Go with a smile!

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Is Football Truly Broken

There was this very intriguing article about Man City's dominance of football demonstrating how and why European domestic leagues are broken. Jonathan Wilson, usually one of the best pundits when writing about football tactics, goes on to say that this is why you should be forming a super league in Europe.

I'm not sure about that. In fact I think it is pretty wrong headed. There was another article in the Economist that recently said that if you were to tell people in 2004 that the top 3 teams in England would be Man City, Tottenham and Liverpool, they would laugh you off. That was a time when Manchester United and Arsenal had a duopoly of the premier league, and Chelsea was starting to benefit from a massive injection of oil money that would see them dominate the league indefinitely.

Yes, unfortunately the English league, especially after the formation of the Premier League, tends to have power concentrated at the top. That was the time when the champions could have an advantage so strong that challengers could barely shake it off. But even in previous periods of domination, you could see some challengers coming up. During the Liverpool dynasty, Nottingham Forest, then Aston Villa, then Everton, Arsenal and Leeds mounted good challenges, and even Ipswich and Southampton managed to get up to the exalted heights of second.

In the early years of the premier league, Man United had challenges from Aston Villa, Newcastle and Blackburn, but slowly it became an ogilopoly with Arsenal, then a Man U – Arsenal – Liverpool – Chelsea ogilopoly.

However, the retirement of Alex Ferguson heralded another change. Not only would that ogilopoly extend to 2 more clubs – Man City and Tottenham, but at the moment, the old ogilopoly of Man U, Chelsea and Arsenal are back down, trying to chase for European places. Man City might be in for a period of dominance as long as Man United's – and that lasted for 20 years. But there would always be interesting challenges, and Pep Guardiola has hardly dominated the Champion's league as much as his crushing wins over Man U in 2009 and 2011 would have suggested. And let's not forget that the Premier League still has the ability to produce a genuinely left-field champion every once in a while: Leicester in 2016, Leeds in 1992, and Newcastle came pretty close to winning the league in 1996.

Money helps you to win leagues, but having a great manager is as important. At the moment, Man City, Tottenham and Liverpool are the top 3 because they also happen to be the top 3 most well managed clubs. Man City is the club that's spent the most money, but Tottenham had Liverpool haven't spent all that much at all, except Liverpool in the last season, when they took that great leap from being a surprise champion's league finallist to being a team that is, domestically, almost as great as Man City. In comparison, Arsenal and Man U have spent more over the last 5 years than those two and have had relatively little to show for it.

But golden generations will not last for long. Tottenham seems to be overperforming now, but how much longer will they be great, without the ability to bring in big players? Liverpool is also overperforming, but that's because of Jurgen Klopp, and even he was burnt out from having to make Borussia Dortmund overperform year in year out. And let's not forget that Pep Guardiola himself achieved periods of domination with Bayern Munich and Barcelona, but never stayed with either club for more than 5 years. Yes, Man City may be untouchable at the moment, but don't forget that this is the second great Man City team: stalwarts of the first great team, Yaya Toure, Joe Hart, Zabaleta are gone, Kompany, David Silva and Sergio Aguero are just playing bit parts. In between the first and second great teams, Chelsea and Leicester have taken advantage of the fallow period to snatch league titles. Man City may be very dominant, but their dominance is hardly guaranteed to last forever.

Previously, it seemed as though Chelsea would win league titles every year, after their repeat in 2004-06. But then Man United stormed back, and Chelsea went through a period where, for all their financial dominance, they could only manage 1 league title and 1 champion's league between 2006 and 2014. And the coaches that won 2 league titles for them – Mourinho and Conte – could not be persuaded to stay.

Similarly, it seemed that Man United's dominance of the premier league would never end, that Man United were either at their best and all conquering, or else they were fallow and just biding their time before their next great team would emerge. But now the narrative is either that it depends on there being an Alex Ferguson around, or even Alex Ferguson would have to cede ground to a new style of manager – the new Pochettino / Klopp / Guardiola model, who was kinder / gentler and took care of his players emotionally, rather than building them up to be utterly ruthless machines, the way that Mourinho and Ferguson did. Who played an utterly athletic, pressing and control freakish game based upon irrepressible attack rather than impregnable shields. I think this new reality dominated football in the second decade, and the dominant teams – Spain, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Germany, Man City, Liverpool and Tottenham were in many ways like this.

