Friday, November 18, 2005

All the world's a pitch

Our credentials as an Irish blog would be weak if we had nothing to say about the shock departure (sacked says RTE, mutual agreement says BBC) of Manchester United's stalwart midfielder, Roy Keane. Now, as widely noted, Keane's departure is in a sense overdetermined, with reasons ranging from fatigue aggravated by his famous impatience with perceived lack of commitment, to his years-long chafing at the corporatisation of the game. The latter culminated in his spiked interview for the in-house TV station MUTV in which he criticised many of his fellow players.

Thus his departure has parallels, for readers looking for an American analogy, with that of Terrell Owens from the Philadelphia Eagles, who likewise was guilty of the mortal sin of public criticism of teammates. Indeed, MU fans might wonder if this intolerance of players going off-message came down from the team's new owners, the Glazers, also owners of the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Keane had already retired from playing for the Republic of Ireland, his second such retirement, and his availability will spark speculation about him taking over the vacant national team managerial slot. But since his past disputes with the team reflected his dislike of its administrators as much as team managers, it's not clear that such a relationship can work out.

There's one other matter peripherally related to Keane that is worth noting. His retirement from the national team coincided with its failure to make the 2006 World Cup in Germany, coming 4th in their group behind Israel who in turn just missed a playoff spot that went to Switzerland, who in turn beat Turkey in a nailbiting home-and-away playoff to qualify (France came first in the group and so qualify automatically).

All this matters because the Vast Rightwing Conspiracy has a new cause -- getting Iran kicked out of the World Cup and handing the slot to Israel instead. Hence in the National Review, Emanuele Ottolenghi writes:

As Washington Institute’s Iran expert Patrick Lawson has suggested in the past, the international community should exclude Iran from the world cup ... The precedent would impose no burden on business interests but it would embarrass Tehran and create an international consensus on the nature of its regime.

... A ban on the other hand would create a further popular grievance against the regime ... But the ban would deprive the World Cup of a team. Who would replace Iran at the Leipzig draw on December 9?

Israel’s team is the answer. Israel, geographically in the Middle East, had to play against much stronger European teams like France and Ireland (sic), due to a sport boycott — tolerated by international sport authorities — which the Jewish state endures in its region. If that was not enough, foreign teams feared playing in Israel for safety reasons, forcing Israel to play its own home games away from home and its supporters. Despite these hurdles, Israel’s team performed well and was eliminated in the qualifying stages only due to goal difference. But had Israel played instead against Qatar, Laos, and Jordan like Iran did, it would have easily qualified. Given [Iranian President] Ahmadinejad’s propensity to destroy Israel, and Israel’s worthy performance on the soccer field, this swap is only fair.

Now as we noted above, what the Israelis just missed was a playoff, which it's not clear they would have won. And it's not true that Israel had to play home games on the road; Tel Aviv was used for their qualifying campaign. And in fact there's a good argument that Israel benefits from the regional boycott, because its clubs get to compete against the world's top teams, and standards rise. So the current Israeli team might indeed beat the Asian minnows that Iran competed against, but maybe not if their football culture was not as integrated with Europe's as it is.

Anyway, if Keane had had just a little better luck with injuries, the underlying claim of the NR article that Israel was the closest non-qualifier would likely have fallen even farther short, and the proposed Israel-Iran switch would be more blatantly political than it already is. But we propose to begin the weekend with one bizarre coincidence in this debate; as we've noted before, the odd resemblance between Keano and the Iranian president.

No comments: