Sunday, May 31, 2009

Federer's Big Chance

Its finally happened, Rafael Nadal has lost a match at the French Open. Nadal never really got going and his forehand was all over the place. Robin Soderling made the most of Nadal's poor form by bringing out his A-game; he maintained a high tempo throughout the match and played some big shots, and never Nadal any breathing room.

This means that a certain Mr. Roger has been presented with a golden opportunity to complete a career grand slam. I'm sure he would prefer beating Nadal in the final, but I don't think he'll be complaining too much.

If he does win the French Open, should Federer then be regarded as the 'best ever'? Or does Nadal's absence as his opponent prevent that from happening?

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Links For The Weekend

It's been a while since I had a links post. Here's stuff to read if you're at home with nothing to do.

The American right-wing has officially lost its shit on this whole Supreme Court nomination thing. Actually, I should amend that. They were never really in possession of their shit; perhaps it is more accurate to say that their level of shit-lostness has just jumped a level. Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings has the goods. Krugman piles on. Yglesias has a post that can be roughly translated as: are they fucking serious?

Archie chose to get married to Veronica (courtesy reader Faizaan). Unbelievable. It's not just that Betty is nicer than Veronica. It's that she's considerably hotter too, both face-wise and body-wise. The only way I can explain this decision is that Archie is hoping to get married to Veronica before he murders her for the life insurance money. Given how loaded her family is, I don't even want to imagine how much he collects. He'll probably marry Betty afterward. Actually, now that I think about it, Betty probably set up the entire thing. (Wait a minute -- did I just describe the "plot" of Wild Things?)

An interesting story in the WSJ on the emergence of Spain as a sporting powerhouse with Nadal, Barca, Alonso, the Spanish football team and some dude who managed to out-dope everyone to win the Tour de France (courtesy Nabeel).

The Taliban appear to be spreading their tentacles in Karachi, at least insofar as imposing their cultural and social worldview -- such as it is -- on the women of the city is concerned (courtesy Sarah and Anam). Apparently women are being threatened to cover up or else, and even elite schools (which have historically been co-ed) are being warned to observe these norms. While this story is disturbing to be sure, I wouldn't want to overstate the pervasiveness of this without better data -- a few anecdotes don't constitute a sociopolitical trend. It's still a little worrying though.

After all the talk about plagiarism on this blog recently, poor old Arif has a couple of sentences directly lifted by The News, as the Mir family continues its long and tenacious fight against good, decent journalism. Good times. I wonder if he'll get an apology, or even an acknowledgement?

Oba lets loose on Kanye West. Laugh out loud stuff.

Schools in the U.S. clamping down on...wait for it...hugging.

Really, really insightful (and hopeful) column by Cyril Almeida on militantism and democracy in Pakistan.

Pakistani consumers will be paying ten percent more for their electricity next year. And so the entirely strange spectacle of citizens paying ever increasing prices for a service they don't actually receive continues.

And finally, a book recommendation. Jon Wertheim, tennis writer for Sports Illustrated, has a book out on last year's Wimbledon final between Nadal and Federer, titled "Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever Played". Man, he's not joking. It was an awesome match, and widely acknowledged as the best ever. Wertheim weaves together the lives and careers of both superstars in the midst of giving us a gripping account of that day's events. It's got some really interesting details about both of them, as well as the professional tennis circuit in general. I read the whole thing in about two and a half hours. Tennis fans, or even casual followers, should definitely check it out.

Have a good weekend guys.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Pakistan Cricket's Decline, And The Way Back

I have been deliberating on whether or not to break this piece up in parts. Why? Well, it's 2700 words. That's nine double-spaced pages.

At the end of the day, I decided to have faith in you guys having nothing to do at work, and that you would find it sufficiently engaging to not drift off. Enjoy.

Malcolm Gladwell, the world’s most brilliant writer, and master of the no-shit-Sherlock thesis, recently had his third book published, called Outliers. In it, he debunks the notion that overwhelming success is merely the result of innate talent. To the contrary, Gladwell argues that the social and economic systems within which individuals are embedded in matter a great deal. Individuals, talented as they are, cannot succeed without being blessed with the right circumstances.

So Bill Gates wouldn’t have been a computer super-genius if he didn’t happen to be one of the few people to go to school at a place where he had an exclusive opportunity to sit and stare at a screen all day. The Beatles wouldn’t have been The Beatles if they didn’t have the opportunity to hone their skills night in and night out in Hamburg. Jewish lawyers in New York needed the anti-Semitism of early-20th century America so that they would be forced to work in then-unpopular areas of law, areas which expanded considerably in the 1960s and 70s leaving the same Jewish lawyers in a highly advantaged position. Chinese students are better at math than Americans because their ancestors worked in rice paddy fields (you’ll have to read the book to figure that one out).

The bottom-line for Gladwell is this: individual talent matters, but so does social structure. Or, as Karl Marx put it, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.”

The story of Pakistani cricket from the summer of 2006 to the present has been remarkable in many ways. In those three years, it has enjoyed more drug-related charges (four) than test match victories (three). It has lost its two best players to retirement and the ICL respectively. Few teams have faced greater misfortune with respect to World Cups – it was knocked out of the last one by Ireland, a country that doesn’t play any meaningful cricket, and denied a chance to host the next one by the Taliban, who would rather that no country play any meaningful cricket. From dummy captains to dead coaches, from terrorist attacks to a fading bowling attack, from ball tampering allegations to ball-busting stupidity, Pakistan cricket has lurched from one crisis to another, uncaring to the followers it has taken on this death-ride. Every time Pakistani cricket fans reason to themselves that it surely cannot become any worse, reality bites, and asks them a cruel question: are you sure?

The usual explanations bandied about for these events are usually couched in the language of structures and systems. If Pakistan’s domestic cricket was better organized, we are told, it would throw up better talent. If Pakistan’s cricket board had a constitution and internal elections, it would be better managed. If Pakistan’s players were trained from a younger age, they wouldn’t be so clearly out of their depth when they hit the big leagues.

These explanations are all well and good, but there is something inherently problematic about them. Pakistan’s domestic cricket has always been this badly organized. Pakistan’s cricket board has never had a constitution or internal elections. And Pakistan’s players have only ever received real coaching once they made the national team. And yet Pakistan has, at various times in the last two decades, been arguably the best team in the world, despite these factors working against it.

Why does this matter? To borrow social scientific lexicon, we cannot explain variation with a constant. Pakistan cricket’s systemic chaos has been a near constant. Pakistan cricket’s success and failure on the field has varied considerably. In the last decade alone, it has seen two periods of top quality cricket (1999-2002; 2004-2006), one period of rebuilding a young team (2002-2004), and one unmitigated collapse into oblivion (2006-present). So if the purported cause (“quality of structure”) hasn’t changed, how can its putative effect (“quality of cricket”) have changed so dramatically?

