Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Day 5

The consensus seems to have been that if any day was going to be the one when this tournament sprung to life, it would be this one. Group G - this year's Group of Death - gets underway, with Ivory Coast facing Portugal in the afternoon and the potentially extremely weird fixture of Brazil v North Korea to follow in the evening.

Before this, though, the small matter of New Zealand vs Slovakia from Group F was up, with both teams looking to capitalise on Italy and Paraguay's fairly dismal draw last night. I say both teams - with New Zealand as rank outsiders for the tournament at a widely-quoted 2000-1 in their first appearance at a World Cup finals since 1982 and their outside-Oceania record of a resounding zero victories, getting anything from this fixture would certainly be something. In the event, they proved to be no pushovers. Slovakia took the lead through a Vittek header and proceeded to sit on their one goal advantage against a well-organised Kiwi side. Come the 93rd minute, however, and New Zealand grabbed an unlikely equaliser through Winston Reid, to secure their first ever World Cup point.

This was to be a day for unfancied teams offering up far more resistance than they had any right to - as, after a 0-0 draw between the Ivorians and the Portuguese about which I have literally nothing to say having not seen the game nor any 'highlights' from it, North Korea faced Brazil and did themselves and their curious, secretive nation proud.

Brazil won 2-1, having been 2-0 up through a fine Maicon strike from an acute angle and an Elano goal slotted first time from an exceptional Robinho ball (who was, himself, brilliant during the very entertaining match) but met with a well-drilled and extremely unfazed North Korean side. North Korea scored late on through Yun-Nam Ji; which in itself is something of a triumph. Like New Zealand, the Asian side's odds in this tournament were well into the thousands - their only previous appearance having been in 1966 - and to even imagine them scoring against Brazil on this biggest of stages would have been laughable before the game; particularly with most pundits predicting a Brazilian rout. Brazil will get better - and North Korea might never reach higher - but this, I would say, was the first genuinely entertaining match since the opening game.

North Korea are what the World Cup is about, in their own way - in that, through football, we are afforded a glimpse into a culture and a glimpse at a people that we have no other way of engaging with. We saw Tae-Se Jong (their outstanding player of the evening) crying during his country's national anthem - and immediately the Western mindest is to question whether this is national pride or terrifying brainwashing - and we saw the banner in the crowd saying "forget politics for 90 minutes". Yes, football allows us to 'forget politics', but it also brings political differences into sharp relief. The North Korean team's joy was for the people of the country, not its oppressive regime. We can only hope that back in Pyongyang some of those people are actually able to see the highlights of what was a truly great moment for them in terms of demonstrating their own humanity to the rest of the world. Another performance like that and they might even end up as a lot of people's second-favourite-team this time round.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Day 4

There's still a lot of doom and gloom around this tournament. It's started slowly - with (including Day 4's matches) less than 20 goals scored and some of the drabbest games of football you're ever likely to see playing out with a frightening lack of urgency. Uruguay v Mexico on Friday was awful, as was Algeria v Slovenia and tonight's laboured 1-1 draw between Italy and Paraguay.

However, articles headlined 'is this the worst World Cup ever?' are laughably premature - as I saw in one newspaper. Yes, the matches have been uninspiring for the most part and teams seem to be cautiously finding their way into the tournament and struggling with, among other things, the much-maligned Jabulani ball, the altitude and the deafening buzz of the massed vuvuzelas - but this is only the first round of matches. There will be a spark, there will be memorable, exciting matches and there will be shocks and twists and turns. It's only Day 4, people.

I'm aware that it's mostly the press creating this atmosphere - but it's also the knee-jerk reactions of the amateur pundits and football fans online. Maybe the games seem boring, but is that just because you've spent too long looking forward to the tournament and got a little over-excited? There's only so much that football can really deliver on the fantasy of football - and we all know that the truly great games come along just when you least expect them. That's what makes them so great, after all.

So relax, is what I'm trying to say. I'm staying upbeat about the tournament and taking the fun where I can - great things are just around the corner.

Today's matches saw the much-tipped Holland take their bow against Denmark in the early kick-off, another mostly unremarkable game that saw the Dutch win 2-0 against a distinctly average-looking Denmark side - though the own goal which saw Poulson combine with Daniel Agger to ridiculous effect is well worth a watch.

In the 3pm kick off, Japan sneaked a 1-0 win past a Cameroon side devoid of the "fun" side they first became known for back in 1990, having seemingly had all the joy and flair sapped from their football by dour French manager Paul le Guen. I do appreciate that it is this tedious sort of result that is inspiring the negative "reviews" this tournament is getting so far - but what these tight results do suggest that, in this group at least, the identity of the team to likely join Netherlands in the second round is completely unknown.

Finally, tonight, Italy looked nothing like the world-beaters they were four years ago, despite the squad containing a surprising amount of those already-experienced players. Paraguay took the lead through a bullet header, and were equalised against thanks to a poorly judged cross by their goalkeeper, but Italy found them hard to play against all across the park. I have little doubt Italy will go on to win this group - but they'll have to play much, much better to stand any chance of retaining their hard-won title.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Day 3

The England result was disappointing, but I didn't quite expect the negative reaction from various football sources on Twitter and the match reports from the BBC and assorted other media outlets. There seems to be a lot of doom and gloom around this World Cup already; while despite commenting on the queasy ups and downs of watching England play, I refuse to be drawn into writing them off completely at this early stage. Surprisingly few commentators mentioned that, surely, the USA is England's hardest fixture of the group - and that they should surely overcome Algeria and Slovenia. 7 points from three games in this group would absolutely not be a terrible result for England. I'm not one for omens, but it should also be remembered that England started with draws in both of their most successful campaigns - in 1966 and 1990.

