Saturday, November 15, 2014

Beyond the Froth

Mark Perryman of Philosophy Football picks out the best of the autumn sports books.

I’m sorry but you won’t find here the just-in-time-for Christmas sports autobiography blockbusters. With enough manufactured controversy to ensure blanket coverage when they are launched even a skim read will reveal that on the contrary they tell the reader very little they didn’t either know or suspect already.

Instead I would recommend a weighty volume of this sort A Companion to Sport edited by David Andrews and Ben Carrington. The range of coverage from Monty Panesar to football’s 2010 World Cup is matched by the variety of insights, sport as a contested space being the overarching theme. As an academic book scandalously expensive, but  any well-stocked library. should have a copy. 

As a writer Rob Steen straddles that frustrating divide between the academic and the journalistic. His new book Floodlights and Touchlines reveals the richness of writing this mix can sometimes produce. A living history of the relationship between the spectator and his, or increasingly as Rob chronicles, her sport. This is social history of the very highest standard. Simon Inglis is rightly renowned for his writing on the cultural significance of stadia and other sporting buildings. His Played in Britain project has helped transform our understanding of what these structures mean to their localities, and his latest account of this relationship, Played in London not only continues the richness of Simon’s explanation but is unarguably his finest book in this extraordinary Played In...series yet.

Michael Walker’s Up There is a hugely entertaining application of the social and historical, along with the political and cultural, to the place of football in England’s North-East. Newcastle, Sunderland, ‘Boro, but also the likes of Hartlepool and Darlo, where would English football be without them? The First Game With My Father by Michael Tierney expertly, and movingly applies this macro-analysis of big picture football connectivity to the micro, the personal. A tale of how football frames many families' lives in the way it is a central influence in shaping both fatherhood and masculine adolescence, for good, and sometimes bad. Football once had this degree of influence because it truly was ‘the people’s game’. Today it dominates so many lives because it is big business, almost impossible to escape from. Alex Fynn is a renowned chronicler of the processes behind this very particular evolution, his latest book Arsène & Arsenal continues what amounts to an in-depth study of Arsenal both as a football club and a business, a brand even, what Alex terms a ‘superclub’. If such a notion fills fans with horror, have a read of Ian Plendereith’s  rip-roaring Rock n Roll Soccer an account of the 1970s North American Soccer League which serves as a warning of what happens when football chooses to be simply a branch of a global entertainment industry and forgets where it came from on the way. 

Of course wholesale resistance to any change amounts to a conservatism, few progressives should welcome. Has the penalty shoot-out spelt the end of football as we know it? No, an occasional thrilling end to a tightly-fought match. Ben Lytlleton’s carefully researched Twelve Yards contains plenty of original insight into how to take penalties successfully and turns this quirky idea for a book into a fine read along the way. The last tournament England exited following a penalty shoot-out was Euro 2012. The high point of Roy Hodgson’s England managerial reign to date getting out of a tough group consisting of France, Sweden and Ukraine. In the year of London 2012 and Wiggomania however few took any notice and England have been down ever since. Peter Kennedy and Christos Kassimeris have put together a really excellent academic survey of the tournament, Exploring the Cultural, Ideological and Economic Legacies of Euro 2012. A legacy for the Ukraine which in essence was a tournament which united the nation instead of the bloody separation which followed so shortly afterwards. 

No figure better represents the world English football fears lost to the excesses of commerce as it monetised our sport better than the late Bobby Moore.  Matt Dickinson’s new biography BobbyMoore: The Man In Full reveals both Moore’s supreme achievements, with England and West Ham, but also the flaws even the most heroic contain within themselves. In Moore’s day the media spotlight was nothing like as intense as it is now. We even have the phenomenon of the anonymous insider dishing whatever dirt that might otherwise be hidden from public gaze. Guide to the Modern Game is the third volume of  home truths from the suspiciously well-informed ‘Secret Footballer.’ Who is he? Who knows? And who cares as he continues to open the changing room door to put all behind it on show for his readers. And this time it is the tactics board, team talks and training he treats us to.

