Archive | February, 2011

The Last Shadow Puppets

27 Feb

The television screens of the world were dominated this week, by an aging man railing at unseen forces hell-bent on dislodging him from his seat of power. Underneath his umbrella, (somewhat reminiscent of that pathetically iconic snapshot of Steve McClaren watching helplessly as his England regime dissolved in the Wembley deluge), Colonel Muamar Gaddafi ranted and foamed at the mouth blaming the twin evils of Al-Qaeda and drugs for the unrest engulfing Libya. Puffy-eyed and increasingly deluded, like any other shameless egoist, he doggedly failed to claim any responsibility for his own failings and threatened repercussions, promising to ‘cleanse’ the country of its enemies.

But what is it about football itself that so magnetises the attentions of despots? Dictators seemed to be forever enthralled with the illusion that football is a perfect tool for the dissemination of propaganda, an opportunity to control and diffuse public dissent whilst simultaneously basking in the idolatry that the game lavishes upon its greatest exponents.

The history of the game is unfortunately littered with a rogue’s gallery of dictators who have taken a more than passive interest in the fortunes of national and club sides. Take Francisco Franco in Spain, for instance. Throughout his draconian tenure, the General was frequently accused of skulduggery when it came to the relative ease with which his beloved Real Madrid overcame opponents. In the 1930s, Benito Mussolini allegedly sent a telegram to the national side’s coach, Vittorio Pozzo, on the eve of the 1938 World Cup Final with the ominous message, “Win or die”. Latterly, Uday Hussein, son of the former Iraqi leader, was named head of the Iraqi Football Federation at the age of 21 and took great pleasure in savagely beating members of the Iraqi squad after defeats.

And of course, there’s Gaddafi whose son found himself on Perugia’s books but with little success despite being hailed as “one of the best players in his homeland”. The self-styled Brotherly Leader and Guide of the First of September Revolution of the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (they do love their epithets, these dictators), also purchased a 7.5% stake in Juventus after a long-standing association with the Agnelli family who own both the Italian giants and Fiat.

In footballing terms, and of course such comparisons should be taken with a pinch of salt, is Alex Ferguson’s ruthless banishment of those who do not fall into line with his philosophies at Manchester United any different from the expulsion of dissidents from Nazi Germany in the 1930s? Is Jose Mourinho’s penchant for proclaiming his ‘specialness’ whilst denigrating the qualities of his opponents radically at odds from any manner of South American tinpot Presidente? The famous Brian Clough line goes: “If I had an argument with a player we would sit down for twenty minutes, talk about it and then decide I was right”. Naturally, nobody is suggesting that Messrs Ferguson, Mourinho and Clough were ever responsible for torture, suppression and genocide but to retain and maintain power over a period of time, an individual seems to have to be in possession of a huge degree of megalomania, arrogance and bloody-mindedness and here is where the comparisons do lie.

At the same time, football fans, myself included, tend to lean too heavily on the notion that football is ‘the people’s game’. There is that eternal need to view football as the great leveller. It’s a game that thrives upon the collective spirit in which a team can achieve above and beyond the sum of its very own parts. The advertisers play upon this image as they seek to make their profits by presenting us all with an image of Planet Football where street urchins in Buenos Aires have the same common goal as the Soccer Moms of New Jersey. All very egalitarian, some might say communistic, even. It’s almost like we’re being told that if we all come together as one, we can overcome any hurdle. Much like the way the protests in Egypt and Libya are being portrayed as the will of a people to overthrow their decrepit leaders. Substitute that with the famous Newton Heath green and gold colours that were so prominent at Old Trafford last season. For a moment, it was thought that the fans of Manchester United might just overcome the corporate greed of the Glazer family and a bright, new era was on the horizon. Might being the operative word. Have you seen any For Sale signs outside Old Trafford? Have the Glazers admitted defeat and bought their one-way tickets back to Florida?

What happened to the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine of 2004/5? Newsnight reported this week that the country is as corrupt and poverty-stricken as it ever was. The young protestors have resigned themselves to defeat and now concentrate on ‘just getting on with their lives’. With the army in control of Egypt as I write and David Cameron schmoozing away in Cairo this week as he seeks to secure arms deals, at what price will the man on the street be sold out for, yet again? Will the ‘bigger players’ in the true World Game really allow an Islamic government, freely elected, to potentially seize control of these oil-rich nations and thus hold the ‘developed’ world to ransom? In the same way, do we really believe that our voices as fans can really be the harbinger of change? I may be a romantic at heart, but I’m also a realist.

A dictator, like a football manager is essentially a salesman. If the product he is selling falls out of fashion, it is his puppet-masters that will either take the decision to dispense of his services or completely re-brand him in a more media-friendly image. Saddam Hussein served his purpose beautifully for the United States in the wake of Iran’s Islamic Revolution but when his egotism became a little too unmanageable, he was re-branded as a tyrant. Gaddafi for years was perceived as a pariah but library photos that have been in wide circulation this week of Tony Blair and Nicolas Sarkozy glad-handing him prove otherwise, when it best served their interests to keep him onside. Whether they’re loved by their public or not makes no difference. The decisions to retain or relinquish are made behind closed doors. Does anybody really think that Roman Abramovich gave a second thought to the adoration of the Chelsea faithful of Mourinho when he washed his hands of his gifted but troublesome coach in 2007? Upon Martin Jol’s departure from Spurs, were Daniel Levy and the Tottenham board sympathetic to the high regard felt by many fans towards the clearly successful Dutchman? And what really happened in the boardrooms of West Bromwich Albion and Newcastle United when quite out of the blue to players and fans alike came the sudden sackings of two managers, Roberto Di Matteo and Chris Hughton, who had committed no obvious sackable offences?

Dictators come and go. The people however, are another story. And how do you keep them in place? Easy. Marketing. From the cradle to the grave. Sell, sell, sell. Behold, Didier Drogba playing keepy-uppy in a township populated by barefooted African children. Marvel at how Wayne Rooney can power his way through a sea of dizzy defenders whilst juggling his marriage and his sponsorship deals. Buy your satellite dishes, your cars, your houses and live the dream. Because if you’re pre-occupied with all those, you’ll forget about why you were angry in the first place.

In the final speech of his masterpiece The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin proclaims:

“I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone if possible – Jew, Gentile – black man – white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness – not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there’s room for everyone and the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone.”

It’s a wonderful sentiment but until the roots of the problem are addressed, the merry go-round of dictators and the oppressed will continue – not dissimilar to the world of club boards, managers and fans in this sport that has for years, been neatly packaged, labelled and sold as “The People’s Game.” No additives, no preservatives and full of all that hearty goodness we know you need.

Further reading:

Wont Get Fooled Again? – 12th December

Individuals United – 24th June

Follow Dispatches on Twitter: @gregtheoharis

My Mate Pete White

20 Feb

The vast majority of this week has seen me putting together a Dispatch in which I dissected the meaning of Gennaro Guttuso’s ‘Waterloo’ moment. The aging pitbull general of the AC Milan midfield, faced with the realisation that his team had been largely outfought and outthought by the relative Champions League novices of Tottenham, decided to take matters into his own hands and attempt to fight the entire Spurs squad with coach Joe Jordan being the particular focus of his red-misted ire.

Then on Friday, during a cigarette break, quite randomly and innocuously, the thought hit me. As football fans, as human beings, why is it that we expend so much energy focusing on life’s negatives and let-downs? Goodness knows there are enough forums and platforms for us all to vent our collective spleen on what we think has gone wrong in the game. From phone-ins to blogs to mass protests, we all labour under the impression that something’s amiss in the world. Footballers are greedy. Agents are gluttonous. The game is run by a closed circle of corrupt businessmen, driven by the financial rewards of sucking the lifeblood out of it. We all know this. It’s a common tale, told many times.

So this week, I want to celebrate the little miracles that the game gives us. Things like a little club from West Sussex taking on and frustrating the most famous club in the world in an FA Cup match. Or the youngsters of Arsenal maturing before our very eyes and besting the greatest practitioners of the game, Barcelona. Or the magical, inexplicable moment in which I saw my club defeat the seven times champions of Europe on their home ground. But most of all I wanted to tell you about my friend Pete White.

Pete and I met in 2002 in Bali. I was on the verge of being ripped off by a savvy local tour-guide who regaled me with silver-tongued charm about the benefits of his expensive dolphin-spotting enterprise. Needless to say, I would have parted with my rupiah and embarked upon said experience if it had not been for Pete who happened to be walking past at the time and had already learned from his own encounter that it wasn’t quite the event it was being portrayed to be. Actually, let me back up a second. If I had not been wearing my Spurs shirt, Pete wouldn’t have stepped in to warn me as to the hazardous decision I was about to make. Because, like me (for his sins) Pete is a Spurs fan. As a result of this chance meeting, Pete, myself and our girlfriends (now wives) travelled around the island for the next three days. And out of this, grew a friendship that has lasted to this very day. We have been to each others’ weddings, shared many laughs and have of course, taken the pilgrimage together to the hallowed terraces of White Hart Lane.

