Dictators and Soccer: Nicolae Ceaușescu, Genius of the Carpathians

November 8, 2012 — by Rob Kirby4


[Editor’s note: This is the 2nd installment in the ongoing Dictators and Soccer series. See also the previous article on Mobutu Sésé Seko of Zaïre and subsequent articles on Kim Jong-il and North Korea (or Football, Famine and Giant Rabbits) and Pope Benedict XVI and Vatican City. Stay tuned for Col. Gaddafi next.]

Up until Christmas 1989 when a three-man firing squad executed Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife Elena after a quickie two hour tribunal, the archetypal Iron Curtain strongman ruled Romania with an iron fist. After getting strafed with bullets, however, the iron fist swiftly went limp, then rigor mortis. And as the title up top suggests, soccer most definitely played its part in the image engine of the autocratic regime.

Ceaușescu served as the General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party from 1967 to 1989. He loomed larger than life, largely due to his carefully cultivated cult of personality, replete with relentless news propaganda, giant-sized murals and so on. He even nicknamed himself “Genius of the Carpathians,” ”The Great Conductor” and ”The Danube of Thought.” One imagines that someone else bestowed the dubious honorific of “The Idi Amin of Communism.” (To read about the “Mobutu of Soccer Mogul Marketing,” see here.)

No one would accuse Ceaușescu of being a rabid soccer fan, but he spotted the usefulness of rabid devotion in any form and fully intended to bend such to his purposes. Enter the Romanian capital’s soccer powerhouse, Steaua Bucharest (anglicized form of Steaua București). The lyrics of a popular Romanian song, “Poți să fii câine sau poți fi stelist,” epitomized the mantra of the time. Translation, “You can be a dog, or you can be a Steaua fan.” With Ceaușescu as benefactor, Steaua went on a run of consecutive titles and undefeated in 104 straight domestic matches from 1986 to 1989, which blows away anything as piddling as a one-season Premier League “Invincibles” streak. To get to 104, you’re talking multiple and consecutive, which inhabits a whole different plane of non-losing. Curiously (or not), it all crashed to an abrupt halt with Ceaușescu’s 1989 execution.

Ceaușescu sought to legitimize and whitewash the nation state through sport, with the mentality that good PR sweeps human rights atrocities under the rug. If the soccer’s good, people will give you some leeway and even participate in the charade. So, with the best Romanian players at its disposal, as well as opposing managers and referees in its pocket, Steaua went without a loss for three consecutive domestic seasons. Steaua became the first club from Eastern Europe to hoist the European Cup, in 1986, and reached the finals in 1989. Ceaușescu lived long enough to see it, but not much beyond.

To flesh out the dictator a bit, let’s itemize a few of his eccentricities. Aside from the usual nepotism (27 close relatives in the top party and state offices), he and his wife Elena once visited Queen Elizabeth II and stayed at the palace. After shaking anyone’s hand, including the queen, he would wash his hands, OCD style. This was debatably less offensive than their bringing a personal food taster and their own bed sheets, out of distrust. Ceaușescu harbored a bizarre fear of poison-dusted cloth. All his clothes were manufactured by state police under surveillance, worn once and then burned. The purpose of the UK visit was to buy aerospace technology, but when quoted the price, he explained he’d have to pay a large part in yogurt, strawberries and ice cream. Despite the sweet deal, no deal.

If a newspaper mentioned Ceaușescu, no one else but his wife could be named in the same paragraph. And if both he and Elena were mentioned in a paragraph, they had to both be on the same line. Furthermore, each page of a paper had to mention him a minimum of 40 times, with his name in a specialized font. Every telephone manufactured during his reign came standard with bugs for surveillance, and after once receiving a death threat letter, he instructed the secret police to procure handwriting samples of everyone in the country. His presidential parliamentary palace, widely considered one of the greatest eyesores ever, was the second biggest administrative building in the world, after the Pentagon. It has since been transformed into a shopping mall.

In the ’80s, Ceaușescu shut down all radio stations outside the capital and limited TV to a two-hour broadcast on one solitary channel. The two hours part was simply pragmatism. The country battled with foreign debt that caused a trickledown effect characterized by drastic food rations, gas shortages and regular power blackouts.

Oh right, Ceaușescu also ruthlessly persecuted ethnic Hungarians, emptied the treasury and generally held the title of biggest asshole on the block, or bloc.

Returning to how soccer played into the man’s plans, even before Ceaușescu came to power, Romania had a fixed soccer duopoly in Dinamo Bucharest and Steaua Bucharest, supported and financed by the secret police and army, respectively. They had an “arrangement” between them known as the cooperativa. Whenever one needed a win or a specific scoreline in a head to head, the other complied. This arrangement itself transpired against a backdrop of deeply entrenched match fixing elsewhere in the league. Money needn’t exchange hands. If you played one of the top dogs, you obediently lost, or faced the consequences. Needless to say, neither came close to relegation during the ‘60s, ‘70s or ‘80s. Several sources speak of a phenomenon in which teams playing either of the Bucharest teams would concede goal after goal until the manager stepped from the dugout and raised his hand, signaling that the opposition could actually start going for goal.

Threats, intimidation and payoffs ensured that Steaua and Dinamo stayed top. But since the country as a whole was strapped for cash, intimidation of other club owners, managers, players and referees usually did the trick, and at an undeniably cut rate.

A brief aside on Dinamo Bucharest. All the Dinamo/Dynamo teams in the Soviet era had links to the secret police, based on the mother club Dynamo Moscow in Mother Russia. (Think about that next time you taunt supporters of Dinamo Zagreb or Dynamo Kiev, though you’re probably pretty safe with regard to the Houston Dynamo.) Just as Dynamo Moscow essentially reported directly to the KGB, and Dynamos Berlin and Dresden to the Stasi—a terrifying proposition—Dinamo Bucharest grabbed the proffered appendage of the brutal Securitate and the two went hand in hand.

When Ceaușescu bestowed his allegiance on Steaua Bucharest, it spelled the decline of Dinamo Bucharest, which had ruled supreme in the ‘70s. In the early 1980s, however, the Ceaușescus became directly involved in running Steaua, shifting the balance of power decidedly to the army team. Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu’s eldest son, Valentin, finagled his way into the organization and served as the club’s unofficial president (whether they wanted it or not). The backing of Ceaușescu gifted Steaua a powerful upper hand and fortunes swapped soon after.

