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What we have here is, without a doubt, the worst episode of 99 Friendship ever recorded. Ben was on an island and Carolyn was buying orange juice, so we missed our usual recording date and wound up huddled together at midnight on (or really just after) Thanksgiving, being tired and stupid and maybe a little drunk at each other, and then the recording didn’t work. So we got together again on Tuesday night, rather fed up with it all, Carolyn had to record from her end which made balancing the audio impossible and forcing Ben to sound like an old-timey radio, which is a shame with all the talking he always does.
The only saving grace is that, on Tuesday, a new sexy curling calendar was announced. This leads to both parties talking about sexy curlers. Also the women’s U-17 World Cup functionally ended, so we digress on that subject a bit, and a pretty prominent week for Canadians at the club level receives some attention. But mostly it’s Ben failing to find a diplomatic way to say that Rachel Homan is hot.
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“Insulting chants” fall under section 67 of the FIFA Disciplinary Code, which reads:
67. Liability for spectator conduct
- The home association or home club is liable for improper conduct among spectators, regardless of the question of culpable conduct or culpable oversight, and, depending on the situation, may be fined. Further sanctions may be imposed in the case of serious disturbances.
- The visiting association or visiting club is liable for improper conduct among its own group of spectators, regardless of the question of culpable conduct or culpable oversight, and, depending on the situation, may be fined. Further sanctions may be imposed in the case of serious disturbances. Supporters occupying the away sector of a stadium are regarded as the visiting association’s supporters, unless proven to the contrary.
- Improper conduct includes violence towards persons or objects, letting off incendiary devices, throwing missiles, displaying insulting or political slogans in any form, uttering insulting words or sounds, or invading the pitch.
- The liability described in par. 1 and 2 also includes matches played on neutral ground, especially during final competitions.
So visiting fans are probably innocent. The phrase “insulting chants by supporters” implies repetition and organization, which in turn implies that it couldn’t have been Salvadoran agents provocateurs scattered through the crowd.
Last year’s pyrotechnics charge against Belize was a fair cop. That did happen, in the Canadian supporters section at BMO Field. Of course responsible pyro should be allowed in soccer stadiums, but whatever may actually be just, in that case supporters undeniably broke a clear rule. An apology would be disingenuous since it’ll probably happen again, but we can take responsibility. “Insulting chants,” though? How do you even respond to that? That could be anything.
FIFA does not say what the insulting chants were and nowhere defines the term beyond its plain English meaning. According to Duane Rollins, the Canadian Soccer Association has not replied to requests for clarification. The Voyageurs, Canada’s semi-demi-hemi-official supporters group, have no idea what they might have done. I don’t mean that in the sense of a guy going “it’s a football match innit it’s just some banter” when he’s upset someone. We genuinely don’t know. My truculence and rudeness are not typical of a Vancouver crowd, which is for the most part mild-mannered and at pains to avoid anything that might hint at offense.
During the Mexico game, some Voyageurs brought in rainbow flags to protest a Mexican chant that offended them and there was serious support for an organized campaign. A dozen people chanting “build a wall and make them pay for it” for a few bars when we were getting stomped caused serious internal recriminations. And while there are drunken louts in any big crowd, “insulting chants by supporters” must mean more than some university idiot fifteen beers deep bellowing “go home you spic.” Otherwise every country with liquor sales would get fined. Vancouver supporters aren’t saints, but they are less outspoken than most within Canada, let alone the whole soccer world.
Local supporters believe the “insulting chants” were the traditional Vancouver shouting of “you fat bastard” when the opposing keeper takes a goal kick. This chant, dating back way into the USL days, has gotten the Vancouver Southsiders some limited heat from Major League Soccer over the years without affecting its popularity. There are no more obvious candidates so its guilt has been sort of assumed. But there’s nothing official or semi-official, no leak, no unnamed source, saying so. Vancouver fans shouted “you fat bastard” at the Honduran goalkeeper last year and nobody was fined.
