Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Anatomy of a World Record Transfer Saga

Full disclosure: I am a Tottenham supporter, so this Gareth Bale "transfer saga" has worked me up. That doesn't mean I have lost my journalistic sensibilities, but it's clear the English media has. How Gareth Bale could go from 100% clear cut remaining a Tottenham player on Thursday to demanding a transfer the next day is beyond me, even with all that's shrouded in mystery. But, as an experiment in studying media reports, let's track the recent goings-on of Gareth Bale's apparent Real Madrid courtship.

Reports began to flare up when Spanish daily Marca, who do make no bones about the fact they love Real Madrid, published a piece saying that Gareth Bale had already agreed a move to the Bernabeu, but only now was it being revealed. Bale is "quoted" as saying,

"You made me a promise. You promised if we didn't qualify for the Champions League and a good offer turned up you'd listen to it. Well that offer has arrived and I want to play for Real Madrid. So keep your word and negotiate." He also said, "I'm not interested in Manchester United or any other club. I only want to play for Real Madrid."

Flashback one year to the Luka Modric transfer saga, when Marca published an article that rang similar bells to the Bale one above. In fact, they had quotes from Modric himself, when he said,

"You made me a promise. You promised if we didn't qualify for the Champions League and a good offer turned up you'd listen to it. Well that offer has arrived and I want to play for Real Madrid. So keep your word and negotiate. I'm not interested in Manchester United or any other club. I only want to play for Real Madrid."

Ironic, isn't it? Even for a paper that is for all intents and purposes a club mouthpiece, blatantly recycling quotes that weren't even said to begin with is a new low. And weren't there reports of Modric being frustrated at Real this season anyway? All that glitters certainly isn't gold (Certainly funnier now that Modric himself is rumored to be part of the fee Spurs "want" to ship Bale to Madrid). Even this slice of hilarious self-parody masquerading as journalism couldn't help but get picked up by the English tabloids, who have now run with the story creating full-bloated chaos.

By Sunday, most English tabloids had written stories saying bids from Real have been rejected by Spurs, but few of them could agree on the fee. The Daily Mirror said an £81m bid was nixed, which the Sun agreed with. Marca apparently agreed with the Sun but said the bid was 1 million quid less. The Daily Mail claimed the bid was £82m. ESPNFC (not even an English tabloid) went so far as to say the bid was €100m (or £86.3m). Well at least they could agree a bid was "made". Stoking the fires was the lack of noise from Jonathan Barnett, Bale's agent, Spurs, and Bale himself, indicating that something might be occurring behind the scenes.

As this piece is being written on Tuesday, Sky Sports have claimed a bid was made by Real at £85m, and has been on the table for a week, while also slashing betting rates that Bale will be leaving Spurs on their sister website SkyBet. Isn't that just a funny coincidence? The Daily Mirror claim Spurs have dug in their heels and are holding out for £126m, and cite Marca as their source. At this rate if it's sunny out and Marca claimed the sky was blue, I still wouldn't believe it. It doesn't help that reports have been circulating that Real were preparing an offer of 51 million pounds plus Fabio Coentrao and Angel Di Maria for Bale, despite no apparent desire from any of the other players to leave Real, or any indication that this offer was actually a thought.

So, to sum things up for those lost, is every source claims a bid has been made, but they can't agree price, time-frame, or what Daniel Levy is even doing at this point (hopefully enjoying some strong alcohol as he may need it). Combine the lack of clarity with a lack of trust that many fans have in the English media for not accurately reporting on transfer sagas, the entire situation has descended into a farce.

What will come next will be the constant reporting from Spurs Lodge on whether Bale is training, and how current Real Madrid players (especially Luka Modric) back Bale to come to Spurs. Even Zinedine Zidane, Real's director of football, is trumpeting a "once-in-a-lifetime chance" to join Los Blancos. With the entire situation reeking of the Ronaldo transfer saga 4 year back, the drama (manufactured or not), is certainly there, and isn't subsiding any time soon, and the English tabloids will feast on it, while the frustration mounts around them.

Does Gareth Bale actually want to move to Real Madrid? Who knows. Have Real Madrid even made a suitable offer yet, or is the paper talk just that? Who knows. Will Daniel Levy and Florentino Perez have a steel cage match to decide Bale's future club? Who knows. Is everyone reading these stories starting to grow numb to transfer sagas and tabloid trespassing? That's more certain. The anatomy of a transfer saga of this magnitude is complicated, stupid, and filled with mis-information leading everyone to wonder who is remotely trustworthy anymore. I for one will only believe Bale is staying when the transfer window shuts on September 2, or whether the Spurs official twitter account says he's leaving. Everything up until then is hearsay and bloviation on a spectacular level. But at least there's a silver lining to this farcical mess:

I haven't seen the word "sources" mentioned once.

