fallout

nuclear-mushroom-cloud

It’s fun watching a car wreck, isn’t it? We’re given physical evidence of this every time there’s one on the highway, as a long line or rubberneckers slows as they approach the scene of the accident. Craning our necks even as we’ve passed in an attempt to take it all in, we take some morbid satisfaction having captured a glimpse of the carnage.

Well, so long as we don’t know anyone that’s involved.

Watching and commenting in the echo chamber that surrounded Wednesday morning’s FIFA corruption scandal and arrests, it felt an awful lot like the rubberneckers on the highway. But instead of a normal accident, it’s lbeen lies we’re passing a nuclear explosion a few miles off the express way.

Everyone’s slowed their roll, stopped to survey the damage, and offered up a hot take or twelve. Ooh look, Chuck Blazer did rat everyone out. And there were arrests in Switzerland at the FIFA Congress. The South African government has been implicated as well? Wait, Nike has been too? Jack Warner has been arrested, and then sent to the hospital, and now has a legion of children singing songs about him? Holy freaking crap! You get the feeling that the longer you look, the more you’ll be able to take in. I mean, it’s Friday and the highway is still backed up.

And we’ve all enjoyed it. Thoroughly.

The problem is, though we might be enjoying the carnage at the moment, it could end up engulfing US soccer, too. Well, some corners of it anyway. And the joy that many of my fellow citizens have felt at watching FIFA get smacked by the long arm of the American law, I fear that could quickly turn to ire when the fallout hits a little closer to home.

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revealed: USL in Cincinnati

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WSOTP - Blog - Cincinnati USL.fw

Late last night — or early this morning, depending on how you want to look at it — some seismic news shook the Cincinnati soccer scene. As revealed by good friend Chad Hollingsworth from Scratching the Pitch, full-fledged professional soccer would be returning to the Queen City in the form of a new USL franchise.

No, this isn’t the long rumored move of the Dayton Dutch Lions to Cincinnati. Nor is it the USL PDL’s Cincinnati Dutch Lions stepping up a level in the ladder, either. I’ve also received confirmation that there is zero involvement from the already established Cincinnati Saints of the NPSL. This is a brand, spanking new club — admittedly with some loose ties to the Dutch Lions organization.

So who is this new club, where did they come from, and how this all come to be?

Word of a new USL franchise first came across my desk back in December of 2014, and I’ve been chasing information on it ever since. Admittedly, extruding any sort of information on the topic proved extremely difficult. Wrong paths were followed. Dead ends were discovered. Red herrings were hooked. But the wet weather of the last month has finally yielded spring flowers.

Let’s start with what we already know.

As Chad disclosed, the new Cincinnati USL club will be feature an ownership group fronted by Jeff Berding. He’s spent the last 17 years working for the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals, currently holding the title of Director of Sales and Public Affairs.

Jeff’s ties to Cincinnati run deeper than just his role with the Bengals. He attended the same high school as myself, graduating from Cincinnati St. Xavier in 1985. Afterward, he attended Xavier University. Berding also spent nearly five years as an elected official, serving as a Cincinnati City Councilman from 2005 to 20011.

As for his ties to soccer, Mr. Berding currently serves as the President of the Board of Directors of local youth soccer power, Kings-Hammer FC. For those who have followed the USL for some time, that club name may ring a very interesting bell. It’s the lovechild of a “joint-venture” between local youth side Hammer FC and former local USL Second Division franchise, the Cincinnati Kings. While that professional club may have gone belly up in 2009, the youth club has continued to thrive. Additionally, Berding’s LinkedIn profile indicated he’s also spent a spell on the sidelines as a youth coach for local parochial school St. Ursula Villa, too.

Also mentioned in the Scratching the Pitch article was another interesting soccer relationship: Berding served on the board of the Cincinnati Dutch Lions. More on that later.

While my sources confirmed the exact same information as what Chad wrote, aside from knowing that the team plans to begin play in Spring of 2016, that’s all we knew definitively about the prospects of USL coming to Cincinnati.

That wasn’t enough for me. So I, along with WSOTP Podcast partner Jeremy Lance, dug a bit deeper.