Section 67 is so broad that the only way to avoid it is to stay silent. “Football mafia, CONCACAF!” is a popular chant whenever a call goes against us; that sounds pretty insulting. Any of the many variants of chants accusing players of being diving weenies qualify. “Uttering insulting [. . .] sounds” is sanctionable; did we boo anybody during those games? FIFA’s refusal to explain exactly what the fine was for only makes them look more arbitrary, and the CSA staying mum suggests they don’t want to bother even asking the supporters to change. (We should, incidentally, appreciate the hell out of that.)
No doubt FIFA is trying to stomp out something it, or a member association, finds offensive. The fact that there is nothing to be offended by in the average Canadian eye is irrelevant. We are being judged by standards not our own, and the unsurpassable effrontery of FIFA technocrats thinking they of all people can be our moral tutors chafes like steel underwear. The fact that outsiders are taking our kids’ registration fees to enforce their cultural values and dictate what’s offensive in a Canadian culture they do not understand is appalling, but that’s modern international soccer, isn’t it?
The number thirteen is said by the ignorant and superstitious to be unlucky. I am ignorant and superstitious but not about that. Perhaps that’s why today’s episode is one of my favourites. Perhaps it was Carolyn sipping neat Dominican rum on an empty stomach while I’d knocked back my full Sunday evening tot of Alberta Premium. Perhaps it was the fact that there was so much women’s soccer stuff to talk about that not only could we fill the episode with hashtag-content without resorting to ringette reminiscence, but we had to cut some of the best hashtag-content in the hopes of returning to it later. (Someday we will do a special literary review where I will finally show off what a crappy English student I was.)
Canada kicked off the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in Jordan and played a frankly unbelievably Canadian game against Cameroon, with the only blemish being that instead of crashing out to a horrifying opening loss we stormed back like princess warriors and won 3-2. Three teams with prominent Canadian starters clashed in the NWSL semifinal and two of them won (not the one with Christine Sinclair on it, but the other two gave us plenty to talk about). Jessie Fleming did not score a bunch of goals for UCLA which itself counts as news. And Ashley Lawrence died on the field, but apparently she got better.
This was an unusually strong show, particularly in regards to our powers of prediction. While discussing the U-17 Women’s World Cup we laughed at Bev Priestman’s suggestion that the Canadian girls might get a result against Germany, well, they did. Send all thanks to Lysianne Proulx because that point should probably show up in the standings under her name alone, but it happened. Then in our (briefer than usual) curling segment, we laughed merrily at how Team HoMo was tripping over their own sliders in some goofy Portage-la-Prairie mixed doubles tournament and seemed doomed to plunge out before the playoff. Well…
Again, these were just the things that were wrong between the time we recorded the podcast and the time I got it posted. Please remember that we are absolute experts about everything.
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As Canada’s women’s U-17s get revved up for the World Cup later this week in Jordan, Carolyn and I were sitting on tenterhooks. Waiting, waiting. Waiting for the Canadian Soccer Association to release its roster, the 21 young ladies who would brave the hostility of the Middle East to represent Canada in front of the world. Finally, on Thursday morning, they released the list, including happy surprises like Deanne Rose and Jordyn Huitema, and incidentally blessing our fledgling podcast with a positive surfeit of #content.
I think we spend maybe five minutes discussing the roster as such?
Don’t worry, this is still a healthy Women’s U-17 World Cup preview, as we look forward to such things as the games being on television and losing to Venezuela again. We also survive both Carolyn and my computers exploding in totally separate ways during the same recording, with no ill effect beyond the fact that Carolyn spends two-thirds of this episode sounding like an old-timey radio.
(Curling news is naturally constricted but we find time to throw a shout-out to Alberta’s own Team Brandon Bottscher, who in the time since we recorded this episode has also beaten Team Something Epping at the Saskatoon cleaning cashspiel. Alberta best curling.)
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As far as a fan can tell, nothing is set in stone. So perhaps the time is right for us to say what sort of league we want. The true Canadian fan has been desperate for something, anything he could call his own, and we still are, and would support our domestic league even if it was Major League Soccer with a maple leaf tattooed on its face. However, just because our standards may be low and our expectations not much higher does not mean that we don’t have ambitions. A Canadian soccer league would, to a great extent, be an end in itself, but it would also be a means to other ends, and we should try to promote those while plans can still be changed.
