By Paul Gardner
Two recent examples of important soccer guys doing things they shouldn’t be doing -- guys who should certainly know better.
First: Roy Hodgson, the coach of England. There are several rather surprising things about this story. They begin with the difficult-to-take-in fact that Hodgson uses public transport. Here we have Hodgson, an employee of the English Football Association -- which is assuredly the sort of organization that provides limo service for its senior members -- traveling on a London tube (read subway) train on his way to watch Arsenal play Olympiakos in a Champions League game.
He is recognized. A little group of fans and groupies gathers around him and Hodgson politely answers their questions. Some of the fans take photos.
Hodgson talks about the England team. He is asked about Rio Ferdinand’s chances of playing for England. He replies candidly -- “I very much doubt it. He hasn't played for England for quite a while. I have to say it is over for him and England. It has got to be the end of the road. He is pushing 34 and hasn't played for England for a long, long time.”
Well, that’s the way the papers had it the following morning. Hodgson had a different version -- “One guy said: 'Is Rio in the next squad?' and I think I might have said: ‘I don't think so.’ It's a mistake and I need to apologize for that. This is one of the hazards I suppose of traveling on tube trains when you go up to London.” Yet another version came from another passenger, who told the BBC that Hodgson replied “Well, he's 34 now so I think we are going to look to the future.”
Hodgson was hardly revealing anything surprising. Ferdinand has not been a regular starter for England for well over a year. But Hodgson was severely embarrassed and felt obliged to make a massive apology to Ferdinand.
Hodgson -- who really does carry a Mr. Nice Guy image -- will know better in future about talking with fans, and about traveling on tube trains for that matter.
But for a man in the highly sophisticated job of trying to manage England, it is his naivete that astonishes. What else could he have expected? That no one would notice him? He is regularly on TV, his photo appears all the time in the newspapers. Is he unaware that mobile phones these days take photos, never mind videos?
Second: Don Garber, Commissioner of MLS. The scene -- again -- is London. Not a tube train, but a conference hall where Garber has been invited to address the “Leaders of Football” on the intricacies of the MLS single-entity system. Adjusting to his London audience -- and one wonders why that has to be done? -- he later is seen practically swooning over the thought of David Beckham -- “David has been a great, great ambassador for our league and people like him, people love watching him, ESPN SportsCenter loves showing his highlights ...” and so rather pukingly on into a series of “love” situations -- Garber would love to see Beckham maintain his presence MLS, doesn’t matter as what, any sort of position will do (as long as it’s top of the line, presumably) -- “We would love to have a continued relationship with David in any capacity that he and his family would like.” Right, so that includes Posh in the setup. An ownership position? “He has the opportunity to be part of an ownership group. My guess is he's probably going to pursue that.”
Fair enough, I suppose. Beckham has been around MLS for quite a while now, so for Garber to talk of him in familiar terms is appropriate -- despite the irritating aura of schoolboy adulation that always seeps through when DG talks about DB.
Very different were the remarks that Garber then went on to make about another English player, Frank Lampard. Having announced that he didn’t think many people in the USA “really know who he [Lampard] is,” Garber went on to effusively praise Lampard as “a great player, he has a great history with the sport." Garber then announced, on behalf of all the MLS clubs (which are supposed to make their own decisions in these matters) that “If he decides he wants to play in Major League Soccer, I'm sure any club would be happy to have him on their roster.” He then blandly admits that he’s not aware of any MLS club showing interest in Lampard.
So he begins to promote Lampard, even getting down to signing-on details, as he states that “Frank would probably fall in the 'Designated Player' category,” ... probably?
No, I do not think that the MLS commissioner should be out there recommending players for his clubs to sign. At least, I do not think he should do it in such a curiously biased way. Why Lampard? Quite recently, Italy’s Alessandro Del Piero was available for signing by a foreign club (he has gone to Australia). Del Piero, a player with tremendous attacking skills, with flair and style -- but I don’t recall Garber encouraging his MLS clubs to get out there and sign him.
In fact, I don’t think I can ever recall Garber doing this before. Certainly I’ve never heard him say that he’d adopt illegal recruiting methods -- “I'll go into the locker room and see if I can chat him [Lampard] up. . .”
OK, that was said jokingly, but Garber’s eagerness to promote Lampard interests me, because I have on a number of occasions suggested to Garber that he should use his office to do exactly that sort of thing. That he should, in short, play a prominent role in directing clubs to the type of players the league needs to make it a league with teams that play exciting, attacking soccer. That is an aim that Garber himself has affirmed.
But Garber has always resolutely opposed the suggestion, telling me that he would be killed by the media if he started telling clubs which players to sign.
Whether or not I agree with that notion is now irrelevant, as Garber has evidently changed his mind. And, wouldn’t you know, he picks a 34-year-old English player to boot, one who, he says, is not well-known in the USA. If Garber is correct, if Lampard is not well-known in the USA, one of the reasons could be that he is a player almost totally lacking in any sort of charisma. Not quite the sort of player that Garber, if he’s going to get into player-selection, should be recommending. Lampard, to put it mildly, is no Del Piero.