Sunday, 27 December 2009

Christmas Week

Christmas week 2009 has been, in my opinion, as effective an advert for the Premier League as you could imagine. We’ve seen plenty of goals, big upsets, high quality football, brilliant fan support, mind games, backroom intrigue and even a high-profile managerial sacking. All of which has meant that we finish the year, with one more game to play, with the annual title race closer and more exciting than it’s been in years. It has also demonstrated, somewhat brutally, exactly what a ruthless place the league has become.

Last weekend, more so than this one, was the sort one could use as an argument to anyone as to why they should watch the Premier League over any other. Manchester United lost their second consecutive league game in a 3-0 defeat to Fulham, having been forced to play midfielders in defence owing to a crippling injury list – the sort of thing that just wouldn’t have happened last season. Portsmouth finally found a result to go with their improving performances as they beat a woeful Liverpool side 2-0 – the side hotly tipped for the title at the start of the season after their stunning 2008-09 run-in in April and May. Arsenal beat Hull 3-0 to keep up their string of impressive results and ensure that they remain worth keeping an eye on despite being largely unfancied and appearing under-strength. Mark Hughes’ Manchester City finally got a 4-3 over Sunderland win when yet another high-scoring draw looked to be on the cards – and their manager was sacked at the final whistle. And, on Sunday, with the stage set for Chelsea to move six points clear at the top, West Ham held them to a creditable draw – ensuring that no one was drawing premature conclusions as to the destination of the Premier League trophy at the halfway stage.

This weekend kicked off with Chelsea being held to yet another draw, this time away to Birmingham City who themselves, impressively, are currently 8th following a run of five consecutive wins. Victories for Manchester United, Arsenal, and Liverpool seem, on paper, to suggest a return to normal service – though with the latter lying in 7th behind Aston Villa, Tottenham and Manchester City, this might finally be the year when we are forced to stop talking about the ‘Big Four’, at least temporarily.

The gap between first and second is now only two points (with both teams playing again this year, and with Chelsea facing the prospect of play Fulham with an untested strike partnership) and between third and eighth is only eight. I’m not suggesting for a moment that we’re in a position yet where any one of these top eight can win the league – but would certainly argue that we’re no closer to knowing who will be entered for the European competitions than we were in August (indeed probably less sure) and that when you look at Serie A (Inter Milan eight points clear, Roma in fourth, 11 points behind) or La Liga (Barcelona two points ahead of Real Madrid, who are in turn seven points clear of third place Sevilla), and without wanting to come across too biased given that it’s the league I happen to watch every week, the English top flight does seem to be where the true unpredictability lies. Nothing is over by this Christmas.

Except one thing, maybe. Where there is the excitement of unpredictability, there is also bound to be a measure of the crushingly, tediously inevitable to spoil the party. Rumours of Mark Hughes’ demise as Manchester City manager after 18 months were in all the tabloids from Friday morning and all over the internet on Saturday morning during the build-up to the afternoon’s fixture. It’s been well reported that Hughes looked disconsolate and distant throughout the game, despite the pulsating action on the field and the odd-goal-in-seven win for his team, and that his wave to the fans at the final whistle had a look of the farewell about it. Sure enough, here was a man who had effectively been replaced weeks before, by another young manager – this one from Italy and with a more high-profile name and CV. While it seems now that Mark Hughes was the only person in the country who didn’t know on Saturday that the Sunderland game was to be his last, the fact that he clearly knew something was up is heartbreaking.

The inevitability of the decision is the worst part. When City’s new owners came in at the beginning of last season, it seemed even then to be only a matter of time before Hughes went. Given £200 million to spend, Hughes survived into this season – but it seems now that only sitting top of the league and with a trail of Big Four scalps behind him would have been enough to save him this indignity (though going unbeaten at home all season and getting wins against Arsenal, Chelsea and narrowingly missing out against Man United was not).

Of course, the points that City have dropped this season were never going to be tolerated by ambitious, impatient owners who clearly feel they had given Hughes everything he needed to shape the club into international superstars. Financially, they did. The one thing they didn’t give him was time. Roberto Mancini did not start out with the name and reputation he has. Neither did Ferguson, or Wenger. Hughes was settled into the job, had bought well (mostly) and the players liked him. Mancini will now start from scratch and, in all likelihood, bring in a slew of players in January and next summer. In replacing Hughes, City’s owners have effectively put themselves back a year in development and written off the money they spent on players this year – and if they get the Champions League place they so crave this season it will only paper over the cracks.

I wish Manchester City all the best and hope that Mancini does use the club’s financial clout in the same way that Mourinho did at Chelsea when he arrived in 2004 – to bring in exciting new talent rather than marquee shirt-shifters, to make the Premier League even more competitive than before and to help the English leagues show the rest of Europe the way in modern football. My fear is that if it doesn’t happen quickly, I could be writing all this again very soon.

Monday, 14 December 2009

The Football Basement

The blog is late this week because over the last seven days I’ve been part of an experimental new football podcast project. This makes it sound far less ramshackle than it actually is – but when, during a predictably over-excited round of group emailing in the hours leading up to the draw for the World Cup groups, the idea of committing our outlandish predictions to tape in a social setting came up, The Football Basement podcast was born.

The podcast has just gone up on iTunes, and interested readers can subscribe and download it by clicking here, or (hopefully) by searching the iTunes music store. It was recorded, fittingly, in a basement in Borough, South London, which is much less dingy than the image the title probably conjures up. Spacious, well-lit and comfortable, the suggested meeting-place had everything we would need: with even a little fridge to chill the inevitable first-record beers.

In the end there were seven of us who were up for the idea – none of whom had ever really done anything like it before but all equally enthused about the prospect of having, if not a record-breaking, chart-storming career-making podcast, then at least a record of our own World Cup hopes and predictions to look back on and laugh at. Chances are it would also be funny (at least to us) as this same group of people is well-used to gathering, bantering, bickering and generally taking the piss out of each other.

The football podcast is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time – particularly since stumbling across the excellent Football Ramble, which, as I’ve mentioned before, is well worth a listen and provides consistently funny and well-informed chunks of football banter every week. Incidentally, I was invited to the regular Socrates meeting of London football bloggers last week and managed to meet a couple of the Ramble boys who, although we had already recorded our chaotic effort, were able to offer some brilliant advice on getting started podcasting.

There was a lot to get advice on, as it happened – and much to take into account when recording. Seven is a lot of people to record with, especially when you possess the magical, zero-budget combination of a single, internal microphone attached to a Mac laptop and Garageband, nobody with any real recording or radio experience and lots and lots of beer. We all knew it would be noisy – and feared that it would be completely unlistenable. As it happened, the layout of the Basement helped us out in that everyone was able to be positioned more or less equidistant from the mic and that there was absolutely no noise from outside.

However, we hadn’t recorded for long before we realised that a free-form, slightly merry discussion just wasn’t really going to work. The urge to shout down whoever is making a point is hard to resist – and in football discussion, particularly in large groups, there is a counterargument to literally every argument. While this is what makes football banter so much fun, it can also be what makes it interminable – and potentially completely tedious to listen to. While we felt the podcast was primarily for our own amusement, it’s nice to think that there might be some other people out there (and at the very least our other friends) who could enjoy it too.

There needed to be order, and the appointed chairman (me) was required to step up and rule with an iron fist. Well, kind of. A system of raised hands and pointing out whose turn was next evolved, but the big fear in this situation is that such an officious approach can stifle organic conversation.

I don’t think we needed to worry – the podcast definitely improves in terms of listenability as it goes on – but if the organisation of the discussion was manageable, duration was definitely an issue. It’s crazy to think about, but fascinating in itself having given ourselves the remit of discussing the World Cup draw which had taken place only 48 hours before, that we not only had to consciously try not to talk too much about it in the pub before the record, but that we managed, almost without noticing, to talk for two and a half hours purely on the prospects of the members of each group – including a frankly inexplicable forty minutes on Group D – and continued to debate during every cigarette break we gave ourselves and finally, barely having broken sweat, continued back in the pub after we’d pressed Garageband’s stop button for the last time.

This, surely, cannot be healthy. Never mind the fact that I had meticulously prepared an agenda that went on from a “quick” discussion of the group stage to Capello’s team selection, World Cup memories and so on, I honestly think that we could have picked a single team and talked about them alone for just as long. And while this is somewhat shocking, in terms of editing the podcast later in the week, it verged on the maddening.

The finished article is a fairly tight 65 minutes, looking at each group in turn and allowing each of the seven of us to pick out our winners and runners-up from each group. Achieving this tight 65 minutes from 150-odd minutes of yelling, swearing, giggling and, occasionally, some really good, well-argued points from a group of silly but thoughtful football fans took six hours. Getting the 40-minute bellow-a-thon of Group D down to the eight minutes it is now took a long, long time (and about three quarters of a bottle of red wine – that was my Friday night sewn up). Clearly, if we’re planning to make this a regular thing (and we are, I think) then we’re going to have to organise. Set time limits and a deadline – and allow everyone to make their points. Have a detailed and realistic agenda on hand. And, crucially, focus.

