The Wormburner: Recognizable New Recruits

December 20, 2019 — by Rob Kirby


The season is long, and injuries add up. In fact, they never let up. The season hits peak-hectic after the Ides of December, so in the place of the broken and the old step forward the healthy and the new. A little like shark teeth, a little like shelf-stock inventory—a little like life, really.

Oftentimes what’s old is new again, and the new are sometimes healed-up favorites, so you get to see a few familiar faces.

Jan Vertonghen, in and out (mostly-out) of the side under late Pochettino, has suddenly come alive again under the sorcerous gaze of Jose Mourinho. Be there devilry afoot? Maybe it’s just a logical managerial decision to reinstate one of the Spurs defensive rocks of the past several years but in a fullback position. Clean sheets haven’t yet become an every-week occurrence, but Vertonghen’s attacking returns have justified his inclusion for both real and fantasy managers. An ironclad starting status for the Belgian hasn’t been proven beyond doubt, but game-winning goals and assists will have not gone unnoticed. With one of each in the last two match weeks (plus one clean sheet) and the associated bonus points, the formerly discarded Jan has rewarded early investment and could prove a successful pickup in leagues where he still roams free.

Jose Mourinho is himself a recognizable face, and ever the model employee/ex-employee, he boasts an interesting record with regard to the weekend fixture at home against Chelsea. Against teams Mourinho formerly managed, at home, he has won 12 and drawn one, in all competitions. Undefeated and nearly always victorious. Most recently Mourinho’s Manchester United twice defeated Chelsea at Old Trafford. Of course, Mourinho’s Porto and Chelsea teams went nine years undefeated at home from 2002 to 2011, so this is not jaw-drop shock information. More a reminder. Spurs assets could be in ascendancy even in a tricky fixture. We shall see.

Within the player ranks at Chelsea, Antonio Rudiger is back in match-day lineups after a long injury layoff and he presumably walks right back into permanent residence at the heart of central defense. Chelsea hasn’t kept as many clean sheets as one might have expected, but Rudiger’s absence could have played a large part in that. The schedule ahead looks promising and Rudiger should be a season keeper if fit. Managers may need to adjust their thinking with regard to “Chelsea = clean sheets” but time will tell.

Diogo Jota scored twice against Brighton, followed by a hat trick against Besiktas in Europa. Up next against Norwich, he may have the opportunity to further burnish his goal tally. Jack Grealish and other Aston Villa assets may also yield great troves of points in the next few weeks, with favorable fixtures. With hindsight, it turns out Dejan Lovren was more than a one-week pickup but also that he too would get injured before Joel Matip managed to return. Joe Gomez, the future is now? Neal Maupay has scored three in three. Wilfried Zaha is finally getting on he scoreboard again, just when it seemed he had totally checked out for the season. Crystal Palace enjoys a good run, as does a pacy Wilfried.

Teemu Pukki and Todd Cantwell started scoring and assisting again. Is it…? *rubs eyes* Are we right back at the beginning of season again? Is Norwich the little team that could, powered by the plucky diminutive Finn with an awesome name? While full-scale time travel to the headiest days of the Pukki Party may continue to prove impossible, the blast from the past will have felt quite nice for those who made transfers early in the season and then never again. Pukki has now scored three in four, and has nine league goals for the season. According to reports, Pukki may have broken a toe against Leicester, so that could derail the fun, although he reported played through the pain barrier in that match and could do so again.

Divock Origi has long been the iconic wildly over-performing statistically improbable freak entity, but now there’s a new man defying expectations. Kelechi Iheanacho is the new old face in from the cold at Leicester (by way of the cold at Manchester City, then the long stretch of chill at Leicester). Origi scores like clockwork when he plays, but he never plays. Is the story different with Iheanacho? He seems more folded into the lineup, but there is only one top dog in the Foxes front line.

With rotation and the guessing of which two times a day a stopped clock is right, timing is everything. Over the holiday fixture crunch, everyone will be rotated, which makes the perennial rotation risks interestingly more viable. Guessing the Liverpool midfield selection is almost as hard as nailing when Origi plays, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Adam Lallana and Xherdan Shaqiri all champing at the bit to get onto the field and off the endless job-share loop.

Andy Carroll is a genuine possibility at the moment, and this is not a joke. Reel in the years, bank on a hometown favorite to come good again. Carroll is partially a figure of man-bun folklore and partially a real human player, but he has always posed an aerial threat when fit and healthy. With two starts in three, and two assists, the big man could make Newcastle United very happy again. That said, his injury record is well-known and he is not a set-and-forget type of option, though the gods of injury prevention may smile on him for a brief while with benevolence and nostalgia.

You may want to keep an eye on any player drops at Liverpool or, to a lesser extent, West Ham. Managers overzealously addressing the blank GW18 fixture for Liverpool-West Ham may perhaps throw out a little bit of baby with the bath water and you can scoop the child back into safety’s arms (and a warm dry towel). Maybe you can bench for a week and hope the investment pays off. There’s a whole half of the season yet to come. And it’s kind of the more exciting half.

Everything’s about to get extra fast and extra furious. Good luck, and we reconvene back here soon. Until then, many eyes will be on Mourinho and whether the apprentice can shove a broken unbeaten record in the face of the master. (It should be noted there is no proof Jose has ever required any former Derby County managers to call him this.)

Will the former employer stat still be relevant when Manchester United storm Tottenham Hotspur stadium in the future? Will any manager get to simply state, “Lads, it’s Tottenham,” with impunity in earshot of a Mourinho military industrial complex ever again? It all remains to be seen. 

Watch this space, fantasy sports fans.

The Wormburner is a column that plays the draft format on Real Fantasy Football ( It did not get its annual copy of the Premier League script. Please give a shout to @The_Wormburner at your earliest Twitter convenience if you manage to track one down.


The Wormburner: Big At the Back, Sieve at the Back

November 8, 2019 — by Rob Kirby


Trolls live under bridges and in Premier League defenses. Lots of trolls under many bridges (Premier League defenses)—seemingly most of them. No team is immune, not even the main players floated in various Big at the Back strategies early season.

Liverpool Celebrity Slump

When it comes to clean sheets, even the celebrity Liverpool defenders have disappointed, the number of clean sheets equal to that of Arsenal and Southampton (2) and just one better than Norwich (1). People haven’t been flocking to Arsenal, Southampton or Norwich for clean sheets…or they shouldn’t have been. Dejan Lovren could be available for pickup in a player pool near you, but do you want him for one week, starting this week? For the top of the table clash against the Pep Guardiola Terror Squad? With Joel Matip expected back after the international break, nabbing Lovren would essentially equate to picking him up specifically for the game against Manchester City, the defending champions that have many excellent attackers who will be highly, highly motivated. Lose this match and maybe they say goodbye to the title. A defensive masterclass from either side is not out of the question, and Liverpool at Anfield is a solid proposition, but there will probably be goals in this head to head, as there have been in past editions.

Sheffield United Surge

Manchester City and Sheffield United lead the league with 5 clean sheets apiece for the season. Back when Sheffield United stuffed Arsenal, it just seemed like the Gunners just blew it, but it wasn’t a fluke. Sheffield United may only have scored only 12, but they have conceded only 8. They have surrendered more than one goal only twice, and to respectable attacks (Leicester and Chelsea). They lost to Liverpool but kept them to one goal score line, something few others can boast. They beat Arsenal, they have surrendered one fewer goal than Manchester City. It could be a bubble, but it’s also a continuation of the defensive solidity from the Championship, so it may not burst as expected. Perhaps just deflate reasonably. As stated a few weeks back, “one of Enda Stevens, Jack O’Connell, George Baldock, John Egan or Chris Basham could offer solidity and success to any weak spots in your back line. And don’t forget ‘keeper Dean Henderson.” (What, type it all out again?)