I didn't see a great deal of the football today what with being away from home and in the middle of a field in Dorset. From what I gather, further evidence that England have little to fear from their other Group C opponents as they played out an unremarkable encounter in Polokwane which, eventually, saw Slovenia put one past the African side to go top of the group.

Another tie I'd quite fancied watching was Serbia v Ghana, which - after a well-taken and joyously celebrated penalty by Gyan - saw Ghana become the first African side to record a victory. It's definitely what I want to see more of, African sides doing well, as this year provides as close to a continentally-hosted competition as you'll ever get. Gyan himself said his goal was for "all of Africa" and I'm sure it was felt that way. I think European audiences often fail to grasp this - coming from a continent with a huge number of historic rivalries and massively varying cultures, as well as some of the most successful sides in football history - in that we find it hard to imagine feeling pleased for a continental neighbour. We wouldn't be delighted at a goal by Germany, France, Spain, or Italy - but then Europe hasn't, as an entire continent, been totally marginalised, patronised and under-funded in the way that African football has for the years up to the 1990s.

Fans of the African nations will have their rivalries, for sure, but they'll also be sticking up for each other against the rest of the world. Hopefully one or two of the teams will have a decent run - and that that will be what we remember 2010 for.

Day 2 - England vs USA

There's nothing quite like watching England in the World Cup. There really aren't any comparable experiences - something that, in the hours and even days leading up to the start of a 90-minute event makes you sick with excitement; something that creates a tangible buzz around every and any town you walk around and turns the TV into a blaring crate of giddy idiots and people like Adrian Chiles and Gary Lineker saying things like "OK, here we go people, hold on tight."

Watching England at the World Cup is like queuing up for 3 hours to go on a roller coaster whose track you can't quite see - only to get to the front of the queue to find out that, just like last time, it's excruciatingly painful, depressingly slow and familiarly tedious - like riding the South West Trains service to Feltham while a dentist pokes around your teeth, tutting.

But tonight, it all started so well. England began brightly - and instantly it was clear that they were intent on playing decent football; and after only 4 minutes Emile Heskey was able to knock the ball down for Steven Gerrard to finish impressively and make the score 1-0. The first half went on, and while the team were hardly electrifying to watch, they were playing well in a way they simply hadn't in the recent friendlies against Mexico, Japan and the mighty Platinum Stars.

Just before half time, Fulham's Clint Dempsey tried a long-range effort that even he was surely expecting Robert Green to gather without a second's thought. As it turns out, the ball bounced out of Green's waiting hands and spun behind him - leaving the goalkeeper crawling after the ball for an agonising second as the ball bounced inexorably across the line. My reaction was, I have no doubt, exactly the same as everyone else watching. ", Robert." 1-1.

It's not England's first goalkeeping howler and nor will it be the last. And like the last time it happened, during qualifying for Euro 2008, it's still hard to completely blame the man between the sticks. These things happen. But - it happened. To England. Again.

And England never bounced back from it (though Green picked himself up sufficiently to tip a decent shot onto the bar later in the second half) - the worst moment of which being Heskey sullying his decent night's performance by going one-on-one with Tim Howard only to, predictably, play the ball right at him.

So it finished 1-1 - and it's hard to know how to feel. It was another sickening, literally unenjoyable train ride to Feltham - but there are plenty of positives to take away. England actually played well, and should have nothing to fear from Algeria or Slovenia. As Gerrard said after the game, the target is now 7 points - and if England fail to get them, they probably shouldn't be at the World Cup at all.

Man of the Match: Gerrard - a true captain's performance.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Day 1

It's finally here - as I'm sure every blog post and article written about today will start. The 2010 World Cup begins today and so does my attempt to keep a daily record of my thoughts about the tournament. It's certainly felt like a long wait - one my girlfriend doesn't quite appreciate in terms of understanding my giddiness and general child-like restlessness.

As she's a big music fan, I use an analogy to help: imagine if there was only one big music festival, and it happened every four years - and went on for a month. The festival would have the best bands from all over the world and everyone would be going. It would be especially exciting because for most of the previous four years you'd only been able to watch bands from your own country, save for glimpses of others here and there. Wouldn't it be the most exciting musical event ever? And even if you didn't like all the bands or know much about them, the enthusiasm of their entire nation would be so infectious that you'd be silly not to at least check them out.

Does it work? I'm not sure - describing the World Cup as the Glastonbury of football times ten doesn't even begin to do it justice, but can you imagine waiting four years for anything else? The Olympics? Hardly.

Something that does, however, is this year's opening ceremony. A riotous explosion of colour in Soccer City's massive calabash sees Desmond Tutu jigging around covered head to toe in Bafana Bafana colours; a giant puppet dung beetle appears and rolls a giant version of Adidas' controversial Jabulani ball around the stadium; R. Kelly bewilderingly appears to sing some sort of song backed with a traditional choir - it's all quite fun, really. The only sad note is that Nelson Mandela is unable to attend after the death of his 13-year-old great-granddaughter on Thursday night; in a car crash on the way home from the concert in Soweto which officially opened the tournament.

After the opening ceremony comes the football, of course, and while work prohibits me from watching South Africa take on Mexico in the opening game - I am able to keep up with it via BBC live text and, funnily, Twitter - which manages in its own way to report events before anyone else; albeit in the sarcastic way Back of the Net News does or in more cryptic ways that gently hit I should switch tab and go back to the live text to see what's happened.