But I think the finished podcast sounds great – and is a lot of fun to listen to – mainly because it’s chaotic, silly, noisy, funny, rambling and, at times, really interesting. In fact, I like it for the same reasons I like talking about football at all. I know that over time we’ll get slicker, more disciplined and we’ll do more research. It might not be the same people every time (seven people is also a tricky number to round up of a regular evening) and it might not always be good – but I’m proud that we have this first, shambolic cacophony of deranged, drunken punditry saved for posterity.


So here’s the plug bit, properly:

The Football Basement Episode One is now available on iTunes. If it’s not searchable yet, click the link at the top of this entry or try again later in the week. If you’re not an iTunes user, it can also be accessed through hosts Jellycast by clicking here.

If you’re on Twitter, follow what’s happening with the Basement at @tfbpodcast.

If you fancy getting in touch with The Football Basement, email

Thursday, 3 December 2009

The Draw

Tomorrow evening the draw for the group stage of the 2010 World Cup finals will take place in South Africa. Nelson Mandela will be there, as will Archbishop Desmond Tutu, current South African president and all-round dubious man Jacob Zuma, actress Charlize Theron and soccer enthusiast David Beckham – along with Sepp Blatter, Jack Warner and assorted dignitaries from the 32 football associations represented in the finals.

Viewers are to expect nothing less than a glamorous, star-studded firework show of a draw – and why not. While on the face of it a simple administrative procedure that could just as easily take place behind closed doors or be generated at random by computer (and still suffer no greater volume of accusations of FIFA conspiracy or group-rigging), the group stage draw is truly a hotly anticipated date in this season’s calendar in the run up to Christmas – forget El Clasico or the awarding of the Ballon D’Or, the fans are actually excited by the prospect of seeing a collection of ancient ex-pros cracking open plastic balls and unfolding pieces of paper, on a stage in Cape Town, probably interminably slowly.

One of the most amusing indicators of the hype and expectation surrounding tomorrow’s draw is the high-budget and admittedly rather impressive Budweiser advert showing a packed stadium of people turning over thousands of cards to make a bottle of Bud fill up a beer glass. The ad is fine on its own – but has for the last month or so been followed by the caption ‘FIFA World Cup draw – now only 4 weeks away’, and so on. Can people really be made to be this excited about a draw? It would seem so – as since the announcement of the FIFA seedings for the draw on Wednesday morning the internet has virtually collapsed under the weight of office-chair pundits and their speculation, prediction and ludicrous omen-citing. I haven’t exactly been immune to it, of course.

Funnily enough, while taking a look at the stats relating to North Korea’s performance at World Cup 1966 on Wikipedia (as you do, etc) it occurred to me to check what England’s group had been in that ever-so-slightly hallowed year. Having noticed that it is technically possible for England to draw the exact same teams again – Uruguay, Mexico and France – I mentioned this to some friends over email, one of whom in turn mentioned it to a contact at a national newspaper who in turn passed it on to their editorial team. By the late afternoon, this page had appeared on the newspaper’s website. It seems that in amongst a largely pointless conversation about how we would like or would dread England’s draw to turn out, I had inadvertently set the Mirror’s news agenda for the afternoon. I was, needless to say, fairly pleased with myself.

Various other insights came out of the conversation. There seemed to be a consensus on what would be bad for England – various ‘Group of Death’ permutations, most of which involved drawing one of the two big name play-off winners from Pot Four: Portugal or France. Such apocalyptic hypothetical draws also tended to include one of the major African sides – particularly Ghana or the Cote D’Ivoire; possibly because as regular Premier League viewers we are acutely aware of the skill and power in the possession of players like Michael Essien, Kolo Toure and the in-form Didier Drogba. The Pot 2 choice for a worst-case-scenario draw seems to be the USA – mainly, it would seem, because few other teams in their pot present much of an immediate threat (or because they are relative unknowns).

A favourable ‘Group of Life’ draw is easier to pick – and, worryingly, easier to be too casual about. Should England actually draw North Korea, Algeria and Switzerland, we risk complacency setting in months before the tournament even starts. At the very least this will be the view the press will be keen to hammer home. The FA will doubtless set up friendlies against teams similar in style and stature to England’s opponents, which can only mean a string of dull and deceivingly easy wins against negligible opposition (see England’s 6-0 battering of Jamaica in 2006 as preparation for the group game against Trinidad and Tobago). This in turn ensures all the more shock when England inevitably stumble into the last 16 and are summarily beaten by a much stronger opponent.

The other side of the argument, of course, is that playing weaker teams at the group stage will allow England to conserve energy for the knockout stages while another hapless seeded team scraps away in a tougher group, picking up injuries, fatigue and confidence-rattling results against stronger sides.

The players and coaches will usually trot out the same line about how if you want to win the World Cup then you have to be prepared the face the best in the world – and that it doesn’t matter at what stage of the competition you meet them. This, it would seem, is a bit of professional disingenuousness, as of course there are draws that would trouble even the most confident of players on paper. There is the risk that, handed a freak ‘Group of Death’ scenario, a possibly great team could be sent packing before they’d even had a chance to get into their stride.

England, I think, will want a mix of the two. Personally I’d like to see a couple of teams that Capello’s men should despatch without much fuss and at least one relatively scary name to give them a stern test early on. A good draw, I think, would be something like Australia, Nigeria and Serbia. This would still be a group you’d expect England to win – but one in which they wouldn’t perhaps be tempted to fall into the 2006 strategy of winning without getting out of first gear. They’d hit their peak just in time to beat Cameroon in the second round, Portugal in the quarters and…no, no. Must stop.

Either way, it seems foolish to speculate – at least today. From tomorrow the World Cup will really be happening and the countdown to the whole beautiful hysteria of the finals will have begun for real. And if Australia, Nigeria and Serbia come out then the Daily Mirror might just have to put me on the payroll.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

The Europa League

For the first time since Manchester United finished bottom of their Champions League group in the 2005-6 season, the Premier League will be represented by less than the full compliment of United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal in this season’s last 16. This week, Liverpool got the away win they needed at Debrecen, but slip out of the Champions League thanks to a 1-0 win for Fiorentina at home to already-qualified Lyon.

It is tempting, in this new age of English dominance in Europe that has seen Premier League teams make up three of the four Champions League semi-finalists for three consecutive seasons (albeit only producing a winner once), to view this as some sort of disaster – both for Liverpool and for the English contingent at Europe’s top table. I’m not so sure it is.

Liverpool, guaranteed to finish third in their group with a game left to play, will now enter the newly-rebranded UEFA Europa League, previously the UEFA Cup. This will no doubt be reported as Liverpool suffering the ignominy of having to play in a “pointless”, devalued competition that will only make it harder for them to perform as well as they should in the Premier League (though they seem to be making things difficult enough for themselves as it is). And, as something of an insult to teams like Valencia, Roma, Hamburg, Villareal, Benfica, Werder Bremen, last year’s winners Shakhtar Donetsk and, of course, Merseyside rivals Everton, they will likely be tipped as favourites to win the competition.

Apart from the fact that having a high-profile English club involved in the tournament’s knockout stages will certainly improve the Europa League’s viewing figures in the UK (the sort of thing I’m sure UEFA will have hoped would happen when they re-launched the competition) just as the still-highly-possible entry of Inter Milan would in Italy or Bayern Munich might in Germany, does it deserve to be so much maligned as a legitimate European competition?

At a time when the gulf between the richest clubs and those unlikely to ever break into Champions League qualification spots is wider than ever before – and remembering that no team from outside the now-defunct G14 group of Europe’s ‘elite’ clubs has ever won the Champions League – surely the Europa League can be as exciting, unpredictable and as exotic as the European Cup is and was in bygone days. The team names are weirder, the cities more obscure, the players more appreciative of the occasion, the matches more memorable in the long-run – for many teams making an appearance it will be their first trip into Europe or their first for a lifetime; and most of their fans will tend to believe it’s probably their last.

The romance that many curmudgeonly, nostalgic pundits lament the loss of in the big-money Champions League is, I think, still very much alive in the Europa League. Teams who are barely known outside their own countries can have a good run in their division or cup one year and face the prospect of thrilling away trips to clubs in bigger, more high-profile leagues, or – especially in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union – a chance to face old rivals from other nations.

Many of these are, to me at least, if not in football terms then politically and historically intriguing, despite those who may scoff at the apparently low level of competiton. For example, this season has seen Croatia’s Slavija Istocno Sarajevo take on MFK Kosice of Slovakia (Kosice won 5-1 on aggregate, incidentally), while Polonia Warsaw of Poland met Dutch side NAC Breda. Exotic ties like these just don’t happen in the Champions League.

And the competition is more balanced – and so less predictable. Picking a UEFA Cup winner at the beginning of a season (or even halfway through) is far harder than in the Champions League, where the eventual winner will almost certainly come from a pool of four or five teams. Sure there are favourites, and the fixture list throws up its brutal mismatches – Roma hammering Gent of Belgium 10-2 on aggregate this season springs to mind – but none are ever as tedious as in the Champions League. The gulf between the sides likely to end up in the last sixteen and those destined to return to the drudgery of their minor European leagues is so huge that the competition is, often, barely worth watching before Christmas. Other than maybe the Barca/Inter/Kazan/Kiev group this season, there’s barely a shock in sight going into the knockout stages.