For those willing to not think of Sheffield United simply as a promoted side destined to scrape the bottom of the barrel now that they’re at the top table, there is hope and promise beyond just blind faith. While Sheffield United have shown a solid defense thus far, three stern tests await. The fixtures are not tempting. As a caveat, the perception may be largely based on the names rather than the current 2019/2020 incarnations. Spurs and Manchester United have been in tailspin modes. One would expect both to correct these trajectories soon and sharply. It’s just a question of when. Either could rise up to full frightening force in any matchweek. They’re overdue, really.

Old Faithfuls Will Return to Glory…One Day 

So, Tottenham. The only team not named Norwich City to have only one clean sheet in the Premier League this season. They come up against the surprise package of the season this weekend in the Blades. Trigger high excitement and the overly loud sound effect for a narrative klaxon alert. If you have predictive powers and can get inside the head of Mauricio Pochettino, you might be able to get a one-week pickup of Ben Davies, with Danny Rose having played in the Champions League midweek against Red Star Belgrade. There are never any guarantees in pickups based on presumed rotation, though.

And yet picking up one of the Blades defenders still tempts, even if one has to ride out a couple bad fixtures. A promoted side, in the top six. Where Spurs and Manchester United are not. Elite teams with premier defenders who used to score like ultra-elite defenders but have been soberingly fallible of late. If it pertains to Liverpool and Manchester City, most certainly for Manchester United and Tottenham as well. Chelsea haven’t kept things watertight as much as free-scoring. And at this point most don’t expect any more than the industry minimum of clean sheets with Arsenal.

Leicester and Sheffield United have good defenses. Both have conceded the league’s lowest with 8 goals each, with Leicester on 4 clean sheets and Sheffield, 5. Snap up any available at the former, while perhaps waiting a couple weeks is best with the latter. The Foxes host Arsenal next, but they have positive fixtures thereafter with players not named Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. For the defensive Blades of Sheffield, you may want to wait out the tricky fixtures right up next (Spurs away, MUFC home, Wolves away). Or not… Spurs away isn’t what it was. Nor Manchester United at home. Wolves can have trouble with teams that don’t go all-out attack, so maybe they’re not such bad fixtures after all?

South Coast Streaks & Fixtures Without Form

Three clean sheets in a row at Bournemouth? One could get used to consistency like this, but it sure seems like a trap. However, if this defensive solidity is genuinely a going concern, Nathan Aké and Diego Rico just became a lot more interesting. Attacking points aren’t out of the question, and Steve Cook probably deserves a mention as well.

Brighton have 4 clean sheets for the season. They also have away trips to Old Trafford, Anfield and the Emirates in three of the next four. The other match is Leicester at home… The club would be passing a serious litmus test if its defense can stand up to that opposition. Seems like rough waters and “wait and see” from this vantage.

Newcastle have good fixtures and a defense that still has the fingerprints of Rafael Benitez all over it. Bruce is not tanking the team as popular opinion had assumed to be truth to be held self-evident. The problem is that it seems that the back line is in total flux, with Florian Lejeune and Fabian Schär returning from injury, but not quite yet. Uncertainty is a killer.

Most times, you hear “rotation” and picture it as alternating, the polite taking of turns. It need not be strictly binary—but more or less it ends up adhering to a pattern of sorts that we as humans that seek meaning in pattern recognition learn to get a feel for. Every other game, such and such happens. Or one in three. Or one in never.

Southampton and Watford have good fixtures, but are those defenses you can put unconditional trust in? Darryl Janmaat could get an assist, but will the -1 for every 2 goals conceded undermine any attacking gains? In the available player pool of your neighborhood Real Fantasy Football league, Southampton probably has the full complement of starting defenders to choose from. But will you?

Random Rotation Notes

Manchester City has a defense you can trust in, but not a cemented lineup that you can predict (this is not news, in fact it seems sort of ridiculous to even take the time to point it out). Pep Guardiola has an interpretation of the concept akin to “if anyone understands the principles, then magic will cease to exist.” He a little dramatic, interpreted from an ancient Knights Templar era, with the trappings of zealotry and possibly a dangerous mix of sadism and self-harm/self-sabotage.

Éderson looks to be out of contention against Liverpool, but going for Claudio Bravo for one week only, and that week is away to Liverpool…how bad is the keeper you’d be dropping? Because Bravo may triumph at Anfield, but also very possibly maybe not?

In other news, Just when you thought Joao Cancelo and Benjamin Mendy were slated to start (they had been rested midweek), it was Kyle Walker and Angelino instead! And Kyle Walker scored a goal and assist, making an unclear situation that much more unclear. Pep is the ultimate in inscrutability and it would be hilarious if one weren’t making decisions based on guesswork and possibly losing in a head-to-head as a result.

Random note, final thought: Joe Gomez. Youth was supposed to be the way. Did the muttonchops kill it, or are muttonchops still the future?

Watch this space, fantasy sports fans.

The Wormburner is a column that plays the draft format on Real Fantasy Football ( It did not get its annual copy of the Premier League script. Please give a shout to @The_Wormburner at your earliest Twitter convenience if you manage to track one down.


The Wormburner: Cameos and No-Shows

November 1, 2019 — by Rob Kirby


Some players tantalize with visions of dancing sugar plums and prancing points hauls, but beware–it may be trap. Based on one or two eye-popping results, you come nosing around. They sucker you in: they’re available and they just pulled in a major points haul. How can they not continue in this rich vein of form, as evidenced by this rich vein of form. (It’s the circular reasoning that really gets you.) And then suddenly they’re taking up space in your team, not scoring for your team, from now til infinity and you curse the day you voluntarily stepped right into the trap.

For one reason or another they just don’t work out. Actually, it’s really simple why they don’t. They don’t play. Or they only sort of play. Because when they play, they’re great. But they since they don’t play reliably they are reliably not great for the fantasy game. The odd benching, who cares. But the 5-minute runout at the end of the match as the third substitution, when there’s no time for anything but a 1-point appearance point and you probably have better points on the bench, it just kills it. That’s when it becomes toxic to the winning ways of your team. Cameo artists will not help your peace of mind, but they can offer huge highs alongside the lows. It won’t make up for it necessarily, or not definitely, but then that’s why they’re gambles.

Divock Origi essentially defines the role of “major rotation risk but when he plays he scores.” He will score. But will he play? Don’t know, but if he plays he scores. Will there be a ten-game gap or so between appearances? Very possibly. Probably. There are zero assurances other than the fact he has demonstrated a constant, freakish ability to score in clutch situations. Pinning down the time and location of these fleeting masterclasses, however, may be harder than nailing down the GPS coordinates to the ends of a rainbow, but that’s how it is.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has scored three and assisted one in his last two appearances, but these have not come in the Premier League, so what use is that for anyone in a draft Premier League game? It’s a tease, is what it is. He’s scoring braces in the Champions League (?!), as well as scoring and forcing own goals in the Carabao Cup, but anyone who has him in the league has been seeing a whole lotta nothin’. He could be one for the immediate future, though. Like Origi, he is just one step removed from the starting role that would make him something closer to a must-own. Coming into the festive fixtures, rotated players across the top clubs will get more opportunity through more games, and may get their chances (not wishing injury on anyone, its just they happen when games come fast and quick). If it becomes apparent before waivers that a star striker at one of the top clubs will be out for a while (and the go-to awaits in the available player pool), they are the players you’d snap up upon confirmation the starter is out. But if you’re in a league position where there’s no chance of getting one of the first waiver picks and managers are active in choosing off the waiver wire, sometimes you have to take a preemptive strike and pick them up before there are any guarantees.

