Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Arkan

This morning I woke up to the mutterings of sad disapproval on Radio 5 Live from commentators in and around the world of football in the face of the “disgrace to football” that took place around the West Ham v Millwall match at Upton Park last night. I’ll admit my first thought was that they meant the quality of the football on show, but the focus was apparently on the decisions made by the usual pissed up idiots taking it upon themselves to thrust hooliganism back onto the front pages and into the minds of the English moral majority – after a good couple of years of only really existing in variously great (The Football Factory) and rubbish (Green Street) films.

Of course, most football fans know that violence in some form or another happens at (or, more often, outside) matches every weekend. There are still strong firms turning out for the likes of West Ham, Millwall, Cardiff, Leeds, Pompey and the rest – but the feeling, it seems to me, is that it’s not generally reported because it’s no more of a problem than the regular Friday night town centre skirmishes that most of the country endures. Just idiots being idiots as usual, surely?

There was a strange kind of nostalgia about the coverage today, however – the shots of unruly pitch invasions, running battles in East London streets, missiles flying at mounted police officers – that suggested that football in England, despite the (extremely welcome) re-branding and sanitisation process of the last 20 years, is still, when it wants to be, as ugly and scary as it ever was.

Hooliganism, after all, is still English football’s most successful export to the rest of Europe. It is the one area in which the English game is, even now, considered genuinely world class by the rest of the continent. Fans of teams all over Europe (and beyond) give their ‘Ultra’ firms English names, copy slogans and tactics they’ve seen from travelling English teams and hang English-language banners all around their stadia.

For me though, English hooliganism, however influential and bitterly entrenched in history it is, always looks like a bit of a petty schoolyard scuffle compared to some of those whom it’s inspired. A good example, raised in Jonathan Wilson’s excellent book Behind the Curtain, is in Serbia and Croatia around the time of the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s – where rival gangs of football fans fighting was, for want of a better word, pretty bloody important.

The first battle of the war between Serbia and Croatia was, by all accounts, fought during a league game between Serbia’s Red Star Belgrade and Croatia’s Dinamo Zagreb; the fighting itself taking place between Red Star’s Ultras (now known as the Delije, or “heroes”) and Dinamo’s Bad Blue Boys (BBB). The Delije’s leader was a man of almost mythical proportions in Serbia (about whom there are so many amazing and improbable stories – if you’ve met me in a pub since I read Behind the Curtain I’ve probably tried to tell you all about them): Arkan.

Arkan, real name Zeljko Raznatovic, was the son of a colonel in Tito’s air force who rebelled from a life of military discipline, going on to lead the Delije before the war and during it recruited from their ranks to form his paramilitary Tigers crew. He was fiercely right wing and became a natural focus for burgeoning nationalism in Serbia, as well as a hero to Red Star’s hooligan element for organising their battles with rival Ultras and groups of Croatian paramilitaries.

These were serious battles, too – The Tigers used acid to burn through security fences, stockpiled rocks and fixed Belgrade number plates onto Croat cars so that the Bad Blue Boys would firebomb their own vehicles. During the ‘first battle’, in 1990, 79 police officers and 59 fans were injured – and hundreds were arrested.

Arkan became more and more popular, unofficially allying himself with Slobodan Milosevic and undoubtedly creating the perfect conditions for Milosevic to become first leader of the Serbian Communist Party and later the tyrannical President of Serbia.

Hooliganism here was a truly political act, it seems. You could argue that it is the same in England – an act of desperate, disenfranchised and just plain bored men raging against each other and the authorities for lack of anything better to do, maybe. Maybe they’re just dicks.

I just want to quote one fantastic Arkan story from Behind the Curtain, however:

“[Arkan’s wedding] was an orgy of kitsch on the theme of the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, Arkan dressing as a warrior and Ceca [his pop star bride] as one of the women who had tended the injured. He rode up to her parents’ house on a white charger and, as was customary in the fourteenth century, was asked by her father to prove his worthiness by shooting an apple off the top of the door with a crossbow. His first effort missed, as did his second, and his third, so, before it got too embarrassing, he nodded to his henchmen, who blew it to pulp with Kalashnikovs.”

I just can’t imagine any English hooligan leader having this sense of historical romance or an amazingly inflated sense of military importance when throwing beer bottles and bits of kebab at the police outside Upton Park. The originals they may be, but I wish they’d just shut up and let us watch the football.

(Arkan, with a Tiger and some 'Tigers').

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Happy New Year

At last, after a seemingly years-long summer of tedious not-quite-sports cluttering up the airwaves and the playing fields, the glittering, reassuringly expensive and expertly brand-managed spectacle of the Premier League has returned to make weekends worthwhile again.

OK, so the wait hasn’t been that bad – it’s not like we haven’t been entertained simply by the sheer hope and expectation of the forthcoming season since the last pieces of red and white confetti hit the pitch at Old Trafford back in May. This is, to espouse and pay homage to thousands of years of punditry clich├ęs, the moment when literally any team can technically win it – and every team believes that they’ll get something from the season.