No, structure fails to explain it. If we are to find the true reasons for Pakistan cricket’s decline and fall, we must look elsewhere.

Pakistan’s problem in the last three years has not been with the structure within which individuals operate, but the individuals themselves. More to the point, the problem has been that it has filled particular roles with personalities spectacularly unsuited for them. Three in particular have stood out: Nasim Ashraf, Shoaib Malik, and Shoaib Akhtar.

Nasim Ashraf, during his time in charge, was seemingly intent on challenging George W. Bush for the coveted most-bad-decisions-per-year award, the Buffoon d’Or. In a culture that values personal relationships above all else, he never got on with the players, and never tried to either. He jettisoned people when he shouldn’t have (Waqar Younis as bowling coach) and failed to do so when he should have (Mohammad Asif and Shoaib Akhtar after the first round of drug offenses). In his untiring efforts to sideline the ICL signees, he proved himself to be more loyal than the King; never bothering to note whether or not kowtowing to the BCCI on the question of banning the ICL players was in Pakistan’s interest or not. Instead of speaking softly and carrying a big stick, as Theodore Roosevelt would have exhorted him to, Ashraf spoke loudly but enjoyed little authority – both within and outside the country – because he simply did not win people’s respect. Everybody knew that he was in the position he was for precisely one reason: his close relationship with former president Pervez Musharraf. His time as head of the PCB was marked, above all else, by incompetence and mistrust. It showed.

Contrast that with his predecessor, Shaharyar Khan. Khan’s professional training was as a diplomat – for a period of forty years, he served Pakistan as an ambassador, a high commissioner, and a foreign secretary. This training, no doubt, allowed him to cultivate stronger relationships with stakeholders in Pakistani cricket to a much greater extent than Ashraf. He would know which buttons to push, when to push them, and when to tactically back off – all qualities that a diplomat naturally possesses. He had experience in the cricketing fraternity – he was appointed the team’s manager on the politically charged tour to India in 1999, and managed the side in the 2003 World Cup too. In short, he wasn’t out of his element around superstar cricketers (unlike Ashraf) and knew how to get along with people, because he had done it for a living (unlike Ashraf).

So Ashraf’s reign over Pakistan cricket is the first step toward understanding what has happened in the last three years. Though the PCB has always been a dysfunctional organization, it exceeded its own high standards of ineptitude during Ashraf’s time.

The second key individual we must look to is Shoaib Malik. Now, Shoaib Malik is a good man and a good cricketer. Until he became captain, he always showed himself to be a team player – doing whatever those senior to him asked him to, never being involved in any controversies on or off the field, batting in any and all positions, turning his arm over when a breakthrough was needed on flat wickets, and being Pakistan’s only world class fielder. It is not his fault he was asked to be captain – no, that particular honor belongs to Younis Khan. But it is his fault that he was such a bad one.

Pakistan has always been known for playing an attacking and aggressive brand of cricket. Under the Inzamam-Woolmer regime, they lost some of that style, though that regime’s detractors sometimes overstate the case. But Shoaib Malik took it to another level. It would take one boundary for sweepers to be put out, even against the Zimbabwes and Bangladeshes of the world. Two slips would be a rarity, three a pipe dream. There was little to no innovation in fielding positions. Bowling changes were predictable. Youngsters – Fawad Alam and Sohail Khan must be asking themselves if they accidentally insulted someone in Malik’s family – weren’t given chances to show what they worth, even when they were selected. Pakistan didn’t just become a bad team, they became something much worse. They became boring. A team that prided itself on magnetic and charismatic superstars wreaking havoc with opposition team’s carefully crafted plans suddenly became an Excel spreadsheet: staid and predictable. Shoaib Malik created more EPL fans in Pakistan than Cristiano Ronaldo, Jose Mourinho, Steven Gerrard and Cesc Fabregas combined.

So Shoaib Malik’s bad captaincy is the second clue we need to chart Pakistan cricket’s descent. Under him the team was neither good enough to challenge the big boys, nor bad enough to warrant a complete overhaul and an infusion of youth. He failed to inspire, played favorites – Kamran Akmal, anyone? – and was tactically lost. The result was mediocrity.

Last but by no means in this sordid story is Shoaib Akhtar. There was a period – perhaps two or three years ago – when Shoaib Akhtar was an incredibly polarizing individual. If you walked into a room of ten cricket fans, five would tell you that he was the only savior available to Pakistan cricket, and five would tell you that he was overweight, injury-prone and selfish, and deserved to be booted. There was no middle ground. This is no longer the case. Now, not only is there no middle ground, but there are no supporters left either. Suddenly, that room of ten cricket fans has nine loudly railing against Shoaib, and it’s only nine because the tenth popped off for a smoke, probably unable to handle thinking or talking about Shoaib Akhtar any longer. It is all become a bit much: the self-aggrandizing Ferrari references, the repeated pull-outs on second and third days of test matches, the laziness in the field, the incessant trouble with teammates, the drugs, the scandals, and the injuries – oh, the injuries. After contracting genital warts, Shoaib has seemingly completed his quest to suffer every ailment possible for an athlete; surely there is nothing left for him to accomplish.

It is important, however, to note that Shoaib Akhtar the individual was not the problem, per se. After all, this was the same man who ran through sides, good sides, for fun, who once silenced one hundred thousand Indians in Calcutta by getting Tendulkar first ball, who once possessed capabilities of destruction that no one else could even fathom. Why? Well, he was quicker than Ambrose, got more bounce than Waqar, was more accurate than Lee, and more menacing than Donald. What more do you want?

No, the problem wasn’t Shoaib himself, but the role he was asked to fulfill around the middle of this decade: the senior statesmen. Shoaib thrived as the breakthrough-iconoclast at the beginning of his career (1998-2000) and did fairly well as the up-and-comer stepping up to replace the Ws as the best bowler in the team (2000-03). What he was clearly unequipped to handle was the next logical step, that is, of a position of responsibility; his selfishness, immaturity and stubbornness simply precluded any success in that role. One only needs to imagine Mohammad Asif’s career under Wasim Akram or Waqar Younis’ tutelage to comprehend the difference. This is not to excuse Asif for his bouts of incredible inanity and stupidity, but it is to say that the type of players available as mentors matter greatly for one’s development.

