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A chat with the other side, aka “Bassam talks Classic”

Miguel Ruiz/FC Barcelona

Miguel Ruiz/FC Barcelona

In advance of the Classic, we talked to Bassam Dgheim of Real Madrid Football Blog, about 10 things. Bassam, who many of you have interacted with in the comments space here, is good people, and a reminder that we fans are all human critters. It’s the teams and clubs we dislike. I have done my part, which is now up (thanks, Bassam!) at RMFB. So with many thanks to Bassam, here we go:

A Barça win will put us 7 points ahead. How big a dent would that be to RM’s title hopes?

Yes and no. It’s still very early in the season. Major shake ups in the squad have gotten us to the point were we are 4 points away. But I would be worried more about us in the long stretch than right now, because that’s when the team will be a well oiled machine. Right now we are doing well because we have great players. But little hardship might steer the ship the wrong way. So while 7 points away will be rough to come back to, I don’t think it is the end of the league. We meet again at this season and have another chance to pull it back.

To beat Barça, Madrid needs to take advantage of (enter Barça’s weakness and/or key match-up in favor of Madrid)/To beat Madrid, Barça needs to take advantage of (enter Madrid’s weakness and/or key match-up in favor of Barça)….

To beat Barca, Madrid needs to take advantage of the left flank. With Bale set to miss the game, the team will adjust more and more towards CR running the show. Alves is good, but he has his moments, especially in defense. With Rakitic and Iniesta putting in leg work in defense, but not actual positional defense, I think the combo of Modric and Kroos will need to exploit that and spring the ball well to the left flank.

To beat Madrid, Barca needs to do the obvious: Attack from the right flank. Marcelo is brilliant going forward, but he is god awful in attack. And similarly, without Alonso in the center, Messi is gonna have a lot of space dropping deep. If RM don’t control that, then they might be in big trouble.

How has Mourinho leaving affected the clásico, and is Ancelotti too much a pragmatist to care about the hype?

How has rain fall affected the drought? Very well I would say. I’ll keep this more general than just the clásico: Mourinho leaves and we win the double, including the far awaited 10th CL title. And had it not been for poor decision making, RM were easily looking at the treble last year. Ancelotti brings in a aura of zen and calmness that we have not had since VdB. And he knows that one game won’t define his season. With Liverpool done like they were on Wednesday, I think pressure is really off Ancelotti in this one.

Which Barça player(s) do you despise?

Alba. Alves. I used to really dislike Sanchez. Not fond of your manager at all for the all so obvious reasons.

Is the team better without Bale in reality, against Barcelona?

Yes and no, again. Against Barca, the team might miss Bale much more than against any other team. He has the work rate to drop back and form a 442, while maintaining a dominant a quick threat on the right flank. Under any other circumstances, I would say he’s a huge miss. However, his replacement is a guy with the name Isco, and I rate him extremely high. Iniesta with more goals and less assists is a good description. Has improved leaps and bounds since last year, especially on positional play and work rate. Turned from a player that needs the system to be centered around him to a player that is capable of fitting into the system well. I feel more comfortable with him coming in.

What’s the biggest change in this year’s RM side from last year’s?

We no longer need to hear bout La Decima every second. So that’s a big change. Alonso and Di Maria leaving are the other two big changes both personnel and formation wise. With Di Maria gone, we lose that extreme work rate and assist machine. But much more importantly is losing Alonso. He was the anchor in midfield. Organized the defense very well and orchestrated the attack brilliantly. Our defense has suffered most in his absence, as he was the leader in that domain. He was the equivalent of the coach on the field. No surprise that Pep picked him up.

Has Casillas got the support of most merengues? Do we only hear from his detractors because they scream louder?

Getting Mourinho as your manager is like getting a tramp stamp. You might remove it, but the essence and memory of having gotten it is still there (think Ted Mosby from HIMYM). While Mourinho is gone from the team, there are many who supported him that still linger. Chelsea fans, Porto fans, Inter fans, they are all Real Madrid fans. And all want to make sure we never forget we ever got that tramp stamp. So for me, it is definitely a case of detractors scream louder. Let’s not forget, the Ultra Sur gave Mourinho a trophy of appreciation during his last game for us. And they were the only fans he went and bid farewell.

What has Kroos brought to the team that wasn’t there before?

It’s a tough question to answer. The main reason behind that is because Kroos is playing a position he has never had to play before. While he grows into that position and while the formation changes to adjust to his strengths and weaknesses, we are seeing more and more why he is so highly rated. He obviously brings the vision on the ball, the mobility in the center of the field and of course, the football IQ. He adds more of a short directness to our play as opposed to the long directness that Alonso had. I think the best is yet to come from Kroos as he adjusts.

What RM line-up do you expect to see start the classic?

I think we will go with Iker-Carvajal-Pepe-Ramos/Varane(depending on fitness)-Marcelo-Kroos-Modric-Isco-James-CR-Benzema. In possession, James will occupy the right flank, drifting to the middle often. In defense, we will shift to 442, with CR slight on the wing and Benzema waiting to get the ball to spark a counter attack. I would watch out for Carvajal on the right, as he will have a lot to do in attack with Bale out. The dude is fast.

If Alonso had stayed, do you think that he would have fit into this season’s RM?

I think we would not have seen a similar style had Alonso stayed. Ancelotti had to change a lot in order to accommodate for Alonso leaving, even though the general formation is still the same. I worry that this game against Barca is where we will miss Alonso the most, especially with dealing with Messi (from an organizational point of view).

