Friday, 24 July 2009

Modern Football is Brilliant

The problem with starting a football blog in the middle of summer, of course, is that there’s precious little actual football to write about. Not that there need to be matches being played for football to be happening. Comedian David Mitchell wrote a brilliant Observer column last year expressing his frustration at the average football fan’s fascination with the transfer market – or “human resources” – and that it serves to emphasise how dull a game football is. I disagree. I think any period when the transfer window is open is when, for better or worse, football as it really is in the 21st century is on show. It’s a time of genuine insight into how it all works.

The obscene amounts of money are usually the focus of the press, understandably, but with the tedious side effect of drawing every old school football man out of the woodwork to decry today’s game as having lost it’s way (whatever it’s “way” was – was the game really better in the 70s and 80s? Underpaid undervalued and poorly trained indentured servants playing in front of crowds of thugs on crumbling terraces? I’m not sure its so black and white).

The money is what makes the game what it is now, but that’s certainly not to say it has an entirely negative effect. (I’m going to play devil’s advocate a little here.)

The money started flooding in, in England, certainly, with the television deals that kick-started the Premier League. This in turn has meant that rights to show the English league have been sold all over the world – the fact that the densely populated nations of Asia are the biggest markets for replica Manchester United shirts tells us everything we need to know about why oil-rich Middle East consortiums are buying into, most recently, clubs like Manchester City and now Portsmouth. (The other model for super rich footballing power, of course, is that of Real Madrid, which is run more like a nation than a mere football club, or even a multi-national corporation.)

My argument, however, is that the increased revenue and ambitious foreign owners can only improve the game as a spectacle, and make it more exciting as a contest. Most would retaliate to this statement by arguing that this might well be true for the “big four” and their ilk – pointing to the gulf in finances as the reason why it’s the same four teams in the top four every year and only a handful of teams have a realistic chance of winning the Champions League.

But one only needs to look at Man United’s (and, to a lesser extent, Arsenal’s), stranglehold on the Premier League in the late 90s and early 2000s to realise, surely, that when Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea it made the league infinitely more interesting to watch – even before the mighty press-baiting presence of Mourinho. Sure there was initially an enormous gulf in financial clout between Chelsea and the next most able contenders, but this must be better for the game than a tedious duopoly continuing unbroken. Better a three-horse race than a two-horse race.

Suddenly players were moving to a club with ambition for the future, rather than to clubs who believed their rich heritage entitled them to continue winning forever. A takeover for Liverpool followed and, while not on the same scale, the new money has thrust the club (admittedly in no small part thanks to the American owners sticking with Benitez) far closer to challenging for a first Premiership title than they ever could have imagined before the foreign owners came in. Better a four-horse race than a three-horse race!

Look across the top half of the Premier League now and there are plenty of clubs who can seriously push the big boys – if not for the title itself then for vital, historic European places and not-to-be-dismissed domestic cups. While it may very well be that the top four remains unchanged this season (I for one actually think this might just be the year when Arsenal get pushed out), no one can with any real confidence pick the order of the teams that will finish from 1st to 7th. This was certainly not the case before foreign owners came in and “ruined” the English game.

On the same subject, a story that I’ve found heartening this week is that of Sven Goran Eriksson’s appointment as Director of Football at League Two side Notts County. This, it appears, is a true statement of ambition, both for Eriksson (who could just as easily have been sat in the manager’s chair at Fratton Park) and for the team’s mysterious new owners. And even if it is with a significant financial advantage, should the Magpies actually manage to make it to the Premier League in 5 years or so, what a story it would be! Imagine how those fans and players will feel! Eriksson and his sidekick Tord Grip will deserve the praise they hopefully get for going out of their way to try and make something truly extraordinary happen.

I think what I’m trying to say here is that while modern football has plenty wrong with it (Sepp Blatter has mostly seen to that), it’s wrong to dismiss it as having been “killed” by the enormous amounts of money flowing through it. And the summer transfer merry-go-round is more than enough amusing distraction while the players sit on the beach (or are up in court).

Owen to Man United? John Terry to Man City? (never going to happen by the way.) Real Madrid smashing the world transfer record twice in a week? Sven in League Two? Modern football is brilliant.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Hi, I'm Mat, and this is a new blog about football. Hopefully it'll be interesting, enjoyable and maybe even funny, sometimes. There are a number of reasons I'm starting this blog today:

1. I miss football.

It's the middle of July and football just seems so distant. Not counting the miserably unsatisfying Confederations Cup (there's something that's just not right about matches showing at 7pm on BBC Three, where the USA are winning and the South Africans are blowing those obnoxious horns all the way through the match), football finished with England's demolition of Andorra on the 10th of June.

It's still a month until the Premier League kicks off and I'm literally itching for some real sport. I long for the hilarious new away kits, Garth Crooks arguing every point to the death even when he's wrong, Benitez's paranoid serial killer notebooks and Manchester City trying to squeeze Robinho, Tevez, Santa Cruz and Adebayor into a strike force that somehow works.

Sure, Wimbledon was distracting, Formula 1 is an amusing political car crash and the Ashes does fit perfectly into the gap before the season kicks off but when I flick around on the TV on Saturdays and I actually don't know what to watch (in the absence of the time-honoured Football Focus - Soccer Saturday - Final Score - pub - Match of the Day sequence), I just feel, you know, really really sad.

2. It's a project.

For a few months now I've been rolling around in my head an idea for a project, originally a book (to be called Who Are Ya!?, hence the blog-o-name), that would feature a collection of weird and wonderful football clubs from around the world - looking at their histories, fans and quirky traditions.

In my head it fits into the much-maligned 'gift book' category, and is largely inspired by reading two great books on the world game: Football Against the Enemy by Simon Kuper and Behind the Curtain by Jonathan Wilson. I can highly recommend both of them to any football fan - and anyone who needs ammunition when arguing that yes, football is important. Essentially, thanks to Kuper and Wilson, I now like to think I can scoff confidently, and rightly, when someone assures me that it's "just a game".

These two books have astounding, jaw-dropping stories on almost every page, and a way of distilling these into a more accessible format really appealed to me - and the assorted football fans I described it to. As such this blog is going to act as a form of research and a test run for the project, I think. I'm going to try to update the blog at least once a week, each time with another fascinating, mysterious football team from, like, around the world.

3. Football is a diary

I've started little emo-ish blogs before as attempts at keeping a diary. I do and see a lot of stuff that I want to record but it either doesn't stick or I just can't be bothered writing about it. Football, I've realised, is the perfect thing to anchor my memories to - mainly because they just seem to do that anyway, but also because it operates on it's own handy cyclical calendar, and is fastidiously recorded by statisticians and far more obsessed individuals than I.

For example, my girlfriend and I take our anniversary from our first proper date. She doesn't remember exactly when this is, but I do: Sunday June 29th 2008. How do I know? Because it was the Euro 2008 final, and i totally wasn't watching Spain beat Germany over her shoulder in the pub we met in. This might seem sad to some people, but, hey, it works for me. As Harry Hill says, you've got to have a system, haven't you?

So that's the blog idea, basically. I hope people want to read it, but don't really mind if they don't. I don't have a lot of close friends that are big football fans (most of them downright loathe it) so it's nice to have somewhere to vent my ideas and observations on the ridiculous, absurd, beautiful, heartbreaking, stressful and, above all, important "game" that lots of us quite like. I'm not going to say who I support yet because if you're reading this a) you might well know and b) you might not like me any more.