What does happen, in the event, is that the first half finishes 0-0 with Mexico clearly dominating proceedings, before the second half opens to a great deal more Bafana Bafana industry - culminating in a long through ball finding the feet of Tshabalala, who opens the tournament's scoring with an absolute rocket from his left foot into the top right corner of Mexico's goal. I didn't see it happen live - but the online consensus seemed to be that the already-cacophonous vuvuzelas went into overtime. I'd imagine we'll see a few people passing out from blowing those sodding things by the end of the tournament.

Mexico equalise in the 79th minute through Rafael Marquez, who finds himself completely unmarked at the far post from a free kick; and it's absolutely no more than Mexico deserve from the game. South Africa narrowly miss a chance to win it late on - but alas the shot hits the post and World Cup 2010's opening game is a draw, albeit an entertaining one.

The first game I do manage to watch live, however, is Uruguay vs France - the 7.30pm kick off. After watching the BBC's elegant and tasteful buildup coverage, getting us in the mood perfectly, the match kicks off, immediately suggesting how cagey and negative it will prove to be. Uruguay seem to show no desire to get forward - possibly seeing this as their toughest fixture - and park the metaphorical bus at the back.

France, by turn, fanny around up front and display the frustrating, Arsenal-style lack of decision in the final third of the pitch that makes watching good players falter so infuriating. Even after Uruguay lose a man to a second yellow card, France simply refuse to take the game from them. It ends 0-0, and hopefully we've got the stinker of the group stage out of the way early.

So that's it - we're underway. It's been fun to get in the mood for the tournament, despite the lack of truly scintillating football, but there's definitely promise and, well, England kick off tomorrow don't they? Can't wait.

Monday, 29 March 2010


Crisis. Football thrives on it. I’m talking off-field mostly, but then crisis has a way of jumping over the hoardings like a rabble of disgruntled, misguided, pissed fans and making its way into the heart of the game. Performances, results and whole seasons can hinge on the intricacies of sponsorship deals, boardroom corruption and plain incompetence, tax bills, wage bills, sex scandals, corporate scandals, moral outrage, violence and, often, the combination of all of the above as disparate groups of people in and around the sport work together to Bring the Game into Disrepute.

They pay fines for having done so and weather endless media storms, they answer difficult questions at press conferences and ignore witty banners hung over stands by one group of irate fans while pledging to ban for life another group of fans who overstep the line and throw coins at the opposing teams’ players – or worse. They defend the actions of players, defensible or otherwise, then condemn the actions of others. They attack referees, sleep with each others’ girlfriends and cry and hug and fight each other at work – most of which on a regular basis. They are thugs and intellectuals, criminals and UN goodwill ambassadors, comedians and professionals. They are the reason why sports stories are found all the way through the newspaper and round every table in every pub in the land.

“They” are the cast of the soap opera that football unarguably is, and always has been. Even better than its competitors, this soap runs 24 hours a day (see Virgin channel 517, Sky 405 and Freeview 83, if you’re interested), has an endless supply of new storylines to work through and every episode is live. And we, the fans, the public, everyone – we love it.

Why? Because we’re the same people who slow down on the motorway to rubberneck at a nice big smash and love to read outlandish, lurid tabloid news stories about improbable serial killers and scandalised celebrities. We’re also the same people who laugh at the absurdity of life and human behaviour, make up jokes and funny songs about the things we see and write endless millions of column inches of words in an attempt to decipher those same things.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this, incidentally. This is what I, as a football fan, signed up for – and anyone who says they wish it was “all about the game” and professes to have no interest in the “circus of modern football” is probably being untruthful, and at any rate would be left with a very different and probably fairly unedifying prospect were it suddenly all taken away.

As Portsmouth manager Avram Grant recently put it (and so wonderfully succinct it was too): “Football is more than football.”

Portsmouth, of course, are the headline act this season – the long-running story arc that just won’t go away. They’re the soap family that would have been written out of the script were it not for the popularity of their car-crash scenario – they’ve stumbled inelegantly from owner to owner, manager to manager and payslip to payslip, constantly in danger of ceasing to exist altogether. Their troubles have not stemmed from football, but from poor management at the highest level, leading to multiple job losses, administration, a 9-point deduction (their “sporting sanction”, unsporting though it may appear) and certain relegation. The fact that they haven’t been liquidated is the only positive the fans and staff can really take from the season, especially when the consensus seems to be that were they any business other than a football club –one so ingrained in the community, a national symbol of the town and a company whose continued operation is of interest to a large proportion of the town’s population – Pompey would have been wound up a long time ago. Which would have been a shame if only for the fascinating insight into just how badly some football clubs are run and how devastating the on and off-field consequences can be their ongoing misery provides.

Supporting acts this season have included the appreciably more heavyweight likes of Liverpool and Manchester United who have both been involved in their own recession-based financial woes with, most visibly, unrest growing between fans and owners even at United, a club who have experienced little other than success since their unpopular owners took over. Liverpool are in a lot of debt and face the prospect of moving into their new ground fading further and further into the future, while their lack of prowess on the pitch this season has hardly helped matters and manager Rafael Benitez’s position looks less and less secure as each disappointing result comes in. At United, regardless of whether they go on to win the league this year, the green-and-yellow Newton Heath colours worn by huge proportions of their fans alongside the Glazer-owned red are likely to be among the most iconic images of the 2009-10 season. It may seem ridiculous to protest against owners who have brought your club nothing but success – but one look at the £700m+ debt the American family have saddled the club with is bound to make fans nervous about the long-term future of their beloved team.