Posted in Analysis, El Clasico, La Liga, Thoughts19 Comments

The Good, the Bad and the Suarez

This is the post I promised Valdemar II, the winner of the World Cup predictions thing who asked for:

“A post about the possible starting elevens and alternate formations for [this] season”

Well, the transfer window wasn’t closed at the time nor was the squad finalized so I thought it would be better to hold off it. Which ended up being a good call since we didn’t sign Cuadrado after all.

Now that we have a couple of games under the proverbial belt, I figured there’s enough material to work with to give a brief overview of the beginnings of the Lucho era.  That, and I’ve been slacking so I hope Kevin, blitzen, Lev and co. don’t revoke my membership.

What I find really interesting this season is the glut of (very good) tactical posts and blogs available on the ‘net these days. (That includes here, Kevin print/tvscreens for the win!). I don’t know if it’s just Barca-centric or if it extends to other teams, but it’s very impressive. As for me, that means rather than give a broad overview I’m simply going to list bullet points of the pros and cons from this growing project Lucho’s begun. A little snapshot if you will.

Also, Suarez.

Except he hasn’t played it yet so it’s really Liverpool!Suarez Continue Reading

Posted in Analysis, Thoughts112 Comments

The Andoni Zubizarreta Show has ended, aka “Now we wait and see”

Photo by Victor Salgado/FC Barcelona

Photo by Victor Salgado/FC Barcelona

Even though it’s early days, it is safe to say that that man in the middle of this image, Andoni Zubizarreta is, along with folks like Ed Woodward and Jorge Mendes, one of the winners of this summer transfer window.

I know … he finally did something, right?

Wrong. It’s because in grading the Barça transfer window, my vote is for a B. What keeps things from an A … two things, actually:

– Vermaelen risk
– Douglas who?
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Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Thoughts, Transfers28 Comments

A nou season, with hope and uncertainty, 2014-15 as foretold by …

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Barcelona 2014 – 2015 as foretold by Levon

Last summer I predicted we would be trophyless at the end of the season (I was a wrongfully disallowed goal off) but that it wouldn’t matter as we would have a transition year. Which we did, until we stopped transitioning halfway through. Since enough has been said about who’s to blame, this post is about looking forward to the 60+ games to come.

It’s easy to become optimistic after a transfer kitty excavation operation that rivals our eternal enemy’s most ambitious summers. Contrary to public opinion, Zubizarreta gets things right more often than wrong. This time round I’m not so sure. For the record, I think we’re idiots for letting Alexis go so easily and for wasting money on the likes of Claudio Bravo, Vermaelen and Douglas, money that would have been better spent on quality rather than quantity. Jeremy Mathieu could have been got for less than half the price 12 months ago, so there’s that, too. I’m on the fence about Suarez, happy for Rafinha and happy with Rakitic, a player I was against coming two months ago but already looks like the guy to watch this season. Marc Andre Ter Stegen and Alen Halilovic seem like the only transfers that were planned at all. Take from that what you will, but those last two have a Z for Zubi written on their foreheads. 

The most significant transfer of course is Luis Enrique. Much has been said about Tata, who seems like such a good person it feels immoral to criticize him too harshly, but he messed up the second half of last season so much I really want to use another verb instead of “messed up.” If nothing else, Lucho inspires leadership which is something that was obviously missing last year. Whether his tactical acumen is up to par with some of his more successful predecessors remains to be seen. People love to compare this upcoming season to Guardiola’s first, but La Liga has changed since then. Every draw didn’t feel like the coming of the apocalypse and Pep didn’t yet have to compete against an Evil Empire so studded with stars you have to glint your eyes when you look at their shirts (or Gareth Bale’s teeth). Still, I’m optimistic about the Lucho era, and even more so after his first press conference and especially after the way he sent Deulofeu packing. If Luis Enrique manages to infuse a team this talented with the fire of its leader there’s no telling what they can achieve.

Of course life, and even football, is about more than just results and trophies. The first Barça match I remember watching live was the 1989 Cup Winners final against Manchester United in which Mark Hughes scored a monster of a goal to seal our loss. That was more than 20 years ago and I already supported the club before that match, but it just so happens that this is the earliest game I remember vividly – where I was, who I watched the game with, how I felt and yes, that Mark Hughes goal. Here’s the rub. I was just a boy of, I guess, nine years old. Who ran the club didn’t mean squat to me. Now this was definitely a good thing since the man in charge Josep Nuñez. As far as I was concerned, Johan Cruijff was the boss. Mes que un club? Never heard of it. Heck, at nine years old I’d never heard of Catalunya either, for that matter. I thought Barcelona was in Spain. It wasn’t until much later when I learned about our club and its history that I fully understood how special Barça really was… and still is. I like to think that I felt this before I learned it. And I like to think the club is special despite of its directors rather than because of them.

Thank God we got rid of Nuñez and Gaspart. We should really thank Laporta, Johan Cruijff and Sandro Rosell (yes, Rosell). In this case God came in the form of a blue elephant, which I guess means that in some corners of this wondrous world people can say “see, we told you so.” The Laporta administration had more than its fair share of mistakes and who knows the state our club would be in if they had continued. But Sandro and Bartro have given us Johangate, Qatargate, Guardiolagate, Neymargate and Babygate. The biggest one of all is probably the new Camp Nou renovationgate except we won’t know it as such because the corruption many suspect behind this potential scandal will never see the light of day. Anyway, the idiots even flirted with Messigate and the next time our brilliant new striker sinks his teeth in a defender’s biceps we’ll have Draculagate. The only gates that have remained firmly closed are the ones a top notch defender was supposed to walk through at some point during the last four summers. Oh well.