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pic of the week 4/13-4/19

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Awful Alamodome Soccer Pitch

I don’t know what it is about North American soccer, but for the most part, we seem to really struggle with the field of play. The most common complaint levied against American/Canadian pitches is our over-reliance on synthetic, “turf” surfaces that are tough on players muscles and joints. They’re often lined for other sports, reinforcing the stereo type that the teams playing there are second class citizens. They can be tough to play on too, from inconsistent bouncing to increasing the speed of play. And some of the biggest names in MLS — particularly those of the elder, European star persuasion — have opted to just bypass games played on the fake playing surfaces altogether. The turf monster also caused a fuss ahead of this summers Women’s World Cup, where all six host stadiums will feature artificial fields, prompting a lawsuit from players led by American Abby Wambach.

But over the last year or so, ingenious groundsmen around the country have turned to an alternative solution to hosting matches in stadiums that feature turf — laying actual grass on top of the fake stuff, kind of like a turf toupée.

We saw it last summer with friendlies and international fixtures played in stadiums like Dallas gargantuan Cowboy Stadium and Indianapolis Lucas Oil Stadium, and even during World Cup qualifying when the national team took to Seattle’s Century Link Field. We saw it once again last week when the US hosted Mexico in San Antonio’s Alamodome. And in theory, it allows high-capacity NFL and collegiate football stadiums the chance to capitalize on the increasingly recognized cash cows that are international soccer fixtures.

Problem is, these fields are great in theory alone. The turf itself never looks as good as promised, and is often far worse than it’s appearance. Last week, Mexico threatened to pull out of the friendly (itself nothing more than a cash grab) because the conditions were so unsafe. And really, every time US soccer sanctions this solution, they’re not doing anything more than playing a giant game of Russian Roulette. And they lost that gamble when Kyle Beckerman went down injured against El Trí — how it took this long for a US injury to finally occur on one of these pathetic excuses for a field is a little mind-blowing.

Fact of the matter is, there are probably a hundred stadiums in this country that have natural grass surfaces suitable for high level soccer. And if a city with a large stadium wants in on the action, they should be required to provide a field fit for playing before they’re even be considered. I’m not saying another temporary solution can’t be used either, but this one certainly isn’t working.

US Soccer, for whatever reason can’t look beyond the safety of its own players, just to make a buck. It’s embarrassing, and the heroes we root on deserve far more than what we’re giving them.

breaking new ground

WSOTP - Blog - Louisville City Opener.fwGoing into the 2015 season, there was a lot of buzz about a new American soccer team being forced to play in a facility that didn’t exactly suit their needs.

Soccer — after a decade of preaching that soccer specific stadiums was the way forward for the professional game here — would be returning to the baseball diamond for competitive matches once again, and there have predictably been calls for concerns on both sides of the equation.

Baseball stadiums, of course, aren’t really built with soccer in mind. They’re rarely long enough for a standard sized pitch and are just as likely to offer insufficient width at the length they can offer. And while some fans are fairly close to the action, usually down one of the baselines, others — like much of the outfield and behind home plate — are really far away from much of the action. And that’s not even dealing with the need to develop a feasible method for dealing with the infield. Playing on the dirt isn’t an option, and the pitcher’s mound has to be moved in some fashion.

All of that is just from the soccer perspective. Think of what how baseball teams feel about sharing their field.

A player’s need for a clean, perfect playing surface is nearly equal between soccer and baseball, and for the seam reasons too. Imperfections in the surface can drastically affect the direction a ground ball or pass will take. And a season of soccer does arguably chew up the turf far more than your average season of baseball would, even though there are normally three to four times the number of home baseball dates per season than there are soccer ones. And speaking of scheduling games, finding a way to fit soccer into the already packed baseball season schedule can be an arduous task, too.

Now to be fair, those issues alone are more than enough motivation for a club to go looking for a more suitable home. And luckily, the baseball stadium solution has been deemed a temporary one.

If you’re nodding along thinking, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. We’ve heard about all of this New York City FC playing at Yankee Stadium mumbo jumbo before”… hold your horses, just a minute. I’m not talking about NYCFC.

I’m talking about Louisville City FC.

You know: the other, other City team that’s new to American soccer this year.

