Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Sport on Commercial Television: 1955-1992

Below is the successful application I submitted for the De Montfort PhD scholarship on ‘Sport and Commercial Television, 1955-1992’. It is posted here in the hope that it might, in some way, aid my research over the next three years…

OVERVIEW
In the book ITV Cultures, Johnson and Turnock lament the fact that “ITV has often been marginalized or neglected in histories of broadcasting in Britain” (2005:1). One might argue that this is especially true of sports broadcasting on independent television which, while not entirely absent, certainly appears to place a distant second in comparison with the BBC.

Nor does sports programming feature extensively in the histories of commercial television that do exist; for instance, the subject does not feature in the index of ITV Cultures. Elsewhere the early coverage of sport by independent television has been derided as “sparse, random, and sometimes amateurish” (Sendall, 1982:324).

When discussion of sport on commercial television does appear, the narrative is usually framed by reference to sport on the BBC (Crisell, 1997; Chandler, 2004). Such an outcome might be considered inevitable given the BBC’s established (and, perhaps, establishment) position. From its inception the existence of Independent Television – indeed, its very name – has been defined by its relationship to the BBC. By the time independent television first appeared in 1955 the BBC was already “consolidated in the field” having “developed expertise, equipment, contracts and contracts” (Whannel, 1992:45).

Peter Dimmock, BBC’s head of outside broadcasts in the early 1950s, recognised that the new ITV network could pose a serious threat to the BBC and that sport coverage would be an invaluable weapon. This foresight, coupled with innovations in technology and format, and their connections to sports administration (Collins, 2013:116), provided the platform from which the BBC has built its reputation as a sports broadcaster able to “tap into the national psyche in a way ITV could not.” (Holt and Mason, 2000:103)

Sports programming on ITV and Channel 4 is too important to be relegated to the position of adjunct in the story of another broadcaster, even if it would be impossible to construct a history of sport on commercial television without mention of the BBC. A number of works have attempted to overcome this problem while examining specific issues or historical moments: the rivalry between ITV and BBC (Whannel, 1992:67-86); the 1966 World Cup (Chisari, 2004); and the attempts to introduce American football to a British audience (Maguire, 2011). As important as these works are they paint only a partial picture. The history of sport on commercial television has yet to be written.

POSITIONING

Given the scope and scale of an inquiry into sport on commercial television from 1955-1992, it is imperative to structure the research effectively. It is possible to divide the evolution of sport on commercial television into four distinct periods, the beginning of each being marked by significant moments of public policy intervention in the sphere of television broadcasting: the Television Act (1954); the Pilkington Report (1962); the report of the Annan Committee (1977); and the Peacock Committee (1986)

Constructing distinct phases around public policy is advantageous in two ways. Firstly it allows us to clearly identify the nature of commercial broadcasters who, although independent from the BBC and reliant on advertisers for revenue, remain dependent on the government for both its licence and remit. As such independent television broadcasters such as ITV occupy a “hybrid position as a ‘commercial public service broadcaster’” (Johnson & Turnock, 2005:3)

Such periodisation would also allow us to examine the production of televised sport as a social process conditioned by wider political, economic and cultural factors. It allows us to chart the chains of interdependence between government, broadcaster, sports’ governing bodies, advertisers and sponsors, and audience. Furthermore, we are able to identify how these relationships have in turn been shaped by power, status, finance, class and gender.

The TV Act (1954): The economic boom of the post-war period underpinned the rapid expansion of television ownership. Although the majority of the population in the UK would not own a television set until 1960 (Szymanski, 2011:113), demand was outstripping supply by the early 1950s (Haynes, 1998:218) and the “significance of sport for this phenomenal rate of penetration should not be underestimated” (Goldlust. 1988:8).

ITV launched in 1955, comprised of six franchises spread over three geographical areas. Sports broadcasting did not appear high on its agenda. In part this reflected the dominant position of the BBC, but it also reflected the problems inherent in the network’s composition which left it at a disadvantage (Crisell, 2002:127) compared with its competitor. Its regional structure made it almost impossible to secure the type of national broadcast deals required to televise sports, and this fragmentation mitigated the economies of scale available to the BBC. With no centralised policy, sports programming featured sporadically and those “first ITV companies to introduce sport into their schedules faced an upward struggle” (Boyle & Haynes, 2009:39).

The Pilkington Report (1962): The Pilkington Report was critical of ITV’s sports coverage in its early years of broadcasting. Even then ITV seemed slow to respond. Its coverage of the 1966 World Cup paled in comparison with the BBC. ITV offered half the output of their rival (26 hours compared to 55 hours on the BBC) and, where matches were televised on both channels simultaneously, drew a fraction of the available audience (Chisari, 2004).

It was not until 1967 that ITV created a department dedicated to the production of sports programming. This period seems to signal a marked increase in confidence for ITV sport. They jostle for position in the sports broadcasting marketplace with the BBC and attain a certain level of parity. For example the rights to show highlights of football league matches are shared through the 1970s as ITV and BBC operate what has been variously described as a “bilateral monopoly” (Buraimo et al, 2010:462) or “informal cartel” (Dobson & Goddard, 2004:81). The upwards trajectory was not without its setbacks and contradictions. ITV dabbled somewhat farcically with coverage of cricket’s Gillette Cup (Holt & Mason, 2000:109) and provided only minimal coverage of the Olympics in 1976 (Whannel, 1984:31).