2016 is, after all, an election year. If we don’t win anything this season the chronies will not survive. All of the “gates” for which they are responsible will come back to haunt them. But if we win the Liga (who knows) or the Champions League (even more doubtful, but who knows) they can play their favorite “poor us the whole word is against Barça but we are such great directors we still managed to give you a winning team” card and they will be re-elected. Whatever happens, I hope those in charge will keep Luis Enrique on as our coach for the foreseeable future. Nothing good ever comes from the usual hiring and firing. Besides, I like the sound of it, the Lucho era… The Lucho Era. Let the Lucho Era begin.

Barcelona 2014-15 as foretold by Isaiah

A season we will all fondly remember as the year we finally lost our faith in everything. Or, I mean, maybe not, but that’s certainly how it feels to me, going in. Let’s start here, where we should probably always start when we’re talking about mes que un club: the official sponsors list is nothing short of a list of kind of shady corporations that do pretty much the opposite of stand for Catalan identity or the concept of morality. Nike is a global brand bent on unifying everyone under the roof of similar footwear and viral marketing videos and Qatar Airways is the state-owned airway for a small country currently accused of killing thousands of workers in an effort to turn a desert into a preening World Cup resort destination. At least La Caixa is a local-cum-national bank that has an extensive social program and non-profit status including a charitable foundation, but the overwhelming sense is that Barcelona is not a club moving towards its motto, but away from it. Luis Suarez might be an incredible player, but then again, he’s also a violent racist. A club that once proudly boasted Lilian Thuram in its ranks has gone so far as to hire a guy who would call his compatriot a racial slur and refuse to apologize about it.

FBL-WC-2014-MATCH39-ITA-URU

If I sound somewhat depressed about all of this, I do blame Suarez and the terrible hangover from watching that slow motion insanity develop into expensive, court-case-laden reality. It brings back memories of the Busquets “mucho morro” affair where the club dodged all responsibility for what was likely a similar situation to what Suarez perpetrated. Or maybe Busquets did use an outdated term in the middle of a heated match. And maybe Luis Suarez really does mean his racial terms affectionately. And maybe I’m stuck in the past and this is just the new Barcelona, where social agreements are that I pay money and they let me watch Messi, with no consideration for the long-term investment in youth for the sake of youth (but for marketing purposes, sure, and for transfers later, sure). It’s not that Barcelona was ever the thing it billed itself as under Laporta, but under Laporta there was at least the homage to the idea. At least UNICEF made it onto the front of the jersey. I wonder what Oleguer thinks of the club he left behind. I wonder what Thuram thinks of the club he left behind. I wonder what Abidal thinks of the club that left him on the wayside, collateral damage from world conquest.

And Lucho. I don’t know what to make of Lucho just now. He smiles in the pictures he posts on Twitter. He bikes a lot. He was a glorious captain (who also played for Real Madrid at an earlier time that we should never mention again). And he seems to have brought some energy to things, but that’s what we said about Tata as well. Maybe I just miss Tito, maybe I just miss Pep. Maybe I just miss the days when it was all so unexpected, when winning was a thing maybe we would do and then when it would happen we were thrilled. Now it feels like there’s an expectation of success that doesn’t quite mesh with the reality of what it means to watch a team play. Imagine if we lose to Elche on Sunday. It wouldn’t be the groan of “Aw man, that’s too bad,” it would be the merciless cry of crisis, of Lucho fuera, of I told you so. And then imagine if we draw the next match. Imagine. 1-0 to Numancia would be absolutely unpardonable now. Sure, I mean, Madrid aren’t carrying the dead weight of Christoph Metzelder and Royston Drenthe around, but we’re not wondering where Keirrison fits in the plans either. I mean, this preview is hardly a question of how we bloggers (if I may still call myself such) think the season will go, but ratherhow many trophies will we win.Last yearI made no particular prognostications, which was probably for the best since I would have said we would win one trophy (and I would have been wrong, just to remind you), so this year I’ll go ahead and stick my head in the frying pan:

This team is stacked. Stacked like pancakes in a lumberjack breakfast hall. But trophies? None. Whatever, call me pessimistic or call me lacking in faith, but I don’t see this team being anything but what it was last year: fantastic to watch and overburdened with the needs of its fan base. But yes I’ll be watching whenever I can and I’ll celebrate every one of our goals. Except maybe the Suarez ones. I still haven’t come to terms with that and won’t have to until much later, thankfully.

Barcelona 2014 – 2015 as foretold by Linda

  1. Post-World Cup seasons are by nature unpredictable.
  2. I don’t like predicting things.
  3. But I’m here to try anyway.

I won’t pretend I have no doubts about Luis Enrique’s brave new world. Quite the contrary. But there are also many reasons to feel optimistic. Whatever Lucho’s flaws as a manager who is still developing and learning, his appointment is a step in the right direction. He knows the club, has allies both in the club and in the local media, and seems to be convincing the players of his ideas. I hope he feels supported, and free to implement his vision, and that the fanbase as a whole is kind to him if the team start slowly.

enrique1

Many things went wrong last season. There was a total breakdown in relations between the club hierarchy and segments of the fan base, the club and several important players,  the players and the club media, and ultimately, as a consequence, between the fans and the players. (Not to mention the club’s relations with the authorities.) All this just a few years after we all glutted ourselves on unprecedented success. It’s a very Barca story, going from one extreme to another. But lost in all that is the fact that there wasn’t that much wrong with the team. The squad was too small to cope with demand and injury, and wasn’t always used in the best way, but it had a reasonably good backbone. It just needed a jolt. And it needed supplementing.

Thankfully, the people in charge of the club have seen fit to do that. As a result, I feel much happier going into this season than I did last year. There’ll be injuries, and we’ll be horribly short-handed occasionally, but there are less gaps than before. I’d love to be proven wrong, but I can’t see all the new players integrating immediately. There will be mistakes. We just have to be patient, because I think we’re going to have fun this season. And yes, win a title or two.