There are other recurring characters in this season’s storyline, of course. Recurring characters that pop up with a laugh for the knowing audience, or with another hapless tale of woe to tell. Chelsea’s season has been hit, possibly irrevocably, by the sex scandals and marital indiscretions of John Terry and Ashley Cole – two key players in the West London club’s bid to bring the Premier League trophy back to the capital. West Ham have changed owners and face sweeping cost-cutting measures as well as the very real possibility of relegation under manager Gianfranco Zola. Owen Coyle, once hailed as ‘God’ by Burnley fans, became Judas overnight as he left the club for Bolton and, again, very likely immediate relegation to the Championship. Manchester City, Bolton and Hull City have all sacked managers.

And I’d like to put in a small mention for my adopted Bulgarian side, CSKA Sofia, who could barely be in more trouble if they’d actually set their minds to the task. After a riot at rivals Lokomotiv Mezdra saw 100 fans storm onto the pitch, they were handed a 4-0 defeat and a three-match home ban (although in researching this sentence I have since discovered that this is, sadly, not particularly rare). Add to this the horrifying news that CSKA striker Orlin Orlinov has been arrested for allegedly kidnapping a Bulgarian model and reality TV star before beating her for 8 hours and it’s safe to say that the Bulgarian league is experiencing the less light-hearted side of the soap opera – this one is more like a Hubert Selby Jr. novel.

What I’m trying to say here is that we should not be ashamed to say that “football is more than football”, and that that’s why we find it fascinating. Of course I drool over a beautiful goal and can often be seen biting my nails into oblivion during a knife-edge Champions League tie or the like, but this compelling narrative is why I like to write about football and I think it’s why a lot of people love to write, and read, about it too. There’s so much material to work with, so much going on in so many places and directly affecting so many people that it can’t be ignored: it’s a roller-coaster drama with real implications for real peoples’ lives. It’s a big part of why football fascinates me – and this is all without a ball being kicked.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010


Turn on the television tonight and you’d be forgiven for thinking David Beckham had died. He probably doesn’t feel far off it, in footballing terms. Neatly edited packages of his high- and lowlights on and off the field are wall-to-wall on both sport and regular news broadcasts – it seems purely to bring a lump to the throats of those of us with a soft spot for the softly-spoken midfielder.

Appearing at the World Cup this summer would have been the perfect end to the improbably cinematic narrative that has been his football career. There would surely have emerged at least one more iconic image of the man who has defined the last decade of England’s national side, one moment when the fans and the pundits and the broadcasters could cling to remember this effortlessly photogenic player forever.

We all knew it wouldn’t have been Beckham lifting the trophy – unless maybe Ferdinand, Gerrard, Rooney and Barry all got injured in the final? No?! – but it would have been something. Last time out, for me at least, it was the then-captain in tears having limped to the bench in time to watch his team crash out of the 2006 World Cup. This time round it may have been as an anxious benchwarmer watching on and biting his nails with the rest of us. Maybe it would have been the old hand swinging in a cross or a free-kick during a snatched 15 minutes-or-so on the pitch – as that’s surely all his on-field contribution might have been. Maybe he would have done a Zidane on us and ended his career the way he ended his first World Cup; with an impulsive, senseless act of stupidity. I can almost see it now – the great national icon walking past the trophy he was never destined to win, despite the amount of effort and self-belief he devoted to obtaining it, proving himself to be human after all. Sniff.

In the event, as with so many things, Beckham’s England career has ended not with a bang, but a whimper. It’s truly a sad day – and it’s hard to imagine how heartbroken he must be, especially as someone who clearly feels incredibly passionate about what he does for a living. It’s easy to dismiss the sadness or disappointment of very successful people, particularly professional sportspeople, given their lavish lifestyles and huge salaries (a sarcastic ‘boo hoo’ or a quick turn on the worlds-smallest violin is usually included somewhere). But an unforeseeable, unavoidable injury such as this crucial Achilles injury will have really hurt – as every single thing Beckham has done since standing down as captain and being ceremoniously dropped from the squad by then-England boss Steve McLaren has been focussed on playing in this tournament – the World Cup that would always have been his last and would always be the final scene in the film of his professional life.

Moving to LA Galaxy ensured first-team football and a team built around him as the big star – something that was no longer going to happen at a big European club. It also allowed him time and space to recover from the disappointment of failing to live up to the promise of the much-vaunted ‘Golden Generation’ of English stars in the early part of the decade. His first loan spell at AC Milan ensured he was in the eye line of Fabio Capello and enabled him to demonstrate that he still had a part to play in an England squad hurt by McLaren’s failure to achieve qualification for Euro 2008. His second, which has now come crashing to a premature end, was embarked upon solely to prepare him for his final act as a top-level footballer. And while there is little doubt that he would have been at best a bit-part player in South Africa, his experience, popularity with fans and players alike, role as ambassador for England around the world and the fact that he still has no clear successor in the England setup meant that he was unlikely to be left at home. Indeed, given that the FIFA administrators traditionally choose World Cup tournaments to meet and discuss future host nations, it is likely he will travel to South Africa as part of the FA’s England 2018 bid team anyway.

For British football fans of my age, Beckham’s England highlight reel is truly ingrained into the collective memory – this is probably the first career we as a generation will have followed from beginning to end. I have a feeling that his halfway-line goal against Wimbledon in 1996 might have been the first time I even noticed football on TV.