The Annan Report (1977): In many ways Channel 4, which began broadcasting in 1982, opened up “new vistas for sports broadcasting” in the UK (Boyle & Haynes, 2009:41). The broadcasting of minority sports on ITV had been the result of experimentation and necessity. Channel 4 were proud to position themselves as niche and it fitted their “minority and controversial” identity (Ranelagh, 1998:56). Coverage that eschewed the “traditional form” (Maguire, 2011a:951) only added to this image.

It would be fair to see these developments as part of the wider trends of globalisation and Americanisation (Maguire, 2011b:969). Channel 4’s weekly magazine package Trans World Sport offered highlights of such diverse sports as sumo wrestling from Japan, Australian rules football, and kabaddi from India; both Gridiron and basketball were ‘traditionally American’ sports, even if coverage of the latter was from a British league. Yet it is important to point out that neither trend originated with Channel 4. The globalisation of sports broadcasting can be traced back to at least the European Broadcasting Union, while concern over American influence on independent television was apparent from the very beginning of ITV (Hill, 2002:105).

The Peacock Committee (1986): There is a certain historical irony in the fact that the Peacock Committee should open the door to satellite and cable television during the period in which ITV was beginning to establish a degree of dominance in the field of sports broadcasting. The BBC still held the rights to broadcast England’s home test matches and key domestic and international fixtures in both codes of rugby. Moreover its coverage of sport global mega-events helped the corporation retain a belief in its production quality.

In this period ITV “began to evolve the strategy of opting out of some major event coverage, whilst securing others exclusively” (Whannel, 1992:51). It had secured a range of contracts in key sports, notably boxing, athletics and, most importantly, football. For the first time in its history the network could claim with some justification, “If it’s live and exclusive it must be ITV sport!” The shift from tacit cooperation to outright competition was not without its consequences. Sports administrators realised the value and potential profitability of their ‘product’. The market in which ITV had fought so hard to establish itself was revolutionising, and market forces would usher in a new era of sports broadcasting.

METHODOLOGY

The nature of this project allows for a mixed-methodological approach. Although the research would rely heavily on archive material there is a potential to incorporate quantitative data, a wealth of secondary source material and, perhaps most interestingly, a series of interviews with key figures involved in commercial broadcasting from (the latter part) of the period 1955-92.[1]

Any attempt to research the history of sport on commercial television is, however, confronted with the specific methodological problems posed by the regional structure of ITV. With the network divided into 15 regional franchises – and, in turn, three of these sub-divided between weekday and weekend programming – the paper records of the various franchisees have never been collected in a single location. In addition, a number of companies that ran regional ITV franchises no longer exist and/or have been subsumed within other companies, resulting in a “relative lack of access to archival material” (Johnson & Turnock, 2005:4). A number of major archives do exist and the following would form the first steps in research: 
  • ·        The ITV archives held at Bournemouth University
  • ·        The papers held at the British Film Institute in their Special Collections
  • ·        The regulator Ofcom holds some paper records for its predecessor organisations
  • ·        The Independent Television Commission Archive Papers (1954-65) held at Edinburgh University Library
  • ·        The archive material available through the Royal Television Society
  • ·        BBC Written Archive Centre

The availability of complete back issues of the TV Times, both online and through the painstaking digitisation undertaken by the AHRB, would also be interesting source material. First published in 1955 these magazines would provide valuable quantitative data in terms of which sports were broadcast (and how often), as well as highlighting regional differences and the overall priority accorded to sports programming. Similarly the figures available from the Television Audience Measurement and Audits of Great Britain organisations can contribute important data regarding the popularity of sports programming on the competing television channels. Newspaper archives would also be useful, as would the innumerable papers, memoirs, autobiographies, and letters left behind by key figures in independent television. Finally it might be possible to conduct interviews with some of those who had roles in the production of sport for commercial television.

BIBLIOGRAPHY
Boyle, R., & Haynes, R. (2009) Power Play: Sport, The Media and Popular Culture, Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh

Babatunde Buraimo, Juan Luis Paramio & Carlos Campos (2010) “The Impact of Televised Football on Stadium Attendances in English and Spanish League Football”, Soccer & Society, 11:4, pp461-474

Chandler, J. (2004) “The TV and Sports Industries” in Rowe, D. (ed.) Critical Readings: Sport, Culture and the Media, Open University Press: Maidenhead, pp48-69

Chisari, F. (2004) “‘Shouting Housewives!’ The 1966 World Cup and British Television” in Sport in History, 24:1, pp94-108

Collins, T. (2013) Sport in Capitalist Society: A Short History, Routledge: London

Dobson, S. & Goddard, J. (2004) The Economics of Football, University of Cambridge Press:
Cambridge

Crisell, A. (2002) An Introductory History of British Broadcasting (2nd addition), Routledge: London

Ellis, J. (2005) “Importance, Significance, Cost and Value” in Johnson, C. & Turnock, R., (eds.) ITV Cultures: Independent Television over Fifty Years, Open University Press: Maidenhead

Goldlust, J. (1988) Playing for Keeps, Longman Cheshire: Melbourne

Haynes, R. (1998) “A pageant of sound and vision: football's relationship with television, 1936–60” in The International Journal of the History of Sport, 15:1, 211-226

