Before we get into this weekend’s primer: an announcement! The Champions League knockout round starts up next Tuesday, and in honor of this beloved billion-dollar enterprise, I’m doing another mailbag. It’ll run on Tuesday before the games begin, so try go get me your questions by Monday morning at the latest. (You can just respond to the email, and I’ll receive the question.) Let’s aim to keep the lines of inquiry “Champions League-related”. If you’re unsure what that even means, then send something in anyway! Worst case: I buy one of those airplanes that you can attach a banner to and fly it above the island of Manhattan. I attach the banner. It reads “Brad/Linda/Someone Who Signs His/Her Emails With the Name “Bunny” Does Not Know What the Champions League Is”. You move to a remote island, renounce all material goods, respect the land, actually live a pretty good life. Best case: I respond. So, send in your questions!
For the uninitiated, here’s how Fridays work:
The first bullet will cater toward my mother and anyone else who’s a casual soccer fan. The second one will aim toward the average fan, someone who knows the table week in and week out and also has a handle on all of the major figures of the moment. And the third and final section will be for the uber-nerd who knows all about xG and has also watched every minute of every Ricardo Quaresma YouTube video.
After those three things, there’s also a “Game of the Weekend” recommendation. Welcome! Or: Welcome back!
Let’s talk about tax, baby
Not a great week for recently-made-former Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho. First, he, uh, had the rug pulled out from under him at an ice rink in Russia:
Why was Mourinho, who is Portuguese and who is also a soccer coach, ceremonially dropping a puck at a hockey game between what appear to be Russia’s New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers? I’ll let the Guardian’s Marina Hyde answer that one. By the way, Hyde’s coverage of Brexit has produced some of the best deadline-writing I’ve read in a long time — try to pick a favorite line from this — and, oof. Yep, I just burnt both of my hands trying to copy and paste this graf:
There is no need to fully grasp why Mourinho accepted the invitation to drop the puck, beyond one’s generalised sense there would have been money involved, and that his destiny will at some point logically entwine itself with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Had Mourinho been born under other stars, you can quite see him having been given a mining concession in the Urals or whatever, out of which he would have built something grim and unhappy, but lucrative. Certainly, José’s connection to the game of football is beginning to feel increasingly incidental. Long ago he seemed something more rounded, but Mourinho is now one of that class of people who seem to be eternally seeking an answer to the question: how much money is enough?
And so, the second part of Mourinho’s week of farce: He was given a year-long prison sentence and a €2 million fine for not paying his taxes while managing Real Madrid in 2011 and 2012. Mourinho won’t go to jail because Spanish authorities rarely enforce prison terms under two years for first-time or non-violent offenders. Instead, he’ll pay a further fine of €182,500.
Now, imagine if, say, Jon Gruden didn’t pay millions of dollars in taxes and then faced a suspended prison sentence from the IRS, along with a commensurate fine. That seems like it would be a front-page story for a few days in the States. But the Mourinho report bubbled up for about 24 hours and then went away — not because the British or European media don’t care about paying your fair share or anything like that, but because this happens ALL THE TIME.
Just last month, Cristiano Ronaldo, who is still being investigated after being credibly accused of rape, cut an even bigger deal with Spanish authorities. Look how ashamed he is …
Oh, and there’s Lionel Messi, too. In 2016, the best player in the world, along with his father, was charged with defrauding Spanish authorities of €4.1 million. He was given a 21-month prison sentence, but — and you know where this is going by now — he paid a multi-million-Euro fine instead. Various other superstars with Barcelona and Real Madrid — most notably, Neymar — have gone through the same process.
So, what the hell? Around the turn of the century, clubs started paying players for their image rights, to be used in marketing materials for the burgeoning number of commercial deals teams were signing. Players would “sell” their rights to a holding company (typically of their own creation) in some tax-lenient country in the Caribbean, and so the bigger chunk of a player’s deal related to image rights, the bigger their post-tax income. This applied to non-club related income, too.
