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Red Passion goes to Downing Street

Posted by steigs on July 22, 2009

The devoted followers of the oft-troubled Wrexham team are petitioning the British Prime Minister to help save their team’s Racecourse Ground.

Wrexham fans have launched a petition for the Racecourse Ground to be protected by the local authority from being sold off without a replacement stadium being in place.

Besides being a North Wales sporting home of history, pedigree and now, following investment, some quality, the Racecourse Ground is also a symbol for all football fans of the need to protect clubs and their grounds from speculators seeking to make money out of them.

I’ve been to the Racecourse Ground to see a Wales-Canada friendly.  (See story below.)  It’s certainly no palace but it’s a home.  I can appreciate the pleasures of a familiar rundown place to see a game, that’s for sure.  And I have a soft spot for the team because it’s currently coached by one Dean Saunders, whose virtual self once played a key player/coach role for me in a Championship Manager game.

To an American, what is striking is how they’re trying to make this a national issue.  For us, stadiums are a local, maybe state-wide issue.  It’s hard to imagine anyone petitioning Barack to save a stadium, absent his hometown Cubs deciding to abandon Wrigley Field.  (And even then, as a Sox fan, it’s not clear to me how responsive the big guy would be…)

Wrexham – May 2004

Americans know little about Wales, that enclave on the western edge of the Britain.  The odd celebrity – Catherine Zeta Jones, Richard Burton – joins our glamourous cast.  Reaching back, there is the poet Dylan Thomas and his tale of a child’s Christmas in Wales.  But we don’t know much else.  Wales is rarely on the UK tourist circuit for Americans.  The Welsh, they’re British, right?  But quirky, with a funny language all their own?  Diana was the Princess of Wales, right?

In the UK the story goes that when President George W. Bush was introduced to young soprano Charlotte Church, contemporary Welsh celebrity, he asked what country Wales was in.  This may well be apocryphal, given the fervent British belief that Bush is an ignorant cowboy, but it suggests how Wales rests outside of our view, despite how near it is.

In Britain, Wales brings to mind coal mining, although there is little of it left, and holidays in the outdoors.  Mist-covered mountains and narrow hollows and summer weeks at the seaside in villages with odd-sounding names.  A British West Virginia, perhaps, with a touch of the Jersey shore tossed in.

Like the Scots, the Welsh came to soccer early, having been incorporated into Great Britain long before the game took modern form.  However, they have traditionally much fonder of rugby – a great sport for those rough and tumble miners in the valleys – but have made their own contributions to the sport.  Also, like the Scots, the Welsh have always competed separately from the English in international soccer.  And so a pleasant May afternoon finds M. and I in Wrexham, in northeastern Wales, to watch the Welsh national team take on another country with a large obnoxious neighbor – Canada.  It is a friendly, a chance for each team to play a warm-up game before upcoming World Cup qualifiers.

We are approaching the Racecourse Ground, home of Wrexham’s team which, confusingly, competes in the English lower divisions, as does the leading Welsh club of the moment, Cardiff.  There is a separate Welsh soccer league of smaller teams, a bunch of semi-pro clubs who eek out an existence in part by playing games on Friday nights when there are no English Premiership games for competition.  It is hard sitting so close to the flash and celebrity of the English league – Liverpool and Manchester United are only an hour’s drive away from Wrexham, at most.  In fact, Liverpool’s reserve team plays some of its games at the Racecourse Ground.

We haven’t been in Wrexham long.  There is little for tourists to do in the town, unless they are truly devoted Yalies.  An early benefactor of the school, one Elihu Yale who managed to get the whole university named for him, is buried in St. Giles in Wrexham.  Wrexham’s history is an industrial one, albeit one marked by economic struggle in recent years.  It has a population of about 40,000.

