Belgium win World Cup

worldcupI tipped Belgium to win the World Cup before the Finals began. Should they win against France in the semis, having decisively outplayed Brazil, they might reasonably feel that they have been in three finals.

Football, bloody hell” Alex Ferguson’s wisest words can be quoted again: Germany were a surprise, Spain and Argentina less so. I was disappointed that neither Nigeria nor Senegal progressed, and it would have been good to see more of Mexico too.

My first World Cup final was in 1966. We were on the beach on Elba and family lore is that the Italian family next to us told my father that they didn’t care who won, as long as it wasn’t the Germans. In 1970 I do remember watching some games – we had just got a colour tv and I was a keen left-winger at primary school. I do remember the 1974 final (we had been to the wonderful Olympic Stadium the previous year). I have no recollection of the 1978, 1982 and 1986 finals: I was travelling, at university and starting my first professional job respectively. I bought my first tv in Honduras for the 1990 finals. The chief agricultural extension officer in Taulabé invited his staff and me to his house to watch Cameroon (with a cameo appearance by the great Roger Milla) vs Argentina who at that time were automatically supported by most Central Americans. They were genuinely shocked at the Cameroonian performance and result which they were unlucky not to repeat against England, a game that I saw with a Brit forester in the Pizzaria Venezia on the main highway out of Siguatepeque. I don’t remember the 1994, 1998, or 2002 finals: busy travelling for work, and busy with a young family. As an aside I was doing field work in May 1999 with a group of Bolivian foresters and we were keen to get back to watch the Champions League Final, but we had taken an age to get around the perennial road block near the airport and so the game was all but over when I was dropped off at my hotel in Santa Cruz… I saw some of the games in the 2010 finals and 2014 finals while working in Nairobi. The first were marred by the vuvuzuelas and the treatment of Nelson Mandela, and both by England’s abject performances.

I saw my first and only World Cup qualifier game –  Liberia vs Congo in 2005. I bought a couple of tickets for the roofed VIP stand, with one for my regular taxi driver (a Nigerian who stayed on when ECOMOG left) since the game was held at the Chinese stadium just outside Monrovia and I would be guaranteed a ride back into town after the match. Like most authorities UNMIL were instinctively nervous about football and did not want a mob in the city centre; the police had themselves rioted a few weeks earlier. We were conspicuous in the VIP stand until George Weah arrived with his sons and their friends to a great cheer from the crowd. His Congress for Democratic Change party would wipe the board in Monrovia, although he lost in the presidential run-offs against the West’s favourite Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson (a result that seemed fixed to me). There was a spectacular downpour just before the scheduled kick-off, which did little to improve the pitch. Liberia almost scored from the onset, but the Liberian forward seemed as surprised as everyone else to find the ball at his feet on the edge of the penalty area and the ball was still rising as it went out of the stadium. And that was it, Congo won 2-0. George Weah kindly came over to chat at half-time, we talked about football and forestry.  While living in Monrovia I caught up – somewhat belatedly for sure – with the reach and influence of football. Football replica shirts were everywhere (Arsenal and Barcelona seemed most popular – in part for the colours, in part for their African contingents – but Newcastle too), and the day after the 2005 Champions league final the kids on the Mamba Point beach were mimicking Jerzy Dudek’s antics. In early 2007 I was with a FAO team working on an agricultural strategy and we were travelling from Ganta on the border with Guinea down to Harper in the south-east bordering the Cote d’Ivoire. On the map it looks like a major road, in parts after Zwedru it was literally little more than a logging trail. South of Fish Town we stopped in a small hamlet to stretch our legs: the Ghanaian agronomist and I heard the telltale throb of a generator and found in the tin-roofed shack about 20 good folk enjoying a cool drink and a Premier League game pirated off a DSTV satellite.

With hindsight the arc of my football viewing life has coincided with the demise of the “semi-feudal” management of football – described by Jon Henderson in When Footballers Were Skint – to today’s late neoliberal capitalism phase characterised by inequalities of wealth, income, opportunity and outcome amongst nations, clubs and footballers. I have written before about ending clubs’ ownership of players as one step to counter corruption and fraud in the game. What was one-upmanship (play-acting) has morphed into shithousery and is as prevalent in the Premier League as in the World Cup: VAR and post-game reviews will help but at the end its down to supporters. I remember a game at the Valley in the 1998–1999 season when a Charlton player was rolling about on the ground near the touch-line; he was told to get back on his feet and back into the game by the home fans in the East Stand.

