Sunday, November 12, 2006

As noted in my previous piece here, the little bubble of smug liberalism in which I live my life has recently been pierced by the realisation of just how little the sexual politics of many involved in the football industry has moved on in the last few decades. The notion that the presence of women in the game is detrimental and should be resisted was implicit in the manner of treatment dished out to the WAGs by critics of the top players. Helpfully, Luton Town’s manager Mike Newell has now made the attitude explicit by lambasting assistant referee (this is where my insistence on sticking to the term ‘linesman’ falls down) Amy Rayner’s performance in yesterday’s 3-2 home defeat at the hands of QPR.

‘She shouldn’t be here,’ Newell said after Rayner deemed that a challenge on Eyal Berkovic was not worthy of a penalty. ‘I know that sounds sexist but I am sexist.’ It’s hard to know what to write when someone says something like that. Any commentary I could offer seems somewhat redundant. ‘This is Championship football,’ he continued. ‘This is not park football, so what are women doing here? It is tokenism for the politically-correct idiots.’

Newell’s suggestion that Rayner was only awarded her position in order to include female officials in the game would be worthy of suspicion regardless of how he couched it. It might have been reasonable comment had he stated that he was sure there were women who were capable of officiating at a professional football match, but that Rayner was not one of them (although it would still be a subjective judgement depending on how well one believed she had done her job, since opinion on a referee's performance is never unanimous). But no, Newell believes it’s entirely fair to come out and use the words ‘I am sexist’ as qualification for judging how a woman has done her job. This is surely reason to dismiss his opinion immediately.

What does Newell believe women lack that makes them unsuited to assistant refereeing? All you need is an understanding of the game’s rules, decent eyesight, sufficient physical fitness to run up and down the line for ninety minutes, at least one functioning arm to raise the flag with, and the ability to make decisions quickly. I have seen women demonstrate all of those attributes. Certainly my girlfriend often makes better decisions than I do. And yes, the Berkovic decision was probably a penalty, but I can see the room for doubt there – he went down pretty easily, the contact seemed minor and the keeper was looking odds-on to get the ball, so Berkovic probably decided to play for the penalty. It’s a long way from the worst refereeing decision I’ve seen this season – and it’s not as if the profession is renowned for ruthless accuracy. According to Newell, Rayner made a poor decision because she’s a woman. Assuming this to be the case (as I say, the quality of a refereeing performance is always a matter for debate), what excuse do all the other officials have?

Snooker has recently adopted female referees, and the game is generally very excited about this development. This is partly because the standard snooker refereeing garb gives a lady the aspect of someone Gertrude Stein might have tried to chat up in the 1920s, and this has a certain appeal. But the integration has also been easier because the sedate pace and gentlemanly atmosphere of snooker creates less pressure on referees and hence post-match criticism of them is rare, whereas in football the slating of the referee is background noise. Newell is just another manager lashing out after a defeat, picking up on anything he can find that vindicates his team – and letting some pretty unpleasant opinions seep out in the process. Cast your mind back to when the first black referees entered the game and ask yourself whether anyone would get away with saying ‘I know it sounds racist but I am racist.’

Monday, October 09, 2006

‘This one could not be blamed on the WAGs,’ declared Richard Williams in today’s Guardian of England’s game against Macedonia. What he fails to acknowledge is that Saturday’s lacklustre performance fairly conclusively proved that blaming the WAGs – as Williams, and others, did repeatedly during the World Cup – was never valid. To be fair, I don’t think anybody ever placed all of the blame at the feet of the England players’ partners, but the idea that it was an issue worthy of raising at all, let alone with punishingly tedious regularity, struck me as pathetic.

To an extent, the obsession with the detrimental effect of the WAGs was just another way of bashing Sven-Goran Eriksson. Thanks to the sterling efforts of this nation’s press, working tirelessly as ever to uncover information in the public interest, we knew that he was a bit of a shagger. It therefore followed that he’d be more indulgent towards the England players including their wives and girlfriends in the World Cup entourage. So if it was a Sven idea, it logically followed that it was a bad idea in the minds of his many, many, many critics, offering the most damning condemnation that one can make of a football manager: that he was not, first and foremost, a ‘football man’.