Hill, J. (2002) Sport, Leisure & Culture in Twentieth-Century Britain, Palgrave: London

Holt, R. (1989) Sport and the British: A Modern History, Oxford University Press: Oxford

Holt, R. & Mason, T., (2000) Sport in Britain: 1945-2000, Blackwell Publishers: Oxford

Kennedy, E. & Hills, L., (2009) Sport, Media and Society, Berg: Oxford

Kelner, M. (2012) Sit Down and Cheer: A History of Sport on TV, Bloomsbury: London

Joseph A. Maguire (2011a) The consumption of American football in British society: networks of interdependencies, Sport in Society, 14:7-8, 950-964

Maguire, J.A. (2011b) The global media sports complex: key issues and concerns, Sport in Society, 14:7-8, 965-977

Johnson, C. & Turnock, R., (eds.) (2005) ITV Cultures: Independent Television over Fifty Years, Open University Press: Maidenhead

Ranelagh, J. (1998) “Channel 4: A View from Within” in Contemporary British History, 12:4, 53-59
Sendall, B. (1982) Independent Television in Britain, Vol 1: Origin and Foundation 1946-62, Macmillan Press Ltd: Basingstoke

Szymanski, S. (2011) “Jeux avec Forntieres: Television Markets and European Sport” in Tomlinson, A., Young, C. & Holt, R. (eds) Sport and the Transformation of Modern Europe: States, Media and Markets 1950-2010, Routledge: London, pp113-127

Whannel, G. (1984) “The Television Spectacular” in Tomlinson, A., & Whannel, G. (eds.) Five Ring Circus: Money, Power and Politics at the Olympic Games, Pluto Press: London

Whannel, G. (1992) Fields in Vision: Television Sport and Cultural Transformation, Routledge: London




[1] Although not an academic text, Martin Kelner’s book Sit Down and Cheer: A History of Sport on TV (2012) is notable for its combination for archival references and quotations and observations drawn from interviews.

On Writing, Not Writing (and writing again)

I started this blog four and a half years ago. Time flies, eh? Over that time I hope I’ve produced a number of worthwhile, interesting and (perhaps, even) important pieces of writing. I’m delighted that so many people have visited the site, although my stats hardly set the internet ablaze. This is not surprising – a Marxist writing about sport is hardly going to draw the numbers of a page dedicated to porn or cat memes. Yet over the last couple of years I have been writing less and less. Indeed, my output over that time has slipped to such a degree that there are now rumours Theresa May is going to lay me off and sell the site to a Chinese consortium. So what do I do with the blog now?

There was never anything as pathetically managerial as a mission statement but the blog’s premise was simple enough: the intersection of sport and politics was something worth exploring. This in itself was nothing new – others have been doing something similar for a good long while. Still, I felt that I had something to say, even if I wasn’t entirely sure what that was. “How do I know what I think,” asked E.M. Forster, “until I see what I say?”

This personal desire to write was also coupled to a definite political angle. I passionately believe that those of us on the left should have something to say about sport. Millions of working class people play and watch sport so we should be able to offer more than a lazy critique denouncing playful competition as a mirror image of the workings of capitalism. While I’m not arguing for socialists to have a line on half-and-half scarves (they’re wrong) we should, at least, have something to say about sporting issues.

More than that I wanted to produce intelligent and accessible writing about sport. The criticism of Marxism as largely unintelligible to the ‘ordinary’ worker is, like most bullshit, a lie built around a kernel of truth. The left does, at times, feel as though it is speaking to itself with in-house technical jargon and references to long-forgotten texts – but this is nowhere near as bad as one might believe. This blog was an attempt to connect with the sports fan that reads. I am most proud of the fact that this blog has been an open space for anyone on the left to post their thoughts on sport.

Yet I have always found writing incredibly hard. Even the most basic pieces seem to consume an inordinate amount of time and leave me emotionally drained. The available space required to write – both mentally and physically – has diminished. Unable to respond quickly to the big story of the day, and without the headspace required for longer pieces, the blog has dwindled to dormant. Somewhat ironically, given that my impact on ‘the left’ has been just the low side of negligible, the blog had an enormous, unexpected, impact on my life and career. Enough people read my work that I was asked to contribute to books, journals, magazines and a variety of websites. This in turn led to a job teaching the history and sociology of sport at a university in London. Oddly this impacted upon my writing.

Reading and writing are now a means to an end, directed to the production of lectures and slideshows. Add to this the usual slings and arrows, and the birth of my daughter, and one begins to understand why I haven’t blogged since the death of Johann Cruyff. Life, I guess, is what happens when you’re busy making blogging plans.  On the plus-side I now have a skill-set that includes the ability to knock-up a PowerPoint presentation on the train and change a nappy on a park bench.

The less I wrote, the less I found myself wanting to write; the less I wanted to write, the more I doubted my ability to write. This has to change. I find myself wanting to write again. More importantly, I need to write again. Soon I start a PhD with De Montfort University, researching the history of sport on commercial television. Writing regularly is required. Rather than leave this blog dormant there is a change of direction. Instead of starting a new blog, Inside Left will be home to my research and thoughts on that process. While this doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll only post PhD related content, it stands to reason that there will be less in the way of current affairs and politics. And there’ll probably be fewer jokes, which, on reflection, is probably a good thing. Think of it as a strategic repositioning in the climate of post-Brexit uncertainty. Or something.