So maybe Europe’s second competition is something of a glimpse back in time, to the days of the European Cup of the 60s and 70s, when no one nation dominated and any side could win. The European Cup that Celtic won and Nottingham Forest retained. Maybe. Either way, it’s a shame to denigrate it so much and suggested that winning it “doesn’t matter”.

To suggest that Benitez’s Liverpool wouldn’t be ecstatic to be lifting a European trophy at the end of this season and therefore qualifying for the Champions League next season and playing in the showpiece UEFA Super Cup match, is ridiculous. Similarly, how much would David Moyes love to bring Everton their first continental silverware since the 1985 Cup Winners’ Cup victory over Rapid Vienna? A quarter of a century is a long time to wait for prominence on the European stage – that it’s not going to be the European Cup they could be lifting is probably more a matter of finance than football. It certainly won’t matter too much to the trophy-starved fans.

I love the Champions League, as I made clear on this blog earlier in the season, but I think the way it completely overshadows the Europa League is unfortunate. Rather than constantly expanding the Champions League to include teams and leagues that the European giants will simply walk over (which for me is the truly pointless part of UEFA’s current strategy) giving the “lesser” tournament a bit of genuine support could really help. There is a great deal of affection around for the long-gone Cup Winners’ Cup, as this was really seen to be a trophy worth winning. The Europa League could well go on to be that too, if the governing body can keep themselves from messing around with its format for a couple of seasons. While no one wants endless group stages and seventeen two-legged rounds meaning beleaguered clubs with tiny squads are forced to play 200 matches a season, it’s a shame that, as a tournament, it’s so easily dismissed.

The fact that the mostly-empty 20,000 seat Bulgarian Army Stadium where I sat to watch CSKA Sofia play Sliven in October wasn’t even big enough to host the Europa League tie with Fulham a few weeks earlier (the 38,000 or so crowd packed into the nearby Vasil Levski National Stadium instead) should be enough of an example: to many, this “pointless” trophy does really matter.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

How Much Longer, Sepp?

Oh, for goodness’ sake, FIFA. You too, UEFA. You saw what happened tonight – just like everyone else did. Do you really think there’s going to be a single newspaper, television show, football fan or impressionable young child out there who thinks that tonight’s result was a fair one? It’s not like they won’t be talking about it – this was no meaningless kick-about, nor even a group match or league game where one unfair decision that turns a win into a defeat can be moaned about and written about and debated over – but forgotten in a few short days’ time.

This was a knockout match – and not just any old knockout match. Extra time in the second leg of a play-off tie, the winner of which would be the final European nation to qualify for the World Cup. The World Cup, guys. As the BBC have said in their match report tonight (and doubtless most back pages will in the morning), it’s hard to imagine it being more heartbreaking – or coming at a more devastating moment.

Tonight France played Ireland at the Stade de France with a slender 1-0 lead from the first leg in Dublin. Ireland took the lead in the first half through Robbie Keane, levelling the score on aggregate and, an hour or so later, sending the tie to extra time. It was, by all accounts, certainly no more than Ireland deserved.

It could be argued that Ireland hung on and defended their slender advantage for most of the second half while France created more chances – but that excuses nothing of the circumstances of France’s victory.

The ball floated into the box from midfield from a free kick, falling just in front of the (probably offside) Thierry Henry, who clearly used his hand to stop the ball going out of play – knocking it into a position where he could pass across the face of goal to the arriving boot of William Gallas, who scored. It was a goal – but, clearly, it shouldn’t have been.

Naturally the Irish players and fans are devastated, as losing teams so often are; especially when the manner of the defeat is cruel and seemingly unfair. But I wonder if the stakes have ever been much higher? There aren’t many comparable situations. One act of flagrant cheating from a highly-regarded player (and while it is a shame to see Henry do it, it’s certainly not his first offence) here means the difference between Ireland going to the World Cup or not. The World Cup – the biggest, most significant global sporting event of them all, which comes round only once every four years; only the Olympic Games can dream of coming close, and even then I would argue that its level of cultural impact and ability to unite and simply matter to the sheer number of people the World Cup does is way, way off.

One only has to look at the way London’s Algerian population is celebrating their nation’s play-off victory over Egypt tonight to get a glimpse into what qualification means to people – especially those from small countries. Take a look at Trafalgar Square tonight and you’d think Algeria had won the whole competition. I’d imagine there are fair few pubs in Dublin whose inhabitants are wondering whether they’ll ever bother watching football again.

The impact failure to qualify for the second consecutive World Cup finals – and this time through no real fault of their own – will have on Irish football, particularly financially, should not be underestimated. In a country where football has to compete with rugby and hugely popular indigenous sports like Gaelic football and hurling, whose domestic league is of a relatively low standard and hence whose players almost all ply their trade in the UK (oh and how French coach Raymond Domenech’s decision to spitefully label the Republic’s first team as “England B” was almost made to look so stupid), missing out on qualification in such miserable fashion is a real blow.

It is said that the most lucrative single match in football is the English Football League Championship play-off final, the prize for the victor being a place in the Premier League – and hence a share of the money Sky and numerous international broadcasters pay to show matches around the world. This figure is hard to pin down, but it is usually quoted as being around £35 million. Clearly, this would make an enormous amount of difference to almost any club in the Football League (Notts County aside, maybe) – and so were this Wembley clash to be decided on an obvious handball offence? The calls for a replay, for lawsuits, for compensation, would be deafening. Particularly if Neil Warnock happened to be one of the coaches.

And yet this is even bigger. It matters to a whole country – and also to plenty of people in Britain and the global Irish diaspora – not just the fans of a single club. As someone with around 25% Irish heritage (the rest is Scottish), I was looking forward to having some blood connection to next year’s tournament.

So come on, FIFA, UEFA, chaps. You surely won’t get many more high-profile incidents than this as incentive: bring in the bloody technology.

It exists! It exists in lots and lots of other sports – I can only assume Blatter, Warner, Platini et al haven’t watched any tennis, motor racing or cricket in the last five to ten years, such is their apparent obliviousness to the likes of HawkEye. It doesn’t even have to be HawkEye – if anything football moves too fast to really benefit from the sort of detailed analysis the system offers. The only technology football needs is already there. You see all those cameras around the stadium, Sepp? They’re filming everything – from all the best angles and, nowadays, in super-hi-def, super-slo-mo replay-o-vision. Would referring to this handy multi-angle feed cause the game to slow down or stop for too long? Not at all – all that is needed is an official sat at the side of the pitch watching the exact same feed as everyone else. The referee needs only to glance over to him – he either nods or shakes his head: done. Tonight’s incident could have been decided in a quarter of a second, as indeed it was by everyone watching on TV. Goal disallowed – the French would barely have started celebrating.

It’s slightly annoying to be moaning about FIFA again this week, but it leaves me feeling incredulous when things like this keep happening, at the highest level, and those at the top remain recalcitrant. Ironically, even UEFA’s half-arsed ‘goal-line officials’ would have spotted Henry’s handball tonight.

I love the modern game, but remain most baffled that while the football authorities have embraced everything they can to make football as up-to-date and future-ready as is possible – selling broadcast rights, attracting huge tournament sponsorships, building glittering new stadiums, supporting grassroots projects and creating some dazzling youth training systems around the developing world – they’ve yet to embrace something as simple and as staggeringly obvious as video technology.

It’s got to come in soon, hasn’t it? Will it take a team winning the World Cup Final with an illegal goal or a blatant dive to win a penalty for them to finally realise? Maybe it’ll happen in 2010. A big part of me hopes it’s against France, too – and not just the Irish quarter.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Getting Away with Murder

Hate figures are easy to come by in modern football. Every fan has a team they genuinely hate – and it’s not necessarily their clubs’ rivals. For example, I imagine there’s relatively few Chelsea fans who actually hate Fulham, such is the longstanding and still significant gulf between the clubs’ fortunes on the pitch. The same, of course, cannot be said of Manchester United or Liverpool fans, or, as we’ve already seen this year, West Ham and Millwall fans, for example. Equally, Real Madrid and Barcelona fans hate each other’s teams so much that in a recent poll where Barca fans were asked which they would prefer, Barcelona winning or Real Madrid losing, the prospect of a defeat for Los Merengues won by a clear majority.

The fact that it is the teams they hate is significant. It’s perfectly possible, all over the world, to see groups of friends, all of whom support different clubs, bantering quite happily (and notably not kicking the shit out of each other) while still expressing (and probably feeling) heartfelt animosity towards the actual clubs their friends support. I have certainly been part of such groups in the past and while it’s handy for exercising one’s Sky Sports round table discussion show pretensions, there’s no pretence towards balance; some teams we just hate.

