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Jan Breydel Stadium, Brugge/Bruges, Belgium – Club Brugge KV and Cercle Brugge K.S.V.

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Brugge (Bruges) is a beautiful city, there can be no doubt about that. It is one of those cities that one can be stunned into a standstill when staring at the architecture. “This is Europe” are the only words that come to mind. The Europe of Henry James, old world Europe in a word.

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I had just three hours in the city, en route from Calais to Brussels. Not a big problem for me because I know I’ll be back, but I knew the first—and only—order of business was seeing the stadium. The fact that Club Brugge had a match that Sunday meant that I had a chance to grab a shirt so—I set out like I always do, armed only with a map and my own silly determination.

Tourist information was sadly a disappointment—they wanted me to take a number (which would have meant waiting at least twenty minutes at the rate of things). I decided to walk up to the counter instead, as I have done before.

“May I ask a quick question?”

“Sure . . .” She sounds unsure, which is never a good sign.

“Where is the stadium?” I ask, pushing the map forward.

“That’s not a quick question,” she says, frowning.

“Ok . . . Its close by though, I think?”

“Take a number,” She seems displeased.

“Look. Just tell me which direction to walk in,” I say it frankly—this isn’t my first rodeo.

“That way.” She says it with no emotion, pointing behind her. I eschew a thank you and head in that direction—what else can you do?

 

It turns out that I didn’t need her help anyway. The stadium is a straight shot—about forty minutes by foot—from a square just outside the historic center that the Brugge flea market is set up in on Sunday afternoons (and by the way, this is a flea market I highly recommend but that is for another time).

I crossed the river, complete with an enjoyable medieval gate that drops traffic down to one lane, necessitating a traffic light. The mix of old and new feels comical in this setting.

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The walk is an enjoyable one however, through neighborhoods that feel so typically European. For a moment, I wonder what it would have been like if I myself had grown up here. What trajectory would my life have taken then? Its one of those uniquely valuable feelings travel gives you—the ability to empathize in the raw.

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By the time I reach the stadium I realize that the shirt will be impossible. The place is literally abandoned, despite the fact that a match is due to start in four hours. The store is closed and it will only open two hours before kickoff . . . which means an hour after I have to leave. I try in vain to get someone to open the shop—which is unfortunate—but I get a consolation prize: pictures of the Jan Breydel Stadion, home to both Club Brugge and Cercle Brugge. There is no one in sight and I walk right through the gates and look down at the pitch—a lazy Sunday afternoon as groundskeepers mow the grass.

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I suppose in Belgium people can relax, and I think back to passport control upon entering Belgium. The officer asked me how it was going, I said I was just going on vacation. When I returned the question, he said simply “another day at work”. I asked if he was living the dream and he said “not quite”. It was a far cry from the welcome I had received upon entering Uzbekistan, and my experience in the stadium is no different. Here I walked around freely—in Tashkent, I was chased out of a stadium because I was wearing shorts!

Since both the Club Brugge and Cercle Brugge stores were closed I can only share with you photos of the stadium. I do however have an old Cercle Brugge shirt that can be viewed here. The Jan Breydel Stadium was built in 1975 and has a capacity of 30,000 but it is usually limited to 29,472. Of course, judging by Wikipedia’s average attendance figures for both tenants—Club Brugge and Cercle Brugge—the extra seats don’t seem to be needed very often. There are busses that make it out to the stadium, but the walk is pleasant and easy—just head out of the city center towards the southeast.

 

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The Stadium itself is colored in the colors of both Club Brugge and Cercle Brugge. Below are the ends for Cercle Brugge:

 

 

 

 

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And below are the ends for Club Brugge:

 

 

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Outside the stadium is no different. Below are the entrances for Cercle Brugge:

 

 

 

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And below the entrances for Club Brugge:

 

 

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US World Cup Hangover: The Economics of Soccer in the United States

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The United States bowed out of the 2014 FIFA World Cup after a spirited performance against Belgium—a nation of just 11 million (or, as one humorous article put it, “a Dakota and a half”. For the record, Ohio’s population of 11,570,808 makes it the closest state in terms of population to Belgium. A “Dakota and a half” renders only around 1.5 million).

While the loss was not unexpected it was still upsetting for me as it is any time one of my countries loses in football—especially since, inexplicably, the US had a chance to win the game at the death before Chris Wondolowski—also inexplicably—managed to make a mess of his moment in front of goal. But football is, sometimes, like life. You get your one moment, and you either make the best of it . . . or you don’t. There is no real in between.