Wilfried Zaha earned another penalty last week, but RFF owners saw nary an assist or attacking point, because he ain’t scoring goals and Real Fantasy Football doles out points only for scoring penalties, not getting fouled. Also classified as a forward, he features none of the perks of midfielder scoring, so a point fewer for every goal and a point fewer for every clean sheet. Unless he goes on a tear, which he hasn’t been, he may not be the fantasy dynamo many have been led to believe. He may always move to another club come January, though, so he remains a wild card. Zaha is more of a no-show than a cameo. Ironically, he’s playing all the matches. It’s more that he’s just been checked out. If he looks like he’s checking back in, go for him. Crystal Palace are 6th in the table and he is their best player. He just hasn’t been anything like it of late.

Phil Foden got a rare runout in the Champions League, then got two yellows/red-carded in the Champions League, but did that grease the track towards first team football? Not in the Premier Leage. Or not quite yet, but one would have thought this was the ideal opportunity. Anyway, a starting position under Pep is a relative term regardless, with an everlasting game of musical chairs in midfield. At least he’s not risking burnout at an early age. If you have Foden, will you be starting him, assuming no harm if he doesn’t play because players on the bench will be happy to step in for you? Maybe not so fast. That’s why the 1-point cameo is so evil. Often it’s blocking the way for someone who legitimately put in a shift to come off the bench. You stare at the benched number and remember why some free agents are so free and available in the discard bin.

David Silva was supposed to be much riskier this season than any other, a tag he has defied this season, though it’s far from over. What about Riyad Mahrez or Ilkay Gundogan? Either one or Foden will mostly deliver only from the bench because no manager can predict when they’ll perform. Do you start them if it’s as likely they’ll get a 5-minute cameo as a no-show or the elusive starting spot? The week after a double-digit week for a free agent player at an excellent club will always be tempting. You go nosing around, you get suckered in all over again and only remember the error of these ways after an interminable stretch of 1-point cameos and no-shows. Pep Guardiola’s rotation formation is a vortex where players refuse reliability at every turn. Getting on the pitch reliably doesn’t seem that tall a task until you realize that at City, it is.

Kieran Tierney has been lauded as one of the best left backs around, a rival to Andrew Robertson both in the Scotland setup and beyond. So far in the league, though, it has only just started and there haven’t yet been hat tricks of assists. In Arsenal’s Thurs/Mon schedule Tierney had been locked into the midweek cup schedule, excelling in the Europa League and Carabao Cup, but blocked out of Premier League output. Now he seems timed in phase with the Premier League schedule. Will our gobs be smacked?

Gabriel Martinelli is another new Arsenal player who used the Carabao Cup to maximum benefit. After his side bowed out to Liverpool in the epic 5-5 (5-4 pens) clash, will Martinelli and other young Gunners get a chance in the main event between the cups? Although the youth players and new recruits won’t get that crucial blooding/runout anymore, it may have lasted juuussst long enough to bring most of the peripheral players into the fray. Perhaps it would have been productive to progress, possibly even win the Cup, but we are fantasy Premier League managers, not Kroenke Enterprises.

Brighton under Graham Potter appear to be poised for good things, and by extension does that mean Leandro Trossard will cut the mustard if called upon? Or Aaron Connolly? Without finding out from Marcelo Bielsa the most effective to spy at a club’s training ground, what to do? Suffice it to say the Wormburner doesn’t know but is very interested. Both prospects look promising. Just don’t pin every hope you’ve ever had on the gamble paying off.

In the enduring enigma/saga of a Chelsea-managed Christian Pulisic, the 21-year-old’s days on the sidelines may be over after scoring the hat trick against Burnley, but he leveraged the possible momentum recent substitute appearances, culminating in an assist in the match before Burnley that earned himself the platform to deliver a hat trick. That said, he has still only started 4 league matches and has a whole slew of Lampard youth favorites to stay ahead of to stay on the pitch. But he made the statement he needed to make with the time allotted. Pulisic is basically a former no-show turned cameo who may have played himself into first-teamo. A success story! Unless it’s still a trap… Callum Hudson-Odoi and others won’t necessarily be cast aside so easily.

Stay tuned, fantasy sports fans.

The Wormburner is a column that plays the draft format on Real Fantasy Football ( It did not get its annual copy of the Premier League script. Please give a shout to @The_Wormburner at your earliest Twitter convenience if you manage to track one down.


The Wormburner: Top 7 Plus 1, Big Style

October 4, 2019 — by Rob Kirby


There is no margin for error in the title race, or rather a working yardstick measurement from last season does exist and the width of that margin was just over 1 cm, which you will admit for a title race is tight enough to drop a letter and respell. Tite.

How does this relate to your draft fantasy team, again? Fantasy points mainly come from the top of the table. While there will always be gems in the scrappier, more unsuccessful and less fashionable teams, usually league points correspond to a good ratio of “goals for” to “goals against.” Not to overly drop menacing, mathematical gang signs and all, but the more you have key players in the winning teams that are reaping respectable Premier League points returns, the better your chances of scooping up the once-removed draft fantasy points. No one’s taking anything away from the John McGinns, the Callum Wilsons, the Teemu Pukkis and others. No one’s casting aspersions in the general direction of one’s Milivojevics or one’s Nathan Redmonds or one’s Gylfi Sigurdssons. One’s most fervent wish is that one cherishes not only one’s Salahs, de Bruynes and Raheems but also the world’s Richarlisons, Raul Jimenez’ and Ryan Frasers.

Just saying, it often helps a player out in fantasy points if they’re at a team that doesn’t ship goals like freight or celebrate them as rare club milestones.

Seven wins in seven reveals Liverpool to be students of recent history, setting a brisk pace at the top, with memory of no room to breathe last season still fresh in mind. Manchester City, despite having financed the lecture halls of the tight-margins enlightenment and orchestrated the beauty and the severity of the lesson-giving, seems to have failed to register the meaning of the lesson, perhaps mistaking goal difference as the true religion.

(Pep Guardiola sings to himself incorrect words of a nonexistent nursery rhyme: “Lose by 1, win by 8/Lose by 2, win 80-thream/Merrily we row, row we row merrily/Rotation’s but a dream.” Klopp eyeballs anyone who looks about to interrupt the song to clarify the league points system to the Catalan, threatening off all comers.)

Both Top Two teams dominate completely. Briefly distracting from the normally on-message narrative, Norwich introduced a slightly unbelievable subarc wherein they defeated the most powerful team in the galaxy, but Manchester City then sort of erased it by winning 80thream at Watford, like setting off some futuristic memory-wiping electromagnetic pipe bomb. Liverpool nearly let slip a 3-0 lead against Salzburg, but that’s a whole different competition and they did still squeak it out. So while both the top two still more or less dominate completely, it may not be every single match, and not every victory will necessarily be a clean sheet, but just about any starter or almost-starter at either club is a good pick. None of their players will be available in the draft format for ten-team leagues, possibly even 8-team leagues, so we move on. (Maybe check to see if anyone dropped Allison.)

As for the best of the rest, it’s a bit of a free-for-all in the Top 7 Plus 1, with Leicester throwing a legitimate glove in the ring for third, where the club currently finds itself. The Top 7 isn’t a thing, incidentally, so by extension a Top 7 Plus 1 isn’t a thing, either, but even more so, since it’s dependent on the first speculative hypothetical turning out to be nonfiction. Now that that’s settled, in piping-hot The Brodge Is Back news, Brendan Rodgers has the side fit and firing in both attack and defense despite a challenging opening run of fixtures. Jamie Vardy and James Maddison stand out among standouts, making eye contact, taking names, reminding chatters of consequences, as per the Chat Something Bang Something Accord of 2015/2016. Youri Tielemans, Ayoze Perez, Jonny Evans, Ricardo Pereira, Ben Chilwell and Caglar Soyuncu all look set to continue points-gaining ways. Just maybe after the GW8 encounter with Liverpool, although Vardy won’t be too daunted by any opposition. Still, not ideal. After Liverpool, Leicester has a sea of kind fixtures poised to deliver rainbow-flavored joy to the Skittles and vodka faithful.

