Archive | December, 2010

Subject To Availability

26 Dec

From school reports to letters, diary entries to folk tales, Dispatches always likes to keep you on your toes.

What began on the eve of the World Cup as a midnight rambling has turned into Dispatches From A Football Sofa and I’d like to quickly take the chance to thank everybody who has read and supported this little blog of mine.

What would the festive season be without a Christmas Special? So this week, I give you a magical Christmas film in words.

My usual brand of  ‘Pessimistic Optimism’ will return with a vengeance in 2011. See you on the other side…

 

Scene 1:

A hand writing on an exercise book. Waffling in the background. Rows of desks are made out in the periphery of vision. This is school.

 

The hand is writing out a succession of numbers. Could this be a maths class? As the angle widens it is evident that what is being written does not correspond with what is being said. The writer is detailing the entire honours history of Tottenham Hotspur: Champions: 1951, 1961; FA Cup Winners: 1901, 1921, 1961, 1962, etc.

 

Close up of the writer’s face. He is a boy of about 7 or 8 years of age, scampish and clearly a million miles away.

 

The bell goes. There is much shifting and fidgeting. Hometime.


Teacher’s Voice:

OK. Books away. What have we been doing this afternoon? There’ll be a test on Monday. Jonathan! (Allowing the possibility that Jonathan might be in trouble) Doing anything nice over the weekend?

 

Jonathan pipes up. A ratty looking child, with an air of smugness about him.

Jonathan:

My dad’s taking me to see Chelsea.

 

Teacher’s Voice:

(he nods approvingly, evidently a Chelsea fan himself) Sandy?

 

Sandy:

(coyly) My dad’s taking me to the Spurs match…

 

(Sniggers from the other kids)


Jonathan:

(snidely) Liar. You haven’t got a dad… and Spurs are rubbish too.

 

Sandy:

(backtracking) I meant my mum. My mum’s taking me. And Spurs aren’t rubbish. They’re the pride of North London. The Kings of White Hart Lane.

 

The sniggers now mutate into jeers as the other kids unveil a collage of assorted Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool clothing merchandise obscuring Sandy’s path to the door. The so-called “Big 4” have this particular classroom in their overstuffed pockets.

 

Teachers Voice:

(fading into the background) Well, whatever you’re doing don’t forget those winning sequences…

 

Scene 2:

Saturday morning. Sandy’s bedroom. A shrine to Spurs. Posters of current and bygone stars on the walls – (Gascoigne, Klinsmann, Defoe), scarves, pendants and the obligatory Spurs duvet cover. The Spurs alarm clock goes off. Sandy jumps out of bed. In his Spurs pyjamas.

He is on the stairs whispering into the phone.

Sandy:

D, A, G.

(Legs hurriedly come down the stairs)


Legs:

Sandy Brown, what are you doing?

 

Sandy:

Nothing mum.

 

Mum:

Well stop doing nothing and go and change your sister’s nappy. I’m late enough for work as it is and I really haven’t got the time for any playing up by either of you.

 

Note: Sandy’s mum’s face, like the teacher’s, is never seen. All that is seen is mum’s waist downwards, reminiscent of the Mammy in the old Tom and Jerry cartoons. This is Sandy’s world.

As Sandy changes his sister, the boy is comparable to the eye of the storm.

The mise-en-scene of the living room becomes visible while his mother rushes around. This is not a dirty house but it is a mess. Toys everywhere. Final demands. Cat hairs. There is no paternal presence evident. This is obviously a one-parent family.

Nappy done, Sandy goes and fixes himself some breakfast. Cold pizza. He takes it to his seat and watches TV. Football sounds emanating from the set.

Sandy’s mum walks in ready for work.


Mum:

Ok sweetheart, I’m going to drop Bonny off at the crèche and then I’m off to work. (Spies the pizza). Please buy yourself some fruit today. Here’s some money. Go out and do something with your friends. What’s Jonathan up to?

She ruffles his hair placing some money on the coffee table.

 

Sandy:

Thanks mum.

 

Mum:

Now be good. Have a nice day and don’t forget to give this room a quick tidy by the time I get back. I love you.

 

Sandy:

Bye.

(Sandy’s mum is evidently not taking him to see Spurs)

 

Scene 3:

Sandy in the bathroom. He is wearing an oversized Spurs shirt. One dating back to the early 1990s. The ’91 Cup Final shirt. Probably his dad’s. The back says Lineker.

He is doing his hair. Wraps a Spurs scarf around his neck. Puts on his coat and a blue and white bobble hat and raids his piggy bank.

He leaves the house.

 

Scene 4:

On a train. On the seat next to Sandy, eating a packet of salt and vinegar crisps, sits a similarly attired boy. And next to the boy sits his father also similarly attired. By the looks of things, they are going to the match and it looks as though Sandy is going too.

 

Scene 5:

The sign reads White Hart Lane station. Sandy is squashed in amongst a throng of bodies now. Everybody disembarks including the father and son and Sandy. As he enters the matchday environment, the camera angle expands from the personal perspective to a wider view. Sandy is now part of the crowd; gearing up for the match.

Brief montage detailing the sea of faces, smells, sounds and general hubbub of matchday. Patrolling policemen on horses. The magnitude of the stadium. Players arriving in flash cars. Cheers. Burger vans and programme sellers.