Yet are we seriously expected to accept the notion that letting women get too close to the team is automatically a bad thing? Are we seriously ascribing the failures of England to pernicious female influence? If you do believe this, then for God’s sake grow up. You sound like those whingers who blame Yoko for breaking up The Beatles, rather than blaming The Beatles for breaking up The Beatles. But why accept that your heroes have fucked it up for themselves, when you can just blame a woman for intruding on the boys’ club?

England’s shortcomings at the World Cup were their own. The suggestion that the WAGs were a ‘distraction’ makes the players sound like hormonal pupils at a mixed secondary school. They’re big boys – more than that, they’re big rich millionaire boys – and they should be used to having women around. If Frank Lampard was distracted by anything at the World Cup, it was brushing up on his Spanish and imagining how he’d look in a red-and-blue striped shirt.

As ever, England exist in a culture of extremes. Nobody can decide whether this England team is one of the best for decades and has missed a huge opportunity for glory through under-performing, or was simply never that good in the first place. Owen Hargreaves used to be considered (by most people who aren’t me) a clown who had no business in the England team, now his absence through injury is a major blow. The team either needs to modernise or go back to basics. Amidst all this, the WAGs have emerged as easy targets but now that the media circus around them has died down, and England have shown themselves perfectly capable of being a bit crap under ordinary circumstances, it’s time to drop it. If you’re irritated by the amount of press coverage they receive, then stop reading the tabloids and stop buying Hello! They’re not the most admirable human beings who ever lived, but neither do they deserve vilification from critics who refuse to accept that football, and indeed the world, has moved on since the 1950s.

It’s times like this I’m glad I’m half-Scottish, frankly.

Friday, September 29, 2006

With my usual lightning reactions – reminiscent of Jean-Alain Boumsong tracking back to pick up a striker – I’d like to comment on last weekend’s Newcastle-Everton controversy. (Sorry for not posting for a couple of months – I’ve been busy.) Yes, Shola Ameobi was blatantly offside for the Newcastle goal. But there are two points that should be made regarding this.

Firstly, offside is actually impossible to enforce 100% accurately. It’s obviously a very necessary rule, to prevent goal-hanging, and it’s hard to think of a better way of doing this. I can’t think of a way to improve it, other than forcing the BBC to abandon those stupid little flag icons that pop up after every decision. But think about it: the crucial point is whether the player is offside at the moment his colleague plays the ball. The nature of the rule means that the two players will never be perfectly in line – if they are, there’s no offside. This means that the linesman (and he is a fucking linesman, whose idea was it that they should be ‘referee’s assistants’? Sepp Blatter’s probably) has to be looking at two directions simultaneously.

ANY offside decision therefore involves a certain amount of guesswork, as the linesman can either look at the passing or receiving player and has to judge what the other might be doing based on where he was last time he looked. Oh, and he doesn’t necessarily know at what moment he’s going to have to apply this, and he has to decide in a matter of seconds. Y'know, I get as pissed off as anybody when a decision goes against my team, or indeed when a decision goes in favour of a team I hate who always seem to get the rub of the bloody green. But mistakes are understandable.

And secondly, Everton were playing an offside trap. It is impossible to claim the moral high ground after playing an offside trap. Offside – whilst, as noted, very necessary – is probably the most boring element of the game. The only entertaining things about offside are (a) watching somebody explain it to somebody who doesn’t understand football and refusing to help them out, and (b) that joke about the Subbuteo version of the early 1990s Arsenal side having a back four that was fixed together on a plastic rod so you could always move them in a straight line. Hence, attempting to cause offsides to happen constitutes trying to make the game more boring.

