Category Archives: Elsewhere

Meanwhile, in the rest of England, Europe and the world…

Watch and Learn: A Day out at the Hong Kong Homeless World Cup Fundraiser

In the era of the Premier League, the Champions League, the World Cup and live television broadcasts, it’s easy to forget what football really means to those of us in Hong Kong.

There’s no shame in that. No one here really roots for China in international football—politics aside, China is as far from a footballing powerhouse as it can be, and its national football team is more likely to be an almighty embarrassment than any source of pride—and Hong Kong football just can’t compete on an international level.

That the Hong Kong Football Association is constantly trying to find ways to drum up interest in the Hong Kong Premier League despite such fanatical following of European football week in, week out, is a damning reflection of the dominance of imported football content over “real” football.

So to spend a couple of hours at the fundraising tournament for Hong Kong to send a team to the 2014 Homeless World Cup in Chile, hosted at the MacPherson Stadium in Mong Kok, was a welcome break and a reminder of the place football can, and does, have in our lives.

The ubiquity of European football—the Premier League is the king of all leagues, due to the massive influence that Britain had over Hong Kong culture and daily life during its occupation until 1997—and footballing superstars have over football fans here is always interesting and mildly amusing.

There aren’t many structured youth football programs here, probably because the fierce academic competition and rigorous education system here lends parents to send their kids off to after-school tutoring and other resume-strengthening activities rather than ferrying them to football training. So instead of any dribbling drills or passing practice, kids are out practicing free kicks and long shots in their own attempts to replicate what they see on their TV screens.

So instead of any natural interest in pickup football on the streets leading to a fanatical following of TV football, it’s actually the other way round: It’s what we see on TV that compels us to play.

Small wonder, then, that any game on the public concrete and asphalt fields usually features frequent breaks in play and generally peters out in intensity after 30 minutes: There’s no stamina or physical strength underneath the flashy tricks and occasional golazo attempts.

I myself am guilty—a frequently-used, self-deprecating yet depressingly true description is that I’m a Steven Gerrard who plays with the intensity of Dimitar Berbatov. That in itself—the yearn to score blockbusters and take set pieces but not willing to do the dog work on the pitch (or, more accurately, not willing to put in the effort to gain the stamina to do so)—is more or less indicative of the general “attachment” to football here.

Hong Kong commits itself to watching imported football rather than actually playing it.

It was both slightly amusing and mildly vindicating to find out that one of Hong Kong’s most well-known and well-regarded Cantonese football commentators, Mr. Lee Tak-nang, was not only present at the event as an emcee of sorts, but that he was the vice-chairman of the Homeless World Cup Hong Kong organizing committee. (He decided to turn up in a Brazil jersey.)

But it was the presence of another famous football name in town, and a revelation from a photographer that really hit home.

Detinho, one of the best players to play in Hong Kong in recent years—he signed for famous local club South China aged 33, proceeded to score 52 goals in 56 league games over three years, and is still going strong for Citizen—was a spectator. According to the photographer, who was also one of the organizers, “even Detinho needs to start looking for a job.”

Detinho, a household name in Hong Kong football
Detinho, a household name in Hong Kong football

 

Unlike the stars we see on TV, who boast flashy lifestyles and command weekly wages that are enough to make most people’s eyes water—even the wages of an average Premier League footballer, if managed right, mean that he can retire with financial comfort—here was Detinho, a local star by all accounts, needing to “start looking for a job.”

What about the others?

“Well, the goalkeeper is a compulsive gambler who just likes playing football.” The goalkeeper in question, of course, is the starting goalkeeper of the Hong Kong representative team that will travel to Chile for the Homeless World Cup. He’s a gambling addict, a “problematic” member of society.

Founded by Mel Young from Scotland and Harald Schmied from Austria, the Homeless World Cup had its inaugural tournament in Graz, Austria in 2003, after the idea came about at a Cape Town conference on homelessness. Hong Kong first sent its own team two years later, courtesy of the fundraising and coordination efforts of the Society of Community Organization and Wofoo Social Enterprises of Hong Kong.

The 2005 tournament saw Hong Kong send its first ever representative team to Edinburgh, after they managed to raise about HKD240,000 in funding, according to the official Homeless World Cup website. They finished 21st out of 27—just about in line with their professional counterparts.

It was evident that both the organization and the cause have come a long way: A total of 24 teams, including those from such companies as A.S. Watson Group, Konica Minolta and Bubble Yum, paid HKD15,000 each to enter the fundraising tournament on Saturday.

