccer’s Bill Archer.

And from beyond these shores, we have live blogging from The Guardian, which has taken great amusement in being branded as a lying loser by people who just happened to find their way to the microphone at today’s FIFA shindig.

I’ll be at the Women’s World Cup game between Germany and Canada in Berlin. That’s not the first game of the competition — Nigeria and France open the Cup a couple of hours earlier in Sinsheim. But I hope Sepp Blatter is in attendance at Germany-Canada. Can’t wait to see what kind of reception he gets.

Explaining the World Cup vote using ‘NewsRadio’

Having failed in my effort to explain the World Cup vote using When Harry Met Sally, I’ll now explain it using a scene from NewsRadio in which Dave (Dave Foley) is England, the USA and Australia, while Bill (Phil Hartman) is every FIFA voter who claimed to be voting for said countries.

In this episode, all employees secretly told Dave they were voting for him as news director. The results: Lisa (Maura Tierney) won a unanimous vote.

Bill: Lisa and you were both strong candidates. There was really no way to choose between you two.
Dave: Then why did every single person vote against me?
Bill: Joe voted using a random number generator. Beth voted against you because Lisa gets fewer phone calls and doesn’t like coffee. Matthew is a lifelong Republican, so he had no choice.
Dave: And why didn’t you vote for me?
Bill: I still think I did. I guess this is one of those things we’ll never know the full truth.

You can also watch the non-embeddable video or get the Season 4 DVD, which is probably the best of the show’s excellent run.

Time to transition to a post-FIFA world? (Or World Cup, anyway?)

The FIFA World Cup bid process long ago descended into farce long ago. BBC’s long-threatened Panorama investigation, released a couple of days before the Big Bid Vote, is stark but not really surprising. We’ve all known for a while that we’re not dealing with angels here.

The program is still worth watching. Andrew Jennings makes it entertaining — too much so, at times. And you can see two amusing highlights:

  1. Doesn’t the FIFA Executive Committee room look like some sort of bunker that should be populated by James Bond supervillains?
  2. A Dutch lawmaker’s accent turns “situation” into “shituation.”

I found Part 2, embedded below, slightly more interesting because it goes beyond the predictable funneling of money and into more worrying questions for nations that are bidding on the Cup. FIFA’s list of requirements is more demanding than Mariah Carey’s backstage rider and less amusing than the Foo Fighters’ version. (Or, if you’re really into hard-core efforts to turn backstage riders into comedy gold, Iggy Pop’s.)

The Dutch, Jennings tells us, now believe they would lose money on the World Cup. Suffice it to say the conversation I had a couple of months ago on World Cup economics seems less relevant given FIFA’s desire to take a hefty share of the reward and no share of the risk.

As the BBC report drew closer to airing, much public fretting was made of whether the report would hinder England’s 2018 bid. What’s curious isn’t that the oddsmakers such as William Hill have now installed Russia has an overwhelming favorite ahead of England but that they also think so little of the USA’s bid for 2022. That link currently has the USA at 9-2 behind Qatar (1-2) and Australia (5-2). These odds haven’t changed in the wake of the FIFA report showing the English and American bids in far better shape than their competitors.

If the oddsmakers are correct, the backlash will be immense. FIFA will undoubtedly give its reasons, but who would doubt that the scandal-ridden panel of bigwigs simply opted for states that don’t have pesky traditions of journalistic scrutiny? Should future bids be limited to autocratic countries only?

We might even have to think the unthinkable: Would soccer be better off without FIFA?

The best precedent for such a move would be in chess, where Garry Kasparov led a breakaway from international body FIDE that lasted more than a decade. The title is more or less unified now, though world No. 1 Magnus Carlsen has thrown up his hands and walked away from a World Championship qualifying process that makes CONCACAF’s World Cup cycle look simple. (The re-election of president Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, who brazenly shut up supporters of reform-minded former world champion Anatoly Karpov, couldn’t have given Carlsen or anyone else much reassurance about FIDE’s commitment to fairness.)

Kasparov and Carlsen, though, have had legitimate claims to be the best of their eras without FIDE’s stamp of approval. That seems more difficult in soccer, particularly when any sort of sanctioned soccer ultimately goes up to the chain to the big boys in Zurich.

National federations can’t do much to challenge FIFA. They’re ultimately the local branches of the international organizer.

Perhaps a more imposing challenge could come from the giant European clubs. If Manchester United, Barcelona, Chelsea, Bayern Munich, AC Milan and company decide to take their ball and go elsewhere, players and fans might be willing to go with them. But the issues that Jennings investigates have little to do with the club game, so the incentive is lacking.

And the USA might have a lot to lose if FIFA’s sanction is devalued. U.S. Soccer and its sanctioned first division, MLS, already face the occasional lawsuit accusing them of misusing “monopoly” powers. Courts have been kind so far, but that’s not because they’re cognizant of the soccer wars of the 1930s and 1980s that destroyed pro soccer in this country.