A few articles have been written in the wake of the United States’ second round exit, including a very interesting one that asks the question “Has the US Men’s National Team Plateaued?”. Personally, I would be less dramatic—after all, this is football and anything can happen. I should know. My other team, Turkey, made an improbable run to third place at the 2002 World Cup—and another to the semifinals of the 2008 European Championships with an admittedly under-talented side. Hard work coupled with heart and belief can go a long way in football (like it can in life)—just look at the Greece team that won the 2004 European Championship!

So do I think the United States will, in the next three World Cups (a twelve year cycle), have a stunning performance? Yes, I suppose I do. But I won’t ask them to compete with the likes of Brazil, Argentina, and Germany year in and year out. And that’s ok because I also—secretly—like soccer in the US to be more of an inside joke amongst those of us who truly enjoy the game for what it is, and not some marquis event for frat boys who want an excuse to slam beers at odd hours of the working day in the name of banal nationalism done ‘Muricuh style. And that inside joke would be made even sweeter if the US somehow managed to scare the world by advancing past the Quarterfinals of a World Cup. I’ve watched enough US matches on foreign soil to recognize the glee when the US concedes a goal—in the last week alone I’ve seen it in both Russia and Turkey—and I can imagine the fear of a US World Cup win.

It does not appear that soccer in the US will ever move beyond being an inside joke that becomes part of the country’s mainstream culture for just a few summer weeks once every four years (selling many Nike shirts in the meantime) before, again, retreating into hibernation. I don’t think like this because I’m negative or a non-believer in US soccer, it is mainly because I am a realist—both in International Relations theory and in terms of football. When one looks at the facts it should not come as a surprise that the United States will never be a true world power in football. At the heart of it—as in so many cases—lies economics (James Carville would be proud).

The top professional soccer league in the United States is Major League Soccer (MLS), a league that has been steadily improving since its inception in 1996 despite competing with the other major American sports for visibility, fans, and . . . athletes.

Its not hard to understand why. On April 10, 2014 MLS released their salary information and the results were shocking. The top seven salaries in MLS—those of Michael Bradley, Jermaine Defoe, Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane, Thierry Henry, and Tim Cahill—account for 31% of all player salaries. In fact, as Empireofsoccer.com shows, the top 5% of earners represent 45% of total player salaries. That is a huge disparity for a country that prides itself on equality (perhaps there is a psychological dimension to this as well—the economics of MLS are fundamentally un-American!).

The salaries of the aforementioned seven players have, as empireofsoccer.com stated, inflated the league’s average salary to a figure of $207,831 (up from the 2013 figure of $165,066 when the median salary was just $100,000). Still, just a cursory look at a sample of the Colorado Rapid’s salary information for the 2014 season shows some glaring examples of the issues in play. At least three Rapids players—professional athletes who face far greater risk of serious injury daily than I ever did at work—make less money than I made sitting at a desk in my old day job!

Now compare the (admittedly inflated) average salary figure of $207,831 in MLS to the average salaries in the other major US sports from two years ago, courtesy of Forbes unless cited otherwise:

 

Major League Baseball (MLB): $3.2 million in 2012, now it is just under $4 million.

National Basketball Association (NBA): $5.15 million, now it is 3,453,241 (with a median of $1,500,000—fifteen times the MLS median in 2013).

National Football League (NFL): $1.9 million

National Hockey League (NHL): $2.4 million

 

The disparity is staggering. And now lets look back at that list of the seven highest paid MLS players, for a moment. Only three of the seven—Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, and Landon Donovan—are American. And after Jurgen Klinsmann’s now legendary snubbing of Landon Donovan, only two of them made it to the United States’ World Cup squad! Clearly, what big money that does exist in MLS is certainly not going to help the development of the US Men’s National team. And that means that for your average American soccer player, the chances of making big money at home—and representing your country on the biggest stage—are very small indeed.

This in itself poses a problem for the development of the game in the US. Many talented soccer players at the youth level in the United States often play multiple sports. Soccer is either a fall or spring sport depending on where you live, so that leaves the options of American Football and Baseball in other seasons, not to mention Basketball and Hockey in the winter months. Unlike in other countries, where football is the only money-making game in town, American athletes have other options as well that may prove to be more lucrative in the long term. While it is obviously difficult to make it as a professional in any of the major US sports, the fact that there is more money—and more collegiate scholarships (Soccer has the same number of NCAA Division 1 scholarships as Swimming/Diving and Wrestling)—available in the other sports means that it is very difficult to keep the country’s best athletes playing football. This is a fact that, unfortunately, does not bode well for the hopes of developing a truly world class US Men’s National Team; it doesn’t meant that it is impossible by any means, just that it is more difficult than it is in other nations.

 

Tim Howard Does His Country Proud, But Can Only Slump Off In The End As Belgium Move On:

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Image Courtesy Of: http://www.bostonglobe.com/sports/2014/07/01/onsoccer/r7h11DZZUn5HsRJGqfZ0hJ/story.html