Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Post-Euro 2016: A suggestion or two for England in this moment of football soul searching

This appears on

A suggestion or two for England in this moment of football soul searching
by rick olivares pic by getty images

Moments after England’s humiliating 2-1 exit to Iceland in Euro 2016, former Liverpool and Bayern Munich star Dietmar Hamann, working as a pundit on RTE (Radio Television Ireland), laid waste to the English game and the Premier League in particular. 

“English people believe the hype of the Premier League,” said Hamann pulling no punches. “They have sold a Skoda for a Lamborghini for the last 15 years. The Premier League is average. If you look at Spain and Germany and the standard of football and look at the quality of football, it’s in a different league to England. Because it’s been watched all over the world, that doesn’t make it the best programme. They’ve created a brand, fair to them, the players earn a lot of money, and all these players should light a candle every time they go to bed at night, because if they were Icelandic, Portuguese, Dutch or German, they would struggle to earn a quarter of the money they’re on now.”

Hamman continued to step on the gas pedal: “It’s not their fault that the clubs are paying that money. But it’s over-inflated; the Premier League is a fraud. Because people generate so much money by watching it on television, people believe that it is the best league in the world.”

“In the Champions League, the English teams have been struggling for a number of years now. There were times, 10-15 years, where we had three teams in the semi-final. But the best players play in Bayern Munich, Barcelona, and Real Madrid, and they pay world-class wages for above average players.”

“If you could look through the team, can you see anyone play for the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Bayern Munich in the next five years? Maybe (John) Stones and (Ross) Barkley, apart from that it’s bang average. And how many of these players would be on the radar of the top clubs right now? You could make a case for (Daniel) Sturridge and (Marcus) Rashford who did more in the five minutes coming on than the rest of the team going forward.”

Scathing, isn’t it? Maybe that is an understatement as well. 

With all due respect to Hamann who I revere as a footballer, he is partly right. But is also off tangent.

Let’s dissect the comments.

"They have sold a Skoda for a Lamborghini for the last 15 years.”

Hamann is implying that the Premier League is not what it is. That because of its popularity, people believe it is the best league in the world.”

First and foremost, comparing a domestic league to how the national team fares is comparing apples to oranges. 

Until Spain won Euro 2008 and 2012 and the 2010 World Cup in between, they were mostly seen like the Netherlands, a country that had some talismanic football clubs but as a country, never won much on an international level.  

The French have been World Cup and European champions, why isn’t Ligue 1 considered one of the top leagues in the world?

Prior to the 2014 World Cup title, Germany only had the 1996 European title to show. There were questions about their domestic game. Weren’t there questions about their 2006 World Cup team that featured non-Aryan Germans on the team? Weren’t there questions about the way they prepared (bringing in fitness and conditioning experts from the US) and the way they played (more attacking football as compared to the boring style that was espoused before that)?

If we follow that line of thinking, let’s move over to basketball. When the US began to lose in 1988, they sent a team of collegians against teams that played pro ball in Europe. How old was Arvydas Sabonis when he took on Hersey Hawkins and company? He was a man playing against boys. But did that mean the NBA wasn’t very good? Even after the US lost in 2004 before the Redeem Team in 2008, did anyone think that Euro basket was better? It was a matter of not taking the opposition seriously and not preparing properly when the world has clearly gotten better at basketball. 

Back to football. 

In the last 16 years (since the start of the new millennium) of La Liga, four clubs have won the title - Barcelona (eight), Real Madrid (five), Valencia (two), and Atletico Madrid (one).

In Germany, in the past 16 years of the Bundesliga, five clubs have won the title - Bayern Munich (10), Borussia Dortmund (three), and Werder Bremen, VfB Stuttgart, and VfL Wolfsburg (one each). Bayern has won two Champions League titles.

In England, also in the past 16 years, five clubs have won the title — Manchester United (seven), Chelsea (four), Manchester City (two), Arsenal and Leicester City (one each). 

Is Hamann equating Premier League success to national team success? 

Let’s break down Bayern Munich’s champion team. Robert Lewandowski is Polish. Franck Ribery is French. Arjen Robben is Dutch. Xabi Alonso and Javi Martinez are Spanish. Sixteen players in their roster are foreign while 13 are German.