One of those ends is making Canada, as surely as it is a hockey country, a soccer country. Eight teams in eight major metropolitan centres would be great for those in the hearts of big cities, but would still leave the majority of our landmass and a large chunk of our population with teams you could only call “their own” in very generous terms. What makes us a hockey nation is not seven NHL franchises but the hundreds of senior, major junior, and junior “A” teams, based in cities as large as Toronto and podunk towns of a thousand people, that bring the sport to the masses. Even the semi-rural family, the suburb-dweller, the oil patch kid, doesn’t have far to go if he wants to watch quality hockey. Much of the country enjoys the same access to curling, or Canadian football, and if you ever wonder why those sports command so much attention despite seeming so passé in the big city, think about that.
Alone, a Canadian Premier League alone could never imitate that. Only one thing could: promotion and relegation.
Simply saying those three words in North America provokes an instantaneous, tribal response. Many demand it with the fervour of the fundamentalist. Others decry it as foreign, impractical, a cancer that could never exist and we’re better off without. North America has franchises bound to leagues. Owners would never accept it. How could you get investors if that investment might go up in smoke with one bad year? It’s mad, it’s terrible, it could and should never happen.
That’s wrong. Promotion and relegation does not need to be an immediate and extreme load on the country’s back. Here is my view, addressed to the prospective owner, of what it could be.
Protecting your investment
Nobody is saying that you should get relegated tomorrow. We’re not insane. You, the founding franchiser, are going to plow a lot of money into getting this league started. Even in the best case the league’s very survival will be in doubt for several years. If at least one team doesn’t fold outright it’ll be a miracle. A malleable structure sending some $20-million-a-year subsidizer to League1 Ontario for 2019 is a terrible idea and everyone knows it. Even if we were that extreme, the infrastructure and lower divisions do not exist. The Victoria Vistas get relegated from the CanPL; where the heck are they gonna play?
We don’t need promotion and relegation in year one, or year three, or year five. We need a clear roadmap of how we’re going to get there. You can only accept promotion and relegation after fifteen seasons, provided the Premier League has sixteen teams and there are semi-pro leagues in every province? That sounds amazing! But write it down and work towards it.
In fact, you shouldn’t necessarily be relegated at all. You’re spending a lot of money and you want your investment to be protected. Okay. There are ways to promote and relegate teams other than “three up, three down” every year. Both the Argentine Premier Division and Mexico’s Liga MX, the best and most successful soccer league in North America, use a “coefficient” system that relegates teams for sustained incompetence rather than one bad season. The first year of the system could be promotion only: bringing in four less-developed teams to fight your established squads for three relegation places would give you an automatic advantage. Minimum stadium standards, like those used by almost every league in the world, will make sure you don’t get knocked out by some podunk outfit playing Thursday afternoons at a city park. For greater security, institute a playoff between the teams in the Premier League’s relegation places and the lower divisions’ promotion places, so we make sure that only the deserving get to the big time.
Remember, no promotion/relegation advocate has a problem with your team staying in the top division indefinitely. It’s about adding a competitive element to the bottom of the table, and clubs being free to rise as far as their talent and resources can take them. Any promotion/relegation system has to be fair, but “fair” applies to you, the owner, as well.
Making that investment work
Nothing about pro/rel prevents financial responsibility. American opponents regularly assert that promotion and relegation is a naturally reckless system but they are conflating the all-round money madness of European and South American soccer with one element of its system. Teams in no danger of relegation can spend like lunatics and suffer for it; ask the late-’90s NHL. Of course, a team that gets relegated takes a financial hit every time, there’s no way around that, but the measures you may already be taking for fiscal stability can work here.
