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

2 Responses to “The Last Shadow Puppets”

  1. Winston Cuthbert February 27, 2011 at 12:18 #

    Utterly brilliant. Felt the comparison of Ferguson to Hitler or Mourinho to Pinochet or Castro slightly unbecoming but then it all made sense and finished with an almighty bang. As apt a description of the Brave Old World we live and die in as is possible. Sell. Buy. Everything. It Is The Way And The Truth. So says the Gospel of Man.
    So if you don’t put a value on something….but love and care for it nonetheless, what then? Communistic?
    I for one still think it the People’s Game – it would be a failing to recognize the system and the greed of the main players for what it is and then let those things rob you, the People, of your sporting lifeblood. It is after all, still a ball, some mates and jumpers for goalposts.

  2. Winston Cuthbert February 27, 2011 at 12:41 #

    See? Gaddafi just followed Tony Montana’s advice to the letter, and look where it got him. Power and a troupe of female bodyguards, a paranoid sex habit shared with Silvio and two idiot sons. And with friends like Blair…Say hello to my little friend (Tony)? I don’t think so. Blair should be tried at the ICC for previous alongside Gaddafi. If not, why not? And the arms manufacturers should be liable for manslaughter if one bullet fired at Lybian rebels came from a British-owned factory. And Ashley Cole? Well he should just be ….with a BB gun in the butt like John Candy in National Lampoon’s. See how he likes it. A gun connection between Gadaffi and Ashley Cole, via Scarface and Bliar, this is football.

    “until the roots of the problem are addressed, the merry go-round of dictators and the oppressed will continue”

    Is the root of the problem the system in which we live? A system that enforces conformity amongst the many while promoting individuality amongst the few; divide and rule; seduction and conquest? The system that propels itself through consumption, like us and food? Is to stop the system, to do it differently, not to buy? Is the answer: don’t buy anything? …and jumpers for goalposts?

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