Tuesday, December 30, 2014

I Think Therefore I Play - An Anti-Racist Review

Martin Luther King once remarked: “The quality, not the longevity, of one's life is what is important.” The worthy sentiment certainly contains a degree of truth but it doesn’t quite explain Andrea Pirlo. The Italian is now in his 36th year and it seems that only relatively recently has his undoubted talent been widely recognised beyond the footballing cognoscenti. The magisterial midfielder disguised as Captain Caveman has entered the consciousness of fans in this country not so much for his quality but for the longevity of his quality. The fact that an English language version of his autobiography I Think Therefore I Play appeared earlier this year is testament to this recognition.

And we should all be glad that the translation has appeared because the book is a real gem, and a welcome departure from the standard, formulaic (auto)biographies of most footballers. Instead of the regular A to B narrative I Think Therefore I Play, beautifully ghosted by Alessandro Alciato, offers a series of vignettes which adhere only loosely to a chronological order. Pirlo jumps from an opening rumination on the pen he used to sign his contract with Juventus to the pain he felt as a child so much more talented than his peers. Avoiding sentimentality and arrogance he then weaves us through the 2006 World Cup final, his love of Inter, a pen picture of Silvio Berlusconi, the best ways in which to wind up Rene Gattuso and how he and Alessandro Nesta have spent way too many hours playing FIFA.

One passage in particular captures the style of Pirlo’s book. In his recollections of the 2005 Champions League Final against Liverpool in Istanbul – a game in which Pirlo’s AC Milan side threw away a 3-0 half-time lead, eventually losing the game on penalties – there is scant detail, no mention of the goals scored or conceded, and only once does he recall any of the opposition players (a passing reference to “Jerzy Dudek – that jackass of a dancer”). Instead there is a description of the dressing room atmosphere and the intensity of collective emotion. Nearly ten years on from the match you can still feel Pirlo’s confusion in those hours following the final whistle:
“We couldn’t speak. We couldn’t move. They’d mentally destroyed us. The damage was already evident even in those early moments, and it only got more stark and serious as the hours went on. Insomnia, rage, depression, a sense of nothingness. We’d invented a new disease with multiple symptoms: Istanbul syndrome. I no longer felt like a player, and that was devastating enough. But even worse, I no longer felt like a man. All of a sudden, football had become the least important thing, precisely because it was the most important: a very painful contradiction.”
The result is that the entire book carries this lightness of touch, an Impressionistic quality that provides a fitting literary form for a player whose artistry, control and vision is all but unrivalled. It allows Pirlo to tease out small details that seem to define the people around him, to ponder the geometry of his passes, to insist it is “high-time that football’s ruling class stopped dozing in their armchairs”, to explain the calming effect of imagining crushing grapes between his toes.

But one subject above all others caught my eye. In 2008 a newspaper in Italy erroneously outed Pirlo as being from a Roma – in particular Sinti – background. As Pirlo himself explains:
“At first I let it go, simply smiling at the headlines, but before long the media onslaught became unbearable. Some really serious untruths were said and written about my family, and they started spying on everything we did. They wrote stories about our daily habits, the places we went, the people we met. It was an annoying and dangerous invasion of our privacy and that of those we hold dear.”
The more intrusive the media became the greater the temptation grew for Pirlo to deny that he had Sinti heritage. At the time travellers in Italy were facing a renewed and concerted attack from the Italian government who were keen to make political capital from solving the specially constructed moral panic around the “nomad problem”. From 2007 the Italian authorities had adopted a number of ‘security measures’ which disproportionately affected the Roma and Sinti communities. This was in addition to a decade of forced evictions. As this report from Amnesty International states:
“Throughout 2008, the stigmatization of Roma and Sinti [in Italy] contributed to a climate in which attacks on groups and individuals reached record proportions. Roma people have been victims of mob violence by members of the public, in which individuals were physically and verbally attacked and settlements were set on fire.”
In these circumstances it would have been easy for Pirlo to simply dismiss the suggestions that he was Sinti. Instead he chose to keep his own counsel. He explains:
“If I’d issued a strongly worded correction, a categorical denial, I’d have run the risk of causing offence. It would have looked like I was trying to distance myself from the Sinti community and position myself against them. My desire to state the truth could have been wrongly interpreted as an act of racism, and that’s a risk I wasn’t willing to take, for the simple reason that I find racists disgusting.”
Some may suggest that the truly principled position for Pirlo to take would be to have come out and sided unequivocally with the Sinti; others will suggest that Pirlo is being wise after the fact, giving his silence an undeserved air of moral authority. The first suggestion is certainly true but misses the fact that sports stars rarely take political stands in the absence of mass movements. The second is plausible if cynical. The reason I reject it is because Pirlo speaks a lot of truth in his discussion of Mario Balotelli.