At bottom, Pakistan relied on Shoaib Akhtar and he repeatedly let the country down – whether that is Shoaib’s fault or the fault of those who trusted him in the first place is open to debate. But what is not open to debate is the fact that Shoaib’s antics, his inability to take his fitness seriously, and his me-first-everyone-else-last attitude cast a long and dark shadow over Pakistan cricket. And similar to his namesake and captain, as well as the former chairman of the board, the issue wasn’t the individuals themselves, but that the individuals were asked to do something that they were clearly and openly incapable of doing.

It is a truism that individual talent alone doesn’t guarantee success. But I would submit: it can make a helluva difference. Even if the structure around individuals is decrepit and constraining, talent has a way of rising above such concerns, and making a difference. Imagine Shaharyar Khan in place of Nasim Ashraf as head honcho of the PCB over the last three years. Or Wasim Akram in place of Shoaib Akhtar as the team’s elder statesman. Or Younis Khan (or even Shahid Afridi) in place of Shoaib Malik as captain. Despite the unfavorable conditions that are a staple for Pakistani cricket, there is little doubt that we would not be where we are now. No chance.

That lesson – the lesson that, irrespective of systems and organization and circumstances, simple talent can overcome – is valuable, for it provides a silver lining for us to consider. Imagine, for instance, how difficult a course Pakistan would face if reforming its system would be the only way of getting back on track. Imagine if we followed Gladwell’s blueprint, and had to ensure that the circumstances and structures that facilitate success were put in place before we actually got any. How depressing would that be? How long would we have to wait? Structures cannot be reformed overnight – indeed, that’s what makes them structures: their quality of endurance.

No, what Pakistan needs to get back is simple: one or two diamonds. It’s not a lot to ask for. Realistically, we need one great middle order batsman to break through (Fawad, we’re waiting), one excellent quick bowler (Sohail Khan and Mohammad Aamer, it’s time to live up to the unrelenting PakPassion hype), and one decent opener to partner Salman Butt. You put those three guys around Younis, Misbah, Akmal, Umar Gul, Kaneria, Sohail Tanvir, and suddenly you’ve got a fairly serviceable team. Not worldbeaters, mind, but pretty good. And if Asif comes back, I mean, really comes back – the Karachi/Sri Lanka/South Africa Asif? Well, then.

Ten minutes. Count to six hundred, and you’re there. Sometimes that’s all it takes.

If there is one critical moment from which Pakistan’s tale of woe begun, it must surely be Younis Khan’s “dummy captain” moment. As a result of that madness, Pakistan neither had the captain (Younis, despite his impetuousness, was the best bet) nor the chairman (Shaharyar resigned after the fiasco) it needed. Moreover, it sucked the life out of the entire set-up, leaving the late Bob Woolmer aghast, and in no small way led to the unraveling of the most successful Pakistan team of the last decade. And finally, it led to a fracturing of the team, because all of a sudden, the medium-term captaincy was an open question, and each of Shoaib Malik, Yousuf, and Afridi was a candidate, and lobbied intensely for it. Claims and counter-claims for respect and allegiance were made, and the team simply splintered at the top.

Rumor has it that the reason Younis Khan had his “dummy captain” moment was that he was made to wait for ten minutes outside Shaharyar Khan’s office in the autumn of 2006. Ten minutes. In that time, this too-proud man decided that the wait was an insult he could not bear, and that he would not only walk away in a huff and not meet the chairman of the board, but that he would also walk away from the captaincy for the Champions Trophy. In that instant, Younis threw to waste Pakistan’s carefully laid plans. He had loyally served as Inzamam-ul-Haq’s deputy for almost two years, and had impressed all and sundry with his leadership and man-management skills. He had played the “young, energetic, full of life” ying to Inzamam’s “calm, steely, fatherly” yang faithfully and brilliantly. For once in Pakistan cricket’s tortured history, there was a succession plan; for once, the captaincy would be peacefully and normally transferred from a captain to a vice-captain. For once, there would be no revolts, no back-biting, no politicking, no cliques, no haphazard ascension to the throne.

For once, there was a system in place.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Inappropriate Headline of the Day

From today's Dawn:

Blast widely blasted

Hey, sub-editor dude, you might want to reconsider using a terrorist attack as fodder for your awful pun.

Pakistan's Unknown (and probably untrue) History

As soon as I saw the headline 'How a jilted Karachi woman saved Pak-N programme' with Rauf Klasra's byline, I knew I would be blogging about it. The story far exceeds my already high expectations by combining illogic, implausability and a plot that would be rejected by the producers of James Bond for being too far-fetched.

The opening para provides a nice summary of what we should expect:

[A] shocking 30-year-old secret has been exposed. It reveals how a young woman college lecturer, feeling betrayed after a romance with a nuclear scientist of the Karachi Nuclear Power Plant (KANUPP), had given a lead to the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in 1978, which in turn had led to the dramatic arrest of 12 Pakistani scientists and engineers, planning to sabotage Pakistan’s nuclear sites at the behest of a superpower.

But the fun is in the details.

Brig Imtiaz recalled that as a lieutenant colonel he was posted as chief ISI Sindh in 1978. One day he received a telephone call from the sister of A K Brohi, who was a psychologist in Karachi. She informed him that she was treating a female young patient who was suffering from a disease called “secret concealment” wherein a patient could not be cured unless he or she shared this secret with someone.

So, this girl goes to see a psychologist. The psychologist, who apparently doesn't believe in honouring his patient's confidentiality, tells his sister that the patient has a secret she wants to share. I don't know about you guys, but as soon as I find out someone is keeping secrets my first impulse is to tell the ISI about it.

The lady doctor had confessed to Brig Imtiaz that she had failed to make the girl reveal the secret and thought maybe he could help her.

I doubt the lady doctor was so naive that she wasn't aware how the ISI makes people 'reveal' secrets. So this doctor thought torture was suitable treatment for a patient with psychological problems.

[T]he woman finally told him that she was carrying a very dangerous secret with her but made it clear that she would not share it even if she was killed.

Wow, her psychological problems go beyond "secret concealment" if she thinks it is possible for her to communicate from beyond her grave.

According to Brig Imtiaz, he could have easily picked her up and kept her in a safe house for a few days in isolation to make her reveal the secret but he did not adopt this traditional style of the intelligence officers. For a few days, according to his own version, Brig Imtiaz grappled with the dilemma of whether to wait or to just pick her up and try extracting information through traditional methods.

It's refreshing to see an ISI man willing to admit how routine torture is. Less refreshing is that he needed a few days to decide wheter to torture an innocent, traumitized woman.

It was during these days that one day while on his way to Clifton and driving by the consulate of a superpower, he saw a red colour Mazda car bearing a private number plate going inside at a very fast speed but he never really gave it another thought. But later, when he was sitting with the man in Clifton whom he had gone to meet, all of a sudden, his mind started working and he thought of the same red Mazda car and how it was allowed inside the consulate within a few seconds.

