Thursday, July 23, 2015

FIFA, Their Cups, and My Raging Discontent

OK, maybe half of that ass.
The U.S. Men's loss to Jamaica, and the concomitant early exit from the Gold Cup, put me into a head-scratching funk, just like it did for a lot of American fans. That said, I think I caught a different bug. The short diagnosis goes like this: the loss to Jamaica, and everything about it, didn't piss me off nearly as much as the fact that the U.S. can still reach the Confederations Cup. The long version follows, which elaborates on how totally and ridiculously ass I find the larger situation.

While I forgot the mechanism – that is, the playoff for CONCACAF's Confederations' Cup spot between the 2013 and 2015 Gold Cup champ'eens – it sounded familiar once people started talking and tweeting about it as last night's semifinal slipped further and further out of reach for the U.S. And it's fair on paper: here, in CONCACAF, we just happen to play our regional tournament on a two-year cycle, as opposed to the more common four-year cycle, and, with the Confederations Cup happening once every four years, they had to come up with some way to decide on which team gets to fly the flag...

...at the Confederations' Cup...

...which is like a half-assed World Cup...

...held the year before the World Cup...

...to accomplish? Oh, goddammit!

For reasons I'm not sure I'll be able to effectively articulate, everything about last night revealed the lines that connect the continuous, pointless sprawl of officially-sanctioned FIFA tournaments and tangled them up on vibrant neon light. Why the hell is there a Confederations Cup? Why does CONCACAF play the Gold Cup on two-year cycles? What is the Centenario and why now? That goes double if it doesn't lead to anything (especially something good and wise as lumping CONACAF and CONMEBOL into one region).

I've leaned on boxing metaphors when writing about soccer often enough that I've tried to stop doing it, but, here, it fits snug as a painted-on shirt. When people talk about the death of boxing in the States, the proliferation of titles, some officially-sanctioned, some less so, comes up often enough for a non-fan like me to pick up on it. I don't know a ton about it – because, again, non-fan – but the Confederations' Cup sure as shit sounds like something that came out of a FIFA spit-balling session on how to separate fans from a few thousand more dollars. It's worse than duplicative. It's duplicative and half-assed. On the other hand, fuck it: it’s not worth even half a whole goddamn butt-cheek.

Club soccer is just as bad; it could even be worse. What is the Europa League (or whatever the fuck they call it now; figure out who sponsors it and you'll have your name), but a Champions' League for what we used to call losers (visualize the non-Ivies)? Why is there a shoddy, shitty League Cup on top of the venerable, old FA Cup? And why the hairy fuck is MLS hosting the...I don't care, I don't care, I don't care. The stupid thing that has Manchester United playing Chelsea playing Club America playing the Los Angeles Galaxy playing the New York Red Bulls (that said, nice one Red Bulls 2). Two outcomes follow from this bloat, one intended (making shitloads of money, or trying to) and one not intended (fatigued players and/or injuries waiting to happen). It's all about money, a lot of it for the people who already have a shit-ton. The rich get richer as a matter of course, but a very live question to me is whether fans, or even players, aren't getting rosters stocked with players running themselves into early retirement.

All that's been on my mind since last night, but it all grew from the simpler question of whether the U.S. deserves to be at the Confederations' Cup. If you asked me last night, I'd say, no, fuck it, send Jamaica...though it bears noting that they just returned from playing in the Copa America (because...why?). Jamaica probably won't do much better at the Confederations' Cup – it's likelier that, if their time comes, that they'll do worse – but that just takes me back to the original thought of, who fucking cares what anyone does in the Confederations' Cup? It's nothing but a great bowl of cream, one whipped together for the sole purpose of helping FIFA grow fatter.

And if you buy that crap about "giving your team the invaluable opportunity to prepare on the fields where the World Cup will be played," ask yourself one question: does playing at, say, altitude once mean you're automatically ready for it the rest of your playing days? Yeah, go whip up some cream and carry it up to Sepp Blatter's suite. I hear he's hungry. He'll give you a slap on the ass on your way out the door for carrying his water for him.

So, yeah, I'm done. Fuck that October playoff and fuck the Confederations' Cup. Unless they play it in December, after the 2017 MLS playoffs (bloated as they are...goddammit). Desperation is desperation, after all. Still, fuck it all and fuck FIFA.

Obviously, the fate of the U.S. National Team, in general, and Jurgen Klinsmann in particular, garnered a lot more attention than the sort of marginalized, and, let's face it, essentially irrational ranting above. Obsession with purity of competition and allergy to money...these are...more personal preoccupations. Yet my reaction to all of this, personal as it is (i.e. highly to ?), gets at something that should sound pretty familiar by now.

By the time the final whistle blew on what was, by consensus, a visibly mediocre U.S. performance, I knew we could still get to Russia 2017 by way of that playoff. The U.S. lost, all while somehow winning because of something a younger, better version of itself did two years ago (both adjectives apply, only on different parts of the field). In that moment, it felt like nothing real had been at stake all night.

That same problem afflicts the question of Jurgen Klinsmann's tenure. Every one of Jurgen's haters – and, oh yeah, I'm one of ‘em – can now provide a clear, objective example of where Klinsi did worse than his two most recent predecessors. He crashed out in the semis, period. And yet that means nothing. It's not just the mitigating factors, which certainly exist - among them, the choice to stick with Ventura Alvarado and Jonathan Brooks as the central defensive tandem. For the record, that one didn't bother me, or, more accurately, I see the same upside as Klinsmann in the experiment (e.g. building for three years hence). This is all OK, as Ives Ives Galarcep pointed out in the last of his five take-aways from last night’s loss on Goal.com:
"The simple fact is Klinsmann is playing by different rules than his predecessors and acting accordingly. He knows he has until 2018, barring anything overly shocking, and we have been treated to a steady diet of experimentation because of it."
That sentence contains the good and the bad of the entire situation. U.S. Soccer treats Klinsmann a lot like a university treats its professors (at least the full professors): he's doing research, basically, on how to build a better soccer program. We're all free to debate the merits and mechanics of that experiment...and, to lay down a marker, I would put down good money – very good money – that the program isn't going anywhere new. That doesn't matter, though, because the experiment is going to continue, and on Jurgen's terms, because Sunil Fucking Gulati keeps funding the fucking lab. The pisser is, we'll never know where the experiment succeeded or failed because there's something bigger going on in the background – e.g. the founding and expansion of MLS player academies which has more American players getting more training and earlier than ever before. Plausible deniability abounds, nearly as much as the opportunity to claim misplaced credit and...and...and...

...Jesus, I should not have started on that last point because it is going to keep on going for a couple hours and a few thousand words after. Pausing. Re-focusing. Deep breath.

Here's the bad of that situation: Jurgen's damn-near iron-clad job safety is a lot of things (among them, Sunil Gulati's goddamn fault; a complete misunderstanding and/or abuse of the concept of tenure and why it exists), but the worst of it is this: it's just one more area where nothing that happens matters. There's nothing at stake for Jurgen. No ground-swell of popular rage can remove him, which means he can keep on experimenting right up to Russia 2018 – he can even feast on a massive shit-sandwich in Russia 2018 – and it will not fucking matter because he and Gulati can toast each other on a successful experiment for almost anything that happens after. They were just doing the hard, thankless work of building the foundation after all...

And if there's anyone out there who wants to argue about how his professional reputation or even pride is on the line, I hereby sentence you to watching 30 hours of Klinsmann post-game press conferences. Eels aren't that fucking slippery, people.

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