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Dictators and Soccer: The Junta, Argentina 1978, Disappearings, Match Fixing and Early Deity Era Maradona (Argentina)

July 11, 2014 — by Rob Kirby


The ruthless military junta that hosted the 1978 World Cup in Argentina lit the stage to maximum wattage and leveraged the spectacle to flashiest effect, by hook, crook and any means necessary. A world champion team would obviously cap that off, as would an obediently silent public and extermination of political enemies, so they duly made this winning trifecta come to pass. That it should happen to involve match rigging, bribery, bulldozing of shantytowns and villas miserias, “disappearing” tens of thousands of dissenters in abductions, incarcerations and torture, as well as forced relocation of squatters or any other huddled undesirable masses, so much the better. The junta hired a PR firm Burson-Marsteller to help improve the likeability of their public face, however. They weren’t completely oblivious to popular opinion.

[Editor’s note: The ongoing Dictators and Soccer series includes other installments on Kim Jong-il of North Korea, Hitler of Third Reich Germany, Nicolae Ceaușescu of Romania, Pope Benedict XVI of the Vatican and Mobutu Sésé Seko of Zaïre.]

imageThe generals had a three-point plan. Silence all dissent. Grease the wheels to first prize. Claim the glory as their own, a divine right along with the total subjugation of the people in their reign of terror. But the people would wear smiles for the cameras. Never mind that between 1976 and 1983 the junta brought about the death of 30,000 fellow Argentines. Or that as in Pinochet’s Chile, soccer stadiums sometimes doubled as temporary detention centers for political prisoners. One can understand why the world community might have issues with a World Cup in late-’70s Argentina.

But just like the devil may care of the cat burglar mustache on head junta big man General Jorge Videla, nicknamed the Pink Panther because of his overall look (but mostly the mustache and his stealthy lurk), it all went down, no matter what the moral authorities had to say about it. Exiles and human-rights organizations tried to organize a boycott from abroad, but missing out on the World Cup seemed too steep a price for most nations and no one delivered on their rhetoric when the time came.

Far outstripping an initial proposed budget of $100 million to $700 million, a mysterious murder transpired of the prime finance official days before the Dudley Doright planned to speak against the expenditure. The government conveniently blamed the murder on government dissidents, 30 of whom were found massacred the next day. The junta proceeded to spend big on the Mundial with no further interference. But just like that huge honking mustache on General Jorge Videla, the boldness of it was too obvious to fail to see–not to say they didn’t get away with it all. Only in the Plaza de Mayo did the mothers and grandmothers of the “disappeared” attract the cameras not trained in on the pitchside exploits. But mostly even the protests of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo went ignored.image

The junta cut funds for hospitals and schools, and allegedly (almost definitely) diverted them in part Peru to throw a critical game by at least 5 goals in last match of the semifinal group stage (different system from now). Arms, grain and $50 million in debt forgiveness sweetened a theoretical deal. The stakes? If Argentina won by more than 4 goals, arch-rival Brazil would see its tournament summarily terminated and Argentina in the finals. Peru lay down obediently to a 6-0 hiding. Allegedly, after the the fourth goal went in, a bomb detonated at the house of a minister who had criticized World Cup costs. Later, when ecstatic Argentinians flooded the street, toasting the generals presiding on high on the balcony of the presidential palace, the junta agreed as one “job well done,” money well spent.

To celebrate, the military provoked Chile over three small islands in the Beagle Channel that escalated to war, ended only by Vatican intervention. The event foreshadowed the attempted takeover of the Falklands which in turn brought the junta’s eventual downfall in 1983. The junta really should have stuck to match rigging, corruption and torture. Their track record with island military victories was abysmal. At the rest, they excelled.

imageIronically, considering Maradona’s later infamous drug busts, some players may also have been given illegal injections for the match. Insiders say Mario Kempes and Alberto Tarantini had to keep running after the match to wear off the excess effects and that a waterboy had to provide urine samples.

The Dutch team refused to shake hands with junta leader Jorge Videla after the Men’s World Cup final. He probably would have executed them all for their brazen disrespect but for all the damn cameras.

After the tournament, Maradona came on the scene. Controversially left off the 1978 team because he was too young (17), he captained the Argentine 1979 World Youth Cup team in Tokyo. Maradona exploded and brought the Cup back to Argentina in style. The junta had saturated state television with the Argentina victories, with an important exception. They’d censored all images of protest or anti-junta banners in the stands.