There can be glory in a well-timed tackle, a goal-line clearance, even beating a man to the ball to put it out of play, but nobody ever gasps in awe at a really well-executed offside trap. (If I am wrong, drop me a line and tell me what your all-time favourite offside trap was. You freak.) So I have no sympathy at all. And let me tell you, it’s rare that I sympathise with Newcastle United. Think on that.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Well, this is a novel experience: the manager of Aston Villa is somebody I greatly admire and respect. It’s not that I’ve particularly disliked Villa’s managers in recent years, except O’Leary when the club started to struggle, but they haven’t exactly been of the highest calibre (except perhaps Ron Atkinson, who should be given his due for the success he brought to the club, in spite of his subsequent efforts to earn himself the public image of an addled racist).

Yet Martin O’Neill would have been one of my top choices for the job – I lived in Buckinghamshire in my teens and he was a local hero for his work at Wycombe Wanderers, and aside from a short and rather poor spell at Norwich City he’s brought success wherever he’s gone (and at three very different clubs). Seeing him perform punditry duties at the World Cup reminded me of how astute and likeable he is. In fact, I rate him so highly that I didn’t think Villa stood much chance of landing him. He was, to my mind, the obvious candidate for the England job once Scolari had turned it down, but the FA’s twattery in appointing Steve ‘I’ve got the credentials’ McClaren instead has turned out to be Villa’s gain.

Judging from O’Neill’s lack of interest in the three north-east jobs that have become vacant this summer, Villa have partly benefited from geography. Reports suggest that he didn’t want to move or commute too far, allowing him to continue to support his wife, and Birmingham is within easy driving distance of Wycombe. Although O’Neill’s choice may have been dictated by convenience rather than any great love for Villa, few fans will complain. At a club where pessimism has become the default position, it was remarkable to see fans rushing to the ground yesterday as if they’d been told that the first twenty people through the gates would win a year’s supply of balti pies and the chance to give Juan Pablo Angel a slap.

Let’s not forget that Villa have been tipped for relegation, and this newfound enthusiasm could go down the pan very quickly and take O’Neill’s reputation with it if the results don’t start coming in. Until there’s some movement on the ownership of the club, O’Neill will be working under the same restrictions that have frustrated his predecessors. Doug Ellis has promised ‘some funds’, but in the past ‘some funds’ has meant ‘a couple of million for some journeymen from Sunderland’. O’Neill has made no promises other than to try his best. This is probably wise. If nothing else, though, Villa fans can look forward to no longer wanting to throw things at the TV as their manager bullshits his way through another post-match interview.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

I have never liked Nicky Campbell. I’m aware that this statement doesn’t exactly court controversy, and it isn’t intended in any kind of polemical way because I’ve never particularly disliked him either. He’s just there, at the edge of the nation’s collective consciousness, being affable yet bland.

Until now. Now I actively dislike him, after he penned
a column for the Guardian this week decrying Aston Villa fans for being a bunch of deluded whiners. Apparently we should be grateful to Doug Ellis for cautiously steering the club through the mass-spending 1990s and bringing us out the other side solvent and secure, we should stop complaining about his lack of investment in the club, and we should give up on the notion of ever winning anything again because Chelsea have sewn everything up.

Well, excuse us for giving a toss about the club we support. Bear in mind, I’m speaking here as Mr Long-Distance Armchair Supporter: any right I have to be aggrieved pales into insignificance alongside the loyal season ticket holders who splash out thousands of pounds per year on tickets and travel to follow their club. I’m pretty pissed off as it is, so I can barely imagine how pissed off they feel about the situation. As I’ve said before, I am grateful to Ellis for the fact that Villa didn’t go the way of Leeds United, but it’s time for change.