Even as the events played out in chronological order on TV today, it was easy to recite from memory what was going to come next, even involuntarily reciting the worn-out commentary tracks. Kicking the back of Diego Simeone’s leg in 1998. Scoring the last-minute free-kick against Greece to take England to the 2002 World Cup. Getting there and completing his comeback by scoring a penalty against Argentina. Running at the camera, yanking his shirt and showing the number 7 to the world. Tearfully resigning the captaincy in his final press conference at Baden Baden in 2006.

There is no other player like him for English fans, for English youngsters to admire and emulate. Wayne Rooney, the current England star attraction, is indisputably more of a throwback to an older, more traditionally English style of footballer – in the words of none other than both players’ mentor Alex Ferguson. Beckham, for all the accusations of courting celebrity and shameless self-promoting outside of the game, is the archetypal modern footballer – attuned both to what is expected of him as ‘product’ and as an ambassador for the game, as well as being well-liked among his colleagues and peers and having overcome a fair bit of professional adversity. He is, in fact, much more like the world-class Continental players he has appeared alongside since leaving England than the scruffier, less elegant footballers he left behind. Perhaps this is what made him such a natural galactico at Real Madrid and helped him slide so easily in amongst AC Milan’s band of elder statesmen last year.

I’m aware that this, too, is beginning to sound like a eulogy. David Beckham’s film will not have the fairytale South African ending he has tried so valiantly to engineer – but the fact that he has so evidently given his heart, soul and now his body to the quest for that to be the case is enough to serve him well in football fans’ collective memory. He was never going to win the World Cup for England this year – but his absence will certainly make the tournament that little bit less thrilling.

So long, Dave.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Morality and Obligation

“All that I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football.”
– Albert Camus

This was the weekend that Wayne Bridge refused to shake hands with John Terry. Formerly good friends and team mates, it was a poignant and – to me at least – really quite difficult to watch moment in the build-up to the Chelsea v Manchester City match at Stamford Bridge yesterday. The various reasons for the snub I won’t recap as they are extremely well-documented elsewhere and so ubiquitous at the moment as to be utterly tedious.

This particular moment, though – and that is literally all it was – is one that won’t fade from my memory any time soon. Predictably hyped up in the preceding 24 hours by the written and broadcast press, Bridge’s participation in the Blatter-designed pre-match handshaking ceremony came into question following his decision to withdraw from the England squad earlier in the week. There were rumours that there were more players in the City squad who would refuse Terry’s gesture, jokes that Wayne Bridge might in fact prefer to plant a swift head butt on his former Chelsea and England team mate instead.

Sky’s coverage right up to the line-up was focussed. It thankfully wasn’t, and didn’t need to be, hysterical – there was a tangible intake of breath from all present when the City players, led by Shay Given, started making their way down the row of Chelsea men. “Here it comes,” intoned Martin Tyler, clearly eager to get on with the football but no doubt infected with the same rubbernecking impulse as the other 40,000 people inside Stamford Bridge and the various millions watching on TV. Terry held his hand out. Bridge, locked into the familiar rhythm of repeated token handshaking, moved as if to take the other man’s hand, paused…and moved on. As far as brutal, even comic, timing goes, it was impeccable. John Terry’s face was frozen: he surely knew it was coming, but that brief moment cannot have been much fun in any case.

He looked lost in thought in that fragment of time. The very idea of a footballer lost in his own thoughts is usually the cue for a tedious joke about the assumed intelligence, or lack thereof, of someone who does something as essentially physical as playing football for a living – something I have always found rather distasteful about lazy football punditry. In this case though, the stresses and strains of the past few weeks were etched on his face for all to see. Was he wondering, maybe, whether it had all been worth it? Was he wondering where it had all begun to fall down around him? Either way, it was a rare moment when the audience, both those in attendance and via satellite, gained a gut-wrenching insight into the personal life of a footballer on the field. The collision of front and back pages was made flesh here – and it left a nasty taste.

The usual ‘public right to know’ defence has invoked by the unscrupulous press lawyers throughout the saga. It doesn’t hold up – it is absolutely not my right, nor anyone else’s, to know anything about someone’s private life purely because they have a high-profile job. Despite this – and even if I hadn’t even glanced at a tabloid newspaper or clicked around online for the last month – it would be clear to see that something wasn’t right with the mood in West London. And it was, honestly, shamefully, fascinating.

This was the weekend that Wayne Bridge refused to shake hands with John Terry. It was also the weekend that Chelsea lost at home for the first time this season – and the first time they have even conceded against Manchester City at home for almost a decade. Are the two things related? It seems hard to imagine otherwise. Based on the evidence of this performance, Chelsea’s labours in Milan and their recent defeat to Everton in the league, it gets trickier and trickier to argue that external issues are not affecting matters on the pitch.

Terry was certainly at fault for City’s first goal (as he was on two occasions at Goodison Park) and his temper threatened to boil over into something more serious in a later clash with Carlos Tevez – though to suggest that it is entirely Terry’s problem would be wrong. A lack of concentration and a mood of uncertainty seems suddenly to be running through the entire Chelsea squad. The players’ heads haven’t been in the right place for a few games now – and it remains to be seen whether Carlo Ancelotti will be able to deal with the rift. The big worry, of course, is that this could prove to be a negative turning point in the club’s season, the moment when it all collapses – up there with Arsenal’s William Gallas sitting alone on the pitch at St. Andrews in 2008.