Many of the post-match write-ups about the fundraising event focused on Sunday instead—the event took place over the weekend at the same venue. Sunday was the more newsworthy date: Members of the Legislative Council, as well as a few celebrities, took part in an exhibition match, with controversial politician “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung featuring as one of the players. Carrie Lam, the Chief Secretary for Administration of the Hong Kong Government, gave a keynote speech highlighting the impact of homelessness in society.

But that very occurrence belied the fact that homelessness was the issue at the crux of the event, for the media and the celebrities—barring Detinho and Mr. Lee—didn’t show up on Saturday, which was when the real action took place.

Saturday was when the teams that actually paid a large sum of money took to the concrete fields and played 4-a-side. Saturday was when those 24 teams each had their own supporters—coworkers, friends et al—cheering them on the pitch, occasionally complaining and cursing (as football fans are wont to do).

It was only on Sunday when, after the qualifying rounds on Saturday, the Hong Kong representative team actually won the fundraising tournament, the first time in the fundraiser’s 10-year history.

(Edit: My original piece had Sunday down as only a “celebrity” exhibition match. I’ve since had it clarified that Sunday was the final that saw the Hong Kong team win.)

 

The Hong Kong representative team warms up on the side of the mini pitches.
The Hong Kong representative team warms up on the side of the mini pitches.

Turns out you don’t actually have to be homeless to play on a Homeless World Cup team.

I was told at the event by a few members of the organizing team, as well as a new friend who had introduced me to the event and to members of the team, that “they can’t really pick actual homeless people, just to ensure that the team does decently at the tournament.”

This was where the subsequent coverage of the fundraiser in Hong Kong and the official Homeless World Cup website seem to differ slightly: A Wall Street Journal report said that participants qualified by having been homeless at some point in the last five years, while the official tournament website seems to emphasize the “homelessness” of participating players.

 

(Edit: I’ve since had it clarified with the Homeless World Cup organizers that participating players must meet one of the following criteria:
– Have been homeless at some point after September 1, 2009, in accordance with the national definition of homelessness;
– Make their main living income as a street paper vendor;
– Asylum seekers currently without positive asylum status or who were previously asylum seekers but obtained residency status after September 1, 2009 (only two members of a team may have non-national passports; all other players must have a national passport of the nation they represent);
– Currently in drug or alcohol rehabilitation and also have been homeless at some point in the past two years

So while teams might not pick players who are currently homeless, all players on the Hong Kong team meet at least one of the above criteria. This expansion in the eligibility requirements is down to the interpretation that homelessness is the result of other vices like alcohol and drug abuse, and not the cause.)

 

In hindsight, choosing to go on the Saturday turned out to be the right decision. I didn’t return for the higher-profile Sunday, but in a strange way the lesser attention and commotion on site on Saturday meant that the focus was solely on the football and on the cause that the entire tournament supported.

For a fundraising event for a charity tournament abroad, you’d think fashion and design would be one of the lowest priorities on the day. Yet taking center stage, sandwiched right between the two mini pitches, was a row of mannequins dressed in the Hong Kong team jerseys of years past—perhaps to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Hong Kong representative team.

 

Mannequins modeling Hong Kong team jerseys for previous tournaments
Mannequins modeling Hong Kong team jerseys for previous tournaments

 

After an hour or two onsite, I started to make my way back to the bustling streets of Mong Kok and head off to my next destination via the subway. Next door to MacPherson Stadium is a favorite hangout of local youths, where street dancers, band performances and middle-aged ladies dressed in bizarre costumes singing karaoke on the sidewalk share a pedestrian-only walkway.

Right at the end of the street, there were two teenagers just beginning a football freestyle routine, complete with catchy electronic background music. I saw people come and go without much interest. It was the least-noticed and least-observed performance of the entire street.

After 15 minutes, I had to get going. The skills on the street were all well and good, but the first game of the new Premier League was kicking off in a couple of hours. I had to eat first before I could sit down and watch my football.

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The 5 Best Talents to Watch out for at Ajax and PSV Eindhoven

Over the years, Dutch football academies have been famous for their young talent who are known for their technique, flair and vision, and at the core of their legacy are the famous production lines at Ajax and PSV Eindhoven.

The list of prospects developed at both football clubs who have gone on to prosper elsewhere and become world-class players is too long to even delve into here; it is merely an indicator of the talent that the Netherlands have at their disposal.

Just as the World Cup finalists of 2010 are starting to see their spots threatened by a new batch of promising youngsters, so we should pay attention to the latest developments and prospects coming from Ajax and PSV.

Here are the five best talents to watch out for. Enjoy, and give us your picks in the comments below.