I don’t think anybody’s expecting Villa to win the league as Campbell suggests, or even challenge for it any time in the foreseeable future. But teams like Bolton, Charlton and Everton have challenged for Europe in recent years on similar resources, and West Ham got to the Cup final. It’s not just about money, but the whole culture at Aston Villa: we can’t get good players to come, and on the occasions that they do come they don’t perform. In recent seasons we saw Birmingham City and West Brom tempting decent players simply by convincing them that the clubs were going places. Both of them got relegated in the end, but before that they convinced players to take a gamble on joining up. There is no longer any belief at Villa that such a gamble might possibly pay dividends, even if the risk of relegation is (slightly) lower.

Another major problem is that no decent manager will work under Ellis. This is crucial as the club’s recent managers have all lacked savvy in the transfer market and we’ve bought a lot of duffers. It’s a sad state of affairs when you’re enviously eyeing the players Portsmouth have managed to grab. The frontrunners for the Villa job are all strongly rumoured to want it only if a new chairman is appointed: the fans will doubtless be close to despair on this issue after reading reports of Ellis’ conduct during the meeting with prospective buyer Randy Lerner, whose straightforward cash offer (not a Glazer-style mortgage against future earnings, as reported elsewhere) foundered as Ellis shifted the goalposts, haggled over figures that had already been agreed, and insisted on retaining a role at Villa Park.

Being suspicious of any potential Americanization of football is one of English supporters’ favourite pastimes, along with bitching about the FA, picking England teams we think are miles better than whoever the current manager has selected, and sneering at talented foreign players for ‘showboating’. I am no exception. There are few things we enjoy more than being aghast at rumours they want to split the game into four quarters to boost ad revenue, or make the goals wider, or replace penalty shoot-outs with a keepy-uppy contest or whatever. (Smart work from Budweiser to notice this and build its recent ad campaigns around it.) But I did have sympathy for Lerner on this occasion, and rather wish he’d come back and have another pop at buying the club.

We can only hope that Ellis behaved this way because he was also suspicious of American interest, and doesn’t behave like an arse in the upcoming meetings with other buyers, because this deal needs to go through fast. All transfer dealings have been suspended until the ownership of the club is settled, for sensible reasons – but if the sale drags on too far into August we’ll end up rushing into a load of panic buys. Last time that happened we ended up with Eric Djemba-Djemba (and we’ve still got him, if anyone wants him). We also need a manager, and it’s evident that we’re not going to get one until Ellis goes. Not a decent one, anyway.

The thing that irritated me most about Campbell’s comments, though, was not really Villa-specific. It was his suggestion that Villa fans should content themselves with the fact of their club simply existing: not winning anything, not going out of business, and hopefully not being relegated. That actually suggests to me that the man doesn’t understand football. We all hold out the hope of doing better than we are: that applies to every football club, even Chelsea, who will be gagging to win the European Cup this season.

And does anybody seriously believe that Chelsea are going to go on dominating English football forever? The gap between the rich clubs and the rest has made the rate of change slower, but things will still change. A couple of seasons ago nobody could see Arsenal getting beaten, now few will give them any chance of winning the Premiership. I also believe that Chelsea cannot go on spending silly money indefinitely: they may be a rich man’s plaything, but Abramovitch will have a business plan for his club. And even if they do just keep spending, this is no guarantee of success: just look at Real Madrid. Maybe I’m wrong. If I am, the Premiership is set to become a very boring place. I blame the Champions League, but then I always do.

Friday, July 21, 2006

The ethics of those in control of top-flight football clubs are of course beyond reproach – just ask any Italian football fan – so naturally I don’t intend to suggest any impropriety when I make the following observations: (1) Doug Ellis appeared last season to fall out with David O’Leary; (2) O’Leary was due a substantial pay-off if his contract was terminated without due cause; (3) Ellis is a colossal tightarse; (4) suddenly, in the past week, a statement (supposedly issued by Aston Villa’s players) criticising Ellis has appeared, nobody seems to know where it came from and O’Leary has been cleared of any impropriety… yet Villa’s internal investigation has resulted in O’Leary’s dismissal, with a severance package that, we are told, reflects the outcome of the investigation.

If you choose to infer any impropriety from these observations, what a cynic you must be.