Okay, so you don't want to reveal which country this 'superpower' is. Fair enough, it could be either the US or the Soviet Union (although it doesn't require a particularly high IQ to figure out the superpower in question). And I suppose we could allow Brig Imtiaz to revel in his brilliance as a sleuth.

The woman told him that one day, when Munshi left for his office, he left his safe open. She looked at the half-open safe and could not resist the temptation to check its contents. She was startled to see piles of dollars inside along with some official secret files. These papers were related to Pakistan’s nuclear sites and installations.

Man, is this Munshi a half-assed spy or what. It took the ISI so long to find out he was hiding bribes and classified in a safe in his fucking office. And since he was a nuclear scientist, his office happened to be KANUPP, one of the most highly-guarded entities in the country. And he was stupid enough to leave the safe open with his girlfriend in the office? Brig Imtiaz should be weeping in shame that he only found out about this because the sister of the psychologist of the woman who knew about this got some cheap thrills at the idea of a psychologically-traumatized woman being tortured.

He asked her to help him get a key to Munshi’s suite so that he could himself inspect the stuff. She provided him the alternate key. With the help of a 70-year-old key-making expert Brig Imtiaz managed to open the foreign made safe...

Another dumbass move by Munshi. If you have evidence of treasonous activities hidden in your office, don't give your girlfriend the spare key. And correct me if I'm wrong, but is it normal to give your girlfriend the key to your office? Especially when you have enough shit hidden in there to guarantuee the death penalty.

It was revealed that actually the foreign secret agency had deputed five handlers from Washington to deal with the nuclear programme of Pakistan. These five foreign handlers included two girls, one of whose photos was seen by the heartbroken girlfriend of Munshi which made her jealous and she decided to take revenge.

Oops, we didn't mean to tell you who the 'superpower' was. But it's so difficult to narrow it down from the US and Soviet Union we thought we'd give you a clue by letting you know they were operating out of Washington. And another smart move by Munshi. Keeping the picture of a foreign spy in your wallet isn't going to hurt you down the line. By the way, since all this hapenned in pre-cell phone camera times, how exactly did Munshi get the handler's picture. Did she just hand it over to him or did he bring along a camera to one of their top-secret meetings and got her to pose. You know, just a little token for Munshi to remember her by.

Anyway, the story ends on a happy note, as all the spies are caught and punished and Brig Imtiaz honoured. All in a day's work.

A last bit of advice for Brig Imtiaz. Mike Myers is looking at scripts for the next Austin Powers movie. Give him a call.

Barcelona Play United Off The Park, Cap Magnificent Season With Well Deserved Victory (Updated Below)

Well, then. That was something, wasn't it?

It's funny how many myths can die unpleasant deaths in just over two hours. "La Liga is shit, Barca wouldn't be top three in the Premier League, no one defends over there" for one. "Messi can't score against English teams, and bottles it in big games" is another (though how that one got started in spite of his 2006 performance at Stamford Bridge is quite beyond me). "Ronaldo is a more complete player than Messi" was perhaps my favorite one to get debunked (um, doesn't passing, pressing, and vision count toward being a "complete" player?).

Anyway, I'm here to appreciate and analyze, not gloat. I'm not going to say "I told you so" but I would ask people to watch more than 180 minutes of park-the-bus football before judging how capable a team really is. The English media's build-up to this game was quite astounding in the lack of perspective displayed.

Today was a footballing lesson, and I'm sorry, but there's no other way to put it. After their semi-final win against Arsenal, Patrice Evra said it was a case of men against boys. I wonder what he would say after today's performance? How would he describe this?

United were played off the park. They chased shadows the whole game. If you had to select a joint eleven from the teams on the basis of today's performance, I simply don't know which United player would make it. Maybe Rooney in midfield, but who would he replace? Busquets, perhaps, though the kid showed that he can more than handle himself at this level. Maybe Ronaldo, for he had some truly outstanding and threatening moments, and Henry was less than mobile on his return from injury. But Ronaldo would be such a misfit with these Barcelona players, because their mantra is "receive, pass, offer" and his mantra is "shoot, never pass under any circumstances, and try to win the game single-handedly". Evra had a goodish game (except for being caught out with the first goal) but didn't Sylvinho -- at age 36 no less -- have a better one? And let's not even get into discussions about the midfield (just yet anyway, maybe later in the post).

I thought Sir Alex Ferguson made a massive mistake, but it's a mistake, funnily enough, that we should all credit him for making. The mistake was thinking that United could play football with Barca. I have absolutely no idea why he thought this, but he did. So rather than replicate last year's tactics that worked so well, or indeed copying Guus Hiddink's tactics from the semis, United came out of their cage. This was quite silly. But we should be happy that he made this mistake, because for such an important game -- a Champions League final -- we really should not be subjected to snorefests of 10 men behind the ball. Let the two best teams in Europe go at it, and play football, and see which team wins. Why buy all those Ferraris if they're only going to be parked in the garage? Football fans all over the world owe Sir Alex Ferguson a debt of gratitude for that one, even if his team probably beg to differ.

It could, of course, have been slightly different. United absolutely bossed the first ten minutes. I don't think Barca strung together more than three passes during that time, while United had five shots, three of them pretty legitimate chances (the Ronaldo free kick, the Park follow up, and the Ronaldo long ranger). If they had scored there, they could have settled back and absorbed Barca's pressure better. But they didn't, were sucker-punched by Eto'o of all people -- if anyone has watched Barca over the last two months, they will know how surprising that is -- and from then one, were chasing the game. And frankly, United were not good enough to chase Barca.

But I did find United's going off the boil from minutes 11-90 quite puzzling. Were they outclassed? Sure. But they never tried anything different. Not in the sense of different players, but different tactics. One of the great strengths of this United team is the different looks they can give you. But they kept trying the same thing -- try to play through Carrick and Anderson in midfield -- when it was clear that such a gameplan was absolutely futile given the gulf in class between the central midfields. (Random challenge: if Spain play with 10 players in next year's World Cup, but three of them are Xavi, Iniesta and Xabi Alonso, will they still be able to win it?) United could have boofed it up Chelsea-and-Drogba style or Villareal-and-Llorente style and hoped for the best -- indeed, this is when they looked most threatening. But they did not try it nearly enough.