Two books kind of book-end the romance and the misery of modern football. Both happen to be about Arsenal, they could have been written about almost any club. Amy Lawrence’s Invincible tells the story of the club’s 2003-2004 unbeaten season. Amy is a writer who will help you to appreciate the football on the pitch with an understanding of how the game is played few can match. At the same time she never fails to appreciate the passion that makes us fans. The Arsenal Shirt by James Elkin and Simon Shakeshaft is a beautifully designed art book visually detailing the history of the club’s most iconic of shirt designs. But of course since the advent of sponsors logos and merchandising profits any legendary kit simply becomes a moneymaking billboard. Unwittingly perhaps the book eloquently reveals the death of tradition that football’s monetisation has successfully engineered.  Progress? In some areas certainly, but at what cost? It is the shift over the past twenty years from the positives Post Italia 90 to the negatives after two decades’ worth of the dire Premier League (sic) that Martin Cloake charts in his new book Taking Our Ball Back. This is writing with well-informed anger. Martin carefully unpicks the causes, and effects of a growing discontent with  how what was once the people’s game is being transformed.

Sport of course doesn’t simply collide with economic forces it is indivisible from the political and social too. This is the basis of these quarterly forays into reviewing the best of current sportswriting. The Nazi Olympics of 1936 remain the strongest example yet of this combination. a platform for Hitler, sport used to seek to prove the physical superiority of the Aryan race, brilliantly demolished of course by  black American athlete Jesse Owens’ four gold medals on the track and in the long jump pit. A superb achievement that has been allowed to mask countless examples of large sections of the sporting establishment’s effective covering-up and collaboration with the Nazi regime in order to save their sports’ relations with Germany. An England football team ordered to give the Nazi salute before an England v Germany game an incredible, and shameful, moment in football’s history. Field of Shadows by Dan Waddell uncovers a part of sporting history from this period which I suspect even the most well-informed sports fan would be unaware of. The 1937 English cricket tour of Nazi Germany! The impulses and reasoning behind such a bizarre adventure for the Germans and  the English were many and varied. What Dan Waddell’s account reveals though in this most extraordinary of settings was how the cricket was framed by Germany’s fast-moving descent into Nazi barbarism while England remained divided by tendencies towards appeasement and collaboration  versus popular and militant anti-fascism. When being knocked for six could land Hitler a propaganda victory cricket is not quite the gentle sport we’re used to Dan Waddell’s tale is scarcely believable. The fact it is just the makes the book an even better read.

Herbie Sykes covers a different sport , cycling, and a different era for Germany, the East German GDR years of state socialism and the Berlin Wall. Of course comparisons with the Nazi era are both crass and ill-founded historically yet the clash between politics and sport all the same was a constant across these two contrasting period in German history. Herbie’s wonderful book The Race against the Stasi details the career, life and times of one of the sporting heroes of East Germany,  Dieter Wiedeman. The culture that turned him firstly into an elite athlete, then into an icon of GDR socialism the disillusionment that led him to escape, turn pro, ride Le Tour and the efforts of the Stasi to repatriate hum. This is sport as a record of post-war politics with a plot good enough to make it as a thriller.

The cycling intrigue we are perhaps more used to are the drug scandals, particularly of the Lance Armstrong era. Michael Barry is the latest rider to break ranks with the peloton to reveal the consequences of the sport’s drug culture and how cycling has to change in order to rid itself from this scourge. Michael’s autobiographical Shadowson the Road is both brutally honest while elegantly moving in terms of his vision for what riding clean means. Restoring the undoubted romance, heroic endeavours and idealism of road cycling at its best is what Jan Cleijoine’s graphic history of Le Tour achieves. Jan’s Legends of the Tour is a stunning graphic history of what remains the greatest race on earth. Until relatively recently British cyclists wouldn’t be much more than an honourable footnote in such a history, Ellis Bacon’s Great British Cycling tracks the irresistible rise of the sport on these shores from modest beginnings. to such achievements at World, Olympic and Grand Tour level to be thought of as worldbeaters. At the core of that achievement in recent years have been women cyclists. Victoria Pendleton, Lizzie Armistead, Laura Trott and others. Nicole Cooke’s autobiographical The Breakaway is both a powerfully-written testament to the measure of that achievement by a former World and European champion on the road plus a well-argued critique of the barriers that stand in the way of women's cycling.

