Midfield General

The Game Is the Same

National soccer styles are disappearing -- good riddance?

For England, it was a watershed moment. With a 6-3 defeat to Hungary at Wembley Stadium in 1953, the self-proclaimed motherland of the game was beaten on home soil by a team from outside the British Isles for the first time. It was a technical and tactical thrashing. Confronted by the brilliance of Ferenc Puskas and the revelation of nominal forward Nandor Hidegkuti switching positions during the match, England had no answer.

Despite the fact that Hungary was the reigning Olympic champion, the schooling came as a seismic shock to English football. With no Internet or television, there had been no scouting to aid the hosts -- no early warning system. Hungary was simply unleashed on England and was playing a hitherto unseen brand of football, turning the English world upside down. In today's era of Total Footballing Awareness, could it ever happen again?

Football is a game that can throw up delicious contrasts: possession-based teams versus counterattacking teams; teams that value dribbling and creative freedom against the organized outfits that focus on the collective. Different cultures give rise to different tactics. For instance, though teams from the Balkans and Argentina traditionally place huge value on the importance of the playmaker -- the enganche -- Britain has rarely found room for the role at all.

More than 60 years on from the defeat against Hungary, and the England team is as far away as it has ever been from the top of the football world. Yet that world is changing in other ways. These days, the identities of those delivering the fatal blows are no mystery. England was eliminated from the World Cup in Brazil after just two matches, courtesy of winning goals by former Manchester City striker Mario Balotelli of Italy and current Liverpool hero Luis Suárez of Uruguay.

Globalization means familiar battles but also familiar styles. For example, the notion that Brazil plays carnival futebol no longer seems rooted in reality. The host nation's squad has more players operating in England alone than in South America, with prototypically functional, battling midfielders -- the kind England used to be known for -- such as Ramires and Paulinho among them. And it's not just players working abroad who have homogenized the football culture. Seven members of the Selecao have played under Jose Mourinho, a coach as far removed as possible from the Brazilian legend of joga bonito.

Of course, Mourinho has also won the league in four countries. His kind of peregrination is becoming commonplace for top coaches, and it brings a cross-pollination of ideas. Deploying the 4-2-3-1 formation has become the footballing equivalent of assembling a McDonald's restaurant -- quickly constructed and instantly understood. Whatever happens to be the geographical accident of his birth, the professional football player soon becomes accustomed to similar tactics and teammates wherever he goes.

Just look at the numbers. In terms of quality, the Champions League in Europe is now regarded as the pinnacle of the game, and the 2014 World Cup includes 91 players owned by the eight clubs that made last year's quarterfinals. That's just eight teams. In total, more than half of all the players in Brazil's squad are owned by clubs in Europe's top five leagues. Under those circumstances, cultural differentiation is becoming more and more unlikely.

This homogenization is a nightmare for the lazy football commentator or armchair pundit. The dubious cliché of naïve African defending can't be applied to Ivorian duo Kolo Touré and Didier Zokora, who boast a quarter-century of European experience between them. And professional clubs are hardly naïve of African players' talent, either. When one captures the world's attention at the 2014 World Cup -- as Nigeria's Kenneth Omeruo and Ghana's Christian Atsu have -- he tends to be owned already by Chelsea.

And yet, this is not merely a lament. Though globalization and homogenization go hand in hand, they can still throw up intrigue. The sort of shock that greeted England back in 1953 may be a thing of the past, but the spread of the game can still spring a surprise on the punters. Iran had no foreign-based players when it went to Argentina for the 1978 World Cup, but the team that so nearly secured a dramatic draw with Argentina in 2014 included five stars from Europe. The next watershed moment might not be so far away.

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A Miscarriage of Justice in Cairo

The sentencing of three Al Jazeera journalists to lengthy prison terms on nonexistent evidence shows how paranoid and degraded the Egyptian regime has become.

CAIRO — Through the tight mesh of a Cairo courtroom cage, Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste silently raised a single fist the moment the Egyptian judge read out the verdict sentencing him to prison. Greste and two of his Al Jazeera colleagues were found guilty of assisting a terrorist organization and fabricating news to harm the Egyptian state.

Greste, a 49-year-old Australian correspondent who had been reporting in Egypt for only 10 days before he was arrested, now faces the next seven years in prison. The network's local bureau chief, Mohamed Fahmy, who joined Al Jazeera just a few months prior to his arrest, also received a seven-year sentence. Local producer Baher Mohamed was given a heftier punishment of 10 years. The extra three years was because he was also convicted of possession of an unlicensed weapon -- a single bullet.

"They will pay for this," shouted Fahmy, clad in the white prison uniform, as the guards dragged the sentenced back to their cells.

The trial of the Al Jazeera journalists, in which a total of 20 people were accused, has become a case study in all that is wrong with the Egyptian judicial system. The evidence was nonexistent, the defendants included people from different occupations and backgrounds with no clear link to each other, and the judicial process was haphazard at best.

The timing of the verdict also managed to embarrass Secretary of State John Kerry, who had made surprise visit to Cairo the day before. In what seemed to be an effort to mend ties with the new Egyptian government, Kerry announced the release of $575 million in previously frozen military aid, and promised that Apache helicopters would soon be provided to the Egyptian military. The secretary of state also spoke of the need for a "free press ... and due process in democracy" -- appeals that, at least in the case of the Al Jazeera journalists, were ignored.

