awakening of the sleeping giants

Between them, India and China house a staggering 36% of the world’s population. They’re the only two countries in the world with over a billion people living within their borders, with the next closest country boasting only a “paltry” 312 million (Hooray, 3rd place U.S.A.).

there has to be a world class chinese footballer somewhere in that crowd.

The general consensus amongst the “experts” is that the two Asian countries are both budding superpowers on the world stage, and will play major roles in global politics and business alike in the coming decades. Considering the might in manpower and brainpower that their massive populations provide, I’m frankly a little amazed they haven’t taken over the world yet… though if you visit any American outlet mall, you could be forgiven if you think they already have.

Anyway, one would expect that this same power in numbers would also be of huge benefit for them when it comes to footballing dominance too. If nothing else, India and China would have significantly larger pools of players from which to choose. With governments that have been supportive of athletic excellence in other sports, one would also expect them to have vast resources being poured into a game that is so important globally.

Fortunately for the rest of the world, none of that’s been the case.

As is well known, both the Chinese and Indians are minnows when it comes to the beautiful game. India’s current FIFA World Ranking of 138 is the more horrific of the two, while China languish in a slightly less anemic 74th.

But to truly appreciate just how bad India and China’s ranking plight is, it’s best to compare their populations and rankings with those of other countries around the world.

Country FIFA Ranking Points Population Pop. Rank Points per Capita Rankings Ratio
Spain 1 1564 46,196,278 28 0.00003386 0.036
Netherlands 2 1365 16,727,255 61 0.00008160 0.033
Germany 3 1345 81,768,000 15 0.00001645 0.200
Uruguay 4 1309 3,203,792 135 0.00040858 0.030
England 5 1173 51,446,000 23 0.00002280 0.217
Brazil 6 1143 192,376,496 5 0.00000594 1.200
Portugal 7 1100 10,561,614 80 0.00010415 0.088
Croatia 8 1091 4,290,612 124 0.00025428 0.065
Italy 9 1082 60,757,278 22 0.00001781 0.409
Argentina 10 1067 40,117,096 31 0.00002660 0.323
China PR 74 455 1,339,724,852 1 0.00000034 74.000
India 158 138 1,210,193,422 2 0.00000011 79.000

Take a closer look at those last two columns, Points per Capita (PPC) and Rankings Ratio (RR). Re-ranking each of FIFA’s 208 member associations on RR — a comparison of football and population rankings — they finish 207 and 208 respectively, also known as dead last. The only reason they’re spared the embarrassment of finishing on the bottom of the PPC rankings too — which compares the average number of points earned for each person in the country — is because none of Montserrat, San Marino nor Andorra have been able to earn any points yet.

India's Baichung Bhutia

unless you're a fan of bury, i doubt you've ever heard of india's most famous footballing son: baichung bhutia.

Suffice to say, the two Asian superpowers are punching well below their weight class.

Both countries have demonstrated an insatiable appetite for top class football, as is evident by their growing demand for European leagues on their televisions and pirated streams originating from their internets. So you know that their poor international showings aren’t to be blamed on a lack of interest in the sport. Unsurprisingly, at the heart of their troubles are the horrible domestic set-ups within each country.

The Chinese Super League has only been around since 2004, and in its short lifespan it has earned a worldwide reputation for corruption and violence. India’s poor footballing output is the result of it being looked over by investors and the public due to the popularity of cricket in the country. Both countries lack proper infrastructure when it comes to developing players. There’s also a severe shortage of proper pitches in both China and India: hardly surprising when space is at such a premium due to population constraints

However, recent news has suggested that football may finally be on the up and up in both China and India.

The Chinese Super League, fresh off a lengthy “clean-up” process to rid the game of match-fixing, recently announced its most prominent signing ever. Intended to be the CSL’s “Beckham signing”, capital club Shanghai Shenhua were able to lasso in former Chelsea, Bolton, Liverpool, PSG, Real Madrid, Fenerbahçe and Arsenal striker Nicolas Anelka. Though probably past his peak, the Frenchman would still be a valuable commodity for a number of high profile team’s around the world. Word is, former Blues teammate Didier Drogba could also be following him to China in the summer.

India, meanwhile, have announced the formation of a new professional league that will feature at least seven formerly high-profile players from around the world’s game. Robert Pirès, Fabio Cannavaro, Fernando Morientes, Robbie Fowler, Hernán Crespo, Maniche and Jay-Jay Okocha have all been recruited with a pile of cash at least $600,000 tall to play in a seven week long season. The model for the new league looks to build on the success of the MLS and cricket’s Indian Premier League models to kick start Indian football’s progress.

