Jetlag is a marvelous thing. The drilling outside the hostal wakes you up at 9am, but you’re so tired from the previous three nights not sleeping, that when you go back to sleep you find that you’re getting up when the Spanish have already finished their siesta. Yes I’m on a quick vacation having flown off on what passes as a cheap ticket these days–the 9/11 recession having put paid to available frequent flyer seats–to Yurp.
This 4am insomnia is happening in the deep south of Spain, at Terifa, the jumping off point to Morocco. So this gives me the chance to discuss the world conversation. That conversation is of course not immigration, Iraq or oil–it’s football. But it all comes back to topics we know well, especially those of immigration and globalization as the World Cup is underway.
The Mexican waiter in the lily white province of Alberta – cheap flights go via Calgary apparently – told us Brazil wouldn’t win the World cup, but neither would Mexico. Tonight’s waiter told the group of Frenchies next to us that their team was plus mejor, which I think meant too old. I think he’s probably right, although one of them who claimed to be Italian, reminded us about Theirry Henry–who at 28 is in his prime and excels in the English league when he wants to. Thus far, Henry has failed to do anything in 3 of the 4 major international tournaments he’s been in, and showed too little verve in their opening two games to change my mind.
The Italians themselves beat a very determined Ghana team in which Chelsea’s third fiddle midfielder Michael Essien showed why they paid $40m for him, and but also why he scored 2 goals last season while Chelsea’s first fiddle midfielder Frank Lampard scored 20. The Italians looked in rather too good shape for a nation that had a steroid scandal a few years back. Perhaps there was something in the pasta.
They looked tough to beat, as did the Argies (sorry, but I’ve been reading The Sun and am not being PC for this column) winning 2-1 but pressed by a very good Ivory Coast, and destroying Serbia & Montenegro 6-0 in a wonderful display of attacking football. The Cote D’Ivoire team was led by yet another essentially French Chelsea player Didier Drogba, who scored. As did Chelsea’s Argie Hernan Crespo (twice so far) and its Dutch Winger, Arjen Robben.
Robben scored against Serbia & Montenegro. S&M is sadly going away, in that since the recent referendum in Montenegro it’s the only country in the World Cup that isn’t one country anymore. (Forgetting that I still can’t explain to my fiancee why England is a country that’s different from the rest of the UK in football but not politics).
If you’re sensing a theme, it’s clear that footballers follow the money, and there are basically no border restrictions. So they end up at the richest clubs, and Chelsea is the club that happens to be owned by the world’s richest soccer fan, Russian oligarch Roman Abramovitch. And just in case they didn’t have enough players, immediately before the world cup they bought Michael Ballack, Germany’s captain and best midfielder, and Ukrainian star striker Andrei Schevchenko.
So it’s now much easier for many players to get into their national teams than the leading club sides. Many of the domestic leagues, which produce the TV money to fund the huge salaries and transfer fees, are being used as practice sessions for the real competiton– the European Champions league.
So soccer, which used to have all its best on view at one time only at the World Cup, now is looking more like baseball or basketball, where all the talent is concentrated in a few teams in the US. When Chelsea play Barcelona or Arsenal play AC Milan in the Champions league, you’re looking at the best players in the world. Ironically American sports are trying to capitalize on the non-American players now starring in the US’ domestic leagues by having international world championships–by the way in the most recent editions the Japanese won the baseball and the Argies won the basketball. But it’s a little tough for MLB and the NBA to convince the public that they really value international competition when they call their domestic best the “World Champions.”
There are some things that would be good for soccer to import from the US. A salary cap would force the Chelseas and AC Milans to release some of their back-ups to star elsewhere. One of the pleasures of the World Cup thus far has been seeing the stars surrounded by their less talented teammates. On the other hand no one wants to import the appalling American concept of static leagues with no relegation to minor leagues. That ruins half the excitement–it’s done just to ensure the weaker teams’ owners financial future. And we’re supposed to be the free market capitalists?
But for now, those concerns are forgotten. Last Wednesday I indulged in pleasure – drinking Sherry in Jerez and watching Brazil with a group of drunken policemen who believe that this time it really is Spain’s year. Their results so far (two big wins) suggest they might be right.
Next stop is the UK, where the story is all about a young man’s hopefully healed foot. Can Rooney can save England, and can the UK press (and not just them) can find anything else to talk about? Early indications are yes and no.