Marca quote comparison courtesy Spurs blog Dear Mr. Levy. Real Madrid bid aggregation from papers courtesy Spurs blog Cartilage Free Captain.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Yanks are Coming, the Yanks are Coming!

It's no secret that the English love their soccer/football. One of my favorite sayings in the sport comes from Brazil when it comes to dealing with their national team: "The English invented it, the Brazilians perfected it". But the inventors of the game get tetchy when their top clubs are bought by non-English investors, and especially when the buyers are now coming from the colonies. Americans now own 6 Premier League clubs, which surprisingly is more there than Americans that owned the original MLS clubs in 1996. David Conn, a very good writer from the Guardian,  does not like the influx of Yanks in the Premier League, since they don't explain their motivations for why they bought in. Aside from the obvious "he's an anti-American jingoist" argument coming from some, does he have a point? Is the influx of American owners in the Premier League bad for the English game? If you believe, maybe you aren't quite as a patriotic as you thought.

Sports teams are very unique businesses. Even with the differences between the US and England, sports teams are still very similar businesses on both sides of the pond. They are part of the public trust, usually owned for more exposure, and often not run for a profit (in the English case, see Abramovich, Roman). One of my favorite quotes about sports ownership came from new Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula when he bought the team. On whether he bought the Sabres to make money, he replied, "If I want to make some money, I'll go drill a gas well." The English certainly don't think clubs were made to make money either, but then why are the owners like John Henry of Red Sox and Liverpool fame, Randy Lerner of Aston Villa, and Ellis Short of Sunderland attracted to the Premier League? Cashing in on a global brand exploding in value.

The amount of money being pumped into the Premier League is stunning, and it's only growing. When clubs like Manchester City are spending near 100 million pounds on transfer fees alone, it's no wonder that American billionaires want to cash in on the boom. Bobby McMahon of Forbes put it perfectly when he said:

"When you combine revenue growth with a worldwide profit and global customers (fans) who exhibit some of the characteristics of junkies it's really a no brainer for any well-heeled businessman. Where else could you pick up a 5% share of a global brand for $300 million? Actually, the surprise is that there are any English owners left."

McMahon nails it on two fronts. One is the true explosion of value, and even on the pretense that sports teams are not bought for return on investment, the amount of money being put into the game means that any businessman with the wherewithal to buy into the Premier League means that for a publicity grab/vanity project, there's a lot of money to be made here. It's not that the clubs were designed to make money, but as an aside to what the true motivations are, it's certainly worth the splash. And for Shad Khan, he bought Fulham for the aforementioned $300 million, still a fraction of the price he paid to buy the Jacksonville Jaguars, which are one of the least valued NFL franchises. And for the wages? Still the NFL pays more to their players at the top end than almost any club, sans maybe Chelsea and Manchester City. So for Khan to buy Fulham and pay less at every turn than he does for the Jaguars, with the cross-promotion opportunities offered to him since the Jaguars are playing games in London, buying Fulham is a no-brainer. It also doesn't help that the English owners that remain have trouble competing on the same financial fronts that the more free-spending clubs do, and look at Everton for the pluperfect example. In fact, I don't think they'd be complaining if Khan bought their beloved club.

Conn also has the seemingly compulsory mention in article like this that the US is the only country never entranced by the 150 year old game of football. The US is just now being entranced by football, specifically the English game, as evidenced by NBC paying $280 million in rights fees to the Premier League for 3 years of airing rights. The Premier League is the most watched domestic league in the United States, way more than even the local league MLS, so the publicity for the new investors works both in England and the US. It's not just cashing in on a boom in England, it's cashing in on the impending boom in the US. Shrewd businessmen have to know when to buy and when to sell, and this is the time to buy.

Conn also wonders why no other country has their top domestic clubs being sold to foreign investors at the "alarming" rate England is having. Well, it does help that England has the perfect league for foreign investment. English speaking, widest in popularity, most competitive, and most potential for growing revenue across the 20 teams, as opposed to just two. In Spain, most clubs are in the midst of a financial crisis not just because the country is, but because all the revenue is siphoned by Real Madrid and Barcelona, and there's not much else to go around. In Italy, complicated rules of player movement, fans colored by hooliganism, and match-fixing scandals seemingly every day of the week turn off most investors, sans the new ones for Roma. And in Germany, who Conn mentions specifically, aside from Bayern Munich, what club name has the potential to become a global brand? While that league is more financially healthy than both the Italian and Spanish leagues, the possibility for revenue growth on the level of the Premier League is small. Whatever the motivation of the American investors is, the Premier League is the best soccer league in the world to buy into, bar none.