With the army and the dictator as benefactors, many of the best young players joined Steaua for the many advantages of the club—not only better conditions and luxuries like television sets and video recorders but also a quite handy exemption from compulsory military service. And those players who didn’t come of their own free will came anyway. Steaua “borrowed” star player Gheorghe Hagi from FC Sportul Studențesc in 1987 and never returned him, despite his home club’s opposition. In 1988, Steaua didn’t even bother borrowing. They plucked Gheorghe Popescu from FC Universitatea Craiova with neither the club’s nor the player’s consent.

Also in 1988, Steaua and Dinamo faced off in the Romanian Cup. By this point Steaua had long been the dictatorship’s pet team. Tied 1-1 in the 90th minute, Steaua scored but the goal was disallowed as offside. Outraged, and perhaps slightly stunned at the referee’s audacity, Valentin Ceaușescu refused to play on and ordered his team back to the locker room. After they’d left the field, the referee gave the game and the trophy to Dinamo, by virtue of default.

The Minister of Sport instructed the media to report nothing. The next day, the referee recanted, declared the winning goal valid and Steaua got the trophy. All video of the match was destroyed. The referee and the offsides linesman were fired.

A happy ending for some, though probably not the referee and linesman, who likely have a few permanently damaged fingers, kneecaps or both.

Perhaps Ceaușescu’s small potatoes hometown village team Olt Scornicești best illustrates the state-soccer corruption connection and the absurdity and the totality of power possessed by the dictator. Adrift in the fourth tier of Romanian football in the late ‘70s, the team earned three promotions in three consecutive years. On the final day of the season before promotion to the top flight, the team had to beat Electrodul Slatina by a goal margin equal to or more than Flacara Moreni. Erroneously informed that Flacara Moreni were winning 9-0 (as opposed to the actual 3-0), with more than a slight touch of overkill, Ceaușescu’s team upped the ante and won 18-0. No use taking chances when goals come so easily. Finally, the team resembled one befitting the standing of the sitting dictator, order restored to the universe of the bizarro world. Furthermore, Ceaușescu built a 30,000 capacity stadium for Scornicești, despite the village being a third that size.

Beyond this classic, ridiculous case of miscommunication, the episode registers as a vintage example of sports corruption in the Soviet bloc. No phone line connected the two villages where Steaua and Flacara Moreni were playing, so men with hand radios stationed at intervals between the grounds relayed and garbled the score like Chinese whispers or plain old Telephone. (With all phones bugged, who dropped the ball on getting these villages on the telephone grid? It’s an issue of national security, after all.) After the referee blew for full-time and the teams filed off the pitch, he actually brought the teams back out for enough extra-special injury time in order for Olt Scornicești to bang in the goals they needed and rack up a monstrous tally to promotion. Scornicești scored once in the first half, 17 times in the “second half.”

(Sidenote on Scornicești coach Florin Halagian. He also employed such heartwarming antics as kicking underperforming players off the bus at away matches to find their own way home.)

By the end of the ‘80s, the jig was up for Nicolae and Elena and in December 1989 a populist uprising threw off the oppressive Ceaușescu regime. In the resulting proto-Saddam trial, Ceaușescu denounced the tribunal, trying to the last to intimidate, denying the court had any authority to try him for anything. After a hurry-up two hour trial and the foregone guilty verdict for genocide of ethnic Hungarians, corruption and more, he and Elena were shot. The moment, however, did not get recorded for posterity, even though the show trial was televised. One imagines it was some weird video format, anyhow, like a Betamax made by the folks at Yugo.

Apparently hundreds volunteered for the firing squad, but only three lucky comrades got the job, comrades so eager that they started firing as soon as the ex First Couple touched backs to wall. The video cameras hadn’t had time to start rolling before it was all over. Sadly, this dictatorial snuff film must ever remain incomplete.

And now Cluj is the nation’s team, with a definite chance of qualifying for the knockout stages of the Champions League. Poor Steaua. Dictators and their passing whims can be so quixotic, especially when they get executed.

For anyone interested, Scornicești long ago resettled back into the fourth tier of the Romanian leagues. Romanian match fixing apparently remains robust, but after the fall of the dictatorship, some things at least returned to normal.


Dictators and Soccer/Football:

Mobutu Sésé Seko (Zaïre)

Nicolae Ceaușescu (Romania)

Kim Jong-il (North Korea)

Pope Benedict XVI (Vatican City)


Copyright © 2012

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CF Preview: Dutch De Klassieker & Argentine Superclásico

October 27, 2012 — by Suman


Usually our attention is focused on the “big” European leagues–English, Spanish, German, Italian–but this weekend features two big rivalry matches elsewhere, both on Sunday: the Dutch De Klassieker, with Ajax travelling to Rotterdam to take on Feyenoord at De Kuip; and down in Buenos Aires, the first Argentine Superclásico in 17 months this weekend, with River Plate hosting Boca Juniors at the Estadio Monumental.  Both matches will be available for viewing in the US: Feyenoord-Ajax on ESPN Deportes & (7:30amET), River Plate-Boca Juniors on GolTV (1:30pmET).

We didn’t realize the Superclasico was happening this weekend til we happened to catch Jonathan Wilson’s tweets on Friday, upon his arrival in Buenos Aires.  Via a match preview he wrote for BetFair:

Argentina has been waiting for this fixture for a long time, longer than anybody in any previous era would ever have believed possible. Sunday sees the first superclasico for 17 months as River Plate face Boca Juniors at El Monumental.

It’s fifth against 11th and, unless Boca win and somehow haul themselves back into the title race – at the most they trail Newell’s Old Boys by five points – it means nothing in terms of silverware. Yet it means everything in terms of prestige. The superclasico dominates Argentinian football to an extraordinary extent, no matter where the teams are in the league – which is perhaps understandable given 70 per cent of the country support one team or the other. It’s the game everybody has been focused on since River responded to relegation with promotion at the first attempt – which is just as well, because neither side has been playing particularly well.

And a preview of De Klassieker via

Feyenoord will face an Ajax side brimming with confidence after their Champions League humbling of Manchester City when the sides meet in the first Eredivisie Classic of the season on Sunday.