And it’s absolutely not just teams that get picked on. Everyone has certain players they can’t stand, no matter what club they play for or what country they represent. Some people can fly into a spluttering rage at the sight of rival managers, former players, team owners (poor Mike Ashley, eh?) or even just the sight of a replica shirt or badge. Maybe it’s a controversial goal someone scored once, or some long-held grudge against a nation that knocked yours out of the World Cup twenty years ago. There are people who hate teams because of some perceived injustice that took place long before they were even born – grievances passed down from generation to generation like a festering, anxious and really rather silly family heirloom.

It is all silly – and totally irrational. I have my own personal hate figures in the game, of course, like everyone. The ones that really interest me, however, are those universal hate figures, the ones that everyone, whether they be on the TV, radio or down the pub, just can’t get on with, and can’t fathom why they’re allowed to exist at all – and often with good reason.

They come at all levels of the game. The standard choice, as far as players go, would be someone like Joey Barton. The very mention of his name in almost any football-literate company will elicit the same sort of responses – “thug”, “disgrace”, “ungrateful”, “should be banned for life”, et cetera. I say almost, because presumably he has his fans somewhere. All the bosses that have signed him despite knowing his track record, his appalling discipline, his unforgivable off-the-pitch behaviour. The team mates that have stuck by him and defended his character. And presumably his family must have a bit of a soft spot for him, too.

But there can’t be many. If anyone reading this doesn’t know Barton’s record, this is the player who, to name a few “incidents”: stubbed a cigar out in the eye of a Man City youth team player in a nightclub causing permanent scarring, assaulted a 15-year-old Everton fan during a tour of Thailand in 2005, beat up team mate Ousmane Dabo at City’s training ground, leaving him with a suspected detached retina, and, most famously, spent 77 days in prison in 2008 for assaulting a man at a McDonald’s restaurant in Liverpool city centre. The FA make a great deal of fuss about the need for footballers to be role models to young people – and yet he’s still permitted, clubs allowing, to play football at the highest level, enjoying the attendant luxurious lifestyle.

Other universal hate figures are found higher up. The biggest – because he’s right at the top, I suppose – is Joseph “Sepp” Blatter, President of FIFA. There is literally no one more important than him in the world of football, and yet whenever his name is mentioned in the press, by a pundit or by a fan, it is usually in the most derisory terms. How has Blatter, despite having held the title of President for 11 years, failed so spectacularly to endear himself to the common football fan?

There are a number of reasons. There’s the constant rumours of financial irregularities – including rights payments to FIFA mysteriously vanishing and ending up in the personal accounts of FIFA delegates, and the suspicious halting of an investigation into the loss of $100m by FIFA’s marketing partner in 2002; there’s his comments in 2008 declaring Cristiano Ronaldo to be a “slave” when Manchester United refused to sell him to Real Madrid (but mainly it was because Sepp just really, really hates the dominance of the Premier League); and, of course, his charming suggestion that to make women’s football more successful the players should “wear tighter shorts”.

Blatter is a magnet for ridicule – he is a symbol of everything that is just a little seedy and corrupt about the very top of modern football. And yet, despite damning books and articles by dedicated investigative journalists like Andrew Jennings, he remains FIFA President – and is unlikely to be unseated any time soon. With a global audience of fans who love declaring their hatred for teams, fans, referees, managers and administrators, why haven’t people like Blatter and his particularly odious Vice President Jack Warner (but more about him another time), Joey Barton and other petulant, undeserving players, felt a bit more of the wrath?

My theory is that in a sport, and in a culture, that is so used to polarised opinions, controversial on- and off-pitch events, and is quite comfortable with casual, irrational “hate”, that sometimes the truly deserving hate figures are allowed to go about their business – bringing the game into disrepute, often, engaging in morally repugnant criminal activity. Perhaps we need to focus less on irrational, decades-old grudges and throw a bit more hate the way of those who have genuinely done something to deserve it.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Naming Rights and Wrongs

Today Newcastle United announced the ‘new name’ to be applied to St. James’ Park in the wake of less-than-popular owner Mike Ashley’s decision to take the club off the market and put the rights to the historic stadium’s name up for sale instead. Apparently more of a placeholder move than a permanent change – especially given that it is named for Ashley’s own chain of budget sports gear shops – for the remainder of the season Newcastle will be playing at The @ St. James’ Park Stadium. Hm.

There’s been a predictable amount of noise made about it – scoffs from the majority of football fans who see limitless comedy potential in the prospect of an already-maligned club lumbered with an unfashionable name for their once-untouchable and locally-treasured home; groans and resigned shrugs from the beleaguered ‘Geordie Nation’ who are long past being shocked at anything Ashley has to throw at them in terms of indignity; and of course platitudes from those in the team’s hierarchy who are adamant that this direction can only be a good thing for the club. The same has been said about Tottenham’s proposed new ground (which, based on the concept artwork, I like to call The Naming Rights Stadium).

To be honest, I’m inclined to side with the latter. I mean, the @ St. James’s Park Stadium’s not that bad is it? OK, so it’s far too wordy and impossible to fit into a catchy terrace chant and the @ sign in the middle is a cringingly dated lunge at sounding modern (much like the awful Stadium:MK where MK Dons ply their trade) – but the fans and TV pundits will still refer to it as St. James’ Park; it’s unlikely that the BBC in particular will spend much time reciting the URL for Ashley’s retailer in fear of giving ‘undue prominence’.

Newcastle fans can be consoled with the fact that it could be a lot worse. In America’s MLS, where, unlike in England, the commerce came a long time before the football, the fans take their seats at Pizza Hut Park (FC Dallas), The Home Depot Center (LA Galaxy) and – best of all – Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, home of the Colorado Rapids. Even York City’s KitKat Crescent has a certain assonant poetry to it.

The key to selling naming rights for stadiums, it seems, is choosing the right sponsor – and making sure it’s actually a good name. One example is Arsenal’s glittering Emirates stadium; probably the most pleasant place in the country to watch club football and oozing class and expense from every glass and concrete corner – and it has a name that rolls off the tongue; the sponsorship element of it is relatively easy to ignore.

When Arsenal first announced that they would be leaving Highbury for the Gulf airline-sponsored Emirates, there were groups of fans who were incensed, declaring that they would refer to the stadium as Ashburton Grove and never, ever, by its corporate name. Three years down the line and you’d be hard pushed to find an Arsenal fan that had a problem with playing at the Emirates (apart, perhaps, from the fact that they haven’t won anything since moving there!)

It seems odd, especially nowadays, for fans to complain about naming rights being sold for their teams’ stadiums anyway. For a long time now football clubs have been adorned with advertising: corporate logos and companies names are key parts of the iconography of football – indeed, in the case of shirt sponsorship, they are literally part of the fabric of modern football. Is it really violating the sanctity of a football club to step up from having every single player wear a logo on his chest, every member of backroom staff wear a branded jacket and hundreds of metres of advertising hoardings all around the pitch to playing in a branded stadium?

In a previous blog post, Modern Football is Brilliant, I argued that football today, particularly in the Premier League, is as exciting and infinitely watchable as it is because of the increased money and ‘commercialisation’, rather than in spite of it. For me, this also applies to shirt sponsorship’s effect on the look and, yes, feel of the game today.

Looking back through photographs from the last 20 years or so of football history, the most notable differences are usually in what the players are wearing (and occasionally the haircuts). The history of the Premier League, for example, can be divided into eras based on shirt sponsorship: for example there was the Sharp-era Manchester United of the 1990s, in which they won their historic treble in 1999, which gave way to the Vodafone-era United of the 2000s. So many fans I’ve spoken to will fondly remember their favourite shirts, whether it’s JVC Arsenal, Sega Arsenal or O2 Arsenal; Autoglass Chelsea, Fly Emirates Chelsea (and how incongruous that sounds even a couple of years later, such is the airline’s association with their North London rivals); and how odd will Liverpool shirts look without Carlsberg emblazoned across the front from next season? And will it herald a significant new era for them?

Perhaps this is just me being sentimental as usual – but what is true is that corporate involvement with football is certainly not always some terrible, cynical, money-spinning venture. Often, especially in the lower leagues, local businesses sponsor football clubs who are as much a part of the community as the clubs themselves and form a genuinely symbiotic relationship. Without the sponsorship of local businesses, it is likely many League One and Two clubs would struggle to survive. Is it any wonder that more and more of them sell off their naming rights too? There are always criticisms that teams have sold out or betrayed their long histories by making this sort of move – but when the choice is either changing the name of the stadium or even the club (as many teams all over Europe have – see Wales’ TNS between 1997 and 2006 and FC Red Bull Salzburg, once SV Austria Salzburg) – or ceasing to exist, surely it’s better that a historic club survives in some form?

Football is kept alive by advertising and sponsorship – and is all the stronger for it. It is the reason that England can still sustain 92 league clubs, many of whom are well over 100 years old, despite falling attendances and an overwhelming focus on the top few in the media. So while it’s sometimes funny (I remember as a child when we used to laugh at local team Rochdale because they were sponsored by Carcraft, the local Skoda dealership – could any other sponsor exude less glamour?) sponsorship is a major part of the lifeblood of the sport – and makes for some of the most enduring images of recent football history.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Football and the Internet

This is a time, in football as much as almost any other “entertainment product”, when format, medium and emerging methods of content delivery are paid almost as much attention as the material we enjoy through them. This is strange, as they’re not particularly glamorous subjects. The central issues are bound up in technology, finance and law – a far cry from the concerns of the average punter who simply wants to watch a game of football, listen to an album, watch a film, play a video game or read a book. But their importance cannot be denied.