Upon his return, the junta paraded Maradona around, conscripted him into the army, sheared his hair and then–it seems laughable now–advised him to carry on in his capacity as a role model for Argentina’s youth. Maradona later claimed in his autobiography that he had no choice but to shake General Videla’s hand, and to be honest, at 18 he hadn’t developed the ego, waistline or godlike status he would later inhabit so profusely.

Videla either had no crystal ball, possessed an excellent sense of humor or just couldn’t see the weight gain, the coke, the prostitutes and the Che Guevara tattoo in that giant orb, or the classic future clip of him calling George W. Bush “human garbage.” Perhaps the mustache got in the way or scrambled reception.

Argentina made it to the semifinal group stage of the 1982 World Cup in Spain, but crashed out with losses to Italy and Brazil. Any feel-good revival factor the junta may have hoped for in the shambles of the Falklands aftermath died then and there.

Maradona didn’t have a great tournament in 1982. But in Argentina, Maradona is a god. Therefore, he must have done it on purpose, as gods do. Therefore, Maradona toppled the junta singlehandedly. One Maradoninian hand can smite whole armies.

After the junta collapsed in 1983, Videla got sentenced to life his many human rights crimes, then pardoned by a later president, then re-sentenced for apparently illegally distributing babies of pregnant dissident women his thugs abducted. You normally think of a cat burglar junta leader as above black market adoption, but then did anyone ever really know Videla? The court ruled his former pardoning unconstitutional, regardless, the nasty baby snatcher. He eventually died in prison on May 17, 2013.



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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.)

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State of the Union: Arsenal, Polkraine

June 15, 2012 — by Rob Kirby3


The Arsenal won’t play a competitive match until August, but that’s no reason to cease obsessing and expounding upon the team. With two of our strikers, a few top wingers and midfielders, a couple central defenders and a goalkeeper in Polkraine, we’re fielding a mostly full team. No fit right back or left back, but then that was the month of January. This is familiar territory.

As internationals enter the final round of the group stage matches of Euro 2012 on different teams, some have excelled in Poland and Ukraine, while others hide their heads as they make their way to the exit.

In Group A, Russia captain Andrey Arshavin, Czech Republic captain Tomas Rosicky and Poland first-choice goalie Wojciech Szczesny have been facing off in a tightly competitive, if comparatively weak, group.

Current Zenit St. Petersburg loanee Arshavin has had a great Euro comeback, putting in some of his best performances since Euro 2008, with three assists thus far. Whether it derives from finally playing in his preferred position behind the striker or whether he simply feels happier and more comfortable captaining a side of his countrymen is unknowable, but Russia currently sit atop Group A and look poised to go through to the knockouts. A victory or draw against Greece would seal it, but a late game counterattack from the notoriously difficult, itinerantly attacking  Hellenic defense could scupper Russian hopes. Arshavin can help ensure that does not happen. He still has moments of listless apathy, such as the second half against Poland, and would never dream of tracking back, but the mercurial Little Tsar still shows the moments of genius that made Arsenal fans so excited to sign him in January 2009.

Finally fit and in form again after so long, Rosicky unfortunately suffered an Achilles issue in the second match of the group stage and looks out for the count no matter what happens in the final match against Poland. Hopefully he can recover in time for the new season, but few players shake off Achilles problems without long layoffs. But having spent abundant time at adjoining physio tables with fellow rehab regular Thomas Vermaelen, he probably already knows this all too well. Sadly for Tomas, his tournament is likely over.

Wojciech Szczesny got sent off in the opening match of the tournament for a clumsy penalty but returns for the winner-takes-all match against the Czech Republic, in a bid to salvage his rep on home soil and help Poland progress to the quarterfinals, after missing the draw against Russia from suspension. From a purely selfish, club-centric point of view, hopefully he can put in a good showing even if cohost Poland ultimately fails, so that no psychological hangover haunts the big keeper in the Arsenal campaign ahead. Sadly for club and country backup Lukasz Fabianski, even with Szczesny out of the picture an injury keeps him from getting his big moment on the home stage, especially as he actively seeks pastures new and desperately needs the visibility. You can’t help but feel a bit bad for the guy. Until you remember why he got bumped down to number two and get your blood pressure up all over again. And bay wolfishly for his blood.

