gambitch - now available in blue
Our constant efforts to reinvent ourselves reveal how much we fear our own images.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Congratulations to Liverpool for getting the chance to defend their Champions League trophy.

I think, ultimately, this was one of those cases where good common sense should and indeed did prevail, simply because Liverpool were the club to have won the competition the previous time. It only made good sense for the Champions League champion to re-enter the competition automatically the very next time. Fortunately, everyone else saw the good sense in that.

In reality, the Liverpool case merely settled an issue that should have been resolved a few years ago when Real Madrid experienced the same situation. Having said that, the Spanish on that occasion elected to enter Real at another club's expense, but the FA decided they'd nominate Everton, who rightfully finished fourth. Were the head honchos in England trying to have their cake and eat it too? We might never know.

We do know now, though, that as a consequence of the Liverpool instance, there has been a significant alteration to the rules. The rules now read that the European Cup holders, should they fail to qualify through the standard route in their domestic league, will be granted a special bye then, and only then, at the expense of the lowest-ranked eligible qualifier.

How was this different from the old rules? Well, I may be wrong (so please correct me if that's the case), but the old rules stated that the holders could gain an automatic bye if they finished outside the standard positions, in addition to the regular qualifying teams, unless the country's allocation of slots in the Champions' League, based on coefficient computation, was already four. A country gets four slots normally if it's ranked as one of the top three nations in UEFA, and in recent years the three countries in question have consistently been Italy, England and Spain (not necessarily in order). Lower ranked nations get three, or two, or one slot only. In very extreme cases (these do exist!) a country doesn't get any slots in the Champions' League, even at the first qualifiers, usually because there isn't much of a football league in that country.

By way of example, let's say Paris St. Germain, from France, won the Champions' League final but finished fourth in the same season. Normally PSG wouldn't qualify, because France usually doesn't rank in the top three, and therefore can only get three slots (its usual allocation, incidentally). However, as holders under the old rules, PSG would qualify, as would the three clubs that finished above it in the league, giving France four slots instead of three for that season.

But it'd be different if you were English, Italian or Spanish. Which brings us to the Real Madrid example. The hard cap was four, so the Spaniards had to choose between Real and another club (I can't remember who it was now).

Now, there's no choice, regardless of which country you're from. So if you're with, say, Boavista of Portugal, and you finished third in the Portuguese league... Let's say FC Porto made it to the Champions League final but placed fourth in the domestic league this same season. You and every other Boavista fan would have vested interest not to want Porto to win the Champions League final.

So much for patriotism!

Oh, you want to know which country got sacrificed as a consequence of Liverpool gaining entry into the Champions' League qualifiers? I mean, someone has to pay the price! Funnily enough, there were no sacrifices in the Champions League itself. A daisy chain of movements involving Fenerbahce of Turkey, Polish champions Wisla Krakow, and whoever wins the Romanian domestic league ensures that no new additions need to be made, nor anyone bumped off from the Champions League. No, the poor souls who end up losing out are two clubs from Kazakhstan, who were yanked off the access list for next year's UEFA Cup.

Before anyone asks why Kazakhstan, a Central Asian country, is represented in UEFA, let me just say I don't know either, and frankly I couldn't care. They're not in, and even if they were, no one anywhere in Europe would really know them. Someone had to pay the price, and the more nameless that someone was, the better it'd be for the sake of easy decision-making. That's the way the game works, mateys!

gambitch [ 12:56 PM]

Friday, June 10, 2005

You can't say it was altogether unexpected, but reading about it happening still has some sort of impact.

I'm talking about football - something I haven't really analyzed at length for a little while now, partially because the news regarding Chelsea running away with the title has been, for much of this season, a boring affair. The Ashley Cole scandal turns out exactly as expected, so no thrills there either. And I've been resisting any urge I may have had to talk about the Glazer takeover, mostly because it's already too disappointing for me to want to dig it up.

But now, hearing about the Glazers putting up a "Premiership or you go" ultimatum to Sir Alex has become much too much. This report may claim otherwise and say that Sir Alex has convinced his new bosses that he can deliver in two years. But really, I'm not all that impressed by the news, mostly because it would not be altogether out of character for the Glazers to demand results in the very first year.

And as if we didn't know why they are here, I read this article that quotes a source close to the family. The person essentially told The Independent, "They don't know that much about soccer, but they think there's a profit to be made." For whom? Need you ask? Manchester United has been the world's highest revenue-generating club for some years now, streets ahead of even AC Milan, Juventus and Real Madrid. It has largely been a profit-making club since the full-blown commercialization of the sport. Now the Glazers want to channel a solid slice of it back to America while leaving the club itself in debt.

I'm sorry, guys, but I'm not impressed.