How about Barcelona, La Liga champs. Only four key players are Spanish. The rest are German, Argentinean, Croatian, Uruguayan, Brazilian, Chilean, and French. 

If you compare all the major European leagues, all the top clubs usually win because they have a lot of money to pay the top players. The smaller clubs are more homegrown in a sense. 

There have been a few English players who have played with the big clubs — Gary Linker (Everton), Steve McManaman (Liverpool), Michael Owen (Liverpool), David Beckham (Manchester United), Ashley Cole (AS Roma), Jonathan Woodgate (Newcastle United). Some have had success. Others didn’t. Joey Barton played for Marseille where he enjoyed some success but he returned to England after he couldn’t be paid the wages he was accustomed to.

So why have the English underperformed in international competitions?

Despite having talented players, England has had poor managers and poor tactics (you can also argue the same for Brazil and the Netherlands that are going through their own soul searching). I can’t really say about their preparation or frame of mind headed into the major tournaments. Everyone has offered assessments from Hamann to Lineker who said that the team “lacks mental strength” and “are technically not good enough.”

England can learn from what happened to Germany in 2000 and from Italy in recent years.

Made in Germany
During Euro 2000, Germany didn’t make it out of their group that included Romania, Portugal, and England (the Germans lost 1-nil). In their final game of group play, they were soundly beaten by a Luis Figo-led Portugal side, 3-nil. A year earlier, the crown jewel of the Bundesliga, Bayern Munich lost to Manchester United, 2-1, in one of the greatest Champions League finals games ever.

Germany, wrote European newspapers, “was a dying football nation”. 

The German Football Association had a lot of soul searching to do and they went back to basics — developing their youth system and putting up a football academy (worth 15 million Euros) that made high level coaching available to top prospects. The academies are strictly monitored where every single club has to pass a test that has over 800 questions. Only when these academies pass are they given a license to operate. As for the top prospects, they regularly giving young players a spot on the senior national team for experience. They integrated their minorities into the system and the result was a 2006 World Cup team that featured a players of of Ghanaian heritage (Gerald Asamoah and David Odonkor), and a pair of naturalized Polish strikers in Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski. That team finished in third place.

By 2010, they had brought in another player of Ghanian heritage (Jerome Boateng), Turkish ancestry (Mesut Ozil and Serdar Tasci), Tunisian parentage (Sami Khedira), a Spanish mother (Mario Gomez), and a naturalized Brazilian (Cacau). That team once more finished third in the World Cup and come 2014, they won it all.

When Bayern Munich played Borussia Dortmund in the 2013 UEFA Champions League finals, it featured players on the national team and who had come up from their academies.

The Italian Connection
Italian football, at least on a national level, is fine. Domestically, it is a mess. But that is the Italian way, they thrive on adversity. The 1982 World Cup championship was won despite match fixing allegations against star Paolo Rossi and other teammates. The 2006 World Cup — even more match fixing that saw Juventus relegated and their trophies confiscated.

Now, their domestic league is trouble. There isn’t enough money. Attendance is dwindling. Clubs are having a tough time playing in old and dilapidated stadia. Revenue is down. In the latest UEFA rankings for member associations, the Italian Serie A is slotted at fourth (behind Spain, Germany, and England). They are at status quo having ranked fourth two seasons ago after falling to fifth during the 2012-13 season.

After the World Cup win of 2006, the game deteriorated into violence, racism, and poor management. There has been some hope recently with some clubs moving into their own stadiums such as Juventus that moved into Juventus Stadium after years of sharing the Olimpico with Torino.

But what has made Italy successful internationally? It’s playing to their strengths and not what they cannot do. They play a brand of football that is defensive. And that is how they have made their name. Defensive football with lightning counter-attacks.

Having said that, Italy is taking a cue from what makes the English Premier League successful — title sponsors (this past season, it was called the Serie A TIM after Telecom Italia Mobile), better relations with corporate sponsors and media, and dipping into the rich Asian market. 

Incredible, isn’t it? Italy looking to England for inspiration?

Brexit aside, how ironic is it that the nation that invented football should look into other countries that copied their models for their own success? 

No comments:

Post a Comment