 

Davy Klaassen

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Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Let’s start first with Davy Klaassen of Ajax, who has been making waves in the Eredivisie this season.

Aged just 20, he has scored seven league goals and notched one assist in just seven starts this term, while also impressing in his three Champions League appearances.

Known as the new Dennis Bergkamp, Klaassen is now fittingly being coached by the Dutch striking legend and managed by Frank de Boer at Ajax.

Inevitably, Klaassen has already been linked, via Simon Jones of the Daily Mail, with Arsenal—Bergkamp’s home for almost 10 years—and possesses impressive technique, vision and a handy eye for goal.

 

Ricardo van Rhijn

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Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Staying with Ajax, we turn to Ricardo van Rhijn, who came into the first team in 2012 after the departure of fellow highly rated right-back Gregory van der Wiel to Paris Saint-Germain.

Known for his pace and power, van Rhijn has also since forced his way into the Netherlands national team with a series of impressive performances for his club, making his international debut for the Oranje against Belgium in August 2012.

Back in September, he was linked by Ben Jefferson of the Express with a move to Chelsea or Serie A. Expect to hear more about him in the foreseeable future.

 

Jetro Willems

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Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Let’s switch our attention to PSV Eindhoven, where our first nominee isn’t actually a youth academy product, but rather one signed aged 17 from Sparta Rotterdam.

Just a few months after his move to PSV, left-back Jetro Willems already began to nail down a permanent first-team slot, and hasn’t looked back since becoming the youngest-ever Dutchman to play in a UEFA competition when he started against Hapoel Tel Aviv in November 2011.

Quick, strong and technically gifted, Willems was linked with a move to Manchester United as early as June 2012, according to Jamie Sanderson of the Metro.

 

Jurgen Locadia

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Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Also impressing for PSV is young striker Jurgen Locadia, who has scored five goals in 10 starts so far this 2013/14 campaign.

At 20 years of age, Locadia has scored 11 career goals for the PSV senior team during his time at the Philips Stadion.

A physical striker standing at 6’3″, Locadia has been compared with Aston Villa’s Belgian striker Christian Benteke, and has duly been linked by Alan Nixon of the Mirror with a move to Villa Park as a potential replacement for Benteke himself.

 

Zakaria Bakkali

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Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Finally, we turn to 17-year-old Belgian winger Zakaria Bakkali, who has already scored three goals in just seven league starts this season.

All three goals were scored in one single game, of course, against NEC Nijmegen, making him the youngest-ever player to score a hat-trick in the Eredivisie.

Blessed with impressive dribbling and passing skills, Bakkali has already been labeled as the next Eden Hazard by Belgian national coach Marc Wilmots, according to Ben Jefferson of the Express, and indeed has already been linked with a high-profile move to Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United, as reported by Richard Arrowsmith of the Daily Mail.

A sign of his obvious talent is his meteoric rise to the Belgian national team, for whom he has already made one appearance, despite the strength of the current Belgian golden generation.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League.

The World Cup: Evolution from Celebration of Football to Money-Making Exercise

“No decision will be taken before the upcoming 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil, as agreed by the FIFA executive committee.”

Source? An official FIFA statement, via the Guardian. Topic? Whether the 2022 World Cup in Qatar will be held in the summer or winter, of course; it’s only been the topic that’s consumed most international football fans and FIFA observers in the past few months.

The timing though? Immediately after Jerome Valcke, the FIFA secretary general, suggested to a French radio station that the World Cup might be moved to November 2022 after all.

Confused? You’re not the only one. But what’s been made apparent from the Qatar World Cup 2022 debacle, is that besides all the confusion and suspicions, the focus has firmly been taken away from what the World Cup is supposed to celebrate: football, the game itself.

Sure, the talk has revolved around Qatar’s temperatures in the summer, which would make for harsh conditions for players and fans alike, but surely that would’ve been a factor in the decision-making process leading up to awarding Qatar the host rights, instead of a topic to be discussed afterwards.

That Sepp Blatter and FIFA want to bring the World Cup to the Middle East is not a secret: Back in November, he even entertained the idea of hosting the tournament across several countries in the Gulf region, according to the Telegraph. So the globalization of football and the expansion of FIFA are two key items on the agenda, and both politics and money are equally prominent at the heart of all this, as we studied in an earlier article on the World Cup controversies.

But how exactly did the World Cup get to this current state? To answer that question, let’s go back and trace the evolution of the world’s most prestigious tournament from celebration of football to money-making exercise.

Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

The Olympics: Eternal Rival and…Founding Father?

To understand the World Cup’s evolution and growth, we must first consider the history of the Olympic Games, eternally seen as the World Cup’s rival tournament in terms of global reach and prestige.