And let's be honest: Pique and Puyol played the games of their lives. I'm sure United fans are asking how it came to be that the the best CB on the pitch was Barcelona's, and moreover, was United's fifth-choice CB last year, if that. And Puyol kept Ronaldo and Rooney in check throughout the game, despite both those stars being much quicker and more agile. He played with so much heart, was all over the pitch, chased everything down, and was a captain's captain. He might not play more than 25 games next year, but if this game is the one he is remembered by when he retires, I don't think he'll be complaining.

This was a complete performance by Barca, but I've honestly seen them play much better this year. They were in about third or fourth gear for much of the game, though this probably had a lot to do with (a) Henry not being able to move, and (b) Yaya Toure being played out of position. But it doesn't matter, because they have shown themselves to be the best team in Spain, in Europe, and in the world. Lionel Messi cemented his status as Ballon D'Or frontrunner, though it's quite sad that his reign will be such a short-lived one (if Iniesta doesn't get injured next year, I see no way in which he doesn't win it). Xavi and Iniesta, bless their hearts, leave all of us in awe every time they play together. But talking about individuals cheapens and takes away from what makes Barca so successful. It is always about the team, for without the other players who make up this palette of great talents, they would all go to waste. Remember, for a triangle of passes to work, you actually need two others in the right place at the right time. That fact, more than anything, captures the essence of Barcelona's success.

And Pep? Oh dear, what about Pep? What exactly will he do for an encore? On second thought, that's an uncomfortable question for another time.

Victory is sweet. Justified and beautiful victory is sweeter. And an unmitigated victory -- not marred by bad decisions, close calls, or any cause for complaint by the vanquished -- featuring two teams going into battle and one coming out so far and away superior? Well, surely that is sweetest.

Photo credit: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

UPDATE: I wrote this post in a hurry, so neglected to mention one of the top performers of the night: the ref. Maintained control, didn't let things get out of hand, let the game flow, and made sure that the viewers only ever noticed the footballers and the football, and nothing else. Brilliant performance.

UPDATE II: Comment of the day comes from well into a Guardian thread (somewhere around the 500th comment; yes, I need to get a life or at least go to sleep) by a reader named Mortice:

What do Julius Casear and Man Utd have in common?

Both got murdered in Rome.

UPDATE III: Well, at least Ronaldo won something.

UPDATE IV: I don't speak either Spanish or Catalan, but I do know a drunk 21 year-old when I see one, and I have to tell you, Messi is drunker than a sixteen year-old girl with conservative parents on her prom:

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Champions Leage Final Open Thread

Don't know if any of you guys actually want to comment while the match is ongoing, but in case you do, here's your shot.

My first reaction: why the FUCK is Busquets playing in place of Keita if Sylvinho has slotted into left back?

Bomb Blast In Lahore

There has been a massive suicide attack in Lahore, targeting a police building. Estimates of casualties are varied between 10 and 30 at this point, but that number will almost assuredly rise.

Our thoughts go out to the victims and their families.

Lahore has been increasingly targeted in the last three to four months now, as militant violence moves away from "traditional" targets like those in the Northwest and in Karachi toward "less established" targets.

To be quite honest, I'm a little bit surprised that it has taken this long for the Taliban -- presumably the perpetrators of the attack -- to launch a big attack in response to the Army offensive in Malakand/Swat/Dir/Buner. In the past, their response has been quicker and more devastating. There are four inferences we can draw from this delay:

1. It is purely coincidental, and we shouldn't read anything into it.

2. It reflects a decreased capability on the part of the Taliban, i.e. they are weaker than they were six months ago.

3. It reflects a weaker preference to launch attacks against Pakistani civilians, as the Taliban want to stem the tide of public opinion turning against them, i.e. they can still inflict massive violence whenever they want to, but they simply want to do so less.

4. The Pakistani state and security services have done a better job of interdicting and breaking up potential attacks than in months previously.

I honestly don't know which one of those four options is the most likely.

Anyway, please add more information in the comments section if and when you receive it.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

I-Had-No-Idea-About-This Fact Of The Day

Did you guys know that the prostitute in "The Girlfriend Experience" is an adult-film actress?

I don't want to sound like an asshole or anything, but who knew those people could actually, you know, act? She did brilliantly in the film, which was by far the most psychologically and emotionally displacing film I've seen in a long time.

The Supreme Court as a Political Player

In its decision overruling the Lahore High Court and the Dogar Supreme Court and declaring Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif eligible to contest elections, the Supreme Court has made a political judgment and seemingly ignored the legal factors at play.

In declaring the Sharif brothers eligible, the Supreme Court has relied mainly on a technicality. Here is the relavent portion of their initial judgement:

The mandate of Article 225 of the Constitution has not been appreciated in the context of the instant cases. This Article places a bar to challenge an election dispute except through an election petition under the law i.e. the Representation of Peoples Act, 1976. In exceptional circumstances, however, the qualification or disqualification of a candidate can be challenged under Article 199 of the Constitution provided the order passed during the election process is patently illegal, the law has not provided any remedy either before or after the election; and the alleged disqualification is floating on record requiring no probe and enquiry.

Here is what Article 199 of the Constitution says with regards to elected officials:

Subject to the Constitution, a High Court may, if it is satisfied that no other adequate remedy is provided by law...requiring a person within the territorial jurisdiction of the Court holding or purporting to hold a public office to show under what authority of law he claims to hold that office

First, I think the Supreme Court is unduly narrowing the scope of Article 199 by claiming it can only be invoked in "exceptional circumstances." More importantly, this judgement shows that the Supreme Court decided what verdict they were going to arrive at and then tried to come up with a way to make this pre-determined verdict sound vaguely legal. Nowhere does it say that this clause can only be invoked if the "alleged disqualification is floating on record and requiring no probe and enquiry." In my opinion, the only reason this language has been employed is that in the Sharif case there is a dispute over a document that would definitevely prove wheter the Sharifs are eligible to stand for elections. The Sharifs claim that they were granted a full pardon by then President Musharraf, while Musharraf contended that he commuted their sentences without pardoning them. Now, since both parties seem reluctant to release the text of the agreement, I think it is incumbent on the courts, as the only competent bodies with the ability to force the production of this document, to hear this case. Indeed, both the Lahore High Court and the Supreme Court have been derelict in not demanding that the agreement be presented to them. Once the text is public, the judgement becomes relatively simple; either the Sharifs are convicts who are not eligible to stand for elections or they have been pardoned for their crimes and are free to stand for political office.

On the presidential pardon, the Supreme Court had this to say:

To allege that it [the presidential pardon] was conditional or qualified pardon required deeper probe which exercise entailed factual enquiry.

On the face of it, this is exactly correct. I just have no reason, other than plain politics, why the court did not undertake this factual enquiry. Isn't adjudacating disputed agreements within the purview of the Supreme Court? Many members of the judiciary certainly seem to think everything else, including the lyrics of pop songs, is properly investigated by them.