In May 2012, Pete will be undertaking a very different and more exhaustive pilgrimage. Having found out that the Rwandan Olympic team will be basing itself in his hometown of Bury, St Edmunds, he and two friends plan to cycle from Suffolk to Rwanda covering six thousand miles in seventy days. He’s doing this to raise money to allow the Rwandans to fund their Olympic journey, experience and preparations which hinge on them having £25,000 at their disposal before they can think about getting a reimbursement from the International Olympic Committee.

The thought of Rwanda conjures up so many negative connotations for many of us who watched in horror and helplessness at the genocide that occurred there in the mid-nineties. However, what awaits Pete I’m sure, is an experience that will be as life-affirming and hopeful as having one’s first child. And underpinning all this, is the notion that sport, can and does unite us all.

Dispatches began on the eve of the South African World Cup. I began writing it because I wanted to articulate just why football is so important to me. As the blog has developed and gained more readers, I have come into contact with (via Twitter and other social networking media) many others out there who want to do the same as me. I have received responses and am now in contact with people in the US, Ghana, New Zealand and Holland and fans of Blackburn and Blackpool, Ajax and Arsenal to name just a few – people who I know I will never meet but share my abiding love and hate of the game.

Unfortunately, I don’t frequent White Hart Lane as much as I used to due to financial constraints and responsibilities but also because for years, I have felt distant from the game I’ve obsessed over for the best part of 25 years. I’ve felt patronised, ignored, shouted down by the marauding bullishness of Sky Sports for longer than I can remember but via this platform, I am now reading about football and communicating with other fans in a way I didn’t think possible just under a year ago. During matches now, I find it more incisive and humourous to have my ‘twitterfeed’ on, rather than listen to more bland punditry emanating from the television screen. It’s almost like being in the pub but from the comfort of your own sofa. Because, what all these people have in common, is a deep-seated passion for the game. Beyond advertising hoardings, beyond the Nike tick and beyond another Beckham barnet.

On the island Kho Pha Ngan, off the Thai coast, at Ban Chaloklum Beach you’ll find a rotund fisherman who answers to the name of Joe. He cannot speak English very well – at least he couldn’t speak it with any degree of fluency back in 2002. But as we got off the longboat, I was astounded at his attire. In this remote place, the fattest Thai person you could ever hope to see had put his large frame into a rather tight Spurs shirt. As he approached us he let out the bellowing cry with arms aloft: “TOTT-NAM HOTSPUUUUR”. Over the next few days he dismissed Glenn Hoddle’s passing philosophy as “too slow, too slow” and religiously and painstakingly filled in his giant World Cup wall chart as the tournament progressed. I have it on good authority that he’s still there and in possession of the ‘dressing room’ Spurs keyring I gave him upon leaving.

The thing is, however disillusioned we are, there are always people who feel the same way as we do. The great thing about our twenty-first century world is that we now have the means to articulate this and our passions with greater immediacy and as the more serious business of social change in the Middle East sweeps before our eyes, we can now see and take heart from the power and the need for all of us to know that we are not alone.

Football brought me into contact with a person who has become a great friend of mine. He is preparing for a journey that while involving cycling every day in aid of the Rwandan Olympic team, I have no doubt that the international language of football that I have experienced in myriad ways in foreign lands and closer to home, will bring him new friendships and ties that bind. Love him as I do though, you’ll never see me on a bicycle. I’ve got my sofa. So, as Pete carries on his diligent training regime this week, I’ll sit here planning another swipe at the forces of evil bankrupting this game of ours. Next week, normal service will be resumed.

Follow Pete’s journey and progress on Twitter: @cycle2rwanda & via the website: Sport For Rwanda

Home Is Where The Hart Is

13 Feb

The most enduring stories are those that centre upon the quest of their protagonists to find their way home. From Homer’s Odyssey to Homer’s precarious drive in the opening credits of The Simpsons, we are continually entranced and beguiled by the adventures of characters who crave nothing other than safe passage and security from the raging winds of the world beyond. Tony Soprano wheels across the surrounding New Jersey environs after another day of murder, betrayal and therapy and wants for nothing other than one of Carmela’s leftover gabagool and a reclining seat in front of the History Channel whilst Dorothy intones repeatedly that “there’s no place like home” when the transparent nature of the realities of Oz become apparent.

