Monday, August 18, 2014

England's Invisible World Cup Winners

Those of you who know me will be aware that I’m not one for nationalistic flag-waving. But let me set my internationalism aside for one moment to rejoice in the fact that England have won the World Cup! What? You didn’t know?

Yesterday England’s women defeated Canada to win the rugby World Cup in France. The chances are that you weren’t even aware the tournament was taking place, and the first many will have heard of it will have been the (limited) attention the team received this morning. It’s rare for women’s rugby to make the back page and the final came on the same weekend as the start of the Premier League season, the final day of the test series between England and India, and the climax of the European athletics championships. It’s unsurprising that the game was farmed out to Sky Sports 4.

Which is a shame because as a sporting spectacle all the ingredients were there for a memorable encounter. England faced a Canadian side with whom they had managed only a tie in the group stages, leaving the final perfectly poised. And it followed a hat-trick of consecutive final defeats in the last three World Cups for England. Fourth time’s a charm. The game had enough drama to keep fans on the edge of their seats. England led 11-3 at half time courtesy of a try from Danielle Waterman and two penalties from Emily Scarratt. After the break Canada clawed their way back into the match, moving within two points of England before Scarratt added another penalty, a try and a conversion to her impressive points haul. England won 21-9. It is the first time in twenty years that they have lifted the trophy and yet still the coverage has been minimal.

Compare this to when the England men’s rugby team won the World Cup in 2003. Despite arriving back in the country in the wee small hours of the morning they were greeted by thousands of supporters at the airport and what followed, according to the BBC, was “an unprecedented national day of celebration, with the team greeting hundreds of thousands of fans from open top buses in a victory parade through London.” They were invited to Number 10 for some champagne by Tony Blair, a man desperate for some vicarious glory following a year of anti-war protests. Then it was on to Buckingham Palace to meet the queen for cucumber sandwiches. I expect they were on their best behaviour for this one but part of me wonders if they resorted to type and acted like the rugby club blokes I knew at university, randomly insulting passers-by and pissing on the corgis.

And it didn’t stop there. Clive Woodward, the England team supremo, was knighted in the New Year’s honours list. Captain Martin Johnson picked up a CBE and most others in the squad MBEs. Then, finally, in what can only be described as an insult to the very notion of dictionary definitions, Jonny Wilkinson was crowned BBC Sports Personality of the Year. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I just don’t see England’s women receiving the same accolades.

What we can say for sure is that women’s rugby is on the rise. The International Rugby Board says,“Women's Rugby is one of the fastest-growing forms of the Game with over 200,000 registered women actively competing in Fifteens and Sevens and 800,000 women and girls participating in leisure Rugby in all its forms around the world.” And in this country alone there are, according to the Rugby Football Union, more than 14,000 women and girls playing the game every week, meaning that participation is at “an all-time high”. Despite these advances women’s rugby, indeed women’s sport in general, lags a long way behind the men.

Women are still dissuaded from taking part in ‘muscular’, ‘masculine’ team sports and instead are patronised by government ministers and encouraged to consider more appropriate forms of physical exercise like aerobics, cheerleading and ironing (ok, I made the last one up, but you get the sarcasm). And there still exists, of course, a strong element whereby female athletes are judged on their looks rather than their sporting skills. Tennis player Maria Sharapova remains the most highly paid sportswoman in the world, despite negligible prize-money winnings. Rugby, with its rucks, mauls and cauliflower ears is a full-blooded, front-on crash tackle to society’s stereotypes of femininity

The one major, headline change that would help push women’s sport to the fore – namely a significant increase and improvement in the current levels of television coverage – is simply not on the cards. For all manner of historical reasons, men’s sport still draws the biggest audiences, and the more viewers you have the more you can charge your advertisers. For someone like Sky, a massive corporation driven by the profit motive, a long-term commitment to women’s sport doesn’t make financial sense.