Apologies, then, for a self-indulgent, self-absorbed posting, though I hope it serves its function. Twenty years ago I asked the jockey-turned-novelist, Dick Francis, for the one tip he would pass on to every aspiring writer. “Know your subject,” he replied. Currently I know more about the frustrations of not writing – and how daunting it is to write again – than anything else. Purpose and habit have to be renewed. As another sportsman, who, like Francis, saw an inexplicable slip clutch defeat from the jaws of victory, once said, “We go again.”

Monday, March 28, 2016

The Revolutionary Johan Cruyff

It seems to me that the number of sporting revolutionaries is greatly over-estimated. They are, for instance, far less common than actual revolutions, those explosions of tumult and rebellion that challenge old orders and political regimes. Yet sporting revolutionaries do exist. And Johan Cruyff, who died last week from lung cancer at the age of 68, should certainly be counted amongst their number.  As Richard Williams notes in his piece on the Dutchman, “football has never quite had a revolutionary quite like Johan Cruyff”.

It is not difficult to see why Cruyff deserved such an accolade. His athleticism, his ability to glide past opponents, and, above all else, his grace were unique. Cruyff was the star name in the unfathomably talented Ajax side of the late 1960s and early 1970s that won six Eredivisie titles in eight seasons and swept to three consecutive European Cups. Rinus Michels may claim to have masterminded Total Football but it was Cruyff who proved to be its charismatic figurehead. 

Total Football was a style of play built upon technical excellence, fluidity and positional interchangeability; Cruyff was the brightest of its creative sparks, its theorist and conductor. As David Winner explains in the wonderful book, Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football: “His vision of perfect movement and harmony on the field was rooted in the same sublime ordering of space that one sees in the pictures of Vermeer or church painter Pieter Jansz Saenredam. It was the music of the spheres on grass." 

The way Ajax played was new but it represented more than just a tactical revolution. Winner again: “Total Football was profoundly imbued with democratic impulses. It prided itself on being the most cosmopolitan, creative conception of the game; a perfect balance between collective responsibility, equality and individualism, a system that allowed every player to excel and express himself.” While Cruyff would welcome those “democratic impulses” on the pitch, they did not always sit well with him off it. When in 1973 the Ajax players elected Piet Keizer club captain, a disgruntled Cruyff decided his time in Amsterdam had come to an end. Within three weeks he had moved to Barcelona.

As with so many revolutionaries, the enduring romance of Cruyff’s story is not his success but, rather, his glorious failure. By 1974 totaalvoetbal was to become the national style of play. The Netherlands, comprising a core of Ajax players, reunited Michels and Cruyff. Their footballing superiority and attacking abandon endeared them to fans the world over, and made them the neutral’s choice for the final against West Germany. More than this they, and Cruyff in particular, oozed cool. That they should play so well and still lose merely cemented their legendary status.

Yet the appeal of Johan Cruyff went far beyond the pitch. He was the rarest of creatures: a footballer you actually wanted to hear talk. As a manager he combined style and success. As a much sought after pundit he would skewer the fad for defensive football, attack the game’s preoccupation with statistics, and was lambasting Louis Van Gaal long before disgruntled punters in the Stretford End took up the cudgel. Equally he never seemed short of opinions on politics, religion or life. Did Cruyff have a political philosophy to match his footballing philosophy? It’s difficult to tell. Trying to fathom Cruyff’s political outlook is a bit like trying to unpick the Gordian knot whilst wearing mittens. Perhaps Cruyff didn’t know himself; perhaps he never wanted us to know. One cannot help but be reminded of Cruyff’s response to a journalist’s persistent line of questioning during a press conference: “If I wanted you to understand, I would have explained it better.”

There has always been the temptation to view Cruyff through the prism of Dutch stereotypes: the artist, the Dutch master, the synthesis of Orange inclination to arrogance and contrarianism. Such appeals to national characteristics always strike me as decidedly trite. Those traits we most associated with Cruyff – his outspokenness, originality and self-belief – might similarly be used to describe Bill Shankly and Brian Clough, products of the Scottish and English working class respectively. Each made their name prior to the point media coaching became part and parcel of one’s football training. This is not to say, however, that Cruyff was not a product of his time.

While it may be more accurate to say that Johan Cruyff the man was ‘progressive’ rather than ‘revolutionary’, one can detect the vestigial traces of Amsterdam’s mid-1960s radicalism. From the moment, as a brash teenager with long hair, he refused to wear anything other than the number 14 shirt, Cruyff captured the era’s anti-establishment, counter-cultural air. When Cruyff’s wife Danny gave birth in 1974 they named their child Jordi in what was widely interpreted as a gesture of solidarity with the people of Catalonia. His decision not to participate in the 1978 World Cup because it was being staged in Argentina, then under a brutal military dictatorship, was another example of a man unwilling to negotiate away his principles. “How can you play soccer,” asked Cruyff, “a thousand metres from a torture centre?” And he carried that anti-authoritarianism throughout his life – as witnessed by his numerous spats with the hierarchies of Ajax and Barcelona. Certainly he was indulged and insulated, courtesy of his wealth and reputation, but Cruyff seemed like a man who would never shy away from controversy, always on the lookout for the next conflict.