Mourinho’s, Ronaldo’s, and Messi’s cases all stemmed from unreported income that was funneled to their various image-rights holding companies. I think Messi’s situation best encapsulates the absurdity: As Quartz wrote at the time, Messi “sold his image rights to a Belize company owned by his mother for $50,000. That company, through another shell, then entered into a sponsorship deal with Adidas for €9 million, none of which was taxed in Spain.” Seems extremely legit.
In the U.S., billions of dollars are lost each year due to tax evasion, as trillions of American dollars are held offshore to do just that. Wealthy people using their wealth to figure out byzantine, barely legal ways to avoid paying taxes isn’t anything new! (See: The Commander in Chief.) But what’s always surprised me about this is how so many players and managers keep getting caught. Spain has clearly at least made some effort in enforcing laws against tax evasion, and so the cynical — and perhaps logical — part of my brain has always landed on, “Well, the penalties these people pay must not outweigh the money they save in unpaid taxes”. So, I proposed this theory to Dr. Rob Wilson, an expert in sports finance at Sheffield Hallam University.
“I think the issue, more broadly is that they often think they are operating within the rules and are badly advised,” he said. “Rules then change and we see things spiral out of control somewhat (though your point is probably sound and some ‘may’ operate like that).”
The next one to watch: Xabi Alonso, the former Liverpool, Real Madrid, and Bayern Munich midfielder, who claims that he was operating within the rules, even though Spanish authorities have pinged him for unpaid taxes related to image rights during his time in Madrid. Rather than paying a some-million-Euro fine, Alonso’s actually going to fight the charges.
“The reality is that many of the tax efficiencies are available to all,” Dr. Wilson said. “It’s just that those at the top of the earnings chart can afford the accountants and lawyers to make best use of them.”
And thus concludes this week’s edition of “Soccer: Might Seem Special, But It’s Just Like Everything Else!”
Eden Hazard won’t fix Real Madrid
It sure seems like Eden Hazard is going to Real Madrid. Back in October, he said, “Real Madrid is the best club in the world. I don't want to lie, it is my dream since I was a kid.” Then, last week Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri said of his superstar, “If he wants to go, he has to go.” And then, earlier this week, Hazard said, “I know what I am going to do. I have made a decision”. Soccer players can be especially inscrutable about their futures, and others have certainly made bigger deals about not doing anything — over the summer, Antoine Griezmann held was essentially a two-bit version of The Decision to announce that he was staying at Atletico Madrid — but the tea leaves (which in this case aren’t really even tea leaves but rather the actual words that have left Eden Hazard’s mouth) seem to suggest a move to the Spanish capital is imminent.
Hazard just turned 28 and only has a year remaining on his contract after this season, so in theory he should be a little cheaper than if he were three years younger and had three years left on his deal, but Hazard’s such a big name and he’s so important to Chelsea that I wouldn’t be shocked if a move to Madrid approached triple digits. Madrid, of course, can afford it because Madrid are the richest team in the world. They haven’t spent big money on a key, immediate contributor since bringing in James Rodriguez for €75 million after the 2014 World Cup. And they still have a Cristiano Ronaldo-shaped hole on the left wing after selling him to Juventus last summer and then … nor replacing him with anyone.
Hazard’s a left winger. Enter: Hazard. Problem: solved?
Not quite! As we’ve talked about, Hazard’s never been a great goal-scorer or generator of shots. (We could have a larger conversation of how valuable Hazard could really ever be without doing those things, but consider it added to my notes for a future edition.) At Napoli, when Sarri took tiny Dries Mertens from the wing and plopped him up top, Mertens immediatley started rattling off five shots a game and putting up monster goal-scoring numbers. When Sarri put tiny Hazard up top, the entire club more or less immediately descended into a low-grade dystopia. He’s just not gonna be a needle-moving goal-scorer for a team with Madrid’s ambitions.