Pirlo’s admiration and support for Super Mario is beyond question. “We also need Mario Balotelli. I’m not sure he really appreciates it yet,” writes Pirlo “but he’s a special kind of medicine, an antidote to the potentially lethal poison of the racists you find in Italian grounds.” With sadness Pirlo notes that racists are to be found at stadiums across the country, each having targeted Balotelli with chants and monkey noises. Pirlo’s response is to always greet his Azzurri teammate: “Whenever I see Mario at an Italy training camp, I’ll give him a big smile. It’s my way of letting him know that I’m right behind him and that he mustn’t give up. A gesture that means ‘thank you’.”

More interesting is his discussion on how he would react to his black teammates being racially abused. On the one hand he thinks that to walk off the pitch – as Kevin-Prince Boateng has done in the past – is “more a surrender than a reaction”. But at the same time he explains, “That said, if one of my team-mates was a victim of intolerance and refused to carry on playing, I’d go along with his wishes and those of the rest of the team.” Pirlo’s position is that he is willing to argue how best to confront racism but once black players give a lead he will offer his unwavering support and solidarity. People on the left in the UK could learn a lesson here.

I realise that I run the risk at this juncture of uncritical eulogy – and that certainly isn’t my intention. I’m no lover of millionaires or nationalism, so Pirlo blots his copybook twice without trying too hard at all. Furthermore his anti-racist credentials are dealt a serious blow by his admission that he has, on occasion, voted for Berlusconi – the very administration that took such pride in targeting the Sinti. That said, in the context of Italian football where racism is very much a live issue, and with Pirlo himself ensconced in the heart of a Juventus team sections of whose fanbase have been guilty of racially abusing players in the past, his defence of the Sinti and support for Balotelli is a most welcome intervention. If you’ve got any Christmas money left pop out and treat yourself.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Lies, Damn Lies and Opta Statistics

The results are in and they are staggering. It has been revealed that nine out of ten match reports now include detailed statistical analysis. Over three quarters of journalists admit that they find it quicker and easier to use possession percentages and pass completion rates than go to the trouble of writing about the football game they’re paid to watch. The BBC and Sky combined spend more minutes per week discussing the figures released by Opta than they dedicate to women’s football. In other news, it turns out that 83.7% of made-up statistics are surprisingly believable.

Okay, those numbers are a fabrication. But the point still stands. Too many football articles are overly-reliant on statistics. Some of these stats can be interesting, genuinely deepening our understanding of the game. Others are obviously filler, as meaningless as being told how many times the number 33 has been drawn in the national lottery.

A quick google search reveals an abundance of tasty but irrelevant factoids. Apparently Swansea have completed fewer crosses than any other Premier League team; during the recent game between Man Utd and Chelsea, Daley Blind passed to Chris Smalling on twelve occasions; Mohamed Diamé averages five tackles a game this season. Perhaps the most pointless is the pass completion statistic, a metric which sees Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker, Josh Stones, Martin Skrtel and Phil Jagielka all feature in the top ten. Who would believe it? More pertinently, who cares? This tells us nothing more than they like to play a lot of easy, 20-yard square passes across the back four.

Football has always been home to the ‘anorak’. We all have a friend who will sit in the pub and tell you Shrewsbury Town’s top three goalscorers of all time or furnish you with a complete list of Inter-Toto Cup winners.  BBC commentator John Motson built his career – and his cult following – on his ability to pull facts and figures out of thin air. Along with his sheepskin coat it was his USP, the gimmick that set him apart from his competition behind the microphone.

These people have always been a figure of fun for fans. Back in the days when David Baddiel and Frank Skinner were living out their New Lad wet-dream on Fantasy Football in the mid-1990s, Angus Loughran made his television debut as Statto, the socially-awkward, font of all football knowledge. As his colleagues yawned with (mock) boredom, Statto would regale the studio audience with a stream of information, like Rainman in pyjamas.

What was once considered to be some sort of soccer sideshow is now big business. Opta are at the forefront of the sports statistics industry. They are the people doing the number crunching for Sky Sports, BBC, BT, ESPN and a host of internet betting exchanges. And all those spreadsheets have proved to be extremely lucrative. In the summer of 2013 the FTSE 250 company Perform purchased Opta at the heady price of £40million. The company’s joint-Chief Executive, Oliver Slipper, explained, “We felt over the past year or two that sports data for the media sector . . . is becoming a more and more important part of their content mix.”

In the age of scarce resources and Moneyball, clubs are increasingly turning to in-depth statistical analysis as a way of scouting players. The minutiae of distance run per game, shots on target, passes completed, interceptions made, and headers won are collated and calculated to assess potential signings. Writing in the Financial Times Simon Kuper argues, “In recent years, after many false starts, the number-crunchers at big English clubs have begun to unearth the player stats that truly matter.” Later in the piece he explains that David Comolli employed data analysis in the signings of both Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez whilst director of football at Liverpool. From this we can gather Comolli’s success rate is, at best, 50%.

