Digital hardcore

MICHAEL Lewis’ brilliant book Moneyball is the real-life tale of startling sporting success on a shoestring. When baseball stattos demonstrated that the nitty-gritty players who actually win matches were greatly undervalued, Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane sat up and took note. Out went the scouts, in came a Wall Street bean counter who signed a bunch of apparent no-marks for peanuts, and the cut-price A’s started to mix it with Major League Baseball’s big spenders.

billybeaneThe book makes the compelling case that much baseball wisdom is wrong, and for a brief period its football stock was rising too. But with Moneyball‘s leading UK practitioner, Aidy Boothroyd, now out of work alongside fellow number crunchers Sam Allardyce, Iain Dowie and Alan Pardew, football’s proving to be a rather different ball game.

Beane’s own attempts to shake up the San Jose Earthquakes, with the help of one-time Leeds United meltdown egghead Bill Gerrard and ‘English Legend’ Darren Huckerby, have left the side dead last in Major League Soccer’s western conference with only 8 wins from 30.

In the east, Red Bull New York finished just two wins better off, but in a development more goofball than moneyball, they face Columbus Crew in tonight’s final – and nobody, not even the geeks, know how they did it.

rbny011How come, they’re all asking, a sub .500 side – that is, one which won less than half its regular season games – can earn a shot at winning the whole damn caboodle? With a win percentage almost identical to last season’s West Ham, it would be as zany as Alan Curbishley winning the Premier League. Any other team, said MLS commissioner Don Garber to the New York Times, and this ‘would be heralded as an incredible sports story. But when the Red Bulls do it people think it’s a joke.’

It’s a joke that’s already wearing thin. Only Red Bull’s North American scum standing on the brink of success could have Americans doubting the single thing that underpins their team sports. Red Bull New York suck. If they succeed, then the playoffs suck too.

They may well be badged up like the Village People, but a victory for fellow first-time finalists Columbus Crew at LA’s Home Depot Center tonight is the only hope for reason. According to New York’s official site, should the unthinkable happen a celebration will occur at Red Bull Arena on Tuesday. They’d better get a move on with it, then. Here’s hoping they don’t have to bother.

If it ain’t fixed, don’t break it

IN THE grand scheme of things, back-to-back draws aren’t much of a reality check. But on the way to their latest stalemate, Austria Salzburg’s supporters took in the village of Fuschl am See, where lies the corporate nerve centre of a company which, in 1984, adapted a Thai stimulant of which they now sell more than 3 billion cans a year worldwide. In 2005, the same firm bought their ailing football club and placed it in the ranks of other heavily-branded non-entities bearing their drink’s name and colours.

fuschlThose who chose to support 11 of Red Bull GmbH’s 4,000 employees have discovered that habitually topping Austria’s Bundesliga is scant consolation for routinely failing to secure salient European exposure for their brand. Those who didn’t have found the path from the country’s basement league, unlike the winding road to Fuschl am See, to be straight and true.

This season, however, the real Austria Salzburg are experiencing some resistance to their progress, with recent draws at Grünau and Strobl and an uncharacteristic away defeat at Bürmoos. Nevertheless, with just Saturday’s home date with as-yet winless St Georgen to go before the winter break, they’re tucked neatly behind Kuchl in second place and alle ist gut.

Since the Austrian fizz magnates unfurled their template in New York with the fanfare ‘We’ve changed the name, now we’re changing the game’, they’ve learned that, just as in Salzburg, old habits die hard and the team formerly known as MetroStars are still the league’s longest-running joke.

When two of their players were recently suspended for doping, one of the deputising soft drink adverts, rookie goalkeeper Danny Cepero, scored an 80-yard free kick on Giants Stadium’s hallucinogenic pitch and football entered new realms of synthesis.

But how ‘real’ is football anyway? If a recent spate of accounts are anything to go by, Eastern ingenuity distorts the game in more than just Salzburg and New York.