Predictions are rife – it’s either this team’s year for the title, that team’s year for a nice little cup run or, for the other team, a chance to announce themselves on the European stage. Plus, it’s a World Cup season – so every player will have one eye on South Africa (and, presumably, one ear out for the dreaded horns – trust me, next summer people will understand why I’m so obsessed with this potentially tournament-ruining nuisance) and therefore playing their hearts out to be noticed by their national coaches.

As a matter of fact, as evidenced by at least one article I’ve read this week, the loyalty issue over club versus country for players seems to be a greater issue than ever. The argument seems to be that as the common fan loses touch with their club and the millionaires who play for them, and as the bigger clubs hold the monopoly on the great players, the international stage seems to be the more exciting prospect – the teams and the winners of the big prizes more of an unknown quantity. And, for players, while money is surely a huge driving factor at club level, only real passion and pride can drive you when wearing the colours of your nation.

While interesting, I’m not entirely convinced by the argument. It’s no coincidence that the nations with the strongest leagues (Spain, England, Italy, Germany) have consistently strong national teams, while those strong international sides outside of Europe, or even within it, (Argentina, Brazil) are overwhelmingly made up of players who play in the “big four” European leagues. The real excitement and unpredictability may be away from the theatre of Big Soccer, but at the expense of quality and, sadly, meaningful competition.

Sure, the silly scores and ridiculous stats are fun at laughably low-level international football: every season there’s a story about the American Virgin Islands getting hammered 37-0 by Australia or teams made up of postmen from nations whose entire populations would make Fratton Park look empty. One of my favourite stories from this week, sent to me by a friend, was that of the two Londoners who have taken over coaching the Pacific island nation of Pohnpei – the world’s worst international football team. Brilliantly, the only detail one needs to know about this footballing powerhouse is that they recently lost 16-1 to Guam.

But anyway, wasn’t I talking about the Premiership? It’s easy to get sidetracked: once football is in the air again it seems to be everywhere – every click on every web page throws up new intrigue and, often, new hilarity.

I need to focus – and here’s where my greatest acquisition of the week comes in: the Sky Sports Football Sports Centre app on the iPhone. It’s, quite simply, brilliant. It loads up with a great big photograph of the mighty Jeff Stelling (who then retreats to the top of the page throughout the app experience, watching paternally over football like the minor deity he is) and displays the top four games going on with either their live scores or their kick off times.

Opening up a live game you can see rolling text commentary, team line ups, stats (and a rather fetching photograph) for each individual player and then pick out your team’s week’s fixtures so you don’t miss a thing. There’s even the rolling Sky Sports News ticker along the bottom with the latest headlines. The next time a League Two manager gets sacked, you can bet I’ll be among the first to know about it.

So now that I can focus, I can get on with the season. It’s already been entertaining and intriguing in equal measure: United and Chelsea got off to winning starts, albeit far from comfortably, while Arsenal have surprised the literally billions of people who’d already written off their season (me included, if pushed) by getting a massive away win at Everton – and Liverpool have surprised literally no one by clearly missing the talent and influence of Xabi Alonso.

And is that Mick McCarthy back in the Premiership and moaning about how no one loves him? Surely not...

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

The Community Shield



On Sunday I was at Wembley for the Community Shield match between Chelsea and Manchester United. Perennially described as the Premier League’s curtain-raiser, not least by me last week, it’s a regularly-entertaining match that serves to whet the appetite for the new season and might occasionally offer clues as to the strength of the teams (except for Portsmouth last season) who will likely be challenging for the major domestic honours next time around.

Indeed, the fact that Manchester United have featured in 10 of the last 13 Community/Charity Shield games and that, until Pompey’s unlikely appearance in 2008, the last time a non-Big Four club was at Wembley in August was in 1996 when United faced Newcastle, is as good an indicator as any of the balance of power in the league this century.

Through happy circumstance I found myself with a complimentary ticket to sit in the ‘Club Wembley’ seats – the largely corporate-occupied middle tier of the spectacular new stadium whose tickets specify ‘No Club Shirts’ and seemingly may as well include ‘No Cheering’, ‘No Clapping’, ‘No Watching the Game’ and ‘Talk Loudly About Your Brilliant Job in Advertising, Claim Even More Loudly to Have Shagged A Minor Celebrity and Then Piss Off to The Bar for the Entire Second Half’, based on my experience in the front row of block 228 this weekend.

Anyway, minor complaints aside, Sunday’s match was a great spectacle. There was plenty for the neutral and the fan alike: four goals, one hotly contested (though as far as I’m concerned playing on when a player is down is fair game – as if United wouldn’t have done the same), a bit of ensuing argy-bargy between the always-amusingly-provocative Michael Ballack and Patrice Evra which brought the crowd to life and had the thousands of red and blue fans squaring off against each other for the majority of the last 20 minutes – and the drama of a penalty shootout. A chance for Chelsea to take revenge for that night in Moscow last year? OK, so this was hardly the Champions League Final, but Chelsea’s performance from the spot was pretty emphatic.

