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Impact: Surprise, Surprise

The 2012 MLS season marches onward, and the “expansion” Montreal Impact will not be left behind and bow out out the race for the last playoff spot in the East. If you had told me at the beginning of the  season that we would still be in the race for that last spot I would have said that’s the best I can ask from this team in their first season in the MLS.  I only wish there weren’t so many teams in the race with games at hand on us. DC United have four games on us, Chicago three, and Columbus five. What percentage of these games will be won by these teams I don’t know. All the Impact can do is play every game as if it were a matter of life and death, and on this front I think the Impact have it in them to do this.

 

It’s been quite a ride for the club, the players, and the team this inaugural season. Playing to two record-breaking crowds at the cavernous Olympic Stadium, and then moving to the wonderful Stade Saputo to what were initially disappointing crowds must have left the club and players scratching their heads. I must admit I was scratching my head when I saw just under 13,000 for one game at the Stade Saputo, but then again, it was the weekend of the St. Jean where many leave town to hideaways in the Laurentians or Eastern Townships. My own view is that once Montrealers get into the habit of going to Impact games at Saputo they’ll find it hard to stop going. It’s just about the most perfect stadium this city has ever had for soccer. I love it, and will be a full season ticket holder for next season.

 

On the field, things have evolved in ways I didn’t expect. First, I have been surprised and very pleased that the kind of team that was built for this season is the kind of team that likes to attack. I perhaps shouldn’t have been, knowing that the Impact are run by people who know Montreal and know what kind of teams Montrealers like.  This was the home of the Flying Frenchmen, after all. Montrealers like attacking teams, and the Impact have definitely fit the mold.

 

But our backline has been suspect at best, giving up a whopping 43 goals in 25 games. I’ve blamed Ricketts for this. His erratic play and positioning, coupled with his inability to take charge of his area, bewildered his defenders and often led to bizarre goals being conceded at the worst possible times. What surprised here was why they insisted on him starting all but one of the games, when the young Evan Bush has shown himself to be a more than capable replacement. He might be a lot shorter, but the defenders definitely seemed more comfortable in front of him. The Ricketts for Perkins trade was an inspired move by the club, and solves what was for me our biggest problem.

 
Then there’s Di Vaio. Oh, Di Vaio. Many of us had high hopes for him, but he has been a major disappointment. You can see moments of great skill that sets him apart from most in the MLS, but they’re few and far between. He just hasn’t had the drive and often seems like a ghost on the pitch, as one good friend of mine put it. When news came out that he was being investigated in connection with a match fixing case in Italy, his poor play started to make sense. Prior to getting the news, I expressed to friends that he was playing like a depressed man. Then we heard he was cleared, and now again it appears he isn’t cleared yet. All this has to be affecting his ability to focus on the task at hand. As things stand, when Di Vaio starts for the Impact it often feels as if we’re starting a man down. So Di Vaio has been an unpleasant surprise.

 

On to Andrew Wenger, a fantastic player and for many of us, a game changer on the pitch. That he hasn’t played more  given his obvious talents has been a huge surprise. It would be inexplicable if it were not for the fact that the Impact as an organization have made a major investment in Di Vaio. In my view, this investment was the only mistake made by the organization in this first MLS season for the club. Wenger is the future, Di Vaio the past. That the Pennsylvania born Wenger has taken on writing a blog chronicling his experiences here in Montreal, and taking the time to engage with Impact fans, makes him a PR dream for the club. An intelligent, talented young player is young Mr. Wenger. I hope he’ll be with us for a few more seasons, and that he’ll eventually learn French.

 

Then there’s the arrival of Nesta, the best move the club made prior to the Ricketts-Perkins trade. I suspect he might have had something to do with that too. His influence on the backline was immediately felt. Seeing a defender of his caliber has been a real pleasure for the fans. Once he arrived, you felt that our defensive weaknesses would be resolved, but there was still the problem of Ricketts. Now with that taken care of, the Impact have just about everything in place to make the playoffs this season. This is now a decent team.