That’s a problem because what Real Madrid need most are the two things that Ronaldo had more of than just about anybody else: shots and goals. Although, he theoretically played on the wing, Ronaldo had basically become a pure goal-scorer by the end of his Madrid career. The team’s nominal striker, Karim Benzema, functioned less as a forward and more as a backboard and a facilitator for Ronaldo’s forays into the box. Last season, according to Football Whispers data, Ronaldo averaged 6.75 shots per game (most in Europe) and 0.92 xG (also most in Europe). Before this season, I talked to some people who thought removing that volume from a team that’s filled with plenty of other superstars might actually make Madrid more efficient. That … has not happened, and the story ended up being the simplest one:
Hazard just won’t fix that to a significant degree. His elite skill is that he’s basically Alvin Kamara. Hazard moves the ball on the ground about as well as anyone:
And he’s also one of the best receivers out there:
Could Hazard’s yard-eating and field-stretching presence lead to Madrid facing more unsettled defenses than they are now and then lead to the attack ultimately creating higher-quality chances? Perhaps, but we’re still talking about Real Madrid here! They’ve won the Champions League three years in a row; the team is filled with guys who can move the ball up-field and receive passes in space. I’m not sure how much added benefit Hazard’s top-end skills would provide. Now, he would likely upgrade the side’s creativity a bit. Hazard’s averaging 0.31 expected assists per 90 minutes, and no one on Madrid who’s played at least 1000 minutes this season is above 0.2.
And yet! It’s unclear how much of that is due to coaching (Zinedine Zidane left over the summer and they’re now two coaches removed from him) and how much of that’s down to the missing gravity of Ronaldo. The team’s five main attackers — Lucas Vazquez, Marcos Asensio, Isco, Gareth Bale, and Benzema — all of their creative productive is down significantly from last year. There’s typically a boost that comes with moving to a super-club like Madrid, but given the team’s current trajectory, it’s hard to believe that Hazard would slot into that situation and do much more than maintain his current level of production. (He’s also just about at the age where his performance will soon start to decline.) The current version of Hazard would be an upgrade for Madrid, but seemingly just a marginal one. He’s the guy you buy when your goal-scorers are already in place and you need someone to do all of the work before the final third, plus make some final passes, too. But Madrid need the goalscorer; they already have most of those other things.
Of course, bringing in Hazard wouldn’t preclude Madrid from adding the goal-scorer, too. (Mike Goodman over at Statsbomb has a good rundown over the players they should consider.) And it does feel like we’re overdue for a market-shifting spending spree from club president Florentino Perez; he’s been way too quiet over the past four years. If Hazard is Madrid’s main piece of upcoming business, then I have a hard time seeing how the team improves all that much. And if he’s not the main piece of business, then buckle up because Madrid are about to spend a hell of a lot of money.
Turkish Super Lig? More like Turkish Super … It’s Lit.
I don’t watch it, and I don’t think I will ever have the proper-grade malware on this computer to even attempt watching an illegal stream from the Turkish League, but this remains true: I love the Turkish League.
The global soccer landscape has settled into a pretty clear tripartite system over the past 20 years: There are “selling leagues” that produce lots of young talent that eventually gets sold; there’s the Big Five (the leagues that buy from the selling leagues and where the best players in the world spend their primes); and there are “retirement leagues” where veteran players and even some non-vets can go for a couple nice paychecks before moving into a more sedentary stage of life. Those distinctions aren’t rock solid — though the Big Five is the Big Five, some leagues produce young talent and attract older talent — but that’s pretty much how it goes.
Well, except for the Super Lig. It’s not quite a retirement league and it’s also not quite a selling league and it’s also definitely not a Big Five league; it’s just kind of its own entity — filled with weird players you forgot existed, managers who all look like they own multiple cigar-store Indians, and of course, Ricardo Quaresma, who is the best athlete that wasn’t explicitly talked about in the Bible. Remember Damien Commolli, the guy who was supposed to bring Moneyball to the Premier League? He’s running the show at Fenerbahce! Victor Moses, the guy who was a starting wingback for a team that won the Premier League two years ago? Now, at the behest of Commolli himself, playing for Fenerbahce! Mauricio Isla? Roberto Soldado? Carlos Kameni? Andre Ayew? Mathieu Valbuena? Islam Slimani?Martin Skrtel? Someone named Jailson? All playing for Fenerbahce! Currently just three points clear of the relegation zone? FENERBAHCE!