The sides sit fourth and fifth in the table, with the Amsterdam side ahead on goal difference. But Ronald de Boer’s team will go into the game on the crest of the wave following their 3-1 win over the big-spending Premier League champions. De Boer admitted his team’s performance had been outstanding and he will be hoping for more of the same at De Kuip on Sunday. The former Dutch international said: “I know what we are capable of. I think we saw a good Ajax that wanted to show something good. “We played quite well and City didn’t have an answer to our play.”

His opposite number Ronald Koeman will at least be boosted by the return to training of Reuben Schaken and Sekou Cisse after their respective injury lay-offs.


Weekend Wrapup: Falcao Supercup Hat-trick

September 4, 2012 — by Suman


The weekend began Friday afternoon (for those of us on this side of the Atlantic–it was Friday night in France, where the match was played) with the UEFA Supercup between Chelsea and Atletico Madrid.

By the time we tuned in to check the score, it was halftime, and the score already 3-0–via a hat-trick for exactly who you would think would be lighting it up.  His 2nd hattrick in five days, given that he scored three against Athletic Bilbao in Madrid on Monday! The Colombian kid is making a case for being one of the best few strikers in the game right now. Here are the goals, each of them spectacular. Commentary pulled from the Guardian MBM:

6 min: GOAL! Chelsea 0-1 Atlético Madrid. Chelsea are rocking alright. Chelsea’s back line is ripped apart by a simple pass down the middle. Falcao romps after it, picking up possession down the inside-left channel. He takes one step into the area, steadies himself, draws Cech, and dinks an exquisite chip towards the right-hand post. The ball hits the woodwork, and spins into the net, beyond the despairing tootsies of Luiz, who is sliding in at speed. What an amazing finish. Upfield, former charge Fernando Torres looks on in stunned disbelief.

19 min: GOAL! Chelsea 0-2 Atlético Madrid. This is such a superlative finish by Falcao. There’s a burst up the Atlético inside-right channel. Luiz can’t stop the ball flying to Falcao’s feet, just outside the area, though he probably should have cut it out. Falcao pauses for the ball to roll out from under his studs, nudges it to the left, taking Cole out of the picture, opens his body, and guides a beautiful effort into the top-left corner. Cech had no chance whatsoever, that was sailing serenely into the net from the nanosecond it left Falcao’s boot. This, ladies and gentlemen, is football.


44 min: GOAL!!! AND A SECOND HAT-TRICK THIS WEEK FOR FALCAO! Chelsea 0-3 Atlético Madrid A corner for Chelsea, won down the left by Mata. So what happens? You know what happens. Atlético clear, then stream upfield, down the right. Arda Turan is allowed to run at the area, and run, and run, and run, and run. He eventually rolls the ball out left to Falcao, who takes one touch and smashes the ball past Cech. In no way can it be argued that this hasn’t been coming.

Unfortunately neither the gif not the Guardian mbm gives credit to the superlative pass (from Gabi?) that put Falcao through for the first goal.  At least the Turkish Arda Turan gets credit for his nice square assist on the 3rd. Worth a mention besides those two is their fellow midfielder Adrián. Watch it in the video highlights:

Chelsea 0-1 Atl. Madrid by simaotvgolo12

The gifs above were pulled from afootballreport’s “Transfer Deadline Day, according to Falcao*” report, which also provides some entertaining text:

As clubs around Europe neurotically began a 24 hour spurt of panic-buying, Falcao led Atlético Madrid to a 4-1 rout against Chelsea and could only shake his head and laugh at the millions of pounds and euros being thrown around. He also laughed at David Luiz, because David Luiz is hilarious and spent the night doing Macaulay Culkin impressions instead of defending. Then he laughed at Branislav Ivanovic, because despite Branislav’s admirable career he would likely never spend a night with a Colombian woman. Finally, his eyes met Roman Abramovich’s afterEl Tigre completed his hat-trick in the European Super Cup, piercing any remnants of the oil oligarch’s soul. Roman grew unsettled in his luxury box in Monaco.


Don’t let anyone persuade you to think otherwise, casually scoring hat-tricks against the European Champions and smashing the hopes and dreams of oligarchs is the only way to live on transfer deadline day.


If/when we get a chance, we’ll be back with a wrapup of the rest of our weekend viewing–Arsenal breaking their duck at Anfield, RVP powering Utd, and Zeemanlandia at the San Siro.


EnglandEuro 2012EuropeUnited States

Extreme Makeover Football Edition: What Michael Vick, John Terry, and Joey Barton Tell Us about Media Rehabilitation in 2012

July 30, 2012 — by Ryan


Recently, Michael Vick appeared on ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption (PTI).  Vick appeared on PTI to plug his new book, Finally Free: The Power of a Second Chance. In his nearly eight minute interview, the Philadelphia Eagles star openly acknowledged his problematic past and while contrite and thoughtful he also admitted the book was also an attempt to end the conversation about his history. “We can talk football, we can talk other personal things but let’s not talk about my past, let’s leave it where it is.”

Vick’s career and life provide insights into several aspects of sport including race, and media rehabilitation.  After serving hard time in prison for dog fighting, Vick’s efforts in rehabilitating his career, image, and persona have been notable.  Finally Free is really the last leg in a Michael Vick public relations campaign to undercut those who see Vick as little more than a talented, underachieving, amoral mercenary dog torturing athlete.

For years, Vick has worked with the Humane Society filming PSA’s and making appearances in the name of animal rights. Yet, as Vick seems to becoming full circle, this summer a prominent English footballer finds himself regarded as a talented but maligned influence.  Much like Vick, the trial of John Terry provides insights into many of the same issues, but knowing Terry’s character (as will be explained) a reversal of Michael Vick proportions seems unlikely.  Instead of the thoughtful, long term, self-reflective, and honest effort by Vick, Terry should go for the superficial answer much like his manic violent Newcastle peer Joey Barton.

The Trial of the Century?

In the second week of July, one of the most anticipated summer trials in all of England ended with a predictable acquittal. John Terry, Chelsea’s stalwart defender and starter for the English national team, was found not guilty of racially abusing another player.   Accused of directing a racial profanity toward QPR defender Anton Ferdinand (Terry allegedly called him a “black cunt”), Terry professed his innocence, even taking the stand to relate to the court how soccer players interact on the pitch.

