Archive | October, 2010

Meditations On A Maestro

31 Oct

“I know I’m not one to change the world but I’m not going to let anybody into my world to tell me what to do…Nobody will ever make me believe that my mistakes with drugs or in business have changed my feelings. Nothing. I am the same as always. I’m me, Maradona. I am El Diego.”

What if you hadn’t made that monumental leap with arm raised, hand outstretched, at six minutes past the hour of one on that sweltering Azteca day of the 22nd of June 1986?

What if that iconic second goal, that you so gracefully achieved by weaving your way through the massed ranks of English defence with consummate ease, had been the one that you are fondly remembered for? The only goal you scored that day. Your legions of fans and admirers never having to qualify their contentions as to you being the greatest when dismissed by naysayers as being a charlatan and a cheat. “He should be ashamed of himself,” they say.

“But three minutes later…,” the faithful always feel the need to counter.

What if you hadn’t out-jumped a man several inches taller than your diminutive frame? Would you have left the field of play that day clasping hands with a fellow professional? As equals? Just as your natural predecessor in his famous yellow jersey had done with another lionised defender of English pride, sixteen years previously? Would you have been hailed as an ambassador for the game you played with such imperious majesty, held up as an example of the sporting ideal?

Would your goalkeeping nemesis of that day have invited you to play at his testimonial? Your famous quote, ‘How many people go to a goalkeeper’s testimonial anyway?” notwithstanding. Would Shilton’s eyes still glaze over with barely suppressed bitterness and anger whenever he mentions your name in an interview? Even when attempting to dance for the huddled masses on primetime Saturday evening television, he could not contain his righteous sense of being wronged. In the same manner as your other vanquished foe, would Terry Butcher, have still refused to offer the hand of reconciliation with you when you brought your Argentine squad over to these Isles to take on the Scots?

Would you have been more favourably looked upon if you were not born in the barrio? Would you have been more sated in your appetite for life, without the burning desire to heave yourself out of poverty, challenge the status quo and play with histrionic and extravagant flourishes? Your paranoias and vendettas not as openly vociferous and articulate. Keeping your mouth shut in order to retain sponsorship deals and plaudits from politicians and businessmen. Would you have been so vehement in your political beliefs, reluctant to sear your flesh with the image of your idol Che Guevara, unwilling to denounce perceived wrongdoers like George W Bush as ‘human garbage’? Or openly criticising the Pope by saying, “I’ve been to the Vatican and seen the gold ceilings. And then I hear the Pope saying the Church was concerned about poor kids. So? Sell the ceilings, mate! Do something!”

What if you had never fallen into the hellish cycle of drugs and organized crime? Would you have lived a healthy and wholesome existence, free of the media glare? Another bland journeyman footballer among many. Would your redemptions and recoveries be less scrutinised by the voracious appetites of the world’s press corps and less willed for by the millions who idolised you? Would you have inspired award-winning filmmakers to commit your presence to celluloid posterity or indeed five young Englishmen with astounding footballing trickery to journey and busk through South America in the hope of maybe meeting you? Would your every shrug, grimace, plea and frenzied advance towards the camera be so played over and remarked upon? Would you have been the only player in history to have been led off by a nurse for a drug test if you hadn’t been Maradona? And would we have not marvelled and delighted at your touchline stances at this year’s World Cup as we hoped for your Argentine charges, replete with the young pretender to your mantle, to provide you with the crowning glory of your career? As it transpired, success was elusive but your presence was incarnated once again when the ball struck the hand of a Uruguayan that led us all to question the morality of the game we love – your instinctive act of twenty-four years ago being used as an ambivalent symbol yet again.

What if you had elected to play for a northern Italian club over the poor relations of the south’s Napoli? Would northern dominance and superiority continue to weigh upon the downtrodden shoulders of Neapolitans as the industrial north continues to reap the benefits of economic wealth and power? What if you had not offered these people a brief moment of respite and escape as you dazzled on the pitch and delivered silverware to an area more infamously celebrated with its ties to organised crime and long-standing vendettas?