By virtue of his prodigious footballing skills, the sheer force of his personality, and his bouts of outrageous egotism, Cruyff could simultaneously forge a team around him, and, as an “explicit elitist”, supersede it. He was both the key figure in Total Football – the beautiful apotheosis of teamwork – and the man after whom the Cruyff turn was named, a piece of skill often copied but rarely mastered. This is no coincidence. At a time when society had yet to decisively determine which should come to dominate, he epitomised the glorious tension between the collective and the individual.

Monday, January 4, 2016

New Year Blues

So, that was Christmas. And what have I done? Another year over and this one has, apparently, just begun. Well, to answer your question, not only have I recycled some lyrics to baulk out a blog post, I’ve also saved a little good cheer to open 2016.

Over the past couple of years I’ve been researching and writing about Lindy Delapenha, Portsmouth Football Club’s first black player. Pompey fans might be interested to know that two recent publications carry pieces on Delapenha. First up is Neil Allen’s excellent Played Up Pompey, a beautiful book containing a whole number of interviews with some of the most loved and iconic figures from Pompey’s past. I presume it is available from the normal selection of online retailers, but if you live locally, and you’d prefer not to give your hard-earned cash to the tax-dodging bastards at Amazon, then you can pop into Waterstones in Commercial Road where there’s a whole display dedicated to the book.

Secondly, the lovely folks over at Soccer History have published a piece I’ve written charting Delapenha’s time on the south coast. Some of the article will be familiar to those of you who have read my posts elsewhere on the blog (for example here, here and here), but there’s some new stuff as well – not least some consideration as to why Delapenha faced relatively little racist abuse when in Portsmouth between 1948-50.

And if that’s not enough to whet your appetite Soccer History is chock full of other fascinating pieces, including Fulham FC during the First World War and the rise and fall of women’s football in Bradford at the start of the twentieth century. And all for the princely sum of £5.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

A Quiet Reflection on Steven Gerrard

I waited a while before writing this piece. Time is often required if we are to accurately judge the recently departed. Both our individual and our collective memories need space in which to fairly take the measure of the man, to assess his significance and gauge our loss. This is especially true when the past is so recent, and the recent past is so raw. And disappointing.

Thank Shankly we don’t have to put up with any more of those eulogies. The close season has provided enough transfer drama to distract even the most misty-eyed of Gerrard fans. Yet as the Premier League gets underway it still seems strange that Stevie G won’t be running out at Anfield this season.

That Steven Gerrard’s Liverpool career would eventually come to an end was inevitable, that the end should have lasted so long was not. By announcing his decision to swap Liverpool for Los Angeles at the start of the year, Gerrard inadvertently embarked upon an interminable farewell tour. The team stuttered. Gerrard, when not out injured, jogged through games in almost somnambulant fashion. For a brief time it looked as though the club might engineer a moment of serendipity, but defeat to Aston Villa cost them an appearance in the FA Cup final, which coincided with Gerrard’s birthday. The man who for over fifteen years had helped to paper over the cracks of his club’s mediocrity surely deserved a better send-off. By the time Liverpool were thrashed 6-1 at Stoke City on the final day of last season there was nothing left to write.

Better judges than I have attempted to capture the essence of Stevie G: what Gerrard meant to Liverpool FC and English football more widely. In my opinion only two pieces – by Barney Ronay and Henry Winter – have come close. Winter in particular is accurate in his assessment of Gerrard the footballer:
“In his prime, particularly in the mid-Noughties, Gerrard was a footballer who seized games because of his huge heart, stamina and will to win. An instinctive footballer often fuelled by emotion and adrenalin, Gerrard responded to adversity thrillingly, unquestioningly, often triumphantly. He did not pause for thought. He acted. Hence those split-seconds that shape seasons, those vital goals amongst the 180 in 695 games”
There was no doubting that, when on the top of his game, Gerrard was one of the best midfielders in the world with a skill-set few could match. Don’t just take my word for it - Zinedine Zidane thought Gerrard at his peak was the best midfielder in the world and was “desperate” for Real Madrid to sign him in 2004. But ever since his debut in 1998 Gerrard was more than the sum of his footballing parts. He was talisman, leader, stalwart and inspiration.

Gerrard’s time at Anfield was defined by sport’s essential binary: success and failure. First is his catalogue of unforgettable moments, each easily encapsulated in a word or two: Olympiakos; Istanbul; Cup final. At times Gerrard all but single-handedly dragged Liverpool to silverware. Second is what would go down as Gerrard’s lasting regret - his unsuccessful quest to win the Premier League. It could all have been so different if Gerrard had accepted either of the offers made by Chelsea in 2004 and 2005. Had he moved to London he would certainly have collected more winners’ medals. Alternatively he could have moved to one of the European powerhouses, gracing the Bernabau or the San Siro, and pocketing an even larger wage in the process. But Gerrard didn’t leave; he was always too connected to Liverpool, to the fans, the club and the city.