They just have to start playing Wenger more than Di Vaio! Don’t see it happening, but it’s the only real weakness I can see with the team.

Scotland’s Yard Redux

My article for The Barnstormer on the ongoing Rangers saga is up! Entitled “Scotland’s Yard Redux“, it’s an attempt to explain the saga to uninitiated Canadians and provide a summary without getting bogged down in too much detail. I focus on the role played by the Orwell Prize winning Rangers Tax Case blog in exposing details of the case to the rest of Scotland, something the mainstream media in Scotland were reluctant to do.

Missing Impact v Revolution

A dear friend invited me weeks ago to join her at the Corona for Steve Earle. I really like Steve Earle and look forward to my first visit to the Corona. Yet it’s killing me to miss the game tonight, which I normally watch with two of my pals at Bar Frappe on St. Laurent. Not a place I frequent normally, but it’s great for the Impact away games with a solid bunch of Impact supporters from UM02. This is the first game I’ve missed since missing the season opener. I hope it will be the last!

As for the game, I feel the Impact now have everything in place to be in the playoffs and will beat New England tonight. Ricketts was the weakest link, being poor in the air and lacking command of his area and just generally making me more prone to heart attacks. I’m encouraged by everything I’m hearing about our new goalie. Good luck with your new club, Mr. Perkins! I’m sure you’ll enjoy Montreal and that you and Nesta will work well together sorting out our defensive problems.

I’ll predict a 3-1 win for the Impact.

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On the Canada-US Olympic Semi-Final

Now, with the story about that “other team” out of the way, time to write about the teams I actually follow, which includes the Canadian Women’s National Team, who, to my mind,  really did win the gold, even though they didn’t.

On Monday, August 6th, I watched what was perhaps the best match I’ve ever seen at any level. True, I had a stake in it, being Canadian, but don’t take my word for it. Scott Murray at the Guardian called it the greatest knockout match in major-tournament football since West Germany beat France in the semi-final of the 1982 World Cup.”  If I may use a Red Fisher-ism, “it was that good.” Only problem was the ref helped decide the outcome.

I’ve seen many hundreds of games at all levels in my 35+ years of watching the game, and the 6 second rule called against McLeod in the 78th minute of the game is the first time I’ve ever seen it called. I don’t have access to a video of the game myself, but I’ve been told that both goalies violated the rule many times throughout the game and were never called for it. The reason for that is simple: it never gets called at any level. Like our appendix, its there but no one seems to know why it’s there, it just is.

Norwegian referee Christiana Pedersen’s enforcement of the 6 second rule is indefensible. If it was called against the US at any time in the game it would have baffled me, but to call it at that point in the game, when the rule had been violated several times throughout the game by both goalies calls into question the integrity of the referee. This wasn’t merely bad judgment, which the penalty that was awarded immediately after most certainly was, it was as close as you get to calling what is effectively a non-existent rule. And, on top of it, a rule that was made up near the end of the game.  One brave American writer at NBC wrote :

“Only the most egregious, blatant violation of the perennially-ignored six-second rule, one that demonstrated a nakedly overt effort to defy and show up match officials, deserved such harsh treatment.

McLeod’s actions didn’t even approach such a standard.”

http://prosoccertalk.nbcsports.com/2012/08/07/us-canada-referee-pedersen-goalie-clear-about-mondays-decision-wrong/

Initially, it was easy to suspect foul play on the part of the ref, pun intended. It just seemed impossible that a ref  with five years experience could be that incompetent. I still won’t rule out foul play, but the other possibility is that she just wasn’t up to the challenge of handling Abby Wambauch’s counting head games. “I wasn’t yelling. I was just counting…Probably did it five to seven times.”, she said. I dare anyone who still plays organized football anywhere in the world to do this. You’ll almost certainly be awarded with a yellow card. That’s what Petersen should have done, but instead she let Wambauch get to her.

This call will go down in history. I hope that at the very least, we get a new way of intimidating opposing goalies as they handle the ball when in my usual section behind the goal at Saputo Stadium: “one steamboat, two steamboat, three steamboat….”