We park close to the Racecourse Ground and join the flow of fans in red Welsh replica jerseys.  They are using Welsh flags as capes and, in a few cases, as skirts.  The dragon in the center of the Welsh flag does make for a striking symbol.  (It is supposedly descended from King Arthur’s battle standard – wherever you are in the UK they make a claim for Camelot, it seems.)  We get leafleted by representatives of Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party, urging more power for the Welsh government in Cardiff.  A good nationalistic target audience, this.  M. and I are almost the only ones without Welsh paraphernalia of some sort.

We get a burger and fries from a cart near the entrance, as the parade of red goes by.  There is only one pub near the stadium and fans have packed it to the point of spilling outside, enjoying a pint in the May warmth.  The Racecourse Ground is in a semi-industrial area on one of the main routes out of town – we parked at an auto salvage yard making a few extra quid on the side.  The salesmen are doing a good business with “Wales – Land of My Fathers” scarves, a reference to the Welsh national anthem, “The Land of My Fathers.”  The fans include many families.  It makes for a good patriotic Saturday out with the kids.

Wales usually plays national team games in Cardiff, the Welsh capital down on the south coast.  Cardiff was, back in the day, a busy port, placed right near the old coal valleys.  It got a nifty new massive stadium in 1999, the Millennium Stadium, as part of urban renewal efforts, and has been hosting FA Cup finals while London’s Wembley is being rebuilt.  They use it for rugby too, of course, and for all important Welsh soccer games.  Playing this friendly in Wrexham gives the fans up here in the north a look at the team – and it appears to be working.

I had bought cheap tickets in advance and they prove to be in the standing terrace behind one goal.  The Racecourse Ground has, as best I can tell, no race course, being merely a modest soccer stadium with a capacity of 12,000 or so.  The stands along the sides of the field look newer and nicer, with reasonable seats.  They just haven’t gotten around to upgrading our section behind the goal, perhaps because they cannot afford to do so.  The stadium gradually fills, with only a few bare patches left in the stands.  No sign of Canadian fans.  You wouldn’t really expect any to make the long trip from the Great White North for a mere friendly against the Welsh but maybe some expatriates in London could show up and make some noise.  Then again, the Canucks probably think that sort of nationalistic behavior is embarrassingly American.

We settle in on the terrace, joining all the others standing behind the goal, enjoying the sun.  A dragon mascot bops around the edge of the field to amuse the children.  Then comes the pre-game entertainment and I have trouble not laughing – it is Mike Peters, the only Welsh singer whose albums I actually own!  Those of you who, like me, spent the 1980s listening to alternative rock may recall his band, the Alarm.  They started off as folk-flavored punks, big-haired acoustic guitar protest types, singing about making “The Stand” and “68 Guns.”  By the end of the decade they were selling out like everyone else, making decent mainstream guitar rock and managing a few hits in the process, such as “Rain in the Summertime.”

I explain this quickly to M., who did not listen to such music.  Peters, hair shorter but back to the acoustic guitar, gives us a couple of folk-style songs, one of which calls for a “New Wales.”  Then he gets the attention of the crowd by playing a Woody Guthrie riff with lyrics claiming that “Wales is bound for glory” and working the names of the team’s players and coach into the song as the reason why.  “And Ryan Giggs is going to get us there!”  The crowd cheers.

For the last few decades, the notion that Wales was bound for soccer glory would have been laughable.  They did play, and play well, in the 1958 World Cup, going out 1-0 in the quarter-finals to eventual champion Brazil.  But they haven’t been back since.  They can point to more rugby history than soccer history.

It is what happened in the last two years that has this crowd excited.  For years the leading Welsh soccer star has been Ryan Giggs, the Manchester United left winger.  Even with an international superstar like Giggs Wales still lost time and time again.  Then a Manchester United player of the previous generation took over as coach.  Mark Hughes, known as “Sparky,” had also played for years for the Welsh national team and was making the transition from playing to coaching.  Sparky, who is prematurely gray, changed the tactics to better suit the team’s strengths – particularly the speedy wingers Giggs and young Newcastle player Craig Bellamy – and things turned around.