Gerrard was raised on the Bluebell Estate in Huyton, a poor, working class area which perennially features in lists of the most deprived communities in the UK. In his autobiography Gerrard says little about the world in which he grew up, but does acknowledge that “money was tight”. He was barely a year old when the Toxteth riots took place, 5 years old when Derek Hatton joined the rate-capping rebellion, still only seven when Margaret Thatcher won her third term in Downing Street. And Gerrard was not quite nine years old when his cousin, Jon-Paul Gilhooley, died at Hillsborough. Liverpool felt the harsh effects of Thatcherism as keenly as any city in the country. It was the scene of a seemingly unstoppable economic decline; unemployment in the city rose from 10.6% in 1971 to 21.6% in 1991. In that same year Liverpool Riverside had an unemployment rate of 27.5%, with male unemployment at 37.7% – this was the highest unemployment rate of any parliamentary constituency in the UK. Boys from the Black Stuff was more documentary than drama. The government were advised to abandon the city to “managed decline”.

By the time Gerrard played his first game for Liverpool the city had begun to show flickering signs of renewal, yet work remained scarce, poverty rife. Does any of this help us to understand Gerrard the midfield dynamo and inspirational skipper? Can we detect traces of his roots in his on-field mentality and never-say-die attitude? Maybe, although in life cause and effect seldom operates so cleanly.

What is beyond doubt, however, is the effect Gerrard’s life story had on Liverpool fans. How could it not? Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher became the fabled Scouse beating-heart of the team, the local lads who provided a much needed identity for a club who could no longer be defined by its success. Moreover they gave fans an emotional link to a club that was adapting to the era of corporate football ushered in with the Premier League. When Liverpool last won the League in 1989/90 adult supporters could get a spot on the Kop for as little as £4. When Gerrard made his debut a similar ticket set you back £18. Today the price of admission ranges from £37 - £59 depending on the opposition. Working class people in Liverpool, indeed working class people all over the country, were, and still are, being systematically priced out of football.

Gerrard in particular, with his all-action style and Roy of the Rovers heroics, became the embodiment of Koppites wish-fulfilment. Not only were he and Carragher players you could cheer on come match-day, they were proof that not everyone in the city was condemned to a life of joblessness and the harsh realities of alienation, monotony and poverty. Even if we couldn’t escape perhaps our sons or grandsons might. (Thanks to the sexism of both society and sport, such opportunities are not, of course, afforded to our daughters and granddaughters.) There seemed to be an organic link between Gerrard and the fans, one that was stretched to near breaking point by the Chelsea transfer saga. How could he even contemplate leaving Anfield? It wasn’t that we thought of him as ours, a footballer-commodity to be retained or traded on the whim of market forces. On some level we identified him as us.

It is understandable that people should seek to use ‘loyalty’ as their frame of reference when talking about Gerrard. Loyalty to the club; loyalty to the fans. I have no objection but I do wonder if there is not another way of approaching the question. Perhaps it is not loyalty that defines Steven Gerrard, but rather aspiration.

The candidates for the Labour Party leadership, who, with the honourable exception of Jeremy Corbyn, are a mix of re-animated Blairites and outright Tories, have talked a lot about ‘aspiration’ over the past few weeks. Their conception seems to be based on the belief that people are essentially only ever out for themselves, that they are selfish and greedy, and their only goals in life are nicer houses, bigger TVs, and newer cars. People won’t vote for you unless you can appeal to their sense of aspiration. It’s all nonsense – as Corbyn’s excellent campaign has demonstrated. But how does it apply to Steven Gerrard?

Without question Gerrard could have gone to Stamford Bridge or Real or Inter. He would have made more money, won more medals, his status as a world class footballer would have been assured. I don’t doubt for a moment that he desperately wanted all of those things. However, he stayed at Liverpool, not through a lack of personal aspiration but because he wanted to achieve these things with the team he had joined as a boy. Gerrard’s aspiration stretched beyond mere individualism to include the club, the players, the fans.

Perhaps in trying to identify the essence of Gerrard we have been looking in the wrong direction. We should instead have been asking what he could tell us about the world we live in and the football that we love. Gerrard’s career at Liverpool captured the contradictions of a working class game that has long since been bought and branded. He is the archetypal one-club player who is now at his second club. A millionaire who understands that aspiration is a collective endeavour. The irony is that for so much of his career as a player his aspiration was thwarted by the mediocrity of those around him.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Palestine at FIFA: What Happened?

The motion to expel Israel from world football was never put to the delegates at the 65th annual Congress of FIFA. The proposal, drafted by the Palestinian Football Association (PFA), was dropped a few hours before the vote was due to take place. This occurred, of course, just days after FIFA, world football’s governing body, was thrown into chaos following the arrests of a number of its officials in the United States on corruption charges. Eventually, amidst last minute changes to the agenda and talk of ‘compromise’ solutions, the debate on the situation in Palestine ended in what Vice described as a “baffling display of confusion”.

For those of us trying to understand what happened to the PFA motion, the waters were muddied by the toxic combination of institutional turmoil and the lack of transparency which characterises FIFA’s democratic practices. The subsequent, often contradictory, reports reflected this. Some attempted to unpick exactly what had gone on behind the scenes, others simply shoe-horned a limited number of ‘facts’ into a pre-determined narrative. At their very worst some articles seemed to suggest (in a nudge-nudge, wink-wink fashion) that the FBI’s arrest of leading FIFA members had been timed in order to scupper the PFA’s efforts. Given that the assorted partial truths fail to make a consistent whole, it seems worthwhile examining the events of late May.