Football as a game that has not changed, unlike cricket and rugby. Maybe it is time. Here are some thoughts on how to incentivize goal scoring and better behavior:

  1. Play two 30 minutes halves of real time (kept by 4th referee). This will reduce time-wasting during substitutions or injuries feigned or otherwise.
  2. Ban passing back over the halfway line (as in basketball).
  3. Revise the offside rules: a player can only be offside in a penalty area during open play, and in the area any player forward of the ball is offside.
  4. No more extra time. This seems to increase injuries and is rarely a great spectacle. If the game is not decided in regulation time, decide the game on shoots on goal.
  5. Replace yellow cards with 5 minutes in a sin bin, keeping a red card for repeat sin bin bookings and serious misconduct. Managers and supporters will be more than peeved if players are off the pitch while the opposition is scoring.


There are some great graphics in The Guardian illustrating the points about inequality:


Plus 48% (47.8% – don’t you just love those decimals) of the England squad are the sons of migrants.

Marina Hyde writes

Shame on the politicians looking at this sweltering hot, heady summer of football and thinking: “Ooh, this would totally be enhanced by a general election”

And the contrarian Chris Dillow gently reminds us what Gareth Southgate’s success show us, not least our underestimatation of our of cognitive biases

Great success is largely unpredictable. Pundits and experts know less than they pretend…

Things might have turned out very differently for England. We might well have lost the penalty shoot-out against Colombia: David Ospina came close to saving all the penalties. And even a mediocre Swedish team might have got a result were it not for some great saves by Pickford.



Football´s market failures

england-manager-sam-allardyce-press-conferencePoor Sam Allardyce. The Brexit manager who crashed landed on take-off. Poor both in terms of judgement (but at least he immediately quit, sparing us some nonsense about a game of two halves or moaning about the referee), and also his managerial record. Sam has form, 24% (with 4/17 honourable mentions) in the 2007 Stevens Report, somewhat less than his 39% career “winning” success rate during his managerial career, which -always on the decline – was achieved with seven clubs (Blackpool, Bolton, Notts County, West Ham, Blackburn, Newcastle and Sunderland), and included winning the old third division and two promotions during the past ten years. Not that there is anything wrong in being a steady journeyman professional, nor working with some fine English clubs. But the lack of any international experience should perhaps have shown up in the England manager selection criteria…

The Guardian´s Simon Jenkins makes the point about self-regulating autonomous global sporting associations´ poor governance fueled by TV money.

I cannot take seriously sports I used to love when I cannot trust what I see before my eyes. I was baffled at the reason for last-minute player substitutions in football matches, until I was told these were fee-sharing deals. Cricket’s dropped catches and no-balls turned out to be paid for. British cyclists who suddenly won gold medals had superior equipment to other competitors. How did Qatar get to hold a summer World Cup, or Russia a winter Olympic games? You can guess. Are we soon to learn that referees are bribed for the inexplicable penalties that decide most rugby matches?

Is the root of the game´s problems actually the clubs´ ownership of players? What other business owns and trades its employees? In professional European football restricting the free movement of players is justified in order to ensure fair competition, but in practice the increasing value of transfer fees is resulting in a monopoly in terms of sporting success by elite clubs (see The Economic and Legal Aspects of Transfers of Players). English football has a problem given its corruptible and corrupting nature. It has even given the English language its own word for bribes, a bung – payments by football agents to managers. The bribes also reflect the lack of transparency of the business model, shielded by owners´self-interest, and in turn the clubs´ banks, tax-advisers and accountancy firms plus their shareholders´ indifference. England´s interim manager, Gareth Southgate, puts it well. “There’s lots about the industry of football that I don’t like but it’s a sport I love“. It is about the fans, the majority of whom are working class supporters  who love the game.

Solutions: first, for professional football clubs, scrapping player ownership and replacing them with fixed contracts with transfer details registered (preferably online, including agents´fees, etc.); second, for the England job, let´s go radical. Let the fans pick the squad and the team. 500,000 football supporters selected their best England XI before the Euros and for the 2018 World Cup qualifiers. There are 3.9m players of the Fantasy Football League alone. There can be crowd sourcing for the manager too, note that here the lamented Sam was the third choice…

Alternatively, the best-qualified person for the job could be appointed.

And that would be Hope Powell. She played in four FA Women’s Cup finals plus winning a League and Cup double in 1996. She  was capped 66 times as a player, including the 1995 FIFA Women’s World Cup, scoring 35 goals as a midfielder. She was the youngest coach of any English national football team, and led the national team at the 2001, 2005, 2009 and 2013 UEFA Women’s Championships, including the final in 2009 where they lost to Germany, as well as reaching the quarter-finals of the Women’s World Cup in 2007 and 2011, and the Great Britain women’s Olympic football team in 2012. Plus she was the first woman to obtain the UEFA pro licence in 2003. Commitment and success.

UPDATE – Oct 13 

The latest England selection (with both the previous captains dropped).