The trial itself played out in tragic-comic fashion via the New York Times.  Needless to say, the language exchanged between opposing players at any level can reach rather dicey levels as insults directed at one’s family members prove quite common.  In college, I roomed with a female soccer player who admitted to once using a remark about child molestation to get under the skin of the forward she was marking and that was Division III soccer.  Between amateur and professional male athletes, mothers, sisters, girlfriends and wives bear the brunt of such insults, just ask Zidane who sacrificed France’s 2002 World Cup to defend his sister’s honor (Italian Player Marco Materazzi later admitted to more or less calling her a whore).   The Daily Mail quoted Terry pointing out that “players routinely tell each other they ‘s***’ each other’s partners.” It got even worse, as during testimony Terry further admitted “that conversations between players descend to degrading levels during the heat of battle in the Barclays Premier League.” Do tell?

Remember when you liked me?

Of course anyone who uses the Times as a source for such prurient details was disappointed argued the Atlantic’s Alexander Abad-Santos. Abad-Santos pointed out that the Times policy of neutering language to avoid controversy had turned “a NSFW cluster-cuss into the most sterile argument ever,” he noted.  At least the Times gave us all stateside some new slang: handbags as in “this whole thing is handbags” or much to do about nothing as Chelsea teammate Ashley Cole described the whole affair.  Terry portrayed his interaction with Ferdinand similarly. “As the argument on the field became more heated, Mr. Terry at one point compared Mr. Ferdinand to male genitalia, and then to female genitalia, in consecutive sentences.  Most of these constituted ‘handbags,’ or ‘normal verbal exchanges between the players,’ reported the Times.”  In the end, though damaging, the Times coverage remained so awkward, one could be forgiven if distracted.  Again, this played to Terry’s favor, as the ridiculousness of this aspect of the trial overshadowed its more serious themes. Remember, Luis Suarez received an eight game ban for a racial outburst toward Manchester United’s Patrice Evra and then inflamed matters when he refused to shake Evra’s hand several weeks later when the two teams met in competition. By contravening pre-match tradition, Suarez reignited questions about his character and apparent racism. It got worse last week when Suarez blamed his ban and subsequent controversy on Man U’s “political power.” Is Suarez the Richard Nixon of the EPL, constantly and unfairly under siege, abrasive and contentious but oddly talented and always the victim?  Who’s to say?

Granted some might argue, John Terry’s alleged racism though vile, doesn’t hurt anyone or thing physically while Michael Vick’s actions resulted in mutilated animals and disturbing levels of violence.  Others might point out that discursive racism can lead to violence against ethnic, racial, and religious groups accordingly, John Terry needs to be punished for contributing to such discourse.  In Vick’s case race played an important role, but secondarily. Race played a role in perceptions or how people viewed him.  Most people – black, white, brown, yellow etc – were rightly horrified when the stories of his dog fighting facility emerged. The reaction to this might have been racial but the underlying facts of the case were not. From established press, (ESPN The Magazine published a controversial article titled “What If Michael Vick were White?”) to the attentions of more academic bloggers, numerous outlets have reflected on what Vick’s career and image mean.   Sure Vick’s case involved very volatile emotions regarding animal rights, but plenty of non-white folks feel strongly about their animal brethren.

In regard to John Terry, his case shows that lingering pockets of racial tension persist in the EPL and more widely, Europe. Though numerous ex-coaches and current teammates vouched for his impeccable unbiased nature, others remained silent on the issue including Rio Ferdinand, Anton’s brother. Racism has been a recurring problem in soccer across “the continent” and internationally.  Franklin Foer demonstrated sectarian, ethnic, and racial hatreds perpetuated by soccer fans and players in various parts of Europe in his book, How Soccer Explains the World.  More recently, Italy’s Mario Balotelli accused Croatian fans of making racist taunts during the two teams’ encounter at this summer’s European Championship.  Go to present day Poland and Ukraine where some clubs’ fans openly employ Nazi salutes and make references to the holocaust.  When the Times noted that the trial revealed divisive schisms in “the close-knit world of Premier League soccer,” it seemed unsurprising.  After all, though Chelsea won the Champion’s Cup this year, they struggled through their domestic campaign.  Rumors floated around that the team’s Spanish and Portuguese speakers supported doomed coach Andre Villas-Boas (AVB) while the older English speaking players resisted the European tactics he brought to the table.   Soccer’s swirling mix of cultures and styles, though enormously beneficial on the whole can sometimes clash.  Terry probably deserved some credit/blame for AVB’s departure mid-season.

Of course, the efficacy of such trials and the FA general policy deserve some scrutiny. The FA has rightly targeted racism to be squashed; undoubtedly a noble and worthwhile effort.  However, the effects of this policy seem less clear.  Suarez remains unchanged by his punishment, should we expect any different from Terry?  Add to it, that following the trial, Rio Ferdinand fell under FA investigation for replying in the affirmative to a tweet that Ashley Cole (who is black) amounted to “choc ice” (basically meaning black on the outside, and white on the inside) for testifying in Terry’s favor.  Ferdinand responded to accusations of racism, how else, via twitter: “What I said yesterday is not a racist term. It’s a type of slang/term used by many for someone who is being fake. So there.” Should Ferdinand be reprimanded? Does the FA want to adopt the heavy handed tactics of Roger Goodell’s NFL?  When Emmanuel Frimpong of Arsenal (on loan to Wolves) responded to a hostile posting by a Tottenham Fan with “Scum Yid”,  Frimpong promptly removed the comment from his twitter feed, but shouldn’t he be punished too?  Add to it, the complexity of Tottenham’s identify, which Foer documented. Having once been home to a large Jewish fan base, many Tottenham fans adopted the term Yid as a means to undercut the term’s viciousness. “Instead of denouncing the Jews as pollutants to the nation, chunks of the working class have identified themselves as Jewish, even if only in the spirit of irony.” (Foer, 85) While an improvement on anti-Semitic violence, it still leaves Jews as cartoons, outsiders, or “others” in European minds. The point is the FA policy and its ramifications can be dizzying.