 

Scene 6:

The chip shop. Sandy queues. From behind the counter, a voice is heard.

Sandy:

Portion of chips please.

 

Chippy:

Salt n vinegar with that?

Sandy:

Yes, please.

 

A little hand extends to place the change on the counter.

All seems well as Sandy strolls down Tottenham High Road savouring the atmosphere. He proceeds to sing one of the numerous Chas n’ Dave forever associated with the club. “Hot Shot Tottenham”, detailing the ’87 Cup Final squad. A squad which Sandy could not possibly remember seeing. Another memory of his dad?

Sandy:

(singing) “Ray Clemence, Mitchell Thomas, Gary Stevens, Steve Hodge/ They’re all gonna put on a show for you/ And don’t forget Ossie/ Especially cos he/ Back in ’81 he had his dream come true/ Nico Cleason, Hughton and Galvin/ Don’t forget Clive and Paul Allen too/ Richard Gough and Chrissy Waddle/ Gary Mabbutt and Glen Hoddle/ And Danny all the goals are gonna be for you.”

It is clear Sandy knows his history.

This interlude brings him to the entrance of the Park Lane ticket office. There is queue for tickets. There are still some on sale. As the line gets shorter it seems Sandy’s luck will be in. He is at the front of the queue. There is an immeasurable grin on his face. But as he readies himself to enter the ticket office, an official strides out with a placard and places it on the ground. It reads:

TODAY’S MATCH: SOLD OUT

The line behind Sandy dissolves. He is now alone again.

 

Scene 7:

Back on the High Road. Sandy walks dejected. Within earshot, he hears the familiar hushed tones that are heard around grounds on matchdays:

“Tickets. Any tickets. Buy or sell”. The touts. Of course. Maybe Sandy can buy a ticket off one of them and get into the game?  He approaches three gruff, suspicious looking individuals who tower over the young boy.

Sandy:

Got any tickets left?

 

Tout 1 (a stocky man with a Geordie accent):

How many you after little man?

 

Sandy:

Just the one.

 

Tout 2 (a blonde man with a big nose and a faint German twang):

Ooo. It’ll cost ya.

 

Sandy:

How much?

Tout 1:

60 quid. You got that kinda cash on ya.

 

Sandy:

(sheepishly) No.

 

Tout 2:

What ya got then?

Sandy reaches into his pockets and pulls out a five pound note and some shrapnel. He has spent the money his mum gave him. The three hyenas collapse with laughter.

Tout3:

You’re aving a larf ain’t cha?

 

Sandy:

No. Go on….give us a ticket…

Tout 1:

Tell ya what. Business is a bit slow today. So here’s the deal. I’m gonna set you a little quiz. Three questions. Get three right and the ticket’s yours.

 

He winks at his mates. Tout 3 sniggers like a schoolboy.

 

Sandy:

Ok.

 

Tout 1:

Alright. Let’s see. Right. Who scored the winning goal in the ’91 Cup Final?

 

Sandy:

(emphatically) Des Walker. Own goal.

 

Tout 2:

Yeah, that was easy. I’ll ‘av a go. Right, what was Glen Hoddle’s last match for Spurs?

 

Sandy:

(smiling) ’87 Cup Final against Coventry.

 

Tout 2:

Gawd. Everyone’s a smartarse in’t they.

 

Tout 3:

Ok. This’ll sort you out Einstein. Who scored the winning goal for Spurs in the 1901 Cup Final? He shoots, he scores.

 

He has. Sandy clearly doesn’t know and has to admit defeat.

 

Tout 3:

Don’t know? Ahh, what a shame? Sandy Brown was the fella’s name. Oh well…

 

The cruel irony is not lost on Sandy.

Sandy:

But that’s my name…

 

Tout 3:

Yeah and I’m Diego Maradona. (He does bear an uncanny resemblance to the diminutive Argentine legend.) Tough luck kid.

 

Tout 1:

Spurs are rubbish anyway. Next time get your old man to get you tickets for Chelsea. Stop ya wasting ya time…

 

The three men slip away into the crowd, cackling and chanting “My old man said be a Tottenham fan”.

It is now obvious to Sandy that he will not be seeing Spurs play today.

 

Scene 8:

Three o’ clock is approaching. Sandy is now even trying to get into a pub to watch the game. The huge black bouncer on the door turns him away and from within the pub, Sandy’s head can be seen bobbing up and down at the window trying to grab a view of the screen. The commentary is announcing the line-ups and the pub’s clientele are anticipating the game’s kick-off.


Scene 9:

Note: This scene/sequence has three major influences in order for empathy be achieve:

(I) The imaginary World Series match in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Despite the television being off, the viewer is swept away by the believability of the inmates as they follow a game which isn’t really there.

(II) The innocence and hilarity of the football match which takes place in Ken Loach’s Kes. A school kickabout turns into an old First Division encounter between Spurs and Manchester United with Brian Glover’s overzealous P.E teacher taking things a little too far, thinking himself to be Bobby Charlton.

(III) The anxiety of the football obsessive as s/he is transfixed by the scrolling screens of Sky Sports, Ceefax and Grandstand’s ubiquitous Vidiprinter on a Saturday afternoon in anticipation of further developments in his/her team’s fortunes.