This is a good moment to pause and explain how you qualify to play for a particular national team.  The basic rule is that you have to be a citizen of a country.  But in a world where people of different citizenships often have children together, there are regularly players who can choose between nations.  (Once you represent a country as an adult, you can’t switch to another by changing your citizenship – something which used to happen in the 1930s and 1950s all the time.)  Often players with double heritage go with the team that offers the best chance to play.  Thus, during the 1990s the US national team featured sons born abroad to American military men, like Earnie Stewart (raised in Holland) and Tom Dooley (raised in Germany) who knew they could get to the World Cup as Americans and probably not as Dutch or Germans players.

The situation is more complicated in the UK, where there are English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish national teams.  British citizens can often claim multiple soccer nationalities through parents and grandparents and various places of residence.  The story goes that Ryan Giggs had a choice between England and Wales – and if he had chosen England he would played for them for years, including a World Cup or two.  But he thought of himself as Welsh and chose to play for Wales, despite growing up mostly in Manchester.  Michael Owen, the story goes, also had a choice between England and Wales and chose to play for England.

In Euro 2004 qualifying the Welsh shocked Italy in Cardiff early on, winning 2-1, and actually led their group for much of the qualifying process.  Alas, injuries took their toll on the handful of top players the Welsh have – as did the angered Italians who won 4-0 when the two teams met again in Italy.  Wales ended up second in their group, earning a play-off spot as a result.  They just had to beat Russia over a two-leg play-off to go to the tournament in Portugal, which would have been the first major tourney for the Welsh in decades.  Talk about a size differential – Wales versus Russia.  The Welsh managed a 0-0 draw in Moscow but lost 1-0 in Cardiff.  Argh!

I know all about this because M. had been rooting for the Welsh during the qualifiers, charmed by the land on a previous visit and unable to resist their deeply underdog status.  (They upset Italy!  No one knows about them!  They have a coach named Sparky!)  M. had become so pro-Welsh she had taken to calling Michael Owen “traitor to Wales” for choosing to play for England.    I suspect some of our terrace neighbors in their red replica jerseys and “Land of My Fathers” scarves would agree.

The game kicks off.  M. and I recognize a handful of Canadian players.  Dwayne DeRosario is a forward who plays for San Jose in MLS – he scored the winning goal in the MLS Cup in 2001.  Goalie Pat Onstad also plays for San Jose.  The other forward, Tomasz Radzinski plays in the English league for Everton.  The Canadians are in white.

On the Welsh team, in red, there is the familiar Ryan Giggs, although he seems to be playing forward, probably because Celtic’s John Hartson – “the fat man” – is out with an injury.  Bellamy is also running free.  Sparky is testing out some new defenders in the back line, looking ahead to the next round of qualifiers, for the 2006 World Cup, now that the great opportunity has been missed.

The Welsh start brightly, moving the ball well.  They look sloppy in defense, however, and Canada looks capable on the counter-attack fast breaks.  Ten minutes into the game Giggs lofts in a corner kick which forces a defender to hastily clear the ball and it rebounds dangerously off the crossbar.  But the Welsh are unable to get to it to score.

The Welsh keep attacking.  In minute 21 a nice chip finds Bellamy in the Canadian box.  Instead of making the obvious move of flicking it over to a nearby Giggs he passes over him and on to Paul Parry, who heads it home.  1-0, Wales!

The crowd comes awake.  Flags are waved, horns tooted.  The chants demonstrate a variety of ways to pronounce Wales from the drawn-out “Waaa-lll-eeesss!” to a sharp “Wales!”

As we cheer, the Welsh offense is continuing to generate chances.  Giggs almost scores on a free kick and Bellamy breaks clear on goal late in the first half but his shot is rather lame.  It goes to the half, 1-0.  M. and I are concluding the US has little to fear from the Canadians in the upcoming World Cup qualifying process in our region.  Giggs has been all over the place, clearly the best player on the field.  M. comments that he has proven he can “beat two men on the dribble but not three.”  As much fun as it is to watch him she expresses a hope that he starts passing the ball after he gets by the second guy.  The Canadians are obviously afraid of him, which creates space for Bellamy to attack.