With that said, the fact that Terry had to sweat it out on this, makes this writer feel better. Yet, enough doubt remains regarding his true racial beliefs that it might be good to consider the full man.  When one does, you find a man guilty of much more than racism. Outside his significant soccer talent, consider his other claims to fame. On 9/11 he drunkenly mocked American tourists at Heathrow Airport. In January of 2002 Terry assaulted a nightclub bouncer resulting in his suspension from the English national side thereby forfeiting his shot at that year’s World Cup. In November of 2006, Terry allegedly racially abused Tottenham’s Ledley King.  A 10,000 pound fine was levied for “inappropriate conduct.” He cheated on his fiancé Toni Pooole with a 17 year old girl in a London parking lot in 2007. Three years later, Terry famously slept with the girlfriend and of his best friend and English teammate Wayne Bridge.  This led opposing fans to chant “Oh wherever you maybe, don’t leave your wife with John Terry!”  Sure there are other incidents but really, you get the point.

No handshake for you!

Even if John Terry needed a Michael Vick sized make over, I’m not sure he could pull one off. Intellectually, Vick’s pretty sharp, John Terry reminds this writer of Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda.   So how does the former captain of the English national team rehabilitate his image? Well first, play well and win; avoid being sent off in critical Champion’s Cup matches for openly kneeing people in the back.  After that it is simple really, John Terry needs to open a twitter account and grow a mustache: the superficial answer for a superficial man.

John Terry, Joey Barton, and the Future of Football Public Relations

Does that seem flippant? Perhaps, but new social media like twitter, not around when Vick returned to professional athletics, enables athletes to escape the “filter” of the traditional media.  Certain stylistic accoutrements like wild haircuts or distinct facial hair do well to draw attention away from volatile personalities.  Vick’s earnest and hard won second chance came as result of jail time, open contrition, athletic success, and persistent attempts – through PSA’s and now his book – to change the conversation about his image.  The example of Joey Barton provides the 2K12 route to “rehabilitation.”  Be assured, as evidenced by Barton’s season finale, the route remains skin deep, but are there more apt words for Chelsea’s 31 year old defender?

Much like Terry, Barton’s personnel history vibrates with the controversy, but perhaps more disturbingly than his Chelsea counterpart. In 2002, Barton extinguished a cigar in they eye of his teammate Jamie Tandy.  In 2007, a fight between himself and teammate Ousmane Dabore ended with Dabore bleeding from the ears. Speaking on the issue four years later, Barton expressed little remorse: “Frankly, Ousmane is a little pussy. Where I come from, when you fight there is no rule. You fight ‘til it’s over.'”  Soon after the Dabore exchange, Barton assaulted a man outside a Liverpool McDonalds, punching him twenty times in the head.  Barton served 77 days in prison for his crime.  Yet, if not for a psychotic outburst in his team’s season ending match this year, in much of the public’s eyes Barton had been rehabilitated.  Granted, his bizarre antics against Manchester City (resulting in a 12 game suspension next year) poisoned much of the work he had done in rebranding himself, but his example would serve John Terry well.

Sometime in 2009, Barton opened a twitter account and began randomly posting philosophical twitter messages. His tweets ranged from quotes by George Orwell  (“In times of universal deceit, telling the truth will be a revolutionary act.”) and Fredrich Nietchze (“Whoever feels predestined to see and not to believe will find all believers too noisy and push; he guards against them.”) to political diatribes (“Why are British troops in conflict zones risking their lives, on America’s behalf? Supporting a fascist regimes ideologies? Bring them home.”) to an homage to the Smiths (“There is a light that never goes out”………The Smiths! Best song ever written. Thanks marr / mozza for getting me through that drive….”) He visited art galleries and told soccer fans all about them.

Then in 2010, Barton glommed on to one of the oldest tricks in the book: the mustache. The midfielder promised not to shave his newly acquired mustache until Newcastle recorded a victory.  It didn’t take too long, by August 22, Barton and his Newcastle teammates had thumped Aston Villa.  Still, by this point, Barton had tapped into his inner Magnum P.I.  His twitter feed and mustache drew attention away from his clearly unstable nature.  Sure we used to equate mustaches with totalitarianism (has their ever been two more famous mustaches than those of Uncle Joe Stalin and Adolph Hitler), but today even Michael Jordan rocks a mustache that many argue looks very similar to that of a certain genocidal German.  Today’s famous mustaches range from the conservative American Patriot Ron Swanson (“Parks and Rec”) to the businesslike Stringer Bell (The Wire) to ubiquitous “ironic” or  hipster mustache (really a character like Swanson and Bell unto itself – see Jude Law here for celebrity example).  People began talking about the quirky, mustachioed twitter happy Barton, not the thuggish freak that served over two months in prison.

Barton in a long line of football hipster ‘staches

Joey Barton’s angled masterpiece was a combination of Brooklyn Flea artisan and Toledo used car salesman; in other words, “creative everyman”, if everyman only sold tricked out El Caminos that came with a free Rites of Spring discography.  With a mustache, Joey Barton’s previous violent outbursts became ironic acts of cognitive dissonance.  “I beat that man senseless because of how futile I think violence is, don’t you get it?  I tweet Nietchze!” In the same way, Terry needs to grow a mustache and maybe tweet out some obscure Foucault quote about bio-politics or something.  Then his acts of racism become nothing more the deadening affects of governmentality.  See you aren’t even sure what that means and honestly neither am I. That’s the point.  Terry’s set the bar so low, even a spark of intellect promises a wildfire of good publicity.  Besides, all that talk of salty language at the trial reinforced the idea that players say such inappropriate things, John Terry’s outburst, whatever it really was, simply reflected this.  All Terry needs to do is back that up with some reference to the power of discourse and he’ll have an army of anthropologists looking to complete their dissertations on the culture of profanity in football.

One might suggest fellow alleged racist Liverpool’s Luis Suarez grow his own mustache. Yet, as Roger Bennett and Michael Davies of the Men in Blazers podcast are found of pointing out, Suarez has Anne Hathaway sized teeth: the kind you see in nightmares about the dentist or eating carrots.  No, a mustache on Luis would leave him resembling one of those caricature drawings you get at theme parks.  Mr. Suarez will have to discover some other way to hide his unpleasant personality and casual bigotry.