And what of your countrymen and women? What if you had not offered them hope and inspiration after years of dictatorships and economic failures? Would people continue to worship at the Church of Maradona or call their first-borns Diego or forgive you your wildest extravagances? Would you be the symbol of adulation still? Or continue to spellbind successive generations as they are introduced to your blessed talent through the means of the new media?

What passed through your mind’s eye in that split second as your arm came upwards? What if that goal had been disallowed? Does it matter?

Because after all, every one of these things did happen and the game of football would have been a far starker place without you. And for that, in some strange way, we thank the Hand of God.

Happy 50th Birthday, El Diego.

(Diego Maradona celebrated his half century on 30th October, 2010)

 

This post was first published as “A Special Day” on the excellent In Bed With Maradona – some of the most thought-provoking and passionate football writing on the web. Take a peek.

Further reading: El Presidente – World Cup Dispatch – 13th June

Matthias Sindelar and the Death of Austrian Football by Greg Theoharis on In Bed With Maradona


 

All Things Must Pass

24 Oct

Let’s put things into perspective. If you were offered a doubling in your wage by a rival employer, wouldn’t you take even the briefest of moments to seriously consider just how much such a proposal could improve your life before responding in the affirmative? Wayne Rooney’s perceived disloyalty to the Manchester United cause has been dissected with a voracious level of intensity over the past week and the never-ending observation that the modern footballer is devoid of integrity and intelligence has been levelled, rightly or wrongly, towards the wayward striker.

But let’s be clear. Rooney was not angling for a move away from his boyhood club (which was and still remains an issue for many an Evertonian). He is the product of a deprived upbringing and understandably would look to taking as much from his chosen profession while he still has the capacity and talent to do so. It may not have been executed with any kind of eloquence or sophistication but nevertheless, his posturing was understandable if he was to secure the best deal on offer to him. Rooney was critical of his current employers’ aspirations and ambitions and by so outwardly showing his concern, we were party to one of the most extraordinary press conferences seen for many a year. And with it, we perhaps began to the see the final chapter of one of football’s most dominant empires begin its opening exchanges.

Sir Alex Ferguson is not usually a man who shows his emotions readily. By dealing with issues behind the closed doors of Old Trafford throughout his tenure, he has retained an aura of authority and his decisions have been acted out with a ruthlessness which has never been open to discussion and questioning by the assembled ranks of the press corps. He was decisive in rooting out the drinking culture that had permeated the side when he took over in 1986 and players deemed either surplus to requirements or disruptive have been summarily dealt with without any pandering to sentimentality or commonly-held opinion. He may maintain that no one person is bigger than a football club but Ferguson is omniscient in Manchester. By so openly showing his disappointment and befuddlement at Rooney’s decision, we finally saw Ferguson bow to the pressures of the market and the power of the agents to dictate team policy. Received wisdom suggests that Sir Alex played out a diplomatic masterclass by portraying himself as the ‘wronged father’ opening his door for the prodigal to return but there’s another interpretation which needs closer examination: Manchester United’s spiralling debt.

If Rooney had followed through on his threat, where would United stand in the rapidly evolving and changing pecking order of the Premier League? Devoid of the only truly creative talent at their disposal, they would be forced to carry on with a squad of veterans, hard-working professionals and youth players who, if we are to be truly honest, do not measure up to the class of ’97. It’s highly unlikely that O’ Shea’s is the top selling replica shirt at the club shop. Nor is it likely that Nani, Park or Fletcher would truly strike fear into opponents’ hearts. Fans pay to watch stars and those stars are few and far between. United have been blessed with their fair few over the years but minus Rooney, who in their squad would truly be capable of stepping up to that mantle?

Ferguson was probably leant on to make such statement at his press conference because by losing such a prized asset, the Glazer family would be left with a ‘franchise’ that has no marquee name to keep the casual fan interested when the other side of Manchester is currently beginning to resemble a fantasy team with Real Madridesque pretentions. It’s very hard to believe that the famously unforgiving old Scot would be quite so willing to offer the olive branch if United’s long-term dominance was not finally being held up to so much scrutiny by so many pretenders. And because of this, we saw him compromised for perhaps the first time ever in his illustrious career.