By all accounts the Canadian Premier League will pursue revenue sharing and cost certainty in the form of a salary cap anyway. Making this work with promotion and relegation is as easy as wanting to. If a cap team in the CanPL gets relegated to the PLSQ, it’s perfectly reasonable for the rules to “grandfather” the newly-arrived club into the PLSQ’s lower salary structure. Work out the details, that’s all they are. The PLSQ team that gets promoted in their place will want to spend more and keep their new position, but a salary cap will keep them from pulling a Gretna. Cost certainty and pro/rel can, in fact should, walk hand in hand.
The other side to relegation is that it frees you from undercapitalized, uncompetitive teams facing either new ownership or bankruptcy. The North American Soccer League spent two years keeping the Atlanta Silverbacks afloat on a shoestring for pride’s sake. Atlanta was a decent market with a good history and a solid soccer-specific stadium, but with MLS coming they couldn’t find a buyer willing to commit to an NASL level of expenditure. The Silverbacks should really have been allowed to fall to their natural level, and without promotion and relegation that becomes a whim of ownership rather than a Darwinian evolution (see San Antonio). It cost the more solid NASL owners both prestige and hard cash.
In Europe, when a team goes bankrupt or misses payments, it is automatically deducted so many points that relegation is almost inevitable. In a franchise system these teams would be near-certain bankrupts but with the lower costs and lesser pressure of a lower division, they can sometimes keep mostly afloat long enough to reorganize into a healthier model as Portsmouth is currently doing. That club is owned by a supporters’ trust that could never possibly have raised the required capital if Pompey was at the basement of a franchise-based Premier League, with all the expenditure and paper-only “value” that implies; the team would have just died. Obviously teams do go bankrupt in a pro/rel system, it’s not a panacea, but it is another way to handle the trouble one broke owner can put your league in.
Remember, more soccer is good for you. You want every sort of fan you can get, of course, but the sort who makes you the most money is the season-tickets-every-year new-kit-every-two merchandise-buying beer-swilling sponsor-supporting diehard. They come back year after year, plow way more of their disposable income than would be considered responsible into your pocket, and feel personally involved in the success of your company. Many of them feel so deeply about your corporate success that they will stand up and sing songs about how terrific your company is; they are literally paying you to use them in your marketing. Subject to pretty modest precautions like making sure the loud ones get their own section and preventing them punching babies or burning the stadium down, they bring other fans in the door. This is a good deal for you.
These fans also don’t come from nowhere. Nobody wakes up one day and decides “I am going to lose my mind for soccer,” or hockey, or football, or ringette, or any other sport. That sort of fanaticism is something that builds with exposure to the sport. It is why, for so long, soccer supporters were such a niche in the United States and suddenly were everywhere: a certain critical mass had to develop, and then things took off.
Sure, you and your fellow franchisers might be able to get domestic soccer that critical mass almost singlehanded, but wouldn’t you rather other people helped pay for it? A healthier lower division, such as is promoted by the competitiveness of promotion and relegation, is in your interest. In principle you might lose a meaningful number of fans to local, lower-division rivals, but in practice this hardly seems to happen. You only need look at the rise and fall of attendances as teams go up and down the divisions to see this: many fans want to see their local side, many fans want to see the best, and sometimes those two groups overlap. Sports fandom is not zero-sum. League1 Ontario fans still go to Toronto FC games, and at every level, atmosphere attracts atmosphere.
And if a new first-division team appears in your city, within walking distance of your stadium? Around the world those games are the most intensely-fought and lucrative of all. If you can’t make money off passionate clashes between neighbours and rivals, what are you even doing in this business?
More soccer is also good for you on the field. One of the best-established ways to train a young player is to send him on loan so he can get experience playing meaningful games at a level that suits him. At risk of stating the obvious, this requires a team to borrow him from you. Except in rare cases it’ll be a lower-division team for the also-obvious reason that if he was good enough for the first division the kid would be playing for you in it. There needs to be multiple options; you don’t want to be stuck because your only choice doesn’t need help at that position. Preferably the team will also be nearby, in case you need the kid back, and run by staff you know and trust. Heck, you probably even need successful teams at multiple levels, to accommodate players at different stages of development. That’s a long list of requirements and it takes a very healthy lower-division pyramid to accommodate them all. The United States does not have that. Bring in promotion and relegation, give lower-division teams that boost, and Canada could.