In the Group B group of death, Arsenal captain Robin van Persie, Arsenal headache Nicklas Bendtner and new signing Lukas Podolski have been facing off, while the recovering Per Mertesacker (ankle) has looked on from his seat on the uncomfortable Teutonic bench.

Nicklas Bendtner, a.k.a. the Great Dane, a.k.a. the best striker in the history of scoring goals, had a mostly anonymous match in the surprise victory over Holland but then clawed and headed Denmark even with Portugal on Wednesday with a handy brace before the Portuguese snatched the crucial late goal. If last year’s Sunderland loanee can put in an impressive shift against Germany in the final match of the group, all while resisting the urge to drop trou for illicit underwear advertising, the ultra-arrogant wantaway forward will have made good use of his time in the shop window. Furthermore, Denmark may just eke through to the knockout stages. But then Lukas, Per and the rest of the German horde won’t make it easy for them, unless Die Mannschaft willingly and shadily go for a draw to shaft the Dutch and ensure their bitter rivals’ exit. Murky sportsmanship terrain. Of course, revisiting the issue of Bendtner and the shop window, buyer beware. His Royal Car Crashingness plays outstandingly well for country (20 goals in 50 appearances), less so for club (22 in 99 league matches).

By contrast, Robin van Persie had been on fire for for both club and country in 2011 and 2012, although new eyes watching the Oranje going into what might be the country’s final match of this Euros could be forgiven for not knowing it. That said, van Persie managed a fantastic right-footed, chocolate-legged consolation goal in the crunch match against Germany, but not enough for the Netherlands to take any points from the encounter. With Holland sitting bottom of the table in the Quartet of Death with zero points, the future doesn’t look especially rosy. Perhaps the national team’s collapse could be Arsenal’s gain, though. In an ideal world, RvP returns to preseason well rested and ready to sign on the dotted line of contract extension. A backlash from the Dutch (and world) media may just make him appreciate the loyalty Arsene Wenger and the club have showed him over his many injury-plagued seasons. One can hope.

Arsenal new boy Podolski has played well for Germany, even if he has not scored. The former Cologne striker has put in excellent performances for Germany the last two World Cups and in the 2008 installment of the Euros, so with Germany unlikely to exit anytime soon, he’s got time. Perhaps he’s just pacing himself. He has scored 43 goals in 99 appearances for Germany, so a betting man would say he’s got goals in him, yet.

National teammate Mertesacker won the fitness race for the bench, but has yet to feature in either of the German victories in the group. As disappointing as benchwarming may be, one must remember he went off at Sunderland with an ankle ligament injury last February, an injury that kept him out for the remainder of the season. The fact that he has not suffered any new niggles or problems in training bodes well for the new season, and the veteran center half may yet have a role to play, as many expect the Germans to go the distance this summer.

Group C features no current Arsenal players–only the ones that got away, like former captain Cesc Fabregas (the hurt, it still hurts so much…) and Eduardo, the awesome but tragically leg-shattered Croazilian.

And in Group D, we’re back in traditional Arsenal territory. The group does, after all, include France (and England). But as opposed to past years where the French contingent drew from an overabundance of Arsenal riches, Laurent Koscielny alone keeps the flames alive for injured compatriots Bacary Sagna (leg) and Abou Diaby (bones on self-destruct)–and only from the bench, at that. Meanwhile, England flanking speedsters Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain pace it up on the English attack, though the elder young’un came on only as a super sub against France.

Oxlade-Chamberlain, in particular, has made huge strides in his adaptation to international competition, especially in his tournament debut against France at the Shakhtar Donetsk home stadium. He seemed unfazed by the moment and never got pushed around by the French. Late sub Theo, however, never even touched the ball in his one-minute cameo on the pitch. Hodgson clearly rated the teen higher than his precursor.

But then came Friday and the England/Sweden match. England went up after Andy Carroll shocked the world and forgot to blow it. Then England went down 2-1, Hodgson signaled for a substitutio,n and who should pull them level but fresh supersub Walcott, his first goal for England since the hat trick against Croatia in 2008? And then who would dribble, charge deep into the box and deliver the powerful cross to the flukey rebounding backheel of Danny Welbeck that killed off the game and looks to have sent England to the quarters? None other than the original Speedy 1.0 himself. Oxlade-Chamberlain (the 2.0) came on in the 90th minute, but Theo authoritatively made his case for both club and country with his second half display, all the more important as the race for Arsenal wing positions heats up between the two Southampton graduates, especially if Podolski lines up on the left wing at season’s start, as expected. (Obviously all depends on the $64.44 million dollar question of RvP’s presence/absence.)