The distinction is always made that the Olympics celebrate not just one sport, but sport as man’s pastime, while the World Cup is only the gathering of footballing nations in the world—and before the United States’ entry and strong showing, not even encompassing the entire world. The World Cup’s proponents point to the final as the premier spectacle in world sport, with no single sporting match able to match its global appeal.

In reality, while they might be rivals now and trying to outdo each other every two years, it didn’t start out that way. In fact, the World Cup has the Olympics to thank for its current iteration and success, because it was the Olympics that gave birth to the World Cup as we know it.

When FIFA was founded in 1904, international football—indeed, professional football—was a phenomenon only affordable for a few countries, and when football was inducted into the Olympic Games in the summer of 1908, only amateurs were represented. Any attempt at organizing a truly international football tournament was undermined by the lack of professional setups in most countries around the world.

But when Uruguay won both the Olympic football tournaments in 1924 and 1928, FIFA, with then president Jules Rimet as a visionary driving force, stood up, took notice, and most importantly, set about realizing his dream. The first FIFA World Cup was to be staged in 1930 in Uruguay, with politics—what else?—at the heart of the host location decision: It was to be the 100th anniversary of Uruguay’s independence, and it was to be made not a great celebration of the game itself, but a spectacular political statement.

How else to explain it, given that the Uruguay national football association was willing to cover all travel and accommodation costs incurred by participating teams? As even FIFA.com concedes, that possible profits would be shared with participants and deficits taken on by the host country won Uruguay the first ever World Cup hosting rights.

The 1934 competition was held in fascist Italy under the dictatorship of Benito Mussolini, and Rimet, according to this excellent Independent feature on his life, was already criticized for politicizing football.

Before the advent of television and the phenomenon of globalization, the World Cup had surrounded itself with politics and money.

(A footnote to add, though, is that Jules Rimet’s vision and dream of uniting the world through sport and creation of the World Cup earned him a Nobel Peace Prize nomination in 1956. Perhaps, hopefully, the World Cup at its heart was actually more than a celebration of the beautiful game, but a triumph of humanity.)

Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images

The Context: Globalization and Technology

But just as we can’t give the Olympics all the credit for introducing the concept of a FIFA World Cup, so Rimet and FIFA can’t claim all the glory for growing the tournament from a small competition featuring just a few countries in Montevideo, Uruguay, to the global spectacle that was the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

As ever, context is key, and the explosion of global business and trade, just as it’s played a huge role in the history of the 1900s, is an integral part of the World Cup’s continued evolution. Before the business side of things took over, though, first came the phenomenon of television.

According to this TIME feature, the impact of television on the World Cup’s boom cannot be understated: From 1954 to 1986, the number of TV sets worldwide “increased more than twentyfold, from a little more than 30 million to more than 650 million.” This laid the foundations for a truly groundbreaking moment in football history.

The first live World Cup games were broadcast in Europe in the 1954 tournament, which reached only a handful of audiences due to the low volume of matches shown, but the potential of television and TV advertising was already apparent. (Not that the Olympics were to be beaten, of course: The 1936 Summer Olympics were the first to be broadcast on TV to local audiences. International broadcasts came in 1956.)

Fast forward a decade and a half. Spying an opportunity to conquer the world of football and reap the ensuing economic benefits in 1974, was new FIFA president Joao Havelange, who upon taking office turned his organization into a modern international NGO, putting in place the infrastructure, people and income-centered mindset of a corporation.

The only thing left to do for the World Cup, which previously featured 16 national teams, was to expand. And expand Havelange did, opening the doors to developing countries with eight additional slots (which have since been further increased to a total of 32 participants since France 1998), as discussed by Tim Vickery for The World Game. The Havelange era also saw the introduction of the FIFA U-17 World Cup, FIFA U-20 World Cup, FIFA Confederations Cup and FIFA Women’s World Cup.

The costs of hosting such an immense global tournament in one country were too much to bear for one host country and FIFA, and thus came the idea of corporate sponsorship of the World Cup. Havelange struck deals with Horst Dassler, heir to the Adidas fortune, for the German sportswear company and other big-name corporations like Coca-Cola to fund the tournament, paving the way for the commercialization of international football.

So while the advent of television advertising led to increased premiums for marketers to get their spots onto World Cup TV screens, behind the scenes within FIFA itself was a concerted movement to pump money into the World Cup—with political and economic influence once again the main motivation behind all these changes.