While the Foxes have defense and attack waving happily and fluffily like a small catlike wolf’s tail, at fourth-place Arsenal, you’d really only back one of the two. In case there is remotely any confusion, the attack. Anything affiliated with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is excellent. Anything not, file alongside The Decline and Fall of Western Civilization. Arsenal is in a race against itself to outscore goals conceded, and it’s neck and neck. (Current goal difference: +1—take that!) While most of the starting XI at Leicester look like solid picks, at Arsenal it’s Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette (injured), Pepe (still PL-unproven) and a few speculative youth picks. With Bukayo Saka, Reiss Nelson, Emile Smith-Rowe and Joe Willock emerging from the academy and making it onto the pitch more regularly, there could be opportunities. And Dani Ceballos could always channel his inner Burnley again. Mesut Özil could make a surprise return one day. Continuing to languish on the bench seems increasingly likely, however.

Arsenal is a top six team currently in the top four but chances are most of the clubs defenders are available for waivers. And with good reason. Rob Holding, Hector Bellerin and Kieran Tierney could possibly change that around, but it’s almost the second international break already. To expect the players to seal up one of the leakiest defenses in the league while also not aggravating the long-term and lingering side injuries each has been carrying…that’s a tall ask.

West Ham find themselves in lofty environs for the first stretch in a while. Productive forwards and midfielders abound, whether they be new signings (Sebastian Haller), like-a-new-signings (Andriy Yarmolenko) or players that never stopped being excellent (Felipe Anderson). One wonders if Marko Arnautovic wonders what it might have been. Especially with Lukasz Fabianski potentially out for a while, the attack holds more promise than the defense. West Ham seems the team currently in the top six that would be least likely to end the season even in the top seven, but time will tell.

Spurs haven’t fully gotten going yet, and the manager seems slightly unstable, but all the component parts exist to lurch back into Champions League final form when it does all theoretically click back into gear again. Complicating matters, the team did just get somewhat humiliated in the Champions league by a five-goal margin. Fear not, Lilywhites asset-holders. The attack remains solid and the rest of the outfit should come right in time. Hold the faith, even in light of European batterings. Or pillories in the press. Or from the manager himself. While Harry Kane and Christian Eriksen shine brightest, Tanguy Ndombele has earned more attacking returns than expected already, displaying an appeal most holding midfielders lack. Jan Vertonghen is back in the starting lineup, and may prove available in the waiver pool. Rescue him. Uncertainty at right back decreases the desirability of Serge Aurier and Kyle Walker-Peters.

Lampard loves all youth prospects not named Christian Pulisic. Lampard is the whistle-wearing megaphone bearer for the Chelsea Project Youth Academy Epicenter of Excellence, but liberal mindedness to England as the centre of excellence and the countenancing of foreign Croatian-American former Borussia Dortmund youth excellence scum are really quite different propositions. Perhaps having just turned 21 in mid-September, Christian Pulisic aged himself off the team sheet. Whatever the reason, he now spins long rambling yarns to a roomful of insta-grandkids about being the last dinosaur transfer signing to sully the fresh-faced Olympian Corinthian ideals of the club. Chelsea has enthusiastically supported all youth projects since presumably the very beginning. At the very least, long before any official bodies imposed a two-window transfer ban. Except it also possibly began shortly after the club spent £58 million on Pulisic during the January 2019 transfer window. At any rate, all players Lampard worked with or faced in the Championship seem like viable starting articles. Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount will likely have been gone for a while now, but perhaps Fikayo Tomori has gone overlooked.

Far-flung from the top four, or the current Top 7 inventoried above, Manchester United goes into GW8 in tenth. New signings Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Daniel James have all turned out to be excellent—new recruits bedding in hasn’t been the problem. The problem is the rest of the team. Injury to attackers like Anthony Martial in light of non-replacement of Romelu Lukaku haven’t helped, nor have high-profile penalty misses. Manchester United could get it going and pull together a good run, but they don’t seem the team most likely. Conventional wisdom says that Manchester United won’t be bobbing at the water level of the split between halves in the table for long, but the team has had enough recent experience with subpar seasons to not put continued mediocrity completely out of the realm of possibility. Manchester United could very likely sack their manager due to club-worst records, which doesn’t scream investment, but it would be wisest not to count MUFC out quite yet.

The Top 7 will probably include Manchester United by season’s end, meaning another will drop out. (The Top 7 isn’t a thing, again.) This post has just assumed it will be West Ham United, but it could very easily be another.

Stay tuned, fantasy sports fans.

The Wormburner is a column that plays the draft format on Real Fantasy Football ( It did not get its annual copy of the Premier League script. Please give a shout to @The_Wormburner at your earliest Twitter convenience if you manage to track one down.


The Wormburner: Mock Draft This

July 26, 2019 — by Rob Kirby2


A mock draft is the way to go, 100 percent. I should here admit that I have never partaken of draft mockery and have no immediate plans to do so. No plans to rectify fantasy footballing deficits, no plans to better myself.

It would seem pointless then to talk about a hypothetical mock draft–and hypocritical?–having always rejected it for theoretically taking too much time or exacting too steep a cost in the transaction of one’s soul. So, how about we reel that one back all quick-like and I just propose a list. Withdraw from the super-official full-on rehearsal wedding and propose a gentler advance planning in a more minimum-effort sort of way. Unless that sounds too pushy.

Welcome back to the Wormburner, where the topic of the day is all things drafting, minus most things drafting. A couple thoughts on prep for the draft. One on mental visualization, at least.

Past seasons (for me) have generally been spent trying to repair the mistakes made in the summer draft, especially the you-only-get-one-shot early picks. Everyone will always blame every/any mistake on a glitch in the system, or vindictive auto-draft function bent on random persecution, or freak episode of celebrity dognapping that tanks everything, but if we are being honest with ourselves, it is nearly always operator error. People freeze up and make the wrong 50-50 decision, or don’t catch late-breaking big-ticket transfer news, or forget to turn off autodraft after intentionally selecting it in the “on” position. And some do just objectively draft poorly. 

Two of my first four draft picks usually go horribly sideways, which by nearly any metric represents a terrible success rate. The sting is a lasting one. Players available in the first four rounds generally never resurface in the player pool, barring injury or Luis Suárez biting ban. There are possibilities to nab emerging players along the way, and in the January transfer window, but it generally takes a timely waiver pick and a bit of luck.

Don’t blow the early picks. I keep doing it, year after year, and it’s painful looking at the evidence of draft day meltdown for 38 consecutive game weeks.

While no one here will discourage theatrical drawings from hats or dividings of square pieces of paper, it’s easier to just write down/type/voice dictate/copy and paste the top points scorers from last season. Add in any gut feelings for hot prospects among the promoted teams or from big splashes in the transfer market, as applicable. There always remains the option of dreaming up nine imaginary friends with attendant banter in a WhatsApp group, but one then risks the legitimate accusation of the whole venture having gotten well sidetracked.