So teams can still rise and fall in the EPL, because of the natural rhythms of dynasties, because the nature of game changes and make old managers obsolete, and because even managers who are great don't stay great indefinitely. So there's no real danger of any permanent domination.

And here's the thing: even if the patterns of domination in EPL never changes, and it permanently stays an ogilopoly with teams joining that ogilopoly every once in blue moons, the champions change. The only complaint is that the best teams always seem to be that much better than the rest of the teams.

I don't know how people achieve equality in games like baseball and football, but in basketball, it also seems to be the way that great teams achieve a kind of dominance over the rest that makes it hard to break. The Houston Rockets seemed to be the closest to breaking the Warrior's hold on the NBA crown, but they faltered. And previously it was the Cleveland Cavaliers who were the perennial runners up. It is entirely plausible that even if an European breakaway league were to be formed, then you might have the problem of a few teams dominating that league. At least, at the moment, the elite teams have to divide their effort between the UCL and the domestic leagues, and that makes the UCL seem a little more egalitarian, never mind that in the past 10 seasons, it seemed that there was a Bayern Munich / Real Madrid / Barcelona ogilopoly going on. Plus what is going to happen to teams that used to dominate the champion's league – like AC Milan, Red Star Belgrade and Ajax, and who fall by the wayside? How are you going to kick them out of the superleague?

What it seems to me is that the current system is not broken, and it shouldn't be fixed.

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Monday, May 13, 2019

Ascendency of the English Premier League

Tottenham, the Chelsea and the Arsenal games, we have 4 English teams in Europeans finals. Contrary to what a few of my friends might say, English teams are on the up. English football is marketed well. Over the years, some of the best coaches have been snapped up by English clubs: Guardiola, Pochettino, Klopp, Mourinho (now fired), Conte (now fired), Unai Emery, Sarri. Even for the smaller clubs, Nuno Espírito Santo from Porto is managing Wolves, Rafael Benitez is managing Newcastle, Marco Silva is managing Everton and Manuel Pellegrini, formerly of Real Madrid and Man City, is managing West Ham.

Outside of the Premier League, I can't see a lot of star managers. There is Thomas Tuchel of PSG, but he's having trouble managing that bunch of spoilt brats. I don't know whether Barcelona managers are great managers, or they're just following the template that Guardiola left behind, or they're coasting on their talent. There's Zidane who won plenty of Champions Leagues but fewer league titles. Bayern is rebuilding, but if they're rebuilding, Carlo Ancelotti is a very strange choice (indeed – he was fired soon.) And of course there's Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid. But most of the superstar managers work in the Premier League.

And let's not forget that a lot of managers make their reputations in the lower leagues by guiding their championship clubs to promotion, and then making them do well in the premier league. Examples are Brendan Rodgers and Sean Dyche, who managed to guide Burnley to Europe.

English clubs attract the best coaches. They may not attract the elite players, but the scouting network of those clubs looks for something even better: youth players with the potential to excel at their club and fit into the system. Man City routinely pay other clubs 50 million pounds for very good players, but they aren't stars or marquee players. They are people with a lot of potential. Back in the day, Real Madrid buying Zidane would be 50 million pounds. These days, 50 million pounds gets you somebody good enough to be a regular for a good international team.

Another thing that the English Premier League has going for it is its ability to sell to the USA. Now, you have the biggest stars of the premier league playing out their last days in Major League Soccer. Stars like David Beckham, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard arrive as marquee players and either help to lend star quality to the team or help to improve the league, the same way that the foreign players in the 90s paved the way for English Premier League to be a cosmopolitan, rather than an English league.

It's probably for the money reasons, the way that TV money and merchandising has overridden all other concerns, including stadium money, that the English league has surpassed the other teams.