Another point I have in relation to this judgement is this sentence:

Realizing the exceptional and extraordinary events relating to unconstitutional removal of Judges of the Superior Courts which in the judgment under review has been described as, ““enforced by a brutal force, by deviating from constitutional provisions,” triggering an unprecedented nationwide movement, culminating in the restoration of those Judges, and during the interregnum, non-appearance of petitioners before the Courts then constituted could neither be termed as contumacious nor reflecting acquiescence, the findings of fact rendered on such assumptions merit to be interfered with in the review jurisdiction.

The Supreme Court is playing politics with this again. So far, they have not ruled on the constitionality of Musharraf's actions, most likely because whatever deal the PCO judges hashed out to ensure their return stipulated that they would not take Musharraf to task. But until they specifically rule on the constituionality of Musharraf's actions, those actions are legal under the law and the Supreme Court certainly has no right to use their supposed unconstitutionality as a factor in their judgements.

All this said, I do think it is patently unfair that the Sharifs are not allowed to stand for election while a vast number of PPP convicts pardoned under the NRO, are eligible (Please note that while I think their disqualification is unfair I do not think it is illegal). There are ways this situation can be rectified within the confines of the law.

1) The Supreme Court can make the NRO non-applicable. Legally, it cannot dissmiss the NRO itself as unconstitutional as the executive's authority to pardon convicts and commute sentences is absolute. But it could declare Musharraf's election to the presidency illegal, thereby making all the orders passed by Musharraf inoperable.

2) The president can expand the scope of the NRO by pardoning the Sharif brothers.

The main problem I had with the Justice Chaudhry Supreme Court is that its members saw themselves as political players, even before Musharraf dismissed them and essentially forced them to become politicised. Their judgements showed that they regarded themselves as policy makers and not disinterested observers whose only job was to enforce the Constitution and the rule of law. The Sharif judgement shows that nothing has changed in that regard.

More On Plagiarism

The brouhaha from earlier today reminded of this piece I read in the NYT a couple of weeks ago. It basically talks about the burgeoning cottage industry of websites and online repositories that feature essays, research papers, solutions to past exams and problem sets.
But as companies with playful names like Cramster, Course Hero, Koofers and SparkNotes are transforming the way undergraduates like Mr. O’Connor study, some professors and ethicists are questioning whether such Web sites encourage cheating and undermine the mental sweat equity of day-to-day learning by seducing students with ready-made solutions and essays.

On Course Hero, for example, students can type in a college name and course number to unearth the previous semester’s particle physics final exam. They can find examples of research papers on, say, the causes of World War I. For homework, Cramster supplies step-by-step solutions to problems in more than 200 college-level math and science textbooks.

I think there is a fine line here between learning from other people's mistakes and actually cheating. With respect to problem sets and computational (i.e. mathy/econy/sciency) exams, I've been in classes (and TAed classes) where the professor voluntarily gives the students material from previous years. This actually serves the students well, by alerting them to potential pitfalls and the like. The only profs who have a lot to worry about in this regard are the lazy ones who refuse to update their exams and problem sets, or the ones who directly lift questions from the course textbook. If you make the system that easy to game, the solution should focus on changing the system, not wringing one's hands at the gamers. Professors need to do a better job of keeping students on their toes.

And honestly, the whole idea of literally downloading and submitting someone else's research paper is a bit of an overblown concern. When you're a professor or a TA, and you're grading students' papers, you have a pretty good idea before you pick up the paper of what you're going to get from a given student. There are some surprises to be sure, but on the whole, it's pretty consistent.

Another point is that every class has its own DNA, with the professor's personal views, readings, organization, and class discussion. Again, you can get a pretty good idea of which papers have been produced by good honest work as a result of the exposure to the class material, and which have been wholly imported.

That said, I completely accept the point that faculty must be more accepting of changing the old way of doing things. One option is to have more take-home exams based on the class reading material, and nothing else. Assign the question the morning the exams are due, have them due back five or six hours later, and voila, the cheaters have no option but to do things the right way.

With more technical stuff (math, econ, physics), I think more quizzes and fewer assignments would be good. A weekly 5-10 minute quiz ensures that you're keeping up with the material, and leaves less room to cheat.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Five Rupees And Plagiarism Charges (UPDATED BELOW: It Was A Misunderstanding, All Sorted Out Now)

Along with the other three contributors on this blog, I take intellectual property and the issue of plagiarism very seriously. As an academic, and as a decent human being, I always take care to note and credit people when their words help me write or think of something; hell, I even credit readers when they send me articles or photos. There are few things that annoy me more than plagiarism, and our record on this blog in pointing out and shining a light on these issues in the Pakistani media are clear as day for longtime readers.

This morning, at 6:26 am Chicago time, I received the following email from someone called Mayank Chhaya:
Dear Ahsan,
I just happened to catch your blog dated May 17 on Bilawal's presence during the White House summit. I was particularly struck by the comment “And one of the key guests of this summit is acting like it's "bring your son to work" day.”
It rang familiar because on the day of the summit on May 7 I wrote on my blog
"I think Zardari mistook this summit as a bring-your-son-to-work-day. He brought his son Bilawal to the official meetings and made him sit just two chairs away from Obama, himself being in the middle. I was picturing a conversation between the two in Islamabad before traveling to Washington.

Bilawal: “Abba, Can I also come with you to Washington? I am so like keen to meet Barack Obama.”

Zardari: “Kyun nahi bete, this is your government and your country and your plane.”

Check out this URL of that particular day and the entry titled 'New definition of sovereignty'.


Mayank Chhaya

You can check the blog post in question here.

Now, it is true that the same phrase ("bring your son to work" day) was used, but to intimate that I had gotten it from this blog, without attribution, is simply untrue. I have never in my life read this blog before today, and besides, why would I not attribute someone for their phrase if I actually
did come across it? Which is why I responded with the following email:
Hi Mayank
Thanks for your email. I wasn't aware of your blog or the fact that you used the same phrase as I did. You can rest assured that my use of the phrase had absolutely nothing to do with your use of the same in the past -- it's a fairly obvious joke to make, and I guess Zardari forces us to all think in cringe-worthy terms.

But thank you for sending the email. I appreciate you trying to clear the air.



In response, I received the following email:
Hi Ahsan
Let's just call it that's that. I see that you are based in Chicago. So am I.


I considered that the end of the matter.

That is, until now. A few minutes ago, I saw this post titled "The incestuous world of blogs" from this same person as a trackback entry to my post on Zardari. I am reproducing the whole thing for your benefit:

It should not surprise anyone that the blogosphere is an incestuous world. But as an old fashioned, hard-headed professional journalist, who just happens to blog, I take meticulous care to attribute any content that I have not created to its rightful source.