Every part of the entertainment industry seems to have its digital conundrum: the music industry’s struggle to adapt to the digital revolution in the early part of this decade allowed for a culture of illegal music downloading to flourish and for major labels and retailers to almost completely miss the boat in terms of working out how to charge for music that was no longer tangible and could be copied an infinite number of times with no loss of quality, suffering a massive decline in sales of CDs and records in the process.

The film industry however, would probably argue that it has been hit hardest – financially at least – as many people have turned away from the chronically overpriced (and, in my opinion, overvalued) multiplex experience in order to download DVD-quality films in a matter of minutes over a decent broadband connection. Re-introducing gimmicks like 3D to the theatres aside, Hollywood has yet to properly work how to combat the public’s natural “like having stuff but don’t like paying for stuff” mentality.

And the world of book publishing (the industry I’m most closely involved in professionally) is currently running around like a whole farmyard of headless chickens in an attempt to stay ahead of the digital curve – their problem being the great uncertainty as to how the market will approach even the idea of ‘e-books’. While for films and music the shift to digitisation was simply about changing format, bringing books into the 21st century involves a fundamental change in the way people assimilate the written word.

Books as we know them have been around far, far longer than film, music, computer games or the internet put together (and, notably, have survived the newcomers’ existence in terms of sustained popularity and usefulness) and there doesn’t seem to be a mass of people crying out to publishers and manufacturers to free them from the drudgery of the printed page. If the closely guarded (and reportedly laughable) sales figures of the Amazon Kindle and other assorted e-readers are to be believed, books may be one medium that survives the chaotic – yet hugely significant – shift towards all things digital.

So what about football? Which of these three case studies is the game most likely to resemble in the coming months and years?

Certainly the advent of the internet has already made a difference to the way fans experience football – and not just so-called ‘armchair’ fans either. Outside of Sky Sports News, the internet is the primary source of news, transfer gossip and interviews for even the tiniest clubs all over the world. There is barely a football club on the planet without a dedicated website, well-used fan forum and painstakingly-compiled set of historical statistics: when über-nerd meets football it is quite a sight to behold, believe me. And if you don’t believe me, try googling any club, footballer, manager, stadium or even match that comes into your head. There’ll be something there.

More recently, this is largely due to video sites like YouTube. They have made an enormous difference to the way ordinary fans perceive the game and, much more importantly, allows them to see footage of players and teams in action that would never have been possible before. Once upon a time the average English football fan, clearly unable to afford to jet around the continent every weekend, would have to rely on the odd televised European game, TV shows like the much-missed Gazzetta Football Italia (hands up if you just heard someone scream "goooooolaccio" in your head) and World Cup-themed montages of foreign players in action – everything else was hearsay; fans had to take the experts at their word.

These days if you even hear a player’s name mentioned, chances are there’ll be some footage of him on YouTube. It might be fuzzy footage camcordered from Argentinian television, edited by a 14-year-old child and backed with appalling techno music, but you can actually see what all the fuss is about. Great goals from the past, great matches, amusing moments, Sepp Blatter falling over at a press conference, they’re all there – as well as clips from all levels of the game, all over the world. Never has the football fan been better informed or better equipped to back up his or her argument about the greatest free kick ever scored, the greatest ever celebration or the funniest clip of the FIFA president falling over (there’s only one, and it’s bloody brilliant) with decent, archived footage.

There are also, of course, numerous sites that allow fans to watch live games from all over the world – and certainly not always legally. This has always been possible through dubious means (most of us have, at some point, been into a less-than-salubrious pub on a Saturday at 3pm and seen live Premiership football accompanied by enthusiastic, non-English commentary) and probably always will – but the ways of getting round complicated and constantly evolving rights laws are myriad these days and much harder to clamp down on.

Recently, in England at least, this went official for a big game for the first time – England’s penultimate World Cup qualifier away to Ukraine. Following the demise of Setanta, broadcast rights had been sold off to an online company who charged viewers £4.99 each to watch a live stream of the match on their site – and, more importantly, this was the only way to see the game. Like Amazon’s Kindle figures, it seems suspicious that the exact number of subscribers was never revealed, though it looks clear that broadcasts of this type will continue. But is it really how we will all be watching football in the future?

I’m not so sure – I can’t imagine sitting in front of my computer for a whole football game, legal or not, although one can imagine that this will soon be streamable to TV sets and, hopefully, into pubs. I’m not sure pay per view is the answer either – as people will always find a way round it as long as broadcast rights deals remain specific to territories and the internet remains borderless.

It is for certain that football is not immune from the ‘digital revolution’ – it’s highly commercial nature and massive popularity has more or less ensured that – but to me it seems similar to the publishing industry’s situation, which basically boils down to a version of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Football fans are happy to watch the games they can’t see live on their televisions – and even more happy to pay as little as possible to do so. The game is not crying out for an online solution, but it has been provided all the same. I just hope, as I do for books, films and music, that embracing new ways of enjoying the game does not take anything away from those we already have.

Right, I’m off to watch that Blatter video again. And maybe a couple of Zidane clips…

Wednesday, 21 October 2009


It feels childish to talk about having a ‘favourite footballer’. It conjures up memories of swapping Panini stickers or the sort of cover feature that would regularly appear in the pages of Match magazine (or even, this month, the ostensibly more grown up FourFourTwo) – endless, meaningless lists attempting to divine the ‘best player in the world’.

I mentioned the FFT feature in question to a friend recently. “FourFourTwo have done a 100 best players in the world chart,” I said. “Messi?” he responded, with barely a moment’s thought. “Uh…yep.” “OK.”

The utter pointlessness of compiling lists and charts of the ‘best’ in such a non-scientific category as ‘being good at football’ is clear to see.

Apart from being fundamentally incomparable – is Cristiano Ronaldo’s goal scoring record as good as Petr Cech’s clean sheets record? How many of Iniesta’s passes are equal to one of Cannavaro’s tackles? – the very idea of it seems to bring out the worst in those involved, skews the transfer value of players made to look good in strong teams and allows the press regular self-congratulatory pieces declaring, “see, we said Messi was the best in the world and look, there he is, winning the Champions League! No one else saw that coming…”

The worst story that comes to mind, however, concerns the even-more-useless ‘greatest ever footballer’ lists that magazines and newspapers insist on churning out more and more often. Every single lazy interview with any retired footballer includes the question, “Who, in your opinion, was the greatest footballer who ever lived?” You get the standard answers – Pelé, Maradona, Di Stefano, depending on who’s asked. Or not – the names are almost interchangeable. More recently, though, chubby insane mouthpiece Maradona has begun sniping at Pelé, questioning his greatness as if his assumed spot at the top of this pointless league was up for grabs. If anything, Maradona needs to be aware that the good memories won’t last forever.

So what I’m really building up to here is a blog post about my favourite footballer, naturally. Again, it’s the sort of thing you should probably stop bothering to discuss when you’re a kid, but if asked I’d have to say one name: Zinedine Zidane.

Now, as the last two or three paragraphs might suggest, I’m certainly not planning to argue that Zidane was the greatest footballer ever – I don’t believe such a thing does or could ever exist. But he, and every piece of controversy and legend that surrounds him, has gone a long way to shaping my view on what makes football such a fascinating game.

Zidane – winner of the Ballon D’Or, two Scudetti in Italy with Juventus, one Spanish championship and the Champions League with Real Madrid, one World Cup and a European Championship with France and the FIFA World Player of the Year award three times (phew) –was a player who could be appreciated in still, snapshot images.

In my head he’s always motionless (though he rarely was on the pitch, of course) – his giant, Easter Island head with its thousand yard stare burns his image into any piece of paper or any screen, lending him a genuinely iconic and statuesque appearance to the extent that it’s hard to imagine he really exists at all. In my head is a picture of Zidane staring manically at an opponent, or up into the sky after missing a chance. It’s the picture of him ramming Marco Materazzi in the chest during the 2006 World Cup Final (surely the one genuinely memorable moment of the tournament, the one that will resonate for decades) and this picture of him walking past the World Cup for the last time:

I don’t think I’m the only one to have seen something classical in the great man and how he played. It seems strange now to imagine him alongside the other galacticos who arrived at Real Madrid in the early part of this decade. He seems too big, too lumbering – and not nearly pretty or glamorous enough to be a standard Bernabeu pin-up. And yet he inspired an intellectual response in those who watched him; he seemed to be a cultured, intelligent player who was a student of the game, rather than a mercurial talent who simply came to it naturally.

Belgian writer Jean-Phillipe Toussaint wrote a short book entitled Le Mélancolie de Zidane shortly after the 2006 final, a ‘lyrical essay’ dealing with the infamous headbutt. It’s hard to imagine another player inspiring such a poetic response with a rash, explosive act of retaliatory violence.