(The name Joao Havelange may be familiar. He was the same FIFA ex-president that resigned in April 2013 after a FIFA ethics report ruled that he had taken bribes, as reported by BBC Sport. The culprit in question? International Sport and Leisure [ISL], founded by Horst Dassler. Politics and money, indeed.)

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The 1990s and Onwards: Spiraling Out of Control

If ever there was a curious decision in the history of world sport, the idea to host the 1994 World Cup in the US was clearly one, at the time. In hindsight, however, it was just another calculated plan from Havelange to bring the game to North American shores, which had yet to be consumed by football fever.

The legacy was stunning: To this date, USA 1994 still holds the total attendance record (over 3.5 million) and the average attendance record (68,991), according to USSoccer.com. The US’s advancement to the round of 16 for the first time since 1930 contributed to soaring TV ratings.

(Leading up to its hosting of the World Cup, the US also put in place their first ever professional soccer league. It’s no surprise that Major League Soccer was founded in 1993, a year before the 1994 World Cup. We explore the growth of soccer in the US in another article.)

The introduction of the World Cup in practically uncharted territory in 1994 was met with enormous financial successes, and since its foray into the world leader of commercialized sport and corporate sponsorship, FIFA have never looked back. The World Cup has since traveled to Asia (2002) and Africa (2010), goes to Russia in 2018, and brings us to the Middle East in 2022.

According to this Economist article, the World Cup broadcasting rights for France ’98 were sold by FIFA in 1987, before the stunning 1994 American success, for $344 million. An indication of how far the World Cup and FIFA have gone: In 1998, at the time of the article, ISL—which would later collapse, of course—had agreed to pay $2.2 billion to show the games outside America.

The groundwork for corporate sponsorship was laid by Havelange, but was taken to new levels under the leadership of current president Sepp Blatter. Let’s consider the 2010 World Cup, for example: According to a UPenn study, FIFA’s revenues related to the South Africa tournament amounted to a staggering $1.022 billion, of which $650 million belonged to broadcasting rights.

Participating national teams are in on the act too: FIFA was to provide $420 million to all participants and the football league teams providing players to the national teams, $30 million of which would go to the World Cup-winning team (Spain). First-round teams qualified automatically for $8 million each, while $1 million in preparation costs were provided to each participating football association.

This was brought about by the stellar line-up of corporate FIFA sponsors, known as “partners,” which included Adidas, Coca-Cola, Emirates Airlines, Hyundai-Kia Motors, Sony and Visa, who were “guaranteed exposure in the tournament stadium” and would receive “direct advertising and promotional opportunities and preferential access to TV advertising.”

The cost? A minimum of between 100 and million euros through to 2014. By which time, of course, the next World Cup cash cow will be held this summer, this time in Brazil.

Clive Mason/Getty Images

Conclusion: It’ll Only Get More Expensive From Here

Is it damning or merely inevitable that corporate sponsorship and incessant marketing efforts are now part and parcel of any World Cup?

In the build-up to this summer’s tournament, the allegations of corruption have been brushed aside after Havelange’s resignation in 2013, while all the talk of political and commercial interests have been directed towards the distant 2022 World Cup in Qatar, still eight years away.

It’s no longer news—rather, it’s an accepted fact—that the World Cup is now considered an extremely lucrative opportunity for brands and nations alike; this Fox article on Nike and Adidas’ brand battle pre-World Cup is now just part of the fabric. In fact, any sports company—or indeed any business entity at all—would be condemned for not taking advantage of a World Cup year to promote its business.

And so it’s only going to get more expensive from here. The spending and rights associated with the premier world football tournament have skyrocketed in the past decade or so, with the help and under the influence of a few key players, but the brand-new stadiums that are to be constructed in host countries are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to World Cup spending.

But it’s the World Cup. Just as FIFA continue to rake in the cash, we football fans will continue to ignore the commercial influences and political battles and focus on the spectacle that will unfold before our eyes when the first whistle is blown on June 12 at the Arena de Sao Paulo.

An event of this magnitude only comes once every four years, after all. When the winning team hoists the Jules Rimet trophy on July 13, for once the celebrations will be directed entirely towards the football that they have played, not the money they will make.

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League, and at times on the business of football.

The Football Business Column: A Latest Update on Globalization in Football

Germany continues its rise 

At this point, we’re all well-versed in the global financial and marketing power boasted by the English Premier League, otherwise known as the Barclays Premier League: the long-term partnership with Barclays Bank has given England’s top flight plenty of commercial exposure and opportunities. Manchester United have led the way with the corporatization of English football, and are one of the only professional sports clubs (never mind in football) to have an international office.

