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.