Go with a smile!

Monday, July 02, 2018

Recent history of football and also why I should just stop being a fan.

There are certain indelible memories associated with football. My father and his family were football fans. For the first decade of its existence, the Kallang stadium was the site of epic Malaysia cup matches. Singapore vs Selangor would be our El Classico. For a region that had execrable standards of Football, we didn't have any problems at all filling a 55K seating capacity stadium. We still remember the football heroes of yesteryear – the Quah Kim Songs, the Rajagopals, the Samad Allapitchays, the Mat Noor, the Edmund Wees.

Against the backdrop, we were also tuned into the English league. Liverpool was the biggest club in the 1980s, and if my memory serves me right, that was one of the few times where a club dominated English football so completely and for so long. There were other sides that had great periods of 5-10 years in the distant past. Maybe Sunderland, or Aston Villa, or Arsenal, or Leeds or Everton. But probably none of them achieved the greatness of Liverpool during the 70s or the 80s.

My first consciousness of football was the 90s, and coincidently or not, that was one of the truly axial periods of the sport, where one era was washed away and another put into its place.

Before the 1990s, the pinnacle of football competition was international competition, and after that, it was club competition, more specifically European club competition.

Before the 1990s, Liverpool was dominant. After that, Manchester United. (at least until Alex Ferguson retired).

Before the 1990s, most of the football players played in their own country. After that, there started a great talent drain, whereby the best players would get scouted and lured to Europe's top leagues.

Before the 1990s, the European Cup was more egalitarian, and in a way that reflected the balance of power between the leagues in Europe. You had European champions from Portugal, Romania, Yugoslavia, Holland and Scotland. Belgium had Anderlecht winning a few of the minor European cups. But from the 1990s on, the champions always came from Germany or England or Spain or Italy. And even then, Italy is becoming a fading power, although with the amount of money going into a few clubs in France, you wonder if it's a matter of time that they'll be successful. Jose Mourinho has broken that pattern, winning with relatively unfancied clubs like Porto in 2004 and Inter Milan in 2010, but that's why he's regarded as one of the greatest.

In fact, in the last 10 years, the UCL has basically been an oligopoly of Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid, with only Inter Milan and Chelsea breaking the pattern (although those two aren't small clubs either).

In other words, wealth, power and glory became concentrated in fewer and fewer club sides.

Before the 1990s, football in England was still very much a working class sport. It was associated with hooliganism. Names of many of the elite football teams evoke decaying industrial towns: Leeds, Aston Villa (Birmingham), Newcastle, Sheffield, Nottingham, Blackburn. Today, though, the centers of gravity are London and the Northwest area of Manchester and Liverpool. You used to have standing terraces, and dowdy surroundings, now you have shiny football cathedrals but you have to pay through your nose for a ticket.

Here's an intriguing statistic: most of the clubs that are playing in the English premier league in 2018-2019 have voted for “remain”. The exceptions are Bournemouth, Huddersfield Town, Watford, Burnley and Southampton. And they are also the smallest stadiums in the premier league. These two things are related to the economic wealth of the surrounding area.

Before the 1990s, the Malaysia cup mattered. At least when Singapore were playing in it. It wasn't that uncommon to have 50K people in the National stadium. Sure, the Malaysia cup finals gets the Bukit Jalil stadium filled to capacity these days but the other matches – Singapore is the only place where you get the really large crowds, so you don't have that anymore. Maybe there was the resentment about Singapore always having the best gate receipts and the best players. After all, Singapore is a larger city, population wise, than any of the Malaysian cities.

Before the 1990s, Singapore had a FIFA ranking of less than 100. These days it's struggling to maintain a ranking of less than 150.

So what happened in football was a version of what Vladimir Lenin said: capitalism the highest form of imperialism. Even as football became more and more widespread, and more and more countries got involved, the power became more and more concentrated in Europe. Africa rose, and football also became massively popular in the Middle East.

in 1994, Colombia had a great team that may have gone very far in the World Cup, although they underperformed as a result of non-footballing issues. (Like death threats). The US reached the second round. Sweden, Bulgaria and Romania overperformed. It seemed like there was going to be a new world that was more egalitarian. That didn't happen. South Korea, Senegal and Turkey went surprisingly far in the 2002 tournament, but that was about it.