In his book, ‘The Fix’, Canadian journalist Declan Hill tells of meetings with Chinese-Malaysian fixers at the 2006 World Cup, focusing on Ghana’s 3-0 loss to Brazil and, hilariously, the failure to fix England’s game with Ecuador because Sven Goran Eriksson’s side weren’t considered good enough to score twice.

zenithMore recently, a Spanish judge’s taped Russian boasts that Zenit St Petersburg’s UEFA Cup semi final second leg defeat of Bayern Munich was bought, as well as suggestions that the final – in Manchester, against Rangers – was also compromised, preceded suspicious half time Asian betting patterns on a Championship match at Carrow Road in which Derby goalkeeper Roy Carroll was dismissed and subsequently dropped.

The rise of in-running betting has not only lead to the presence of ‘spotters’ in UK grounds exploiting the momentary gap in TV transmission to China by informing syndicates of what’s unfolding by mobile phone, but also the violent Newcastle murder of a Chinese couple known to be recruiting others to beat the Asian bookies.

The object of such obvious market appeal would have to be pretty robust to withstand the temptations money can bring, and we know how flaky the Premier League can be. If it didn’t come over all light-headed around the folding stuff, ‘Grand Slam Sunday’ would be a once in a lifetime event instead of occurring twice a season, West Ham would’ve been relegated for Carlos Tevez’s illegal registration and the likes of Thaksin Shinawatra and Arcadi Gaydamak wouldn’t be allowed to hold stakes in its precious member clubs.

newcastleunitedSeeing Garry Cook’s ‘Virgin of Asia’ became the latest side to benefit from Rob Styles’ over-assertive manner in the box, made me wonder what effect the boom in the Premier League’s overseas finance, aided by lax application of the fabled ‘Fit & Proper Persons Test’ and other excuses for governance from Richard Scudamore, has on its integrity.

Was the Professional Match Game Officials Board unprecedented last-minute wholesale changes to so-called ‘Select Group’ appointments recently an indication that whatever familiarity breeds, it ain’t good? And what’s happened to Mark Clattenburg, suspended days before the season fresh from having an expensive-looking hair weave?

Is it really appropriate that in Sky, the Premier League has paymaster, broadcaster and bookkeeper? How can they talk about the global appeal of the Premier League when there’s empty seats when its teams go on tour? Is the real reason that Game 39’s still on the agenda to tap into massive overseas gambling markets, extending Scudamore’s working relationship with those he really ought to be protecting the game from?

Don’t have nightmares, do sleep well.

The show about nothing

THERE’S an episode of Seinfeld in which Kramer accidentally gets a job whilst merely passing through an office block. Unqualified for the position, he’s promptly fired after a couple of days even though he never really worked there in the first place.

It’s easily done. I didn’t go to New York seeking employment, but sometimes an opportunity arises which is just too good to miss. “Most jobs take energy,” the ad said. “This one gives it! We have an exciting opportunity to join Red Bull New York as a Marketing Manager.” Now, I didn’t need to read any further. I knew I was the enthusiastic and goal-orientated person they were looking for. I’m committed to the sports industry, and it’s true – I’m deeply concerned about the growth of New York Red Bulls.

rbny009I found myself standing in a cheap suit in front Red Bull New York’s top brass before you could say Einstürzende Neubauten and, to my surprise, they set me on and I got to work. During my very first morning, I spent a whole year’s advertising budget on a piece of shit hoarding featuring striker Jozy Altidore kicking a red bull right up the arse (above).

It was well into the afternoon, around the time I was changing the club’s official anthem from The Rapture’s ‘Whoo! Alright, Yeah… Uh Huh’ to Edelweiss’ ‘Bring Me Edelweiss’, when they realised their mistake and hauled me over the coals. There was just enough time before I had to clear my desk of cracker crumbs to do a big shit in a plant pot and sign off a photoshoot of Juan Pablo Angel missing a bull’s arse with a banjo.

trapattoniIt’s just my rotten luck, as well, that another Red Bull opening has been filled: in May, the Salzburg job will be taken by ex-AZ Alkmaar miracle-worker, Co Adriaanse. Never liked him anyway. With one mad eye on shortly joining Ireland, Giovanni Trapattoni used the other one to watch a matadorial Rapid Vienna strike five deadly first-half blows upon his charges, before mercilessly twisting the blade twice in the second.