That’s an unquantifiable benefit, of course. But another reason you should want healthy lower divisions is that, if it turns out that kid isn’t good enough for you after all, you can sell him to that lower-division team that liked him so much last time. Right now, unless you’re Miami FC, there’s not much point in the NASL paying cash on the barrel for an MLS reject: the MLSer will just be released in two months anyway and they can get him for free. If that NASL team was angling for promotion, or for that matter if an MLS team was battling relegation, matters might look a little different, and you make money.
Finally, ask yourself what would promotion and relegation cost you? So long as you stay up – and as we said a few paragraphs ago, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t – very little. In ten or fifteen years or whatever, when the league reaches the point of stability where promotion and relegation are introduced, you will lose out on sweet franchise fees with every expansion. On the other hand, if you’re able to charge new investors big money then pretty-much-by-definition your business will be in good financial shape, and you will also be able to command a premium for the franchise fees in the years before promotion and relegation. “Buy in now or start from the bottom” is a decent pitch. Besides, franchise fees are a finite resource. Eventually your league will get as big as it can. They’re a crutch, not a structural revenue source.
Other than that, it’s hard to see how it’ll cost you a dime. A rival gets relegated? Given the probability that the new league will be spread across this huge country, it’s much more likely that new geographic rivals will appear. Travel costs are going to be a bastard whether you’re going from Toronto to Edmonton or Toronto to Sherwood Park. Minimum facility standards, common around the world, will save you from road games where friends and family pay a buck each to watch your $5-million roster. You may want to introduce parachute payments for relegated teams, and modest stadium subsidies for teams being promoted would be a good idea, but weren’t we just talking about revenue sharing? This is the same thing by other means, the rich giving a certain proportion of their revenue to benefit the poor for the benefit of all. The total amount of money you pay out doesn’t need to change.
And if it goes wrong?
Of course, there’s every chance that you hire the wrong guy, he signs the wrong players, blows through your money like a politician in election week, and in spite of all protections you get relegated. I’m sorry. There’s also every chance that you sell all your capital to buy Bre-X stock and wind up fishing for change on Granville and Nelson. We can give you a sporting chance, we can shield you from ordinary bad luck, so that one comes down to “don’t make stupid decisions.” If you can’t handle that as a condition, maybe capitalism isn’t for you.
Increasingly, 99 Friendship is becoming less of a women’s soccer podcast and more of a sports-Carolyn-and-Ben-both-like,-of-which-women’s-soccer-is-a-prominent-example podcast. This particular week we were rather painted into a corner: it was an international break across the woso world, meaning that the world’s top clubs had the weekend off as their players were off at European Championship qualifiers or glamorous friendlies. Except for Canada, who in their proud tradition have failed to capitalize on their post-Olympic momentum by scheduling absolutely anything whatsoever. Plus Jessie Fleming was hurt. There are only so many ways we can read NCAA box scores and make it sound interesting so yeah, we hit the curling hard this episode, and you gonna like it because we combine both Cheryl Bernard jokes and Cathy Overton-Clapham jokes in one millennial-friendly package!
Meanwhile, on the women’s soccer end, we continue to lament the Canadian Soccer Association’s unwillingness to release its youth camp rosters (just this morning, after we recorded, the Whitecaps Girls Elite Twitter posted a photo of its players at the airport on the way to the U-17 Women’s World Cup, and the CSA still hasn’t given out the team). It’s also the start of MWSL season in Vancouver, probably the best women’s soccer league in Canada west of Ontario, and I contribute a little rant on how uninterested they seem to be in attracting the fans that their quality deserves.
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It’s the 99 Friendship Tenthennial Extravaganza!