But only if all of us – fans, media, club hierarchy, Lucho himself – refrain from turning every draw or defeat into a crisis. Otherwise, we might be out of a manager by Christmas.

Kxevin says …

We raise the curtain on yet another season of uncertainty. It seems like it has been a very long time since things have NOT been uncertain, so you’d think we would be used to it. Instead, besotted on a wondrous season of excellence, the ghosts of the past have become the burdens of the future, and everything is the “next” something … next Messi, next Puyol, next Treble. And culers turn on someone, anyone. It’s Martino’s fault, it’s the board’s fault, it’s Song’s fault, as if any one of those things was the complexity instead of all of them, and an additional set of circumstances to boot.

So people crack jokes about Song, who didn’t play all that much, instead of riding the folks who DID play all the time and who, as Dani Alves said in his Friday presser, didn’t meet standards. Because that’s easy, and who wants to kick the golden goose, even though the only player who was consistently at standard when it counted, and even he had a crappy first part of the season, was Iniesta. Last season was a mess.

It’s worth noting again that the natural state of a footballing club is to not win. Even the best sides don’t win everything, all of the time. Tito Vilanova stepped in after Pep Guardiola, who failed to meet his own lofty standards as the team started to slide downhill. Vilanova picked them up a bit, then fell prey to that awful thing called Life. Then Tata Martino came in to work his minor miracle of getting a damaged, mentally and physically hammered team to somehow, within 5 goals of being in with a shot at the Treble.

Martino’s feat last season speaks to the quality of the core of this team, an astonishingly talented nucleus that, like that flawless cut of steak, needs only the right garnishment and a well-chosen wine to be perfect. So the board, terrified at losing those posh seats in that wood-paneled office and facing the specter of a two-window FIFA transfer ban, went hog wild in the market this summer, adding (yet another) new coach and plenty of side dishes to accompany that tasty main course.

Which all means, of course, more uncertainty.

This club, and this culer, have a love/hate affair with uncertainty. Only a madman would predict championships galore at a club with a new coach and eight (count ‘em, EIGHT) new squad additions. I am a crank, but not a madman. Let’s look at what has the potential to upset the apple cart, shall we?

Enrique: What does he want? How will he get at it? How will his charges react to his high-energy, high-effort style? He put the hammer down on Deulofeu, sending him off to Sevilla for the crime of not impressing and needing more time. That move also sent a very clear message to the squad. The pressure on him is immense, and it’s difficult to think of a hotter hot seat in world football.

Vermaelen/Mathieu: A broken-down has been and a chain-smoking derelict, right?. THESE are the players those idiots signed to fill our centerback slots? Fools all of them, right? Well, maybe. Mathieu has been very, very good this pre-season and a healthy, on-form Thomas Vermaelen is an excellent center back. Or they could suck, leak goals and the Liga will be lost by December.

What’s funny is that for all of the whining about inadequate center back signings that should have been somebody else, the real complexities with Barça defense have to do with a short, easily bullied midfield and more importantly, still no replacement for Eric Abidal, who was the key to that back line. He made Pique better, he made us all forget the times that Puyol was off being fireman and caught out of position. He saved Alves, saved Valdes, working beautifully as a human eraser. Forget about CBs. I want me an Abidal.

abi

Messi: We still don’t know which Messi we are going to get, the sulking dude out for a weekend stroll or the rapacious battler who reared his head some during the Gamper. This is Messi’s team. As he goes, so it will go, despite the steps taken to end Messidependencia. If he is on — not goals, necessarily — with committed, fully involved play and he stays healthy, look out.

Neymar: The Brazilian legal complexity is fit, stronger, more mature and based on the little we have seen this season, ready to be an even better and more effective part of this team, unless, driven to star cravings in the presence of Messi and Suarez he reverts to the occasional ball-hogging, attack stopping logjam that he was at times last season.

Suarez: The club paid 81m for a player who won’t be able to kick a ball in anger, or even moderate vexation, until the end of October. He misses not only pre-season, but match fitness, on-pitch sync and other complexities. We might not even get the opportunity to really see what the club has paid for until late in the season. Will it be too late? In four months away from the competitive side of things, you can train and train, but match fitness will be many, many weeks away when Suarez can finally play for Barça.

Reasons for optimism

Weaknesses have been addressed: Team speed is up, team height is up, strength in midfield is up and the press is back. Everything that caused complexities last season are, at least on paper, improved.

Iniesta: Swagger, style and a more than capable slot into the playmaker role are all the reasons that anyone needs to worry about getting your ass kicked by the team led by Iniesta.

Great players: On paper, a 3-man attack of Neymar, Messi and Suarez is devastating.

And so?

Despite all of that, I think that Barça will be out of the running for major silver this season, marking two seasons in a row in which that has occurred. It isn’t that they don’t have the talent — far from it, as this team is STACKED. But I think that with so much new, and a key signing not being able to play with the club until November essentially means that performances will be erratic, and the front three will have a difficult time gelling.

But, we will see some entertaining, at times remarkable football, and as with last season, the team will come oh, so close to something big.

blitzen weighs in:

So here we are again. Seems like we have been waiting forever, but finally in a few hours a whole new season begins. We have a new coach, a new captain, and practically a whole new team. This has been a summer of slash and burn, and although it has been painful at times, it had to be done for the good of the team. Our legendary captain Carles Puyol was finally forced to admit his own mortality and retired with honour. Victor Valdes was halfway out the door in search of pastures new when a devastating injury threw him out the window instead. Cesc was seduced by the Dark Side, while Alexis Sanchez went to fulfil his destiny at Arsenal, much to the regret of many. The club cut out some dead weight and loaned or sold players like Tello, Cuenca (dammit), Afellay (DAMMIT!), Bojan, JDS (OMG finally!), & Oier (you forgot about Oier, didn’t you?), and even our resident madman Pinto was let go (BOO!). For some reason we still have Song.