It’s a little confusing, so hang with me here. Louisville City FC wear purple, white and gold just like the other new City, Orlando City SC. And technically, Louisville City took over Orlando City’s franchise rights in the third division USL when Orlando City moved up to MLS this season. Further muddying the waters is the fact that there are further ties between the clubs, including Orlando City using Louisville City as their MLS-mandated minor league affiliate in USL this season. 

So now that we’ve caught you up to speed, many were not aware that the maiden voyage for Louisville City FC is taking place in a baseball stadium much like New York City FC.

But unlike NYCFC — who are playing at arguably the most famous stadium in all of baseball —  the new USL club are setting up shop at Louisville Slugger Field. For those not familiar with it, it’s the home of the Louisville Bats, the AAA minor league affiliate for the Cincinnati Reds.

I’ve had the privilege of taking in a baseball game at Louisville Slugger Field before — I lived in Louisville for two years, which is also when I founded this site — and it’s a fabulous, intimate, little stadium. The 13,000-seater stadium is a far cry from the cavernous 49,642-seat stadium the new New York team calls home in the Bronx, but still features many of the modern comforts we’ve grown accustomed too without losing its cozy feel. It’s in a great spot in Louisville, with easy access to ample food and entertainment options. And it’s easily accessible… well, it will be once the famed “Spaghetti Junction” of I-71, I-64 and I-65 is finally no longer under construction.

When it was first announced that Louisville might get a team at Slugger Field, I thought it wouldn’t be a bad home ground. So long as it was only a temporary one, that is.

But just the same, the concerns voiced about NYCFC’s use of Yankee Stadium were concerns that I shared about this arrangement, too. And just like the Yankees stars that voiced their own apprehensions about a ground-share agreement, the Bats have voiced their worries, too.

However, none of those concerns proved strong enough to deter Louisville being selected as the landing spot for Orlando’s former USL franchise, and plans proceeded forward with Slugger Field being the eventual home of the club.

So how did the opening day go, at least for the soccer club that is?

Pondcast co-host Jeremy and I made the 125-mile trip down I-71 from Cincinnati to catch the game against fellow USL debutant Saint Louis FC, and I can say with 100% confidence that it went “pretty damn well”.

First off, full credit must be given to the supporters for making opening day for soccer in Louisville the success that it was. Announced attendance stood at an impressive 6067. Although an extremely beautiful looking game with clear, sunny skies, the temperatures hovered in the low 50’s in the sun and a chilling wind blew across the length of the pitch. So it’s possible the weather kept that number from climbing higher than it already was.

The Louisville Coopers — a supporters group that predated the decision to give Louisville the USL franchise — were out in full force, numbering in the hundreds. Sat behind the third baseline goal, they chanted loudly, waved flags and bellowed dark purple smoke. They were further aided by a 80-member-strong contingent from St. Louis, a similarly founded supporters group that goes by the name of St. Louligans. Together, they injected a special buzz and energy that could be felt throughout the crowd.

For the home side at least, that crowd energy filtered down onto the pitch. Though Saint Louis FC looked sharp in the opening half, they never really troubled the home side’s goal. And thanks to a pair of goals on either side of halftime, City sealed the victory in their first ever match with emphatic, backheel-assisted, curling winner from 20-year-old Brit, Charlie Adams.

Did any of my or anyone else’s fears about the surface and small size of pitch play a role at all?

The pitch was certainly small; my guess is it was no more than 105 yards long and 70 yards wide. However, play didn’t look overly rushed or too crowded. So the impact there was minimal, but no different from other small pitches around the country. The surface obstacles, however, seemed a bigger concern.

The largest of those was the pitcher’s mound, which was modified prior to the start of the season to be lowered into the ground and covered with a smooth surface. It falls just outside the third base line penalty area, and is slightly raised when compared against the grass around it. I watched it like a hawk throughout the match, and didn’t once notice it interfering with play. The rest of the infield was surprisingly covered with old-school, traditional Astroturf. It looked decent enough from a distance, and didn’t seem to affect play either. I even pressed man-of-the-match Charlie Adams and Louisville manager James O’Connor after the match to see if either thought the field surface or smaller pitch size was a factor in the game, and both believed it wasn’t.

With a clear win in the stands and a win on the pitch, it’s hard to declare the inaugural professional soccer match in Louisville anything other than a success.

