Editorials

wsc303As Barcelona break more records, their often flawless football has a downside

Soon there will be a Lionel Messi-related statistic for every number up to four figures. In eight successive games between February and mid-March he scored 18 times – more than Wayne Rooney managed in the whole of 2010-11 – and now has 55 for the season. In fewer than seven complete seasons he has become Barcelona's all-time top league goalscorer.

wsc302 As fans of Manchester United and Liverpool traded insults the clubs looked more similar than ever

Liverpool and Manchester United will not play each other again until August at the earliest. We should all be thankful for that. The fallout from last October's confrontation between Luis Suárez and Patrice Evra lasted for more than three months, incorporating secondary flare-ups at an FA Cup tie and the reverse league fixture. New developments were announced on an almost daily basis. Liverpool were accused of harbouring a fascist. Callers to radio phone-ins turned into linguists when debating the difference between "negro" the adjective and "negro" the noun. A pre-match handshake was subject to more forensic analysis than anything since the Zapruder film footage of the Kennedy assassination.

wsc301 The ungrateful moaning directed at the game's most successful managers only discredits the grumbling fans

"I very much support Arsenal. But to be honest, Wenger needs to coach another team now and Arsenal needs another coach." So said Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda, after Arsenal's third successive defeat, 2-1 at home to Manchester United in late January.

wsc300 Football managers do the game no favours when they back their own players at all costs

In a tumultuous year of revolutions, natural disasters and financial crises, one of the most shocking moments came in the final fortnight of 2011 when Chelsea showed some common sense. That is rare at a club whose officials have to pretend it is run as a regular business rather than at the whim of a billionaire. In December, however, they emerged from their cocoon to show an awareness of the world around them. Chelsea players were apparently keen to wear T-shirts showing their support for John Terry after it was announced he will face criminal charges in February for alleged racial abuse of Anton Ferdinand. Manager Andre Villas-Boas had already declared that Terry will get his full support "whatever the outcome", whereas his employers took a step back, saying: "We did not think that the wearing of T-shirts was an appropriate or helpful show of support."

wsc299 The military's presence in football is over the top

Now that Colonel Gaddafi has left us, FIFA president Sepp Blatter has no rival as the UK media's favourite international hate figure. He cemented this position last month with startlingly crass comments about racism in football. Racist abuse between players on the pitch, he declared, should be forgotten about at the end of the match and resolved with a handshake. Coming as close as he ever has to admitting a mistake, Blatter then sought to "clarify" his comments, but the damage had been done.

Positive action is required to back up anti-racism initiatives

If it is possible to gauge the extent of a problem by the number of organisations that exist to counter it, then racial prejudice is still a pressing issue in British football. Scarcely a week goes by without news of an anti-racism 
initiative somewhere. There are regular conferences on the subject, annual action weeks, supportive visits to schools by famous players, T-shirts, stickers, newsletters and banners unveiled at grounds. Every season spectators are evicted for racist abuse and barred for life by their clubs. Although, as most people who go to games on a regular basis will be aware, some stewards and police forces are more diligent than others in rooting out abusers.

When clubs get it wrong off the pitch, it can be the manager who unfairly pays the price

This season Leyton Orient fans have been made fully aware of how quickly a team's fortunes can change. The club finished seventh in League One in 2010-11, just one point short of a play-off place. In the summer they rejected an approach from Barnsley for their manager Russell Slade. Yet by the end of September they were the only side without a victory in the Football League. On the last Saturday of the month, the two other winless teams, Doncaster and Plymouth, broke their ducks by beating Crystal Palace and Macclesfield respectively. These wins came directly after both clubs had laid off a manager.

Fielding weakened teams does not necessarily have the desired for positive effect

There is no question that Steve Coppell is a major figure in the history of Reading. He took the club into the top division for the first time in 2005-06 with a record 106 points and throughout the following season they were comfortably in the top half. But after a 1-0 win over Newcastle in the 36th fixture that kept them seventh and with a chance of European qualification, Coppell was infected by one of the blights of modern football, false pragmatism.

