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.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Deadline Day

The transfer window closed – sorry, SLAMMED SHUT – yesterday afternoon to the usual hysterical Sky Sports News/BBC Online fanfare. It’s something I and probably everyone who reads this look forward to at the end of August and January as it offers an opportunity for some genuinely exciting breaking football news. This time last year was the prime example with the incredible one-day takeover of Manchester City by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan and the audacious snatching of £32m Robinho from under the noses of a bewildered Chelsea – the taste of their own medicine predictably bitter.

The day’s narrative can unfold thrillingly, with Sky reporters at every ground studying the occupants of every car that arrives, online forums buzzing with often hilarious sightings (“My mate works in the doctor’s surgery Hull City use for their medicals and he just saw Sergio Aguero reading Heat in the waiting room”, “My restaurant just took a booking for a Mr. P. Kenyon and a Mr. F. Fabregas – coincidence?!”) and, presumably, footballers, sometimes, actually having meetings in Little Chefs and Airport Hiltons.

There is the other side of the coin, however. There is inevitably hype and a lot of noise made about what might happen on Deadline Day (Sky have had a countdown on screen for the last 6 weeks, as far as I can tell), but on the day itself we tend to forget that there have already been loads of deals completed, and that these have been so because they take a long time and aren’t decisions that are taken lightly by either side. What were we really expecting to happen? Cristiano Ronaldo already transferred to Real Madrid for £700 billion, Man City have already distorted the market with their huge (but actually rather sensible, for me) spending – plus all the European leagues’ windows shut the previous day on account of them not having had a bank holiday.

Could any deadline day deal really have surpassed the hugeness of Ronaldo’s, or the City saga of 2008? I doubt it, unless perhaps Harry Redknapp decided to take his current spending strategy to its ultimate conclusion and re-sign every player he’s ever previously managed including Rio Ferdinand, Shaka Hislop and Linvoy Primus.

As it was, the deadline day activity was a bit of a damp squib. Having followed the ‘action’ on the BBC website from 9am til 5.30, it seemed that their reporters at least were resigned to the fact that nothing particularly massive would happen – there were rumblings at Portsmouth and Everton, as most expected – and yet still, presumably under orders, hung on to the grim hope that a real ‘marquee signing’ would take place. So was I, of course.

Is this all that the window exists for? It’s hard to be sure that it’s of much further use. I read Gordon Strachan’s column in FourFourTwo this week and he suggests that while the window unsettles footballers and stresses out managers – albeit exciting the fans – it does in fact mean that when the window is shut players tend to focus on the job at hand (knowing they can’t go anywhere) and teams with a bit of money are less able to gain an unfair advantage by replacing injured players whenever they like.

Personally, I suppose I like knowing that the squads are as they will be for at least half the season now, making it far easier to analyse how teams will perform in the coming season, but I still find the idea of people just ‘not being allowed’ to change jobs whenever they like very strange and even slightly troubling – it couldn’t happen in any other industry, could it? (Of course, this could be said for a lot about the world of football).

This period, now that the window is shut until January and we’ve seen a few games played and teams start to take shape, is the only sensible time to start making any sort of tentative predictions. So I might make a couple.

As I’ve mentioned before, for me the most significant transfers of the summer have been, of course, Ronaldo and Xabi Alonso to Real Madrid – not because of the possible impact of the six-year-old’s Panini sticker fantasy team Madrid are assembling (again), but because of the effect on the teams they’ve left behind.

I predicted in an earlier blog that United would struggle without Ronaldo – for goals at least – but what seems to be happening, happily for them, is that Rooney is looking to be the man to step up his game from last season and prove to be the truly match-winning player we know he is capable of being. I also think that Owen will score lots more goals for them – finally getting the service in front of goal he’s been praying for for years.

Liverpool, on the other hand, have blown it in my opinion. This Aquilani chap is going to have an awful lot of pressure on him when he returns from injury – as the hole blown in the midfield at Anfield by Alonso’s departure looks pretty nasty. Sure, they won against Bolton at the weekend but they could very, very easily have lost – a rather harsh red card swinging things in their favour. Unless Aquilani really does turn out to be something special, and slot in with Gerrard and Torres nicely, you’d have to be mad to back them for the title this season – right now at least.

As far as the other ‘Big Four’ clubs go, Chelsea are looking great at the moment, the only caveat to their 100% start being that they haven’t really been tested. Hull, Sunderland, Fulham, Burnley – these are all clubs you’d expect the Blues to take three points from. The fact that they have, comfortably, makes them my favourites at the moment, however. I feel similarly about Arsenal – but as always their relative youth, fragility and susceptibility to injury makes them hard to back over a whole season. Time, and stamina, will tell on all fronts.