That is not to say there haven’t been improvements recently. Sky did cover the rugby World Cup; BT Sport and BBC radio are running more coverage of women’s football. Hell, even the last edition of the Wisden almanac carried an article on the history of women’s cricket. I suspect this is a reflection of the growing number of women playing and watching sport at the grassroots level, as well as continued pressure from those campaigning for more balanced sports reporting. However, women’s sports are, in the main, still seen as secondary to those of their male counterparts, curious adjuncts to the ‘proper’ games played by the men. The disparity between the sexes can be illustrated with an example drawn from the athletics world where inequality is (arguably) not so great. If Christine Ohuruogu – the UK’s most successful female athlete of all time –was a man she would be one of the most feted and celebrated sportspeople this country has ever known. As it is, most people won’t even recognise her name.

So what can England’s rugby World Cup winning women expect when they return? Dinner with dignitaries? Fame and fortune? More sponsorship deals than Joe Hart can shake a stick at? Not likely. Yet, while it may not make up for the wrongs of a misogynistic world, they can take heart from the fact that they’re more successful than the men.

The Not So Level Playing Field

This piece was originally written for my "Beyond the Ninety" column on the excellent Voom Football website.

The start of a new Premier League season brings all the usual excitement and expectation. For those of us who follow a top flight team we’re busy predicting just what our clubs might achieve over the next ten months. But the sad truth is that the position your team will finish has already been pretty much decided before a ball has been kicked. The battles for Premiership supremacy and survival are more about the billionaires in the boardroom than the players on the park.  

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the forerunners of today’s administrators – such as the MCC in cricket and the FA in football – first started to write down standardised sets of rules for their respective sports. One of the reasons behind this move was to ensure “equality of competition”. It meant that competing sides had to be of equal size, that batsmen couldn’t walk out to the wicket with a bat four-feet-wide, that there would be a change of ends at half time so neither team were running uphill or into the wind for an entire match. In short, it ensured a level playing field. 

The idea of the level playing field reminded me of something Brendon Rodgers said a couple of seasons ago when his Swansea side took on Manchester City. With five minutes to go City brought on Sergio Aguero as a substitute. After the match Rodgers said, “That’s the difference between the two teams: they have a striker on their bench who costs more than our stadium.” Now at Liverpool, Rodgers is on the other side of the fence and has been able to utilise the club’s substantial financial clout, effectively turning Southampton into a feeder club in the process. Despite spending £86million so far this summer there remain doubts that the Reds’ boss has spent enough to challenge for the title. Pundits and fans alike are lining up to voice their opinion that without a marquee signing Liverpool will be unable to improve on last season’s second place Premiership finish. They’re probably right.

For years Arsene Wenger has epitomised the softly-softly, fiscally responsible approach to team building. Yet disquiet had mounted amongst the Emirates faithful as the Frenchman refused to shell out exorbitant amounts on transfer fees and wages. At the beginning of last season, as the club made a poor start, there were even calls for Wenger to step aside. However, after the signings of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez for a combined total somewhere in the region of £75million, Arsenal appear to have changed their approach. That level of spending is a statement of intent and the Gunners now appear as serious title contenders.

But we shouldn’t see this as a simple change of heart. Wenger is locked in the logic of football’s market forces. If you look at the three clubs who have dominated English football’s top flight for the past decade – Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City – you will find that their success has been underwritten with mind-boggling sums of cold, hard cash. United were, for a time, the richest club side in the world in any sport, a global brand with almost unimaginable merchandising revenue.  Chelsea have been able to call on the oh-so-deep pockets of Roman Abramovich, a man worth in excess of £10 billion. And, strange as it is to say, Roman looks like a pauper compared to the wealth of Sheikh Mansour. The Man City owner is part of a family who reportedly have a trillion dollars’ worth of oil money in the bank. Both Wenger and Arsenal have eventually succumbed to the fact that in order to compete with these clubs you have to spend. And spend big.