The real question is what the match can tell us about how the season will pan out between these two teams – probably the best contenders for the title at this point. On this evidence, Manchester United will certainly miss Ronaldo – though Nani provided much promise on the right wing and scored a decent early goal before being carried off with a troubling shoulder injury. Even when he’s back fit, though, Nani clearly won’t be a 40-goals-a-season player – and this is the key stat that proved the only real difference between Chelsea and United at the end of Ronaldo’s golden 2007-08 season.

Less worrying for United is that Rooney seems well up for this season – he knows he’ll have to play a greater goal-scoring role in the team, and paired up with Michael Owen (who I’m certain will score goals with the kind of service he’ll get from the players he’s now amongst) he’s looking really strong and is going to be a genuine danger to defences everywhere.

As for Chelsea, Ancelotti’s reign can begin with a great deal of optimism. I say this cautiously, as I remember saying the exact same thing after Scolari’s first game last season. However, this is now a team galvanised by a few important things: the great run-in they had under the brief but brilliant regime of Guus Hiddink, a promising pre-season tour of America where they beat two impressive Italian sides (and a typically unimpressive American one), and the fact that John Terry and Didier Drogba are definitely sticking around.

The reception Terry in particular got at Wembley on Sunday was deafeningly supportive – and he put in a top performance as thanks. After a wobbly first half where they were dominated by United, Chelsea really started passing the ball around like a team in the second period and looked commanding all over the pitch. Whether this can translate to the league is still a complete unknown, (especially as for the most part on Sunday they were playing an experimental United side), but I’d say things look decidedly better for the Stamford Bridge outfit now than they did twelve months ago.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Pre-Season

With a week to go until the Football League kicks off and the curtain-raising spectacle of the Community Shield rears its head, things are starting to look decidedly, and pleasantly, more football-y around here.

I was at the always-impressive Emirates Stadium on Saturday for the first day of the annual Emirates Cup tournament, featuring Arsenal, Rangers, PSG and Atletico Madrid – and in many ways it felt like the season had begun. Despite the fact that these games were ostensibly friendlies (though the Emirates Cup guys having created a mini-league system that awards extra points for scoring more goals gave the event an air of genuine competition), to suggest that the home crowd wouldn’t have been bothered if the result had gone against them, (it didn’t), would be ridiculous.

The Emirates is a well-spaced out and almost cavernous stadium, but the 54,000-strong crowd were in fine voice – even providing a self-consciously Wimbledon-style round of Mexican waves during the more attritional moments against Atletico (hey, it’s the summer – be thankful that at least the Barmy Army are busy).

The travelling Rangers fans were also, for the first game, in boisterous mood and were easily shouting down the rest of the crowd throughout their match – it’s just a shame that most of them left before Arsenal took the field. While a good chunk of them probably lived in London, the fact that a significant proportion almost certainly did make the journey down from Glasgow dashes any dismissal of the Emirates Cup or tournaments like it as “meaningless friendlies”. Far from it. Football always means something.

The most important thing to remember about pre-season tournaments, (a fact that a lot of the press seem to miss, too – probably because they don’t pay for their tickets) is that the reduced price and relatively family-friendly atmosphere of the events gives many fans their only opportunity to see their teams live. The vast majority of supporters of, in particular, big-four Premier League teams, aren’t wealthy season ticket-holders or the kind of maniacs who spend every penny of their wages on following their team home and away. Most simply can’t afford £50-60 for a Premier League game, and in general would baulk at the idea of spending that sort of cash when you might not even see anything good (this is probably there aren’t many West End theatres that put on shows without a script). A dire 0-0 draw is a disappointment even if the only money you’ve spent to watch it is the price of three pints of Kronenbourg and a packet of nuts.

Therefore, once or twice a year there’ll be an opportunity for the fans – and they’re no less real because they’re not in the stands every weekend – to get to see their team, feel what it’s like to be in the stadium and cheer on their favourites. Whether it’s a pre-season game, Champions League qualifier, Carling Cup match (the same also applies to international friendlies), you’re more likely to find the “real” fans at these games. I sometimes shudder at the idea of big-four Premiership games full of businessmen there on complimentary VIP tickets, having decided to take their clients to the nearest “entertainment venue” to stage a white-wine-and-smoked-salmon-sandwich meeting while the football takes place in the background. Oh, and then leave at half-time and find out the final score on their Blackberry on the way home. Of course, I’d go if I could afford it – but until then I’ll be in the pub.

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The below picture, though pretty poor quality, was taken at the Emirates during the minute’s applause for Sir Bobby Robson. I saw the footage again the other night from when he was presented his lifetime achievement award at the Sports Personality of the Year Award in 2007 – and found myself genuinely welling up for the guy. A good man and a great reference point for how great football people can be. RIP.