Three o’ clock arrives. The streets are virtually empty, as everybody has entered the stadium. Sandy sits dejected outside the arena, dwarfed by its enormity. As the crowd greets the players, Sandy’s mood gradually alters. He becomes swamped by the sound emanating from within.

What follows is a montage telling the story of the match through the crowd’s chants, moans and groans and Sandy’s reactions to them as the major incidents are flashed up at the bottom of the screen.

E.g: 16 mins: Spurs 1 – Man Utd 0

29 mins:  Man Utd Penalty

30 mins:  Man Utd miss penalty

And so on. Until by the end, the little boy is celebrating in the street as people begin to filter out and flash bemused looks in his direction. Spurs win. Sandy is ecstatic.

 

Scene 10:

The earlier scene at White Hart Lane Station is repeated in reverse. Sandy is squashed within the throng of the crowd singing victory songs. Nobody knows that he didn’t actually get to see the match. Nobody cares. He’s one of them.

 

Scene 11:

On the train. The same father and son are sitting across from Sandy again. They are eating pre-prepared sandwiches and drinking tea from a flask. As the crowd begins to disperse the point of view retracts again to centre just on Sunday.

 

Scene 12:

Sandy enters his house and quickly clears up the front room. As his mum enters with the baby he is sat on the armchair where she left him.


Mum:

Hi sweetheart.

 

Sandy:

Hi mum.

 

Mum:

The room looks nice and clean. So what have you been up to today?

 

Sandy:

Nothing much. Just homework and stuff.

 

Mum:

(in a rush, not really listening) Good good. Look sweetheart, I’ve got to rush. I’ve got a date tonight. You’re going to look after your sister tonight. Is that ok? I’ll order you a pizza.

 

Sandy:

Ok.

 

Mum rushes upstairs. From upstairs:


Mum:

How did Spurs get on today?

 

Sandy:

They won.

 

Mum comes back down.


Mum:

Right. Be good. I won’t be back too late. Have fun. I love you.

 

Sandy:

Bye.

 

She ruffles his hair again.

 

Scene 14:

Sandy is settled in front of the TV. Match of the Day is about to begin. At last he’ll get to see Spurs. The familiar theme tune over, Gary Lineker’s voice can be heard introducing the first match. It’s not Spurs. Sandy huffs.

FADE

A little further down into the armchair. Gary introduces another match. Again, it’s not Spurs. Sandy’s eyes are beginning to get heavy.

FADE

Gary Lineker now introduces action from today’s match at White Hart Lane but as the camera cuts to Sandy’s face it is clear the boy is too tired and is now asleep.

FADE

 

Gary Lineker:

And just before we go, we’ve got just enough time to give you the result of this December’s Goal of the Month competition. The person who guessed the winning sequence is Sandy Brown of Hertford. Congratulations Sandy. You get to go the Premiership game of your choice. Enjoy your day.

 

Gary winks at the camera. The consummate fairy godfather.

Sandy is still asleep, unaware of the prize he has just won.

THE END

Follow Dispatches From A Football Sofa on Twitter: @gregtheoharis

Sign Of The Times

19 Dec

In last week’s Dispatch, I did promise to write about something positive seeing that the soul of football has taken somewhat of a battering in the last few weeks. It might give you a better insight into my psyche that I find it easier to rail and wail against the wantonly amoral forces which seem to suck the lifeblood out of the game, rather than celebrating the good things but trust me, I will give you something positive to take away with you by the end of this post, in preparation for all the good tidings you will no doubt be wishing upon your fellow man over the coming days. You might have to read closely, but it’s there somewhere.

The week in football began with many of us shaking our heads in disbelief with the sheer flippancy and ignorance coming out of the ubiquitous Sepp Blatter’s mouth yet again. When FIFA’s president was questioned about the impact that Qatar’s banning of homosexuality might have on the already controversial choice of venue for the 2022 World Cup, Blatter caustically proclaimed that “they [gay fans] should refrain from any kind of sexual activity” whilst in the Middle Eastern state. I’m sure Blatter was not intentionally trying to cause offence, but his giggling mirrored by members of the press corps shone a further light on how football perceives the issue of homosexuality. Perhaps Blatter is still under the impression that all gay people can be encapsulated in the form of a 1970s sitcom in which they all mince about with limp wrists, lasciviously eyeing up anything in trousers whilst screaming out crass suggestive catchphrases like “Hello, Ducky” or  “Chase me, chase me”. If he was so open to taking football to new frontiers as he so often likes to remind us, maybe he’d think carefully about trading on misguided stereotypes with a media, which by and large, although paying lip service to political correctness enjoys salivating over misconceived notions of sexuality.

By the end of the week however, the monumental news arrived from the US that the senate had finally voted to lift the controversial ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy which has forced so many servicemen and women to unnecessarily hide their sexuality because it was felt that such inclinations within an individual would damage morale during combat operations. Think about that concept for a moment. No, really, think.

There seems to be a prevalent perception amongst the ‘moral majority’ that homosexuality somehow equates with decadence and depravity and subsequently leads to the ruination of all that was fine and upstanding in the first place. A conversation down the pub (if we’re trading in clichés, we may as well do both sides) about gay footballers will inevitably throw up the argument of ‘well, I wouldn’t want to get showered around them, would you?’ Time and time again, footballers are derided if they show any kind of assumed femininity. David Beckham was ridiculed for wearing Alice bands and sarongs, Graeme Le Saux was mocked and has his sexuality questioned for having the audacity to read The Guardian. On the playground every day, I hear boys throwing the ‘gay’ epithet at each other as a way of provoking a negative reaction. I have a student who recently said, ‘yes, I am’ to such taunts. And guess what? The taunting just dissipated.