Suarez’s choppers

In today’s over saturated media, nobody reads books.  Vick deserves credit for a well earned climb back to respectability.  Some will forever see him as a torturer of animals and this is how it must be.  Actions have consequences, in addition to jail, there will be some people he will never reach. Vick served two years in Leavenworth.  That’s real time alone, in a very bad place.  So even if you hate him, you must admit he’s done some thinking on his crime. John Terry, Luis Suarez, and Joey Barton are different sorts who lack the sincerity of Vick and in Suarez’s case any sense of responsibility. Likewise, John Terry thinks his trial “handbags”, so a real conversion appears unlikely.  Say what you want about Vick, but the man has suffered for his crimes and reflected upon them honestly. If we must settle for mealy-mouthed P.R. campaigns dedicated to scrubbing John Terry’s history clean let it be one as entertaining, hirsute, and schizophrentic as that of Joey Barton. That way fans will know it’s all a show and won’t be disappointed when Terry, Suarez, Barton or some other EPL lug decides to travel down the rabbit hole of racism.

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The Great American TV Tune-In

July 4, 2012 — by Rob Kirby


Expect to see more soccer on American TV.

The trend of increasing U.S. TV soccer viewership continued with the 2012 European Championship, with Americans tuning in throughout the tournament but particularly for Spain’s 4-0 mauling of 10-man Italy in the final. As such, even new viewers could probably repeat the super-over-reported stat that Spain became not only the first country to win consecutive Euros but also the first to win an unprecedented three major international tournaments in a row, factoring in the 2010 World Cup. But since the achievement really is pretty phenomenal, we’ll repeat it, too.

Overall, the U.S. audience jumped 51% over that of Euro 2008. The surge is particularly striking when you consider that the numbers include no big-four broadcast network coverage, but rather just ESPN. (ABC and ESPN partnered in 2008.)

Top Viewership Numbers in Euro 2008 and Euro 2012:

Sun, July 1, 2012          ESPN      Spain vs. Italy 4,068,000
Sun, June 29, 2008      ABC         Germany vs. Spain     3,761,000
Sun, June 24, 2012      ESPN      England vs. Italy     2,968,000
Sun, June 10, 2012      ESPN      Spain vs. Italy     2,113,000
Wed, June 27, 2012     ESPN      Spain vs. Portugal     1,952,000
Sun, June 22, 2008      ESPN       Spain vs. Italy     1,911,000
Thu, June 28, 2012      ESPN      Germany vs. Italy     1,851,000
Sat, June 21, 2008        ABC         Netherlands vs. Russia     1,838,000
Sat, June 9, 2012          ESPN       Germany vs. Portugal     1,798,000
Sat, June 23, 2012        ESPN2     Spain vs. France     1,758,000

Considering the final week of the tournament coincided with Wimbledon, the Tour de France and various golf tournaments, the numbers actually mean something. It’s not like there was nothing else on TV. Some speculate that England’s entry into the quarterfinals helped garner the attention of their American cousins, or perhaps new viewers tuned in to learn what all the fuss was about with regard to Spain. Hard to know. Regardless, the objective data will make broadcasters and advertisers take note.

Over the course of 31 matches in the three-week tournament, an average of 1,300,000 viewers tuned in, versus the 859,000 viewer average in 2008.

Incidentally, these numbers reflect English language broadcast only. On Spanish-language TV, the final posted a 28% uptick in viewers, for an ESPN Deportes total of 1,125,000 viewers, making it the second highest-rated European soccer match ever on a Spanish-language sports cable network.

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Giroud Joins Arsenal, Ditches Nasri in Polkraine

June 27, 2012 — by Rob Kirby


All non-German Arsenal players exited the Euro 2012 tournament at the quarters, so no more Tomáš Rosický, no more Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Theo Walcott or even new signing Olivier Giroud, the 6’3 striker who scored the most goals in the Ligue 1 with Montpellier this past season. Giroud knows what it feels like to win titles and scores goals. The experience can only contribute promisingly to the operations of the club. Hopefully Giroud beds easily into the team and may his explosiveness out of the gate be everything one could hope for in the world of combustability. State of the Union: Arsenal, Polkraine 1 and Polkraine 2: Electric Vindaloo, we will miss you, but it’s hard to Arsenal it up properly Polkrainically with the spine of the team now largely absent.

Not to forget, of course, the first big new signing of the summer, Lukas Podolski, who quietly roars into the semis after he and Per Mertesacker quietly sat behaving themselves on the bench against Greece. Considering Rosický did something distinctly not good to his Achilles region and Walcott’s never-100% hamstring is again sub-100, one can appreciate Joachim Loew giving the guys whatever breathers they need. Mertesacker must be itching to get some time on the field, but that’s a different matter entirely.

Increasingly it looks like Germany/Spain in the finals and we’ll either see two newer players (Per and Poldi) lifting the trophy, or perhaps our former captain (good for him) and the main principals of the “Barca DNA” mafia (very bad people). I prefer Germany, and not just because it’s trendy right now to knock Spain’s Barcelona-based style of play. I grant either team permission to win the trophy, as long as the winning team goes fully at it and makes the event into a great final. Or Portugal. A Germany/Portugal matchup could be interesting. Oh right, we saw that already. It ends 1-0 to Germany, and Ronaldo does nothing of interest.

At the very least, please no Spain/Holland World Cup 2010 extra time action, unless it’s scoreless only until extra time where both teams drop the act and go batshit-crazy-nuts, racking up dozens of perfect downfield passes and goal after goal after goal. Or even just one mythic goal, but one that lends itself to a dozen interesting different camera angles. You get the full feel for how the goal action went down in incrementally more comprehensive views, even though it was just the one photogenic ball that crossed the goalpost plane. 12 different replay-as-new-play camera angles make for a 12-goal video replay frenzy.

In other, self-aggrandizing news, Nicklas Bendtner’s agent claims he’s attracting interest from major global clubs, so that’s clearly a done deal. I mean, he’s the agent. Meanwhile, Sebastien Squillaci reportedly is bound for Ligue 1, and we might be offloading Carlos Vela and Denilson to teams in La Liga. Overoptimistically, unwisely assuming all those go through, Johann Djourou and Andrey Arshavin both want new career moves, as well. First it looked like Arshavin to Zenit St. Petersburg, then he pissed everyone off by saying it was the Russian public’s fault for unrealistic expectations of Russia getting further than they did, or doing more in the match time they had. Then he apologized. So, maybe a Russian deal could still work, but apparently the Arshavins dig living in London, for what it’s worth. Where does that leave the man, then? QPR? West Ham? Fulham? Drop down a level and start raking in the bucks and that shimmery Crystal Palace adulation? As for Djourou, a mooted move to Turkey for the Swiss defender has popped up occasionally in the news.