The latest edition of The Cycling Anthology remains the must-read collection of the very best writing on two wheels. Keep Calm and Pedal On is a great collection of quotes on cycling which gives us an idea of the breadth and depth of inspiration riding a bike fast, slow or in-between can provide. Getting our hands dirty fixing what might have gone wrong with a bicycle might not seem  much of a radical act. Sam Tracy would dispute this and has written a Bicycle Repair Manifesto full of useful diy maintenance tips to keep the bike, if not a revolution, on the road. Still not convinced? Bike Mechanic is one of the most beautifully produced books I’ve ever read. In words but, most of all with arthouse standard photographs and layout a homage to those who build and maintain bikes. 

Sport of course should never be treated as a fixed, unchanging, entity. It is shaped by powerful cultural and economic factors as well as the political and social. It demands investigation and often a critique too. Allyson Pollock’s pioneering Tackling Rugby provides both with a sparkling abundance of well-researched writing. Her target? Children and youth rugby, the risk of injury, especially head injuries, and the failure of the sport’s governing bodies to react, with practical suggestions for how to safeguard both young players’ health and the future of the game. A textbook example of how to  investigate sport, expose and help to make change possible.

And my sports book of the quarter? David Goldblatt has already produced one definitive work The Ball is Round, his global and social history of football. His latest book The Game of Our Lives is both a social history of the domestic game and a critique of its modern, monetised manifestation. David combines a sympathetic and original explanation of why football is of such importance to so many while accounting for why it deserves nothing resembling a hagiography because of its many, mostly self-inflicted out of commercial greed, failings. As such it is a book that informs and inspires, a truly great piece of writing.

No links are provided to Amazon. If you can avoid buying from tax-dodgers please do so.

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

Friday, November 14, 2014

Dear Jose Mourinho - A Letter on Racism

Dear Jose Mourinho,

Sorry I haven’t been in touch sooner. I’ve been meaning to write ever since you joined the discussion about black managers in the English game by saying, “there is no racism in football”. That really was one of the dumbest things I have ever heard. I mean, fair play to you, it takes some real front to make that claim and also retain John Terry as the captain of your side, but you should really engage your brain before you let the words slip out of your mouth.

We know you’re arrogant. Dare I say it, some of us quite like your trademark persona. It brightens up our football days. Our eyes widen in mock incredulity when you have the temerity to describe yourself as “The Special One”; we snigger as you go to shake Roy Keane’s hand minutes before the final whistle. But tell me, Jose, how does it feel to be the multi-millionaire manager of one of the world’s richest clubs and tell struggling black coaches that racism doesn’t exist?

And it takes a special kind of arrogance to state there is no racism in football and offer no evidence whatsoever in support. Instead you say: “If you are good, you are good. If you are good, you get the job. If you are good, you prove that you deserve the job. Football is not stupid to close the doors to top people. If you are top, you are top.” Yes, Jose, we all know that this is how it should work. The problem is that something is quite obviously wrong with the supposed meritocracy. Can you honestly say that football truly reflects the talents of black managers in this country?

I suppose you might respond by arguing that the burden of proof rests on those of us who seek to confront racism in football. Fair enough – there’s plenty of evidence. Only two of the 92 managers working in the top four divisions of English football are not white. And both Keith Curle and Chris Powell were appointed at the start of the current season. The Professional Footballers’ Association chief executive, Gordon Taylor, claims “there is a hidden racism which holds clubs back” from appointing black managers. In this interesting segment from Football Focus both Dion Dublin and Paul Ince discuss the difficulties facing black people in football and say that action is urgently needed.