Take the top 50 points scorers from last season. Eliminate, add and reorder names as desired. So much the better if you think one player overperformed in 2018/2019, or another underperformed and should be elevated in the queue,. Maybe another flies under the radar on overall points, a mid-season transfer who registers only half the expected points total of a full season. Scout the promoted teams enough to know who’s starting striker, main creative midfielder and penalty taker. As to the mental mock draft, basically just imagine how the player list will evaporate from round to round. In a mock draft-esque calculation of the player exodus between a 4th pick and 17th, then 24th and so on (in a snake draft of a ten-team league), you can get a better idea of what’s realistic for the first few clutch rounds—the marquee players you won’t have a shot at again. It helps gauge who is realistic as a third striker, or as third, fourth and fifth midfielders. Four rounds in, with the 40 most obvious players gone, the player pool takes on a much humbler look.

Read up on Joelinton and Haller/Hammer–new names that come with serious price tags and starting striker roles–but they’ll presumably be gone in the second or third round, sight unseen. Cast a wider net to support strikers and attacking midfielders at less-fancied establishments, ideally with a couple left-field picks in mind for the leaner rounds. Don’t just choose recognizable names of defensive midfielders at big clubs when the pickings get slim. You’ll just end up dropping them. Go for an attacker at one of the lowlier clubs. Or anyone remotely associated with dead balls. Consistent starts are crucial, but only with attacking bite do players truly satisfy–defensive midfielders don’t cut it, Choose someone who can pick up a goal or assist every so often, even if there are a few question marks involved. A bench is three deep.

Though the transfer window will be closed by the beginning of the season, it most likely won’t be by most people’s draft days, which commonly take place the weekend before opening weekend. A couple high-risk assets may not be worth it due to flight risk, but maybe that’s one of those high-risk/high-reward situations people are always blathering on about.

Just as a quick aside before sign-off, a “mock draft” could be the accepted noun form of an intense insult session on another’s draft, not one’s own, ideally in a broadcast arena. Which sounds like quite a bit of fun.

So until the Great Mock Draft to follow The Draft to come, choose long-term guaranteed attacking starters for the first picks, gamble on a couple riskier players with high ceilings in the scrappy rounds, buy low/sell high, don’t waste an early pick on a keeper, and remember to “take risks,” “play it safe” and other wise contradictions in the annals of the elderliest of time-honored traditions.

The Wormburner is a column that plays the draft format on Real Fantasy Football ( An FPL addiction never totally leaves the bloodstream, but late-season team conformity in the standard game can get a little played out.

Feel like reading a past Wormburner, aka “the other one”? Have at it.

Follow on Twitter with @The_Wormburner and @robertpkirby



Jaffe Wins the 2013 Golden Baby

August 6, 2013 — by Kyle Schriner


This past weekend in Berkeley, California, the 2012-2013 winner of the Sexy Power Division of the Fantasy Premier League, Craig Jaffe, was presented with the league’s famous “Golden Baby” trophy. Mr. Jaffe won the the division with 2,199 points and had a global ranking of 12,982 out of over 2.5 million.

Jaffe, alias Numnuts, noted the secret to his success this year was not participating in the craze surrounding Robin Van Persie. RVP led all players with 262 points for the season but cost north of 13 million pounds. Instead of spending so much money on one player, Jaffe spread the money to upgrade mid-market players and increase his overall point total. When pressed on the subject of RVP, Jaffe pointed out the bias for giving big name players bonus points is ridiculous as players like RVP simply have to walk on the pitch and are handed two or three points. While this bias should be reflected in their market value, Jaffe believes RVP’s price is still too high.

Jaffe admitted he was scared he may lose his lead in the last four weeks to Adam Peters, aka Master Blaster, and Tyler Carpenter. Both players ranked in the top of the division all season and are past winners of the division. Jaffe engaged the unusual tactic of riding Arsenal’s back four to help him hold the title. Interestingly, all three players are avid Gunners fans. In fact, Jaffe has been a Gunners fan since 1984 when he was invited to train at Arsenal’s facilities and play a match at Highbury.

In January 2013, Jaffe took a trip from California to London and caught three matches: QPR v. Manchester City, Arsenal v. Liverpool, and Fulham v. Manchester United (the infamous match where the stadium lights went out). While he said the trip was a “blast,” he believes it did not give him an inside track on fantasy league. Jaffe said his favorite stadium was Craven Cottage.

When asked what advice he has for new fantasy players, Jaffe said the key to the game is the mid-market players, which can make or break a team. He encourages fantasy players to pick these players carefully and analyze their potential on a weekly basis.

[Update: The following was received from 2013-2014’s most Sexy Powerful man Tyler just now (Sunday June 1, 2014), with subject line “Come to daddy”:

Home again after 3 long years. Thanks Craig!


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Dictators and Soccer: Popes, PR and the Vatican Soccer Sin Bin

May 17, 2013 — by Rob Kirby


[Editor’s note: This is the 4th installment in the ongoing Dictators and Soccer series. See also the previous installments on Kim Jong-il and North Korea (or Football, Famine and Giant Rabbits), Nicolae Ceaușescu of Romania and Mobutu Sésé Seko of Zaïre. Stay tuned for Col. Gaddafi next.]

Sovereign city state nations with populations less than 1,000 find themselves irresistibly drawn to soccer. Or perhaps that pertains only to one-man rulerships like Vatican City, right smack in Rome, that can’t help but intersect with soccer and watch it blow up in their faces. When soccer runs amok, it self-inflates beyond all suggested parameters and eventually explodes, pressure pumped beyond the limits. (Picture serious, furrowed Vatican eyebrows in 2012, of which more to come.) But after a period of Catholic guilt, soccer redeemed itself when the offbeat priest-and-seminarian Vatican league called the Clericus Cup came to the papacy’s rescue in 2013, relaunched and refrocked from the previous spring’s flat-lining of the tournament. “Rescue” may overstate the case. Puff pieces on the unofficially taglined “Vatican World Cup” may not have substantively changed hearts and minds or effectively deflected scandal from the Vatican, per se, but they did and do provide comic relief, so you have to take that in consideration.

clericus_cup7And now we find ourselves with a likeable Argentinian pope and a Saturday, May 18 Clericus Cup final match at the Pontificio Oratorio di San Pietro, in the hills overlooking St. Peter’s Basilica. Vatileaks, who? Sex scandal, what? Once upon a time, however, the future did not look so bright in Vatican City.

Pope Benedict XVI, previously known as Joseph Ratzinger, the battle tank Panzerkardinal enforcer of Catholic orthodoxy, “God’s Rottweiler,” abruptly and inexplicably resigned on February 11, 2013, the first living pope to do so in 600 years. The surprise announcement put the Vatican under intense scrutiny. Theories abounded, with topics trending on corruption, cronyism, blackmail, male prostitutes and a clergyman allegedly caught on video chatting it up on a gay dating site. The scandal had set up shop not simply within the Church but within the sacred walls of the Vatican itself.

Unprecedented in its magnitude and wholesale breach of internal security, the scandal had infiltrated the Roman Curia, the elder priest junta that runs the Church. Ratzinger had ridden out the storm when it surfaced that he had joined the Hitler Youth party in 1941 at 14 years old (semi-involuntarily, as the Nazis offered no alternative), but this was another thing altogether. A splinter faction of the curia actively leaked documents to the press in 2012 to undermine the pope and his number two. Meanwhile, high-ranking gay priests allegedly started getting blackmailed by former flings. After the 2012 Vatileaks scandal but before his resignation, Benedict XVI had commissioned three retired cardinals to investigate and report back on their findings regarding the leaks, the attacking faction of the curia and any extracurricular sex scandals involving the curia. In January 2013 the report landed on his desk. On February 11, he announced his resignation.

clericus_cup2As all politicians know, it proves handy at times to have a news distraction, even for a semi-untouchable benevolent dictatorship like the papacy in Vatican City, with only 800 residents but a virtual population of 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide. Fortunately, the Clericus Cup kicked off days after the pope’s resignation news, in a well-orchestrated media campaign. Whether convenient or calculated, the men-of-the-cloth-only soccer tournament would return after getting killed off in 2012. Despite a launch to mass fanfare in 2007 by Benedict XVI’s right-hand man, Cardinal Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone, a Juventus diehard who moonlighted as a soccer radio announcer while Archbishop of Genoa and reprised commentary for some Rome derbies over Vatican radio, the league saw the plug pulled in 2012 for losing sight of its ideals, namely two: not bringing the name of the Church into disrepute and not sabotaging perceived Christian values with questionable tackling, blatant diving and/or thuggery during or between play. PR is a perception game.