All it takes is for one footballer to make that statement; ‘yes, I am’. I appreciate that it is easier said than done, considering the tragedy that befell Justin Fashanu who was forced to ‘come out’, twenty years ago. However, despite what the dinosaurs like Blatter and The Man Down The Pub might believe, the world has changed since Fashanu’s time. When that footballer does decide to bite the bullet and tell us he is gay (and only when he is ready to), then he will have a whole host of support from supporter’s groups, prominent and progressive sporting bodies and hopefully from a squad of his team-mates who’ll value his sporting excellence over his choice of sexual partner. Is Wayne Rooney’s procurement and payment of heterosexual sex really more acceptable than the same-sex relationship that Footballer X finds himself in?

One such organisation is The Justin Campaign which was founded in remembrance of Fashanu’s suicide and seeks to combat and eradicate all aspects of homophobia which still remain prevalent in the game. Through educational workshops and the Justin Fashanu All-Stars football team, the campaign seeks to pressure football’s governing bodies to foster an environment in which gay, lesbian and bisexual people do not feel the need to hide who they are or fear discrimination. By focusing on grassroots, it is hoped that such issues will not even be issues in the coming years. As Jason Hall, the Campaign’s founding director says:

“Justin Fashanu forced the world of football to acknowledge that you can love men, whilst at the same time be a world-class footballer. His bravery has created inroads for our community in the football world and has inspired a generation of gay and bisexual men, who now believe that we too, can be part of the beautiful game.”

Justin Fashanu might be considered the pioneer in that regard. What the game of football now needs, is a watershed. I wrote about football being in the midst of its Dark Ages a couple of weeks ago. That may be the case, but in 2010, the inability by some in the game to accept that it is not the exclusive domain of the heterosexual just as in years past, it was not the exclusive domain of the white man, needs to be challenged, dispelled and nullified as quickly as possible. If you’re a brilliant footballer, you’re a brilliant footballer regardless. Likewise, if my gran is a better penalty-taker than you, then you must be truly dreadful –  whether you fancy men or not. Football really is a simple game.

Merry Christmas, one and all, wherever and whoever you are.

Further Reading: The Justin Campaign Website

Extraordinary – Justin Fashanu at Torquay United by Juliet Jacques

BBC News – US Senate lifts ban on gays in the military

Won’t Get Fooled Again?

12 Dec

I was labelled ‘cynical’ this week. In my opinion unfairly so. Because as I understand the term, a ‘cynic’ is someone who readily dismisses subjects and topics with an air of negativity and a lack of faith. A cynic is someone who participates in a grown-up discussion about a particular theme but stifles any possible outcome with sneering suspicion. In short, a cynic for me, is the kind of person who plugs up his earholes with his fingers and says ‘no’. If people are so keen to attach labels to others, than the term I would give myself is that of a ‘pessimistic optimist’.

Allow me to define this term. I am someone who has high ideals and strong beliefs as you might have ascertained if you’re a regular reader of Dispatches. I will forever champion the ethos that football as a sport and the human being in general has the unerring capacity to elevate itself beyond pre-conceived notions and prejudices and in very rare occurrences can shine a light on how beautifully unique and magical life on earth can be. All very noble and romantic, isn’t it? However, I also believe that if you set your moral benchmark too high, football and humanity will inevitably let you down. Because experience has taught me, that everybody views life through different prisms. We all come from different backgrounds, live by varying principles and fluctuate on a nigh-on daily basis between nobility and debauchery with every other human state floating in between. The events of this week, coincidentally, happened to cement this philosophy even more.

Take the farce that has rumbled on at Newcastle this week. An understated, unassuming and good man like Chris Hughton was ungraciously consigned to the limbo of the managerial merry-go-round seemingly because he lacked the necessary experience. This, despite taking Newcastle back to the Premier League in his first season in charge with a flourish and swagger that a team as habitually schizophrenic as Newcastle United have not displayed for nigh-on a decade. He has rehabilitated the career of an apparent lost cause in Joey Barton, developed the skills of a burgeoning young talent in Andy Carroll and bucked the traditional trend of newly-promoted teams struggling in their first season in the top tier as Newcastle have more than held their own and registered some excellent results most notably against Sunderland and Arsenal.

Evidently, Hughton’s sterling efforts were not deemed ‘starry’ enough for owner Mike Ashley and his coterie of hangers-on who continue to labour under delusions of grandeur, hoping as they did to lure a ‘blockbuster’ manager to Tyneside. They ended up with Alan Pardew, a manager whose track record does not point towards a talent equal to that of the world’s most illustrious coaches such as Guus Hiddink and Jose Mourinho. So Hughton’s efforts have been negated and disgracefully so, due to a shameless pursuit of commercial viability and ‘coolness’ by a hierarchy that continues to sink to lower depths in its moral bankruptcy. We can patronise Hughton all we like with praise but how might he feel after having all his efforts so thanklessly undervalued? Why should he even bother next time?

