Wednesday, November 22, 2023

A day in the life of an absurdly segregated land

Nathan Thrall, a journalist, has recently published the book “A Day in the Life of Abed Salama,” almost coinciding with the brutal attack of Hamas in Southern Israel and the war in Gaza. Although the events in the book take place in the West Bank, it is difficult to think of a better descritpion of the context of the Israel/Palestine conflict.

“Thrall’s book owes its title to a man he now regards as a friend: Abed Salama, who lives in Anata, a town in the West Bank near Jerusalem that is almost encircled by the Israeli separation barrier. In 2012, Salama’s five-year-old son Milad was killed, the bus on which he was travelling for a school trip having crashed. In his book, Thrall describes the many iniquities Salama must, as a Palestinian, endure in the hours and days following the accident, beginning with the impossibility of travelling to the hospital in which Milad might be lying.”

(You can read the above paragraph in an Interview with the author in The Observer)

In his book, Thrall describes the reality of segregation, which is ultimately the underlying cause of the bus accident that killed Abed Salama's son. Because of the segregation wall and the meticulous system that separates two communities, for example, it takes hours to cross less than 9 miles. Necessary emergency services are uncoordinated and inoperative. The book reveals the huge human costs of preserving a modern state just as a club for a privileged ethinicity, when it coexists with another discriminated community in the same land.

The book also describes the hate reaction in Facebook: how some young people reacted with joy in the social media to the death of Palestinian children after the bus accident.

Thrall, one of the many Jewish that criticize the government of Israel and the discrimination of Palestinians, dedicates the book to his children: “Our three daughters… have grown up in Jerusalem, just over the wall that segregates them from the children in this book. Although that segregation seems unlikely to end in my lifetime, I wrote the book in the hope that it can be dismantled in theirs.”


Friday, November 17, 2023

Football populism and tactical evolution

I gave a talk on “Soccer and populism” at Esade invited by Lorne Walker. I started by giving examples of famous club officials whose behavior few would doubt that fits with the category of “populism.” The definition of this concept is a literature in itself, but one way to fix ideas is to think about individuals that nobody doubts that they are populist, such as Donald Trump or Boris Johnson.

These examples of famous football populists include Silvio Berlusconi and Joan Laporta. Berlusconi was the owner of AC Milan in a vertically integrated chain that included a TV network. The vertical integration became political when he created a political party with the name of a popular football slogan (“Forza Italia”). It was so successful that he became Italian Prime Minister. His career as a businessman and politician was surrounded by corruption allegations (which included links with the Mafia) and exhibitions of sexism.

Laporta is not as wealthy as Berlusconi. He is not the owner of FC Barcelona, because the club is owned by its members in a non-profit structure, but there are rumours that he is pushing the club to being privatized. He has been president of the club in two periods. The first one between 2003 and 2010 and the second since 2021. At the end of his first period, he became an elected member of the City Council of Barcelona and regional member of Parliament, and was involved in obscure deals with the Uzbekistan ruling family. In between the two periods, he found time to buy a modest Catalan club in the town of Reus, which became bankrupt as a result.

It is a lost opportunity that the great book by Simon Kuper on Barça finished just when Laporta was elected for the second time, and he just hints at some of the dangers of having him at the helm, including his sexism.

What makes them populist is their constant appeal to the feelings of the masses and their tribalism. Any criticism is an attack on the club and its essences, and they openly behave as political as well as football leaders.

Cycles of rise and decline are then unavoidable in clubs that are too important to fail and generate moral hazard in enormous proportions. Totally uncapable of telling the voting members of the club that it needs to restructure (after also populist management by his predecessors), Laporta has sold assets generating long run revenues to pay for short run expenses and remain barely competitive in the transfer market. But even with this, Barça (after not preparing for the future in the Messi years) goes to the market asking “what can we afford,” while its rivals ask “what do we need.”

Populism breeds managerial instability and tactical confusion: they had years to plan for the substitution of Busquets, and when he leaves, the midfield becomes a mine field. When he started in 2008, he was the result of trial and error in a stable club. When he left, trial and error was disrupted by instability and disorientation.

We’ll see how tactics keep evolving in the rest of this season when and if everybody is available in the midfield. We’ll see whether Lamine Yamal is a new Ansu Fati or, if not Messi, a really differential player. The only wise words from the club that have been pronounced recently were those of Bojan Krkic, another failed wonder boy now in the management team, who said that the objective for Lamal (he’s sixteen) this season is that he finishes secondary education.

I didn’t like Laporta in his first period, but now he is even worse. He has made the transition from looking like Kennedy with the smartest guys in the room in 2003, to becoming an overweight Boris Trump surrounded only by a cottery of incompetent friends and relatives twenty years later. Great football clubs survive. Who knows how long the current phase of decline will last in my favourite team.