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See also: http://ca.sports.yahoo.com/blogs/eh-game/ugly-americans-rise-again-soccer-team-disses-canadian-160147757.html

One the Rangers Tax Case

This post was originally posted at the now defunct Canadian sports blog, “The Barnstormer”. it was an attempt to explain the saga to uninitiated Canadians.

“I have information on Rangers’ tax case, and I will use this blog to provide the details of what Rangers FC have done, why it was illegal, and what the implications are for one of the largest football clubs in Britain.”

From “About Rangers Tax Case” – rangerstaxcase.wordpress.com

On the 30th of July, 2012 a massively influential blog in the world of Scottish football posted its last entry, having exposed the gross financial mismanagement  of Rangers FC (1872-2012) over the ten years that preceded its first entry in on March 27, 2011. In its nearly 18 months of existence, the Orwell Prize winning Rangers Tax Case (RTC) blog did something remarkable: by shining a light on Rangers financial misdemeanors and the intricacies of what became known as the Big tax case and the wee tax case,  it brought together supporters of all football clubs in Scotland, united in their sense of outrage.

In the anonymous writer’s 2nd post, entitled “What is Rangers’ Tax Case All About”, he states at the outset, “Unfortunately, any discussion of tax law is unlikely to become a best-seller, and this will be no different”.  The writer turned out to be very wrong on that point, even if s/he was right on just about everything else. With most of the Scottish mainstream media reduced to being  little more than copy writers for Rangers PR department, the average football supporter in Scotland hungered for more information on the story, which turned out to be the biggest case of financial mismanagement and tax evasion in the history of the Scottish game. The blog got millions of hits and many tens of thousands of comments in its relatively short existence. A discussion of tax law may indeed be “unlikely to become a best-seller”, but this is Rangers, one of the oldest and most domestically successful club teams in the history of football.

The implications of Rangers’ tax case for other British and European clubs is still to be determined, but some believe it is a canary in a coal mine for the bigger European leagues, most notably Spain.  Spanish clubs currently owe a combined  €752m  to the Spanish government, prompting the President of Bayern Munich to state in an interview,  “We pay them [Spain] hundreds of millions to get them out the shit and then the clubs don’t pay their debts.”  It would seem that for some European football clubs, paying tax is optional if you consider yourself too big to fail and too important as a “cultural institution”.  Spain’s “La Liga”, like the Scottish Premier League, is dominated by two clubs, Real Madrid and Barcelona. If either of these two clubs failed in the manner of Rangers, you can be sure the ensuing crisis that would engulf the Spanish game would include much talk of the cultural significance of either/or, and all would be done to ensure that they would be saved because they are too big to fail.

Certainly, Rangers management would seem to have been of the mind that they were a “Scottish institution”, and behaved as if it was unlikely they would ever be held to account for evading tax. The problem is that Rangers pay tax to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC), which cares little about Scottish institutions if they don’t pay tax. It might care about English institutions like Manchester United, but that’s another story.

The source of the outrage  felt by football supporters of other Scottish clubs was that Rangers already held massive financial advantages over every other club in Scotland, with the exception of its rivals, Celtic. These two clubs, forming what is perhaps the most intense club rivalry in the history of sport,  have dominated the landscape of Scottish football throughout its history. While many other clubs in Scotland have struggled to remain solvent in this brave new world of Big Money Football, with their average attendances hovering between  5.000-10,000, Rangers and Celtic have usually drawn upwards of 45,000 to their home games. For the average supporter of a small club in Scotland, it was obscene that one of the biggest clubs in Britain, let alone Scotland, felt it had to evade tax and breach the rules of the game in order to win Scottish championships.