On May 7, the day U.S. President Barack Obama had a summit meeting with Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai, I wrote a post along with a couple of pictures which ended thus:

P.S.: I think Zardari mistook this summit as a bring-your-son-to-work-day. He brought his son Bilawal to the official meetings and made him sit just two chairs away from Obama, himself being in the middle. I was picturing a conversation between the two in Islamabad before traveling to Washington.

Bilawal: “Abba, Can I also come with you to Washington? I am so like keen to meet Barack Obama.”

Zardari: “Kyun nahi bete, this is your government and your country and your plane.”

This morning I discovered a blog called dated May 17 which also touched upon the strange presence of Zardari’s rookie son Bilawal at the summit. In that blog I chanced upon this very familiar comment,

“And one of the key guests of this summit is acting like it's "bring your son to work" day.”

What can I say?

I cannot tell you how much this post angered me. First, Mayank Chhaya emails me, and responds as if he believes my version of the story. He then essentially accuses me of plagiarism (without actually saying so) in a public sphere because I happened to use one phrase that he did, a phrase that does not take a great deal of imagination. Most importantly, Mayank Chhaya appears to be quite dishonest himself, after leading me to believe the matter was closed, and then responding with this broadside.

Once again, for the record: I have never read this blog before today. When I do use other people's words to supplement my own, I always -- always -- credit them. These are the facts and they are indisputable.

Having read the blog post in question, I emailed Mayank Chhaya one last time:

Hi Mayank,

I just noticed your blog post basically accusing me of plagiarism. Thank you for not actually taking me at my word. Once again, for the record, I've never read your blog, much less heard of it before today.

You also seem to think "bring your son to work day" is somehow a phrase that only you could have up come up with, a view if true would be utterly nonsensical.

I will be posting a note on this on Rs.5 at some point today, because I am not going to let this baseless (and implied) charge stand. Our choice in using the same phrase is an unfortunate coincidence, but not nearly as unfortunate as the lack of class you have displayed here.



I stand by every word of that email.

UPDATE: Ok, so I don't stand by every word of that email. Mayank Chhaya just emailed me, and it appears this has been a misunderstanding. Apparently, he wrote this post before our email exchange, and not after. He had indeed taken my explanation at face value. I apologized to him in my email for my strongly-worded email and blog post. I don't believe in deleting blog posts, but I think a correction is as good, if not better. So consider this post corrected: it's all good. I consider this particular matter closed, and would once again like to apologize to Mayank Chhaya for this entire thing.

On a related note, I want to make two points. First, the reasons that I got so antsy about this are twofold. One, having grown up in Pakistan (and as someone who continues to read the Pakistani press very regularly), plagiarism really, really pisses me off. People can search our archives for times when we have dealt with this issue head on (googling "daily times five rupees plagiarism" might be a good start). Second, I am an academic, and we take plagiarism even more seriously than the press does (or is supposed to). An accusation of plagiarism in the academic world can literally end a career.

The second point I want to make is that the internet is a great tool for accountability. Glenn Greenwald had an excellent post on this issue a couple of days ago; I advise you to check it out. But the basic point is this: there's really no place to hide if you're a cheater. You will get found out. Even if sometimes it leads to false alarms (like today), this is a good thing.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Good Vs. Evil: Champions League Final Preview

And so it has come down to this.

How appropriate that the two best teams in Europe meet in Rome, home of the coliseum. The coliseum, as we know, hosted fights between gladiators, vicious and unyielding in nature. How appropriate that more than two thousand years later, we see a modern day version of the same: a fight to the (proverbial) death -- no draws, no second legs, no away goals. One team will walk out of Rome as champions of Europe. And that team will be legitimately be able to call itself the best -- there are no fluke champions this year, no wacky teams getting on a good run and carrying it through the knock-out rounds, no losers crashing the party of the big boys.

Futbol Club Barcelona. Manchester United Football Club. It's on, my friends. It's on.

There are two basic questions to ask about this final. The first question is: who should win? I mean that in the most normative way possible. In other words, if everything was right about the world, who would win? The second question to ask is: who will win? To answer the first, we have to think about what we want the world to look like. To answer the second, we have to think about the dynamics of the actual football likely to be on display in three days time.

There is no doubt that Barcelona, for all of our sake's, should win this year's Champions League. If ever there was a club that does things the right way, it is Barcelona. The club is owned by the fans, and subjects itself to regular elections. United, on the other hand, are owned by one Malcolm Glazer, who has helped saddle United with a debt of close to a billion dollars. Moreover, Glazer has followed the Asif Zardari model of leadership, by installing all six of his children on the board of directors for the club.

That's not all. Barcelona's team is constructed from the bottom up, the way football clubs are meant to be organized. Of Barca's best fifteen players, a full eight came through its youth ranks (Valdes, Puyol, Pique, Iniesta, Xavi, Busquets, Bojan and Messi), and some grew up mere minutes from the Camp Nou. Hell, Xavi used to ride the Barcelona metro to games when he first broke into the team.

By contrast, United's starting eleven is likely to feature a whopping one player (O'Shea) who can claim to have been part of United's youth set up -- this a far cry from the Becks/Nevilles/Giggs/Scholes decade.

But most importantly, it is right that Barcelona should win because they have Lionel Messi, and United have Cristiano Ronaldo. As it so happens, while the pair are perhaps the two best players in the world, they are miles apart in class and temperament. One preens, showboats, complains about and to teammates on the pitch, is selfish and petulant, dives, milks faux-injuries for all they are worth, and is generally a class-A asshole. The other is unassuming and humble, never has a bad word to say about anyone (in public), doesn't bitch about getting physically targeted (Ronaldo might have asked for an ambulance on the pitch if Van Bommel had elbowed his face twice in two games in the Champions League), plays with a smile on his face and a joie de vivre that is refreshing to see in a top-class athlete. United fans may counter and say: it doesn't matter what type of person you are, as long as you produce. My rejoinder would be: it might not matter what type of person you are, but what type of teammate you are certainly does matter. In this regard, it really is no contest.

And if ever one needed evidence of the good vs. evil dynamic between Barca and United, one need not look further than their shirts.