And for that matter, why should we even bother listening to the empty pledges made by politicians? On Thursday, the flagrant careerism of the Liberal Democrat establishment was clearly exposed as the vast majority of its leading lights elected to renege on the promises made to students to abolish tuition fees during the General Election campaign. Many people were sold the image of Nick Clegg during the process as a force for change. He skilfully presented his party as an alternative to the bickering Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee politics of the traditional left and right. It was all so believable, all so aspirational. And then came the about-face…

So many shapers of public opinion have been quick to condemn the students for the outletting of their justifiable frustrations in London. Sky News’ Kay Burley even described them as ‘insurgents’ and the ‘twitterverse’ was awash with bile and venom towards the young people for having the temerity to ‘defile’ Churchill and to ‘attack’ the royal entourage. Of course, what the angry mob of anti-students failed to acknowledge was the fact that the students had a clear and legitimate reason to be angry and before the impulse to condemn them is spewed, perhaps the police’s role in such matters should be under greater scrutiny? If people are provoked, prodded, cajoled and ignored by the authoritative elite and in turn the media, the only natural consequence is to resort to violence. Over two million took to the streets in 2003 to protest against Tony Blair’s decision to take this country to war with Iraq. Did he listen then? I think you know the answer to that. Yes, peaceful protest is always preferable but sometimes there are situations when the very beliefs and policies your leaders have sold to you and subsequently allowed yourself to believe in, are so betrayed, that the only option is to resort to extreme measures. If it keeps happening, generation after generation, something will inevitably snap. Thursday’s events, like the Poll Tax riots, and the inner-city riots of the 1980s are symptomatic of what happens when you’ve been spun a line, over and over…

…as done by Barcelona. Two weeks ago I wrote about the moral and ethical values that this club has and how it has been a beacon throughout its history. I believed in Barcelona. Totally, unswervingly, romantically. And then on Friday came the news that the club has signed a £125 million deal to display the logo of a sponsor for the first time. The Qatar Foundation, although not being a business, will sit alongside Unicef’s logo as of next year. A club that for so long, sought to demonstrate its region’s individuality by patriotically keeping the Catalan flag of the shirt untainted has finally succumbed. And with manager Pep Guardiola’s endorsement of the Qatari 2022 World Cup bid suggesting further collusion between ‘brand Barca’ and the newest richkids on the football block, it would seem that everybody, in the end has their price.

So, tell me, after such a week, when I’ve seen so many ideals and promises destroyed and ignored, how can I not be pessimistic about the world in which I live? A cynic, I am not, because I still believe there is good out there. You just need to look a little bit harder. People should attempt to understand the definitions of the words they choose to use about others before they assign labels.

Next week, I promise to write about something truly positive and uplifting. I need to. It’s nearly Christmas after all.

Financial Incentives, Filthy Ambitions (Part 2)

5 Dec

Part 2 of  the Dispatches special on the World Cup bids looks at the reasons and implications behind FIFA’s decision to award the tournament to Russia and Qatar.

In the misguided march to war with Iraq in 2003, US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld drew a line in the sand. Europe was divided into two distinct and discernible camps. There was ‘Old Europe’, comprising of those countries who had fostered and re-built the concepts of Western liberal democracy in the embers of the Second World War and were reluctant to unthinkingly be at America’s beck and call. And there was ‘New’ Europe’ made up of states who had emerged out of the rubble of Communism’s failure in the last decade of the twentieth century; eager to curry favour with the world’s only superpower and forge their own powerplays on the world stage. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

This country however, had a somewhat confused perception of itself in that particular endeavour, rushing as it did to the Bush bugle-horn but England certainly found out on Thursday that it now, without any hint of doubt, belongs to a yet unnamed group of nations that can clearly be grouped into a category entitled ‘Old Football’. Why else would Herr Blatter continually attempt to assuage the impending disappointment of England’s doomed bid with patronising pats on the head about accepting defeat in sport and how England was “the motherland of football”. And as with all mothers, they must eventually learn to accept that their children will ultimately flee the nest. It’s a big world out there and it’s not all that pleasant.

There once was a time, when we were led to believe that the World Cup took place in countries that did indeed have a vibrant and enthusiastic thirst for the game. That changed in 1994 when the USA staged the World Cup but despite the cynicism towards the hosts, they organised one of the most memorable and entertaining tournaments that I can remember. The legacy of that tournament is evidenced in the modest growth of the MLS and despite the sneering, the USA did indeed have a footballing culture pre-1994. As did Japan. As did South Africa.

Russia’s success was borne not out of any kind of love of the game. At best, it is a middle-ranking football nation that by hosting the 2018 tournament hopes to promote a more open and favourable image of itself to an outside world that still regards it with suspicion. The Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin is keen to use the World Cup as a propagandist tool in order to strengthen Russia’s standing in the world. He made his intentions expressly clear when he casually told journalists that, “those who don’t take risks, don’t drink champagne”. In other words, “if you play by the rules, don’t expect to fill your coffers”.

And what coffers they are. In this week’s WikiLeaks scandal, Russia’s government was described as a collaborator with organised crime in “a mafia state”. Nobody is quite clear of Roman Abramovich’s involvement in the sycophantic horse-trading that went on in Zurich last week but the insidious influence of the oligarch-culture that so dominates Russian society, so condoned by Putin and his cronies, cannot be doubted. Russia is a nation of extremes and the economic disparities that permeate its social strata will not be levelled by the arrival of a tournament that lasts but four weeks. Has the World Cup truly benefited the street food vendors outside Johannesburg’s Soccer City? Does FIFA really care once the circus has moved on?