This calls into question the very nature of selling a footballing institution to people who clearly were unable to afford it in the first place. When repayments begin to dictate contract negotiations, team stability and a manager’s modus operandi, the authorities that allow such a situation to have come about in the first place need to held to account in some way. We have seen just how damaging this state of financial jeopardy can be in the case of Liverpool, Portsmouth and Leeds and if this practice is not tempered soon, we genuinely run the risk of losing a club which has been the lifeblood of a community for over a hundred years. People may rightly question the ethics and morality of clubs such as Chelsea and Manchester City being owned by plutocrats but at least they are economically solvent. The Glazers and their ilk, have been granted ownership on the never-never and that in the end, is what is truly unforgivable.

But we’ve been here before, haven’t we? People being handed ‘free money’ by credit card companies and banks, egged on by a government which chose to turn a blind eye, with the misconceived notion that repayments will come at a later stage. When the money runs out, surprise, surprise, who’s left to pick up the pieces of a busted society? Who will pick up the pieces after the Glazers have run United into the ground remains to be seen but it can only be hoped that the bloated greed with which we have all become repulsed by will be replaced with a collective responsibility that is in the hands of people who truly have the club’s interests at heart.

All empires have their demise. These falls usually occur after years of complacency and sated appetites that are superceded by powers hungrier and more willing to step up to the challenge of conquest. After twenty years of unprecedented success, Manchester United’s dominance may not have been scuppered by an old general’s desire to succeed but by the greed of a few bankrupt businessmen and the ignorance of a young soldier. “Et tu, Wayne?” might well have been Sir Alex’s resigned response last Tuesday.

Further Reading: Reality Cheque – Dispatch: 12th September

Schoolboy’s Own Stuff

17 Oct

My heart stops every time I hear the phrase on the news: “Ex-England star, Paul Gascoigne…”. It happened again last Monday with the reports that Gazza had been arrested once again for driving over the limit. It was an almost throwaway remark by the newsreader, coming as it did after the ongoing farce that Liverpool’s protracted sale had become and the increasingly frosty atmosphere that has been descending upon Old Trafford as Sir Alex and the wayward Wayne Rooney ratchet up their levels of public relations brinkmanship. Gazza being drunk. Again. It’s become such a regular occurrence that whenever it happens, the public raises its collective eyebrows and dismisses it as yet another self-destructive incident in the life of a ‘national treasure’ who has been sadly spiralling into a vortex of self-destruction for nigh-on two decades now. He’s newsworthy but only in the sense that we feel that he deserves an honorary mention simply because we feel we owe it to him for all the years past.

I dread that moment when it comes. That moment when Gazza isn’t just a figure of fun; for us to mock on self-loathing panel shows for his ‘madcap’ friendship with the likes of Raoul Moat or his sad attempts to forge a successful managerial career. Or when he transcends the pity we heap upon him with our lamentations for his squandered talent and inability to accept that he will never be the player he was. The moment I dread is the moment that tells us that Paul Gascoigne has been found dead, closely followed by graphic descriptions of the destituteness he found himself in in his latter day incarnation as a public morality play. We’ve seen it all before; George Best, Alex Higgins. But if and when it happens to Gazza, we’ll all have to look at ourselves and seriously question why we allowed someone who quite clearly has suffered from mental health issues throughout his life, go so long without clearly and forcefully being given the treatment and empathy, he so clearly has always needed. Yes, he’s a grown man and he should be allowed to be the master of his own destiny. But he is also a vulnerable, exceptionally talented individual who has provided so many of us with some of the most exquisite memories of our footballing childhoods. Gazza’s tears. Gazzamania. Gazza ‘getting his suit measured’. Gazza vs Scotland. On and on it goes. So when we’re tempted to denigrate his present predicament with either shrugs or more pathetically chortles, let’s just think that this man has lived a life in the public eye, unprepared to internalise and articulate the pressures so foisted upon such unpredictable shoulders.

