Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Golden Age

I hadn't really paid attention to the tabloid 'shenanigans' following Wayne Rooney recently until this mornings papers, where an article in The Times querying his recent form mentions them (Pissing in the street? FFS). While there are numerous theories as to his dip in form, nobody seems to be mentioning his age. While he's just 24 and so clearly this couldn't be a factor, personally I'm not so sure.

When he first 'burst' (he always bursts/explodes/powers etc) on to the scene Alan Hansen marveled on Match of the Day 'just how good will the boy be at 28?'. Even then I found this question slightly unsettling as at the back of mind I thought, well, he'll be wrecked. A couple of injuries, his bad diet (and perhaps just basic unfortunate poor genes, those love handles just wont seem to go away) and, by then, over 10 years of 'playing at the summit' will have all taken a significant toll, drastically weakening his ability and exceptionalness. While I wouldn't for a second suggest that he is finished, I'd personally put him at his peak now and fear he will never exceed his performance for the majority of last season. At 28, I doubt very much he will playing for Manchester United.

The belief that players peak at 28/29 still seems to hold sway but surely this is no longer true in the pace heavy modern game. Looking back at Michael Owen's own dramatic arrival in France 98, if you had wondered what he'll be like at 27 you probably wouldn't have thought; lying on an awful Newcastle side's treatment table with hamstrings like spaghetti. But there he was.

There's an undeniable trend towards players peaking at ever younger ages. Look at Kaka, just 28 and yet seems like yesterday's man at Real. Or Ronaldinho, who Barcelona jettisoned (and appear to have been justified in doing so) at the age of, again, 28. Aren't these supposed to be their best years? While it is most probably forward players who suffer from this shortened career span (although considering they start earlier it may remain the same length of time) this then surely permeates throughout the positions - defenders have to be faster and more agile to keep up with the ever quicker strikers/wingers etc. While players like Cannavaro refute this trend - winning the Ballon d'Or at 33 - looking at other recent winners of the prize affirms it.

Looking at 2007, 2008, 2009 the winners were, at the oldest, aged 25 and with an average of 23 (while the other players rounding out the places, only Xavi excepted, were as young or younger). Going back to 1982, 1983, 1984, however (a time when someone like Hansen would have been at his peak) only one of the 9 players was under 27, and he was 26.

I thought this reducing 'age of effectiveness' might be replicated in tennis, particularly women's tennis where they seem to be about 14 years old, and so went to find some stats but came across this article on the men's game. Here, by looking at the success of men going back to Jimmy Connors (in regards to the point by which they have amassed 50% of their career titles), he puts the age of optimum performance at around 24. This seems to be more reflective of the modern footballer as well to me. The idea that experience, the extra yard being in the head etc all make the footballer best in his late 20s is surely over, it's a young man's game.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

I Want My Premier League

The Premier League's worldwide success has always been a little hard to pinpoint. It is often explained away as the result of a sort of crass, immediately satisfying product whereby the all-action nature of the play is easily appreciated by the average watcher. This was never a particularly solid explanation however and has been disproved recently, most notably by Mourinho's tactical innovations (and less dramatic play) while at Chelsea.

John Terry said that on the first day of training Jose had to stop them completely, going ballistic at basic defensive errors which the players were used to being tolerated. This was quite a defining feature of the PL for me for quite some time. The volume of goals scored as the result of defensive howlers used to be exponential. Every Saturday, Match of the Day would feature half a dozen 'Titus Brambleesque' errors leading to goals that many would sniffily conclude as the defining factor of the league's success. Mourinho, and Benitez (who, not Ferguson, always seemed like Mourinho's true rival), did more than any other manager to stamp these sort of basic errors out. The popularity still remained however, and was now underlined by objective success. Before Mourinho came along an English side had not reached a Champions League final since 1999. Although Mourinho would not lead Chelsea to one during his 3 years at the club, the representation of an English club at every final in the 5 years following his arrival is in no small part due to his, and Benitez's, tactical innovations. Not just that, they seemed to snap Ferguson and Wenger out of their mutual dependency and force them to raise their standards, United certainly obliging, Arsenal maybe not.

Sometimes I think English success/popularity, in many things not just football, is down to their capacity as appreciators. They are truly the best fans in the world. At everything - music, art, sport. They will cheer you to the rafters, treat you like a god, write about you eloquently. Even, say, the massive success of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones can be seen to result to some degree by the band members' appreciation of other things - in this case black R&B. When looking back at the rise of the PL it has often been spurred by the English peoples adoption and support of previously unappreciated figures. The enigmatic wanderers like Cantona, the misused geniuses like Henry, the elder statesmen like Zola and Okocha had all had unhappy existences in more harsher climates before receiving the warm embrace of England, and all paid back the support handsomely. Watching Mourinho's miserable experience in Italy really hammered home how differently the English treat their heroes, or perhaps the criteria each use to verify such heroes.

This may not be a good thing of course. The way Mourinho was feted during his time in England was surely excessive. And perhaps it was contrived only by a rapacious press pack whereby we are all now living by the morals and codes of a small group of fan-boys. He did ruin that referee's career in order to gain a slight competitive advantage for his team, all based on lies. He did accuse the Reading ambulance service of purposely and potentially fatally harming Petr Cech, again all based on lies for who knows what motive. Maybe he is a scumbag. But he gives good quotes, which means the press like him, ergo us drones are forced to like him through media subjection. However what prevents me from being completely negative about the English league is, strangely, Americans.