So where exactly does that leave my thoughts on playing in a baseball park?

Much like what we saw with New York City’s debut at Yankee Stadium a few weeks before, it seems that the venue is what the fans and clubs make of it. If you can fill it with impassioned supporters and put a decent product on the field, the limitations of the facility will be minimized. Sure, neither wants (or can) live there forever. But it will do for now.

What’s more important, particularly in the case in Louisville, is that new ground is being broken. There’s never been professional soccer in Kentucky before. Ever.

And even though the home that professional soccer plays out in isn’t ideal, I’m pretty sure the fans in Kentucky will take less than ideal over nothing at all.

promotion & relegation survey: personal reflections

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WSOTP - Blog - Promotion & Relegation Reflections.fw

This is the third and final article in a three part series based on the results from a survey that ran on the site in December and January that looked to gauge the actual fan and owner interest in the implementation of Promotion & Relegation in the US and Canadian professional soccer pyramids. 

Read part one: Supporter Results  |  Read part two: Owner Results

I have to admit that making the decision on whether or not to write these series of articles was not any easy one. The debate I’ve held with myself over writing about the subject of promotion and relegation stretches back for the better part of a year.

Deep down, I knew that doing so would bring me a windfall of grief.

My words would be twisted, my intentions distorted and my mind numbed by the incessant drumming of some of the debate’s largest figureheads. All that happened well before I’d ever written a word on the topic in this space, so it was destined to be worse once I voluntarily jumped in with the sharks. It has been.

But if I could imagine a world in a vacuum where one could talk about pro/rel in the US and Canada without igniting a firestorm and one’s name being dragged through the mud, it’s a fascinating topic to discuss.

Why?

Set aside the incendiary nature of the debate as it currently stands. A comparison of the positives and the negatives of promotion and relegation’s implementation against the pros and cons of the current system requires so many different layers of thought. Logistics, finances, structure, migration path, legalities, desires — all of these are key elements in the conversation. And when one system appears to be beneficial for one of those factors, it could be a huge detriment to one of the others.

I love reasonable, level-headed and cordial debates like these. And it’s for that reason that I considered writing about promotion and relegation long before I ever knew of anyone named Ted — I just never got around to it, other than stringing together the occasional set of 140 character opinions on Twitter.

But it’s probably for the best that I didn’t. Because the reality is, it’s morphed into a ridiculously combustible topic here.

It’s a conversation that features extremely passionate group(s) of supporters and opponents. Both sets seem to be growing, but so too are those that have grown annoyed with the discussion and its tone. The mere mention of the phrase “pro/rel” on Twitter can literally set off a never-ending stream of notifications on your cell phone for the rest of the night. It’s hard to not get caught up in it — particularly for someone like me whose passion for the game pretty much defines their existence.

Unfortunately, in all of the mudslinging that goes down, there’s lots of hyperbole and opinion that’s tossed in alongside it like they’re undisputed facts.

That drives me bonkers.

Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion. But if you’re going to broadcast yours and attack others unsolicited for theirs, you damn well better have more than a “belief” to back it up. To be honest, soccer is too important to me as a human being to allow potentially incredibly influential popular opinion to be established without it having some solid data to lean against.

That’s the reason I ran these surveys in the first place: to establish the most comprehensive data set on the opinions and desires of two of North American soccer’s biggest constituents. I didn’t care where the numbers fell one way or another — I just want something to refer back to other than hunches and speculation.

So with all that said, what is my opinion on the topic of promotion and relegation here in the US and Canada? What are my reasons for those thoughts? And did my thoughts change after seeing the results of the surveys?

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pic of the week 3/16-3/22

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Mario Balotelli Being Held Back by Liverpool Supporters

There were probably a dozen images that could have earned this week’s Pic of the Week plaudits, and about half of them came directly from the Liverpool-Manchester United derby that took place yesterday morning. And I’ll be honest, Gerrard seeing red just 37 seconds after stepping on the pitch was a really hard candidate to turn down. But there was really only on moment that could possibly earn the honors. That moment? When the already cautioned substitute Mario Balotelli had to be restrained by his own supporters at Anfield after a clash near the touchline with United’s Chris Smalling.