Gascoigne’s playing days straddled both eras of the modern game. He came to prominence in the late 80s when the game was riddled by heavy-drinkers and overtly masculine players and fans who had no sentiment for anybody considered to be deviating from a template of hatchet men and working-class outlooks. With his tears at Italia ’90, he inadvertently paved the way for the metrosexuality of David Beckham and made it acceptable for women and social commentators to show a passion for the game. But even with that, he was mocked and the seedily iconic image of his testicles being gripped in the vice of Vinnie Jones’ hands has become a metaphor for the japery of boys playing a man’s game rather than being interpreted as the actions of the proverbial school bully seeking to destroy and intimidate the natural, instinctive playing genius of a man blessed with infinitely more talent. It’s an easy step to imagine the same image being reproduced with the equally thuggish John Terry examining Cristiano Ronaldo’s nether regions with such scrutiny.

Gazza, was and always will be my childhood hero. Along with Gary Lineker, he represented everything that I found magical about the game. And whereas Lineker provided the model for how I wanted myself to be perceived on the football field or on the playground (urbane, respectful, unassuming), it was always Gazza who fired my schoolboy’s imagination. Many players have delighted me with their talents in the intervening years but it is these two men who, even in my early thirties, envelope me in a childish warm glow whenever they appear on the screen. Match of the Day may have become a self-serving talking shop of bland cliches but whenever Lineker gives a wry acknowledgment to Spurs’s progress after Alan Hansen’s cynical asides, I feel that he’s talking to me and every other manchild who grew up watching him play at White Hart Lane in the early ’90s. Similarly, whenever Gascoigne is wheeled out to be a guest pundit on MOTD2 on some such highlights package, all I want to do is reach out and give the man a huge hug because it’s clear that with every wistful reminiscence about his glory days from a well-meaning anchorman, a little piece of him is slowly lost; because unlike Lineker, this is a man who was born to do nothing other than play football. Beautifully. As the years pass, Gascoigne’s decline becomes ever more sadder to observe even from this distance. I long to see him find some peace, whether that be through coaching youngster, as an ambassador for the game in some capacity or just being offered the help he so clearly needs in able to be able to function with some semblance of normality. Surely all of us, having feasted on his talent and mishaps throughout the last twenty years owe him that?

The image that so clearly personifies the dichotomy of the two players I so fanatically idolised as a boy, is the shot of Lineker motioning to the bench after Gazza has received the fatal second yellow card against West Germany that would have kept him out of the Final. As the lip began to quiver, Lineker mouthed, “have a word”. Before it’s too late, I hope that somebody, somewhere has the humanity to actually follow through with that sentiment. I can’t bear another one of those news reports.

Everything Must Go

10 Oct

Roll up, roll up for the sale of the century. We have an exquisite little number on show for you today. A quaint little property adjoining the fabulous environs of Stanley Park in the heart of Merseyside. This site may have seen better times, but it nevertheless offers the purchaser the opportunity to regale himself (or herself – this is a buyer’s market after all) in the warmth and glow of a loving and loyal local population which will no doubt do its utmost to make the new owner feel welcome with its world-renowned humour, legendary tales of bootrooms and an unshakeable belief in the twin ideals of Pass and Move. It’s not going cheap, but what we can offer you is the chance to put yourself on the property ladder of one of the world’s most secretive and bloated markets; no questions asked. Debt? Don’t worry about it. If you need it and ask nicely, the more we’ll give you. And to make this once in a lifetime offer even more attractive, we’ll promise you that if you can’t afford the upkeep, you can merely flog it to the next vainglorious chump, oops, we meant budding entrepreneur who’s willing to take up the slack. Just walk away and don’t worry, they’ll keep coming back for more, singing their quaint little ditties and wallowing in their own sense of nostalgia.