Perhaps you’re still not convinced. Perhaps you’re waiting for a smoking gun. Perhaps you’ll only accept that racism exists in football if you see video footage of dozens of white club chairmen sitting in a room discussing their favourite racial slurs. Jose, there are none as blind as those that will not see.

By ignoring the evidence that does exist, you not only belittle the struggle of ethnic minorities in English football, you also pander to the worst sort of class prejudice. Everyone is quick to point out the problems of racism as long as it is being perpetrated by working class people on the terraces or on the pitch. And rightly so. But is it really so inconceivable to you that bigotry and racial prejudice can also be found in the boardroom? Are the great and the good, the movers and shakers and king-makers immunised against intolerance by virtue of their education and their riches? The answer, in case you were wondering, is no.

All the time racism exists in society then it will exist in football – at every level of the game. Burying your head in the sand won’t change that. Instead we have to look at ways to fight it. That is why so many people are looking towards a version of the Rooney rule. First adopted in American football the rule states that clubs seeking a new head coach must interview at least one person from an ethnic minority.

There is a debate over how effective this would be. Les Ferdinand seems to be against it while Rio Ferdinand is for it, which should make for fun conversation at the family Christmas get-together. Let’s be honest. Such a regulation would hardly change the world. What it would do is show that English football is taking the issue of racism seriously,

Sadly it feels like we have been here before. It’s nearly 40 years since Laurie Cunningham, Brendon Batson and Cyrille Regis played together for West Brom and were booed by racist sections of their own fans. It’s nearly 30 years since John Barnes back-heeled a banana thrown at him from the crowd in one of the most iconic anti-racist images football has ever produced. As these generations of black footballers moved into coaching they faced the old racism in a new setting and have stared long enough at the glass ceiling. They have never enjoyed your privileged position Jose. The very least you can do is to acknowledge their struggle.

Yours sincerely


Inside Left

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Greatcoats for Goalposts

Dave Zirin is rightly renowned as a radical sportswriter.

In the USA he is the sports correspondent of The Nation. His most recent book  Brazil's Dance With The Devil is a powerfully written exposure of the negative consequences for Brazilian democracy of hosting both World Cup 2014 and the Rio Olympics. He was named one of UTNE Reader’s “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Our World,” and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, ESPN and Democracy Now! He also hosts his own weekly Sirius XM show, Edge of Sports Radio. His other books include What's My Name Fool? (Haymarket Books), A People's History of Sports in the United States (the New Press), Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love (Scribner) and, with John Wesley Carlos, The John Carlos Story. You can find all his work atwww.edgeofsports.com. 

In Britain we have precious few sportswriters who combine Dave Zirin's radical politics and popular impact.

To mark the centenary of the 1914 Christmas Football Truce Philosophy Football therefore thought it would be a grand idea to invite Dave to make a rare visit to these shores and to lead a discussion on 'Why Sport Matters'. He gladly accepted our invite, and with the generous support of the RMT Trade Union, the Amiel & Melburn Trust and Thompsons Solicitors we now have a superb seminar organised in association with the journal Soundings which is FREE to attend. 

Saturday 20 December, 3.30-5.30 at the Rich Mix Arts Centre, 35-47 Bethnal Green Road, London E1 6LA

Dave will be joined by discussants  Tony Collins, author of the acclaimed Sport In Capitalist Society, Heather Wakefield, Head of Local Government at Unison, Nick Davidson, author  of a new book on German football club St Pauli  Pirates, Punks, Politics and Michelle Moore, an activist promoting equality in sport.  In the chair Anne Coddington, Programme Leader in Sports Journalism, London College of Communications, University of the Arts London. 

This looks like a fantastic event - you can book your place by following this link.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Defending Raheem Sterling

Originally written for my Beyond the Ninety column on the Voomfootball website.