Now, however, the Vatican had brought the Clericus Cup back from the dead, and the Vatican doesn’t just do things off the cuff or on the fly. Why disinter the tournament that had so embarrassed the church with unsportsmanlike priest and student priest behavior the previous spring?

Through the press, anonymous colleagues hammered Cardinal Bertone for months with charges of Machiavellian methods, palace intrigue, curia cronyism and Vatican banking corruption. However, they did it by proxy, the sneakiest means of self-same palace intrigue. The anti-Bertone faction of the curia used letters written by others which then got the full oxygen of publicity through international news outlets.

benedict1In a scandal that developed into the phenomenon “Vatileaks,” a militant faction of the curia leaked confidential letters written to Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Bertone, many of which stolen directly from the pope’s quarters by his butler. Investigative reporter Gianluigi Nuzzi published them into a powderkeg collection as His Holiness: The Secret Papers of Benedict XVI in May 2012 and all hell broke loose. The documents proved intensely embarrassing and damaging to both Benedict XVI and Bertone, painting a picture of a lax, ineffective pope who over-delegated to a corrupt second in command.

The leaked letters also presented underlings learning too late that any time a whistleblower priest stepped forth about financial corruption within the Church, one of Bertone’s people replaced the letter-writing penpal turncoat. Bertone replaced the governor of Vatican City, the head of the Vatican treasury, and the Vatican’s top bank regulator with his chums from the Piedmont area around Turin (where both he and soccer giant Juventus hail). Any financial malfeasance whatsoever in the Vatican means big money—its portfolio and holdings add up to approximately $6 billion—and international financial bodies have begun to consider the in-house bank as a vehicle for money-laundering and tax evasion. At the moment, it’s safe to say the Vatican bank is not the whitest or most fiduciarily trusted lamb in international banking.

Meanwhile, out of not-really left field, a sex scandal involving high-level priests cinched the vise of his actual day job a few notches tighter. And as Benedict XVI make up his mind to fly the coop stage left, it so happened Cardinal Bertone was about to take charge as the acting head of state. In the interregnum between popes, the camerlengo, or chamberlain, takes charge. After Benedict XVI’s resignation, Cardinal Bertone had the winning trifecta ticket of camerlengo, brainchild of the Clericus Cup and epicenter of vicious controversy. Only two of those three claims to fame did he enjoy.

clericus_cup4But surely soccer could lighten the mood. In the annual Clericus Cup five-a-side tournament and its spring-weather soccer Saturdays–Sunday matches understandably verboten—international students from Roman seminaries and plucky older priests playing cup soccer makes the soul smile. The teams’ seminary school fans cheer in Latin, the global aspect makes for interesting contrasts in styles, and scripture in shin pads stops just short of qualifying as official uniform, easily the most pervasive match day routine, hands-down. (Perhaps the verses help stave off bruising with the extra padding.) Add to that a Vatican-only blue card that sends players to a hockey-style penalty box called the “sin bin” for 5 minutes of suspension and reflection on one’s misdeeds, and you’ve got a bona fide sports hit on your hands.

The league came up with a couple minor additional ground rules. First, no games on Sunday, for reasons the seminarians really shouldn’t need to be told (again). Second, matches would conclude not with players in single file, slapping palms, mumbling, “Good game, good game,” but with the teams praying together on field at the center circle. It definitely didn’t scream scandal material, more like bleach-clean Christian fun.

Judging from highlight clips aplenty on the Web, the player-priests from Brazil, Mexico, the United States, Italy, Africa and beyond have some genuine soccer skills. And devoted fans. During matches, spectators chant team-specific songs in Latin, and draw from a deep well of languages to heckle referees, insinuate bribery, shout for dismissals and hurl abuse at players adjudged to have dived. In short, a student priest with a foam finger announcing himself “Number One Fan” behaves like any other soccer fan (excepting Latin fluency).

benedict2Matches last two 30-minute halves–more elder-friendly, less ungodly–and teams have one time out per half. The red card theoretically exists for the unlikely scenario of one of the player’s taking the Lord’s name in vain—reflection on that misdeed in light of one’s career choice clearly requires more than 5 measly minutes. Over 300 international seminary students and priests in Rome represent 50+ countries on Saturday soccer fields just outside of Vatican City (given its size, the country has no dedicated soccer pitch) to celebrate discipline, clean-cut values and the occasional wondergoal. The players pose for photographs as upstanding paragons of Catholicism, with the awe-inspiring cupola of St. Peter’s Basilica in the distance. What could be more wholesome?

When the papal resignation announcement arrived, the PR machine sprang impressively into action. Benedict XVI informed the cardinals of his resignation at the Apostolic Palace on the morning of February 11. On February 15, the Cup’s Facebook page started pumping out photos of the picturesque St. Peter’s Basilica background and posts like the sic-worthy, “Big news are coming soon…. New edition is warmin up!” The Twitter account similarly crackled to life the same day with the again-English heads up: “we are warming up for a new edition… are you READY?” Normally both accounts post predominantly in Italian.

The Guardian got a sneak peek video onto the Web before the official announcement–Wired’s online article and video even coincidentally/perfectly came out on February 11, the same day as the pope’s shock news.

Before that, there had been radio silence for months. Why the sudden turnaround? Right, right. Inquisition rules–they ask the questions around here. The radio-announcing canon law power player Bertone knew full well the power of soccer over the flock. The swarming world press preferred salacious tabloid scoops, but the occasional fuzzy feel-good story would do.

A press conference on February 21 featured Spanish national team coach Vincent Del Bosque sending a light-hearted video shoutout to the Spanish team of the seminary Pontificio Collegio Spagnolo, among other chuckle-inducing PowerPoint pleasantries. The Cup began two days later, four groups of four teams each in World Cup-style group stage format, knockouts begin in the quarterfinals and on to the finish-line Clericus Cup final and pomp of the award ceremony. Thus concludes the seamless rollout.

A week before the UEFA Champions League final between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund at Wembley, the 2013 Clericus Cup final decides a different, more shin-protected victor at the Pontificio Oratorio di San Pietro in those oft-mentioned hills above St. Peter’s Basilica. Before the world learns the European Cup champion, Catholicism crowns the first Vatican World Cup champions of the Franciscan papal era.

On opening weekend, the late February 2013 group stage league games straddled both the first Saturday and Sunday for expediency’s sake, seemingly flouting the Clericus Cup Fight Club Rule #1. Why the special Sunday dispensation? Don’t look for answers from a Vatican press secretary. Strategic silence continues a long tradition for Vatican information givers. Why was the tournament reinstated? The more basic the question, the less it requires direct address from the Vatican HQ. Meanwhile the Vatican perception strike team had leapt into action, executing a laser-focused sequence that activated social media buzz in the week leadup to a press conference that announces the league start two days later, and just 12 since the papal two (or so) weeks’ notice.

bertone2Zooming out for a moment, it helps to revisit the people in charge. Both Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone served in the 1990s and early 2000s on the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, an office known for such treasured moments in junta history as railroading Galileo into a heresy conviction and shot-calling the Inquisition. Ratzinger presided as top dog prefect and Bertone as the second-in-charge secretary. Heavy hitters in the curia, both priests took part in the 2005 conclave that transformed Ratzinger into Pope Benedict XVI. On Vatican TV, Bertone the wise palace politician invoked the German legend Franz Beckenbauer of Benedict XVI’s favorite team Bayern Munich and obsequiously exclaimed, “The Church has found its Beckenbauer!”