In terms of signings, the most important one is our new coach Luis Enrique. It’s no secret around here that I am a huge fan of Lucho, not just as a player, but also from the days when he was coaching the B team to a 3rd place finish in the Segunda for the first time in their history. I wanted him to be appointed as coach when Pep quit, and I knew it would happen sooner rather than later. People have doubts about his lack of coaching experience at a high level, but to me that doesn’t matter. Pep only had only been coaching the B team for a year when he was appointed. Lucho has the drive and personality to take this team to the top. He demands everything from his players, and I believe he will help this team recover the intensity they lost over the last 2 seasons.

As for the incoming players, I am happy with all of them except for Suarez. My objections to him are longstanding and I won’t go into detail here, but suffice it to say that I think he is unnecessary, overpriced, and in need of psychological help. I am encouraged that in his last presser Suarez mentioned that he is working with professionals in that regard. I hope it is true and that we see no recurrence of his reprehensible behaviour. So far the best signings seem to be Rakitic, who looks like he has been playing at Barça for decades, and Mathieu, who hasn’t put a foot wrong in his appearances so far. Ter Stegen is nerveless, and Rafinha is an absolute monster. Bravo needs a little time to calm himself, and Vermaelen is still unproven, but personally I think he will fit in well. We may also still have a “surprise” signing to come, considering that we will very likely not be able to purchase any new players until January 2016. I’m giving this transfer window an 8/10. Well done, Zubi!

To my delight, most of the top top top pundits have already written off Barça’s title chances for this season. This makes us underdogs for the first time in many years, and it’s really quite refreshing. I am coming into this season with no inflated expectations. It would be crazy to expect a team with this many new players, that has lost so many key components of their past success, to win trophies or even be really competitive for the major ones. And yet…I can’t help but be excited after watching how this team has come together in the preseason and how they are all working so hard for Lucho. I have an overwhelming feeling that I am really going to enjoy watching Barcelona play this season, which to be honest I didn’t most of last season. We may not win any trophies, but I am sure we will play attractive attacking possession-based football, and that is all I really ask.


My predictions:
I think we will come second in the league to a Madrid-based team, but it may not be the one you expect. :P But I think it will be very close again, like last year. I think we may very well win the Copa del Rey, but that will likely be our only trophy. I don’t think we will be anywhere near winning the CL this year–I predict a quarterfinal exit, with honour.

Player to watch? How about players, plural? This is going to be the year when Barça goes back to basics and draws on the cantera a great deal. We already know from the preseason that Lucho counts on the youth and is happy to give them first team opportunities as long as they work hard. With Suarez banned until the end of October and various other injuries bound to happen, players like Munir, Adama, Samper & Grimaldo are certain to get ample first team minutes, and I expect them to excel. Even Lucho’s most vocal critics have to admit that he has a special way of inspiring youth players to give everything for him, and this batch of B teamers are more than ready to meet the challenge. I believe that Munir and Samper especially will make their marks this season.

Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Preview, Thoughts299 Comments

A case for the defense, aka “Not just any old defender, but almost”

Iniesta only comes up to here on me. No. Really.

Iniesta only comes up to here on me. No. Really.

The most fascinating debate of this summer and its transfer window, has been the debate raging about our two centerback signings, Jeremy Mathieu and Thomas Vermaelen. A respondent on Twitter said to me that Vermaelen was fine, but that he was expecting a “spectacular” signing.

So of course, precisely because I am guilty of thinking too much, I started thinking about Barça, defense and conceding goals. Then I started looking around at goals that the team conceded, and came to a rather surprising conclusion: if the system is working, it pretty much doesn’t matter WHO is playing at CB. Stick a dead dog or a squirrel out there, and off ya go.

The reasons why this is so are fairly obvious: the elegant possession game that the team plays minimized opponent possession. No possession, no chances, no goals. Couple that with an effective press and your keeper had better have excellent powers of concentration, for the 1 or 2 times per match that he might actually have to do something.
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Posted in Analysis, Thoughts, Transfers137 Comments

The Argentina Primer: You’re a Hot Mess…

…but I’m still into you.

 

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Posted in Analysis, World Cup288 Comments

The World Cup Predictions Pool Game Thing

Waka, waka — oh wait.

So, I was thinking of what to do during the World Cup and settled on a kind of predictions game. It’ll be too complicated if it was done game by game so my twitter followers kindly narrowed it down to a couple of simple questions, or for those who find it easier and/or more familiar – a kind of March Madness style bracket. I’ll detail both ways below.

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Posted in Analysis, Contests55 Comments

The Brazil Primer: When All You Have is a Neymar…

…everything looks like magic.

H/T @Emenderk

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Posted in Analysis, Neymar163 Comments

Gracies, Equip, aka “Thank you so much for being superhuman”

atmbusi

These are tough times. Poor babies that we are, we have to suffer through a team that finished second in the Liga, in it until the final match, made the Copa final and Champions League quarterfinals. In a sport in which a two-year cycle is extraordinary, our team has been at or near the top since 2008. Six years.

The club has been, and is under assault from every direction from media to its own supporters and people who have been lined up, waiting for Barça to fall as “I told you so” rings throughout the halls of the Camp Nou, shrieks from the fronts of newspapers and websites, a conga line of people who are lining up to kick dirt on the face of the prom king.