As for the serious issues regarding racism that ravage Russian football, it is disconcerting that FIFA should dismiss the implications of a country whose leading officials can so brusquely undermine the value of multiculturalism. A high-profile Russian football agent, Vladimir Abramov recently stated that, “teams shouldn’t have more than one dark-skinned footballer,” and “how Nigerians ruin Russian cities with their drugs and ultimately their AIDS.” According to FIFA, racism would not be taken into consideration during the bidding process because it was “not an operation matter”. Add a suppression of the press to the mix, when the English bid is said to have suffered because of the investigative instincts of the Fourth Estate and it is clear that FIFA is not overly concerned with promoting philanthropy and humanity through the medium of the World Cup. If countries with a real love for the game, that have the infrastructure in place to execute an excellent tournament, that can openly welcome the world, are to be so shamelessly snubbed as England, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands and Belgium were, what’s the point in even pretending that football is a force for good? “Greed is good,” and it’s alive and well in Russia and Zurich. Football is a fool’s gold.

Which leads me onto Qatar. Blatter has not hidden his intentions to cement his legacy by taking the World Cup to as many new territories as possible. And in his final sweeping, grand gesture he feels this legacy will be complete with the tournament being held in the Middle East for the first time. Then again, I thought the World Cup had already been held in Asia? Would his ‘dream’ not have been better fulfilled if the Australian bid had been successful? Wherever the Australian national team chooses to compete, its geographical location suggests that the World Cup would have indeed been played in every continent. But then again, Australia does not have the most television-friendly time zone, does it? It might have the stadia, transport, receptive public and a formative domestic league but that evidently is not enough.

Because Qatar is offering Blatter and the rest of his acolytes to build football in their own image. This World Cup will not be built out of a fostering of passion and historical knowledge of the game. It will climb out of the sand-dunes, constructing monuments of footballing architecture which will be dismantled as soon as they have fulfilled their objectives, ready to be re-packaged and re-sold to other less financially bloated states. It’s the culmination of flat-pack culture, where football becomes homogenised, distilled and rendered synthetic for the cola-guzzling, burger-chomping consumer. Qatar’s World Cup, like no other that has gone before it, will be a theme park to the idea of football as mass entertainment. Because, this time, FIFA is not even prepared to play to the gallery by telling us this is about fostering a football culture. Qatar have never qualified for a World Cup. After 2022, I can guarantee that they never will again.

Like the Russian bid, Qatar was deemed high risk by FIFA but nevertheless emerged victorious over countries that have a proven pedigree in hosting sporting events, such as South Korea and Japan. Once again, the decision to choose Qatar can only be said to have been made under the auspices of lucrative financial dealings that will make a lot of people a lot of money in the next few years. Why else would concerns with regard to homophobia, women’s rights, attitudes to alcohol and the welfare of fans and players in the desert heat be so brazenly disregarded?

However, with this choice, FIFA may have inadvertently brought about its downfall or at the very least, its chastening. The Middle East as a region is not open to remodelling as the massed ranks of the American and British armed forces have found to their cost in recent years. Qatar does not allow Israeli citizens to enter its borders. Now just imagine Israel actually qualifying for the tournament in 2022? The Qataris have said they will relax this rule for the tournament, which makes a mockery of their own beliefs and could potentially throw an already volatile region into disarray. Instead of bringing harmony, what could a potential match between the hosts and Israel bring? And if you’re going to tell me that there is no place for politics in football, then where the hell have you been this week?

Qatar may have dazzled with its artist’s impressions of what the stadia will look like in 2022, but that does not hide the fact that what lies in store for us at the Middle Eastern World Cup is morally bankrupt and at odds with the simplicity of the game it pertains to showcase. It may look very shiny in the desert sun, but in essence Planet Football is being offered a mirage built on sand; there’s nothing there. And if the US continues in its relentless march to confrontation with Iran in the next few years, Sepp Blatter may have put his venal organisation into the headlights of an ideological conflict. Instead of advancing the cause of football, he may have just sealed its demise. Mother always said, “the world’s very big and it’s not very pleasant”.

On Thursday, football entered its very own Dark Ages. It will be a long, desperate, frustrating and upsetting journey to 2026. But after the Dark Ages came the Renaissance. ‘Old’ Football, will once again have its time in the sun.

Financial Incentives, Filthy Ambitions (Part 1)

4 Dec

In the first of a two-part World Cup bid special, Dispatches looks at the moral code of the game’s governing body.

What a week! On Monday, I found myself marvelling with child-like excitement at the sheer audacity and breathtaking ability displayed by Barcelona in their beautiful demolition of Real Madrid. I was reminded of how football, when played with such technical skill and outrageous joy, has the ability to be a transcendent and life-affirming pursuit. That’s how good Barcelona are. Such noble and let’s face it, somewhat naïve ideals were brought down to earth with a soul-destroying thud just over forty-eight hours later when FIFA’s executive committee served up two of the most transparently craven and cynical decisions, in awarding the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar respectively. I’ve been grappling with an overbearing sense of ennui ever since. Because for some reason, despite all the evidence to suggest otherwise, I still foolishly believed that this game, no matter how hidden beneath the layers of high finance and political chicanery, contained a semblance of humanity and heart. So why do I keep continuing to care?