Reform will most likely have to come from within. That hasn’t seemed plausible in recent months. But that might be because everyone is playing nicely to try to gain favor for their World Cup bids. If the oddsmakers are right, the losing bid nations will have little to lose by speaking up. And we the fans may have plenty to gain if they do.

Addendum: I made it through this whole post and forgot to give a hat tip to The Shin Guardian, which raises a couple of questions that show the uncomfortable position the USA bid is in. Like a cyclist blowing away the field in the drug scandal-ridden Tour de France, the winner of this contest will be asked whether the win was legitimate. Not sure I agree with notion of referring to “the Bradley debacle” as if everyone agrees what that might be, but clearly a lot of dreams will be dashed if the 2022 vote goes elsewhere.

Settling all MLS dilemmas in one easy fix (maybe)

The big issues coming out of MLS Cup weekend, among the media and the hard-core supporters (most of whom are “media” in some sense, even if it’s just a prolific Twitter habit) were:

1. This game is ending far too late. Fans are leaving, and no one’s going to make deadline. And maybe they should revisit the whole neutral-site idea, anyway.

2. 10 teams in the playoffs next year? Really?

3. Hmm, the league is considering the formation of a committee that would study the idea of forming a task force to do an in-depth look into asking its competition committee to weigh the prospects of “changing to the international calendar.” (The “international” calendar, of course, means “Western Europe’s calendar.”)

4. Hey, cool, I didn’t know your book was out! Can I get it on Kindle?

Simple issues first: I’m inquiring into issue #4, and the game simply needs to be played earlier. No MLS Cup final should kick off at 8:55 p.m. on a Sunday night. It’s too late. Possibly too cold. The ideal time, particularly if the game is on an NFL Sunday, is probably 6:30 or 7. People can flip over to MLS after the afternoon NFL games, then flip to the Sunday night game when the soccer’s done. Families can attend the game and still have a chance of getting home to get some sleep before work or school the next day.

But should MLS Cup stay in November? Here’s one suggestion surely doomed to fail:

– To meet FIFA’s insistence on playing within the “international calendar,” split the season into a fall Apertura and spring Clausura like so many Latin American leagues. (The wise man they call The Perfesser agrees.) But these won’t quite be your traditional Apertura and Clausura (in part because the calendar and the number of teams simply won’t allow it).

– The Apertura winner earns the right to host MLS Cup the following summer. MLS will still have months to plan a big event with all the attendant conventions (supporters, retailers, sponsors, club execs, etc.), which wouldn’t be possible if the playoffs went to the highest-seeded finalist as determined one week earlier. But the right to host the final will be earned on the field. The host team might even be playing in the game.

– Here’s one trick: To let everyone play a balanced schedule in the Apertura, we have to split the league into two 10-team conferences. The Apertura will be 18 weeks, from early August to late November — typically the best MLS months for attendance. (Yes, TV windows are minimal, but we’ll have to make do with Thursday night games through the Apertura and then stress the Clausura for TV.)

– So how will we know who wins the Apertura and hosts MLS Cup? That will be the first game of the Clausura, which runs 10 weeks from early March to mid-May, and features only interconference games. We’ll start with a bang by pairing the Apertura conference winners to determine the Cup host. The host city still has a couple of months to prepare.

– Records are cumulative. They don’t reset for the Clausura. After 28 games, everyone will have played each team in its conference twice and each team in the other conference once.

– The playoffs will usually run four weeks using the modified Aussie rules system I’ve already put forth. The top four seeds are the Apertura winner, the top team in each conference and the team with the next-best record. Then we have four wild cards.

(Option B has six teams: The Apertura champ and team with top overall record in a four-team modified Aussie rules playoff, with four wild cards playing off to reach that round. Option C: Go straight to four teams.)

Oh, that 10-team playoff format? Forget it. If you’re taking a winter break and summer break, you don’t have time to play all those games.

In fact, in World Cup years, you don’t have time for playoffs at all. Go straight to MLS Cup.

So in simple terms, without all the argumentation: It’s a 28-game season with an 18-game Apertura played all within the conferences. The conference winners face off in the first game of the Clausura for the right to host MLS Cup, and then you have playoffs as described above.

Nothing’s perfect. The Clausura start and Apertura championship game take place during college hoops conference championship week, and it won’t help to move it 1-2 weeks in either direction. CONCACAF Champions League teams play 24 games in the 18 weeks of the Apertura. (The good news: If they get to the knockout rounds, the schedule is a little easier during the skimpier Clausura.)

But this maximizes many things the league would like to accomplish:

  1. Balanced schedule, more or less.
  2. Many teams involved in playoff chase.
  3. Time to plan MLS Cup and attendant conventions.
  4. Incentive to win right to host MLS Cup.
  5. Playoff system that spreads out a lot of home games.
  6. Winter break to avoid freezing.
  7. Ballyhooed “international calendar.”

Have at it.

For further reading: Brian Straus’ group-stage playoff suggestion and Paul Kennedy’s argument in favor of a fall-to-spring season, complete with the suggestion to phase it in during the 2014 World Cup year.