Make no mistake about it, the Glazers are no sugar daddies. They're here because they think there's a good business to be made for themselves. They think they can harvest a good bit of profit from this whole thing, and they probably will. But they'd do well to acquaint themselves with one of the most famous Premiership club supremos who operated on a similar ethos. I present you Exhibit A: Mr. Alan Sugar, former Tottenham Hotspur chairman and, says The Times, a "serial entrepreneur". Sugar didn't have a reputation as a Spurs fan. He did have a reputation as someone who ran Spurs like he did any other stone-cold business, although funnily enough, his reign coincided with the arrival of such superstars as Juergen Klinsmann, one of the finest marksmen of his time.

Despite the arrival of Klinsmann, however, Spurs remained nowhere near the top of the Premiership table, and that could be attributed to any number of things, including a lack of sporting ambition by Sugar. Personally I would much expect the Glazer family to work the same way. The key difference is, Manchester United is a brand associated with success, and with Sir Alex in particular, we're talking about a club that's gone through a solid dynasty's worth of it. They don't call it the Theatre of Dreams, even today, for no reason. But running the club like a business may very well change all that.

I've never followed American football, so I am unfamiliar with the performance of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before and since Glazer. It also means I have no idea what the fans think about that franchise now. For this reason, I'd much like the American readers to give me a bit of local information on this. I wouldn't be surprised to read bad news on this one, though.

Sure, challenging for the title is going to be difficult now that we've got the likes of Roman Abramovich. But let us get this clear: Abramovich came with a view to spend the club to success. He put his money where his ambition is, even though, at the start of it, he wasn't that great a football fan. Or maybe he was - he's quite a private man from what I hear. And he bothers to attend the big games. Abramovich is a sugar daddy, as was the late Jack Walker, who threw his bags of money into the Blackburn Rovers machine that picked up all of one Premiership trophy. Laugh all you want - I'm laughing too - but Walker wasn't in it for personal profit. Nor are other millionaire bosses like Steve Gibson or David Gold, who know they are parting with their own money for the club they love.

The Glazers have never demonstrated that kind of love. For starters, they're American, and the American public still ain't there yet when it comes to appreciating the game. They're trying to introduce quarters, time-outs and other such boring stuff. They build these stadiums with really fancy scoreboards and super-loud tannoys resembling what they have in NBA and WWE. And then the turf is hard as rock. Man, do they get their priorities wrong... The point is, most Americans don't get the game yet, and the Glazers are sadly among that group. Joel Glazer was introduced to football when a college roomie was supporting Spurs. His friend's either misguided or Cockney, or maybe those were the years when the likes of Waddle and Hoddle were still playing. But either way I don't buy Joel's allegiance to the cause.

These American business tycoons who see Manchester United as a business opportunity through which they can enrich themselves threaten the game with that very mentality that got them where they are today. We've talked about it before half a million times, maybe more, but one thing that gets less coverage is the fact that spectator sports is a powerful social tool for catharsis and stress relief. Sports can be business, very big business indeed, but it's a very different kind of business. There's a strong social element, and that's why there can be fans so irrational they don't care so much if the club is running a loss as long as it plays good, entertaining football. That was Spurs fans' beef with Sugar - the football got worse while Sugar's bank account got better. That dimension, which cannot be quantified into something measurable in an accounts report, makes the sporting industry different from the rest. And that's why sugar daddies are happy to part with their own wealth as long as they see the club love do better and keep entertaining their fans. Because it's no longer about making profits - it's about making the fans happy.

And I doubt the Glazers will be all that good at doing just that. Not when they're only happy to part with what is a very meagre sum indeed when it comes to transfer fees. Of course, from necessity comes invention, and Sir Alex is a proven inventor when it comes to spotting talent. But money does talk a bit these days.

If we fail to win the Premiership again this season, it might be a disaster, or it might not. I'm philosophical enough to understand that sometimes things just don't work out the way you'd like them to. The old cliche that says Man proposes has some truth in it. Besides, Sir Alex has done so much for the club, and we should be immensely grateful and say thanks for the memories. That's why I'll never blame him as if he ruined a sure thing.

But the Glazers will. And only because they've got their personal fortunes in the venture, and that's exactly what it is - a business venture. Woe betide anyone who dares to think otherwise.

gambitch [ 2:34 AM]

Sunday, June 05, 2005

If ever I need to remind myself that there's a worse way to run a city, I just have to cross the interstate border.

I'm sorry if this sounds terribly incendiary and you happen to know (rather than randomly guess) just where I'm talking about, but really, my out-of-town visit today had exactly that kind of impact on me. At the risk of being offensive, I have to be honest about my feelings on this one.