The incident with the so-called players’ revolt – which they all seem to have denied any involvement with since I last posted here – is one of the oddest events in the short history of the Premiership. Perhaps Villa will elect to explain what they discovered in the course of their investigation, as O’Leary’s departure has made matters no clearer. But surely the club can’t be entirely unhappy with the outcome. I was amazed that O’Leary wasn’t dumped immediately after the end of the season, having predicted his departure after the scoreless home draw with Fulham in April was followed by a 5-0 defeat away to Arsenal. The fact that it has now come after an incident which – whatever his relationship to it – seems to have allowed Villa to renegotiate his redundancy entitlement is terribly convenient for the board.

I’m not complaining, mind. I’ve wanted O’Leary out since it became clear early last season that 2003/4 was a flash in the pan, and if Villa have saved a bit of cash in getting him out then I hope that this will be spent on players (HA! I make joke). He’s turned out to be one of those annoying ‘admit no weakness’ managers who always over-rate the team’s performance, and I’d rather have a Martin O’Neill type manager who’s willing to be critical. In fact, I’d rather have Martin O’Neill, as he appears to be available, but sadly I think he’s too intelligent to take the job. I suspect we’ll end up with Curbishley: he’ll have his work cut out, but he’ll never get a better chance to prove he’s a top-class manager. In fact, if he can turn Villa around, he’s wasted in football and should be sent to balance the Japanese economy or something.

Friday, July 14, 2006

This was a big day in the recent history of Aston Villa. Today the club’s players put their names to a collective statement criticising Doug Ellis’ handling of Villa, a bold and rare move that speaks volumes about how troubled this famous old club – the club which spearheaded the formation of the English football league – has become.

Only you probably didn’t notice, because they released the fucking thing on the day that one of the biggest stories in world football broke. The statement quickly slid down the pecking order on Sky Sports News as the verdict came through from Turin that Juventus, Milan, Lazio and Fiorentina had all been found guilty of match-fixing. There’s a certain irony in the release of a complaint about mismanagement being so poorly managed itself.

It’s a shame because the statement itself is eye-catching by virtue of its comedy value, accusing Ellis of failing to stump up £300 to water the pitches and barring staff from putting a cup of coffee on expenses at the airport. As John Gregory noted, Ellis’ stinginess has been never been any secret – but this statement blows the whistle by supplying concrete examples beyond the constant lack of cash for players. Oh, and they mentioned that too, mainly the fact that Ellis refuses to find the money to sign James Milner, probably the club’s best player last season, on a permanent basis.

To be fair to Ellis, he didn’t go mad when everyone in football was spending silly money in the late 1990s, and we never got into financial trouble as a result: whoever you want to blame for the ridiculous inflation on players’ salaries in recent years, you can’t blame Doug. Furthermore, on the occasions when he has put up the money for new players in the last few years, the acquisitions have usually been uninspiring to say the least. Players like Juan Pablo Angel, Eric Djemba-Djemba and (shudder) Bosko Balaban have flopped at the club (Angel has played well at times, but not well enough to justify what he cost). When he gave David O’Leary the means to sign eight new players last year, he had the right to feel dissatisfied with the club’s poor showing this season.

However, it’s less surprising how poorly the club is doing considering the picture which the players have painted of life at Villa Park. One imagines that they sit around of an evening like Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen, comparing hardships: ‘I ’ad to pay for me own massage after training today.’ ‘I ’ad to do me own massage today.’ There’s no confidence in the club, and with a perpetually small squad, the players are entitled to feel that they are being unreasonably expected to out-perform teams with far better resources. This is a self-sustaining state of affairs, because decent players – even decent players who we could afford – won’t come and the club won’t get better. And Ellis, in characterising that, is blocking the team’s progress. Not that things are likely to get better in the immediate future, now that the players have gone public with how much they hate him.