According to a BBC documentary, “The Men Who Sold the Jerseys”, Rangers had broken strict rules regarding player registration by issuing side-contracts to players indicating that they would receive additional payment via a legal tax scheme. While complicated (this is the Big tax case, after all), it would seem they used the scheme to pay certain players and executive directors a portion of their wages tax free. These payments were also undeclared to the Scottish Football Association, which is a major breach of rules throughout professional world football. Additionally, in their last year of operation, they deducted various taxes at source but used the money to fund the operations of the club.  Eventually, the amount of taxes owed in both cases led to the demise of one of the two biggest clubs in Scotland, and  the most successful club in domestic competition in the history of the game. Rangers FC were the club that was too big too fail, but fail they did. On the 14th of February they went in administration and by the 12 of June, they were forced into liquidation and will go down in the annals of Scottish company history as the largest insolvency event in the history of the country. Normally, this would mean extinction, as it did for Third Lanark in (1872-1967) and Gretna in (1946-2008).

But this is Scottish football, where many have suspected for decades that Rangers had the deck stacked in their favour. The story of what followed after the demise of Rangers (oldco) is still being written, while the history of a Rangers NewCo is exactly two games old at the time of writing. The Scottish mainstream media (MSM), true to form, have generally not been able to come to terms with the fact this new club is not the same as the old. This is an understandable position for fans of Rangers, but unacceptable for those entrusted with reporting the facts impartially and without bias. So it was left to what the MSM called the Internet bampots (Glaswegian for headcase) to elucidate the facts and provide much needed analysis and perspective on events as they unfolded.

These Internet bampots, led by RTC and other blogs and their army of posters were not only proven right on the issues, they were proven spectacularly right. They now wear this slur as a badge of honour because they know that, collectively, they had the power to influence the Scottish football authorities who seemed determined to bend every rule in order to accommodate the new version of Rangers. Fans would accept nothing less than the bottom tier of Scottish football for Rangers or desert the game, but the authorities wanted them in the top flight of Scottish football, the Scottish Premier League. That failed. Then they tried for the Scottish Football League’s Division 1, and that failed. Finally, they wound up at the bottom tier, and whether that was legitimate remains questionable (normally, liquidation would mean extinction), but it satisfies most supporters in Scotland, including Rangers fans.

While some have seen this as unfair, it bears noting that Rangers are going into liquidation owing an estimated 120 million pounds, and the idea that a club that held every advantage over every other club in Scotland could be liquidated and start out in the top division of the game in Scotland struck most fans as outrageous. But for the authorities and the MSM, Rangers were too big to fail, even when they were liquidated.

Still, these Internet bampots have been an inspiration to me and many others for what they’ve been able to achieve. I lurked on the RTC blog for many months, a WordPress blog that would eventually get over 5,000 comments per post with no means to sort or search through comments. It was an unwieldy but fascinating read that took many hundreds of hours of my life, but somehow it was worth it and my interest justified. I feel as if I’ve watched history in the making in the small but proud country of my parents and grandparents. Scotland is one of the two founding nations of football, and at least one expert has stated that it “is the country which invented football….The English might have written the rules but they didn’t know how to play it. Look at the record of the first 14 of the world’s oldest international football fixture, Scotland v England. England won 0, lost 10 and drew four [matches]. For a long time, Scotland had the highest spectator per thousand population at football matches than any country in the world.” Football is the Scottish game, and while Rangers comitted suicide and the authorities seemed unable to imagine the Scottish Premier League without them, the fans dared to imagine other scenarios that were deemed impossible.

So a new era has begun in Scottish football. Rangers will be in the lower leagues for a few years, assuming the new version do not suffer another insolvency. The Scottish professional game will have to be reconstructed in a way that the fans want, because the fans have been fed up with the current setup for many years and have spoken loud and clear. These fans were told that Scottish football would suffer “a slow, lingering death” without Rangers, but we shall see about that. It might just revitialize the game  in a way no one ever expected. Whatever else, the reform of the game in Scotland will  require imagination from all stakeholders.

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See:

First Rangers Tax Case post:

http://rangerstaxcase.wordpress.com/2011/03/27/hello-world/

Last Rangers Tax Case post:

http://rangerstaxcase.wordpress.com/2012/07/30/wrapping-it-all-up/

Paul McConville’s post “An Appreciation of Rangers Tax Case

http://scotslawthoughts.wordpress.com/2012/07/31/an-appreciation-of-the-rangers-tax-case-blog/

Paul McConville