Done watching Homestar Runner? Maybe you should go back. It wasn’t the most lively week. We recorded before Sunday night’s NWSL action, games where both Janine Beckie and Christine Sinclair troubled the highlight guy, and Jessie Fleming scored again because of course she does. Instead we dealt with the midweek games, where Sinclair missed a billion chances until she was given an absolutely free goal in garbage time, Beckie did not much, Fleming’s obligatory goal was lamer than usual, and most of the other professional Canadians didn’t play because they either tweaked their hamstrings or are stuck on the increasingly deranged Washington Spirit.
Plus, back by popular demand, we discuss some early-season curling which naturally degenerates into laughing at improbable mixed doubles pairings. In proud 99 Friendship tradition, our woso podcast was only about two-thirds woso despite cutting 30 minutes of Carolyn talking about ringette. (That is not an exaggeration.)
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I assume you’ve heard of the latest CONCACAF match-fixing scandal. Either way, I’m gonna sum it up so grab a snack and hold on.
Yesterday, at a pre-World Cup qualifier press conference, the El Salvadoran men’s national team played audio proporting to be of Salvadoran businessman Ricardo Padilla offering the team, on behalf of Honduran soccer interests, up to $30 per player per minute to beat Canada, or at least lose close.
Naturally we laugh. We laugh at the idea that you should bribe players to win (“shit, maybe we should try that”). We laugh at some Honduran being so worried Canada might run up the score that he’s dialing his fixer. We laugh at the incompetence of the whole approach, from the piddling sums of money (a maximum $2700 per player, with unused substitutes not paid at all, won’t buy a lot of silence with careers at stake) to carelessly being recorded over the phone. We laugh because it’s funny, and because the Salvadoran team did the right thing and took the sting out.
But how serious is this? The Salvadorans, after all, would be bribed to do what they want to do anyway. How bad could that be? Is it even really match fixing?
We could ask the El Salvador men’s national team. They are coming off a recent match fixing scandal in 2013 that saw players banned for life, and thought seriously enough of this one to go to the press. Didn’t seem to be much conflict in their hearts, and they would have experience sorting those particular thoughts in their collective conscience.
But we could also ask the doyennes of match fixing, the gods of gambling, the crown princes of the crooked result. I am, of course, referring to the Victorian English.
You see, the El Salvadoran approach is not new. In the old days, gamblers really ruled the roost. Some sports, like single-wicket cricket, literally died out because match fixing was so prevalent. Gentlemen and common professionals could equally be snared, retribution for a double cross was physical and extreme, and the possibility of blackmail made a gambler’s life potentially far too easy.
And they’d have recognized this El Salvadoran situation at once. You see, bribing a player to win was a classic approach for exactly the reasons we’re not sure this is a proper scandal. The player will only do what he wanted to do anyway, and (being a Victorian Englishman and therefore not lavishly-paid for athletics) the money would be a nice bonus. There’s a good chance he’d accept. Even if he didn’t, the gambler might forward the bribe on anyway after the athlete won, counting on him not to actually hand the cash back.
Of course, at that point, the match fixer was in. The athlete had accepted money to influence a sporting result from, probably, a known bad egg. In this example, El Salvador bunkering to hold a 1-0 deficit is the sort of not-horrible-but-off complication that can arise.
There’d be witnesses. The athlete would be under that much more pressure, applied quite overtly, when the time came for the player to lose. The consequences were predictable.
Probably El Salvador wasn’t in any danger of being called upon to tank a Gold Cup qualifier any time soon. But they couldn’t know, and they behaved rightly. Match fixing can be funny but it is no joke.
A loud week in broso and a quiet one in woso. And we’re not going to talk about the broso, because ours is a happy, laughter-filled podcast and analyzing the lads failing to hold on at San Pedro Sula yet again would disgrace even the sarcastic friendship of our title.
But oh boy we have to plunge deep into the #content mines for this one. We flush out such obscure trivia questions as the pentathlon and jazz careers of former WNT central defenders. Around this we work in some discussion of what was another good week for Canadian goalscorers in club action, and a bad week for Kadeisha Buchanan defensively, not that she’s likely to be bothered because it was just Ohio State and she only seems dimly aware she’s a defender at all in these games.
Also I had SARS! If I seem even ramblier and more senile than usual, you know why.
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