Football environment

Euro 2008 kicks off this weekend and promises some intriguing group stage encounters (not least Holland v. Italy, Holland v. France, France v. Italy, Spain v. Russia, Czech Republic v. Portugal, and Germany v. Croatia). And the games can only get better in the following knock-out stages. Sometimes it is argued that this competition is stronger than the World Cup, insofar as the weather tends to be kinder both on players and pitches, and there are fewer weaker teams. In the betting, Italy, the current World Cup holders, are rated behind Germany and Spain, but this a competition that has a habit of producing unexpected winners – for example the Czechs (1976), Denmark (1992) and Greece – the current Cup holders – (2004). Part of me is backing Spain, part takes refuge in Eduardo Galeano’s sentiments (post) that it is enough to enjoy the game.

The reason that I’m cheering on the Spanish is, of course, that none of the British representatives have made it to the Euro 2008 finals, in the year in which two English teams contested the UEFA Champions League final and Rangers reached the UEFA Cup Final, and when 13% of the players taking part in Euro 2008 practice their trade in the Premiership. Of the 16 nations competing, only Italy & Russia do not have at least one current Premiership player in their squads. The globalisation of professional football is largely the consequence of the EU’s regulations on the free movement of labour: no amount of posturing by UEFA on the numbers of home players per team is going to be successful. Ironically in the Champions League final both Chelsea and Manchester Utd fulfilled Blatter’s ‘six-plus-five’ principle (which would limit a team’s “foreign” players to five).

The number of home-based players in each nation’s squads is shown the graph, and is contrasted with the number of all players in each country’s domestic leagues: 96% of Russia’s squad play in their domestic clubs (and 8% of all the players in the tournament play in Russia), whereas only one Croatian plays in Croatia (and no one else does). Unsurprisingly the big football nations – Germany, Italy, France & Spain – have a high percentage of domestically-based squad members as well as sharing a large proportion of foreign players in their respective leagues [Data source: BBC].

Will this make any difference to their chances of success? The second graph contrasts the current odds (from William Hill: 4-1 Germany; 11-2 Spain; 7-1 Italy, Portugal; 15-2 France; 12-1 Croatia, Holland; 16-1 Czech Republic; 22-1 Greece; 25-1 Switzerland; 28-1 Russia, Sweden; 40-1 Romania, Turkey; 50-1 Poland; 100-1 Austria) with the number of players in the finals who play in each nation’s leagues (thereby assuming that this is an indicator of performance). The relationship looks quite close – without getting drawn into any statistical tests – but the actual results are likely to depend upon the players’ form and the quality of management. Let us remember that during qualifying England made the fundamental error of promoting the #2: see post No Easy Matches.

The Premiership is probably the most international league in the world (in terms not only of players, but also sponsorship, worldwide tv coverage), and yet the overwhelming majority of the England team would most likely be drawn from the top four clubs (less if Arsenal is one of these). The question then – accepting the positive impacts of globalisation on British football – is how sustainable is the modern game given the clubs’ level of indebtedness and cost structures, and arguably the increasing inequalities between clubs, and the lower divisions. The issues is not about players’ nationalities, but rather the linkages between the advantages of globalisation and ensuring that domestic football can generate new talent and decent national teams (i.e the financing of domestic football, benefit-sharing arrangements and the “rules of the game” in the widest sense). Perhaps this is where the Germans, Italians, Spanish & French are doing better?

But there is a lesson here for the World Environment Day too: strengthening local capacities is the key to help countries lever to their advantage the benefits from globalisation. Both the agricultural and forestry sectors in developing countries have been relatively neglected by multilateral and bilateral donors. The success of efforts to create new carbon markets to support avoided deforestation will depend upon the quality of local institutions and knowledge to match initiatives and funding to tackle the drivers of deforestation whilst supporting farming systems. Implementing such environmental service programmes – and wider reforms needed to decarbonise the world’s economy – will be by necessity a step-by-step experimental process based on enduring partnerships, but one that has hardly begun:

Juan Bautista Alberdi, an Argentine constitutionalist and liberal, noted in 1837 that “Nations, like men, do not have wings; they make their journeys on foot, step by step.” Latin America, long susceptible to the utopian mirages of revolutionaries and caudillos and still not immune to them, has struggled to absorb this truth. But … durable mass democracies have emerged across the region…[Brazil’s] leadership in nonfossil fuels and the unparalleled biodiversity of its Amazon rain forest make it a natural leader in the 21st-century struggle with global warming. (NYT)

UPDATE: 25 June

The first graph shows the four semi-finalists came from the top-5 rated nations (which is better than the match makers managed). I’m sure that Eduardo Galeano enjoyed the romance of the plucky and skillful Turkish performance, as well as Richard William’s sympathetic sport writing – here