As for possible Arsenal recruits, Yann M’Vila and Oliver Giroud of France seem good prospects, even if neither has really had a chance to fully shine at the tournament, though for different reasons (knee, former; Karim Benzema, latter). Each played about 20 minutes in the match against Ukraine on Friday. And Samir Nasri showed that he’s still good, if still despicable and utterly devoid of any gratitude to his former team or coach. Open letter to Emmanuel Frimpong: at your earliest convenience, please tweet, “If hating weak chins is wrong, I don’t want to be right.” Or just hand that punk a pimpslap beatdown. Word, Dench.

Wayne Rooney is now eligible to rejoin the starting XI of the English squad, but Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain have deputized well in the meantime and kept the English firmly in the competition under Roy Hodgson’s tightly structured defensive regiment. Rooney could catapult the team to the knockouts, but that is far from the point here. The Euros is a way to see Arsenal players in new and different rescramblings, not about hyping players from Manchester United, no matter how hair-transplanted or talented. Any such trains of thought are hugely and boringly off-topic. And to the extent that they do register, hugely irritating.

Stay tuned for the next installment of The State of the Union: Arsenal, Polkraine. May an Arsenal player be hoisting the trophy two weeks hence.


Match Preview: Stoke vs. Arsenal

April 27, 2012 — by Rob Kirby


Stoke away has time and again proven the undoing of Arsenal, with the Gunners having returned from the Britannia Stadium with nary a point to show for their efforts on three of the past four visits. Add to that the troubling statistic that Arsenal has not won a league game in which currently injured midfield stalwart Mikel Arteta has not played and this match is far from a gimme. All that said, let’s hypothesize that Arsenal can pull it out. Arsenal needs to leave the northern lands with a point or more, and players and fans alike really, really want the team to take all three on Saturday to maintain third in the league. (For U.S. viewers, the match airs on ESPN2 at 10am EST.)

So, Arteta’s out for the final three games, but Tomas Rosicky has bounced back from illness and will likely partner the unfairly criticized Aaron Ramsey in front of Alex Song. Abou Diaby does not even get a chance to test his ever-precarious fitness, as he’s gone viral and come down with some sort of bug himself. However, after having had to sit out the match against his home club, Yossi Benayoun is eligible again and back in the mix. This could prove hugely important, as the Israeli puts in the sort of workrate you wish for from every player. Diaby, due to his size, would possibly have gotten the nod (until hobbling off injured from trademark Stoke thuggery) ahead of Ramsey, but in his absence I’d expect Ramsey, Rosicky and Song, with Benayoun as a substitute late on.

As for the wide positions, Theo Walcott’s out and all hamstrung until season’s end, although there’s some talk of him returning for West Brom for the final match of the season on May 13. As a result, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain seems likely to swap in for Walcott, which could work well, since he’s a tough kid to muscle around. On the left, Gervinho would represent the most logical choice. Ramsey has not worked out on the left in previous test runs and is needed in the center of the pitch, regardless. (And it cannot be forgotten that Ramsey certainly remembers all too well Ryan Shawcross snapping his leg on this ground two years ago.)

For other line-up possibilities, the boss may opt for Benayoun on the left, but I do quite like the idea of advancing left back Andre Santos to an attacking wing position. He’s got an eye for goal and he has a natural inclination to go forward, and with Kieran Gibbs at left back with Santos as the left winger, things could be interesting. Ramsey does not seem to fit in the role, and Santos’ bulk could neutralize some of the physicality of the Stokesters. All that said, the natural fit would be Gervinho. Perhaps it’s too important a game to be tinkering with huge variances from the formula, though the Gibbs/Santos combo could be an idea for some future date.

Otherwise at back, aside from choice of left back, the team picks itself: Szczesny, Bacary Sagna, Laurent Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen. Sagna consistently delivers, Koscielny has proven a defensive rock this season, Vermaelen offers solidity and goalscoring ability and Szczesny is a no-brainer. (Sorry, Lucasz.)