The fans might have been excited by the team's progress but the manager was keeping the lid on: "It wouldn't be a problem getting into the UEFA Cup", he said "because I'd probably play the reserves. As far as I'm concerned we have a European Cup final every weekend in the Premiership." Reading took one point from their last two games, losing their next match 2-0 at home to already-relegated Watford, and finished 8th, three points adrift of the European places. The following year they went down, with their weekly European Cup finals including a run of eight successive defeats after Christmas.

Mick McCarthy indulged in some Coppell-esque dissembling after Wolves won their  two opening matches this season, to top the table for the first time since September 1962. "It will be a long time before I want to get into the Europa League," he said. "If we look like getting in through the Fair Play League, I'm going to tackle somebody." No doubt Wolves fans would be pleased if the team achieve the manager's primary goal of staying up, but it is hard to imagine any of them would share his distaste for getting into Europe, something they last managed by winning the League Cup in 1980. Wolves had no trouble making progress in this season's competition, beating Northampton 4-0 in the Second Round despite fielding an under-strength side. But all three clubs promoted to the Premier League went out: Swansea at Shrewsbury Norwich and QPR lost at home MK Dons and Rochdale respectively. Neil Warnock said he was pleased by his side's result: "If I can't get motivated for the competition I can't blame the players if they can't".

Clearly some managers, fixated on Premier League survival, would welcome the opportunity to opt out of the competition as clubs were permitted to do in the early years. One of the beneficiaries of this were Birmingham City who won the 1962-63 League Cup in which only 11 of the 22 Division One clubs participated. Through winning last season's cup, Birmingham returned to European competition for the first time in 50 years. They were also relegated, winning only two of the 12 League games played after beating Arsenal at Wembley. But the cup run does not seem to have been blamed for the downturn in form and relegation will not have been especially traumatic for fans of a club that has moved divisions ten times in the past twenty years.

In the coming months, some of the managers who gave up on the League Cup might consider putting out weakened sides for fixtures they expect to lose (something Mick McCarthy has done before) especially now they will no longer be fined by the Premier League for doing so. Meanwhile thousands of fans of Birmingham and Stoke, another side who took a cup seriously, will be taking in away matches in Braga, Kiev and Istanbul among other places. Tony Pulis and Chris Hughton could be partially excused for not prioritising all these games. For most of its existence the UEFA Cup was a simple knockout competition, but the recently renamed Europa League is needlessly bloated - teams  who took part in two qualifying rounds will have played ten extra midweek fixtures in just over four months. But even the later rounds have been an imposition for some managers recently.

When Bolton lost to Sporting Lisbon in the last 16 in March 2008 they were missing several first teamers, rested for what was looking like a relegation battle. In February 2009, Aston Villa were understrength when beaten at the first knockout stage out by CSKA Moscow. Martin O'Neill said his priority was to qualify for the Champions League but even with most of their first team rested, Villa only drew their next match and eventually finished sixth; O'Neill's standing among Villa fans was fatally damaged in the process.

False pragmatism can only have destructive effects. When managers see certain matches as an inconvenience, they are in effect conceding them. But if their clubs can't take what they do seriously, then eventually the fans will cease to care too.

From WSC 296 October 2011

Some simple ways to make the 2011-12 season more palatable. Badge kissing, coloured boots and the the inanity of Mark Lawrenson all require immediate attention

Before we begin to list our hopes for the new season, it should be noted that nothing we ask for ever comes to pass, often because that would require adjustments to the Laws of the Game or to the Indecent Displays Act (1981). So there almost seems to be no point in, for example, expressing the hope that one day a referee will send off a player who makes the shushing or ear-cupping gesture to opposing fans when they've scored. Or that anyone over school age wearing a jester's hat inside a football ground should be required to do community service, with the punishment extended if the wearer has a previous conviction for waving a giant foam hand.

The FA took a principled stance over the FIFA presidential election but they remain as equally flawed in their governance of the Premier League

For the England squad the season ended with the Euro 2012 qualifier against Switzerland. But it was to have gone on a few days longer. After the Swiss match the national team – or more likely a second-string – were due to play a friendly in Thailand. In exchange for seeing Bobby Zamora and Kyle Walker jogging around at half speed, the Thai FA chairman Worawi Makudi was expected to support England’s 2018 World Cup bid.

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