Bertone went further with the Beckenbauer theme, although his descriptions largely fail to evoke the actual attacking defender. “He pushes us forward with his passes. He knows how best to use his teammates’ talents. He is a reserved director and a reliable midfield player.”

For those not familiar with Beckenbauer, or “Der Kaiser,” in addition to his haul of World Cups, the sweeper collected many Bundesliga trophies with Bayern Munich and a disco 1970s late-career segment playing with Pelé in the NASL with the New York Cosmos. Considering other possible German World War leader nicknames, Beckenbauer fortunately ducked “Der Führer.” Fortunate for Ratzinger, as well, he found himself still semi-embroiled with his association with the Hitler Youth during his wide-eyed Bavarian years.

beckenbauer1Swiftly after his gushing comparisons to Beckenbauer, Bertone was appointed by Benedict XVI as Vatican Secretary of State, the second-highest office in the country and the religion, perhaps not in that order. Some even tipped the Italian as the next pope. Not bad for a man whose previous most high-profile moment involved him spitting fire and fuming as the Vatican man who went on the attack against Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, decreeing that believers should boycott the book that spread such egregious lies and gross untruths.

He further mined the vein of soccer goodwill when, in announcing the Clericus Cup months before kickoff in December 2006, new Cardinal Secretary of State Bertone boldly speculated that one day the Vatican could put its own team Seria A team together and pit it against the traditional powerhouses. “The Vatican could, in future, field a team that plays at the top level, with Roma, Internazionale, Genoa and Sampdoria. We can recruit lads from the seminaries. I remember that in the World Cup of 1990 there were 42 players among the teams who made it to the finals who came from Salesian training centers all over the world. If we just take the Brazilian students from our Pontifical universities we could have a magnificent squad.”

Hours of press scoffing later, Bertone chimed in again, clarified he’d been joking and said, “I’ve got much more to do than cultivating a football squad for the Vatican.” The humor of a Catholic youth education based on the Salesian Order had confounded the journalistic laity once again. “It was fantasy fun to spread some cheer and maybe fill a half a page of the newspapers,” Bertone said.

benedict3When God’s Rottweiler’s sidekick Cardinal Bertone birthed the soccer oddity known as the Clericus Cup in 2007, it came on the heels of his lifelong club Juventus’ relegation to Serie B after the infamous 2006 Calciopoli match fixing scandal, as well as the infamous headbutt by Zinedine Zidane on Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup final, about which Materazzi later copped to goading Zidane with, “I prefer the whore that is your sister.” Italy won that World Cup but Italian football was in disarray. Bertone proposed a better, cleaner model, a seminary league that would exhibit Christian values on the pitch, lead by example.

Then, of course, it had to shut down in 2012 for misconduct and corruption of the original purpose. But nothing substantively had changed. The competition had had scuffles, referee abuse and noise complaints from neighbors about the drums, music and overall decibel level since the beginning.

Whatever the reason, the Clericus Cup got canned. Perhaps it served as the stray dog that wandered into the wrong place at the wrong time, and Bertone engaged in the animal-kicking cardinal equivalent of ripping all the books, pictures and fixtures from the walls in a destructo-tantrum.

Soccer had done what soccer always does in a tightly controlled state of junta or one-man rule. Passions pitched beyond acceptable bounds, the volatile compound exploded, and shrapnel strafed the faces pushing into the publicity shots. It was minimal, but a last straw is a last straw.

It all went swimmingly until got it in their head that the competition was bringing scandal to the church (slight misidentification of the primary target on that one). Reports of unsportsmanlike behavior emerged. Problems had resided in the Clericus Cup from the beginning, however. Nothing about the proceedings in 2012 particularly spoiled the show, but authorities felt aggrieved.

Designed to contrast the match-fixing-embroiled Italian Serie A with a celestially approved alternative, the Clericus Cup prided itself on fair play and the integrity of its players. The organizers selected for its motto, “a different soccer is possible,” and while sometime, somewhere that may be true, the Clericus Cup did not best exemplify that case. News of a pitch brawl spread in 2010, in addition to various Italian press reports of uncharitable chants against rival teams. In the first year, even, contentious calls led to adrenaline-fueled eruptions against the referee, as between Redemptoris Mater and the Pontifical Lateran University in 2007. A questionable penalty elicited protest, chants and a hail of abuse from the crowd. At the final whistle, field indiscipline progressed to off-field antics. The Neocatechumenals of Redemptoris Mater ran to the touchline to rejoice with their fans, which soon escalated into showers of uncorked champagne. Redemptoris Mater, in any crusty priest’s eyes, could have exercised a bit more prudence and moderation in jubilation.

clericus_cup5However, in 2012 the main bugaboo for Bertone was Vatileaks, the albatross he couldn’t shake. The Clericus Cup was not top of mind. There was a darker stain on Vatican City than players arguing on the fields. Then suddenly things got worse. His powerful backer resigned. In the fallout from the leaked letters to the pope and the Cardinal Bertone, authorities arrested the pope’s butler and ejected the Vatican bank president for negligence. Pope Benedict later pardoned his butler in December 2012, in what would prove one of his final acts, although no one knew it at the time.

In the fallout, Cardinal Bertone accused journalists of “pretending to be Dan Brown” and channeling the sensationalism of the author’s The Da Vinci Code, ascribing to the profession “a will to create division that comes from the devil.” One wonders why he didn’t just go on an excommunication spree, aside from the Clericus Cup whose primary fault was aligning in time with the prepublication hype of His Holiness: The Secret Papers of Benedict XVI.

Regardless of punished parties, Cardinal Bertone’s reputation took a massive hit. The Italian media skewered Bertone, though Pope Benedict XVI came to his defense in a July 4 letter, subsequently released as a statement by the Vatican. Benedict XVI inclusively called Bertone “dear brother” and thumbs-upped the continued co-sign with, “Having noted with sorrow the unjust criticisms that have been directed against you, I wish to reiterate the expression of my personal confidence.”

In January, after the detective cardinals wrote up the dirt for Benedict XVI, the pope decided not to share the findings with the cardinals entering the conclave, that only the next pope would be shown the dossier. Did Bertone read it? Unknown, but it’s reasonable to assume that unless he featured prominently, Benedict XVI handed it over to him within minutes of reading, before or after asking for some painkillers and a place to lie down. Bertone may have even read it first, in accordance with criticism of Benedict XVI’s hands-off administrative posture, to detractors’ minds the root of the problem.

Even before the pope drafted the three cardinals for CIA op cloak and dagger action, Bertone had set into motion his own investigations. According Italian magazine Panorama, he instructed the head of the Vatican police to tap the phones and monitor the emails of selected curia cardinals and bishops, prime suspects in his dissident roundup. According to a spokesman, someone or someone’s “authorized some wiretaps or some checks.” Simple as that. Just a minor experiment in police state surveillance for more transparency in information flow patterns. Bertone wanted to catch the bastards that burned him with the Vatileaks and the book.

By the time Pope Benedict XVI did his last papal rites on February 28, Bertone had already set into motion the Clericus Cup campaign. On March 1, he transitioned into acting head of state–the official title for the job description he had essentially held all along. The first weekend of Bertone’s interim regime, the Clericus teams generated positive news through respectful inaction, observing the departure of outgoing Benedict XVI with a day of soccer field silence. Before that point, though, they’d granted many smiley interviews and people had stocked up YouTube with the clips. By the time Cardinal Bertone and the rest of the cardinals dipped into the conclave, the teams entered into the last final clutch matches of the group stages, but bantered easily again with eager reporters asking softball questions about who they were rooting for when it came to the next pope. (Brazilians: “A Brazilian!” The Argentines: “An Argentine!” Africans: “An African!”) Hard hitting journalism it was not.

