The nightmare of the New Jersey Nets — a subject about which I’ve written a great deal, and which I’ll be writing about again later today (albeit for another site) — has led regular season NBA action into the same “oh, right, that’s happening” intellectual limbo as college football and non-World Cup soccer. There is no room in my mind or life for this stuff, now. At least that is what I tell myself, before I go back to fretting. That’s my new pursuit of choice. It’s going great.
Anyway, while I would have to dramatically expand the list of sports I follow for small-time European soccer to make the list, I will admit to being fascinated by it. I sense it’s something I’d much rather read about than actually watch, but the match-fixing scandal that roiled European soccer last year revealed a fascinatingly byzantine underworld of minor league and small-time pro leagues in which players are barely paid, and fixed (hundreds of) games out of a combination of economic desperation and vulnerability to another byzantine underworld of small-time match fixers. Katrin Bennhold wrote two amazing articles about it in the New York Times — this one, about the leagues; and this one, about one match-fixing player — and then the story more or less disappeared. There may be new reporting out there about match-fixing and soccer’s bush leagues, but I’m not seeing it. My world is telescoping inward, still. This is something that happens when you get older, I guess, and fretting is time-consuming.
But a recent piece by Jonathan Clegg in the Wall Street Journal about a 27-year-old event promoter and aspiring soccer player/con man named Greg Akcelrod reignited my interest in this subject. This is not just because Akcelrod’s story is interesting, either, although it is — Akcelrod spun a not terribly distinguished amateur soccer career into something much grander by using a little sketchy online marketing to create an online rep for himself. In a sport that still doesn’t have much of a global scouting infrastructure, it was nearly enough to get this enthusiastic hanger-on into the big time:
Last summer, CSKA Sofia, the winningest soccer club in the history of Bulgaria, invited an intriguing prospect to train with the team. The player, a Frenchman named Greg Akcelrod, had been climbing the ranks of European soccer, signing with a top-flight Paris club and training with a team in Argentina. He had an agent and a Web site that showed him scoring a goal for the English club Swindon Town. He’d even been chosen as an ambassador for Lance Armstrong’s charity.
But after a few days of watching Mr. Akcelrod flail about on the pitch, the team started to fear that his credentials had been faked. A spokesman says it became clear that the Frenchman was “not a real footballer.”
…That this could happen says a lot about the sprawling and decentralized nature of European soccer. Unlike leagues in the U.S., where there are minor leagues, college teams and drafts, soccer is a mix of national leagues and divisions with no central governing authority. The Professional Football Players’ Observatory in Switzerland catalogs characteristics of about 10,000 pro soccer players in more than 450 clubs and 30 countries in Europe. Keeping track of them is beyond the capabilities of all but the richest clubs.
Again, a cool story, but what interested me more is the stuff that would’ve been the focus had Akcelrod’s story been written about in, say, The New Yorker instead of a newspaper: the weird exhibition games and pseudo-minor-leagues and random pro-affiliated amateur teams — Akcelrod’s place on Paris-Saint Germain’s amateur enabled him to make it look as if he’d actually played for PSG — that enabled Akcelrod to fake his way to almost-making-it.
In other words, the human haystack on display is more interesting to me than the needle, as is usually the case. But Akcelrod is an interesting needle, and Clegg’s story is good in its own right. I don’t have the time or energy to look into the wild west of small-time Euro soccer — and I wouldn’t know where to look in the first place, honestly — but I can at least see through the fretfulness enough to find this a bracing reminder of just how big and weird and raggedly human the world of globalized sports actually is.