Yet despite these massive signs of progress, I can’t help but shake the feeling that both of countries’ moves to advance their footballing statures are deeply flawed… but for very different reasons.

shanghai shenhua's nicolas anelka

i'm skeptical that anelka will stick around chinese football long enough to make an impact.

While signing a player of Anelka’s quality definitely shows ambition, the CSL and Shenhua sure picked an odd basket to throw the all of their eggs into. For the low cost of just £175,000 a week, Shenhua have bought themselves a player whose personality is so warm and marketable that he’s earned the nickname Le Sulk.

Remember though that the Chinese Super League isn’t like MLS, where the gulf in quality between that and the Premier League isn’t too massive. The Chinese league’s talent level is an order of magnitude lower. And due to Anelka’s moody disposition and tendency to look disenchanted on the pitch, I worry that he’ll either implode the squad or simply quit when he inevitably becomes frustrated with the lack of quality in his teammates.

More concerning though — regardless of whether or not Anelka’s stay is long/short/successful/unsuccessful — is the lack of public announcement about equal investment in the league’s young domestic Chinese players. If that’s not happening, no matter how much attention the Frenchman draws to the league, it will all be a waste.

India’s new league announcement, however, did contain some hope for youth development. When announced by the Indian FA, the new league was identified as a sort joint-venture between them and Celebrity Management Group (CMG). The partnership promised to not only bring in famous “world class” players to help fill seats, but also brought a requirement of each team containing at least six under-21 Indian players in each squad. So if nothing else, you at least know that this league is planning beyond the 30-something “stars” that have agreed to buoy the league in its infancy.
But a few potential problems immediately spring to mind with the Indian model.
howrah's robert pires

here's hoping that an aging pires doesn't have any problems with his old man legs in india... too much is riding on them.

First, with a fourth of each team’s $2.5 million salary cap likely going to be eaten up one of their “marquee” players, what happens if that star player picks up an injury that keeps them out for a while? That seems highly likely when the average age of these players is 36. Will they be able to fill the stands — something the current league struggles with outside of Bengal — without a big name in the starting XI? 
Secondly, how will the creation of these brand new franchises affect the current I-League clubs? One would imagine that all of the u21 Indian players required of each new team are currently playing in that league. Do the new clubs have to pay the existing ones for those players? And will the I-League continue to run during the new league’s off season, providing the players with the amount of training needed to develop outside of a paltry 7-week season for the new set up? And what of the rivalries and history between the existing clubs… is that all just being trashed to push the new league to the forefront? If so, it would be a blow to big matches, such as the Kolkata derby between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, which drew 90,000+ last season.
And lastly, I’m highly skeptical of the entire set up being a joint venture with a celebrity booking agency. Not only does that stink of exploitation, but the partnership is also a thirty year deal. Think about that for a second: thirty years ago there wasn’t an English Premier League, there were only 24 teams in the World Cup, and goalkeepers could pick up back passes. A lot can happen in 30 years, and I’m hoping that the Indian FA had enough foresight to not give away the farm without extra precautions.

Unfortunately for all of my skepticism, nobody really knows how these India and China’s latest moves in the world of football will work out. It could all come crashing down, or it could all work out and we’ll be talking in 20 years about how we wish these moves hadn’t happened… we’ll look back and classify these events as the “awakenings of the sleeping dragons” or some other overused Asian idioms.

But if that time comes and neither China nor India’s massive populations have produced one world class player, we can use this posting as a massive “I told you so.”

ten words or less #33

Aaron Biber and Tottenham's Peter Crouch

crouch visited and got his haircut by aaron biber. when biber's barbershop was trashed during the riots, the looters shockingly left the autographed crouch photo he's holding.

Welcome back, distinguished readers, and thanks for reading my latest article on wrong side of the pond. I am attempting to keep today’s posting very formal, proper, and short as this blog needs to get into in-season form for the start of this European campaign. So with that in mind, let’s skip the silliness today and get on to the sub-ten-word links below.

No word on whether he was red carded or not. – mirror.co.uk

WTF is that face, Landycakes?!?! – dirty tackle @ yahoo.com

Farewell to the best defender of his generation… after Maldini. – therunofplay.com

This took balls… brilliant work by adidas marketing. – kckrs.com

Sir Alex 1 : the Daily Mail’s Bob Cass 0 – whoateallthepies.tv
A tip of my hat to 2-time defending fantasy champion Lippadona for pointing out this link.