“It was not a defeat, it was a catastrophe,” Trapattoni said. ‘DEAD BULL!’ exclaimed the Austrian press, and it scarcely mattered to Austria Salzburg that their spring season opener at Taxham fell to wintry weather, because they were too busy guffawing to notice. In fact, they still haven’t stopped.

Philly Billies

sonsofben01REMEMBER the Sons of Ben, hardcore soccerphiles all dressed up with nowhere to go? Well, following MLS’ confirmation that Philadelphia will indeed be the league’s 16th franchisee come 2010, the 1,600 fans of no team now have one, but with no name. So, what frenetic phonetic will frame the future of Philly football? Watch this, erm, fpace.

Having already endured some turbulent episodes in the run-up to co-hosting Euro 2008 (questions asked in parliament of one club’s finances, another putting the league in the dock in an attempt to reduce a points deduction; it’s unbelievable stuff, I know) what the Austrian game didn’t need was for one of its leading sides to appeal against a 2-1 defeat because – wait for it – their dilly-dallying goalkeeper wasn’t ready for the game’s opening goal, a penalty. But that’s exactly what followed Rapid Vienna’s recent 2-1 loss at Cashpoint Altach.

Perhaps without the heat of UEFA’s breath on their necks, the ÖFB would have dismissed top of the table Rapid’s frantic invocation of Game Law 14 – which states that clubs from capital cities aren’t allowed to lose to villages of populations less than 7,000 – as mere sour grapes. However, unbelievably, this league fixture will be replayed in its entirety.

But what can you expect of a governing body which goes against all conventional wisdom and doesn’t even consider Edelweiss’ “Bring Me Edelwiess” as the anthem for Euro 2008? Instead, we have official mascots Trix and Flix featuring Shaggy – yes, that Shaggy – with “Like a Superstar”.

The summer finals’ motto is “Expect Emotions”, which is presumably a disclaimer to the sort of schizophrenic psychosis exposure to this shit induces. I mean, I don’t know about you, but when I think of Austria and Switzerland, I think of beer, yodeling, and bearded midgets frolicking with big titted fräuleins; not two polystyrene-suited dickheads abseiling to the tune of a Jamaican Gulf War veteran.

Too cold for ducks

As a sideswipe at the phoniness of fame and fortune, The Catcher in the Rye is so persuasive that its author, J. D. Salinger, hasn’t left the house since writing it in 1951, and Mark David Chapman shot John Lennon dead on its perceived say-so 30 years later.

But just because you enjoy the infectious cynicism of protagonist Holden Caulfield, doesn’t mean that you, too, will end up trembling in a Manhattan side street clutching an autograph book and a concealed weapon. No, you can cheerily share his concerns, such as where do Central Park’s ducks go during winter, without giving a damn about what happens to the rest of New York city’s wildlife. But I’ll tell you anyway.

The Red Bulls are on a pre-season team-building break with their Salzburg equivalent, where they probably spend their days rehearsing some crumby rap or other about what fun it is to work for an energy drink, and, with bladders brimming with the stuff, their evenings locked in lousy dormitories crying themselves to half an hour’s sleep on saturated mattresses.

rbny008Only joking. They’re just familiarising themselves with the surroundings, for not only do Red Bulls New York and Salzburg share a badge and colours, they will, from 2009, share grounds. Despite lying in different continents, you’ll be forgiven for thinking that their ersatz homes – Red Bull Park and the Bullen Arena – are one and the same; on television at least, which, for a global brand, is all that really matters. I mean, look at New York training in Salzburg (above) – or is it the other way round?