The German, French, Italian and Spanish leagues are dominated by one or two superclubs, and even those superclubs may be on the wane. Real Madrid and Barcelona have emerged as the greatest Spanish teams since 2005, after a brief period when Deportivo, Valencia and Real Sociedad briefly threatened the duopoly. Now, atletico Madrid and Sevilla might make good runner ups, but it will be a long time before we have somebody other than those two winning the title.

Many of the leagues have one or two elite clubs, that are bankrolled by rich ownership who recognise that soccer can give them a sort of media exposure that you can't get elsewhere. Teams like Paris Saint Germain and Monaco. Manchester City, Chelsea.

Juventus is so far ahead of the competition that it isn't even funny. AC Milan used to be a rich club that was bankrolled by Berlusconi, but since the divestment, they haven't been much of an elite club.

Bayern Munich, after dominating the Bundesliga for several years, is on the wane after several of their stars are reaching retirement. There have been seasons when the strong clubs are in a rebuilding process, and there was one Bundesliga season when Hertha Berlin, Schalke 04, Werder Bremen, Wolfsburg and Stuttgart were all in the title race, but in the past decade, other than Dortmund winning a couple of titles, it has been Bayern Munich all the way. Usually, it's always one or two clubs dominating a league if they're not in a rebuilding stage.

One of the significant factors in the relative strengths of leagues is how well they've captured overseas markets. EPL has the advantage of English being a global language, and it's easy to capture USA, Southeast asia and Africa.

Soccer may be a fad in the US and China: a lot of time and effort has been spent in trying to turn those countries into great football nations. I don't know if they'll be successful. I don't believe in great football nations. I think that rather than that we have great football generations. But I don't know when USA and China will produce their golden generations.

I like to tell people that one of the great regions in the world for football is Southeast Asia, in terms of fandom, not football ability. We've been football mad since the 60s. Football caught up in the Middle East probably around the same time. Then it spread to Africa in the 80s, to Japan, China, Australia and the US in the 90s. Southeast Asia has always been the most reliable foreign market for football, because it's ingrained in us.

The worldwide conquest for football has vast implications for the powers of clubs. Perhaps Barcelona and Real Madrid have captured the China market. The premier league clubs are ascendent in Southeast Asia, and maybe Africa.

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Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Liverpool Reaches the Final

Here are the greatest stories in English Football over the last 10 years

1. Leicester winning the league in 2016
2. Man City vs QPR
3. Chelsea vs Bayern Munich (and the comebacks)
4. Fulham reaching Europa League final
5. Wigan winning the FA Cup
6. England reaching the semi-finals of the World Cup 2018

To all that, you had to add Liverpool overcoming a three goal deficit in a first leg to beat Barcelona 4-0 to get into the final of the UEFA Champion's League.

The really extraordinary aspect of this performance is same as the one in Istanbul: that it was achieved by people you wouldn't think of as stars. Not Divock Origi, even though Divock Origi has contributed some very crucial goals. Giogino Wijnaldum has been an excellent player all season, but he was a sub here. And Xherdan Shaqiri. Similar to the 2005 Liverpool side, who had these people you wouldn't normally think of when "UEFA Champion's League winner" is mentioned. People like Milan Baros, Steve Finnan, Dietmar Hamman, Vladimir Smicer and Jerzy Dudek. And somehow the bunch of them conjured 20 minutes of magic to give Liverpool their first UCL since 1984. (And to banish forever the ghost of Heysel).

Of course, you could say that the Barcelona team here was no vintage, but they still had Gore Vidal, Messi, Rakitic, Pique, Suarez, Coutinho and Busquets. Except that their defence probably hasn't really been tested all season long. It may be unfair to blame Messi, but he's been on the side of chokers. He's lost 2-3 Copa America finals he should have won. And last year, they also choked against Roma, also having been up by 3 in the first leg.

It's been said that Anfield's atmosphere unsettles opponent sides. English teams, when they do win the Champion's League, do so by outmuscling the opponents, and fighting harder. English teams also have a disadvantage in that they have to compete in a tougher league. However, in a way competing in a tougher league keeps you sharp, whereas playing against weaker opponents, as the Juventus, Real Madrid, Barcelona and PSG have found out, makes you susceptible when you suddenly meet a stronger opponent in the UCL.