The new La Masia: now that’s an academy. – theoffside.com

Don’t care if everyone’s linked to it… brilliant. – arseblog.com

The Canadian MLS clubs always nail branding. – designfootball.com

the decade that was – part 1

it’s that time of year where everyone starts reflecting back on the year that was, and 2009 has certainly been a fun one as far as the football world is concerned. but we get the added benefit this year in that it’s the end of a decade, one where we’ve had some incredible stories and players grace the world’s stage.

as seems to be the case with all of the major news outlets, pundits and bloggers, everyone is putting out their year end lists for the best/worst of the year and decade. i’ve decided that i want in on all of the fun, and will be joining the party. only i’m not going to trouble you with the best and biggest of just this year. no, i’m doing it for the whole damn decade. we’ll do this in two parts:

  1. my best XI of the decade.
  2. the biggest stories of the decade (click here to read part two)

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let’s dive right in to my team of the decade. i wanted to piece this together like it’s an actual team, so we’re going to choose a formation and run with this. for the sake of keeping my sanity, and based on the players i’ve chosen, i’m going to go with the traditionalists 4-4-2. don’t be insulted if you don’t like the formation.

zidane: my selection as the best player of the decade... even if he does headbut people

goalkeeper: gianluigi buffon
italy / juventus
though i thought this position would be hard, it was actually quite easy. buffon lead his italy side to a world cup title at germany 2006, where his team only gave up a staggering 2 goals in the entire tournament (shockingly, one of which was to the USMNT). but in addition to his world cup glory, buffon really earned his selection by his exploits in serie A for juventus. he’s been the club’s starting keeper since 1996, leading them to 4 serie A titles in the 2000’s. however, two of those were stripped due to match fixing allegations, and the club were subsequently relegated to serie B. there was an exodus of the club’s top players for the 2006-2007 season, but buffon stuck it out and lead his side back to the top flight… so he get’s bonus points for being a trooper, too.

left back: roberto carlos
brazil / real madrid, fenerbahçe
my favorite player growing up, i modeled my my own playing style after roberto carlos, so i felt a little biased picking the brazilian for this list. but how couldn’t i? his title credentials during the decade would alone earn him a spot: 2002 world cup champion, three spanish la liga titles, and two champions league titles. throw in his absolutely amazing free kicks, and the fact that he scored 61 goals for his clubs as a freaking defender
, and it’s nearly impossible to not include him on this list.

center back: paolo maldini
italy / a.c. milan
sure, i’m playing him a little out of position. but let’s face it, the man could play anywhere on the back line. honestly, there’s a good chance that maldini is the best defender to have ever lived, let alone play during the 2000’s (and the 80’s and 90’s for that matter). he helped milan win two champions league titles during the decade, in addition to a serie a and italian cup title, while he’s deputized the italian side’s defense since 1985. although my most standout memory of the guy came from a friendly against the chicago fire a few years ago where chris rolfe put a move on him and he fell over as rolfe scored.

center back: fabio cannavaro
italy / parma, inter milan, juventus, real madrid
normally when you think of a center back, you think of a tall player who can win the ball in the air. not cannavaro, who despite being only 5’9″, was one of the finest defenders of his generation. he was exceptionally athletic and fantastic at reading the game. serving as a defender who not only could chase players down, cannavaro could also cut off angles and direct an entire team’s defensive strategy. he was rewarded for his talents in 2006, after being the standout player on the italian’s world cup winning side, by being awarded the 2006 fifa world player of the year — the only defender to have ever won the award.

old man maldini was still bad ass enough to make to be one of the decade's best players

right back: gary neville
england / manchester united
though certainly maligned by the press for his numerous press boycotts, neville’s talent is undeniable. he’s been a staple of the united line up since the mid-90’s, though he’s had some injury struggles during the last few years. none the less, neville has helped the red devils to five premier league titles,  an FA cup and a champions league title this decade.

defensive midfielder: patrick viera
france / arsenal, juventus, inter milan
do you remember the panic in the eyes of arsenal fans when viera decided to leave? and though the meteoric rise of cesc fàbregas is due in part to viera’s departure, arsenal haven’t won a trophy since the big frenchman left. viera was the captain and driving force in arsenal’s invincibles period, and he was also one of the most inspiring players in france’s 1998 world cup winning side. it’s hardly a coincidence that viera’s arrivals at juventus’ and inter milan’s rises in prominence.