While David Beckham prepares once more to flog Major League Soccer to prime-time TV audiences, the league’s salary cap bypass for individuals of merit – the ‘Beckham exception’ – is snaring little else of note. Well, unless you count Juan Pablo Angel, that is. And that Mexican bloke that kept jumping the ball past awestruck defenders three World Cups ago.

It’s true that the face of MLS is being transformed, but it’s largely thanks to the league’s relaxed approach to sponsorship. Introduced to welcome a pair of charging bulls to New York’s jerseys, it will enable half the clubs to kick off this season advertising the usual shit, leaving the rest with a few phone calls to make. In a sportscape where the club is king, branded shirts are most un-American to the fan’s eye. Unless, of course, they’re unfortunate enough to support a club that is the sponsor, and vice versa.

Anyway, there’s a corner of the world where such lily-livers are frowned upon, where Coca-Cola is mixed with red wine because it alone doesn’t get you pissed, and not even an alpine winter stands in the way of what really matters.

svas058svas059Indoor football bridges the gap between autumn and spring in Austria, and it was Austria Salzburg’s pleasure to accept an invitation to get right in the faces of some of Bundesliga’s professional billboards on live TV at Salzburg Arena’s Hallencup.

Okay, so the side which heads the sixth division lost all their matches on the squeaky stuff, but that’s hardly the point. 1,500 violetten raised the roof for tussles with the likes of Cashpoint Altach and Josko Reid (boldly representing the worlds of betting and double glazing, respectively) while only a few hundred witnessed Altach’s loss to Linz in the final. ‘Goosebumps,’ proclaimed the press of Austria Salzburg’s good, old-fashioned ultraism, ‘enthusiasm one would wish for at every football ground.’

In the tournament’s afterglow, the overseer of Austria Salzburg’s re-emergence, Moritz Grobovschek, stepped down and a swift ballot ushered in Gernot Blaikner. A local businessman who worked with the club shortly before Red Bull’s takeover, it is hoped that their admirable principles retain their lustre and that, just like the ducks in Central Park, they eventually prove that some absences are only temporary.

Austria Salzburg’s brand new English language official site is here.

Dead Bull

It’s official, folks: Red Bull kills. Just one sip and that’s it, your sorry arse is going straight to hell. Actually, that’s not true: you’ll need a bit more than that. Anyway, for the sake of New Yorkers, the Detriot medics who this week warned that quaffing two cans of a ‘popular energy drink’ a day may mortally increase blood pressure really ought to pack their stethoscopes and head for the Big Apple.

You see, some months before the self-crowned ‘King of Beers’ tickled European sensibilities with their funny-the-first-time fantasy of ‘Soccertainment!’, Red Bull landed in the States clutching a blueprint for its reality.

At its heart lay Red Bull Park, the ‘Soccer and Entertainment Center’ and sometime home of New York’s MLS franchise. Thrilled by the proposed facility, a few thousand locals bought into Red Bull’s vision and dared to envisage the luminaries which would, one day, mostly keep its home bench warm.

Luis Figo’s and Ronaldo’s names went tantalisingly undenied by the club’s PR machine which recently blew a gasket when Thierry Henry spoke to the local rag. “I always say that one day I can play over there,” he said. “For me, New York is the best city in the world.”

Wow. So, how’s work on Red Bull Park coming along? Thanks to the intercontinental mass of pipes and valves they call the interweb, football and shopping’s latest cathedral reaches for the heavens right before our very eyes. Hmm. Better get a move on, boys! Henry’s only got so much va-va-voom left in the tank.

The failure of Red Bull and David Beckham to secure success for their playthings this season resulted, naturally, in the chop for their coaches. In a move contrary to the ‘laid-back sincerity’ of company head Dieter Mateschitz’s ‘brand philosophy’ – whatever that is – jumped-up middle-management decided ex-US national boss Bruce Arena’s objectives – whatever they were – haven’t been achieved.

While LA Galaxy sought to swiftly replace Frank Yallop with somebody Beckham’s heard of (namely, Ruud Gullit) the fall-out from Arena’s exit featured tales of a New York dressing room mutiny led by that pair of renowned shit-kickers, John Harkes and Claudio Reyna.

svas056There’s no such disquiet by a Salzburg airfield; discounting the nearby roar of jet engines and the screech of rubber on tarmac, that is. As Red Bull’s other bastard offspring staggers dazed and confused around Bundesliga no-man’s land, the real Austria Salzburg ended their sixth-division term against HSV Wals just as impressively as they started it, with five unanswered goals.

Herbstmeisters once again, beating second-placed Obertrum to the four-month hibernation period by six points, the club posed for a family snap in a supreme show of just how far they’ve progressed in the space of these pages.

Who needs Detroit quacks? It’s quite simple. Lay off the taurine, live long and prosper.

Bus fare home

As the familiar air of helpless dismay causes Britain’s talk radio station switchboards to short circuit, fans further afield are saying ‘enough is enough’ slightly more proactively.

Forsaken the need to qualify for a tournament they have never before graced, Austria’s national team have not so much been warming up, as melting down. Without a win this year, a section of embarrassed fans have called for the side’s withdrawal from Euro 2008.

The ‘Österreich zeigt rückgrat!’ (Austria, show some backbone!) campaign foresees a competition enriched by the absence of a side who, just this month, lost meekly to the clockmaking bankers next door.

In America, swimming similarly against the tide are The Sons of Ben, dedicated followers of a football club which doesn’t exist. Adopting a ‘build it and they will come’ outlook, the Philadelphians are trying to persuade Major League Soccer bigwigs to conjure up a brand new team in the city.

As if to prove that the lack of a side of their own is no obstacle to healthy rivalry, they recently took themselves to New York to give their unattached colours an airing and, more understandably, bad-mouth the locals.

rbny007In a corner of East Rutherford, the concrete shithole they call home, Red Bull have spent this season bringing a whole new meaning to the term ‘average attendance’. Despite reaching the climactic play-offs beloved of American sport, soccer crowds at Giants Stadium have been so underwhelming, its 80,000 capacity will next season be capped at just 15,000.

By comparison, tomorrow’s opponents – play-off hopefuls LA Galaxy – often see extensive queues outside their 27,000-seat Home Depot Center, although many of those probably turn up mistakenly anticipating a decent deal on shelving units.

As if those figures aren’t enough to turn Red Bull green with envy, when LA brought David Beckham to town it attracted what Jim Bowen might have called a ‘here’s what you could’ve won’ gate of over 66,000.

It would be appropriate if he had, because Beckham – like Bully’s Star Prize – has otherwise been about as much use to LA as a speedboat in a council flat.

Neither of the regular readers of these pages will require introduction to Austria Salzburg’s have-a-go heroes, and will be delighted to learn that the side will head the country’s sixth division into the winter break with a game to spare.

A hard-earned victory at former leaders Obertrum preceded three, four, and five-goal drubbings of Hof, Liefering, and Salzburg – who not only share a city with our violet friends, but play on an old stomping ground of theirs.

Ever the innovators, themed fan events have lately seen a Bavarian-style Oktoberfest and a Mexican chill-eating contest stretch Austria Salzburg’s two portaloos to the limits of their capabilities.

A proposed English football theme day will shortly do likewise, as the club’s ownership is taken from fans and placed into a range of anonymous offshore trusts, just for the sheer hell of it.

Bang on target

svas042While the wacky world of the Austrian Bundesliga manages to get itself dragged into a national arms scandal, the positive rumblings coming from the country’s unterligas are not going unnoticed.

National broadcaster ÖRF followed Austria Salzburg on last month’s invasion of picturesque Unken and, as if to underline the impact they have made on grassroots football, one fifth of the village of Schleedorf’s population made the trip to downtown Nonntal for Saturday’s fixture.