In some quarters there has been suggestion that the PFA motion was junked as the result of some nefarious activity on behalf of FIFA and/or the Israeli Football Association (IFA). For example, this article in the Morning Star talks about "brinksmanship" of the two organisations as the vote approached, insinuating that either FIFA or the Israeli FA (or both) were in some way responsible for the decision to drop the motion calling for Israel to be expelled from world football’s governing body. As I understand it, this is not quite the case. The Palestinian Football Association (PFA) had, of course, spent a long time trying to generate support for their motion, but it became increasingly clear that they were not going to get anywhere near the 75% of the conference vote required for it to pass. The Palestinians were met with a familiar refrain about politics and sport not mixing - a member of the South African FA delegation allegedly said that sporting boycotts had no place in political matters!

Faced with a choice of watching the motion inevitably fall or pulling it and keeping their powder dry, the PFA opted for the latter.

None of which is to say that either the IFA or FIFA sat idly by in the run to and during the Congress. The Israeli delegates will have pressed the flesh at every available opportunity, pushing their arguments to as many other delegates as possible. We also know that the Israelis embarked on a diplomatic mission to head off the vote, hinting that some Palestinian footballers were involved in terrorist activity. And FIFA’s opposition to the proposed expulsion is well documented; indeed Blatter explained this position at length after his meeting with Mahmoud Abass in April earlier this year. Such political manoeuvres were to be expected.

Where the Palestinians were stitched up, however, was in the talks that took place between FIFA, the PFA and IFA during the Congress revolving around a potential FIFA monitoring group, tasked with examining football in Palestine. As part of a compromise ‘solution’ the PFA had originally wanted the issues of racism and Israeli teams in the illegal settlements referred to the United Nations. When this was rejected out of hand by Blatter, a committee comprised, at least in part, of international representatives from ‘neutral’ football associations was suggested. This was in turn countered with a proposal that the committee should be comprised of individuals drawn from the IFA, PFA and FIFA. Such a group is clearly a means of equivocation, far preferable to both FIFA and the IFA than a successful vote to expel Israel, it was duly implemented and is to be headed by ex-ANC government minister, Tokyo Sexwale.

Interestingly nobody in Palestine seemed to think that the outcome of the FIFA congress was a result of Blatter-inspired subterfuge or an FBI-Mossad conspiracy. Instead their ire was reserved for the head of the Palestinian Football Association, Djbril Rajoub, who they saw as having sold out under pressure. As this report in the Middle East Monitor reported:
“Fadi Quran, a Palestinian activist and head of the Avaaz campaigns in Palestine, disagreed strongly with the Palestinian official and called on Rajoub to resign. In a press release issued along with a petition that garnered 8,000 votes in a very short time, Rajoub's action was described as the waste of a golden opportunity. "By withdrawing the motion to expel [Israel] without any accomplishments, the Palestinian cause lost a new opportunity for partial justice because of the weakness of its leadership and its short-sightedness," Quran explained. ‘In agreeing to a compromise over a clear violation of FIFA statutes, Rajoub actually proved that Palestinians were playing politics rather than insisting on the implementation of the laws of the game.’"
The Palestine Monitor website makes a similar point in its report:
“The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) was among the most vocal critics of the PFA’s decision to drop a bid to have the Israel’s Football Association suspended from FIFA. The PFLP charged yesterday that the PFA’s decision was an, “outrageous deviation from our values, principles and efforts to expose the Israeli occupation's crimes and to oust Israel from international organizations,” the leftist group issued in a statement Saturday.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one retired Palestinian politician speculated to the Palestine Monitor that, “it’s not fair [of the PFA] to raise the expectations of the public. People were hoping and left with the impression the the PFA was taking on the fight. It’s unfortunate that not only we did not win, but we did not even fight.” He went on to speculate that Rajoub’s, “credibility was hurt in the outcome of this failed bid.””
In any event, in both Palestine and elsewhere there was something more than mere disappointment at the result at the Congress; there was a definite dejection amongst pro-Palestinian activists, as though what should have been a certainty had been wrought from our grasp. Why should this be the case? Firstly it was almost certainly the result of an overly-optimistic appraisal of the situation prior to the Congress. Certainly there were some national FAs (such as the Dutch and Swedes) who were rumoured to be sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, but these were mistaken for guarantees of support. Similarly the number of signatories to online petitions in support of the expulsion motion was always unlikely to act as a barometer of the feeling within the body of Congress delegates. In the run-up to the event some truly believed that Israel would be expelled from FIFA. In truth it was never on the cards.

Israel’s status as a member of FIFA was never going to be settled, decisively or otherwise, by the strength of the Palestinian’s argument or the weight of evidence in support of their case. This is not to say that FIFA is the grips of a Zionist cabal. Rather it speaks to a truth of global sports administration. The likes of FIFA and the International Olympic Committee are by any definition ‘political actors’ but their first instinct when confronted with political questions is to run a mile in the opposite direction. They occupy an ideological space in which they believe politics only serves to taint the purity of sport – actually they would go so far as to argue that sport can play the sort of positive role that politicians can barely imagine. This is why Blatter can envisage a ‘friendly’ international between Palestine and Israel as transcending the political divide.