Barcelona, who for more than a century had never allowed the logo of a corporate sponsor on the front of their jersey, signed a deal with Unicef as a sponsor. At the signing of the deal, Joan Laporta said: "For the first time in our more than 107 years of history, our main soccer team will wear an emblem on the front of its shirt. It will not be the brand name of a corporation. It will not be a commercial to promote some kind of business. It will be the logo of 'Unicef'. Through Unicef, we, the people of FC Barcelona, the people of 'Barça', are very proud to donate our shirt to the children of the world who are our present, but especially are our future." And unlike most sponsorship deals in which the club receives money from the sponsor, Barca turned the relationship on its head, and agreed to donate one and a half million Euros a year to the foundation.

United, on the other hand, have a slightly different type of sponsor. Instead of backing an organization that has as its mission statement the "realization of the rights of children and women, as laid down in the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women", United proudly wear the logo of AIG on their shirts. AIG for its part played an enormous role in the current financial crisis of the world, and decided that the best way to pay penance for those mistakes was giving themselves bonuses in excess of $150 million. AIG is so popular that it is now choosing to call itself AIU Holdings, hoping everyone kinda-sorta just forgets.

I hope I have proven my case. Barcelona are Good. United are Evil.

That said, there remains one small problem. Like most things that are intrinsically evil (Dick Cheney, Satan), United are hugely competent. So competent, in fact, that it would be fair to call them the best team in Europe for the last three years. I am not just talking about the trophies they have racked up during that time. No, I base that observation on two points.

First, United's squad is exceptionally talented. Vidic and Ferdinand are quite easily the world's best center-back pairing (club or international football). Ronaldo is devastating in open-play, as well as in dead-ball situations (both initiating or finishing the set-piece). Wayne Rooney rivals Andres Iniesta for the "most roles played brilliantly and faithfully, without complaint" award: you can slot him anywhere in front of the back four (and really, you can probably play him at wing-back too) and he'll do the job for you. Patrice Evra may well be the world's best left-back in the world, as he claims. This team is absolutely and positively no joke.

The second point to make is this: United can beat you in many ways. They can play fast, and they can play slow. They can outscore you, or they can ensure you score less than them. They can play wide, and they can play narrow. They can play brilliant passing football, and they can play long-range over-the-top balls to their front three. They can score from open play, and they can score from dead ball situations. The reason for this is simple: United's squad goes 25 deep. Sir Alex Ferguson can mix and match and play horses for courses depending on which team he's playing, where he's playing them, in what competition, and at what stage. The level of talent at United's disposal is quite breathtaking, to be honest. They have no weaknesses.

Barcelona, on the other hand, do have weakness. The only thing worse than Barca's record in taking free-kicks and corners is being subjected to them. They don't have a Torres/Ibra type of target man, where they can just boof it up in the box and hope for the best. And with injuries (Marquez, Gabi Milito) and suspensions (Dani Alves, Abidal), their back four will be a completely manufactured entity, and could possibly feature three players playing out of position (Puyol at right back, Yaya Toure as a center back, and Keita at left back).

Here's the thing though: man for man, I will go to war with Barcelona's first eleven against United's first eleven any day, and twice on this Wednesday. Here's how I see the teams lining up this week:

-------------------------Van der Sar-----------------------





Barce, meanwhile, will look like this (if Iniesta and Henry are fit in time, which they should be):






United are probably going to play very similar to Chelsea in the semis (and United themselves in the semis last year): keep it tight in the back, don't be adventurous, look to exploit Barca on the counter, try to score from a set-piece, and otherwise play it safe and not give Barca any space. But here's the thing: as a Barca fan, United's midfield is simply not as physically imposing at Chelsea's was. I'd rather play against Park/Anderson/Carrick than Essien/Ballack/Lampard, if that's ok with you. Barca struggle against physical teams, but United are not a physical team on the defensive side of the pitch. This should allow Xavi and Iniesta to weave their magic, and that's where Barca's threats really emanate from.

I also expect Messi to be played as a false no. 9, similar to his role against Real a few weeks ago. In that game, Barca effectively made Eto'o a winger, and gave Messi more space to operate (and take advantage of his very underrated passing ability). All this talk about Evra stopping Messi last year is not only nonsense, but also besides the point: he may not even be matched up against him this year.

Though the back four will have an improvised look to it, I have no doubt Pep has been working on them in training. And if Pep lines the back four up the way we're all anticipating, it will at least give Barca a more physical and imposing back four to deal with set-pieces. The one weak link in the team might be Busquets who, let's face it, looked out of his depth against Chelsea. But I'm hoping that experience did him good, and that he's ready to step up.

United are an awesome team. I respect them enormously. They have been the best team in Europe for the last three years. I repeat: they have been the best team in Europe for the last three years.

But this is Barcelona's season. I have said it before, and I will say it again. This year, they are a team of destiny. It is simply meant to be. It is simply meant to be that Barcelona win the treble for the first time in Spanish football history. It is simply meant to be that Lionel Messi shines brightly on the biggest stage in world football. It is simply meant to be that Xavi and Iniesta continue to show the world that there's no finer midfield pairing in the world, whether they play for Spain or Barca. It is simply meant to be that Pep Guardiola, that favorite son of the city and the club, in his first season as manager after being a ball-boy, supporter, player, and captain of the team in the last two decades, conquers all before him. It is simply meant to be that in this season of dreams, in this season of magic and wizardry and one-touch one-pass football, that Barcelona, the club that is Mes Que Un Club -- more than a club -- summit the European mountain.

Receive, pass, offer. Receive, pass, offer. It is the Barcelona way, and this year, it is to be rewarded.

Prediction: Barcelona win 2-1.

UPDATE: Charming fellow, that Roy Keane. From Sid Lowe's piece on Pique:
Roy Keane, meanwhile, terrified him. On one occasion, Piqué's mobile started vibrating in the dressing room. Keane went ballistic, ripping clothes from their pegs, rummaging in pockets, screaming that he would kill the man responsible. Luckily, it rang off before Keane reached Piqué's trousers. A relieved man, he told friends he had never felt closer to death.
UPDATE II: Man, I love Xavi. He's so -- what's the word? -- earnest in his dismissiveness. Here he is on the Messi-Ronaldo debate, which he doesn't think is a debate at all.
It is the debate that will not go away in the build-up to the Champions League final but the Barcelona midfielder Xavi ­Hernández has refused to compare Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo because, he says, the Portuguese winger would come off so badly.

Xavi revealed that, as well as Ronaldo, he is a big admirer of Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard but insisted that Messi is simply untouchable. "Messi is the best player in the world by a distance, he's the No1," Xavi said. "There is nobody at all like him. I don't want to compare him to anyone because it'll just damage the other player if I do. For me Messi is easily the best.

"All due respect to Ronaldo and all the other great players on the world stage but Messi is proving that he is better than ­everyone else. The world can see that he's the boss. I've never seen anything like it. In a game, in the training sessions, never. I wouldn't swap him for any player."