How must West Ham fans be feeling this week, knowing that the ground that saw the majestic Bobby Moore perfect and perform his cerebral form of defending, will be jettisoned for a stadium that will be as homogenous and soulless as any of the others that have been built in the Premier League era? The onward march of progress cannot be stopped and in many cases, it shouldn’t. If that were the case, Mr Mubarak would still be in power as I write. However, with change there inevitably must be some sacrifice. And West Ham supporters, whether willingly or less so, must begin the process of beginning to relinquish part of themselves and who they perceive themselves to be after Friday’s decision to award the Olympic stadium in Stratford came out in favour of their bid rather than Tottenham Hotspur’s.

I wrote a piece for In Bed With Maradona in October in which I put forward the case for a possible ground share between these two old rivals. Although I stand behind my original proposals, the last couple of months have shown me that any move away from N17 would have been fractious and divisive both for the community and businesses within the White Hart Lane locality but even more tellingly, we would have seen a fan base descend into the bitter civil war as was so heartbreakingly played out when Wimbledon relocated to Milton Keynes and were rebranded as MK Dons whilst the hardcore, local support formed AFC Wimbledon. When the FA cup draw threw up a potential match-up between the two clubs earlier this season, the football media quickly went into a hand-wringing frenzy at the thought of the ensuing hostility that would inevitably have arisen from such a fixture. In the end, replays put paid to that but AFC’s success in the non-leagues will ensure that the throng will get their dose of blood-letting sooner rather than later.

I don’t want Spurs to end up as a media sideshow, with supporters clashing outside the stadium and threatening to create a rival fan-owned club, as happened with Manchester United. Nor do I want threats of boycotts and shirt burning. In many respects, the Olympic decision saved us from all of that. There still remains the issue of how the club can accommodate its fans and expand but that is for the people who receive a far greater salary than me to work out an achievable and sustainable way to keep the club in the location in which it was formed. But that is for another day. For the moment, we keep our home.

And for me it means the following… It means I can take the walk from my mum’s house through Fore Street (always on the right-hand side) on a match day with my unborn but imminent, son or daughter. I can buy an open portion of chips with them (salt first, then vinegar) and then walk around the stadium, within the mass of the crowd, taking in the aroma of grilled onions and horseshit. I can buy him or her a programme whilst I pore over the badly printed but cutting commentary of a fanzine. Or see him or her wrapped up in a Spurs scarf for the first time. And watch his or her heroes play on the same pitch as the one on which I saw Jurgen Klinsmann score a spectacular scissor volley on his home debut and the four goals in four minutes we scored against Southampton in 1993, a few days before my Arsenal-supporting grandfather died. I can show him or her the place where I stood for the first time, with tickets bought off a tout by my dad for eight pounds, behind a fence on a sunny April day in 1989 to watch my beloved Spurs (with Waddle and Gazza) beat West Ham. And because he or she will be there, they’ll understand, with any luck. Because he or she will be connected to the past in a way that no manner of perfect viewing, easy access, corporate sponsor-driven stadiums can ever hope to emulate.

However much he prospered in London, my grandfather always harked and pined for the old country. Despite all that he achieved, he missed Cyprus dearly and romanticised it in a way that only our memories allow us to. In much the same way, football supporters do the same. Manchester City might now bestride the football world like an engorged money colossus but it was telling that in yesterday’s Manchester derby, their fans were still chanting that they were “City from Maine Road.” Eastlands doesn’t eradicate such yearning – it paradoxically enhances it.

West Ham will inherit a wonderful stadium – that cannot be denied. In much the same way that Arsenal and Southampton and a number of other clubs have left beloved home grounds in the last decade or so, to be re-housed in bigger and seemingly better locations. But the art décor of Highbury and the intense closeness of The Dell have been lost forever and for the fans of these clubs, it can only be a further factor in their dislocation from the modern game.

As he looks out upon the cityscape of Baltimore in the last scene in perhaps the greatest story of the modern era, The Wire’s Detective Jimmy McNulty’s final line is tellingly, “let’s go home”. In the end, isn’t that what we all want to do?


Further Reading: Spurs, West Ham; agree to leave stadium plans behind – In Bed With Maradona

Follow Dispatches on Twitter: @gregtheoharis

The Ring Of Fire

6 Feb

“Heat cannot be separated from fire or beauty from the Eternal,” the Italian poet Dante Alighieri told us back in the Middle Ages. His masterwork, The Divine Comedy, inextricably binds him with the image of fire as a means of suffering and purification that so many people of religious persuasion perceive to be the conventional depiction of hell.