You can, of course, have oodles of money and still fail to win the league, as David Moyes proved last year. Seriously, if you have £28milllion to blow on a player and you choose to buy Maurouane Fellaini then you pretty much deserve to be sacked. Equally you could point to the experience at White Hart Lane, where Spurs went on a spending spree with their Gareth Bale windfall only to go backwards.  But while no guarantee, huge wads of cash are a precondition for success. Without the bank balance you can look forward to a year of mid-table mediocrity at best, or, at worst, an entire season of relegation six-pointers.

Just as in the world of business, where market forces tend not to competition but to monopoly, so something similar has happened in football. The effect of the billionaires and oligarchs has been to erode the level playing field and destroy the equality of competition. Only the handful of clubs with mountains of cash are able to bankroll a title challenge. The rest of the teams are merely there to make up the numbers. So when someone asks you who will win the Premier League this year, respond with a question of your own: which club has the most money?

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Why I Am Marching For Palestine

This piece originally appeared on the Portsmouth Socialist Network blog.

This Saturday there will be a demonstration in Portsmouth in solidarity with the people of Gaza. For 22 days Israel has mercilessly shelled the Gaza strip. Ten days in and the F-16s were joined by a ground invasion. The aerial bombardment has been devastating. It has destroyed schools and hospitals, the only power station, UN buildings and refugee centres. At the time of writing the atrocities have claimed the lives of more than 1,700 people, the majority of which are civilians, many of these are children.

This is the latest atrocity in an injustice that dates back nearly 70 years. But there is now a palpable shift in public opinion. Solidarity has been offered from people right across the world, from Texas to Dublin, from Montreal to Rome, people have chanted “Freedom for Palestine!” Here too, ever growing numbers of people are disgusted by what Israel is doing to the Palestinian people. The latest YouGov poll shows that 62% of people in the UK think that Israel is committing war crimes in Gaza and the level of support for the Palestinians is on the increase. The plight of the Palestinians is apparent for all to see.

Like so many other people I’ve seen the pictures on the news and online, deeply distressing images of innocent people who have been beaten, bombed and brutalised. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve welled up at the news of another horrific attack: At the story of the four boys killed playing football on a beach; at the sight of the man who carried the remains of his son in a plastic bag; at Jon Snow’s video and the young girl with the bruised face; at the scene from the hospital where dead bodies are being wheeled out as the newly injured are wheeled in, as though it were some desperate, macabre conveyer belt. The horrors we witness are all too real.

And yet everything seems so very far away. Some people – sympathetic to the Palestinians – have asked what we can do other than rage at the latest news report or newspaper article. What good will come from holding a demonstration? What effect can it really have? And who is going to listen? How can we make our voices heard when the media refuses to listen?

I do understand how they feel. I was one of the two million people who joined the huge anti-war demonstration in 2003 and yet still Blair backed Bush in his attack on Iraq. And people are of course spot on in their criticisms of the media bias - the BBC in particular should be thoroughly ashamed of their coverage.

But protests are vital to help us raise awareness of the situation in Gaza and help build pressure on our own government who are more than happy to
sell arms to the Israelis. Indeed, quite a few people from Pompey have gone up to London to protest outside the Israeli embassy over the past couple of weeks. But not everyone can make demonstrations in the capital, for a variety of reasons - work/family commitments, lack of money, problems with travel. A local demo gives these people the opportunity to voice their feelings.

In fact, in addition to those London demos, there have been local protests in loads of towns and cities across the country. And they've been about more than just venting anger. It highlights the issues, it gets the question of Palestine solidarity in the local paper, maybe it does get some local tv coverage (I hope this protest will!), it lets more people know that there is opposition to the atrocities carried out by Israel. Given the media bias this is crucial. I'm under no illusions, it's tough and we're talking baby-steps, but for some people who see the demo it might be the first time they've ever encountered a different point of view to that of the establishment!