Let's start by this welcoming sign I saw not long after I crossed the border in question. You know how, when we arrive in either a new country or state in the US, we get this nice, large sign of some variety or other that reads "Welcome to Australia" or something along such lines. Sometimes they actually try to make it punchier, which is nice, but the message is the same. Sometimes they also add a couple of lines to describe the place, like, "Welcome to City X, Home of Some Tourism Icon Animal".

On this occasion, I was greeted by the sign "Welcome to City X (city name concealed to protect the victim), The Healthy City". I had a small laugh when I saw that, the way you laugh at Joey do something stupid on Friends or his new show. But I laugh small, so pardon me. What was the laugh about? Well, for a sign welcoming visitors, it's seriously stupid to advertise yourself as "The Healthy City". It's wrong for at least two reasons. One, it suggests you've run out of adjectives that describe the city in some unique touristy way like, oh, "The Tropical Paradise" or "The Windy City". There's a certain thing about the phrase "The Windy City" that makes it stick well with Chicago, which no doubt has historical origins, so "windy" passes. "Healthy" does not pass simply because it suggests the city is so hopelessly bland that there's nothing else particularly interesting about it, which I hope is seriously not true.

The second reason? Well, calling yourself "The Healthy City" potentially casts aspersions about the condition of the other cities in that state, if not the rest of the country. If yours is "The Healthy City", then is this to say that all the other cities are somehow unhealthy? Have the other municipalities been stingy with their sanitation works funding? Is there a shortage, however unserious, of hospitals and clinics elsewhere? Is your city vaccinated from the flu? Polio? German measles? Are the rest not? You get the drift.

A genuinely poorly done piece of public relations. I'm hoping they change the sign to something cleverer soon, but I wouldn't bet on it.

I'll just mention one other thing about the place I visited before I wrap up, and that's shopping. Now, the place in question has very limited options when it comes to shopping. What few are available can be quite good, but I'm told the city has tried to build, over time, a huge number of additional shopping centres, every one of which has gone on to fold, leaving empty, abandoned buildings and a big waste of both money and space. Why does this end up happening? I offer two reasons, based on observations and conversations.

The first is dispersal. I don't quite know how strip malls are planned in America, but common sense tells me that the singular easiest way to draw a crowd to a new shopping centre is to ensure it has very close proximity to existing shopping centres that are already popular. It's sort of like agglomeration, tapping into or further building up a critical mass of shoppers that are interested in going to the area. Whoever built this city chose not to do that, or at least not to do it to a larger scale than what it has. The best run I saw was something close to four or five shopping centres at a stretch. That's way too few.

Instead new projects are planned away from the existing city centre (which because of dispersal ends up being a bunch of rather small, loosely connected nuclei). Not that you can't do that, but pulling it off isn't just about plonking down a shopping centre and letting the computer simulation do the rest. Why? Well, because there isn't a computer simulation here running on the "if you build it they will come" principle! The city actually has to build the rest of the neighbouring community, including housing, healthcare amenities, infrastructure, and other things like that. And it's got to build them in a way that will create a community interested in patronizing the shops in the mall. Again, it's about a sustainable critical mass. My suspicions are that this wasn't really done all that carefully here. That's one reason why so many new shopping centres died.

The second reason, of course, links up nicely with the previous mention on infrastructure. Two sub-problems here: road planning and public transport. Many a road in this city is one-way, and that inconveniences navigation in so many ways. Bidirectional commute is actually something very important, if easily overlooked. You can't just build roads that go there, you have to provide an equally convenient way back. As anyone who's fiddled with SimCity - particularly SimCity 4 - will tell you, one-way roads introduce all sorts of new problems with the commute graph. (Another fine example of the power of computer games in educating kids!) Many shopping centres have apparently collapsed on the back of poorly planned roads by the city planners.

It wouldn't be so bad if there's a decent public transport system that helps you get to places with relative ease. You know, buses, subways, cabs, the lot. But when a city runs on nothing but cabs and cars - and many very loud motorcycles (there's either no law requiring silencers, or if there is one, insufficient enforcement) - it makes it very inaccessible to visitors, and somewhat less so but still inaccessible for locals, particularly those who don't have their own sets of wheels. Without a strong public transport network, far-flung places remain exactly that, and new sub-communities find their growth painfully stunted. Hence, shopping centres without shops.

I'm whining much more than I would like here, but I want to add this - I actually want the people running the city to do a better job. This isn't a post saying "I think your city sucks, mine does better, and I'll never visit you again". This is a post saying "I think your city's not doing well, it can do better and I wouldn't complain at all if it does because at the end of the day, it makes my visiting experience even better".

And if things don't get better? Well, maybe I'll consider getting the relevant qualifications for a real-life career in city planning!

gambitch [ 12:17 AM]


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