Another reason I find Zidane so fascinating is the extent to which he was a hero to the poor, disenfranchised immigrant communities in France – and particularly in his hometown of Marseilles. Born to Algerian Muslims in 1972, his great success as a footballer made him a beacon for those many thousands of immigrants trapped in the social squalor of many French cities’ banlieues areas. I wish I could remember where I read this, but there was one intriguing theory about Zidane’s headbutt – his final act as a professional footballer – arguing that he felt he needed to do it to show his millions of adoring fans that he was fallible, still human and still prone to anger and stupidity. This is, I admit, a slightly romantic way to view a violent reaction to an insult about someone’s sister, but, hey – when it comes to football I’m nothing if not romantic.

I can’t finish talking about Zidane without mentioning the film Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait. If you haven’t seen it and even if you have no interest in football – watch it. It’s barely about football anyway. For one league match at Real Madrid in 2005, 17 synchronised hi-definition cameras were trained on Zidane and their operators instructed to show only Zidane himself – and as little as possible of the game. What results is quite literally what the title says: a portrait. A beautiful, poetic and downright mesmerising portrait. For the full 90 minutes of the game we are able to study his every mannerism, his focus on the game, his rapport with his team mates – and his explosive temper. Football fans will appreciate the insight into how the quintessential ‘midfield general’ operated. Non-football fans will appreciate the chance to see a person fully immersed in that which they were made to do; including their skills, their triumphs and their character flaws.

I see this opportunity all through football – and I certainly saw it in Zidane.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Qualified Hysteria

It seems like a very long time since I’ve been excited about June in October – although it’s probably almost exactly four years. The qualifiers for World Cup 2010 are over, and while it’s sad that more of the home nations haven’t made it through, at least England will, this time, have a chance to enter its usual bonkers World Cup Fever mode.

England does seem to do World Cup Fever differently to most nations, however. Apart from perhaps the South Americans, there probably isn’t a national team, nation of fans or national media that manage to combine such outrageous, almost offensive optimism in terms of their team’s chances – i.e. ‘we have a golden generation of players, the best league, the best historical pedigree, who else could possibly win’ and so on – with such nail-biting, excruciating hopelessness and doom-laden prophecies of bad omens, injuries that haven’t happened yet and impassioned arguments for ‘all the teams that are clearly better than ours – Spain want it more, the climate will suit Germany’ et cetera.

Like a lot of what interests me the most about football, the real indicators of this strange, schizophrenic behaviour go on outside the game itself – and this is not purely about the press, though they undoubtedly play a huge part in it. The whims of the press (tabloid primarily, but not exclusively) have an enormous impact on the team’s fortunes; teams have been picked, players dropped and most disgracefully, in the case of the late Sir Bobby Robson, managers have been cruelly vilified and hounded out of their jobs – even out of the country in his case.

More recently, the posing, preening and general twattishness of the infamous WAG culture surrounding the 2006 England team in Baden Baden was a far bigger story for the newspapers than the (admittedly rather dour) displays on the pitch – which can’t have failed to have an effect on the player’s moods or their ability to concentrate on the job at hand throughout the tournament.

Outside of the fantasy world constructed by newspapers and TV pundits, however, even now the signs of a country starting to get twitchy for a major competition are in evidence. It’s tricky to walk into a pub without overhearing (or becoming involved in) the usual amusing post-qualification conversations: they usually begin with someone saying something along the lines of “We can’t get too excited” or “I hope this time there’s less hype and we just let the players get on with it” and then ends with one or two overexcited Englishmen trying to name the squad on not-quite-22 fingers and imagining fantasy World Cup Final scorelines.

I have one friend who, before the 2006 finals, liked to paint a (delightfully unlikely) picture of Gary Neville rocketing home a late winner against Germany (naturally), causing an ecstatic Sven to tear open his shirt, screaming with the sheer Anglo-Swedish passion of it all. This image was conjured again and again, usually ending with everyone attendant adding their own ideas before eventually calming down and, well, looking a bit sad. It seemed so ridiculous – as if we’d been discussing the plot of a fanciful science fiction movie. But still… it could have happened.

And it could happen this time. But it won’t. But it might do.

It’s too easy to get involved in it all – and it’ll be too heartbreaking when it all goes tits up again – but it will make the next eight months fly by, I’m sure of that. One thing is for sure, though, and that’s that the country will be mostly a fun place to be from June 11th onwards. Sure there’ll be the cringe-inducing St. George bunting all over the place, those stupid flags will stick out of people’s car windows and poor old women working in supermarkets will be forced to wear plastic hats and red-and-white tabards.

Sure, The Sun will have COME ON BOYS and ENGLAND EXPECTS (ugh) as front-page headlines at least five times and Gary Lineker will jinx the whole thing by saying, “so are England the team to beat in this group, Lawro?” and there’ll be a live feed from a pub in Aberdeen full of Scottish blokes wearing Argentina shirts and, Christ alive, Des Lynam might even read another Kipling poem out on some doomed digital channel somewhere – but still. England might win the World Cup – and that’s why we do all this, isn’t it?

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

CSKA Sofia vs OFC Sliven 2000

The Bulgarian capital, Sofia, is a confused, often contradictory mish-mash of a city – a wonky collaboration of different structures and layouts with a landscape suggesting both its chequered history and, seemingly, rather fragile self-image.

One of the oldest cities on the European continent, having existed for around 7000 years, and yet one of the youngest capital cities, Sofia’s striking Soviet neo-classical buildings sit alongside and engulf ruins from its Ottoman past and odd, Eastern-influenced religious follies that look an awful lot older than they really are.

Apparently harmless stray dogs roam the parks and streets, sleeping in the shade of trees and cars and going largely unnoticed by the locals (though we did manage to somehow pick one up around the Soviet Army Monument who followed us for a good twenty minutes across the park until we were forced to dive into a smoky café to lose him).

The roads are broken and slippery – trams and trolley-busses rumble along them as they have for decades with everything including them looking long in need of repair, except, of course, the post-Soviet, Westernised shopping malls and trendy bars.

Sofia this weekend was everything I expected it to be – slightly sad, slightly broken, rather beautiful, fascinating, alien and bursting with historical and cultural intrigue. The former Communist party headquarters, emblazoned with the exotic-looking Cyrillic script, brought back every photo I’d pored over as a teenager when teachers started to tell me about this exciting thing that had recently finished called the ‘Cold War’. I was only disappointed to find out that the huge red star that had once been on the building’s roof had been removed in the early nineties when people kept trying to set it on fire.

There was another reason I was here, however – the football. Soviet (and in particular post-Soviet) football, to me, seems to represent everything that fascinates me about the former Eastern Bloc countries.

During the Cold War, most Soviet countries’ main football teams were, like most other things, state controlled. This was reflected in their names, many of which – in cities like Moscow, Kiev, Prague and Sofia – retain them. The teams controlled by the secret police (first the notorious Cheka, then the KGB) were styled Dynamo, those representing the railway workers became Lokomotiv, the car industry teams were named Torpedo, while the army teams were named CSKA. Naturally, there was much more going on between the various clubs than just football – the clubs were as much organs of the state as anything else, while the consensus between football historians seems to be that football games were always seen as a place where the common man could turn up and speak as freely as was possible.

Rivalries between the heads of the various Soviet agencies were played out on the football pitch, while much of Russia’s satellite states’ populations saw their teams as their nation’s representatives in the USSR – naturally the Moscow-based clubs dominated the Soviet ‘Top League’, so when, for example, Dynamo Kiev won the championship in 1961 or, even more shockingly, little Dinamo Tbilisi of Georgia in 1964 and 1978, it was a matter of national importance – and a rare moment for the fans to feel truly separate from Russia.

After the fall of the USSR, however, things changed enormously for former-Soviet football – as it did for everything else in the Eastern Bloc counties. No longer state-controlled or funded, the past 20 years in almost every fledgling, individual league has seen teams struggle for funding, lose promising players to the big leagues of England, Italy and Spain, and, crucially, become rife with corruption while its infrastructure crumbled. Much like the nations themselves.

The two main teams in Sofia, and indeed in Bulgarian football, are Levski – named after Vasil Levski, the revolutionary who fought to free Bulgaria from Ottoman rule in the mid-nineteenth century – and CSKA, the former Soviet Army team. Both teams’ grounds are based in the huge, overgrown city park once known as Freedom Park (now Borisova Gardens), a sprawling collection of long-drained ponds, dangerous looking playgrounds and weathered busts of Bulgarian and Communist heroes.

Levski Sofia’s Vasil Levski Stadium, also the national stadium, is a relatively well-maintained 43,000-seat arena whose impressive façade faces the Soviet Army Monument and also hosts the city’s basketball club. Hidden behind it however, no more than 100 yards deeper into the park, is the Bulgarian Army Stadium (formerly the People’s Army Stadium), home of CSKA Sofia – the most successful of Bulgaria’s clubs and, as the club’s online literature would have it, historically the best-supported. You wouldn’t think it to look at the ground.