Do people pay attention to these protests? Well, yes, I think they do, and I’ll try to illustrate the point with two very different examples. On Saturday The Telegraph carried an interview with Philip Hammond, the government’s new Foreign Secretary, in which he was critical of Israel’s actions. Now, I don’t trust Hammond as far as I can throw him, but his words are, at least in part, a reflection of the growing number of demonstrations and protests in solidarity with the people of Gaza. “It’s a broad swathe of British public opinion that feels deeply, deeply disturbed by what it is seeing on its television screens coming out of Gaza,” he says.

The other example comes from a vigil held this past weekend at the War Memorial in Portsmouth. Nearly forty people came to the event organised by the local Palestine Solidarity Campaign in order to remember those who died in the First World War and those needlessly dying today in Gaza. Towards the end a young man approached the group and introduced himself. He was an Iraqi who had fled his homeland and travelled to England to seek asylum. He explained, “I know war. I know the horror of living with war. I just wanted to say thank you for what you are doing today.” As people went up to shake his hand he broke down and wept. That is why these demonstrations matter.

Perhaps most importantly these acts help us to build bridges locally - bringing sympathetic people together so that collectively we are stronger and louder. No one, single demo - here or in London or anywhere else for that matter- can stop what is happening in Gaza, we all know that. But every demo, stall, meeting and conversation that changes someone's mind adds a little more to the pressure and, perhaps, inspires someone else to do something. The alternative is that we stay at home, isolated, shouting helplessly at the television, or more likely sobbing as we see the latest pictures coming out of Palestine. I simply can’t do that – and that is why I will be demonstrating next weekend. 

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Reading Le Tour

Mark Perryman reviews books that can help frame our enjoyment of the Tour de France

There seems to be something about cycling that helps inspire fine sportswriting. Perhaps it is the landscapes and countries traversed, the solitude on a bike, the risk factor of a fall or worse, the extraordinary feats of human endurance, and human-powered speed too. Add a healthy dose of British elite level cycling success plus a dash of greenery and its no surprise that publishers are backing bicycling authors to deliver sales, for the most part with very good books too.

Of course it is Le Tour that galvanises this interest, every year, right across Europe, free to watch from the road or mountain side, on terrestrial TV live too. And this year the first two days are in Yorkshire, from Leeds to Harrogate, York to Sheffield, then down south to London before crossing La Manche for the remaining three and a bit weeks of this most magnificent of races. Tim Moore’s French Revolutions is one of the best introductions to the scale and ambition of Le Tour from a cyclist’s point of view as he retells the experience of riding all 3,630km of one year’s route. Even for the keenest, and fittest cyclist such a venture would prove to be too far, and too much. Ned Boulting’s brilliantly idiosyncratic How I Won the Yellow Jumper is his own inside story on how most of us follow the race, via the ITV coverage. This is the professional journalist as self-confessed fan, which in Boulting’s case, but not for many others, works to produce a wonderful style of writing. Part of what makes Le Tour so iconic, as with all the major global sporting events, is its backhistory, now stretching back more than a century. The Tour de France to the Bitter End is a superlative collection of race reports from the Guardian beginning in 1903 to almost right up to the present with the Bradley Wiggins victory in 2012. Before Wiggins in terms of British riders the essential reference point was the story of the brilliant, yet tragic, Tommy Simpson. A career detailed in William Fotheringham’s Put Me Back on My Bike. Road racing at this extreme physical level is sometimes described as a sport for individuals played by teams. Simpson’s final demise can in part be explained by his becoming a victim of this contradiction. Richard Moore’s Slaying the Badger is the classic account of a bitter rivalry between two cyclists riding the race supposedly for the same team, Hinault vs LeMond, in what Moore dubs the greatest-ever Tour de France, the 1986 edition. Whatever the year, on the roads of France and beyond the riders will be stretched out over many kms as they follow the designated route for the best part of four weeks, a compelling sports drama. It is the sheer range of the riders that Max Leonard captures so well in his book Lanterne Rouge choosing to write not about the winners, but those at the back, the very back of the race, and what keeps them going. Ellis Bacon’s Mapping Le Tour provides the definitive insight into the scale of the endeavour of the race, beautifully illustrated, every edition of Le Tour catalogued, each stage recorded. Not only does cycling inspire and attract great writing, but it has a vivid visual culture too. A combination showcased in The Rouleur Centenary Tour de France with the very finest photography of the 2013 race alongside high quality reportage on each of the 21 stages, which ended of course with the second successive British Yellow Jersey winner, Chris Froome.