After the half-time break, Canada comes out in better form.  Or maybe the Welsh have simply relaxed, figuring they are in charge.  The game becomes relatively even with the Canadians enjoying a lot of possession.  Giggs keeps motoring and almost gets an assist with a pinpoint cross.  Then, since this is a friendly, the substitutions start rolling in as the coaches seek to get several more players a taste of international soccer.  By the last twenty minutes of the game the flow of play has been disrupted.  The pace is gone.  Bellamy is still roaring along and gets a couple of more good chances but doesn’t score.

M. is assessing the Welsh on this rare chance to see them up close.  She is annoyed that they haven’t finished off the Canadians with another goal.  Why can’t they close it out?  Me, I think they tried but got a little tired.  Bellamy has had plenty of chances.  M. wonders if it is more of a mental thing, of not being experienced in closing out games after being a losing team for so long.  Or maybe it is about Sparky’s tactics, which are built for speedy attacks – they are not so good at holding the ball and killing the clock.  They’d rather run forward and attack.  In basketball terms, they are built to fast break, not play half-court ball.

With five minutes to go, Sparky subs out Giggs and the star receives a deserved standing ovation.  He may never get to play in a World Cup but the Welsh love him, perhaps because they know he could have if he had abandoned them.  The player who replaces him, Chris Llewelyn, gets an even louder cheer.  He’s a fringe national team player but is a member of the Wrexham team, getting a chance to play for Wales in front of his home fans.  No wonder Sparky is so popular – he doesn’t just win, he knows how to give the people what they want.

The game ends 1-0 and the Welsh depart happy, still savoring the idea that they can be winners.  And we head deeper into Snowdonia to explore what they’ve saved from the English..

Posted in CONCACAF, Wales | 2 Comments »

Overkill, but that’s a good thing!

Posted by steigs on March 6, 2008

The US starts World Cup qualifying in June with a two-leg preliminary series against either Barbados (ranked #133) or Dominica (ranked #182).  Should be a formality before the semi-final round of regional qualifying later in the year. 

Still, we need to make sure our team is sharp and has some practice in advance of those games, given the tremendous costs of a hiccup in qualifying.  So the Federation is scheduling some friendlies to get the team warmed up.  What teams will we play?  It’s looking like:

England at Wembley on May 28th.  At Spain on June 4th.  And Argentina on June 8th, perhaps at the Meadowlands.  That would be three of the top 11 teams in FIFA’s rankings (such as they are).  That’s a string of three games — two on the road — with maybe one-third of the countries that can claim with a straight face to be contenders to win the World Cup.  Yeah, I know England just choked out of Euro 2008 qualifying and Spain routinely blows it once it makes it to an international tourney.  Still, that’s a murderer’s row of games.  That should quiet the bigsoccer types who complained about our weak friendlies in advance of the ’06 Cup, much as I enjoyed a second opportunity to see Latvia play in person.

Yeah, our team might be ready to play mighty Barbados after that trio of games.  If they survive.  I can’t imagine what the Federation will schedule as a warm-up for the final round of qualifying next year.  Maybe Brazil and road games in Italy, Germany, Holland AND an African tour to play Ivory Coast and Ghana?  Yowza.

Posted in Argentina, CONCACAF, England, Spain, US, World Cup | Leave a Comment »

Oh, Canada

Posted by steigs on February 13, 2008

We American fans often complain about US Soccer.  Well, as Pitch Invasion reminds us, we’re light years ahead of our neighbors to the north:

On August 28th Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) president Colin Linford resigned, a decision that brought Canadian supporters back to reality. The CSA is essentially a federation run by volunteers who oversee a $14-million business. When Linford resigned he said a culture of amateurism prevailed and the only way to save the federation was to disband the CSA.

The Globe and Mail provides some historical background:

Once Sharpe was gone, the CSA collapsed into chaos. Internal bickering and Titanic-like intransigence of its board of directors – which includes representatives (and bickering, conflicting agendas) from all the provinces – has left the CSA with no president, no technical director, no CEO, and on the hook for a big (unspecified) settlement to former executive Fred Nykamp, who was lured away from his old job at Basketball Canada, only to be dumped to the curb without serving a single day in office.