A crumbling concrete monstrosity, the Bulgarian Army Stadium holds 22,000 and can be accessed from four ancient, rusted turnstiles around each side. There is a modern entrance and an ‘official club store’ (little more than a park-keeper’s cabin), but other than that the stadium, from most angles, looks all but abandoned. Covered in the graffiti of CSKA’s many firms of hooligan ‘Ultras’, tickets cost between 2 and 8 lev – or £1 and £4. Two lev will get you access to the intimidating-sounding (not to mention characteristically Soviet) ‘Sektor G’ – the home stand of the hardcore supporters.

We were a little apprehensive, understandably, and bought the 5 lev (£2.50) medium-priced tickets – which sent us to Sektor B (pronounced ‘v’). Sektor B turned out to be 30 or so rows of bird shit and sunflower seed-covered seats (hence at the top of each stand old folks sell pieces of newspaper to sit on for a couple of stotinka each), but we were right at the edge of the pitch, and able to sit where we liked. The stand was sparsely populated, as indeed was the whole stadium for this Sunday evening Bulgarian Premier League game: while the Bulgarian Army Stadium comfortably holds 22,000 people, the average attendance for a league game is around 5,000. Sunday’s attendance, in fact, seemed like far less than this.

That’s not to say there was no atmosphere – far from it. The CSKA Ultras were out in force, filling one section of Sektor G and jumping up and down continuously, singing their hearts out and even lighting flares in the second half:

It’s hard not to compare the experience of seeing CSKA with going to a top-flight match in the UK – indeed it’s in many ways very funny to do so. I have a feeling that the fans sat around us on Sunday, smoking and constantly chewing on sunflower seeds, would express jealousy that in our league we get to watch some of the best footballers in the world, in some of the biggest and most luxurious stadia. I, on the other hand, might express my own jealousy that they get to wander into their local park and watch top-flight football for less than the price of the hot dogs they were selling outside.

The quality of the football was also, to my surprise, not as low as I had expected. Fitness levels were high and while some players looked tired – CSKA had been in Rome only three nights before for a Europa League match – it certainly was no worse than Championship football. The quality of the refereeing, on the other hand, was a little more suspect – many of the crunching tackles would certainly have warranted yellow or even red cards in the Premiership, while here there was only one card shown all game. There was also the fact that the referee blew the whistle for half time when a corner was due to be taken – to much jeering and bemused laughter from the generally jovial crowd (the biggest laugh coming when a ball floated into the ‘Sektor b’ stand, smashing one of the old plastic seats to bits).

CSKA won 1-0, and after a pleasant stroll back through the park, we were back in town in time for dinner and a couple of cheap local beers. The atmosphere at the match had been friendly, funny, exciting and entirely alien from any experience of the game I had had before. Suffice to say, I found what I was looking for in Bulgaria.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

An Important Game

I regularly find myself arguing one particular point with my non-football friends. I like to think I keep fairly intelligent company – and this often includes those who feel that football is a frivolous, pointless activity.

It’s not so much that they feel that they’re above it in a high art/low art sense, but more that they feel that to be interested in it is to be wasting one’s time – that watching it or reading about it or listening to radio programmes and podcasts about it is as time wasting a distraction from real life as any other form of mere entertainment.

I tell some of my more intellectual friends that parts of my weekend will involve watching Football Focus, listening to Fighting Talk and the (wonderful) Football Ramble podcast, reading Four Four Two magazine, being sure to get home from the pub in time for Match of the Day and then, during the week, filling any spare moments checking out the BBC’s excellent football blogs and – my favourite lunchtime tradition – the tabloid nonsense digest that is their Gossip Column transfer news roundup, and they might well scoff. They might roll their eyes, or profess a complete lack of sympathy. Others have their own nerdy passions that they see more in than others do. Their argument, however, generally comes down to the same standpoint: It’s just a game. I’ve touched on this before, but I know that this isn’t true. Football is important.

Now I’m not quite the football geek the last sentence might suggest – I’m not the grown man with the replica shirt, duvet cover and collection of programmes, and, as I’ve mentioned in past posts, I certainly don’t go to very many actual football games – but I’m genuinely fascinated by the cultural and political power, significance and sheer scale of football. By its science, its language and its grammar. By the controversy, its sickening corruptions, its compelling and unifying tragedies – and the staggering amount of blood that’s been spilled it its name.

The clichés are already in place – it’s the Beautiful Game, it’s the People’s Game, it’s the Global Game – but I think it’s actually at its most potent and interesting when you shed the ‘game’ part. Football is significant not because of the 22 men competing on any one field, but rather because of the thousands watching them live, the small groups of millions watching them remotely – and often in bafflingly remote locations – and for the many more millions discussing the game and its finer points in the days, weeks, months and years surrounding each match. It’s significant because with this many people involved in so many countries so much of the time, all talking about and participating in versions of the same thing, well, it’d struggle not to be.

A couple of examples spring to mind. Most recently, and on a touchingly domestic, near-grassroots level, Paul Fletcher’s BBC blog last week brought to my attention the plight of Accrington Stanley – the League Two side made famous in an ancient milk advert and re-established in the public consciousness when they scrambled back into league football in 2006.

Stanley are currently facing a £300,000+ tax bill and a serious fight to survive. Recent years have seen a few clubs in England and Scotland go into administration, suffer cruel FA points deductions and, in the memorable case of Gretna, disappear into oblivion. There is, of course, an argument to suggest that there is little to mourn about an unsuccessful lower league team vanishing from the football map – they are, after all, a failing business with too few committed fans to keep their match day takings respectable – and yet there are enough people in this country who see the demise of such a vital part of a community as the local football team as a genuinely sad loss.

To this end, the club’s chief executive, Rob Heys, arranged a friendly against high-flying nearby club Burnley – where 5,000 people paid £10 a head to attend, and at the following fixture against Darlington, an unusually high turnout adorned the stands with replica shirts from teams all over the country. Football matters at this level – and completely outwith the intricacies of the game itself.

This example of the ‘importance’ of football is possibly a little sweet and nostalgic – not to mention domestic – but there are myriad examples of football having made a genuine, frightening political impact on whole nations and whole populations, to the extent that I find it very difficult to pick a perfectly pertinent one (the best thing to do is try and convince them to read Simon Kuper’s seminal Football Against the Enemy).

There’s the story of the Hungarian revolution in 1956 – when public dismay at the Communist regime’s treatment of the once-glorious national team helped to foment unrest and drive students and workers to protest in the streets to revolt against the Stalinist leadership. There’s the infamous ‘Football War’ between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969 – when rioting between fans of the two nations during a 1970 World Cup Qualifier escalated into a full-blown military incident, which, while it only lasted 100 hours, proved that if anything was going to unite the people of one nation against the other, putting aside any differences between themselves, it was the abstract nature of football rivalry. There’s also Argentina’s hosting of the World Cup in 1978 – when the military regime found itself in the global spotlight and erected giant barriers along the roadside to block the tourists’ and foreign journalists’ view of the horrendous slum conditions faced by millions of inhabitants of its cities.

Football is absolutely important – and absolutely a game. But I think what amazes me most is that it represents probably my best chance of communicating with any person from any other nation – even if it’s just listing our nations’ great players, or kicking a ball around. I’m off to Bulgaria this weekend, my first visit to a former-Soviet nation, and I’m naturally very excited. I’m having problems learning the Cyrillic alphabet and I’m terrified that I won’t be able to understand any signs or menus, but I know that when I’m in the football stadium I’ll understand exactly what’s going on – and share something genuine with every other person there.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

The Champions League

The Champions League is, I think, my favourite football competition. There’s something distinctly nocturnal about it – and not just because it’s played in the evening. Forgive the A Level poetry, but for me it has all the buzz and unknowable tension of a night out in a strange city. It’s dark, your face reflecting the glow of hazy neon lights, and you’re not sure what to make of those around you; they maybe talk or act or move differently than you’re used to, but you know they’re all there for the same reason as you are – and they’re all excited.

No other competition comes close for the sheer thrill of Champions League football. There’s the ridiculously overblown but nonetheless iconic theme music – a bastardisation of Zadok the Priest with overtones of some imagined European community spirit, sung along to in pubs and bars across the continent at the beginning of every game and, eventually I’m sure, by the players themselves in lieu of a cohesive national anthem – and the image of the football covered in UEFA’s glamorous stars unfurled across the centre circles of fascinating stadia in exotic cities you’ve barely heard of.

Then there’s the football, of course. The inimitable spectacle of two-legged contests against foreign or domestic opposition with the horror or glory of away goals or penalties potentially deciding matters is a uniquely CL experience. Anyone who watched the second leg of Liverpool v Chelsea in last season’s quarter finals will be lucky to see a more exciting, closely fought or genuinely action-packed game of football ever again. A 4-4 game is one thing – a 4-4 result at the highest level when it matters so much is truly breathtaking.