The Climb is Chris Froome’s newly published autobiography and details his extraordinary road to the Yellow Jersey via growing up in Kenya, school in South Africa, joining the European pro-cycling circuit, debilitating illness and last year’s eventual triumph. Of course this was a victory whether he likes it or not will for ever and a day be measured against Bradley Wiggins’ triumph the year previously. Read the Wiggins biography My Time to get some kind of inkling of the nature and the depth of the rivalry between the pair of them. Before these two was Mark Cavendish, a rider expected to be very much a part of this year’s Tour too. The ferocious speed, not to mention the split second and millimetre perfect decision making required, of a stage finish seems to be almost the ideal environment for Cavendish’s very particular cycling. How he has developed and excelled detailed in his book At Speed. For many though whatever the scale of Wiggo, Cav and Froome’s achievements as British cyclists the long shadow of the sport’s drug problems remans so impenetrable as to cast such successes in doubt. The Armstrong case was eventually uncovered because of the dogged determination of the very best investigative sports journalism. And now with the revelations made spectacularly public and entirely unchallengeable Armstrong’s team-mates are producing confessional-style books to help reveal the mire of performance-enhancing drug culture the sport had become part of. George Hincapie’s The Loyal Lieutenant the latest, and as such a close and long-standing team mate of Armstrong's, one of the most revealing to date too. Juliet Macur’s Cycle of Lies provides the panoramic view of perhaps the greatest story of decline and fall in the history of sport with a rare ability to get to grips with what Armstrong, the good the bad and the drugs, came to represent in and beyond his sport.

The Tour de France differs markedly from other sports mega-events - most obviously football’s World Cup - in the close relationship between spectating and participating. A huge proportion of those watching Le Tour in Yorkshire will be cyclists themselves, many pedalling their way to reach a prized vantage point on a hill climb. And lots in the weeks before, and after, will cycle a chunk of the official route with all the speed and energy they can muster dreaming of being in the mighty peleton on the day itself. This is in many ways a do-it-yourself sports culture. Kitted out with the Pocket Road Bike Maintenance handbook and the Cyclist’s Training Manual the advice will be more than enough to keep bike and body in the kind of shape to ride a Tour stage, or even two. For some the aim will be to rise a 'sportive; the binary opposition of recreation vs competition blurred by a race which is mainly against the clock and our own body’s capacity to perform at speed, as documented in Successful Sportives. A tad muscle-bound some of this stuff, certainly gendering the way cycling is consumed and practiced. A welcome relief therefore provided by Caz Nicklin’s pioneering The Girls’ Bicycle Handbook.
A sense of the potential inclusiveness of cycling is provided by Robert Penn’s almost philosophical It’s All About The Bike. Penn is a missionary for cycling, he makes no apology for his two-wheeled evangelism. A bike as mode of transport, a means to a holiday, a family outing, a race to the finish. All this and more Robert Penn promises we can expect from our bike.

The rich variety of inspiration cycle racing can provide is admirably showcased in the latest volume of The Cycling Anthology.. Ranging over history, philosophy, the mediation and culture of the sport, this is high quality writing for the seriously enthusiastic.

And my book of Le Tour? Richard Moore’s superb Étape. There have been many histories of the Tour de France but instead of a dry chronology Richard Moore takes his reader to the core meaning of this most intriguing of races, the stages where the Yellow Jersey is decided by a lone break, a climb that defies human frailty, a calamity on the road, a rivalry unfolding. It takes three weeks to ride the Tour, ever day filled with drama. This book helps us to understand its ensuring and growing appeal, and to appreciate the tradition and culture this year’s Yorkshire Grand Départ will be contributing to in no doubt its own very special way.