So this post is going to start and end saying what I think every last culer needs to say, right here and right now: Gracies, equip. Thank you for the fun, the joy and tears, taking kicks and various fouls, scoring goals and making the effort to do the colors that we love proud. Thank you for everything.
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Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Thoughts345 Comments

The malleability of absolution, aka “If one is responsible, then everyone is”

"D-oh!"

“D-oh!”

So. Barça ended a 3-match losing skid with something that wasn’t as much a comeback as a bit of common sense rearing its head.

“Hey, what say we stop hitting the ball directly AT the keeper.”

Messi scored a goal so all is right in the culer world again, but for me something more interesting happened — not for the first time, but for the first time a confluence of happy events conspired — two players who are objects of scorn had the temerity to have very good matches. Song and Mascherano.

For me yesterday’s match was different because I didn’t watch it live, instead choosing to take advantage of a picture-postcard Chicago day to log 60 miles on the bicycle. This gave me the rather extreme pleasure of being able to watch the match, and scroll through my social mad-ia timeline as things transpired and quite frankly, laugh.
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Posted in Analysis, La Liga, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts223 Comments

Goldilocks and the Camp Nou, aka “The case for Neymar”

clasney

Neymar has a problem.
Neymar IS a problem.

Whichever (or both) of those sentences you think true, there is one thing we can agree on: Neymar is a galvanizing figure on the world football stage. When he came to Barça at the beginning of this season for a pile of cash, nobody knew what to expect.

Cruijff said that Neymar and Messi were incompatible. Others cried luxury purchase, that the club needed a CB more than a Brazilian with malleable hair and an Instagram fetish.

Still others said that he was one of the best players in the world even at the tender age of 21, with associative play of the type that could fit in very effectively at Barça.

He came, and then came the contract, an ongoing legal wrangle that makes both of this piece’s opening sentences true.
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Posted in Analysis, Messi, Neymar, Thoughts49 Comments

FYI: Article 19 and FC Barcelona

My attempt at a disclaimer: While I am a barrister, Europe is not my home jurisdiction. I’ve spent limited time getting familiar with the applicable law and it’s entirely possible for me to have missed something. Corrections from those who know better are more than welcome.

A few resources to start us off:

What does Article 19 say?

Article 19 – Protection of minors

1. International transfers of players are only permitted if the player is over the age of 18.

2. The following three exceptions to this rule apply:

a) The player’s parents move to the country in which the new club is located for reasons not linked to football.

b) The transfer takes place within the territory of the European Union (EU) or European Economic Area (EEA) and the player is aged between 16 and 18. In this case, the new club must fulfil the following minimum obligations:

i. It shall provide the player with an adequate football education and/or training in line with the highest national standards.

ii. It shall guarantee the player an academic and/or school and/or vocational education and/or training, in addition to his football education and/or training, which will allow the player to pursue a career other than football should he cease playing professional football.

iii. It shall make all necessary arrangements to ensure that the player is looked after in the best possible way (optimum living standards with a host family or in club accommodation, appointment of a mentor at the club, etc.).

iv. It shall, on registration of such a player, provide the relevant association with proof that it is complying with the aforementioned obligations.

c) The player lives no further than 50km from a national border and the club with which the player wishes to be registered in the neighbouring association is also within 50km of that border. The maximum distance between the player’s domicile and the club’s headquarters shall be 100km. In such cases, the player must continue to live at home and the two associations concerned must give their explicit consent.

3. The conditions of this article shall also apply to any player who has never previously been registered with a club and is not a national of the country in which he wishes to be registered for the first time.

4. Every international transfer according to paragraph 2 and every first registration according to paragraph 3 is subject to the approval of the sub-committee appointed by the Players’ Status Committee for that purpose. The application for approval shall be submitted by the association that wishes to register the player. The former association shall be given the opportunity to submit its position. The sub-committee’s approval shall be obtained prior to any request from an association for an International Transfer Certificate and/or a first registration. Any violations of this provision will be sanctioned by the Disciplinary Committee in accordance with the FIFA Disciplinary Code. In addition to the association that failed to apply to the sub-committee, sanctions may also be imposed on the former association for issuing an International Transfer Certificate without the approval of the sub-committee, as well as on the clubs that reached an agreement for the transfer of a minor.

5. The procedures for applying to the sub-committee for a first registration and an international transfer of a minor are contained in Annexe 2 of these regulations.

So far, so straight-forward. International transfers of players under 18 are not permitted unless the player’s situation falls into one of three narrow exceptions. (As for how narrow those exceptions are, hold that thought.)

The process for any transfers that might fall under the exception seems to be the following:

1. The ‘destination’ FA (the FA of the club seeking to register the player) submits the proposed transfer for the approval of a FIFA sub-committee;

2. FIFA sub-committee examines the transfer and approves it under one of the exceptions;

3. ‘Destination’ FA requests an International Transfer Certificate (ITC) from the ‘home’ FA.

Any violations of this process could lead to sanctions not only for the club and the ‘destination’ FA, but also 1) the ‘home’ FA if they issue an ITC without sub-committee approval and 2) the transferring club.

Did Barca breach Article 19?

In short: yes. Undoubtedly. The Disciplinary Committee ruling implicates players signed between 2009 and 2013. Out of the players we know about, most are non-European, and quite a few moved to Barcelona without their parents. There’s simply no way they can fit within the exceptions.

However, Barca’s situation seems to be even more clear-cut than that.

We already covered how the approval process is supposed to work. This process became mandatory on 1 October 2009. One year after that, FIFA implemented the Transfer Matching System, and all applications for sub-committee approval went through the system.

From various bits and pieces in the Catalan press, it seems likely that Barca simply registered the players with the Catalan Federation, and the matter went no further. How this is possible, I’m not sure. But what we can infer from this is that Barca may have breached Article 19 as a result of not bothering with the process at all.