And what the hell, for striker, let’s gamble on Robin van Persie, the player and PFA Footballer of the Year who scores approximately 99% of our goals, 27 in the league thus far this season. Without Walcott, the main supply line for van Persie, and Arteta, the remaining players will need to figure out how to get service to van Persie—no small feat considering Stoke’s skill at the anti-possession game. Call it negative tactics if you wish, but at the end of the day Stoke are playing to their strengths, which is only sensible. If interested, check out Harry Pearson’s article in the Guardian about how Chelsea beat Barcelona by adopting Stoke’s brand of siege defense.

Stoke knows how to grind out results, especially at home. They’ve conceded an average of only one goal per game at Britannia Stadium this season. On home grounds, they’ve defeated Tottenham and Liverpool and held Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea. Conversely, they’ve been undone by some of the minnow teams, so perhaps the idea is to fight like minnows and emerge victorious. It worked for Sunderland, West Brom and QPR…

Smarting after the 3-0 loss to Newcastle last weekend, they’ll look to bounce back by hoofing long balls to their top-scoring height mutant Peter Crouch (9 league goals). Defender Andy Wilkinson misses out with a groin strain, while Jermaine Pennant, co-leader in assists, has recovered from virus and looks likely to start on the bench. So, tactically, expect long balls down the field to Crouch augmented by a plan to exploit Arsenal’s perennial undoing, the set piece. Corners to Crouch, deadballs to Crouch, Rory Delap Delap throw-ins to Crouch. Stoke has scored the highest proportion of goals from set-pieces in this season’s Premier League, for 63% of their goal tally.

Fortunately, according to Opta, Szczesny has nabbed 98.5 per cent of crosses he has come for this season, a better rate than any other Premier League goalie. But these are all numbers, averages over a season, and this is one 90-minute match of soccer. Suffice it to say, however, it’s important to shut down the wannabe basketball center and shut down the long-distance service to the big man.

And if the long-ball approach isn’t working for Stoke, Shawcross will undoubtedly aim to go berserker-style on ankles, legs or other available snappable body parts. He’s not that kind of player, of course, but sometimes you have to take one (off) for the team.

The Potters have won just one of their last seven games, with three draws. Let’s make that one in eight and do everything in our power to take all three points, stiff-arm the chasing pack and hang on to third.


Three Is the Magic Number (The Arsenal Represent, Represent Remix)

April 26, 2012 — by Rob Kirby2


Three matches remain, and in light of Chelsea’s spot in the Champions League final, third place has now become crucial for ensuring a spot for Arsenal in next year’s competition. If the Blues win the European Cup, third will no longer guarantee an automatic group stage spot, but if the qualifying round is what’s available, we need to grab the opportunity with both hands. Considering the season the team have had, it’s still a tremendous achievement.

Newcastle’s breathing down Arsenal’s neck in a run of supremely good form, a rejuvenated Chelsea still has an outside chance of getting into the top 4 on league merits (imagine that) and though Tottenham has been tailspinning out of control, they are more than capable of righting that ship/plane and ending strong.

If Arsenal should fail in the pursuit of third but still get fourth, the wait between the league finale on May 13 and the Champions League final in Munich on May 19 will be excruciating. For once, let’s not put ourselves through that particular ringer. One would hope Chelsea loses anyways, but I would hate for them to control our chances for being in the competition.

Speaking of the evil not-those-kind-of-players moneybags, it seems forever ago but there was the small matter of a London derby with Chelsea a week ago. The 0-0 draw may have been a bit of a snoozefest, but a point against Chelsea is never a bad result, even if they essentially put out their second string. And they obviously made the correct tactical decision, one that set themselves up for the dreaded but impressive aggregate victory over Barcelona. Perhaps we should have done better against their second string, but no use crying about it now.

At the end of the day, Arsenal controls its own destiny. Win all three matches and third goes to the Gunners, end of story. Fail to do so and we must rely on Tottenham to slip up again and for Newcastle to drop points against one or more of Manchester City, Chelsea, Everton and Wigan. If we can’t do the business and our rivals can win all their matches then, well, they deserve it. As would Chelsea if they best Bayern Munich in the Champions League finals. But I really don’t want us to have to be gracious losers.