Note No links in this review are to Amazon. If you can avoid purchasing your books from tax-dodgers please do so.

Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’. aka Philosophy Football.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Viva l'Algerie! Solidarity Forever!

Wow. Just wow. If this story is true then the decision taken by the Algerian national football team to donate their World Cup prize money to the people of Gaza is a quite amazing act of solidarity. They had received $9 million for reaching the last 16 in the tournament, before being knocked out by Germany. Following jubilant scenes in Algiers, as the side travelled through the capital on an open top bus, striker Islam Slimani explained the contribution: “they need it more than us.”

And their remarkable act could not have been timelier. The kidnap and murder of three Israeli teenagers has been used by Benjamin Netanyahu as the pretext for yet another air assault on the Palestinian people, despite no evidence linking Hamas or any other organisation to the crime. On the very night that Algeria were narrowly beaten by Germany the first bombing raids were launched over Gaza. The ongoing attacks represent the kind of collective punishment proscribed by international law. As I write there is breaking news that Israel has moved more military units to the Gaza border. In this context the Algerian’s actions are as brave and heroic as their style of football.

Acts of solidarity from footballers, while uncommon, are not unheard of. Brian Clough marched in support of the miners’ strike in the 1980s while Steve McManaman and Robbie Fowler memorably wore t-shirts in support of the Liverpool dockers in 1997. Nor is this the first time footballers have helped to raise awareness of the plight of the Palestinians. When Palestine international Mahmoud Sarsak went on hunger strike to protest his indefinite detention by the Israeli security services he received support from across the world of football.  In 2012 more than 50 professional footballers signed a letter condemning the Israeli airstrikes on Gaza and the decision by UEFA to choose Israel to host the 2013 European Under-21 Championships. Part of their statement read:
"We, as European football players, express our solidarity with the people of Gaza who are living under siege and denied basic human dignity and freedom. The latest Israeli bombardment of Gaza, resulting in the death of over a hundred civilians, was yet another stain on the world's conscience… Despite the recent ceasefire, Palestinians are still forced to endure a desperate existence under occupation, they must be protected by the international community. All people have the right to a life of dignity, freedom and security."
But these acts are few and far between, and not only because footballers at the very top of the game lead lives a million miles removed from the rest of us: feted, idolised and showered with incomprehensible riches. It is because we live in a world in which the rich and powerful tell us that ‘solidarity’ is a dirty word. Why? Because it scares them. Every act of solidarity helps to undermine the prevailing ideas that we’re all selfish individuals, simply out to get whatever we can. It undercuts the mantra, one that we’ve heard for thirty years, that there is no such thing as society. And every time someone stands with the oppressed, the poor, the exploited, and every time we give our support to those fighting back – such as those public sector workers striking on July 10th – it points the way to a better future. Not every gesture can be on the scale of these footballers, but they offer a reminder that solidarity is one of the most potent weapons at our disposal. Viva l’Algerie!

Monday, June 30, 2014

Love Football, Hate FIFA

This piece was originally written for The Bulletin, the freesheet of Portsmouth Socialist Network.

With the World Cup underway in Brazil, protests against the government and FIFA have erupted across the country.

Thousands of people have taken to the streets, demonstrating against the cost of the tournament, which is hardly surprising when you realise staging the World Cup comes with an $11.5 billion price-tag. They carry placards saying, “We want FIFA quality schools and hospitals”. The slogan “We have the circus, now we want the bread” has become hugely popular.  In Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, transport workers have gone on strike, demanding additional payments for the extra work they face. The Homeless Workers Movement has held protests, turning out tens of thousands of people.

As the protests have gathered momentum the government has responded with brutal repression. More than 200,000 police officers and soldiers have been mobilised, demonstrations have been baton charged and tear gassed, undercover cops have fired live ammunition in the streets. In the run up to the World Cup the Brazilian government demolished homes to pave the way for stadiums and infrastructure, whilst arresting people they suspected of being political activists. Yet the people have refused to stay silent.