As for the defense put up by the club to the effect that Barca aren’t the intended target of Article 19 and are in fact an example for good youth development, forget it. Every club that gets pulled up for rule infringements says the same thing. We’re the good guys, you’re ruining kids’ lives, everybody else is doing it and you should go bother them instead, etc. This simply doesn’t fly.

Notably, in Midtjylland v FIFA, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) examined the question of whether the alleged inconsistent approach of FIFA in the application of Art 19 was a breach of the non-discrimination principle. It held that the Danish club could only assert its right to be treated in a way that was contrary to the Regulations where it could prove that FIFA had a constant practice of treating other clubs in a way contrary to the Regulations.

Without the legalese: Midtjylland can ask to be exempt from Article 19 if it can prove that FIFA makes constant exceptions for other clubs. Easy, right? We can all think of cases off the top of our heads.

Not so much. In that case, no such evidence was produced. FIFA’s response to the case of the Bayern player Midtjylland used as an example – as it would probably be if Barca complained about other clubs – was to shrug its shoulders and claim not to have examined the situation. If they don’t know about it, how could they have a constant practice of making exceptions?

Here we see Barca’s problem. The argument the club has to make is essentially this: ‘yes, we broke the rules, but everybody’s been doing it for years’. The necessary implication of such an argument is that Barca behaved the way it did in reliance on FIFA’s unspoken policy of letting infringements go, and for FIFA to suddenly change its policy of indulgence is unfair. But that’s just an unspoken expectation of not being disciplined – the expectation doesn’t trump the rule itself. And Barca broke the rule.

Finally: the club’s statement doesn’t even deny the breach.

What could we have done differently to avoid this outcome?

I have a certain amount of sympathy for those in charge of Barca, faced with this complex and difficult situation. Having said that, I don’t believe their response to this fiasco meets a minimal standard of executive competence, a pattern which has sadly manifested itself over and over in the past few years.

The Midtjylland decision tells us that the 3 exceptions provided for in Article 19 are not exhaustive. This was confirmed in Bordeaux v FIFA, which also tells us something else that is very important. It’s possibly the most important fact in this whole stupid situation, and I’ve not seen anybody bring it up.

Here it is: the CAS found that if a club believed special circumstances justified the making of an exception in a certain case for reasons beyond those defined in Article 19, it may engage its FA to make an application in writing on its behalf to the FIFA sub-committee for the transfer to be approved.

I don’t work in sports law. It took me five minutes of Googling and a bit of help from a few French speakers to find that out. This, to me, raises three questions: 1) did the club know about this avenue? 2) if so, why didn’t they take it up? 3) if not, what were the people in charge doing?

This failure is concrete. The second is a bit more arguable, but bear with me. In or around February 2013, FIFA ordered Barca to stop selecting six of their youth players for breaches of Article 19.

If, for some godforsaken reason, Barca hadn’t known that they were in breach of Article 19 before that, they had to know after February 2013. They must also have known that there was no plausible denial of their breach. The question then becomes: what’s to be done about that?

The club did one thing that’s absolutely beyond reproach – they stopped selecting the players in question for official matches, as they had been told to do.

But a past breach doesn’t disappear when the infringement stops in the present. Someone who stops polluting a river when charged with illegally discharging waste still illegally discharged the waste.

Barca responded to its prior breach in the following way:

“On March 1 2013, President Rosell sent a letter to the FIFA Secretary General to propose substantial modifications to Article 19 of the Protection of Underage Players to make it more effective.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is not the smartest approach. (If what I’ve read online is true, and the legal department weren’t even involved at this stage, that is simply inexcusable incompetence.) Quite aside from the dubious wisdom of lecturing FIFA on the greatness of La Masia, think of the best outcome from this letter – not just the best plausible outcome, but the best, period. That outcome is FIFA agreeing to maybe think about making some changes to its rules. Which, in fact, seems to have been the general gist of FIFA’s reply. Again: the damage was already done. A prospective amendment to the rules sometime in the future isn’t going to change that.

I can only hope that the club were in without prejudice communications with FIFA behind the scenes at the same time. By which I mean letters drafted by lawyers that took a more conciliatory tone and aimed to minimize the coming sanction. Because that’s what happens when you’re being investigated for a rule you broke – a sanction’s coming. Sensible commercial decision-makers manage risk. The best way to minimise the risk of a FIFA sanction would have been to reach some sort of compromise. Take a strong warning, a fine, something that won’t impact as heavily on the sporting project, and then figure out how to face the future.

Is the year long transfer ban an appropriate sanction?

Probably not. Here’s the ray of light Barca fans are looking for. It seems likely that Barca’s legal team will argue that the year-long transfer ban is a disproportionate sanction. And I’d say they’ve got a pretty good case.

The Midtjylland case is the only precedent I’m aware of. The Danish club were ‘issued with a strong warning’ for their infringement of Article 19, namely, registering 3 minor Nigerian players and applying for permits for a further 3. Yes, Barca’s breach was more severe, but there’s little justification for the punishment to be so much worse.

On the contrary, Barca could argue that there are mitigating circumstances in favour of a lesser sanction. Here’s where all the arguments about the merits of La Masia come in. The academy prides itself on an emphasis on welfare and personal development. If the rule is aimed at addressing exploitation, those arguments should have some weight.

What does all this mean in immediate, practical terms?

The reporting on this aspect of the case has been hilariously ineffectual and confusing. So let’s go back to the FIFA rules.

FIFA Disciplinary Code Art 124(2)

The appeal does not have a suspensive effect except with regard to orders to pay a sum of money.