The Robin van Persie issue remains as uncertain and unresolved as ever, but the new signings represent on the one hand a direction out of the wastelands if Robin leaves, and on the other, our ambition to push forward, theoretically what Robin’s been waiting for. Either way, Robin will seek fame and fortune elsewhere or he’ll seek fame and fortune with Arsenal. It should be decided before long. That will in turn trigger activity on the Walcott front. If anything positive came out of the shambles of last year’s summer transfer market, the transfer activity thus far this summer has shown a fundamental difference in intention from the club.

What of the fates of Marouane Chamakh, Park Ju-Yung and wantaway Lukasz Fabianski? Diaby? Gervinho? Considering Diaby’s once again out injured, it doesn’t seem like too many clubs will be banging down that particular door. And one would think Gervinho still has a year to make it with the side, despite starting berths on the left hand side of attack drastically shrinking in availability lately. Podolski would seem the natural starter for the left, with Robin and/or Olivier Giroud in front (or Robin dropping back into the hole) and Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain duking it out for wide right. Gervinho will need a hefty and timely dose of good form to force his way into the starting XI. Fortunately for the Ivorian, he always seems like he’s just one skill away from really making it work with his jerky cutback style. He’s got goals in him, somewhere. Maybe he’ll find new ways of impressing as an impact sub, who knows.

Hopefully, long term injuries to Bacary Sagna and Jack Wilshere will heal apace, as will last-season injuries to Emmanuel Frimpong and Francis Coquelin. Hopefully Rosický and Walcott soon recover from what seem shorter term injuries contracted from the Euros. And hopefully Mertesacker and Podolski continue to get into prime shape for the tournament’s finale, in which they combine for an astounding all-Arsenal goal to wipe the floor with Barca DNA.

Walcott returns from a good showing at Euro 2012, so presumably there will be another contract offer. Of course, Walcott may decide to not sign and kick off a delightfully neverending last-year-in-contract story for the next installment of news-overexposure hell. And Alex Song’s contract is winding down, too, so that too should provide some fun times. Oxlade-Chamberlain returns to a pay increase of 300%, which takes him up to £45,000 a week. For comparison, “flop” players Diaby, Denilson, Chamakh, Fabianski, Djourou, Arshavin, Vela,  Bendtner, et al  make more than that at this very moment, so it’s hard to say the Ox-Cham hasn’t earned it.

Anyhow, that’s all.

Enjoy the semis this week.

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Polkraine 2 (or, Arsenal Quarters Vindaloo)

June 21, 2012 — by Rob Kirby1


Arsenal captain Robin van Persie, Andrey Arshavin, Wojciech Szczesny and Nicklas Bendtner have all exited Euro 2012. Well, there goes that tournament…

But among those soldiering on in the competition, building upon performances covered in the first installment of the venerable State of the Union: Arsenal, Polkraine, four still remain (five did until today, of which more right now).

Czech Republic captain Tomas Rosicky sat out the quarterfinals against Portugal and will not return at a later stage as hoped,  as his countrymen did not prevail and his Achilles issue did not heal in time. The unfit Rosicky kept the fit contingent of the team company on the bench today, having returned from returning to Prague for treatment after the second Group A match against Greece, to no avail. He had not not trained since going off injured in that match and given his team’s exit today now targets recovery for the first team come August.

Lukas Podolski (most likely starting) and Per Mertesacker (most likely benching it) tackle Greece on Friday and will in all likelihood power on through to the semi-finals. Podolski scored a solid goal against the Danish in the final group stage match, taking his international tally to 44 in 100 international appearances, which is really pretty impressive.  Long may the goal record run.

On the French side of things, France centerback Philippe Mexes picked up a second yellow, so Koscielny may finally start against Spain in the quarterfinals on Saturday (lucky him!). Difficult opponents to line up against, the Spanish midfielder forwards will definitely test but not necessarily overwhelm the Arsenal player many thought should have been picked ahead of Mexes and Rami anyway.

Lastly, on Sunday England prevailed 1-0 against the Ukraine, playing a well-disciplined defense against a surprisingly entertaining Ukrainian side. The match lacked any real tangible impact from substitutes Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, but the Rooney-reunited team won their group, and in so doing escaped the Spanish in the draw, throwing the French to Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010 defending champions instead. Next up, Italy.

For England, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott impressed in the group stages overall, if not the final match in particular. Italy could present an interesting matchup for the young Englanders and their elders in the final quarterfinal. Congratulations to the two of them for the progressing, though, and may neither of the pair empulverize himself in the upcoming fixture against notoriously fair-play Italy.

To revisit the Euro 21012 departure personnel:

Van Persie’s heading up of the early exits is for most the most eyebrow-raising, particularly for those able to single-eyebrow-raise and who thought van Persie and the Dutch would not only emerge from the group of death but also make it to the semi-finals or even further. Robin travels homeward, or perhaps vacationward, and soon must definitively resolve the Arsenal contract issue. More and more I feel he should go if he really can’t commit to the team for two years. Pay him a market wage for someone who just won Player of the Year, most definitely. Promise him additional signings to inject the team with commensurate quality and actually do it. But if after the money waving and promise making and subtle allusions to loyalty during those many weeks and years on the Emirates physio tables, if it’s not enough it’s not enough. And if so, we need to address the remainder of the transfer window as such. The signing of Podolski and the links with Olivier Giroud and Yann M’Vila are a good start, regardless of the fact that neither of the two French links are by any means a lock (especially in the latter case, which was seemingly a lock at the end of the season).

Van Persie had a somewhat disappointing three matches, missing many opportunities, although he did get in a good wrong-leg right-footed strike against Germany that deserves props. Some argue that two defensive midfielders wasn’t the positive play for the Holland team, some point to the early stage omissions of Klaus-Jann Huntelaar and Rafael van der Vaart, but at the end of the day, the best Arsenal player and biggest Arsenal question mark comes back the non-Euro 2012 world with many questions unanswered and hopefully soon decides to definitely choose to stay or go, with particular regard to the matter of stay or leaving. Whatever it is, the sooner settled, the better.