The conclave sent up the white smoke on March 13, and Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina emerged from the St. Peter’s Basilica balcony as Pope Francis I. In the next batch of Clericus Cup YouTube videos, the Argentines of Incarnate Word seminary team in particular cheered, in vergingly overexuberant fashion, the selection. Reinstated after getting so unceremoniously defrocked, the Clericus Cup returned with the renewed life force of a Lazarus. Reporters canvassed players during the conclave, some of the best press to come out of the Vatican in yearclericus_cup9s.

Before presiding as the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio grew up a fan of Buenos Aires side San Lorenzo de Almagro, or “Los Santos” (the Saints). The Saint’s Twitter account reacted to the pope’s announcement with respectable speed. Within hours of Pope Francis’ succession to the papal throne, a scanned membership card with his picture, name and number flew over airwaves. The new pope literally qualified as a card-carrying fan.

Also in the first few hours and also tweeted, a photo of Diego Maradona, grinning while holding a handwritten “The hand of God approves of the new pope.” El Diego later followed up with the media proper. “The god of soccer is Argentine,” Maradona humbly opined. “And now the pope is too.”

clericus_cup8Pope Francis I comes across as a good guy, a likeable and as-yet-uncompromised papal figure. Nevertheless, his handlers must urge caution with soccer. To wit, action one: prioritize. Keep the Clericus Cup, ditch Bertone at the first opportunity. (Francis I convened an advisory council with regard to the Secretary of State office in March, but the sooner someone new walks in, the sooner things die down over the Vatileaks incident, the more people read mood relaxers about Vatican football/soccer/futsal, the better. It’s the Catholic Church–what are they going to do? Change?) Action two: unleash a FIFA national team that challenges for world honors, with a merry band of Swiss Guards bossing the upcoming 2018 Russian and/or 2002 Qatari World Cup grounds. But that’s a discussion for another time.

On April 13, with the Vatican riding high on the positive reception to a well-liked pope, the quarterfinals signaled the knockout phase of the tournament. Team knocked out team and now the finals go down tomorrow. Tomorrow, May 18th, it’s the Vatican World Cup finals featuring reigning champions Pontificio North American College, the “Martyrs,” Maria Mater Ecclesiae and the small matter of the Clericus Cup title. And to warm up the crowd for the main event, the battle for bronze between third and fourth (a.k.a., the semifinal losers).

The Martyrs booked the first final spot by edging past Pontificio Collegio Urbano 1-0, whose supporters, incidentally, drape themselves in Vatican City flags. That is, when they’re not manically waving them (it’s their schtick). And then, in the next match on the same ground–the ultimate in the Catholic World Cup doubleheaders—Mexican side Maria Mater Ecclesiae gunned down Redemptoris Mater, the most winningest team in the history of the Clericus Cup, with a solid 2-0 scoreline.

Like the increasingly unrepresentative name “The Martyrs,” the North American seminary can’t honestly claim the plucky-American-soccer tag, since they have an English ringer on the squad that played semi professionally and once belonged to the Blackburn Rovers youth academy, now to a New York diocese. Another squad player is an Aussie.) In five a side, one ringer goes a long way. Perhaps they could change their nickname to something like “The Masked Crusaders” in line with a fan base that demonstrates deep costume wardrobes. Spectators frequently include superheroes like Captain America, Spiderman or Wolverine, the occasional Ninja Turtle, pirate or, in the case of the semifinal match, a giant chicken. Given the level of creativity in their support, one expected more inspiration in the team call sign, “Stars and Stripes,” but to each their own. With both an Englishman and an Australian on the team, whose national flags superimposed have stars and stripes, perhaps a mediator thought it the most team-bonding option.

Maria Mater Ecclesiae clearly have the Madonna on their side, the seminary having explicitly name-checked her with the school name “Mary, Mother of the Church.” And if Christian hype tales of Mary’s beatitude carry any merit, she surely locks down odds-on-favorite for the best bet.

francis1The Martyrs hope to retain the soccer hat in their winner-take-all against Maria Mater Ecclesiae. In the past, Pope Benedict XVI touched a copy of the trophy, albeit as a ceremonial present he probably had sent off to the furthest treasure lots on the premises. Pope Francis I, should he be not find himself on other more pressing papal business, seems like he’d be up to kick it up a level and present the trophy himself. He may even ask for one of the players’ jerseys. (A Jesuit by trade and humble by disposition, Francis has in his short reign racked up an impressive soccer jersey collection. A Spain national jersey signed by all the players, hand-delivered signed jerseys from Lionel Messi and Javier Zanetti, a team-signed jersey from his lifelong club San Lorenzo and even recently another San Lorenzo jersey from someone in the crowd as he drove through St. Peter’s Square.)

©CATHOLICPRESSPHOTOBenedict XVI has a replica of the silver soccer priest man silverware, as does Cardinal Bertone. To see the Saturno is to gaze upon the purest in bizarre Catholic-commissioned artwork. The unique specimen sports a giant silver disc of a Vatican flat hat atop a legless soccer ball nestled on a pair cleats, like a metallic, spherical pygmy priest that leaves waddling, spectral, studded footprints. With an extra-wide circular brim like the rings of Saturn, this specimen of soccer trophy awaits the lucky winner that prevails from February to May and takes top honors.

Before its death and rebirth, the Clericus Cup roared onto the scene in a blaze of glory. For a quick six-season primer, the inaugural title in 2007 went to Redemptoris Mater, who defeated the Pontifical Lateran University. Redemptoris Mater played in the tournament’s first four championship finals, winning three. Then, taking the mantle, the Pontifical North American College, the self-styled Martyrs, came into ascendance, losing two finals and two semifinals before finally lifting the odd silver trophy in 2012 against a team that had a bona fide cardinal in its ranks (albeit on the bench, to support the aforementioned Aussie), the Australian Gorge Pell. The Martyrs looked forward to defending their crown.

But in 2012 the Vatican cited failure to fulfill the sworn aim of educating young people about fair play and sportsmanship and withdrew its support. What had been conceived as a living model of the fostering of peace, honor and morality through sport had gone horribly wrong. The Clericus Cup had to pack up and shut down operations, effective immediately. Permission withdrawn, readmission denied. The Martyrs would not get the opportunity to defend their title.

We skip back and forth in time, but fast forward again to 2013 and the tournament’s reprieve. The powers that be rescinded the previous rescinding and the league kicked off again in February, back on that picturesque hillside overlooking St. Peter’s Basilica. Anyhow, just like a secretary of state may on occasion wear his minister of propaganda hat, abracadabra, alakazam, and the league materialized just in time to semi-deflect attention from Benedict XVI resignation news. Whether Bertone is a white hat or a black hat, he surely played his part in the mini-distraction that goes by the nickname of the Vatican World Cup.

The hunt for the Martyrs was back on. Is back on. As for first-time hopeful Mater Ecclesiae. The last stretch remains, but will be settled by mass on Sunday. Hunt in packs and take top prize, or roll over like a conscientious objector. WWBD? What would Bertone do?

He certainly wouldn’t conscientiously object. He’d set up a tournament and craft a compelling narrative. He’d hook the public with a high-definition soccer display. And then he’d make a bid for world domination.


Dictators and Soccer/Football:

Mobutu Sésé Seko (Zaïre)

Nicolae Ceaușescu (Romania)

Kim Jong-il (North Korea)

Pope Benedict XVI (Vatican City)


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