Having ridden the crest of a wave of confidence for the majority of the season and turning in the sort of performances that has seen them achieve, among other feats, comprehensive defeats of Arsenal at home and away in the Premier League and cruising untroubled through the group stages of the Champions League, Chelsea risk everything falling away at a time when Manchester United are growing in self-assurance thanks in no small part to Wayne Rooney’s phenomenal form and Arsenal facing an extremely generous run-in, with influential players returning from injury all the time. If a player as spirited and indomitable as Didier Drogba has been this season can lift the team’s fortunes and carry them on his broad shoulders until May then Chelsea should hang on to their lead. Much more scandal, distraction or plain bad luck and Manchester United are almost certain to get their historic fourth consecutive title.

So, morality and obligation, then. John Terry’s now-public transgressions seem to boil down to that incredibly blokey kind of moral code – the whole ‘you don’t shag your mate’s ex’, thing, essentially. It should be remembered that Terry hasn’t broken any laws, unlike other former England captains and myriad other prominent figures. He does, however, have the burden of professional obligation in a different sense than a scandalised rock star or actor. He has to attempt to put aside recriminations, ignore any abuse he might get from fans during England’s friendly with Egypt on Wednesday and do his job to the best of his ability – for the good of his team mates, bosses and fans of both club and country. The world of football can be as much a harsh spotlight for a person to live in as it is, undoubtedly, an enviable lifestyle, but the point is that, ideally, a player’s private life and professional life should not interfere with each other. Terry’s biggest mistake, perhaps, has been to allow problems outside of work to influence his performance. If morality hasn’t troubled him in the past, his obligations certainly are now.

Monday, 22 February 2010


As I have confessed previously on this blog, I am not the sort of football fan who actually goes to a lot of games. I support a Big Four club which, despite being based in the city I live in (albeit at the other side of it), is prohibitively expensive to watch live, even in the case of low-interest Carling Cup ties or dead rubber Champions League group stage matches. It’s a disgrace, of course, but that’s not what I’m writing about today. The fact that the live games I get to watch are few and far between (both in terms of time and geography – this season I’ve taken in a grand total of three matches; two in London, one in Bulgaria) has left me thinking a lot recently about how I, and many millions of fans like me, consume football these days.

As I write, Arsenal are playing away at Porto in the Champions League last 16, first leg. Due to various factors, including a despicably unreliable national cable TV supplier having failed to install their service in my new house after almost seven weeks* of waiting, I am watching it via an old-fashioned external aerial (and for all the good its ‘signal-boosting power supply’ claims to be, I may as well have stuck a coathanger in the back of the telly) through a haze of constantly undulating, mesmerising visual noise. The scoreboard routinely disappears off the top of the screen and the colours that make it through, other than the ubiquitous green of the pitch, are at best approximations of the shades actually on display all those miles away in the Estadio do Dragao. No matter – it’s the football, not the coverage that matters, right?

Last night, by contrast, I watched AC Milan being humbled by Manchester United in glorious Sky HD on a very respectable 37-or-so-inch Samsung screen. It was dazzling – like having a mere sheet of glass between myself and Alex Ferguson’s chewing gum. Every bitter expletive from the grizzled Scot’s mouth was in jaw-dropping, era-defining, slow-motion high definition. The really shocking thing is that Sky HD is no longer the pinnacle of the remote football-watching experience. Last month Sky launched Sky Sports 3D at a select few pubs in the UK for the Arsenal v Man United Premier League encounter – and as one of the many people not invited to any of the events, my lasting impression remains a single TV advert showing a pub full of astounded men wearing dark glasses, bathed in the glow of the Future – like a collection of shady US government officials witnessing the test detonation of a nuclear weapon. Apparently the service will be rolled out across hundreds of other pubs across country come April.

I should also add that in addition to the fuzzy wonderland of ITV’s coverage in Porto, I’m watching Bayern Munich v Fiorentina live on my iPhone via Sky Mobile. This really rather spectacular little app lets me watch Sky Sports 1, 2, 3, Xtra, News and ESPN live – in bafflingly high quality – for only £6 per month. There doesn’t seem to be much of a catch: OK so I can’t have a group of friends over to gather round the little screen to watch Premier League and Champions League games, but I can hide away in the corner of the living room watching live games on headphones while the other half watches Come Dine With Me* – and to me that’s a bit of a revelation and well worth the price of a couple of pints. When I wrote about football and the internet last year at the time of the England V Ukraine World Cup qualifier, I had in mind individual fans being forced to watch blocky YouTube-style feeds on obscure, overpriced websites. It seems I might have been wroing – this particular service even works well via 3G coverage, meaning it can be watched when I’m out of the house (if not, sadly, when on the tube). If online live TV is the way things are headed, Sky Mobile seems to be a genuinely viable option.

Of course, not every game is live on Sky Sports, nor on ESPN, the BBC or ITV. The Premier League’s rules regarding the broadcast of 3pm Saturday kick-offs still apply (though it remains strangely difficult to find out exactly why, particularly in terms of the huge potential commercial value in selling said matches to broadcasters). As a result, the vast majority of football coverage is consumed – by myself and most other fans – in purely non-visual format, whether in the form of online live text updates, TV shows like Sky’s Soccer Saturday and the BBC’s Score or simply by catching up on results and reports in the newspaper the following day. This distance between the event and the fan is an interesting one – especially when it is legally enforced or based on obscure clauses in broadcast rights contracts – as it gives rise to some bizarre behaviour by fans and broadcasters alike.

Firstly, the idea of staring at an empty scoreboard, waiting for it to fill with numbers and then ascribing meaning to them is fairly absurd on its own. Looking at a list of scoreboards from an entire day’s events, waiting for them to be confirmed and assimilating the information dispassionately also seems to be a strange way of engaging with an ‘entertainment product’ as visual and visceral as football – nevertheless I, and many others, do it every single weekend.