The sanction will not be suspended when Barca lodges its appeal before the FIFA Appeal Committee. Let’s assume the hearing happens reasonably promptly. Here are the possibilities at this stage:

  1. Barca win at the Appeal Committee (where ‘win’ is defined as having the sanction reduced to a fine and/or a warning) and are able to sign players this summer. Predicting judgments is a fool’s game, but let’s just say I don’t think the odds are in our favour here.
  2. Barca lose at the Appeal Committee and immediately file an appeal before the CAS, along with an interim application to stay (delay) the sanction pending resolution of the appeal.

Here’s the relevant FIFA rule for appeals to CAS:

FIFA Statutes Art 67(4)

The appeal shall not have a suspensive effect. The appropriate FIFA body or, alternatively, CAS may order the appeal to have a suspensive effect.

Keep in mind that it takes about four months from the lodging of an appeal at CAS to the decision being handed down. If Barca fail at the FIFA Appeal Committee, the club probably needs to succeed in its application to CAS for stay if any transfers are going to be happening this summer.

In order to succeed in such an application, Barca need to demonstrate that 1) irreparable harm will be done to Barca if the ban is not stayed; 2) the ultimate appeal is likely to succeed and that 3) the interests of Barca in having the ban stayed outweigh the interests of FIFA in having the ban in place.

There are a few precedents for CAS granting such applications to clubs like Roma and Chelsea. On balance, looking at the criteria, I think Barca have a very good chance of having the ban stayed before the CAS appeal is decided. Which would at least solve the immediate problem and allow the crucial process of team rebuilding to begin.

What’s the likely outcome on appeal?

“The Panel stresses, first, that the task of the CAS is not to revise the content of the applicable rules but only to apply them. Second, it must be ascribed to the Appellants, especially the Club, the responsibility for not having taken into consideration the clear rules, however strict, set by FIFA with regard to the protection of minors…” – Cadiz v FIFA

As previously stated, I don’t see Barca winning the argument on breach. It will be very difficult for a judicial body to buy Barca’s argument, if Barca’s argument is that it broke the rules but should be exempt from them because it is an exemplary institution.

If you’re tempted to throw EU law at me at this point, hold your fire. I’ll address the point fully in the next section, but for now just note that CAS has consistently rejected arguments against Article 19 based on EU law.

On the other hand, I can easily see Barca winning the disproportionate punishment argument and having the sanction reduced to either a lesser ban or just a fine/warning.

What can we do to preserve the current youth system?

Even the best case scenario leaves Barca with problems for the future. If the rules don’t change, the club faces the prospect of changing its vision for La Masia. A system based on educating players from a very young age would necessarily have to exclude non-Spanish players under the current rules. (I assume this would also apply to other European clubs with similar practices, especially if Barca isn’t successful in getting the ban lifted.) Personally, I think that’s a shame for talented kids from countries with fewer resources for player development.

One of the suggestions I’ve seen in the past week is that a challenge could be mounted against Article 19 under EU law. Let’s go back to the FIFA rules for this one:

FIFA Statutes Art 68(2)

Recourse to ordinary courts of law is prohibited unless specifically provided for in the FIFA regulations. Recourse to ordinary courts of law for all types of provisional measures is also prohibited.

What this means is that Barca can’t go anywhere but CAS, and that body has been dismissive of any attempts to use international law against Article 19. For example, in the Cadiz case, CAS came to the conclusion that FIFA rules governing the transfer of youth players did not violate any mandatory principle of public policy under Swiss or international law, as the rules were in pursuit of a legitimate objective and proportionate to the objective sought. This ruling was endorsed in Midtjylland.

Without the legalese: Article 19 is fine because it exists to protect young players from exploitation, and the restrictions are tempered by providing reasonable exceptions to the rule. (For another example of how the legitimate/proportional test works, I wrote an article about the Bernard case that covers it.)

By the way, just in case you think this rule exists only to persecute Barca, regulation of the youth player market is actually pretty important. Read this and this and this.

The other possibility I’ve seen mentioned is one of the kids suing in the European courts, which takes the matter outside sporting justice entirely.

In 1995, the Bosman case before the European Court of Justice established that sport was subject to EU law only so far as it constituted an economic activity, including the activities of professional footballers in gainful employment. The right being invoked here and by the appellants in the Cadiz and Midtjylland cases is the right of freedom of movement for workers.

Keep in mind that Article 19 was drafted to comply with EU law. The second exception in Article 19 was actually added by FIFA pursuant to an agreement with the European Commission in 2001 so as to not run afoul of the right of freedom of movement. That exception only applies to players over the age of 16.

There’s an obvious problem with applying this right to very young players. They’re not workers. (Midtjyjlland touches on this.) La Masia players are not legally employed by Barcelona. In fact, they’re not allowed to sign professional contracts until they’re 16. So the right is an awkward fit at best.

Even if an European court ruled that the right of freedom of movement did apply to young players, it could still find Article 19 to be a valid restriction on the right because the rule exists in pursuit of a legitimate objective and is proportionate to the objective sought, just as CAS did.

So if legal avenues are unlikely to work, what can the club do?

Here are two ideas off the top of my head. One, in Midtjylland FIFA told CAS that a further limited exception to Article 19 existed for the purposes of development programs agreed between a national FA and a club. For example, Barca could sign an agreement with, say, the Korean FA to bring kids over. They would have to make guarantees as to education, but that shouldn’t be a problem at La Masia. I’m sure there would be pitfalls, but it’s a possibility worth exploring.

Two, Barca needs to get together with other clubs who run similar academy programs and lobby FIFA in an organised fashion. Maybe through the European Club Association, if there’s enough interest. It would be a lot more effective than being a lone voice in the wilderness, complaining about the dark hand of conspiracies.

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