For as weird and unpredictable as the stream of players into the Super Lig might seem, it’s somehow spit out and incredibly consistent repetition of results at the highest level. The three Istanbul-based giants — Fenerbahce, Galatasaray, and Besiktas — have won all but seven of the titles since the Super Lig was established in 1959. And it’s only gotten more predictable over time: someone from that trio has won the title every year since 1985—save for 2010 … and possibly 2019!
İstanbul Başakşehir currently have an eight-point lead on second-place Galatasaray, and FiveThirtyEight gives them an 85-percent chance of winning their first-ever Super Lig title. Başakşehir’s roster is so beautiful, such a perfectly constructed collection of misfits, scallywags, and people I’ve dreamed about at least three separate times over the past 15 years, that whenever I look at it I fear I’ll never be able to experience joy again because there is nothing as good as this:
It gets even better: That group of flamed-out-a-lifetime-ago attackers, “midfielders”, and defenders who don’t defend? They’re in first place because (a lot of them don’t play that much and) they’ve only given up 10 goals in 20 games. I would die for the Turkish Super Lig.
Başakşehir plays Galatasaray on the second-to-last weekend of the season. If they haven’t wrapped up the league by then, I’ll let you know.
GAME OF THE WEEKEND, “KNITWEAR? DON’T CARE” EDITION
If you have any knowledge about what the schedule of games looks like this weekend, you probably thought I was gonna pick the Madrid Derby, huh? I wrote about Atletico last week, Real this week — solid groundwork and also a good excuse for me to link to a previous newsletter. Well, guess what, buddy? Atletico Madrid are not fun to watch! And neither are Real Madrid! Consider this my anti-recommendation: This game will have a lot of tension, and might be a decent intro into Spanish soccer culture for a new fan, but Ateltico games rarely include many goals nowadays, and as we just went over, Real can’t really score much nowadays, either. Another goalless draw, like their first meeting this year, would not surprise me. Life is precious and fleeting. You probably don’t have time for that!
So, straight-down-the-middle-it-is. City are (temporarily) in first and at home; Chelsea lost their last away match, 4-0, to a team that is currently in 10th; City probably edge this one comfortably. But! Soccer can be a weird game of impetus-taking, where sometimes a team is forced to asopt a less proactive approach than they’re used to, and it works to their benefit. Chelsea haven’t struggled to dominate possession under Sarri; they’ve struggled to convert that possession into good chances. Well, City are the only Premier League team that averages more possession than Chelsea, so Hazard and Co. will likely be forced to play on the counter, and as a result might face fewer defenders behind the ball than they’re used to. It worked to their benefit last time the teams met, a 2-0 Chelsea win with very few chances for either side. I doubt this ends up being a barn-burner like the past three Games of the Week (TM, TM, TM), but it’s always interesting to watch a team that’s forced to play against its tendencies. Game’s at 11:00 AM EST on NBC Sports in the States.
More important than Chelsea’s game-plan, though, is the following question: Will Pep Guardiola wear this hooded sweater-jacket thing again?
It looks like he was trapped in a house with a giant ball of gray yarn for his entire life and one day, when he was a boy, someone slipped an LL Bean catalog under the door, and from that point on, he decided he wanted a parka more than anything in the world but since he could not leave his house and exchange labor for monetary reward he therefore had no means of acquiring a hooded coat so he instead made one with his bare hands and the only raw materials that were readily available. Even if that’s what actually happened, sweaters aren’t outwear when it’s February in the United Kingdom, man! I need to see what he’s wearing on Sunday! I’m sick.
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