Arshavin put in a good showing at the tournament, meaning that we may be seeing the last of Andrey, in an effort to give the already reluctant Arsenal player a way out that’s mutually beneficial. Glad for him that he’s turning his fortunes around. Some reports say he may prefer another England team to his recent successful homecoming at Zenit St. Petersburg. So be it. So long as someone pays a decent amount of money to take over his contract and the associated high wages, all good.

Szczesny had a tournament he’d probably rather forget. Playing in his home nation, he got red carded in match 1, which gave a penalty away against Greece. He watched his replacement block the penalty, to his relief, but Poland’s playing of 10 men against 11 certainly didn’t help the Poland team in the bid to get more than a point that day, when three would have set them in good stead in a winnable group in front of a home crowd. He did not make it into the side for the final match against the Czechs, but thankfully no injuries came to the goalie and his ego seems tough enough to absorb the moment and learn from it.

To help secure Spain’s spot in the quarterfinals, former captain Cesc Fabregas got a great downfield pass from Xavi that he looped over a defender’s head to Andres Iniesta who squared to Jesus Navas, who then preschooled it up with smash-in exuberance in Spain’s 1-0 victory over Croatia. Would that the Catalan midfielder was still with the London team. Onward and upward, though, I guess. Apparently, Cesc and Eduardo exchanged shirts after the match. The good old days…

On the transfer horizon front, the continuance of the French side in the competition after their toothless 2-0 loss to Sweden in the final group stage match means that we can perhaps see more and better from long-running targets M’Vila and Giroud in the tournament—against Spain, no less. Not being much of a Ligue 1 follower, I have only seen them in a few performances, so it’ll be interesting to see what they do against Spain.

And last of all the yokels, Nicklas Bendtner. The car-crashing egomaniac Bendtner is a good striker—better than Chamakh, definitely–but he doesn’t want to be an Arsenal player, so that sort of mandates he move on, because he’s not worth the prima donna business. Credit to him, though, that he’s whipped the media into a Bendtnerian frenzy and further publicized his already well-publicized wantaway status. The forward is doing his absolute best to attract more attention, and it’s a skill he knows well. The Paddy Power “lucky underwear” stunt earned him a fine of €100,000, as well as a one competitive match ban, but it also made him the talk of the town and tabloids, which is how Bendtner always expected his life to be, anyway. Any any rate, the soccer betting site swiftly announced they’d pay his fine, after having tweeted a picture minutes after the moment transpired of Bendtner lowering his shorts and raising his jersey to reveal the Paddy Power waistband. Bizarre. But crafty.

As demonstrated in the fine structure outlined in the following, one wonders about the purpose of the UEFA:

€20,000 Porto in Feb 2012, for racial abuse and monkey hoots from fans against visiting players
€40,000 Arsene Wenger in March 2012, for berating the official in the tunnel
€100,000 Nicklas Bendtner, this week, guerilla marketing underwear betting company advertising stunt/”lucky underwear”

Bendtner drew the worst fine. Go figure. He did it intentionally, fair enough, and assuming his defense that they were simply his “lucky underwear” fails to exonerate him in the UEFA kangaroo court, the decision stands.

The rest of the tournament still holds a possibility of a readjustment of UEFA’s policies. Unless they’re utterly out of touch with the people side of European soccer—their constituents, as it were—they will hopefully get back to a more balaced ratio of crime and punishment. If you go hard, go hard. Just be consistent. UEFA doesn’t have to be a leading beacon in human rights, but the easy-to-implement measures of equal payout really aren’t that tough. First fix the €20,000 Porto precedent. Make any incidents currently under review somewhere, anywhere, more in line and along the lines of the Bendtner fine.

For updated reference, in fairness, UEFA has just fined the Croatia FA €80,000 for racist chants against Mario Balotelli in the Croatia/Italy match in Group C. Again Balotelli, of “Why always me?” t-shirt fame. So many plugs, but back to the point,first Porto in the Europa fixture, now the Euros a half-year late. He’s clearly a flashpoint for frustrated opposition fans, but in a rarely employed comment in context to Balotelli, he’s the injured party not the cause this time.

The sum of €80,000 still conspicuously amounts to less than the Bendtner incident but represents a punishment more in keeping with a monetarily punitive response to racism at Euro 2012. Again the tournament still has legs and UEFA may likely have another opportunity to demonstrate their stance to punishing improper conduct, so we’ll see what happens. At this point, news outlets have covered it to death. The next weeks should clarify how UEFA plans to handle racism policywide, let alone at its own biggest sponsored event. Certainly on the face of it, the situation smacks of an organization that sees racism as a softer crime than unsanctioned marketing and has done a poor job of handling the controversy in a better way. Bendtner is an idiot—a €100,000 fine seems fine to me. He had to know that he was going to get busted. But as for UEFA, hopefully they will set a more appropriate benchmark for meting of fines when the time comes, which doesn’t seem long off, sadly.

Changing gears to a speed more transfer-minded, France’s prolonged participation in the tournament prolongs the viewing of possible future Arsenal players but delays any actual dealmaking with them. As is the nature of the game, every kickass thing one of the target Gallic “possibles” does confirms the suspicions of goodness, if not greatness, but inherently inflates the price, causing a whole new benefit-risk Arsene self-sitdown.

So for expediency’s sake, maybe they could just put in a solid, semi-emphatic performance, but not one that causes the future to turn out outrageously expensive. In other words, validate with entertainment the valuable time spent watching, but ensure the results that best behoove Arsenal. Which then greenlights the general influx of solid players and creates a comfortable signing environment for the talented new-signing folks.

Meanwhile, the Import/Export player development department officials look to pull some entrepreneurial stunts and focus on the other main task at hand. Namely, how best to offload Vela, Bendtner, Chamakh, Park, Denilson, Djourou, Fabianski and Squillaci, while throughout plays the perennial soap opera medical story line of Abou Diaby. Call It a Day, or Long Shot Bet That Broken Sucker’ll Come Crushingly Good—The Diaby/Wenger Story.  Hopefully the book publishes in a market where long titles are in vogue.

But back to actual Euro 2012 reality, the German crew seems to have the best shot at progessing to the semis and beyond. If Podolski and Mertesacker do behold silverware at tournament’s end, may it be the first of many this next twelve months. (The same goes to AOC, Walcott, Rosicky and Koscielny, but let’s be serious here.)