Wait, didn’t Canada just host an apparently successful U-20 World Cup?  Yes, yes it did.  But that was after spending years messing around, per the Globe and Mail:

Early in the decade, it was mired in a misguided, impractical plan to launch a new coast-to-coast pro loop, the Canadian United Soccer League. Organizers had significant sponsorship money lined up – but only if they could sign up eight owners and a national television deal. They couldn’t. Turned out most of the energy was funnelled into an “affinity card” scheme, that would essentially direct-market to Canada’s soccer parents, offering modest discounts in exchange for enduring an ongoing advertising blitz.

An affinity card scheme?  Makes you pretty grateful for MLS, such as it is.  No wonder they love Toronto FC so much up there. 

There’s an opportunity for Canada in CONCACAF right now.  They’ve got some good players (hello, DeRosario!)  The US only beat them in last year’s Gold Cup semi-final game on a controversial late goal.  They’ve got a real home field in Toronto for qualifying.  And once you get past Mexico and the US, CONCACAF does not look that tough in the upcoming 2010 World Cup qualifying.  Costa Rica?  Failed to impress in Germany.  Honduras has Suazo, who tore up Serie A last season.  Trinidad & Tobago is aging and torn by in-fighting.  Panama?  Guatemala?

Their semi-final group is, like it was for the ’06 Cup, a toughie.  Mexico, Jamaica, Honduras.  (Assuming no immense flops in the preliminary round.)  If you assume El Tri go through, it’ll take some good games but the Canucks could get through to the Hex.  And if they can get there, I don’t look forward to the US going to Toronto if the Canadians are still feeling aggrieved over the ’07 Gold Cup game…

Posted in CONCACAF | Leave a Comment »

You Don’t Know Jack

Posted by steigs on February 11, 2008

The stink of corruption and sleaze has been a constant around FIFA in recent years, with questionable television and sponsorship deals.  Heck, the awarding of the 2006 World Cup to Germany was marked by controversy — hence the need to institute a “rotation” system to make certain that the aggrieved South Africans got the 2010 tourney. 

We Americans have little reason to criticize FIFA since our own region is dominated by a crook and slimebag of the first order, a man named Jack Warner.  Love the underdog Trinidad and Tobago team at the 2006 World Cup?  Warner is a big reason that team has fallen apart in acrimony.  He’s been caught with his hand in the till repeatedly yet skates free because he’s tight with FIFA’s leadership.  Ian Plenderleith does a service reminding us of his misdeeds:

It might also be mentioned that at last year’s Gold Cup, Guadeloupe reached the semi-finals, while T&T, with their best players suspended by the democracy-loving Warner, failed to get out of the group stage. Nonetheless, Warner found the performance “disappointing”, because, he told media, “when you bring back some of the top players [that is, lift their suspensions] you expect them to perform.

“You could talk whatever ‘big bucks’ you want,” he elaborated, “you could talk whatever football organisation you want, whether you are a trade union or not. At the end of the day, you judge how you play on the field.” Meanwhile, “irritants” such as the World Cup bonus issue, due for settlement by arbitration in London next month, were holding the team back.

It all makes sense. The team played badly because they formed a union to try and claim the money they’d been promised, and because they were a little suspicious of the Federation’s claim there was no money left in the World Cup pot after expenses. Then the player’s lawyers revealed that there was $30 million mysteriously missing from the Federation’s financial calculations.

$30 million?  That’s real money in the US — imagine how far that would go in Trinidad.  Wonder how much of it is in Jack’s pocket? 

Hopefully, one of these days “Uncle Phil” Anschutz, with all his billions, will help oust this guy.  We should put our own house in order.  On the field, the US has come a long way in international soccer but, let’s face it, we’re still learning.  But we should be a leader in keeping sports clean — lord knows, we’ve had enough practice.

Posted in CONCACAF | Leave a Comment »