The strangest of all, however, must be Soccer Saturday. One of Sky Sports’ most popular shows (not least because it is broadcast free-to-air on Sky Sports News), Soccer Saturday has, among other things, made a cult hero of presenter Jeff Stelling and inspired a host of Soccer Saturday drinking games. The fact that it consists entirely of Stelling reading out scores from the vidiprinter as they come in (albeit in an entertaining and delightfully pun-riddled fashion); live links from match reporters who, despite being at the ground, seem to be facing the opposite way from the rest of the crowd in order to watch (and become hopelessly confused by) the action on a small monitor; and a collection of ageing former pros watching matches that are being televised elsewhere on screens the viewer can’t see, occasionally yelling “Goal!”, “Chance!” or “GO ON LAD!” (if one of the clubs playing happens to be one they used to play for) and ineptly attempting to describe what they’ve just seen. It sounds bizarre because it is – and I can’t imagine another world in which it could take place. Needless to say, I love it.

There is a huge amount of choice available to the ‘armchair’ football fan in need of their fix – and it seems, like so many things, to be a question of finance as to how close one can get to the action. If you can’t afford to go to the game, you watch Sky Sports and Match of the Day. If you can’t afford Sky Sports, you rig up the coathanger and (occasionally) watch teams playing in a blizzard of your own creation. And if all else fails, you can watch the cogs turning behind Paul Merson’s furrowed brow as he attempts to describe a Wigan near miss or a dubious Bolton penalty. It’s unbelievable, Jeff.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

The Carling Cup

One hour from now, at Old Trafford, the second leg of the Carling Cup semi-final will begin between Manchester United and Manchester City. By the time I post this online, the match will be over and we will know the identity of Aston Villa’s opponents in the Carling Cup Final at Wembley. If it is Manchester City, it will be their first major Wembley final for 29 years – and should they win that, it will be their first trophy since they won the same competition 34 years ago. As far as Manchester United are concerned, this will be the eighth League Cup semi-final they have contested under Alex Ferguson – and they’ve won all but one of the previous seven.

If this build-up seems to overstate the momentous nature of the game, then good. That was the intention. Because this is a big game, and it proves that the competition is not “only the Carling Cup” any more.

It is customary (and has been for a long time) to belittle and ridicule England’s second domestic trophy – usually for its unfortunately regular re-branding name changes and occasionally unfortunate nicknames (remember the ‘Worthless’ Worthington Cup?) or for the fact that top Premiership managers, led by Arsene Wenger, have tended to treat it as a youth tournament, and shrug off any supposed disappointment when their sides are inevitably dumped out by lesser opposition playing at full strength. While pundits and older football fans complain that the FA Cup has lost its glamour and importance in the football calendar for the bigger teams, the League Cup never seems to have had any in the first place.

So be it, but in recent seasons, with each team’s chances for silverware getting narrower and narrower, the Carling Cup is taking on ever greater importance. And why not? It’s as much a trophy as any other, let’s not forget – as well as a memorable trip to Wembley for fans and players. This should be noted in the case, particularly, of ‘big four’ teams Arsenal and Liverpool, neither of whom have yet played a final at the new national stadium. Fans of each team, starved of any silverware since 2004 and 2006 respectively, would surely not turn their noses up at a Carling Cup win now?

I would suggest that Jose Mourinho is at least partly responsible for the tournament’s resurgence in recent years. When he arrived at Chelsea in 2004 he was clearly aware that he would be required to hit the ground running and make bringing honours to Stamford Bridge an instant priority to justify Abramovich’s huge investment in the club. Jose, presumably knowing nothing of national ‘Worthless Cup’ scoffing, put out full-strength sides in every round – and promptly won the trophy in a thrilling final against Liverpool at the Millennium Stadium. Chelsea players of the time, having gone on to win the league that year, later claimed that it was the confidence and excitement lifting that trophy relatively early on in the season gave the squad that helped them to kick on and take their first Premier League title in 2005. Mourinho never changed his approach to the cup while in charge of Chelsea, winning it again in 2007. It wasn’t until Mourinho’s Chelsea and more recently Manchester United and Spurs, started taking the tournament more seriously, that any Carling Cup tie could ever considered ‘big’.

But tonight’s game is big – and not just because it’s a derby game. It’s not even because it’s the second leg in a tie whose first leg ended as a bad tempered affair with an ex-player taunting his former employers and Gary Neville once again being a bit silly in the face of a fierce rival club. It’s big because it’s the Carling Cup Semi-Final; and the prize is playing in a cup final at Wembley. For Man City manager Roberto Mancini it’s the chance to emulate Mourinho and start with an early trophy – one that will do his team no harm in terms of confidence or credibility as far as challenging the big four this season and in the future. For Manchester United and Alex Ferguson it’s a chance to dispense with an upstart neighbour in time-honoured fashion and give their season the kick up the backside it needs to get back on track following their disappointment in the earliest stages of the FA Cup.

On the other side of the coin, should Manchester City lose, and lose badly, it will cast doubt on the extent of their development since the new owners came on board in 2008, and upon the wisdom of replacing popular manager Mark Hughes mid-season. The Carling Cup represents, alongside possibly the FA Cup, their best chance of rediscovering trophy-winning ways in 2010. Should it slip through their fingers, there may linger the feeling that, so far, the revolution hasn’t quite happened at Eastlands.