Interestingly, if English clubs do win the UCL, their defeated opponents will eventually win the UCL in the next few seasons. Thus after Man U defeated Bayern in 1999, they won it a few years later. Liverpool won against AC Milan (champions in 2007) Man U won in 2008 again against Chelsea (champions in 2012). Chelsea won against Bayern Munich (champions in 2013).

I hope that Liverpool wins the UCL, even though if you want to favour the underdog, you'd go for the winner of Tottenham Ajax. But Liverpool has had such a great season that somehow they deserve to win something. Then again, there's also something wrong if Pochettino doesn't win anything for Tottenham during his 5+ years there.

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Monday, May 06, 2019

Second Chance

I still remember a friend looking at a butterfly caught out in a rainstorm. It was stuck in a puddle that was directly below where the water from the runoff was pouring down on it, and it was taking a terrible beating. We were teenagers then, and this was near the NTUC at Bishan, which was still fairly new. He had this penchant for being pretty melodramatic.

But these days I think that nature is a little cruel when it comes to women. Yes, rape and molest are traumatic events, but if you can imagine, nature factored that into the equation when they designed cavemen. Before we were civilised, men raping women, then raising kids with their victims was relatively common. And when we got civilised, norms changed, and we know that it's not OK. But some small part of us does not change.

I was thinking about this when I saw the Monica Baey case unfold. I've made unwanted advances towards women before. No, I don't think I did anything I could have gone to jail for, although I don't really know what the other party thinks. If they wanted to make a big deal out of it, I could have been in trouble. It happened twice, when I was an undergraduate in Snowy Hill. I don't know if the other party lodged statements. They were attractive women that I had crushes on. Of course it's unrequited, they might not even look at me. There was nothing more than cuddling, but it was uncalled for, and I knew it. They reacted differently: one of them was traumatised, another one got angry. I apologised to both, and I felt guilty that that was that, but I really didn't want anything much more serious to happen to me.

If anything, I was given second chances, and I've used those second chances. I'm a much older person now and basically something of this nature wouldn't ever happen again. I've had the chance to reflect on my experiences and I've decided that not only were they bad experiences for the other party, I actually didn't like it at all. It wasn't the right way to engage in somebody you were interested in, and after that I made it so hard for us to be friends. That's why I never did it again, because I couldn't but know that it was a bad thing.

Now, I don't know about filming somebody in the shower. It's very transgressive, I wouldn't ever do that.

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Friday, April 26, 2019

Stomach Flu

I'm trying to figure out what caused this bout of food poisoning. On Friday morning, I had woken up with a bit of a tummyache, and I didn't think much of it. I went to work. It wasn't a good day at work. I had a talking to from my boss. Then I went home, and I slept for 9 hours.

I got up, and the pain from my stomach started getting unbearable. There was this intense pain in the middle of my abdomen and the worst thing is that it got worse when I tried to lie down. I had to sit on the toilet bowl, unable to do anything. Then I decided to try and eat something and see what would happen. Rather quickly, I barfed it out. I felt a little better a while after that, and then the pain came back. I tried to drink other stuff. Tea. Orange juice, milk. Then there was another big barf, then the pain came back. I was at my wit's end.

Then I thought, maybe there's still some stuff left in my stomach. I ate some biscuits, some more fluids, and I waited for the barf to come again. Finally, after one mighty round, everything started clearing up. My kindly housemate (a nice old lady who happens to be pro-Trump) went out and bought some stomach medicine for me. I phoned up my sister, and I asked her for advice. She tried to find out if I had appendicitis. It wasn't. It was probably a combination of hunger pangs and stomach flu. I was told to go to a doctor if I suffered dehydration. I said thank you very much, and since the abdominal pain was gone, I was exhausted (even though I had slept for 9 hours and was awake for only 4 hours). I cleaned up my mouth, staggered into bed and then crashed. A few hours later, I woke up, and cleaned up the toilet.

Maybe I'm superstitious. I had a vomitting episode when I was in grad school, and that took place no long before I graduated. Maybe this vomiting is a sign that I have to move on. Maybe this vomiting is a good thing for me, to cleanse myself of toxins that I had built up over the years. Maybe it was about getting rid of negative emotions.