Raheem Sterling has come in for some serious flak in the past 24 hours. England fans have been upset that the Liverpool midfielder spoke to Roy Hodgson before England’s game with Estonia and told the national boss that he felt jaded and out of form. With this in mind Hodgson replaced Sterling with Adam Lallana as England laboured to a 1-0 victory over Estonia.
                                 
It has been interesting to witness the variety of criticisms that have been levelled at Sterling. Firstly, how can a 19-year-old be tired a month into the season? Secondly, how dare a player who earns thousands of pounds each week be tired ever? Thirdly, who is calling the shots in the England camp? Each carries some validity but yet none of them really hold sway. Let’s deal with each of these in turn.

Those of us who have watched Sterling’s performances for Liverpool can testify to the fact that he is not enjoying the same rich vein of form that characterised his performances towards the end of last season. He possesses such pace and talent that he is still a potent attacking threat but his runs are meandering rather than incisive, his passes all too often misplaced. One may wonder how a player so young can be fatigued but that he is showing signs of tiredness is surely not in doubt. Moaning that he shouldn’t be tired does nothing to change this fact.

Raheem Sterling is handsomely rewarded for his footballing ability. Once his contract negotiations with Liverpool have been completed he can expect to receive around £100,000 a week. This is, of course, absolutely ridiculous and another sign that market forces are a complete nonsense. Workers in the public sector (nurses, civil servants, teachers) will go on strike having been offered a measly 1% pay rise. We live in a horribly unequal society. Football in particular seems to know the price of everything and everyone and the value of nothing. But, once again, this does not stop Raheem Sterling actually being out of form.

Finally there is a question around Roy Hodgson’s leadership. Is he letting the players call the shots? Or did he drop Sterling to the bench to placate the increasingly irate Brendon Rodgers? Frankly, who cares? The cult of the manager, complete with strong, interventionist leadership, is everywhere in society but at its worst in football. Hodgson made his team selection on the strength of the information in front of him. Such decisions are made every single day and don’t mean that players have more power than managers. Would that it were the case. As anyone who has ever gone to work can tell you, managers know very little about what happens. Given the way England are playing at the moment it might not be a bad idea to get rid of Hodgson and let the players work it out for themselves. 

Assuming that Sterling is genuine – not just pulling the footballing equivalent of phoning into work and telling your boss you’ve got the squits – then he is to be congratulated, not castigated. He is aware of the limitations of his own body, he is open and honest enough to tell Hodgson that he doesn’t feel at his best, and he has put the needs of the team above his own self-interest. Sterling is no fool, he will have known the expectation that people are placing on his shoulders. Under this pressure one might expect a teenager to buckle, instead he trusted his instincts.

Sterling’s body is still changing, still developing. He already looks a completely different figure to the spindly boy that made his debut for Liverpool in March 2012: his physique is bigger, his shoulders broader, his upper body more muscular than before. Without a strategy to manage this continuing development the incessant demands of the modern game will take a heavy toll. Sterling is still at the stage where he needs to be rested occasionally. The alternative is potentially career threatening.


And there are warnings from Liverpool’s own recent history. Both Robbie Fowler and Michael Owen burst on to the Anfield scene as precocious teenagers; neither would ever fully realise his potential. As I've noted elsewhere on this website: "In his first four full seasons playing for Liverpool Fowler appeared in 188 games. Over the same timespan Owen notched up 160 appearances. It was an incredible stress to place on the bodies of professional athletes who were little more than boys. The prodigious talents of both players dawned in an era of fading fortune for Liverpool FC. When Kenny Dalglish resigned from his position of manager after Hillsborough he left behind an aging squad, short on fire power. To exhibit such extraordinary ability at such a tender age was the curse of both men. The intensity of those early years – the result of a club desperate for glory, honours and revenue - almost certainly accounts for the fact that neither man reached his full potential." 

If Raheem Sterling is to avoid a similar fate then he must continue to be brave enough to know the limits of his own body. 

Beating the Franchise

Originally written for my Beyond the Ninety column on the Voomfootball website.

