Thursday, January 17, 2013

Fun in Funchal

Madeira in January.

Sunshine, spectacular scenery, cheap beer, good food and British pensioners of every shape, size and accent swarming like a plague of mildly arthritic locusts, more plastic joints than bling crowding round the casino tables.

Football too. The island's 273,000 residents can boast of two teams in Portugal's top flight, both based in the main city of Funchal. The trip away teams must negotiate from the mainland would surely leave Danny Lennon apoplectic.

Extensive research - Wikipedia detained me for all of five minutes - suggests that Maritimo have often enjoyed the island upper hand and a degree of populist political patronage while Nacional have traditionally attracted support from Funchal's more well to do citizens.

Loathe as I am to forget a childhood spent on the mean, if lovingly manicured, streets of commuter belt East Lothian, a quirk of the fixture list meant it would be the toffs of Nacional graced with my patronage.

With both teams having endured financial challenges in recent years it could be that their respective support is now less divided by class or wealth.

Nacional though have preserved the air of the haughty aristoratic thanks to their stadium, modern and modest but perched high in the hills overlooking Funchal.

The Cristiano Ronaldo Academy - he was a Nacional player before Sporting Lisbon swooped when he was just ten years old - adds glamour in the mountains, the perfect spot for looking down on the masses as they look up to you.

Modern out of town stadiums often seem designed to depress. The Estádio da Madeira - a name that might well irk Maritimo - at least offers a bar and a bolo do caco stall churning out freshly made doughy bread with garlic butter and chorizo for all of €2.

(Not only is this an improvement on the "street food" of Scottish football it's also well worth seeking out in down town Funchal where most restaurants pitched at tourists think lunch should be a three course affair beginning with soup. Whether this is dictated by tradition or the dental capabilities of much of their winter clientele is unclear.)

A rather sparse club shop hints at a certain difficulty in parting the locals from their cash. Maybe not just locals, a pile of "half and half" scarves marking a European game with Birmingham a couple of years ago suggests either overly ambitious ordering or reluctant Brummies preferring to leave their money behind the bar.

Most dramatically the stadium escapes humdrum modernity thanks to its location. Windows in the newer of the two stands offer views across Funchal and give the feeling of a modern stadium that is at once apart from and a part of its city.

There was also a match to be played. Nacional, at the wrong end of the table, entertaining Braga, three wins on the trot and lying third behind Porto and Benfica.

Politeness might always have led me to root for the home team but a run in with Braga's team bus, displaying what I considered some reckless reversing in a crowded car park, the day before the game sealed the deal.

Which is why at half time I found myself sitting in a stadium that was two thirds empty, having watched "my side" look enthusiastically uninspired as visitors doing no more than go through the motions had taken a 1-0 lead.

I can cross the road to see that most weeks in Scotland.

A couple of non-alcoholic beers (€1 and pointless) and a couple of gut wrenchingly strong coffees (€0.70 and invigorating) later and I was ready for more.

And so were Nacional. Finding more point to their energy they began to threaten as Braga went from not really trying to really quite narked that things weren't going their way.

1-1 on 58 minutes, 2-1 on 60 minutes. Having broken with no real purpose to squander decent opportunities in the first half Nacional were now breaking with real purpose to make the most of half chances.

78 minutes and it was 3-1, an own goal giving the home side a cushion.

Braga rallied. In the 83rd minute Eder pulled one back, his third in three games and ninth in eleven league games since joining in the summer. The goal was a product of an urgency that hadn't been there as they went 1-0 up or even when they found themselves 2-1 down.

It might actually have taken 75 minutes before their captain, Alan, managed to find it in himself to lift the pace above holiday dawdle.

Too late though. And definitely too late when Hugo Viana got himself sent off with five minutes to go.

Nacional closed it out. Braga missed the chance to gain on the top two, Nacional moved up the league and sneaked past Maritimo on goal difference.

The taxi driver who took us up the mountain was waiting at full time to take us back down.

We were back in the centre of Funchal to catch the hotel crooner finishing off his set with a rousing My Way. Walking sticks were tapped on the dancefloor in approval, the walking dead shuffled riotously towards a live casino dreaming dreams of Euro riches.

There are, I think, worse ways to watch football.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Scottish football: Reinventing the wheel

12 + 12 + 18 = 8 + 8 + 8 + 18 = 36 + 36 + 36 + 34.

With such simple equations are Scottish football resurrections secured.

If the SPL is about to die, the dictators of the ancien regime are going to get their way before the peasants storm the castle.

12 + 12 + 18.

We could carve it in granite on the SPL's tombstone if an unmarked grave didn't seem more appropriate.

The SPL's Neil Doncaster has often been characterised on this blog as providing much of the deficit in Scottish football's leadership.

His stock fell further during the bloodletting of the summer and recently it has been his Scottish Football League counterpart, David Longmuir, who has been seen by many to better articulate the views of the ordinary punter.

Longmuir has been gazumped on the critical issue of reconstruction though. Step aside Donkey-caster, this was Don King-caster, persuading enough clubs that his dream was actually their dream too.