Tensions were high as Liverpool were already reduced to playing with ten men and had pulled one back just ten minutes earlier. And when he appeared as a substitute, it only seemed inevitable that Mario would make his way on to the pitch and then see red himself. After picking up a needless yellow for clipping a heel moments before, we nearly saw further fireworks — if not for the quick thinking of the nearby Liverpool faithful.

Only Mario, right?

promotion & relegation survey: owner results

WSOTP - Blog - Promotion & Relegation Owner Resultsfw.fw

This is the second article in a three-part series based on the results from a survey that ran on the site in December and January that looked to gauge the actual fan and owner interest in the implementation of Promotion & Relegation in the US and Canadian professional soccer pyramids.

Read part one: Supporter Results  |  Read part three: Personal Reflections

When I first devised the idea of running the promotion and relegation survey, like many that had come before it, it was nothing more than a supporters poll.

In itself, it wasn’t that bad that the survey would wind up similar to other polls that had been run. But pondering it over, it felt limiting to go down that path again.

Ultimately, to truly gain a deeper understanding on the subject, we would need to broaden the perspective the subject. Since we’ve already heard from the largest constituent base of the North American soccer market already surveyed and analyzed — the fans — I wondered: who else should have a say in this debate?

As mentioned in the last article, we the fans are the end consumer in football. And so far, the promotion and relegation movement’s primary goal has been try to influence the demand for the game we drive enough to force US Soccer and the Canadian Soccer Association’s hands. But for any of us that have taken a simple course in economics, you’ll recall that in order for there to be consumers, there must also be producers.

And what we’ve not heard to this point is what the producers of football want.

We’re talking about the owners, the chairmen, the CEO’s, the big wig types. Do they favor promotion and relegation, are they fine with the current system, or do they want something entirely different?

So why exactly do we want to know what they think?

Ownership opinions obviously matter for a multitude of reasons. They have the most to gain from a promotion and relegation system, but also stand to have the most to lose. They’re almost always fans of soccer themselves, too. But perhaps at its most basic level, without owners opening up their check books to take a large financial risk on a still niche sport, successful and viable professional soccer in this country becomes a much more difficult task to achieve. As such, they speak for the clubs themselves. And or that reason alone, their input matters just as much as the fans’.

Too, supporters of pro/rel often claim that the lower league clubs — like those in the NASL, USL, PDL and NPSL — want promotion and relegation themselves. But as alluded to above, I don’t recall an owner of a North American soccer club publicly supporting the system. Though maybe I haven’t been looking hard enough, either.

So, with that in mind, I set out to find out what the clubs want.

While lower league clubs get to mingle with and occasionally topple the big boys of Major League Soccer in the US Open Cup, does their leadership feel they could do that consistently? Do they feel they should get to move up the ladder if they prove themselves on the field? Are they feeling held down by “the man” — erm, USSF/CSA?

Now when it comes to actually gathering the answers to those questions from the decision makers in US and Canadian soccer? Significantly easier said than done.

Read on to find out more about who we talked to, and what they actually said.

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pic of the week 3/2-3/8

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Altiore Flipped Off

So yeah, this was supposed to go up at the beginning of the week, but things got busy and I forgot to publish. But the image selected for the latest “Pic of the Week” is just too good to not be shared, even if temporarily forgotten. What follows is what you would have seen if I had published it on time…


 

Above we see a man who has been granted few opportunities to smile over the past 18 months finally getting an opportunity to smile. Even when being presented an unappreciative face and lewd gesture from a member of the opposition support, he doesn’t care. That’s the reaction of a man who scored two goals that day — his second and third goals since joining Sunderland in July of 2013, by the way. Look how wide he’s beaming. Unburdened. Freed. Relief. I can practically taste the joy.

The moment, when shared by Toronto FC’s Twitter, was described as Jozy Altidore’s “Troll Face”. Maybe he was trolling bird-wheeling Whitecaps fan, Kirsty Olychick. Maybe he wasn’t. But either way, the moment captured in that photograph is awesome for more reasons than one — probably two if you ask Jozy.

 

promotion & relegation survey: supporter results

WSOTP - Blog - Promotion & Relegation Fan Resultsfw.fw

This is the first article in a three-part series based on the results from a survey that ran on the site in December and January that looked to gauge the actual fan and owner interest in the implementation of Promotion & Relegation in the US and Canadian professional soccer pyramids.