Some football matches are more important than others. Cup finals, relegation six-pointers and local derbies all mean more than your average game. But then there are some fixtures which have a significance reaching far beyond the confines of the pitch. They speak to us about the society in which we live, its divisions and priorities. Sometimes teams assume the roles of good and evil in a battle for the very soul of football. It’s just not often that this all happens in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.

Last Tuesday Adebayo Akinfenwa scored the winner as AFC Wimbledon beat the team from Milton Keynes 3-2. It was a result which brought smiles to the faces of countless football fans across the country regardless of which team they support. Why? Because this was more than a game. It was a contest between two very different conceptions of what football is and what it should be. On the one hand you have AFC Wimbledon, a genuine grassroots initiative. On the other, you have Milton Keynes, a club that will always be the “Franchise” and will never be the “Dons”. And their histories are painfully connected.

Wimbledon FC was formed in 1889 and for the best part of a century the club rattled around non-League football. Only elected to the Football League in 1977 they rapidly climbed through the divisions and were promoted to the top flight of English football in 1986. Two years later they beat Liverpool to win the 1988 FA Cup. For more than a decade the Crazy Gang, featuring the likes of John Fashanu, Vinnie Jones and Lawrie Sanchez, would terrorise the so-called big clubs, turning their brand of physical, direct football into something of an art form.

But their success was not to last. Unable to develop Plough Lane they were forced to groundshare at Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park from the start of the 1991/92 season. By the end of the century their larger-than-life owner Sam Hammam had sold the club to Charles Koppel, Kjell Inge Roekke and Bjorn Rune Gjelsten. In 2000 they were relegated. Still without a ground of their own and financially unstable Wimbledon were faced with an uncertain future. Then in stepped Pete Winkleman.

Winkleman had long wanted a football club in Milton Keynes and it was much easier to steal a team from another part of the country than build a club from scratch. His pitch was simple: Wimbledon could move to Milton Keynes. This was a city without a club for a club without a home. After protracted negotiations with the FA and the Football League – both of whom had originally rejected Winkleman’s idea – the club moved in 2003. Winkleman personified vulture capitalism at its worst: wait for a business to fail, cherry-pick the parts you want and damn the consequences for everybody else. The effect was to destroy Wimbledon FC - screw the history, screw the tradition, screw the fans.

The closest the English game had previously come to a franchise side had been in 1913. It was then that Arsenal chairman, Sir Henry Norris, moved the club from Woolwich to north London, in search of larger gates and increased revenue. Instead franchising has been most closely associated with sport in the United States, where club ‘brands’ can be bought and sold and, in theory, transplanted to the other side of the country on the whim of a multi-millionaire owner. Milton Keynes is the only such franchise club in English football.

Wimbledon fans were rightly outraged by the way their club had been stolen from them. But they didn’t mourn the loss of their club, they organised. AFC Wimbledon was formed in 2002 and their rise through the divisions has been every bit as meteoric as that of Wimbledon in the 1970s and 80s. Their victory over the Franchise was just the latest in a series of milestones. But was it justice for what Wimbledon fans have gone through? Not according to Kris Stewart, the founding chairman of AFC Wimbledon.

“I can't speak for everyone, only myself, obviously,” said Stewart. “For me, I'd say that it essentially makes no difference – the Franchise still have the league place they stole, they still exist. No-one should ever have to play them. They shouldn't exist. "Justice", if it comes, will come the day they go out of business. And it was a tinpot cup. And we've been there twice and lost. And we shouldn't ever have to play them. But fuck me, it was great to stick it up 'em!”

“We spend very, very little time thinking about them. We have a great club and we're on our way home. We 'proved' whatever we had to prove back in July 2002 when we played our first friendly at Sutton United and lost 4-0. We have nothing to prove. We are Wimbledon.”

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Remembering Brian Clough

Last month football stopped to remember Brian Clough who passed away ten years ago. It seems rather odd to think that an entire generation of fans has grown up without him as a footballing reference point. As a player and a manager Clough was one of the great figures of the English game in the twentieth century. As a man, however, Clough was legendary: feared and revered, a perfect blend of talent, humour and outright arrogance. And he was, of course, the best manager England never had.