We've had 2 new world cup winners since then, but they were western Europeans. They were the French and the Spanish, and they were countries that always threatened to win the World Cup but didn't. There hasn't been a new football power outside of western Europe, and Brazil or Argentina.

Africa did make its mark in a fairly indirect way: the great French team around the turn of the century had many players of African ancestry: Zidane, Henry, Thuram, Gallas, Desailly. Ivory Coast and Ghana had “golden generations” but they failed to achieve much in the world Cup. Paradoxically, Europe secured its power by co-opting the best players from their minority communities.

It's likely that the dominance of European Leagues will make it very difficult for national teams outside of Europe to win.

For a short while, it seemed as though smaller clubs could break through in Europe's leagues. Ipswich and Portsmouth qualified for Europe. Deportivo and Valencia won La Liga. Leeds and Dynamo Kiev reached the semi-finals of the Champion's League, and Valencia. Arsenal, which operated on a tight budget, seemed poised to dominate the EPL for quite a while yet.

Then suddenly, Roman Abramovich came into the picture.

Now, to be sure, he wasn't the first sugar daddy of English football, not even in English Premier League era. Before him, there was …., who bankrolled their first (and only) English Premier League title. There was … who tried to get Newcastle United to spend their way to another EPL title, and nearly would have succeeded if not for their epic implosion in the run in in 1996. Later on, though, there were many clubs who became mid table sides for a few seasons, but got into serious financial difficulties a few seasons later when their fortunes nosedived and they got relegated.

It wasn't just England: in Serie A, AC Milan may have been one of the greatest clubs in the quarter century between 1985 and 2010, but its success was in a way bankrolled by Silvio Berlusconi. There was a time, in the 90s, when Serie A was the richest league in the world, the way that the EPL is today the richest league in the world. There was an elite of Juventus, AC Milan, Inter Milan, Roma, Lazio, Parma and Sampdoria, who between them attracted the best players in the world, a little like how a cabal of 6 clubs now control the EPL. And many of them had sugar daddies.

For England, the watershed was thus: first, there were the Heysel and Hillsborough stadium disasters. Then a commission came in and made recommendations, and that eventually led to the formation of the English Premier League. In the dark days of 1989, people were wondering if these were the end days of English football. They had already been banned from European competition for 5 years because of Heysel, and now you had Hillsborough (and with it the cover up of the police department.) Then came Arsenal's miraculous defeat of Liverpool in the league season finale, and then England's march to the semi-finals of the World Cup the next year to ensure that interest in football was not lost. Then the start of the English Premier League, where everything had this new modern gloss to make it look fresher, and suddenly the whole scene was rejuvenated. (Or maybe, to use a word from the future, gentrified)

A lot of people were saying, ““If you remember the ’60s, you really weren’t there.” This was a way of saying that it was a truly dramatic period in history. Well, I lived through more sober times, but no less dramatic: the end of the cold war, the rise of the internet, and possibly am living through the rise of artificial intelligence.

Personally, I witnessed the madness of the Malaysia Cup fever. Looking back, for the 20 years that followed the Separation, the Malaysians wanted us out of the competition. Probably they didn't enjoy our participation in the competition as much as we did, but from a neutral's point of view, how could you not love the siege mentality that was instilled in the Singapore team? Everybody knows that the referee would never give us the 50-50 decisions. And everybody knows you have to be twice as good to win, but we won 3 or 4 Malaysia cups since Separation.

In 1990, Singapore participated, and we got a young Australian called Abbas Saad. He became one of the boys. He arrived together with another Aussie called Alistair Edwards, who maybe didn't fit in so well: I still remember him moving to another team, scoring against us, and giving us the finger. But Abbas Saad played in the 1990 side, getting us to the final, where we lost to a Kedah that starred Sundram. In 1992, we inexplicably got relegated to the second tier, but the next year we qualified for the Malaysia cup anyway, and reached the final only to be beaten by our nemesis Kedah. And in 1994 – everybody knows what happened in 1994.