A few nights later, I had a dream. I dreamt that I was drinking at a pub when I saw a piece of crap on the wall. Somehow I knew that it was my piece of crap, but nobody seemed to budge. Nobody smelt it, nobody noticed it. Somebody put his cap on it, it was one of those Dali paintings where there's random shit everywhere. I looked up the dream dictionary and it told me that crap was a general metaphor for negative emotions. It meant that I was probably flipping out in a very big way and somehow nobody ever noticed.

Nobody really cares about you, and maybe that's OK.

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Sunday, April 07, 2019

Some Thoughts on the Fall of Great Britain

Great Britain was like a startup. In the beginning, it did a few things right. After the renaissance, it was one of the few European powers who had superior organisation. Coupled with its geographical isolation, it meant that it wasn't easy for other countries (France, especially) to conquer it.

In the beginning they may or may not have had the most brilliant scientists, but they produced the industrial revolution.

They surpassed the Spanish and the Dutch and they built a great empire by being the least asshole of the asshole colonial powers. They were lucky in the way former colonies and dominions (USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia) also rose up in the world and became useful allies.

They lost their way after the end of empire. In WW2 they defeated the Nazis but were themselves defeated by the Japanese. There are plenty of great achievements post war. The welfare state, which helped for a while to restore the UK to the first world. Alan Turing. Tim Berners Lee. Everest expedition, a prototype for a new multicultural Europe, the Beatles, Aardman Animations, the great British contributions to popular music, even a World Cup. But it is never a good sign that much of your achievement either rests on a great imperial past or is abetted largely by it.

Brexit is a symptom and maybe not the main problem. The main problem is that it somehow transformed itself from one of the best run welfare states to one of the worst run, then into an outright plutocracy. In many respects, Thatcher, then Blair was the beginning of the end.

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Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Groundhog Day

I don’t know why but it seems that punks don’t age very well. Johnny Lydon had two great bands - Sex Pistols and Public Image Limited. But after that he struggled a bit. No members of the clash ever scaled the heights they used to scale after that band broke up. Husker Du broke up and Bob Mould made 1 more classic album with Sugar before regressing to the mean and mediocrity. Iggy Pop had a turbulent but productive 70s and you could say after he broke from Bowie he never made another truly great album. Kurt Cobain never saw the age of 30. Courtney Love stopped trying after the age of 30.

Elvis Costello managed to extend his career by branching off from punk. It’s telling that one of his greatest late career albums was that collaboration with Burt Bacharach, which is about as unpunk as you can get.

At some point, that element of shock and awe that you can summon up as a young punk will no longer conjure its special magic. You got to change the game.

The winds are blowing against me. Parents getting old. I’m getting old. Getting tired of my current life. Already got what I wanted. Still no music career. people getting tired of me. Computer conking off. Friends deserting me. Well at least vanishing from our lives.

The things I discovered at 20: a little bit of resilience. Sex. Jazz. Scholastic aptitude. Romantic love. Cooking. Living alone - Spiritual independence. Financial independence. Books.

The things that I cared about around 30: all going one by one. Hanging out at Borders. Long distance running. Beer. Coffee. Football fanhood. Songwriting. Computer programming. Blogging. A new life in a new country.

Then there is the rest of my life, and thinking about how I’m going to adapt when I grow older. the next step, maybe the one that I’ve not taken. A whole life of having to keep on giving until it hurts.

There were things that I cared about during my younger adulthood that I no longer care about. And I have to chuck them out. My life has to be more pared down.

I used to wait for things to happen, and there was a certain logic about it, because you think that when you grow older, you will get wiser and more capable. But once you’re in your 30s, you know that’s not going to happen. What you got is what you got. If you’re going to struggle at something now, it’s going to be something you will struggle at indefinitely.

I used to care about football, I don’t anymore.

I cared about leaving Singapore and coming to “Mexico” - I just wanted to move to the USA, and live my life here, but also I hoped that I would find something - well I don’t really know what. But it was a dormant desire for most of the time I was in Singapore and working for the “factory”, and became an active one once I decided to set things into motion. But that motivating factor also disappeared once I achieved my aim.