Brazil is the seventh largest economy in the world, but that wealth is concentrated in the hands of tiny minority of the population. Millions of the poorest Brazilians live in shanty-towns, favelas, quite literally in the shadow of the riches and opulence of the ruling class. Their ramshackle homes are flanked by open sewers; education and healthcare are of terribly low quality. The money spent on the World Cup could have transformed the lives of countless people in Brazil.

With such a crushing level of poverty it is not surprising that Brazilians are chanting, “FIFA Go Home!” Not that this has troubled Sepp Blatter, the head of football’s world governing body, who previously told protesters to stop blaming FIFA for Brazil’s social problems. Blatter is widely and rightly despised by football fans around the world. This is a man with a history of sexist and homophobic outbursts, and who thinks that racism can be resolved by “a handshake”. He is more than happy to turn a blind eye to inequality and injustice, whilst raking in $1 million a year from his role as FIFA’s bigot-in-chief.

All of this comes at a time when FIFA has been embroiled in yet more scandal. Their award of the 2022 World Cup finals to Qatar has caused major controversy, and many people are familiar with the allegations of bribery and corruption. While this news has made headlines the real tragedy is happening in Qatar itself, where hundreds of migrant workers have been killed on the construction sites of World Cup stadiums.

With Brazil scheduled to host the Olympics in 2016 it is unlikely that the protests in Brazil will subside anytime soon. If anything they will continue to grow. History shows us that the costs of staging the Games are likely to dwarf even the staggering amounts spent on the World Cup. More stadiums will be needed, more changes to the country’s infrastructure will be made, more five-star hotels will be required to satisfy the visiting dignitaries and heads of state.

Sport has become a plaything for the rich. The games that billions of people know and love are little more than vehicles for the interests of multinationals, administrators and politicians. Sport is an investment opportunity for big business interests, and a passion to exploit for sponsors such as Coca-Cola, Budweiser and McDonalds. Hosting a mega event like the World Cup or the Olympics is a way for presidents and prime ministers to showcase a country to the international markets while simultaneously ignoring the plight of millions of people in that country.

These are not the priorities of football. These are the priorities of football under capitalism. These are the priorities of FIFA. But it need not be this way. Every football fan should be as interested in what happens on the streets of Brazil as with what happens on the pitch. Marvel at the dignity and bravery of the protesters as much as the talents of Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar. And continue to love football and hate FIFA.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

England’s Problem? Too Much Englishness.

The England squad is home. While many of us predicted an early exit for the team, nobody, not even I, anticipated that their tournament would be over by the time the second round of group games had been completed. Such was the manner of their failure that there can be little doubt as to the reason behind their World Cup humiliation. They did not fall foul of terrible officiating, there were no broken metatarsals, they were not victims of divine intervention or unscrupulous opponents feigning injury. They simply were not good enough.

It means that the recriminations of the punditariat have begun, but they have little to say, their job made all the harder by the fact that few would have done things differently. Roy Hodgson, the England manager, chose youth over experience, played a more expansive game than expected and claimed that preparation for Brasil 2014 had been exemplary. There was no attempt to despair at the vicissitudes of fortune; the shortcomings of the team were all too apparent. The problems of England’s national team are too fundamental, too systemic to be detailed in a tabloid headline.

Yet still they try. The Daily Mail tells us that England’s players “have no heart for passion play”; ex-England captain Paul Ince says that this England squad “lacks the passion”; Kevin Davies has bemoaned the “lack of passion”. And on and on and on… Harry Redknapp added to the passion-conspiracy with a mischievous announcement that Spurs players had come to him whilst boss at White Hart Lane, begging him to withdraw them from the national side. Despite interrogation-by-journalist, Harry refused to name names, presumably to spare Jermaine Defoe any embarrassment. The idea that England are primed and ready for glory if only the players would show more passion and desire and heart and pride is rolled out at every defeat and is as dully repetitive as you’d imagine Phil Neville to be if he were stoned.