On paper, matchups against Stoke, West Brom and Norwich do not present insurmountable feats, but then again we have an abysmal record against bottom-of-the-table teams. And Stoke is not a lowly team, although their mouth-breathing knuckledraggingness sometimes fools one into assuming so.

PFA Footballer of the Year, Robin van Persie, the only forward in the top-flight to have featured in every league game this season, is exhausted. Hopefully, however, he can marshal his not inconsiderable fight and skill to push us over the line. And then he’ll want to stay and we’ll sign some incredible support players and the future will be so bright we’ll want to blind ourselves because we can’t handle the truth of that future and the unbridled happiness it brings.

First step: Stoke away. Sure, it hasn’t in recent times worked out so well for the London boys but no time like the present to start a new trend of relentless domination. Recommendation for the day: Shawcross the Shawcrossers and let’s kick some Pulisian ass. Simple, really. (To clarify, I don’t want us to break any legs. Simply to destroy them, set the pitch ablaze and then apply a liberal layer of salt on top, Carthage-style.)

Come on you Gunners!


Arsenal to Consolidate Third?

March 23, 2012 — by Rob Kirby1


On Wednesday against Everton, Arsenal entered the last quarter of the season. The victory and results elsewhere meant that after the first game of the final fourth of the season, we occupy third place, six points separating us from the mega-rich but fifth-placed Blues and one point ahead of the Lilywhites. And with Tottenham and Chelsea to play in the early match Saturday, if we can get three points against Aston Villa, we have a chance to consolidate or extend that lead. (Obviously, we could also blow it, but let’s not go there right now.)

Things are looking pretty decent for the Arsenal, you’d have to say. That statement would have seemed patently absurd in August and the 8-2 at Old Trafford (or the September 4-3 loss to Blackburn, where we scored five of the goals). It might have sounded slightly more reasonable in later fall after a good run of form. Then absurd again after the debacles of January, the FA Cup exit and the annihilation at the San Siro. Now eminently reasonable again. It has been a crazy, roller-coastery season, with Robin van Persie almost singlehandedly pulling the whole team along. When we had an all-centerback back 4, fourth seemed a pipe dream. And now to be in third? What’s a level up from a pipe dream? An industrial-strength morphine-drip dream?

Aside from the recent (awesome) habit of coming from behind to snatch crucial victories, one of the most encouraging pieces of data is in the area of Arsenal’s former shame—goal difference. It took a while to shake off the -6 from Old Trafford, added to other negative takes from Liverpool and other early-season opposition. Still miles behind the Manchester clubs (United, 46; City, 50), Arsenal at 19 leads Tottenham (18) and Chelsea (15). This is good. Robin still scores nearly all the goals, but the defense has stanched the flow of goals against us.

Yet there are still 9 games to go and 27 points to play for. Everything may yet change. To not expect some wrench in the works after the wrenchliness of this season would be naive. Spurs may no longer seem a lock for 3rd, but they can still pull it together to retake 3rd or fight for 4th. Likewise, Arsenal are not a lock for a Champions League spot, but in light of Wednesday’s results, top 4 is now looking more realistic than not.

Arsenal host Villa on Saturday at 11am EST, directly after Chelsea and Spurs face off at Stamford Bridge. Arsenal now have their fate in their own hands. They can focus on their own matches. Win matches, take points and 3rd or 4th is theirs. They don’t need anyone to drop points other than the immediate opponents on the pitch on any given day. Of course, if Chelsea and Spurs can both see fit to drop points and Arsenal can grab another three points tomorrow against the Villans, it may be possible to begin breathing full breaths again. Right now, it’s still too close. Heart in throat is still the order of the day.

Perhaps Liverpool or Newcastle will go on a tear, but at the moment, it seems like the trio of Arsenal, Spurs and Chelsea are the contenders for the two non-Manchester Champions League spots. And while any of the three teams would gladly take 4th, nabbing the automatic CL group-stage position (3rd) could be huge. Arsenal very nearly could have missed out on the CL this year, rubber-duckily squeaking past Udinese when our squad was in major transition mode. Loss to the Italian side would almost certainly have meant one or more of the deadline-day incoming players would have stayed put at their former clubs. (Think: no Arteta, no Mertesacker. And say what you want, Benayoun and Santos have put in good shifts on their days. Park…I wish I could include you here. I’ve honestly barely seen you play. Sorry that you got bamboozled, but congratulations on your military service reprieve!)