But German powerhouses Bayern Munich are about to join them. It’s recently been confirmed that they’re about to start a New York office, with Pep Guardiola taking his squad to the US for friendlies and training camps next summer, with plans for an office in China to come. This comes on the heels of Bayern’s rapid ascension towards the “super-club” class in European football, as they vie to win the Champions League in two consecutive seasons.

Does this herald the arrival of the Bundesliga (or at least of the German football club) in the global footballing elite? Bayern are storming into that select category of storied, successful and rich football clubs, and with their recent announcements seem to be aiming for world domination. With the Bundesliga receiving plenty of positive coverage in the past few years on their financial sustainability, profitability, and most importantly the coexistence of commercial successes with the strong development of the German national team, Bayern are riding the waves.

And it’s not going to stop anytime soon. For all the plaudits that NBC have taken for their coverage of the Premier League this season, the higher-ups at the US broadcaster need to beware: Fox have agreed a multi-year deal with the Bundesliga to deliver coverage across North and South America, Europe and Asia. If this is the start of an exciting rivalry between the Premier League and the Bundesliga, then football fans only stand to benefit.

 

Liverpool break into the emerging markets

For all of the contrasting criticism and praise that John Henry and his Fenway Sports Group have had to endure in their stewardship of Liverpool, one unanimous agreement among all observers has to be that they’ve expanded aggressively on the commercial side of things. And the latest developments at Anfield show that not only do they have ambition to return to the top playing field in football, but they also have the financial and reputational clout that only the biggest clubs enjoy.

We’re talking of course about Liverpool’s recent academy ventures in both India and China, two of the world’s highest-profile emerging markets with fierce interest in football and populations to sustain growth and development. The phrase of choice is “market-leading development center for young players,” but the story for both the Indian and the Chinese academies is the same: It’s a chance to reach out to the young generation, improve football education and potentially unearth Liverpool’s first ever Asian superstar.

As ever in their coaching ventures, Liverpool will be working with local coaches and also adding a considerable portion of social education in the programs to develop youngsters as both human beings and footballers, but the underlying commercial opportunities scream out loud: a chance to secure a generation of kids as Liverpool fans, and the drooling prospect of shirt sales and marketing expansion with an Asian first-team player at Anfield.

With the success of Manchester City’s football school in Abu Dhabi, it seems that elite English clubs will continue their global expansion efforts, and Liverpool’s recent activities capture both the imagination of any football business fan and a fast-growing consumer base.

 

What happens when you put football with football?

By now, you’ve probably heard about the annual NFL games at Wembley, and Manchester City’s plan for MLS dominance with New York City FC. Put the US and two of the most popular and financially successful leagues in the world together, and you have a marketing bonanza, and that’s exactly what the Americans and the English have collaborated on and produced.

Except that it’s about to be taken to another level. Not only has new Fulham owner Shahid Khan considered playing an NFL game at Craven Cottage featuring the Jacksonville Jaguars (also under his ownership) in the future, but the NFL could even be exploring the possibility of opening a franchise in London. Which means that a London-based team could be competing in a league across the pond.

Even more interesting are the stadium plans associated with this global expansion of the NFL. Tottenham Hotspur, who have already been featured in a brilliant skit mocking football fans in America and American football this summer as part of NBC’s promotions for their Premier League coverage in the US, are reported to be interested in cohabiting a new stadium with said London NFL franchise.

This would mean that White Hart Lane Mark II (let’s call it that for now) would not only host two high-profile teams in two of the highest-profile sports in the world, but that it would immediately challenge Wembley’s status as the preeminent (only) American football stadium in London. Following the New York Yankees’ involvement with New York City FC and Manchester City, this latest reversal plan seems just to be the beginning of an intriguing soap opera.

 

This piece was part of my new biweekly column for SWOL.co, in which I discuss some of the latest news, trends and developments on the business side of football—everything including marketing, strategy, technology and finance.

Relaunching as VinceTalksFooty.com

My last post was almost a year ago, just as the 2012/13 season started. Soon after, work and personal commitments took over, I just didn’t have the capacity to write Liverpool-specific pieces exclusively for TheRedArmchair.com.

But that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped writing in general.

In fact, in the year that’s passed, I’ve written – and learned – more than ever before on Liverpool and the English Premier League in general, and expanded my writing interests to cover teams like Manchester City, Tottenham, Arsenal and Chelsea. I’ve also taken a keen liking to Swansea and everything that goes on at the Liberty Stadium. Last but not least – I’ve become enamored with football as an industry with all its exciting potential in business, technology and grassroots development.

So naturally, TheRedArmchair.com – a Liverpool-specific site – became just a tad too narrow for my interests and opinions.