Yes, it’s arch-hypocrisy. Yes, it’s an example of double-think. But it exists, and as such a boycott movement is the last thing on the collective mind of football’s governing bodies. The lever that can change this barrier to action is the pressure which can be exerted by an international mass movement. And this takes time.

Here the case of Apartheid is particularly illustrative (although there are crucial differences between the attempts to exclude Israel from world football and the anti-Apartheid movement: the Soviet Union made the call for boycott a central plank of its sporting foreign policy; African states which had come through liberation struggles were instinctively in opposition to the racism in South Africa).

South Africa’s racist policies famously led to its exclusion from world sport, most notably being expelled by the IOC in 1970 and FIFA in 1976. In historical discussion it is, as Malcolm McClean has pointed out, “common to identify 1959 as the year that the boycott movement came together into coordinated international activism”. Yet the first calls for an international boycott of South African sports happened in the early 1950s and the first time they were ejected from an international sports body came in 1955 when the whites-only South African Table Tennis Union were barred from the International Table Tennis Federation. There was, therefore, at least a two decade gap between the first calls for a sports boycott of Apartheid and the eventual expulsion of South Africa from FIFA.

Those twenty years saw any number of protests, demonstrations and actions against Apartheid take place across the world. Something on a similar scale is required if the objective of a sporting boycott of Israel is to be realised. We are, in all honesty, only at the beginning of that movement. If the events of the past fifty years – not to mention those of the last FIFA Congress - tell us anything it is that ‘boycott’ is as much a process as an act.

Monday, July 6, 2015

In Praise of Martyn Rooney

A big well done and thank you to Martyn Rooney. The 400m runner proved to be an oasis of sense in a British Athletics Championships threatening to be side-tracked by a crass, xenophobic discussion of national identity, opportunity, and the supposedly ‘plastic’ Brits.

Harangued by a BBC trackside-pain-in-the-ass, probably Phil Jones, Rooney was quizzed post-race not only on his performance in the 400m heats, but also on his attitude to those athletes, born overseas, who have recently been cleared to compete for Great Britain. In defiance of his lung-busting run, the lactic acid build-up in his legs, and the views of the Daily Mail, Rooney offered this articulate response:
“It’s kind of an offensive term ‘plastic Brits’. Y’know we’re very lucky to have guys who can run, compete for us, and they make the events better. All of those guys contribute to British sport, British culture, so we’re very lucky to have them here.”
To be fair, Rooney was not the only voice speaking out for British athletes hailing from abroad. Although Gabby Logan was quick to tell us that “reaction had been mixed”, there was a unanimity among the analysts joining the coverage from Birmingham. “I actually think, the way sport is at the moment – cricket, rugby, football – it doesn’t matter… They have legitimate dual-nationality. It’s fine. We have to move on,” said Denise Lewis, gold medallist in the heptathlon at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Paula Radcliffe (a migrant herself who now resides in the south of France) agreed, if somewhat reluctantly: “We’re not talking about some other countries who have gone out and brought runners in – these people have a legitimate right to represent Great Britain.” On Friday Steve Cram, writing in a piece for the BBC Sport website, put the whole furore into perspective, explaining why he has “no problem” with the so-called ‘plastic Brits’:
“Some might argue that they didn't train in the British system but, in fact, there's no system here. There's a funding programme, but below that there isn't anything. People can learn to be an athlete in any part of the world. There's no investment in athletics clubs in Britain, which means only those who run here are eligible to run for Britain.
"I guess the big issue is that newcomers arriving puts others in the team under a lot of pressure. But that can happen if an athlete pops up from anywhere - it doesn't matter where they were born. If you think you were shoo-in to get into the team and somebody else pops up you weren't expecting, then you have to deal with that."
The plastic Brit ‘controversy’ – such as it is – was sparked by the announcement that “five foreign-born athletes” had switched allegiance to Team GB over the past month. This drew a sarcastic and negative response from Richard Kilty, a World and European indoor 60m champion, and apparently caused similar outrage amongst his fellow competitors: “All sprinters,” tweeted Kilty, “I’ve spoken to this morning in the team feel exactly the same as me but daren’t speak out.” The roots of the debate however can be traced back to 2012 and the run-up to the London Olympics. It was then that the Daily Mail ran a story informing the world that there would be 61 ‘plastic’ Brits competing at the Games for Team GB.

Many of the tropes deployed in discussion of the ‘plastic’ Brits will be familiar to anyone paying attention to the long-running demonization and scapegoating of migrants arriving in the UK. They perceived as foreign interlopers, costing the ‘true’, ‘hard-working’ Brits their jobs and squad places. No matter the ‘validity’ of their decision to relocate to this country, their motives are treated with distrust and disdain. They are seen to have arrived as mercenaries, in search of welfare state handouts or Lottery funding. Whether he realises it or not, Kilty has assumed the role of the defiant truthsayer (traditionally reserved for such intellects as Rod Liddle, Richard Littlejohn or Nigel Farrage), the voice of a silent majority too browbeaten by the forces of political correctness to stand up to the perceived injustice.

In six weeks’ time the World Athletics Championship will begin in Beijing. If the performances seen during the early Diamond League meetings are anything to go by, then it promises to be a magnificent week of track and field competition. It would be truly terrible if this sporting spectacle was hijacked by the right-wing press looking to spout off over their latest manufactured scare story. That Martyn Rooney spoke out is to be applauded.