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.