A year on, I’m relaunching this blog as VinceTalksFooty.com, where I’ll be covering much more than just Liverpool.

I’ll be syndicating my articles from Bleacher Report and columns at SoccerWithoutLimits.com – all of which cover multiple topics in football – and if I have the time, I’ll also post a few updates and rambles. There will be pieces on how my Fantasy squad is doing, for sure, and a few Fantasy tips as well.

It’s an exciting year ahead – and I hope the site relaunch is just the beginning.

 

Thanks as always for the support.   -Vince

The Road to Munich: A Look at the 2011-2012 Champions League

This year, we’re looking from the sidelines.

A pity, really, since this Champions League campaign promises to be one of the most exciting in recent years. First, a recap of this year’s group stage draw:

Group A: Bayern Munich; Villarreal; Manchester City; Napoli
Group B: Inter Milan; CSKA Moscow; Lille; Trabzonspor
Group C: Manchester United; Benfica; Basel; Otelul Galati
Group D: Real Madrid; Lyon; Ajax; Dinamo Zagreb
Group E: Chelsea;Valencia; Bayer Leverkusen; Genk
Group F: Arsenal; Marseille; Olympiakos; Borussia Dortmund
Group G: FC Porto; Shakhtar Donetsk; Zenit St Petersburg; APOEL
Group H: Barcelona; AC Milan; BATE Borisov; Viktoria Plzen

I’m not going to go in depth on each group, as there are definitely teams and leagues that I don’t follow enough and, as such, I don’t feel like I’d be able to contribute anything substantial in those regards. But what football fan doesn’t have an opinion about Champions League favorites? Without further ado, I present to you my picks on this year’s quarterfinalists, and a few honorable mentions.

Let’s start with Bayern. Without many major additions in the summer, aside from Germany’s first-choice keeper in Manuel Neuer, Bayern still possess a strong squad. On their day, Bayern have one of the strongest attacking forces in Europe and are able to choice from an in-form Mario Gomez, and the strikingly efficient duo of Ivica Olic and Thomas Muller. That is of course discounting the now-sulk-free Franck Ribery and the effervescent Arjen Robben, who I believe is one of the world’s best players when fit. And don’t forget Takashi Usami in reserve: you don’t join Germany’s most famous club on loan, as a 19-year-old, without having been capped for the Japanese national team, if you’re not something special. Bayern’s success is heavily dependent on Juup Heynckes’ ability to instill defensive organization in a newly-assembled backline, but their attacking options should ensure that they make considerable strides this year.

It’s City’s first appearance in the Champions League this season, but I’m tipping them to make a splash. Followers of the English Premier League won’t need any updates on how they’ve been doing this year, and the fact that this year’s title race is already shaping up to be the Battle of Manchester speaks volumes on the progress that City have made. Roberto Mancini is a seasoned Champions League campaigner, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some astute tactical deployments against the big boys. But against the highest caliber of European teams, City’s relatively weak defence will ensure that Mancini won’t be able to play a stereotypically Italian defensive game. With a starting backline of Ricards, Kompany, Lescott and Clichy, City will need to rely heavily on their men up front for points. But what a strikeforce they have: Carlos Tevez is currently their backup striker, and I think that’s all that needs to be said on this topic. This is a team whose attacking options will blow away many a team this year, and I’d say they’re a strong bet for a run to the quarterfinals at least, but I’d give City another year for further defensive reinforcements before tipping them as title contenders.

I don’t know what to make of Inter this year. They have a new coach and a new strikeforce, and I’m not convinced that they’re well equipped enough to go all the way this year. Diego Forlan was an inspired signing, but his European appearance for Atletico was enough to render him ineligible for further CL action this year, at least on the pitch, since Inter hilariously included him in their squad submission. Is Mauro Zarate good enough at the highest level? I’m not too sure, but Eto’o’s departure will absolutely be a blow to their chances. In Wesley Sneijder and Esteban Cambiasso, they have one of Europe’s finest midfield partnerships, and they will have too much top-level experience and quality for many teams, but Gianpiero Gasperini will have his work cut out if they are to make it further than the quarterfinals.

As for United, credit must be given to their gaffer for continuing to build world-class teams year in, year out. Sir Alex may only have brought in a few major signings this summer, but their returning loan stars seem to have stepped up to United’s level. Ashley Young has been turning in eye-catching performances, as has young defender Phil Jones, and Sir Alex has added a noticeable pass-and-move style that’s had the media and fans purring. Their success in Europe this season will be strongly dependent on whether or not these young stars have what it takes to carry their outstanding Premier League form into the Champions League. Are Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck capable of delivering at the highest level? Fabio Capello seems to think so. Will David de Gea get over his shaky start and cement himself as Spain’s best goalkeeping prospect? SAF seems to think so. And don’t bet against him for once again being able to instill a winning mentality in his squad: the current squad looks very promising, and a run to at least the semi-finals look on the cards.