Judging by the manner in which Fernando Torres’ departure from Anfield to Stamford Bridge was greeted by some Liverpool fans on transfer deadline day, you would think that the Spaniard had already been condemned to an eternity of wailing and gnashing in the pit of Hades. Most Liverpool fans were understandably upset about Torres’ decision to seek new employment but managed to show an admirable sense of perspective when weighing up what their ‘Nando’ had given them during his stay at the club. The beauty of the memories he had given them was, as our friend Dante suggested, indeed eternal.

Torres, like any other employee in any other line of work, had the right to move on if he deemed it in his interest that he had further means of advancement in his career elsewhere. It had been evident for months that he had grown jaded with life in Liverpool. However upsetting it might be to the young fan who had idolised him for several years, his transfer need not have been the platform for some fans to ‘spontaneously’ display their ire by burning the number nine shirt that had borne his name outside Anfield on Monday night.

In the end, their protests descended into a shambolic pantomime that was purely symbolic in meaning. After all, Torres’ presence was immediately consigned to memory as soon as Luis Suarez came off the bench to score on his debut against Stoke on Wednesday night. In the revolving-door culture that football has always been party to, the Kop had found a new hero to adore. As it had when the likes of Michael Owen, Robbie Fowler and Ian Rush came and went like so many before them.

Taking an aerosol to a cheaply manufactured piece of polyester leisurewear did not change anything. And why should it? The protests were innocuous by the very nature of the transitory reality that dictates that players will indeed, come and go. There was no ideology behind the gesture. No pent-up outpouring of a justified grievance with the status quo. In many respects, it was merely an act of mindless vandalism.

Contrast that with how the people of Egypt are taking to the streets with the legitimate weight of years of corruption, repression and despotism under the tinpot regime of President Hosni Mubarak, motivating them. Cairo itself currently resembles the apocalyptic visions that Dante imagined with such vividness hundreds of years ago. If we are to ascribe a hierarchy of ‘protest by degree’ here, what is happening in Egypt immediately, decisively and clinically relegates the actions of a few camera-craving individuals in Merseyside to a mere speck of insignificance. What are being torched here are the symbols of repression, enacted by the collective mass of the people finally taking their destinies into their own hands. The Egyptian peoples’ act of aggression is not targeting another human being per se. It is attacking the very apparatus in which a whole society is run. However, like those Liverpool fans, their resistance is being conducted within the parameters of a mass outcry. Safety in numbers, as it were. There are risks involved with such a strategy but it is nothing when you compare that to an individual who is prepared to sacrifice his or her very own existence for the sake of a cause or a belief.

Such was the case in 1963 when the Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, famously executed an act of self-immolation on a busy street in Saigon. His aim was to highlight and condemn the persecution of his brethren under another regime propped up with Western collusion like Egypt’s; that of Ngo Dinh Diem. The photos of his self-sacrifice have subsequently passed into the iconography of the twentieth century but at the time, they succeeded in making the world aware of the horrors taking place in South Vietnam. If a man is prepared to burn himself alive, then clearly he has great cause to. Now that’s truly having the courage of your own convictions.

The act of burning, of course, can also be seen as a cleansing ritual. Hence Dante’s depictions of purgatory, the ascendancy of cremation as a means of committing ourselves back to whence we came and in its most benign sense, the process of domestic cooking. Perhaps, in their subconscious, those Liverpool fans were merely saying goodbye to the hero they had once so revered? Then again… perhaps not.

What’s all this got to do with football, you might ask? Not very much, is perhaps the honest answer. Today is my birthday. I am thirty-three years old. February 6th though also marks the anniversary of the Munich air disaster that tragically extinguished some of the brightest talents and potential greats the English game had ever produced. Manchester United players like Duncan Edwards, Tommy Taylor and Roger Byrne. Whilst the same date twenty years later brought so much joy to my small family, elsewhere it will always be remembered by millions for the loss of boys who never lived to celebrate the age that I have reached today.

That other great Anfield demigod, Bill Shankly is attributed with saying that football was more important than life and death. How trivial it sometimes feels when in the week when a player leaves one football club for another, the future of a country is being fought out in front of the world’s watching eyes and we remember those who never had the chance to see it.


Further reading: In Memoriam – Dispatch: 5th September

Follow Dispatches on Twitter: @gregtheoharis

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