In the time honoured Scottish football tradition this was done with sticks and carrots, bribes and threats. Our change or no change and did we mention a redistribution of wealth? Our way or the highway and how about increasing the number of potential promotion spots?

In such ways can dreams be sold.

Fair to say that many fans have been less enamoured to the SPL's grand compromise. Never convinced by the split in the first place, supporters are unlikely to find appeasement in a further level of splittage.

This apparent disregard for the paying punter might be nothing more than some club chairmen judging that their support has been reduced to a loyal rump who will remain forlornly in attendance whatever the divisional machinations.

Or it could be that they can't quite escape playing matron. They know we don't like the idea of a three way split cabbage but it will help us grow strong and healthy so they'll force feed us it anyway.

The guardians of the game guarding the game against the romantically suicidal notions of supporters.

It's not unreasonable for directors to think that is simply a case of them doing their jobs.

Risky though. A wild stab in the demographic dark would lead me to surmise that few Scottish football fans grew up with Listen With Mother or accepting that nanny knew best.

In difficult times we might decide that paying for the privilege of eating cabbage is a miserable luxury we can forego or that the time has come to find a restaurant where the menu is more entertaining and less cabbage centric.

(And while I am throttling this cabbage nonsense to death, full disclosure: I am a fan of the Cabbage who will likely perservere with that support no matter the method of shredding the leaves in mid season. Part, as it were, of Rod Petrie's cabbagey rump.)

If clubs are prepared to gamble that 12 + 12 + 18 minimises destruction in the court of public opinion, do they have the same confidence in the corportate world?

However the cards fall on reconstruction, the model will require a title sponsor and media partners will need to be satisfied they are getting value for their investment.

Last week there were rumours that ESPN were either looking at ditching their Scottish football coverage or ditching all their remaining assets and pulling out of the UK market.

Would Sky want a monopoly? Could BT's new kid on the televised sport block be persuaded to intervene?

Has anyone even asked them?

Part of the problem with the SPL's vision is what remains unsaid.

On sponsorship and TV deals. On how a fairer distribution of money would work. On how the leagues below the SFL will be persuaded that this is a pyramid system that can actually work for them. On what exactly increasing access to promotion will mean in practice. On how willing the SPL will be to give up their rotten borough of a voting system within a single league body.

We don't know enough. Is it any surprise that fans are taking a lot of convincing when the known knowns seem so needlessly complicated and the known unknowns seem so plentiful?

Rangers have offered a counter proposal a 14 + 14 + 14 structure. That 14 team top flight was the model favoured by Rangers and Celtic a couple of years ago. It was also the model, probably quite coincidentally, outlined by Jim Traynor in 2011.

It has merits. It has flaws. Given how steadfastly a majority of SPL clubs have been in their desire to do anything but expand the top flight it seems unlikely, as Charles Green is no doubt aware, to find favour. Having kicked up a fuss about 12 + 12 + 18 and been challenged to deliver an alternative, Green was perhaps lucky to have Jim Traynor's back catalogue lying around Ibrox.

And clearly there are already SFL clubs persuaded by the 12 team second tier, that SPL2 by any other name.

Are we closer to reconstruction in time for next season?

I'd think so. But for it to happen in the next few months it will be along the 12 + 12 + 18 model.

That is the model that preserves the number of home gates the SPL clubs need to sustain their often hand to mouth existence, the model that gives clubs in the current First Division that tantalising prospect of access to the top flight and the model that seems to have found a degree of acceptance among the remaining SFL clubs.

If it's not agreed, we will be back to various brains trusts banging together in the corridors of Hampden. Again.

It's far from perfect.

It's already been branded a failure in Austria and the Swiss - who successfully sold the world cuckoo clocks, multi functional penknives with little apparent functionality and Sepp Blatter - couldn't make it work.

Fans are resistant and it seems quite an emotional resistance, one not easily countered by bland marketing and "here's the maths" spreadsheets.

That's a hard sell for an imperfect product.

Maybe honesty would be best the option:

"We want 12 + 12 + 18 for reasons of self-preservation. We're not sure the football will improve, the games will be more exciting or the blot of meaningless game will be forever erased from the top two divisions.

"But we're all skint and this is the best way we can find to try and maximise revenues, the best way to keep the greatest number of clubs alive.

"Perfect? No. A quick fix? Probably not. But if you've been watching Scottish football through the years you'll know that the problems are too deep for a change in the size of the top flight to make the game an overnight success.

"We're taking a risk that 12 + 12 + 18 will give us the stability to build something a bit better. We kind of need your help to do it."

It might not persuade a lot of fans but it could prove quite cathartic for all involved.

It might also help to rebuild trust between clubs and fans, a trust that has been eroding for too long, making it trickier to sell any reconstruction idea to the majority.

That this reconstruction has been framed as the last act of a collapsing SPL hasn’t helped - people are less keen to grant your last wish if you’ve been universally derided for most of your life.

If pushing ahead with 12 + 12 + 18 erodes that trust further, fails to improve what we see on the pitch, leaves yet more fans choking on their cabbage then we'll be chasing down yet another dead end.

And with every passing season we're getting less and less room for manoeuvre.