And there was English football on the TV sets as well. Incredibly it was my sister who became a fan, latching onto the rise of a club that at that point had been a sleeping giant of English football – Manchester United. And there was that fairytale of their goalkeeper Schmeichel inexplicably winning the European Championships with Denmark, in spite of their not having qualified in the first place. (But back in the day there were only 8 teams, so it was pretty easy for an underdog to win.)

I became fascinated by the history of English football – it was a source of endless fascination that in a bygone era, clubs like Newcastle, Blackburn, Sheffield United, Wolves, Burnley, Portsmouth and Ipswich had won championships. But that was the era before Liverpool's dominance.

In the early days of the English Premier League, it wasn't obvious that a select few clubs would dominate. Back then, you had teams like Sheffield Wednesday, Nottingham, Aston Villa and Norwich ending up in the top 5. But then there were two challenges to Man United's dominance. The first one was successful for 1 season: Blackburn nipping the champion's slot after Man United failed to beat West Ham on the last day of the season. But quickly, Blackburn stopped being great: its only season in the UEFA Champion's league ended in ignominy, and when the funds dried up, the club declined. Manchester United's assistant manager Brian Kidd took up the manager's spot and ran the club into the ground and Blackburn got relegated.

The second challenge was more interesting but less successful. Newcastle were a colourful team managed by a colourful personality. They played exciting, attacking football and managed to reach the top spot at Christmas with a 12 point advantage, which they incredibly squandered to Manchester United. Newcastle would have a few more good seasons left, and they managed to get their hometown boy Alan Shearer for the rest of his career, but they were never the same team that threatened Man U's hegemony.

The other team that caught my imagination were Arsenal. The third and most successful team to challenge Man United's hegemony. Incredibly, and on a relatively tight budget, they put together a new team with a new philosophy. They cast off the dour image they had under George Graham, and instead of playing extremely defensive football, they played exciting, attacking football and pipped Manchester United to the title (albeit one that had Roy Keane injured).

But the following season was even more exciting, as Manchester United won the treble. They did not win the treble by steamrolling their opponents: all 3 of their trophies could have been lost if they were unlucky, which made their season so incredibly exciting.

The next few years were a little dull, with Manchester United winning the next two league titles, and Arsenal showing the first few signs of their mental fragility by not pushing them to the limit. Then Arsene Wenger put together his second great team, who won titles in 2002 and 2004, and were narrowly edged out in 2003. Everybody remembered that Arsene Wenger said that it was possible to finish a whole season unbeaten, but they forget that he actually said that in 2002, and lost his title in 2003, and it was pretty humiliating for him.

There's not much to say about the S league that replaced the Malaysian league / cup. Even if we were playing the Malaysian Cup, with the advent of English Premier League, people would have lost interest. Fandi, Malek Awab and David Lee couldn't go on forever. Abbas Saad was inexplicably banned from football in Singapore and Malaysia for god knows what. Their heirs were Zulkarnaen Zainal, Rafi Ali, Ahmad Latiff Khamaruddin, people with various degrees of likeability, but who didn't have the charisma of the dream team.

When I was studying in Snowy Hill, I used to lap up the results of football matches. It was fascinating to hear how Alex Ferguson figured out to manage his team. Up til now, people knew that he was great at making his footballers mentally strong, although you never knew if this was because he was good at instilling it in his guys, or because he was very quick to toss them aside when their winning mentality started to slip under the pressure.

Possibly 2003 was another watershed for English Premier League for many reasons. It was when Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea. It was when the Leeds experiment of “living the dream” crashed and burned and put paid to anybody else's attempt to buy their way to short term success without a rich sugar daddy to back them up. It was the beginning of the end for Arsenal's glorious period (although their decline was so gradual that for many years afterwards they were always in the champion's league places). And it was the rise of the Chelsea / Manchester United duopoly.

I probably should have stopped watching football around this period, but there were still a few great stories after that. There was Greece winning the Euros, there was Liverpool winning the Champion's League, there was Manchester United claiming back the top spot from Chelsea and Alex Ferguson building his last great team. There was the rise of tiki taka and Lionel Messi, and their Champion's league victories in 2009, 2011 and 2015 were as decisive as you could imagine. There was the rise of the powers of the English clubs – between 2005 and 2012, there were 7 times English clubs reached the finals of UCL. There was the glorious rise of Spain, from a “promising team” in 2006 to the dynasty which claimed 3 major tournament titles between 2008 and 2012. There was the golden generation of Germany, who reached the semi-finals or better for every tournament from 2006 to 2014. But slowly football was getting less fun and more predictable. Emirates money would go into Arsenal (well at least they bought naming rights). Etihad money would go into Man City. Man City essentially became Abu Dhabi club. Russians bought Monaco. Qataris bought Paris Saint Germain. Americans bought Liverpool and Manchester United. Most significant was great amounts of money being funneled into Man City, which enabled them to knock Manchester United off their perch, especially as David Moyes, Louis Van Gaal and even Jose Mourinho found it hard to fill Alex Ferguson's shoes.

The smaller leagues faded away and ceased to matter in European competition. There would not be a repeat of the Steaua Buchareset building up the core of the Romania team that would wow the world in USA 1994, or Red Star Belgrade winning an European cup. The moment a team like Porto won a Champion's league in 2004, their manager would be snapped up by a newly rich Chelsea, and he would buy up a few of his best players, then Deco would go to Barcelona, and Pedro Mendes to Tottenham. Arsenal similarly got dismantled, losing Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and Ashley Cole soon after the Invincibles system. Leicester lost N'golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater after winning their title, although somehow they've managed to retain Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy.

There have been some nice underdog stories, such as Montpellier winning the French league, Iceland knocking England out of the Euros, Wales making a great run into the semi-finals. I enjoyed Chile building a great side – at least in the Copa America. (And hopefully Mexico goes deep in this World Cup). I liked Uruguay having some kind of a golden generation, with Diego Forlan overcoming his Man United misadventure to become a great striker, and Luis Suarez being a genuinely great footballer.

That said, you only have to compare the great footballers around the time of 2000 and compare that to now. Looking through the squads of Euro 2000, you had big personalities like Steven Gerrard, Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Michael Ballack, Markus Babbel, Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Gheorghe Hagi, Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Del Piero, Francesco Totti, Fredrik Ljungberg, Hendrik Larsson, Rustu Recber, Hakan Sukur, Muzzy Izzet, Dejan Stanković, Predrag Mijatović, Siniša Mihajlović, Ole Gunnar Solskjær, Zlatko Zahovič, Pep Guardiola, Fernando Hierro, Raul, Iker Casillas, Pavel Nedved, Karel Poborsky, Vladimir Smicer, Peter Schmeichel, Thomas Gravesen, Edwin Van Der Sar, Jaap Stam, Edgar Davids, Patrick Kluivert, the de Boer brothers, Marc Overmars, Dennis Bergkamp and half of the French team. Elsewhere around the world, you had Javiet Zanetti, Pablo Aimar, Hernan Crespo, Diego Simeone, Juan Sebastian Veron, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos, Cafu and Gilberto Silva.

Football has always been a team sport, but nowadays people treat the footballers as cogs in the machine. Xavi, Iniesta and Messi are great because they helped to form a great machine. Somehow, over the years, the personalities of footballers are sanded over, or maybe they've just had to spout the same old media soundbites when they open their mouths.

I can hardly distinguish the players from each other. Ronaldo and Messi are the big names now. For whatever reason, maybe it's the culture, a lot of the players have become a lot more geeky, or they've been taught to be more disciplined and circumspect. It used to be that Balotelli was the clown prince of football, but after his nadir at Liverpool, he's mellowed down a lot. Pogba is a little flashy but on the field, I'm not exactly sure what it is he does. Jamie Vardy seems to have a personality, but he's just too marginal a figure. Neymar is talented but lives in the shadow of the other Brazil greats and is just plain unlikable. The only guy who reminds me of what football players used to be like is Luis Suarez.

Football has become more an analytical exercise, it's become less of a game with 22 people on the field, and more like a chessboard, where the real players are the managers who design the system. People start to discuss systems, or else they discuss the mental toughness of the players. People don't talk about individual flair anymore. The game has been about fine margins, about the shape or choreography of players.

Personally, I had been a big fan of football maybe during my last years in Singapore. I used to go down to a coffee shop late at night to watch a game on the TV, since from maybe the 2002 world cup onwards they started to put telecasts of the English Premier League behind paywalls. But I've started to look back on those days and wonder why I didn't do more productive things with my life back then.