If Man United lose tonight, it leaves the champions battling on only two fronts. Of course, if, free of the distractions of the domestic cups they go on to win the Premier League and the Champions League as is always eminently possible with Ferguson’s team, there will be little talk of the Carling Cup that got away. If they don’t, however, a barren season that comes down to defeats to Leeds United and Manchester City will no doubt stick in the throat of the veteran manager.

Personally, I would be pleased to see Man City go through. In a final between themselves and Aston Villa, there is not a team or a set of fans I would begrudge a little glory after such a long time waiting. With over 60 trophyless years between them, I think only the most embittered Man United or West Brom fans would. As with Spurs’ Carling Cup win in 2008, it’s nice to see the pool of clubs able to be win trophies widen as the Premier League levels out in terms of quality. And, finally, it’s nice that the clubs contesting it seem to actually care.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Too Cold, Too Hot

Absence makes the heart grow fonder, apparently. It was in absence that I started this blog – in the arid desert of a football-less summer, in one of the odd-numbered years with no meaningful tournament to watch, with no huge build-up or crushing disappointment to savour alongside a cold, icy cider in a lazy, sweaty beer garden. They won’t be calling it the Long Hot Summer of 2009, but there were a few balmy days in there when I longed for the brisk chill of autumn and winter – when my thick Scottish blood, rosy cheeks and well-padded, hirsute frame would steel me against the bitter elements of the colder seasons, while little African and South American footballers donned gloves, scarves and even tights in attempts to survive 90 minutes of running around in places like Hull, Stoke, Wigan and Wolverhampton. No matter what the weather would be like outside, there was the dream of huddling round the big screen in a cosy pub, pint glasses slipping out of gloved hands, or staying in on a freezing cold Saturday, kept warm merely by the sound of Jeff Stelling’s gentle laughter at another hyperactive, stumbling live report by Chris Kamara.

Yes, the football fan craves the winter. The schedules are hectic, the season is starting to take shape and Alex Ferguson’s padded coats balloon into Everest-grade sleeping bags by mid-January.

But this year we survived Christmas and New Year to discover: absence, again. This time it’s the winter that’s scuppered us.

Last week the Carling Cup semi-finals, one of which was certain to be a pretty tasty Manchester derby, were called off. No big deal, really – I won’t miss a Tuesday night match too much.

But this weekend saw the cancellation of all but two Premier League matches, all but four Championship games, all but two League One matches and every single League Two game. Most of the lower league ties were off because of frozen pitches – effective undersoil heating technology does not, alas, stretch to the likes of Aldershot Town and Wycombe Wanderers. The Premier League matches were cancelled because it was deemed unsafe for fans to reach the ground amid the icy conditions found in almost all areas of the UK (but not, it seems, in Birmingham, where City were able to hold Manchester United to a very creditable draw, or in North London, where Arsenal drew with Everton as I struggled to stay on my feet in those very surrounding streets). Fair enough, I suppose – though it does somewhat beg the question why they bother having undersoil heating at all when the match gets called off anyway.

As I type, Manchester City are successfully playing against Blackburn, so maybe a thaw is upon us and the Premier League has had its cancellations for this year – but the sad fact of the matter is that there was a Premier League weekend, even a Super Sunday, without a full programme of football. Because of some snow. At the height of the season. No orange balls or hilarious slips by goalkeepers. No insane fat Geordies with no shirts on in the stands. And now the top team in the league has a game in hand, leading a month or so of the usual tedious mid-afternoon sports headlines where “Chelsea open up a five point gap at the top! Oh no, wait, it’s only two points now!” or “Manchester United close the gap on Chelsea to just a point! But have, er, played a game more.” Ugh.


All of which means that the football fan (i.e. me) has to focus their attention on sunnier climes for their football fix.

Luckily the Africa Cup of Nations has just kicked off, albeit with an extremely dark cloud hanging over it. When the bus carrying the Togolese national team through Angola came under sustained gunfire on Saturday and three of their staff were tragically killed, it seemed that the tournament might not even go ahead. Even now there is the nagging fear that another violent incident would surely see the competition abandoned. It’s a horrible thought, but I can’t help but wonder what action FIFA would take if something like this happened on the opening day of the World Cup – and it’s not like South Africa is such a safe country, either.

More happily, the opening game of the tournament generated a fairly spectacular result, when Mali, 4-0 down to hosts Angola with 11 minutes left to play, managed to come back and draw the game 4-4. Africa Cup of Nations tournaments are known for being high-scoring affairs, with the 2008 tournament seeing an incredible 99 goals (an average of over 3 a game), due, in part I’m sure, to a dearth of defensive quality from some of the weaker nations, but still – it’s eye-catching and entertaining stuff. It would certainly be great to see a truly great competition emerge from such a depressing start.

The shocks have continued today, with minnows Malawi demolishing Algeria 3-0 in their opening group game, and Ivory Coast being held to a goalless draw against lowly Burkina Faso. While Malawi’s result will reassure those who made cocksure predictions about the ease with which England will win their group games at the World Cup (listen to my supremely confident colleagues on the first episode of The Football Basement podcast for evidence of this), it certainly proves that the African nations are constantly getting stronger and more competitive as a group, rather than the old days when one or two spectacular teams massively outshined the rest. Having said this, the favourites must surely remain the likes of Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Cameroon – though they’ll likely have to live up to their high billing to go all the way in the tournament.

So hopefully the snow will melt in a couple of days, Chelsea will make up their extra match and I’ll be safely ensconced in the pub watching an Ivory Coast v Ghana semi-final in a couple of weeks time. The winter can’t be all bad, can it?