Clough made his debut for Middlesbrough in 1955 and quickly formed a deadly partnership - and lifelong friendship - with Lindy Delapenha, the first Jamaican to play professional football in England. Clough netted 204 goals in 222 league games for the club before moving to Sunderland in 1961. While on Wearside he bagged another 63 goals in 74 matches. Who knows how many more Clough would have scored were it not for the knee injury which ended his playing career at the age of just 29. This extraordinary level of success would continue as Clough made the transition into management. His Derby County side won the league in 1972. He achieved the same feat at Nottingham Forest in 1978, and subsequently secured back-to-back European Cup successes.

These accomplishments, astonishing as they are, formed only the backdrop to the very many articles which appeared to commemorate his life. It was Clough himself that took centre stage. As Daniel Taylor wrote in The Guardian, “Clough’s legacy should not just be measured by his European Cups and all the other trophies. It was the charisma with which he did it, with his own set of rules, and the way he mesmerised everyone in his company”. Pat Murphy, BBC journalist and friend of Clough’s, made a similar point: “what set him apart was personality - his ability to transcend his sport. Clough was a genuine one-off and there are more anecdotes about him than anyone else in the game.”

These anecdotes are at the very heart of Clougie folklore. Whether he was explaining his football philosophy (“If God had wanted us to play football in the clouds, he’d have put grass up there”) or knowingly referencing his own egotism (“You know that Frank Sinatra, he’s met me”) Clough was never ever short of something to say. This was a man with no respect for reputation, prepared to skewer the pompous and self-regarding. And he was the only person to verbally spar with Muhammad Ali and come out with a victory. There are other elements integral to the Clough story – being ignored by the Football Association, his 44-day stint in charge of Leeds United, that green jumper – but all pale in comparison next to his ability to deliver a killer one-liner. Yet, strangely, while writers all remembered Clough’s wit and wisdom, few, if any, mentioned his politics.

In the 1970s the National Front (NF), an avowedly fascist organisation, had gained a small but all too real foothold in British society. They stood in local and national elections, picking up both votes and new recruits in the process. But it was on the streets that the NF posed their most serious threat, intimidating and viciously attacking black and Asian people. Racism seeped onto the terraces and black footballers were regularly abused, sometimes even by their own supports. Anti-racists struck back and formed the Anti-Nazi League in 1977. Clough, along with thousands of football fans, was a supporter – indeed he was one of the signatories of the ANL’s founding statement.

Similarly, Clough would offer his solidarity to the miners who went on strike in the 1980s. As a socialist he understood only too well that Maggie Thatcher’s plans to close the pits would decimate whole towns and ruin countless lives. Clough marched with the miners, refused to speak to “scab” reporters, made donations to their campaign and urged others to do the same: “all right-minded working class fans should contribute towards the miners’ fund.” And this was not the only time. He had taken Derby County players to picket lines in the 1970s and marched against pit closures in the 1990s. Just imagine the controversy if Jose Mourinho was seen protesting on the streets about unemployment or Arsene Wenger took part in demonstrations against the privatisation of the NHS! Not that anyone could or should try to paint Clough as a prolier-than-thou working class hero. He had, as we all do, the vices of his virtues. His later life was marked by alcoholism; Alan Sugar alleged that Clough “liked a bung”; his treatment of Justin Fashanu while at Forest was shameful.

But his politics were a key part of who he was and how he managed. Like Jock Stein, Matt Busby and Bill Shankly - the three Scottish managers who dominated British football in the 1960s and 1970s – Clough imbued something of his working class upbringing and his beliefs into the sides that he managed. No one player was ever bigger than the club; teams played their best football when they were a collective rather than merely eleven individuals.

In the modern game there are plenty of managers who seem to think that by criticising referees or the FA they are, somehow, speaking truth to power. Brian Clough set his sights a little higher than that. His targets were racial prejudice and Conservative governments. Those who want to honour his memory would do well to follow suit. 