Maybe I was rooting for the wrong club. Arsenal played the best and most attractive football with the Invincibles, and Arsene Wenger had a knack of always unearthing great players from every nook and cranny in the world. But the takeover of Chelsea with big money first ejected Arsenal from being real contenders at the EPL title, and later on the same thing with Man City put their position in the Champion's League places in peril. There was a season, 2007-2008 which promised so much, when it seemed that Arsenal were rejuvenating themselves. Sadly it all went to pieces. Player after player showed a flash of promise here and there and failed to reach the standards of their predecessors. Cesc Fabregas could play in the greatest Arsenal teams, but too many of them failed to make the cut. Hleb. Flamini. Denilson. Vela. Senderos. Walcott. Asharvin. Eboue. Bendtner. Aaron Ramsey. Then there were players who were half decent but were injured all the time, like Rosicky, Abou Diaby, Jack Wilshire, Eduardo, Vermaelen, Carzola, Van Persie. The goalkeepers were crap: Almunia, Fabianski and Szczęsny. Even Petr Cech became crap after joining Arsenal. Then there were people who left Arsenal for “bigger and better things” and ended up as squad members who didn't get games: Adebayor, Samir Nasri, Kieran Gibbs and Bacary Sagna. There were players who were good in stretches, like Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, but you wouldn't look at them twice now.

When I moved to America, it used to be a dream come true that you could just watch matches live on TV, until I got bored of it. There were too many things missing.

First, I always thought it was wrong that you would identify with a club that wasn't your hometown club. After Singapore left the Malaysia cup, that was probably the beginning of the end. Maybe Singapore's 4 ASEAN championships glossed it over for a while.

Second, maybe football looked more exciting when other people were discussing it, and you felt left out. But it was pretty meaningless when you found yourself staring at the green screen and you feel like you've seen it all before.

Third, there was just not atmosphere around football. You'd get some dude wearing a Liverpool shirt, but you'd get a blank stare when you start to talk about Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman.

Also, I wonder what I might have achieved if I weren't watching football all the time. Perhaps I'd have learnt more engineering. Perhaps I'd have formed a band and made music. Maybe I'm growing older and getting appalled at what I was up to when I had more time and energy than today.

Football in a way is something that reflects the working class. Perhaps there used to be some dignity of the working glass, but to be forever interested in some kind of a game for more than 10 years in a row is maybe pushing it. To be content with football is a bit like being content with a working class life, being a slave to the grind, doing the same thing year in year out.

You've seen it all before, the penalty box pinballs. The goalkeeper howlers. The beautiful cross field passes. The threading the ball through the eye of a needle. The offside trap defying passes. The incredible weighted passes. Maybe there's become nothing new in this world.

Maybe there is a sadness about the fates of the great footballers. Maradona, even in his best days, was a parody of a human being. Now he's a parody of even that, forever a party animal, chasing one last kick, one last high. Fat Ronaldo, who everybody loves, is just an oversized fat hulk now. Ronaldinho has flattered to deceive for so long you're starting to wonder if you were just seeing things when he did his party tricks. Xavi, one half of the Spanish metronome, has retired. Iniesta has admitted to suffering from depression at some point in his life. Cristiano Ronaldo is this narcissistic adonis everybody loves to hate. Messi is the boy wonder who didn't manage to grow up, who flubbed at the world cup finals, and 2 Copa America finals. Johann Cryuff is this rare player who became as great a manager as he was a player, but he ended up picking arguments with just about everybody in his life.

Or maybe it's just this knowledge that football is nothing more than some fancy shop window dressing, a promise of something impossibly glamorous, the idea that your soul could be, for one glorious, brilliant moment, united with thousands of other souls. Maybe it was the joy of watching adults behave like kids on a playground, and getting massively overpaid for it.

Or maybe it was something that had a little more meaning in my life, when I used to play street soccer.

Ultimately, though, I'm starting to understand why my father and his siblings used to be football fans and then gave it up. You have to be a member of a fan club. You have to be in some kind of a church. Otherwise it doesn't really mean anything.