Sad, isn’t it? Liverpool owe Royal Bank of Scotland £280 million and have been ordered to pay up by 15th October. Should the current owners be unable to find a willing buyer this week, the club faces the unthinkable prospect of going into administration and as a consequence suffer the fate of Portsmouth by having nine points deducted that will in turn plunge the club into a very real fight for Premier League survival. While I feel no great affinity or love for Liverpool Football Club and would find it refreshing to see such a big name humbled in the lower leagues (see Walking Alone), the very fact that this might occur through a system of handicapping a club, (due to the reckless mismanagement of those charged with overseeing its financial well-being) is an injustice that needs to be rectified with immediate effect. Why should the profit-orientated greedmerchants that ran the likes of Crystal Palace, Southampton and Leeds into the ground not be investigated and duly punished after the event rather than heap the woe onto the shoulders of fans who continue to turn up, year upon year?

Perhaps, there isn’t anything strictly illegal about the incompetent ownership of the likes of Tom Hicks and George Gillett but if I were deemed to be anything other than ‘satisfactory’ in my job, I would certainly be required to seek measures to improve my performance by the powers-that-be and if that failed to spark any kind of improvement , I would be rightly dismissed. But the laissez-faire, turn a blind eye atmosphere that currently pervades the country is as prevalent in football as it is anywhere else. The bankers who managed to sink this country financially have seemingly escaped without any kind of punitive measure being taken as far as I can see, leaving public workers to pick up the tab whilst the coalition is doing a great job in alienating just about anybody who isn’t earning upwards of £50,000 with the draconian financial cuts they are proposing left, right and centre. And there I was thinking the class war was over…

The Liverpool saga can end in one of two ways and neither will do anything to assuage the feeling that that the game is rotting from the inside. The first: Liverpool have the points deducted and are condemned to playing lower league football because of events that have occurred off the field rather than on it. Even the most diehard of Evertonians would surely prefer to see Liverpool relegated because of their sheer awfulness on the field of play rather than on a financial technicality. The second: The Premier League decides to waive the deduction of  points thus giving Liverpool a stay of execution, making a mockery of the sanctions taken against every other club which didn’t trade under such an illustrious brandname. Either outcome does not cover anyone in glory. Except the fans. Oh, the long-suffering, ever loyal fans…

In a recent BBC football offering, Mark Lawrenson sought to swat aside the valiant attempts of Manchester United fans to dislodge the hold of the Glazer family on the club. Through their peaceful but very visual act of wearing the green and gold of United’s original incarnation, Newton Heath, they showed that the very soul of the club remains intact and despite being seemingly powerless, the fans of a club do have the capacity to change things for the better, as is the case for FC Pauli in Germany which encompasses an overtly socially and community-minded fanbase. Lawrenson was glad to see the scarves in less abundance so that to paraphrase him, everybody could ‘just concentrate on football’. In other words, turn up and shut up.

But funnily enough, life doesn’t quite work out that way. Supporters groups are growing and there is a sense that people are beginning to tire of being pushed around and accepting the status quo. Yes, this may not change anything overnight but it can be done: look at the healthy state the game is in in Germany if you’re after how things can be done differently. With increasing talk of strikes in the public sector, wouldn’t it be a powerful statement of intent to see a whole weekend of Premier League fixtures absent of any kind of support  from St James’ Park to Stamford Bridge? That would make the moneymen sweat for a bit.

When he left White Hart Lane for the final time, disillusioned by the game’s increasing avarice, the great Keith Burkinshaw apparently remarked, “there used to be a football club over there.” Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated? Liverpool Football Club. Going once, going twice…RIP

Further Reading: How The Bundesliga Puts The Premier League To Shame

Dispatches Guests on www.just-football.comTaking Sides In Cyprus

and

inbedwithmaradona.comSpurs, West Ham; agree to leave stadium plans behind

Leading The Pack

3 Oct

In little over a month, a player has quickly emerged who threatens to become one of the best signings ever to be made in Premier League history. His name is Rafael van der Vaart. And whether you are a Spurs fan or not, you cannot deny the positivity and refreshing style of gung-ho play that his introduction to the English game has made. Tottenham were good but now, with such a cultured and forward-thinking driving force within the ranks, they are building on a platform which was so hard fought for last season. It’s no accident that Tottenham’s debut season in the Champions League is increasingly being hailed across the continent because for once, we are witnessing a team who is playing without fear, is committed to attack and because of that has produced the standout matches from the two matchdays so far.