Of the top ten teams, Arsenal have only City (4/8) and Chelsea (4/21) ahead, both at home. The Chelsea match in particular could prove very important in the fight for fourth. A tricky tie away at Stoke (4/28) could also prove a clutch match, with the bad blood of recent times (and the fact that Stoke can pull out some good results).

So, do we hope Chelsea takes all 3 points against Spurs, to better our chances for third, or hope for the draw that sends both a little further back if Arsenal takes the full three? A Chelsea win would make things too congested. The prime directive for Arsenal is to keep going forward and to keep ahead of 5th place at all costs. Spurs may be the more traditional enemy, but Chelsea is further back and finishing in the top four is crucial. Third is nice but not essential. Fourth is essential. And knocking a mega-rich club out of the top four is preferable to my eyes than the Spurs bragging rights. Spurs is a good team, and they have imploded just as the Gunners would have wanted, which was really quite neighborly of them. If we take fourth, no more, personally I’d prefer we kept Chelsea out. Roman may lose interest, send the club spiraling into administration and we’d finally have one fewer superpower in the Premier League.

It’s too early to call corners turned, bends bended or anything remotely inside of any bag. But for those wondering, “what changed?” here are some partial comments, if not an all-encompassing Unified Theory.

RVP—He never stopped performing, but fortunately he maintained his incredible shotmaking with such consistency that when the rest of the team got it together it all went firing ahead together. He has led as a captain throughout, added hat-tricks to his personal arsenal and drove Tim Krul to frothy near-fisticuffs with a simple phrase to the extent of, “Not so eager to time-waste now, are you?” Twenty pages could be written about van Persie, and in fact they have already been written elsewhere. He’s broken the calendar-year scoring record for the club, second behind Shearer for league record. Single season records await. Will he stay with the team? More than at other point this season, it seems possible. If we make the top four, and especially if it’s third of four with talk of incoming big names, it may just happen.

Thierry Henry—Some have said that Henry’s return and goal against Leeds in the FA Cup showed the players first-hand the kind of adulation a club legend gets. Henry’s return did that, and in addition to the Leeds winner he scored another crucial late goal against Sunderland that won us the match. He was there for the drubbing at Milan, though, and a bit of a low period to boot, so the turnaround is not due to the Thierry Henry Show alone. But it was great having Titi back in the fold, and as mentioned two of his three goals proved the matchwinners.

Theo Walcott—The current day 14 has been a target of the boo-boys all season. He’s got pace, which works wonders when the opposition gives him space. Except they know this as well, so they’ve stopped giving him space. One could have played a game of Most Unpopular Player a while back and it would have been between Theo and Andrey Arshavin. Now Arshavin’s off to Russia with Zenit and Walcott is playing well. He played out of his skin against Spurs and has been putting in good shifts of late. Whether it’s inspired by Ox envy or whatever, who cares. Theo is playing well. And if we don’t tie him down to a contract there now really are many who would. (And not just Liverpool, who love blowing wads of cash on iffy English lads.)

Wojciech Szczesny—Another for the “good all season” files, the ‘keeper kept the goals-conceded tally as low as he could in the early season and of late has been adding more clean sheets to the mix. The Everton game was won by a team-wide defense. Time was, Szczesny would have had to repel wave after wave of attacks, but in the second half, he was essentially coasting, because the rest of the team didn’t let the threats get close to him. (That said, bad luck to Drenthe for the disallowed goal in the first half.)

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain—What a breakout season for the teen winger (and occasional attacking midfielder). The “Theo with brains” is also the Theo with brawn. He’s tough, quick, humble and badass. Perhaps he’s really the un-Theo. The substitution of Arshavin for him against Man United in January provoked a response so unbelievably poisonous and vitriolic, it seemed that Wenger’s time at the club had to be over. And yet here we are, with supporters mumbling apologies to the Professor and one of the brightest talents in soccer happily bedded into the team. And of course, since he’s British, he’s got all that slobber to deal with, too. Good on you, Ox. (And good luck to you re: the UK media hype machine.) Looking forward to seeing you and Theo weave side to side with the quickness that causes defensive heads to explode. For years to come.

Tomas Rosicky—Tomas already had a contract extension in the works, but the timing of his revival coincided almost perfectly with its announcement. No goals in two years, and suddenly he’s scoring, assisting and showing the young’uns how it’s done. Perhaps he and Robin used the time spent on adjoining injury tables to mastermind this stage of the proceedings.