The atmosphere in any pub, but particularly a partisan-yet-jovial one, is nothing like it is for a league game or an FA Cup tie – the nail-biting tension and (occasional) subsequent party atmosphere is heightened by the evening setting and the presence of random evening revellers. The banter is more lucid, more paranoid – and more wide-ranging. European club history is truly fascinating; and in every boozer there’s a fan of every club. Everyone’s seen at least one inexplicable Anderlecht fan sat biting his nails in the corner of a beer-sodden chain pub at 9.45 on a Tuesday night or a horde of drunken Fenerbahce fans staggering towards an unsuspecting suburban curry house.

Then there’s the free geography lesson: I suspect that some of the most geographically knowledgeable people you know are football fans. Were I not an avid student of recent Champions League and UEFA Cup campaigns, I couldn’t possibly tell you the name of three towns in Ukraine, or the biggest cities by population in Serbia. I love the amazingly exotic and obscure names and unfeasibly tiny clubs the European competitions throw up – every time a team like FK Ventspils, Unirea Urziceni, Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk or Rubin Kazan appears on a fixture list for an English club there is a definite buzz, at least for me.

As a result, in three weeks time I’ll be in at the Bulgarian Army Stadium in Sofia watching CSKA Sofia take on OFC Sliven 2000 in the Bulgarian A Professional Football Group league. How could that not be exciting?! Were I not a football fan and, crucially, a bit of a nerd for former-Soviet football, I would probably not have suggested the trip to what I’m sure will be a beautiful and historic city (but don’t tell the girlfriend, eh?).

However, as much as I love the Champions League, I can’t help but feel that this season’s competition is going to take a little while to get going.

The action kicked off last night, as I watched Chelsea labour to a soggy and scrappy win over Porto, and as I type Liverpool are taking on Hungary’s Debreceni as part of a frankly underwhelming first round of games (at the moment I feel fairly happy to be avoiding Standard Liege v Arsenal – it’ll probably turn out to be a classic now) – at least for the English sides. The Premier League’s recent domination of the competition (and resulting high UEFA ranking) seems to have inadvertently thrown up some rather dull group stage opponents, and one would imagine that none of the big four, nor Rangers, should have much trouble getting to the last 16 stage.

Sure, Manchester United have a gruelling away trip to Moscow and Chelsea may find Atletico Madrid something of a stumbling block – and one should never discount Arsenal losing their bottle in Europe – but the really exciting groups are those with no UK interest.

Tonight Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan take on Barcelona in a game which is sadly hidden behind the red button on Sky Sports, hence limiting its UK audience dramatically – especially disappointing when it’s a great chance for pub football pundits to actually see the non-Premier League-based players they spend so much time pontificating upon. And last night’s 5-2 away win for Real Madrid over FC Zurich or Wolfsburg’s flying start against CSKA Moscow were almost certainly more of an interesting contest than the two 1-0 wins by English sides who barely got out of first gear.

It’d be nice to see more of the big European sides on television this year. As much as it’s been enjoyable to see English sides doing so well in the Champions League over the last few seasons, I’m getting a bit tired watching teams like Chelsea battling to reach a potential final against Man Utd by beating Arsenal and Liverpool, or whatever. Hopefully they’ll all be there in the last eight again – but not all in the last four, please.

I’m going to end this post by pasting in the trilingual lyrics to the Champions League anthem that I can hear from the TV in my living room, because I’ve only just read them properly (thanks, Wikipedia). They really are mind-boggling. Next time, you can sing along with me (and, presumably, Michel Platini).

Ce sont les meilleures equipes (Those are the best teams)
Sie sind die allerbesten Mannschaften (Those are the best teams)
The main event!


Die Meister (The champions)
Die Besten (The best)
Les Grandes Équipes (The biggest teams)
The Champions!!!!

Monday, 7 September 2009

A Week of Punishment

It’s been, to say the least, a big week for punishments being handed out by the football authorities. It’s very tempting to take up a contrary position to executive decisions and rant about how the faceless and seemingly disconnected powers-that-be hand down apparently arbitrary penalties based on whatever disciplinary issue happens to be in focus at the time, but surely the people running the game have some idea what they’re doing, don’t they?

I suppose what I mean by ‘in focus’ is whatever issue happens to be in the headlines – FIFA, UEFA, the FA et al are not, clearly, immune to the ideological whims of the football press and seem often to act only when an incident hits the back pages and is scrutinised by the television networks. The more of a fuss made by pundits, managers, referees and, to a much smaller degree, the fans, on an issue, the more swiftly (and harshly) the authorities seem to act.

The first of this past week’s big disciplinary stories is a prime example of this, I think. It’s clear to most who saw the incident in the Arsenal v Celtic Champions League qualifier two weeks ago that Arsenal forward Eduardo dived to win a penalty as keeper Artur Boruc came to collect the ball at his feet – what is unclear is the thought process, and indeed the political process, that went on at UEFA surrounding their response. The overwhelming reaction was one of knee-jerk example-making and chaos.

Referee Mejuto Gonzalez gave the penalty, which was the wrong call – but his reading of the game nonetheless – when the dive, had he or any of his assistants spotted it, would have warranted a yellow card for simulation. Eduardo’s punishment, handed out extraordinarily quickly, it seems, was to be a two-game ban – essentially that for a straight red-card offence. UEFA have, then, opened a few predictable cans of worms.

The first is the issue of consistency. Are they now going to hand out retrospective two-match bans for every issue of diving they come across? Is simulation now a straight red if the referee sees it? Does this apply to feigning injury or just diving? Will it still be applied if it happens outside the penalty area? This is chaos – rewriting the rules in one swift, ill-defined move as a result of a bit of hysterical press hoo-ha. More troubling is the fact that they seem to be taking power out of the referee’s hands – if UEFA (and presumably FIFA, on the international stage) is to retrospectively analyse every match for disciplinary infringements, why have a referee at all?

Which brings me to the second can of worms – which, admittedly, has already been open and squiggling for quite some time: video technology. Laughably, it seems that UEFA in particular are doing anything they can to avoid introducing technology in the Champions League, while it remains a bit of a no-brainer to fans, managers and players alike – hence the introduction of a “fifth official” for Europa League matches whose job it is to watch the penalty area. Why, then, if we are to strip the referee of his executive decision-making ability, have another fallible human watching when there are already several cameras covering every inch of the pitch? Is it really just money? I know plenty of people who’d have more time for watching live football if they knew they were going to get a fair outcome – and probably wouldn’t mind waiting the two or three seconds it would take a video referee to make judgements in contentious situations.

I’m in no way saying that making moves to stamp out diving is a bad thing. It was disappointing to see Eduardo go down like that, mostly because he’s always seemed to be an honest player – but this only emphasises that the problem is genuinely part of the game nowadays, and unless proper, sensible rules can be put in place from the top of the game to the bottom (which I’m not sure it can), it should be accepted that it’s always going to be around.

See how easy it is to rant?

This one might be harder to avoid. After the Eduardo noise had just started to die down came FIFA’s announcement that Chelsea were to be banned from signing new players for two transfer windows – meaning no new faces at Stamford Bridge until January 2011. Even as I read this back now it seems unbelievable, and it feels more and more likely that the Court of Arbitration for Sport appeal will see it reduced to just the one window, but still – where do FIFA get these punishments from?

The first thought I had was, for various reasons, the effect this would have on Chelsea. Enforcing a serious setback on a club’s development for almost two seasons felt similar to Juventus’ punishment for match-fixing in 2006, when they were relegated to Serie B for a season (OK, so I was possibly overreacting) but it still confuses me as to the scale on which certain crimes fall for the governing bodies of football.

It was a Chelsea statement that described the two-window ban as “arbitrary”, and it’s hard to see it as anything else. Diving = a yellow card or a two-match ban if the referee doesn’t see it. Systemic corruption, referee-bribing, match-fixing = relegation and points deducted. “Inducing” a teenager to break his contract – a two-window transfer ban. Is this really written down anywhere? And if so, why are we looking at isolated incidents, plucked out almost at random? As BBC blogger Phil McNulty put it, if FIFA think this only happens at Chelsea then they are naïve in the extreme.

Again, I’m not suggesting that the practice of stealing youth players from small and vulnerable clubs should be allowed (I would probably support a ban on the transfer of players under 18, in fact), but that only consistency will make any sense of this particular cruel punishment in the long run – it would be nice to be able to imagine the authorities in charge of one of the biggest global industries not looking like a bunch of reactionary headless chickens.

The final disciplinary issue that’s got me going, that’s only just come to light tonight, involves the domestic game, and the 9-month ban handed to Sheffield United goalkeeper Paddy Kenny for failing a drugs test. For once, this at first seemed fair. Kenny did test positive and performance-enhancing drugs should be dealt with harshly, of course – but in this case it seems that Kenny took the banned substance, ephedrine, accidentally, in an over-the-counter cough remedy. What seems crazy to me is that the FA disciplinary committee have accepted that it was an accident, but handed the player the nine-month ban anyway. This will, it seems, “send out a message” to footballers to watch what they’re taking. No leniency shown, no first warning. Just a whole season on the sidelines for a simple mistake.

Hopefully great performances from England and Scotland on Wednesday night can lift the mood, for me at least. At the moment there’s a bit of a rough taste in my mouth.