Maybe the motivation is to make money, or assist in growing the National Football League in England, or just to have their name gain some more clout. Whatever it is, American owners have found a potential gold mine in the Barclays Premier League that is just now starting to be discovered. If English fans are worried on the grounds of possible ground-shaking changes to the structure of the game, maybe those fears are slightly more founded, but even those don't make sense, despite the stupidity of the financial model the Premier League relies on. That conversation is for another day. But as of now, it just seems like another case of "The Yanks don't care for football, so why are they buying our teams?", and the anti-American narrative.

And anyone who has read this site before knows what I think about narratives.

Friday, July 5, 2013

A Breakdown of Jozy Altidore's Wearside Move

In what may turn out to be the most important transfer involving an American player in years, Jozy Altidore is moving from AZ to Sunderland. Early returns from US fans are mixed, and there is reason to be both excited and worried. But, as Sunderland underwent massive change last season when Martin O'Neill was sacked and Paolo di Canio was brought in, the prospect of Altidore moving Wearside became more interesting. Even if you're one of the skeptics, this move is a fascinating one for both Altidore and Sunderland.

When Di Canio arrived at the Stadium of Light, the approach for Sunderland became more pragmatic, free-flowing, as opposed to Martin O'Neill's style. Jozy Altidore would certainly not have fit in the latter, but how does he fit in Di Canio's system? Kristan Heneage of ESPNFC, who covers Sunderland, provided some clarity:

"Expect to see him line up in a 4-4-2 formation alongside Steven Fletcher and be given more of the donkey work (hard and boring work). The idea is that they compliment each other and Fletcher's poaching is supplemented by Jozy's hard graft and channel running."

While Altidore was never playing in a 4-4-2 with AZ, he did play with other forwards up top, despite being used as a lone forward in Jurgen Klinsmann's preferred 4-2-3-1. Steven Fletcher as a poacher should complement Altidore in the same way Clint Dempsey does for the national team (although Dempsey is better). The major worry for US fans is whether Sunderland have the midfield to give him the necessary service, and Heneage believes they do.

"(Sunderland) do have the midfielders to be creative. Sessegnon and Johnson will be his main supply lines and good ones at that."

While Adam Johnson did struggle at points last year, he can be a decent passer of the ball, along with the more technical of the two in Stephane Sessegnon. Sebastian Larsson can also create service if needed. On the overall approach for Sunderland under Di Canio, Heneage's response will seem familiar to US National team supporters.

"Overall, they'll be quick transition, with a direct (not long) approach. Ball would be put out wide and then work its way into the box by crossing or through balls. Jozy could thrive in it."

Di Canio's system seems remarkably similar to the one Jurgen Klinsmann runs, aside from the 2 strikers, doesn't it? So long as the midfield and the wingers are able to cross (it helps that Larsson is one of the best dead ball crossers in the Premier League), Altidore should be able to do quite well if it's something he's somewhat familiar with.

Many US fans are colored with fear because of his failures with Hull City in 2009-10, and believe his style is not suited for the English game as a result. While that was a bad season for him, he was 3 years younger and that Hull team was a bit of a trainwreck, and no young striker could have succeeded in that situation. His maturity level has improved dramatically, and dealing with the adversity with Klinsmann that he's dealt with will certainly help him with the pressures of the Premier League.

Or maybe the fear from fans comes from just the team he's playing on? What if he went to another team, such as Newcastle? Heneage also covers Newcastle, and is a supporter of theirs, so what would he think? He didn't give the most ringing endorsement of Alan Pardew and company.

(Newcastle's midfield) is perhaps nicer looking in terms of technical quality, but the derby (3-0 Sunderland over Newcastle at St. James Park last April), didn't exactly show that. It would have been  good for Jozy to try Newcastle but then they've been kicking and rushing for most of last season.

In short: while it may have looked nicer on paper to go to Newcastle, Alan Pardew's style doesn't really make it the best situation. Couple that with the instability in the dugout and boardroom with Joe Kinnear as the new director of football, it's probably better for Altidore to become a Mackem than a Geordie at this point.

This move is an important one for Altidore as he is still 23 and coming into his own as the featured target for the US national team. While some of the fears about him in the Premier League may be somewhat founded, on closer look he's set up for more success than first glances would lead you to believe.

He's not scoring 31 goals for Sunderland this season, but 15 would be nice. And based on the evidence, it's probably not that far of a stretch to see that happening.