Thomas Vermaelen—After a long, long spell on the sidelines, Vermaelen returned and provided some more solidity to the central pairing, except that he got conscripted to left back during the fullback crisis. He did well enough, but it’s clearly not his best position. In a CultFootball dispute a while back in the Fall, it was mooted, “How many Arsenal players could get into the Spurs starting XI?” The questioner thought “maybe Sagna, maybe van Persie in his current run of form.” The maybes were of course absurd, but a main source of contention arrived in the topic of Vermaelen. To me, Vermaelen is a better defender than any Spurs centerback. And he scores! Vermaelen has scored 5 this season, despite all the months on the sidelines. Vermaelen rules.

Alex Song—Going back to the T-ham argument, Scott Parker was deemed better than Song. I still don’t believe it. When I remember some of the perfect passes to van Persie, his versatility on the park, switching to centerback, if needed, there’s no comparison. Parker was a coup of a buy for Spurs—inexpensive, experienced, talented—but he does not measure up to Song who, like van Persie, maintained his form throughout the season and was similarly waiting for the rest of the team to play out of their funk.

Fullbacks—For a long stretch of time, all the fullbacks were out and an unusual Arsenal surplus of centerbacks (and Coquelin) filled in. Djourou flailed, Miquel and Vermaelen did better but not remarkably, Coquelin did well. But now with Bacary Sagna and Kieren Gibbs back in the midst, we have the old system of marauding, overlapping full backs with pace and wingerish attack-mindedness to go with their core defensive work. If any one thing is the “reason” for the comeback, I’d say it’s the return of the specialized fullbacks. Why so far down the list? Fair question. Allow me to attempt to remedy by singling out how awesomely Sagna played against Everton on Wednesday. He won nearly every header and asserted his command in every way possible. Theo is a better Theo when Sagna has his back. With Djourou, not so much.

Centerbacks—After all the hullaballoo about needing quality central defenders in the past few years, this time we had surplus to requirements at the exact right time to plug the fullback holes. Per Mertesacker was a great signing. Some will say he’s too slow. They can say it as much as it pleases them. I don’t think he’s good because of speed, I think he’s good because of the way he reads players and positions himself. Laurent Koscielny has asserted himself as the main man in Vermaelen’s absence and the main main to pair Vermaelen when he’s fit. Excellent season for the French Pole. And Vermaelen…oh right, already waxed present-tense nostalgic about the Belgian.

Midfield—This year was to be Wilshere’s year, until it wasn’t. Fortunately, Ramsey has put leg-break fears behind him and formed a good partnership with Arteta and Song. Arteta has provided goals and a cool head–he probably deserves his own standalone entry, in fact. One wonders how things could have been different if Arteta had played alongside Fabregas for the latter’s final seasons in the red and white. Although Frimpong and Coquelin did not really play a part in the “turnaround,” per se, they most definitely broke out this season and helped maintain focus during the dark months, helping hugely in the resurgence of the fall. Without those points then, there wouldn’t be the points total of now.

Final thoughts:

Think about this team, plus players like Podolski, Vertoengen, a creative midfielder/playmaker and no exits aside from those we want (Bendtner, Denilson, Almunia, possibly Vela and Djourou). Wilshere returns eventually. Santos re-enters the matrix soon. Jenkinson looked promising until his injury troubles. Presumably Diaby has a role to play yet. Coquelin, Frimpong, Yennaris and Miquel all made the most of their first-team shots and should be seeing plenty more playing time in the season ahead. (Get well soon, Frimpster and Le Coq.)

The final 9 games will decide much with regard to our pulling power with newcomers and our retention rate with the best performers we have currently.

May all the games that remain be filled with Arsenalian brilliance. And good day to you.


League games that remain this season:

Mar 24    Arsenal v Aston Villa

Mar 31    Queens Park Rangers v Arsenal

Apr 8    Arsenal v Manchester City

Apr 11    Wolverhampton Wanderers v Arsenal

Apr 16    Arsenal v Wigan Athletic

Apr 21    Arsenal v Chelsea

Apr 28    Stoke City v Arsenal

May 5    Arsenal v Norwich City

May 13    West Bromwich Albion v Arsenal