Awaiting them was the host’s most ambitious and bizarrely comical ‘choreo’ to date, which cast the home side as hunters – a crosshair tracking and dispatching it’s prey with a single bullet.

svas043On the field, the men in violet weren’t quite so clinical, and required half-time re-adjustment before pot-shots from Mario Schleindl and Ivan Pecaranin bagged the spoils.

After thirteen straight wins, an eight-point cushion allows der meisters-in-waiting to pencil in their party plans, certainly with more conviction than those plotting next season’s Bundesliga fixtures.

Just as GAK finally accepted a 28-point deduction for a variety of financial misdemeanours, it emerged that Rapid Vienna’s name was on a list of recipients of cash donations from an arms firm controversially supplying the neutral country with two billion euros worth of fighter jets.

Meanwhile, in the Big Apple, Red Bull finally filled their second ‘designated player’ spot. While the new arrival is hardly the gift from the gods hotly anticipated over in Los Angeles, he is, nonetheless, an angel. Juan Pablo Angel.

A Sturm in Heaven

jeanbaudrillardThe late Jean Baudrillard may have gushed “what is thought in Europe becomes reality in America”, but his goodwill hasn’t rubbed off on Red Bull. The United States is not yet utopia achieved for the Austrian firm. Far from it, in fact.

The imminent David Beckham has set Hollywood’s soccer moms dreaming, but over in the city that never sleeps, the arrival of Claudio Reyna has done little to excite New Yorkers ahead of the new season.

All the jabber has revolved instead around Red Bull New York losing more money than any MLS side before it. The $14m loss registered in little over twelve months includes the $3.5m they splurged on marketing and entertainment for the wash-out that was their inaugural fixture: small change for Red Bull, as is currently demonstrated much closer to home.

The Bundesliga, which their Salzburg franchise sit expensively atop, was rocked this week by a series of punishments dished out to the insolvent clubs from the city of Graz.

One-time Champions League outfit Sturm Graz received a 10 point penalty while neighbours GAK were hit to the tune of 22 points and face extinction. With the country gearing towards staging Euro 2008, its flagship competition faces embarrassment should a second major club vanish in as many seasons.

svas039Well, I say vanish – as we know, Austria Salzburg are actually alive and well danke schön, and their brand new terrace was the perfect backdrop to a display in memory of Gerhard Weiss, the young ultra killed on an autumn trip to Borussia Dortmund.

Fans of the German side were in attendance as Austria Salzburg sent Trimmelkam packing in fine style, scoring seven goals without reply to send Gustl Kofler’s men five points clear at the top of 2. Klasse Nord.

One year in, and the upstarts continue to grow. For a club which will shortly be able to field five youth teams upwards of the under-7s, the future looks increasingly bright. No doubt Red Bull wish they could say the same.

Home truths

Red Bull’s head of corporate sales, Danny Bahar, caused a stir in the autumn when he spoke about the realities of the firm’s involvement with football. 

His rather explicit words on the subject of tradition re-opened old wounds in Salzburg and set alarm bells ringing in New York:

“We don’t play football just for fun. It’s a marketing policy.

“Tradition doesn’t play a role. There’s no tradition in the U.S. You can start from fresh and you have the franchise model, so teams can move where they want.”

Thankfully, this would never happen over here, for nobody in a position of any real clout would be caught talking about the English game in such a crude manner.

Not even Chairman of the FA Premier League, Chairman of The Football Foundation, FA Board Director and vice-chairman of The FA’s International committee, Sir Dave Richards:

daverichards“Fan is just a terminology.

“There’s no difference between Marks and Spencer’s PLC and Manchester United PLC, Arsenal, Newcastle and Liverpool. It’s pure perception.

“We talk about customer service in football right now. We don’t talk about fan service. We talk about how we can deliver better things for the customer. We call them fans, but they buy our brands.”