Americans seem to have taken to English soccer beyond other leagues, and despite cliches to the contrary, they are usually a sound arbiter of good taste. Their patronage of the league elevates it out of the 'Big in Japan' level. Similarly Australians' championing of the league confirms the quality. To be honest I get the impression Americans and Australians are loathe to celebrate anything contemporary about 'Old England' so the league must have something going for it to grab them, but they're also two nations who are constantly looking out for 'the best', regardless of historical import, and will change allegiances more quickly than others.

Sometimes I wonder if the Premier League is more suited to American sensibilities than their present sports. The strange aspect of American sport I have always found (at least from casually looking at it from the outside) is that for such a capitalist country its sports betray socialist tendencies. The salary caps present in the leagues prevent, to a point, a monopoly of talent by a few clubs while innovations like the previous season's last team getting the first pick in the player drafts are something the PL Board would surely fight tooth and nail, at the behest of the big clubs, to prevent ever happening in England. Similarly the insistence on players attending college seems to go against the 'grab it while you can' nature which the US exhibits on a macro level. Although I'm faintly aware this has been challenged recently with some players drafting straight from High School, I feel this is being generally resisted. Does Glenn Beck have bits on Fox News castigating the sports bodies for this? Isn't it all a bit, well, liberal? (The underlying argument could be that America is liberal of course. Strong unions, good schools, decent working conditions are all ingrained there despite what some would like to present.)

While there still seems to be permanently successful clubs like The Lakers in America, there also seems to be teams that, either through appointing a great coach or getting a good draft can have a few years of success, winning titles along the way. The idea that a Fulham could win the title, without a sugar-daddy owner, the way a small American football club can is inconceivable. (But maybe nobody wants Fulham to win. Nobody supports them outside a small band. Maybe people want Man United, Chelsea etc. to be challengers every year so that quality, narrative, familiarity will all be ensured. The certainty is celebrated. Like people flocking to the cinema to watch Julia Roberts essentially play Julia Roberts again and again, it's the actors, not the performances, we crave.)

I think sporting success may be deemed a bit Eurotrashy in the US consciousness. When you look back at famous American figures, noted for intellect or political achievement, it's amazing how many of them are former accomplished US sports players - Hemingway, Gerald Ford, George Bush Sr., There is no real equivalent here (despite the odd Camus/Pope as goalie), you can be good at one but not the other. I feel this may have been somewhat planned by the US in their early days to more better fit the country's aspirations. Perhaps they were reluctant to celebrate something so unthinking and based on natural talent (and thereby unfair/unAmerican) as European sport, rather than hard work and application and so catered their sports around accommodating thoughtful personalities, so the quarterback needs to be a good thinker etc. While this might make for more rounded sports stars perhaps the games become more boring, and thus - here comes soccer, enjoy these noble savages.

And so the Premier League behemoth rumbles on, managing to turn places as dreary and prosaic as Bolton and Wigan somewhat exotic, and nobody's really sure why it's working so well or what indicators to use to judge it. Those in charge are too worried about damaging their jewel to properly examine it to see what's the cause, or what could stop it. It just works.

EDIT: I often read these posts later and cringe so just for my sanity can I say that I realise I've probably got this completely wrong of course. It could be that soccer is so desirable precisely because it is thoughtful and not so dependent on physical attributes as many American sports. Looking at basketball heroes, for example, taking Bryant, Jordan, Johnson - all three were at least six foot six. There's no equivalent in soccer really. Take Maradona at 5'5", or Pele at 5'8" or Zidane at 6'1", there's no physical pattern there. It could perhaps precisely be that because their wit, intelligence and skill can influence their performance above and beyond their physical attributes the sport is so attractive to some Americans. Often watching (only very occasionally) basketball now it seems to have turned into something resembling the scene from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest where it has reduced into getting the ball as quickly and most directly to a giant player under the hoop. While there is obviously a subtlety I can't pick up only being a casual observer (maybe the grace of the 6'10" guys?), that could be part of the problem - ignorant watchers like me just think 'isn't it whoever has the tallest player wins?'.

Then of course there's the colour thing. Basketball is black. American Football is black. Baseball is, what, Dominican? Even traditional white sports like Golf and Tennis now have the feel that white people reign supreme because of social and not sporting factors. But not only are white people good at soccer, you could say they're the best. They don't need to overcome more skillful minorities through attrition or physicality. They have grace, skill, natural ability the way America is so used to seeing black American sportsmen have. I don't even think this is particularly racist, just borne of honest surprise. In fact, I find it a little unsettling that at an American Football game the majority of the players are black while all the fans in the stand white. It seems bloody stupid (maybe I am racist though). Looking at it benevolently, Soccer has more variety. It's not as limited to a race or socio economic class and it's truly global. There's still a place, and hopefully always will be, for an Irishman or African or Spaniard or, now, American.

This is why this post on the excellent A More Splendid Life, admittedly by a Canadian not American, was so interesting (and I completely agree with it). Maybe North Americans know that descending down a road of tactical and physical prowess leads ultimately only to tedium. Hearing Pep Guardiola praise Theo Walcott as Arsenal's main threat because he can run the 100 metres in 10.3 seconds was annoying for the same reason - why doesn't he piss off and do athletics then, this is football.

Of course we have been here before with Americans trying to take to soccer in the late 1970s. Perhaps it's just history repeating and won't last although it does feel more substantial this time.