There doesn’t exist a single discussion on managers in the football world that doesn’t involve Jose Mourinho, whose Inter team put on exhibitions on the art of defending en route to their Champions League success in 2010. His antics and so-called “anti-football” have alienated many a La Liga fan, but there’s no denying that the man is a master tactician. And he’s built a strong squad in Madrid in his own right, with star performers all over the pitch. Their key question: will Mourinho adopt an all-out defensive approach designed to breaking teams down? If that’s the route Real will be taking this season, I don’t see them lifting the Cup, as their squad isn’t as defensive-minded or -structured as Mourinho’s Inter.  But with Cristiano Ronaldo continuing to defy belief and break records, not many teams will be able to handle this Madrid attack. If Mourinho makes use of the attacking options at his disposal and his squad duly respond and turn on the style, then they are absolutely capable of going all the way. And don’t be surprised to see a trick or two up his tactical sleeve.

To continue with the manager talk, new dugout star Andre Villas-Boas has the unenviable task of bringing the European Cup back to Stamford Bridge for the first time in their history. Bigger-name and more established names have failed and seen the sack, but AVB made a huge splash on the European scene with Porto last season. The difference: Porto won the UEFA Cup, not the Champions League. The latter is a major step up, and AVB might face a baptism of fire in the toughest competition in the world. As a curious distinction from many of the sides I’ve mentioned above, Chelsea’s main weakness is their attack. Defensively solid with a world-class goalkeeper and plenty of experienced midfielders, they go into this year’s CL with an aging Didier Drogba and an out-of-sorts Fernando Torres. New signings Juan Mata and Raul Meireles will carry the bulk of Chelsea’s creativity on their shoulders, and for the time being it looks as though Daniel Sturridge is their only worthwhile outlet. A solid domestic start doesn’t take the focus away from their misfiring strikeforce, and it looks as if Chelsea will have to wait another year before shooting for top-dog honors again.

The European all-star team that is Barcelona have continued to recruit star names and to live up to their reputation as the planet’s finest football (and footballing) team. Who would’ve thought that Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez could make such instant impacts on the Barca first team already? Defensively sound with the best midfield/attack combination in the competition and an underappreciated work ethic, there’s not much else to say about Pep Guardiola’s team except that they’re once again the team to beat this season. Just how do you stop the Xavi-Iniesta-Messi axis and also deal with David Villa, Cesc and Sanchez? I’m looking forward to seeing the masterplans that other coaches will come up with against Barcelona though, and I have a feeling that this might just be the year that the mighty Catalans finally meet their match.

AC Milan completes my quarterfinal eight. Convincing winners of Serie A last season, they’ve strengthened wisely: Phillipe Mexes, Taye Taiwo and Alberto Aquilani all came in for little to nothing each. The latter injects some much-needed creativity in an aging midfield consisting of Mark van Bommel, Clarence Seedorf and Gennaro Gattuso, which marks Milan’s midfield as their weakest link. As with many of my tips, Milan’s attacking options are once again their strongest suit, with a mouthwatering selection headache between Ibrahimovic, Robinho, Pato and Cassano. They have plenty of European experience, but will age prove to be Milan’s downfall? Perhaps not in a more pedestrian league like the Serie A, but I struggle to see how they’ll be able to hold off the relentless energy of La Liga’s twin giants and both Manchester teams. Experience only gets you so far.

One honorable mention: luck is against Napoli for falling into this year’s Group of Death. In any other group, they could’ve had the chance to make a real impression and a run towards the knockout stages, but Group A’s Bayern and City seem to be a step too far for them right now, and don’t underestimate Villarreal for a second. They’ve made some astute signings this summer, and this group stage campaign will be a good chance for Napoli to assess their squad’s capability of playing at the highest level. A third-place finish would see them fall into the Europa League, and if that happens, I’d instantly consider them strong contenders.

And no, I don’t see Arsenal progressing very far this year. Wenger’s experience will help them progress from a tricky Group F, but they lack the world-class talent to carry them as far as the quarterfinals. Perhaps next year, if Wenger continues his spending ways.

But he’ll face a fight in getting there. As it stands, I’m tipping for Fortress Anfield to once again experience our famous European nights once again starting in the fall of 2012. It’s been a while since the spine-shivering YNWA anthem has reverberated around Anfield on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.