Contrast this with the stalwarts of Champions League campaigns. I watched Chelsea’s match with Marseille on Tuesday night with a Chelsea fan and we both realised that the game was all but over in the first half hour when Chelsea took a two goal lead. The remainder of the game was an exercise in trying to keep awake after a long working day coupled with a desire to watch the previous night’s episode of The Inbetweeners on Sky Plus. So much for the hyperbole proclaiming the greatness of Europe’s elite competition.

Van der Vaart follows in a long tradition at White Hart Lane of players who capture the imaginations of the faithful with a bold adherence to their own innate ability which at times strays from any kind of team plan but nevertheless produces results which ultimately serves the greater good. Harry Redknapp was honest enough to suggest he is struggling to find a definitive role for van der Vaart because his new signing is prone to taking matters into his own hands. So far this proven successful but when the Dutchman hits a barren spell, as he inevitably will do, it is important that his manager holds firm in the belief that special players should be handled differently, when the critics begin denouncing Van der Vaart as a luxury. This has happened so many times to players who have played the game to their own tune (Le Tissier, Ginola, Hoddle, Best), that it’s easy to forget that when the legends of the game are told, it’s very rarely the workmanlike players we celebrate and reminisce over. Within the hustle and bustle of the day-to-day, when the pursuit of results is more revered than the manner in which they have been achieved, it is sadly the case that the role of the iconoclastic individual is more and more showing signs of of a person not only cutting an isolated figure but also of someone who is to be stifled or mistrusted in some way.

At a training session at work this week, the entire staff was introduced to a form of character profiling and team structuring called Packtypes. This involved having to choose twelve adjectives from a deck of cards which you felt best described you as a person in the workplace. Once these had been filtered, the other side of the card revealed a picture of a dog breed and you were able to ascertain what kind of worker you were according to the predominance of the particular dog you were. While I would never proclaim that this method is in any way a precise science, the results tended to veer towards a staff which was heavily balanced towards being empathetic (Coachdogs), workmanlike (Terriers) and driven by getting the job done (Guard Dogs). These are of course essential qualities if a team is ever expected to succeed. The worrying element though, was that there was a paucity of people who might be perceived to be creators/forward thinkers, what the leaders of the session labelled, Hounds. I say worrying, but in hindsight, I realised that in actuality a team cannot function if everybody was prone to going off on a whim. What is worrying however, is when these ‘Hounds’ are viewed with an element of distrust rather than being encouraged and given the freedom to experiment and express their individuality which in turn benefits everybody involved.

Of course history is littered with individuals challenging received wisdom and suffering vilification and humiliation as a result. But if the likes of Galileo, Harvey Milk or even Elvis Presley had believed everything they had been told and not had the courage of their own convictions, the world we live in today would not be quite as enriched. Nobody remembers the naysayers. And sadly, nor do they remember the workhorses. Boxer was shipped off to the glue factory at the end of Orwell’s Animal Farm and Salieri was left to stew on his own capable but mediocre arrangements when compared alongside Mozart.

The great innovators of the game are still held in high regard. The Hungarians of the 1950s are still venerated because of how they changed the way football was played; with fluidity and interchangeability. We salute Barcelona’s stance of resistance during the dictatorship of the Franco era. Jose Mourinho is magnetic, not because of his teams’ footballing styles, but by the very fact that he dares to say something different. Who truly waxes lyrical about the professionalism of the likes of Dennis Irwin or Nigel Winterburn? Football is about the entertainers. Winning is of course, preferable but when measured up against the bigger narrative of history, it’s about how you held yourself when you were at your very best. Van der Vaart is already on the path to White Hart Lane immortality.

And if you were wondering as to the breed of dog I came out as: well, The King ain’t got nothing on me.

Further Reading: Packtypes Homepage

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