I cared about collecting music and movies, but there’s only so much you can consume, and before long, you’re surrounded by boxes and boxes of the stuff.

I cared about reading lots of books and collecting lots of random knowledge, but then I realised that as you get older, reading more books does not make you wiser. I’m wondering if life is a lot like surfing, if surfing wasn’t a matter of riding an endless series of waves that swell and crest.

I contrast the experience of blogging when I was young and blogging at this age. It’s incredibly been 15 years since I started blogging. When you’re younger, you see the small things very clearly. Your knowledge is more specific, although it is limited. While you’re clear about certain things, in the larger picture maybe you haven’t arrived at the truth. When you’re older, you’re probably nearer to the truth, although you could be further away from it, if you’re not careful.

When we were younger, we thought that knowledge acquisition was always good, because you learnt something for the future. This idea swelled and reached its zenith when I was in college, and my first aimless work years. I remember my 30th birthday, when I just took leave and wandered around Singapore and ended up reading at Borders for a few hours. I think about all the things that have happened since then - the long distance running, the grad degree, the changing of countries, writing 100 songs, the coding job, I think, not bad, but maybe those are things I should have done in my 20s?

We always think that things are moving forward. Every year, things are better. Maybe not. maybe I’m on some crazy treadmill where I’m going to learn something and then forget it again later on. Maybe the shitload of books I read when I was in my 20s don’t amount to anything, although I have to say that I’d rather have been a bookworm in my 20s than in any other stage in my life. But maybe I shouldn’t be reading so much anymore. I should be thinking about what would be more influential on my future and doing that.

The problem with the acquisition of knowledge, and this is something that becomes more apparent when you start to age, is that you don't remember everything forever. When you're young, you form the impression that you do. When you're 40, you're still moving forward, but you're no longer accelerating. And eventually there will be a time when you're not even moving forward. So it used to be the case that I could tell myself that I was building for the future, but in actual fact I wasn't really. In fact, there's really only one thing that's sorda permanent, and that one thing was alluded to in the movie "Coco". That is to make people have some reason to remember you.

The acquisition of knowledge has diminishing returns on investment. Once some semblance of a world view takes form in your head, you don’t have to do that much other than revise it every 10 years.

I cared about finding a girlfriend, but ………… well I watched “The Terminal”. It’s not that the Catherine Zeta Jones character isn’t well fleshed out, she’s no better or worse than the other secondary characters. But she’s always treated like a prize to be won. For a while, there was this attractive lady working in my office, and the thought did occur to me. But then she got fired pretty quickly (the guy who hired her got outed as a sexual predator and was himself fired a few years later, so I’m just wondering if he hired her because his dick was doing the talking instead.) She was a single mother… which is kinda unattractive because I’m barely up to dealing with women, let alone their kids.

So here’s the thing - in a way I still view women as prizes, but no matter how sexist you think that sounds, there is this element that a guy somehow has to be judged as being deserving of the lady. How do you get there? Maybe it would have been easier to get there if I had stayed in Singapore, and I can’t avoid the uncomfortable issue that I came here as some kind of an easy way out.

I cared about making music. I still write music from time to time. But I also understand why peoples’ outputs decline in quality as you get older. Something that Michael Stipe said was true: as you grow old, to a lesser and lesser extent, you directly experience the music, and instead you go by your memories of your younger self engaging with it.

I cared about getting along with my colleagues. During my first few years working with the “factory”, it just seemed so important for me to be part of the gang, even though I never thought I was truly one of them. But the friendships were real, and the good times were real. As time went on, the “gang” dissipated. There was always this notion that we were just passing by towards our next destination, that we were inevitably bound for bigger and better things, although it was not certain that we would end up in a better place.

I feel like I’m living out Groundhog day, and I will not escape my dreary existence unless I make some kind of a breakthrough. Maybe I came here half knowing that I had to change my lifestyle into something else and find that something else, because it just wouldn't do to carry on indulging in what I was doing in the past.

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