Read part two: Owner Results  |  Read part three: Personal Reflections

Supporters — as I’ve written before — are the lifeblood of the beautiful game.

In the most basic of senses, the professional version of the game couldn’t even exist without us. Every dollar that is pumped into the machine that is modern professional soccer comes from you and I. We pour our money directly in by way of purchasing tickets, gear and other club paraphernalia. And we also indirectly fund the billions that broadcast providers are willing to pay to air games, both through the subscriptions we pay to use their services and via advertisers willing to pay ungodly amounts of money to have their names in our faces while we’re watching.

So as the primary client for football — or ultimate end product that the soccer entertainment companies sell, depending on how you want to look at it — it would be natural to assume we are entitled to have a say in how the game is run and delivered to us. You see it all the time. Fans calling for a manager’s head. Demands for new players. Cries about the limited access to watching games on television. Calls for lower ticket prices. It’s so common place that you probably don’t even notice it.

Yet most of the time, our requests and demands fall on the intentionally deaf ears of those that run the game. Even when the powers that be do decide to bow to the demands of the supporters, their concessions are often small and/or ancillary. But just because we don’t often have the desired power to make the changes we would like to see in the game, that doesn’t stop the debate from raging on amongst us.

The amount of whining and whingeing within American soccer circles right now is at an all-time high, both in diversity and in volume. Hot button topics range from how Klinsmann runs the national team to hemming and hawing over a particular team’s new kits. More fans, more opinions, more debates: growth is good right?

But if I had to single out just one topic that’s caught the most attention over the last year? That would have to be promotion and relegation in the American and Canadian professional soccer systems. Or more specifically, the lack thereof.

I don’t feel like I’m exaggerating when I say the fires fueling the “pro/rel” debate are burning out of control right now. No matter your stance on the issue, it’s practically impossible to have not yet been dragged into the mire at least once in some forum or another. Heated arguments unfold on message boards, Twitter, Facebook and occasionally even in your local soccer pub. It’s unavoidable. The rhetoric is thick, the instigators aggressive and the sides entrenched.

Should we use it or should we not use it? I’m not particularly concerned with that in this post — I’ll do my best to leave my own opinions on the debate for Part III of this series.

Instead, I want to know not only what people actually want, but also how much people actually want Promotion and Relegation. No more generalized statements, no more inferences, no more room for interpretation. Cold, hard data.

You see, one of the oft utilized arguments put forth by the supporters of promotion and relegation’s implementation is that the “majority of soccer fans in this country want promotion and relegation”. Depending on how it’s being phrased, you might also hear that “they demand it”, too. And those arguments are often issued with such an air of infallibility that many just accept it as fact.

But is it really? That’s what I intended to get to the bottom of with the WSOTP Promotion & Relegation Survey.

Did we get that? Well, read on and find out.

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pic of the week 12/29-1/4

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Steven Defour Red or Dead

A few weeks back, our featured “Pic of the Week” showed Fernando Torres receiving a warm reception from supporters upon his return to his former club. And while this week’s selection also features a picture of a former player being greeted back at his old stomping grounds, it’s fair to say that Steven Defour was welcomed back in a drastically different tone. So why exactly did Defour get such a hostile greeting at his Standard Liège compared to El Niño’s at Atlético? While Torres returned to play for his former club, Defour returned to play against his former club… with their arch rivals.

After spending five years with Les Rouches, the highly rated Belgian international moved on to Porto — despite constant links to Manchester United, including an odd “get well soon” letter from Sir Alex Ferguson in 2009. A talented player moving on to a bigger club was something the Standard Liège supporters could tolerate. What they couldn’t tolerate, however, was Defour returning to the Belgium’s Jupiler Pro League to play for the most hated foes, Anderlecht.

Unfortunately, Defour did just that this transfer window. And as such, the red faithful of Standard expressed their displeasure with a massive tifo showing his head decapitated from its body.

Apparently the message got through to Defour and he decided to heed the advice of his former supporters in the only way possible: by seeing red in the match. He was sent off in the second half for picking up a second yellow. Better to see red rather than to actually end up, you know… dead. Wise move.