Before I carry on, let me make it clear that I have no particular axe to grind with regard to England’s failed bid to bring the World Cup to these shores. I am not English and do not prescribe to the jingoistic arrogance and bile emanating from the tabloid press crying conspiracy against England’s suitability. That said however, I do feel a sense of sadness towards those whose may never experience a World Cup on home soil in their lifetime. My real despair lies in the fact that decisions were taken by a cabal of bureaucrats and businessmen with little empathy for the game they pertain to govern; more motivated by back-room deals and the lining of cashmere-woven pockets.

FIFA is listed as a non-profit organisation. In other words, it is set up to run football for the benefit of all the participants who claim to have an interest in how the game is developed and administered. Without question, it is involved in all manner of charitable and humanitarian endeavours which seek to promote goodwill and grassroots football throughout the world but what makes it markedly different from other notable NPOs such as Amnesty International and the World Wildlife Fund for Nature is that within its possession lies the most lucrative and coveted sporting event on the planet. With that, it is able to hold countries to ransom in terms of how and why its jewel, the World Cup, can be played in a particular geographical region and as a consequence, FIFA’s executive committee can reap the rewards of finance, prestige and hospitality that come hand-in-hand with numerous prospective bids.

And all of this comes in a shroud of secrecy. If anybody has seen how heavily guarded FIFA’s headquarters are in Zurich over the last few days, it is hard not to draw a comparison to the inner-workings of an Ian Fleming novel. For a game that is so naked and transparent in how it is dissected and scrutinised by the media on the pitch, those who run it, do so within the shadowy corridors and boardrooms of a mock-MI5 set. FIFA board members’ salaries and bonuses are not subject to declaration, despite announcing revenues of $1 billion in 2009. Projected revenues for the years 2011 – 2014 are close to $4 billion with approximately $1 billion of this earmarked for ‘football governance’ and ‘operating expenses’ according to FIFA’s website. Which begs the question: when will we ever know what is in Sepp Blatter’s annual payslip? They don’t need to tell us because there’s nothing in law that requires them to do so. Added to this is the fact that the members of the Executive Committee, comprising now of only 22 men since two were suspended after alleged financial chicanery, can govern for as long as they feel like it. Unlike Barack Obama who has a fixed term of eight years to reside in the White House, should he so wish, Sepp Blatter can run and run and run again. Same faces, same prejudices, same political and financial concerns; just getting older.

So, who are these men who decide how the world’s game should be stage-managed? What is their link to football? Were they professional footballers (Michel Platini and Franz Beckenbauer being the exceptions)? As far as I can tell, they are just a collection of faceless businessmen and bureaucrats who have somehow climbed their way up the greasy ladder of football’s politics and are almost invincible when it comes to releasing their stranglehold on the game. It has been proven that various members of the Executive Committee have violated FIFA’s Code of Ethics on numerous occasions with regard to receiving financial gain from their involvement in the game. But sadly it is merely an internal code, a set of guidelines as it were, with the ethics at its heart being simply what one holds to be right morally. And moral feelings are up to the individual. Not everyone stands by the same degrees of honest conduct. They are not laws to abide by. It is even more telling that FIFA’s headquarters preside in Switzerland; a country in which bribery cases do not have to be tried in a court of law. Make of that what you will.

Those are some of the myriad problems and flaws that obstruct the credibility of the game we love. How can it be countered? Rather than sitting here grumbling about the situation, I can attempt to offer some suggestions but what is truly needed is a collective groundswell against what is clearer now than ever, a rotten core at the heart of football.

The game needs to be more representative in its governance. In other words, at future World Cup bids, each member country should be granted one vote to decide on the host country. There are 208 members of FIFA (more so than the United Nations), so is it really fair that just 22 men can decide the game’s future? If we use the UN model of its Security Council, why not replicate it by allowing those current 8 countries that have had the honour of winning the competition, a deciding vote if the results are inconclusive? After all, this is meant to be the world’s game. Should FIFA’s Executive Committee not be made up of former players, managers, prominent fans’ organisations, referees et al in order for a broader, more inclusive approach to be taken so as to re-connect with the true values of the game? Or to really hurt FIFA, maybe the world’s leading nations should break away, refuse to participate in the FIFA World Cup and set up a championship of their own. By holding FIFA to ransom, as they have done to us for so long, maybe the men in grey suits will finally sit up and take notice when financial meltdown is on the cards.

In the final analysis, a bid should be considered for its technical merits. If a country has met or even exceeded all the criteria with regard to stadia, infrastructure, cultural heritage and security than there should be no reason as to why it does not receive more than one vote as England so unfairly did. It is quite clear that England did fulfil these requirements but it is becoming increasingly apparent that political motivations and personal grudges took greater precedence over the hard and fast facts of England’s bid. If the criteria are clear for all to see, then perhaps we will all be spared the indignity of seeing a prime minister, a footballing icon and an heir to the throne render unto the bland and grubby court of Caesar in future years. If football retained any kind of heart and soul this week, it came in the shape of Eddie Afekafe, the Manchester community worker who spoke with such impassioned fervour about football’s true value at the presentation. If there were more people like Eddie on FIFA’s Executive Committee, fair play, in the truest sense, would no doubt be resolutely upheld. As it stands however, his words of honesty and integrity fell on deaf ears and FIFA’s reputation is once more under indefatiguable scrutiny. Orson Welles wryly commented in character once, “In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” Isn’t it about time that Switzerland gave us something more?