offensive midfielder: zinedine zidane
france / juventus, real madrid
zidane is one of the greatest players of all time; the perfect mix of skill, intelligence and passion (which is bordering on rage). don’t believe me? watch the documentary “zidane: a 21st century portrait”. as 17 different cameras exclusively follow the oft misunderstood zidane in a match for madrid, you get to see all sides of this legend: his quiet nature, his brilliant goal creating abilities, and his anger as he is foolishly sent off. buy — don’t rent — this movie if you love the game; you won’t be dissapointed. oh yeah, and his resume is okay too: twice a world player of the year, world cup winner, champions league winner (including the brilliant winner against bayer leverkusen in the final), and league titles at both juventus and madrid.

i always thought that zidane was a top class player, but it took me seeing him play in person to truly appreciate his greatness. sitting in chicago’s soldier field, i watched zizou intentionally play slower than all of the opposing players from chivas de guadalajara, and he was making absolute fools of them. as the mexican defenders scrambled about at a thousand miles an hour, zidane seemed to be on a walk in the park, playing brilliantly simple touches, passes and dribbles. this is the reason i choose him as not only a member of my best XI for the 2000’s, but also as the player of the decade.

left wing: ronaldinho
brazil / grêmio, paris saint- germain, barcelona, a.c. milan
so what if he is now a shell of the player that taught us what “joga bonito” was. think back to the beginning of the decade, when ronaldinho’s fancy tricks, playful nature, and breathtaking play led brazil and barcelona to the pinnacle of the sport. for the first four years of the 2000’s, ronaldinho gaucho was a force in the sport. he inspired millions of us to go into our backyards/streets and try to do things with the ball that we’ver never done before. and while having so much fun, he captured a boatload of honors: a world cup title in 2002, also twice a world player of the year, two la liga titles, and a champions league winner’s medal.

right wing: cristiano ronaldo
portugal / sporting lisbon, manchester united, real madrid
you know, i struggled to put ronnie on this list… in the same way that i contemplated putting messi in this spot as well. there rises to the top of the game have been meteoric, and both are by far the most dominant players in the world at the moment. but i felt that putting either of them here would compromise this list because they’ve only recently come to sit at their thrones at the top of the game. but then i thought more about it, and decided what the hell. i’m giving it to ronaldo though, because he’s been at this level a bit longer than messi. ronaldo has been sublime the last few years, and his sheer output of goals in the last four seasons has been almost unprecedented (104 goals in 167 appearances). he helped manchester united to three premier league titles, an f.a. cup, and a champions league trophy, not to mention a second champions league final. and, honestly, how can you leave a player of this list that cost $132 million dollars? oh yeah, you can’t.

jar jar binks... i mean ronaldinho... also made the cut for my team of the decade

striker: thierry henry
france / arsenal, barcelona
although his star has faded a bit since his days at highbury (partially thanks to his handball debacle against ireland), henry at his peak was awe inspiring to watch. sublime is the word that comes to mind when thinking of him, and henry made it look so easy. his nose for goal was, often times, mesmerizing. i watched maybe 20 of his strikes on youtube, and singled out these two (#1 & #2) as the cream of the crop, although i easily could have included ten. and though he was responsible for putting my spurs to the sword on many occasions, and then made his dream switch to real madrid’s hated catalan rivals, it is and was always a joy to watch him play.

striker: ronaldo
brazil / inter milan, real madrid, a.c. milan, corinthians
a team of the decade would not be complete without t o fenômeno on the pitch. what can you say about ronaldo that hasn’t already been said? he was a beast on the pitch, scoring goals like they were going out of style. though he only won one of his three world player of the year awards during this decade, let’s not forget that he wont it after he had reconstructive knee surgery. there’s hardly any argument that he wasn’t one of the most feared strikers in the world during most of this time, and he was particularly prolific while playing for real madrid.

——————————

so there you have it, my best XI for the 2000’s. it was by no means any easy task of picking this list, as i had to leave off so many fantastic players (messi, john terry, claude makélélé, ryan giggs, cafu, steven gerrard, kaká, oliver kahn, raúl, luís figo, etc.). disagree with any of my selections? let me know about it!

and be sure to check back for the second portion of this post, with my selections for the biggest stories of the decade up next. (click here to read part two)