It was, therefore, interesting to hear a variation on the theme. In a recent article, Jonathan Freedland dared to cross the Rubicon, jumping from commentating on serious issues to talking about football. His conclusion was that, when compared to the fist-pumping, anthem-singing superstars of other nations, England looked like a team in need of a national identity. At a time when David Cameron is busy conjuring the importance of British values such as democracy and tolerance – as though the Swedish love dictatorship and the Canadians are famed for their hatred and ill-temper – now is as good a time as any to hold sport up as a mirror for the state of the nation. Yet, just as Cameron’s attempts to engage us in a ‘conversation’ about ‘British’ values is an attempt to distract us from the problems of society, so the appeal to an English sporting identity is a red-herring. The national team are suffering because of the national identity; not a lack of it.

You saw it last year during the debates about the status of Adnan Januzaj. While the young Manchester United midfielder may have opted to represent Belgium at this World Cup, there was, for a time, a possibility that he might play for England. It prompted Arsenal and England’s Jack Wilshire to wade in with his conception of English football: “We have to remember what we are. We are English. We tackle hard, are tough on the pitch and are hard to beat. We have great characters. You think of Spain and you think technical but you think of England and you think they are brave and they tackle hard. We have to remember that.”

What a strange world it is where the footballers of one country are allowed to be ‘technical’ while those of another are restricted to “tough on the pitch”. The insularity is astounding and is a little reminiscent of the way over a century ago the Football Associations of the four home countries were invited to join the ranks of FIFA. They declined on the basis that there was little that Jonny Foreigner could tell the birthplace of football about football. It’s almost as if English football continues to say, “This is the way we play football. There is no other way. And it’s up to the rest of the world to catch up.” The trouble is that the rest of the world did catch up, and they did so many years ago. English football is still reeling from that shock. In a typically insightful piece, the Guardian’s Barney Ronay traces the current crisis back to the 1950s:
“Post-mortems will come and go from here, but perhaps the most notable England football anniversary of recent times is the passing of 60-odd years since, in the wake of humiliation by Hungary, the great Jimmy Hogan, one of the godfathers of central European football, was invited by the FA to take English coaching in hand. At Chelsea barracks Hogan gave a group of managers a masterclass in how to teach technique and touch to young footballers, with the intention of introducing ball-mastery and short-passing to school and club coaching across the nation, spreading the word as he had in Holland and Germany. Except, it didn’t work out with the FA. The post was never filled. And on we went, producing for the last half century spirited and athletically impressive footballers who so often against better teams seem to have no clear idea exactly how they intend to play the game”
The difference between the England team and the rest of the world isn’t a lack of passion. It is the result of a national football culture that despite the Premier League – the quintessential product of globalisation – remains horribly insular, that historically has struggled to deploy the likes of Hoddle and Le Tissier, that values work rate over talent, and produces world class talent by accident rather than design. If only the national football culture could shelve the little-Englander, UKIP-sounding, Churchill-wannabe, ‘this team’s not for turning’ soundbite-making, sing-along-to-Cliff-at-Wimbledon, no surrender bullshit, warm beer and village green mentality. Then, maybe, just maybe, we wouldn’t have to listen to the same discussion over and over again.

Oddly this is a World Cup at which national footballing stereotypes are being turned on their heads. The hosts Brazil may be playing some football that is most certainly pleasing on the eye, but it comes as hundreds of thousands of Brazilians protest against the staging of the World Cup, with many even cheering on the opposition. Both the Dutch and French squads are eschewing tradition by failing to implode in a fit of division and egotism. The German team may still lack a single star player but have developed a brand of free-flowing football that flies in the face of the dour efficiency that would grind out results in years gone by. Meanwhile Argentina owe their second round birth largely to the individual magic of a diminutive number 10. Because, well, some things just don’t change.