Tomorrow: The Winning Bids – for better or for worse

Further Reading: Power and Passion put FIFA above the law

World Cup Dispatch: 9th July – Impressions of Africa


Homage To Catalonia

1 Dec

Note: This Dispatch is replete with superlatives. Apologies.

It’s Wednesday, I know. Dispatches comes out on Sundays. But there are some times in life when traditions need to be subverted. What needs to be said couldn’t wait until the end of the week. We’d all be too concerned with the fallout of England’s failed/successful (delete where applicable) bid to host the World Cup. We’d all be salivating at a second virtuoso display in the space of a week from Dimitar Berbatov. Or hailing Ian Holloway’s abrasive style of man-management as his Blackpool team laid a buoyant Manchester United to the sword. Football, like life moves very fast… is it really nearly Christmas?

And it is fitting that this break of tradition has been prompted by a game of football that has left many fans of the game agog at the technical excellence and joie de vivre that was witnessed on Monday night at the Camp Nou, where Barcelona produced some of the most breathtakingly beautiful passages of play I think I’ve ever seen, as they tore Real Madrid so comprehensively to shreds. This was not a team that is simply making up the numbers in La Liga. This was Real Madrid. The club that has won the most European Cups. Which boasts the most expensive footballer in history in the shape of Cristiano Ronaldo. Who retain the services of the most charismatic, media-savvy and successful manager of his generation in the form of Jose Mourinho. Unbeaten Real Madrid. Made to look amateurish. Ragtag. Bereft.

I could go into many of the cultural and political reasons as to why I have always felt an affinity with Barcelona as a club and Catalonia as a region but if you know your football, you’ll probably know why that is. No. I just want to focus on the game as a representation and execution of how football, when played with such majesty, is the rival of any artistic endeavour.

Danny Blanchflower’s quote may have been overused as the years have rolled by, but in a time when many bemoan the sterility of our heroes and their motivations, it is Pep Guardiola’s team which breathes new fire and truth into the frayed edges of the great man’s words:

“The great fallacy is that the game is first and last about winning. It is nothing of the kind. The game is about glory, it is about doing things in style and with a flourish, about going out and beating the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom.”

One of my colleagues at work has been having on on-going debate with me over the last couple of years about his view that football is a morally bankrupt game. Being a rugby and athletics man, he waxes lyrical on the rigorous training regime of his childhood hero, Sebastian Coe and the discipline and sacrifices needed for athletes to truly succeed in their sport. He prefers his sportsmen to show the excruciating pain they are going through on their scrunched faces, in every stretching sinew of their bodies. For him, footballers just don’t cut it.

Evidently, I’m inclined to disagree. Barcelona, as a team, didn’t even look like they were breaking sweat. In fact at times, they seemed as though they pitied Madrid by naturally slowing their tempo so a Madrid player could receive treatment. When in possession, there was a fluidity of movement and assurance on the ball that was so controlled, it bamboozled Madrid’s players to such a degree that they were reduced to scything down and baiting their opponents. With their long, flowing manes and shirts tucked out, Lionel Messi and Carlos Puyol seem to play from another time; as warriors fighting a Catalonian guerilla battle, the world of the media circus and moneymen of football far from thought or comprehension even. Compare that to the highly stylized, slicked-back, peacocking of Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos, the self-absorption visible on their faces, the solitary frames of the camera highlighting their individual rather than collective plight.

Barcelona’s effortless hard work comes in the training, in the academy system that rears young boys to play with free expression. It is a club steeped in the will of the collective as opposed to celebrating the cult of the individual – something Madrid have always been prone to doing. Iniesta, Xavi, Messi and David Villa are all exceptional players but what truly makes Barcelona a unique and epic entity is the fact that they truly encompass the spirit of the game that Blanchflower alluded to.

Mourinho is one of the game’s great manipulators. But even he was left rooted to his bench as he seemingly for the first time in his illustrious career was sapped for ideas. However much he tried to disguise it by claiming that his side was ‘not humiliated’, in his heart of hearts he knew that he had come up against a team that on that night, took the game to glorious, gob-smacking heights, the like of which is not conceivable to be replicated for many years to come. Mourinho’s teams are designed to win. At all costs. Regardless of entertainment value, dirty play or an aggregate loss described as a ‘beautiful defeat’ when it results in victory. For Guardiola, it would appear that it is something very at odds with this philosophy that drives him and his team. After all, how do you define quality? It is the pursuit of brilliance, surely. And brilliance is most certainly entertainment, devoid of dirty play and does not result in a victory by technicality.

I’ve already watched the game twice over. I’ve even recorded it, so that my unborn children can one day sit down and watch a team that will be lauded in history. And I hope, I really sincerely hope, that my beloved Spurs meet them at some point in this year’s Champions League. And it wouldn’t matter if we won or lost. Because, really when you’re blessed enough to see such wonderful football in your lifetime, the glory of it all takes precedence.

Further Reading: World Cup Dispatch: 11th July – El Mayor Espectaculo del Mundo

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