Since the arrest of Greste and Fahmy at Cairo's upscale Marriott Hotel on Dec. 29, the six-month ordeal has shown just how far Egypt is willing to go to muzzle those who might dissent from its preferred narrative.

Greste and Fahmy's arrest was taped by police and then broadcasted by Tahrir TV, a local Egyptian network, to the ominous musical score of the film "Thor: The Dark World." The 22-minute clip painted the makeshift hotel room studio as a crime scene: The cameraman repeatedly zoomed into laptops, cables, mobile phones, and hard drives. A stunned Fahmy, his arm in a sling, and a silent Peter Greste were interrogated about their makeshift office and how they were paid.

Baher Mohamed was later arrested from his home in a police raid during which officers shot his dog and his pregnant wife wasn't given time to cover herself.

The absurdities continued in the courtroom. The grand unveiling of the "evidence" included a Sky News Arabia documentary on animal welfare, a BBC report on Somalia, family photographs, incomprehensible audio recordings, and a pop song. The prosecutors said the random collection of videos and photos proved that the accused were guilty of doctoring news stories and involvement in a terrorist group's activities.   

"You can't possibly imagine that any of those videos alone or together could represent a threat to national unity as the charges against them say," said Mohamed Lotfy, executive director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, who attended every session of the trial. Neither did it prove there was any connection between the defendants and the outlawed Brotherhood, he added.

Nor was it clear that the Egyptian police knew who, exactly, they were detaining. In the arresting officers' testimonies in the courtroom, they confused Al Jazeera English, which employs the three journalists, with Al Jazeera's banned local channel Mubasher Misr, which has a strong pro-Brotherhood editorial line.

The people charged in the trial were not only journalists, and it remained unclear to even the defendants how they were all related to each other. Some of the students were activists who had opposed last summer's military coup, while another was the head of an Islamic charity. Another reporter charged in the case had no connection to Al Jazeera: Dutch journalist Rena Netjes was seemingly indicted because she had coffee with Fahmy at the Marriott a few weeks before the arrests; she was sentenced in absentia to 10 years in prison.

Only two defendants were acquitted: Anas el-Beltagy, the son of a prominent Muslim Brotherhood leader, and Ahmed Abdel-Hamid, a Cairo-based student.

In the brief moments of recess during the course of the trial, the Al Jazeera journalists shouted descriptions of life in Egyptian jail to the reporters covering their case.

Even after an "upgrade" in Tora's sprawling prison complex, Greste, Fahmy, and Mohamed are only allowed one hour of sunlight a day -- except on Fridays, when they are often kept caged in their cramped cell all day. Fahmy, meanwhile, now has a permanent disability after he was refused medical treatment for a broken shoulder and was made to sleep on a bare concrete floor for at least a month.

The Egyptian government has arrested over 40,000 people, according to the independent monitoring group WikiThawra, and sent thousands to trial since last summer's military coup. Journalists haven't been immune from this crackdown: Egypt was the third-deadliest country for journalists and among the top jailers of journalists in 2013, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). More than 65 journalists have been detained in Egypt since the coup, and 14 remain behind bars.

Once detained, journalists sometimes have disappeared down the rabbit hole of the Egyptian judicial system. Al Jazeera Arabic correspondent Abdullah el-Shamy was arrested while covering the violent dispersals of pro-Morsi sit-ins last August, and held for nearly a year despite not being formally charged. He was recently released from the maximum security unit of Tora prison for health reasons after nearly dying from a five-month hunger strike.

Meanwhile, Egyptian photojournalist Mahmoud Abou Zeid, who works with international agency Demotix, has also been held for almost a year without charge. In the last court session to determine whether Abou Zeid's detention should be extended, the judge didn't bother to show up.

The effect has been an unprecedented level of self-censorship by both the public and private media. "You can see many TV shows, awkwardly trying to stop their interviewees going too far in criticizing the army and the government," Lotfy said. It was, he added, the worst press environment he had monitored in the last 30 years.

Such pressure had caused independent voices to drop from the airwaves. Popular comic Bassem Youssef, who had been interrogated for his stinging satirical skits, cancelled his show this month, citing concerns for the safety of his family. Opposition talk show host Reem Maged, whose show Baladna bel Masry boasted millions of viewers, took herself off air in the aftermath of July's coup.

The Egyptian judiciary's targeting of Al Jazeera employees likely has more to do with geopolitics than the reporting done by Fahmy and Greste. The network is funded by the Qatari government, a staunch supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and a nemesis to the government in Cairo.

After former President Mohamed Morsi was deposed, Cairo allied itself with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, which provided Egypt with billions of dollars in fresh aid in an attempt to bolster the new military-backed government. Qatar's media empire, however, continued to oppose the new regime: Al Jazeera's Arabic language channel's editorial stance strongly supported the Brotherhood. The network even paid for Islamist opposition leaders to live in luxury hotels in Doha after they had been exiled from Cairo. 

For the devastated families of those sentenced to prison gathered outside the Cairo courtroom, however, such global political games mean little.

"We had hope in the Egyptian judicial system, now we no longer have hope." Fahmy's brother Adel said, as his mother Wafaa, who was in tears, leaned against him. "They paid the final price."