Friday, September 26, 2014

Smash FIFA

In the wake of last week’s Scottish referendum some young scamps took to Twitter, floating the idea that maybe football should seek independence from FIFA. It was a hugely popular suggestion and it is not difficult to see why. In the minds of most football fans FIFA has become synonymous with corruption. For as long as people can remember it has lurched from one scandal to another, mired in controversy. And yet, in a bizarre attempt to push the entire planet into irony overload, the first ever World Summit on Ethics in Sport is currently being held at FIFA’s Zurich headquarters. Asking football’s world governing body to host an event on ethics is as ludicrous as getting Jimmy Carr to head up a tax-evasion taskforce or making Tony Blair the Middle East peace envoy.

So bad has the situation become – and so vocal are the organisation’s critics – that FIFA have been forced to launch their own ethics committee. Earlier this month the head of that committee, Michael Garcia, delivered his findings following an 18-month investigation into the bidding process that saw the 2018 and 2022 World Cups awarded to Russia and Qatar respectively. So far only four people have seen that report and it seems likely there will now be a protracted battle to see it published in full. Any attempt by FIFA to keep the document confidential will surely only serve to further tarnish their reputation.

Elsewhere a story surfaced that 28 people on FIFA’s executive committee had each been given a £16,000 watch by the Brazilian Football Confederation during the World Cup. FIFA vice-president Jim Boyce promised to return his having remembered that he had stashed it in his garage. Seriously, how rich do you have to be to forget that you own a watch worth £16,000? Greg Dyke said that he had received six watches since he took over as the head of the Football Association last year. Although not on the same level as the allegations surrounding Russia and Qatar, the watches scandal does nothing to dispel the notion that there is a culture amongst football’s upper echelons of bribes, backhanders and favour-trading. And this is certainly not the image that FIFA wants to portray.

In June Sepp Blatter (who considers FIFA's ethical standards to be "exemplary") gave his presidential address to the 64th annual FIFA Congress, during which he outlined this vision:

“Football should be a force for positive change in the world, not an obstacle to it. And so should FIFA … Large institutions must set the right example because we shape society. We make decisions that impact lives. We cannot expect others to act in the right way if powerful organisations like FIFA do not. My vision for FIFA in this changing world is this: We must become one of today’s pioneers of hope – just like those seven original pioneers who started everything for us. We must carry that flame of honesty, responsibility and respect. If we do not, we will betray the true spirit of this game we all love.”

Unfortunately for Blatter few people regard FIFA as “a force for positive change in the world”. And nowhere was this more apparent than in Brazil. During last year’s Confederations Cup and again at the World Cup, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in protest at the expense of the two tournaments. In the spiritual home of football people carried placards that read “FIFA Go Home”. Whenever Blatter was introduced to supporters or his image appeared on the giant screens inside the stadiums he was roundly booed.

While millions of poverty-stricken people live in the favelas of Brazil, the 2014 World Cup generated more than $4 billion in total revenue for FIFA. Regardless of how much Blatter talks about his mission or how much FIFA may busy itself with debates over goal line technology or player suspensions, it cannot hide the fact that its role as football administrator is nothing more than a secondary concern. As a transnational institution it wields alarming power and influence. It can pressure nation states into granting it tax-exempt status. It sits on cash reserves of nearly $1.5 billion. It sits at the centre of a global web of television deals, marketing rights and corporate sponsors. The real business of FIFA is business.

With all that has gone before it is little wonder that people believe there is something rotten in the world of football. But to think that tinkering with procedures or changing personnel can deal with the corruption at the heart of FIFA is to misread the situation. The problem is not simply one or two bad apples; it is systemic, woven into the very fabric of the organisation, a prime sporting example of crony capitalism at its very worst. Those of us who would like to see a transparent, responsible, democratically accountable world of football should not seek to reform FIFA; we should find a way to smash it.