Here we go again: Euro 2008, another big tournament, so we're getting, right on cue, the two stories that now inevitably precede such events. Count on it.
Firstly, there's the story about the new ball and how it's been scientifically designed by a team of MIT super-grads and is so much better than any ball from the past etc etc. I brought this topic up a month or so back, and shortly after I'd written we were regaled with the moans and groans from Italy's reserve keeper Marco Amelia, who says, ho hum, that the new Euro 2008 ball is erratic in flight, that "it changes direction."
To say that we've heard all this before is a masterly understatement -- we've heard it so often that it gets suspicious, especially when the very wording seems to repeat itself as each event rolls up.
Of course the new ball has a name, which I forget for the moment -- well, no, that's a lie, I'm simply refusing to use it because all these stories amount to sales talk. Before the 2006 World Cup, it was reported that adidas "hoped to sell 10 million official balls." Big marketing figures, but the so-called news stories are sheer drivel -- or sales talk, it amounts to the same thing. Please guys -- I mean the manufacturers and their trade-marked players (who, surprise, surprise, just happen to be the ones praising the new wonder-ball) - give it a rest.
At least these ball stories are related to the playing of the game on the field, even though the events they relate are absurdly skewed by marketing. But the second type of pre-tournament publicity has nothing whatever to do with the sport itself -- this is pure marketing, and as such is a really tremendous bore.
We are asked to get ourselves in the mood for a soccer festival by rejoicing that the powers that be are busy -- on our behalf, we have to assume, otherwise why tell us? -- protecting the sport from ambush marketing and knock-off vendors.
So we get these breathless stories of FIFA or UEFA or some local organizing committee going to court to make sure that the trademarks and the privileges of the official suppliers and sponsors are protected.
Well, big deal. The stories are incredibly boring, and the victories they sing of (of course, they're always victories -- otherwise they wouldn't tell us) smack more of greed than anything else. The idea that I and the rest of the soccer community will now all sleep safely because the official sponsors can continue to overcharge for their wares is not one that particularly delights me.
This business of "official" products strikes me as having long departed from the realm of common sense anyway. I first noticed how dotty it was getting back in the old NASL days, when the league announced its "official cheese." If you go into U.S. Soccer's Web site, you'll find a button labeled "Sponsors." Should you look into that, you will find that our federation has an official beer -- though it's not called a beer, rather a "malt beverage product." There is also an "official spirit" -- an alcoholic one, one that Major League Soccer, which has the same sponsor, classifies as "hard alcohol." Products that might be questioned by some (and I might be among that some) as to their suitability for a sports group.
But I have to admit that the first of the Euro 2008 pro-marketing stories to surface is actually rather pleasing. It doesn't start out that way -- we're first told that the Swiss police have set up a special anti-fraud unit, just to catch the dastardly trademark violators. The unit got busily to work, and soon discovered that a horrendous crime had been committed: a professional group had ordered 500 shirts and 250 caps displaying the tournament logo -- from a firm that was not authorized to use the logo. This dreadful scenario got considerably worse, and downright embarrassing, when it turned out that the people who ordered those shirts were the Geneva police force, who also had their own logo stamped on the products.
Obviously, the special anti-fraud squad's diligence has saved Euro 2008 from humiliation. Sanity has been restored, the Geneva police are suitably ashamed and have stopped selling the tarnished goods while they await instructions from tournament organizers UEFA on what they should do with $9,600 worth of disgracefully unsanctioned shirts and caps.