That does rather illustrate one of the problems with the endless procession of numbers. Unlike statistics-friendly sports such as cricket and baseball, where individual contests are played out in a team setting, football is a game in which the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. There is a growing tendency to know more and more about the tiniest details and forget the bigger picture. Opta cannot tell you if a player will reach their full potential or they will form effective partnerships with their teammates. They cannott tell you if Carlos Tevez won’t be able to settle in the area, whether Mario Balotelli is really motivated, or which Mesut Ozil will turn up on the day – will we see the world class attacking midfielder or the guy who couldn’t be bothered to break into a jog if his arse was on fire.

Statistics can never, ever hope to capture the extraordinary passion, excitement or beauty of football. They will never explain the feeling that sweeps a crowd as Lionel Messi picks up the ball, or tell us why a shot that nestles in the corner of the net is more aesthetically pleasing than one that catches the fingertips of a flailing, unsuccessful keeper. It might be stretching the truth to say that football is working class ballet, but it is a game in which even those with the stoniest of hearts are taken by its poetics. We talk of a ‘gorgeous’ pass, a ‘stunning’ volley, a ‘sublime’ piece of skill. The endless quest of the money-men and the statisticians to quantify the unquantifiable is futile. There is a reason we call it the beautiful game. 

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Liverpool FC - Cursed by God?

This season Liverpool have been a study in turgid ineffectiveness – the Boxing Day encounter with Burnley at Turf Moor being a case in point. It is often said that the mark of a good team is that they can play badly and still pick up three points. On the evidence of that display Liverpool must be the best team in world right now. Oceans of ink, both the traditional and virtual varieties, have been spilled as pundits and fans alike seek explanations for the Reds loss of form. People have pointed to the sale of Suarez, the injury to Sturridge, the age of Gerrard, the inability of a jittery defence to deal with incoming crosses, Mario Balotelli and the transfer committee. Brendon Rodgers would do well to remember, rather than simply mimic, the words of David Brent: “Accept that some days you are the pigeon and some days you are the statue.”

So what has gone wrong at Anfield this season?  Thankfully those of us searching for answers need look no further. Paul Rimmer, a former Ukip candidate, has revealed that Liverpool have been cursed by god. Channelling the spirits of Mike Bassett and Iain Paisley, the wonderfully named Rimmer believes the almighty is punishing the club following its support for the Liverpool Gay Pride parade in 2012. On Facebook he wrote:
“From the Bible, Sodomy defiles a Nation. Those who promote it will be punished & vomited out of the Land. In 2012 Liverpool FC sponsored the City’s Gay Pride Parade. Unless they repent they will be under a continual curse. Liverpool were amazing last year, but the title was denied them. Everyone knows homosexuality is wrong, but now we have to pretend its nice and normal and anyone who points out it’s a perversion is evil. This is a deep moral and spiritual sickness in our nation.”
At first look this seems to be just another example of a far-right nutbar using scripture-fodder to justify their latest round of bigotry. And to be fair it looks like that at second and third sight as well. This is after all a guy who has made his way from the BNP to Ukip to the English Democrats. Rimmer countered by claiming “I am only repeating what is said in the Bible – it's not my opinion, it's what the Bible says.” But wait… what if there is some truth to all of this? What if the club has failed to win a single league title for the past 25 years because they have been breaking the rules hidden in the Bible? What if Liverpool could only draw with Arsenal because Rodgers was coveting Arsene Wenger’s Ox? A quick look at Leviticus, that Old Testament rulebook, reveals a whole series of other offences liable to piss-off our football obsessed deity.

What if Stevie G slipped against Chelsea because he had accidentally eaten some fat (Leviticus, 3:17)? Perhaps the polyester blend of the Liverpool kit is behind the dip in form, since mixing fabrics in clothing is also a no-no (19:19). Does it seem all a bit far-fetched? Well it can be no coincidence that Martin Skrtel has found his feet since playing with a bandaged head (Uncover not your heads, neither rend your clothes; lest ye die, and lest wrath come upon all the people”) or that Raheem Sterling has netted in consecutive games since his haircut (10:6). All of a sudden I’m warming to my task. ‘OMG’ one might remark, were it not for the fear that such an oath could scupper a potential FA Cup run.

Indeed all of football should be in trouble were it to be punished for transgressions of Biblical prohibitions. Sky’s Super Sundays would be very different were it to keep to the rule about working on the Sabbath (23:3) and there should hardly be a footballer in the land playing well given that the big G ain’t all that keen on people getting tattoos (19:28). Still not convinced? Well how about this. Is it any surprise that so many players with sideburns scored goals in the 1970s when you realise that Leviticus is so particular about people cutting their hair at the sides (19:27)?

It’s all nonsense of course. Paul Rimmer takes his selective reading from the Bible to justify a homophobia that has no place in the world. Anytime you find your politics to be behind those of Hollyoaks then you should know you’re in trouble. And if Rimmer really wanted to remain consistent in his reading of Leviticus he might want to pay attention to the passage that reads “the foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born” (19:33-34).