The phrase ‘lack of ambition’ is so firmly attached to Villa these days that it might as well be our club motto. You should be able to buy mugs with it on from the club shop. If they sold well, maybe we could put up the cash for some new players.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Football fans and pundits are very keen on omens. These range from ‘Team X are never beaten by team Y when player Z is in the side’ – which, although usually partly coincidence-based, at least make some sort of sense – to the utterly meaningless likes of ‘Wolves have never beaten Port Vale on a Thursday fixture in February’ and the mythical ‘unlucky’ dressing-room at the Millennium Stadium. This trend sinks lower whenever England are involved in the World Cup, as we desperately search for correlations between now and 1966: the personal histories of the England squad, friendly results in the run-up to the tournament, world events, what was in the charts then and now – to the extent that a scrappy performance in the opening match against South American opponents is seen as a sure sign of ultimate victory.

At the start of this World Cup, Italian fans were pointing towards the pattern of their previous post-war final appearances: 1970, 1982, 1994. The twelve-year cycle pointed to another place in the final. Nothing else did, frankly: a squad considered less-than-vintage, turmoil in the domestic game and a group that was arguably just as tough as the more commented-on ‘group of death’. I predicted that at least one of the big teams would go out in the first round and picked Italy. But their omen has come good, and this seems to me to be terribly unfair. Our omens always seem to mean fuck all in the end. Why do theirs work out?

The answer, we must grudgingly admit, is that they’ve worked for their omen. A number of the hotly-tipped teams, particularly England and Brazil, turned out to be collections of talented individuals who failed to convince as a team. Italy have played as a unit, balancing their traditionally strong defence with fluidity and variety in attack (ten different players have scored) and just a little more adventure than we’ve seen from them in the past, enough to kill off Ghana, the Czechs and Ukraine in matches that, in the past, would have ambled to 1-0 and left neutrals wishing for Ahn Jung-Hwan to pop up and teach them another lesson. They even got a second against the Germans, despite only having got the first in the 119th minute.

As a result, my longstanding irritation with Italy has abated. This has already happened to me once this World Cup, with the no-longer-cynical Argentina, and they promptly went out – so Italy will probably now lose. I actually don’t mind much who wins the final, I’d just like to see a competitive match. My first World Cup Final was 1990: it was widely believed to be the worst ever, and the first one in which the losing team failed to score (that was what turned me against Argentina in the first place). Since then, every final has been a bit one-sided: Italy stifled the 1994 final against an unusually defensive Brazil, and never looked like winning it; Brazil managed to get worse on the way to the 1998 final, and meekly got beat by France; and the draw fell apart nicely for Germany in 2002, and they lost to the first really good side they met.

So I’m hoping tomorrow will be a good, see-saw game. Every World Cup final played in a year ending in six has seen the losing team score twice, so the omens are good.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

All right, I got some things wrong. I thought 4-5-1 might work. I defended Sven bringing Walcott (although I did say we needed some more reliable cover for Owen and Rooney). I even thought Beckham should keep his place and England inarguably played better without him (although I think this is partly because the team realised they could no longer rely on him to rescue them with a moment of inspiration). But I would like to remind everybody that I’ve been a keen supporter of Owen Hargreaves for some time, and was defending him from the haters at the beginning of this tournament. Just in case this fact passed you by, readers.

When Hargreaves played in the first few matches, he did pretty well – but still not well enough to convince those who’d made up their mind that he was essentially useless. But then came Portugal, and he was immense. He seemed to run the length of that pitch fifty times: he practically made up for the loss of an eleventh man all on his own. This was literally the case at one point when his path was blocked by a defender, he looked up to make a pass to the left wing, saw there was nobody there because Joe Cole had gone off, and simply decided to run into the position where Cole would have been and then ran back inside. And he was still getting back and making crucial tackles throughout the match. And he was the only one to convert his penalty.

Not only was it England’s outstanding performance of the match, it was (given the lack of alternative contenders) the team’s outstanding performance of the tournament. Sadly, this is what it takes to impress England fans: not just performing your role effectively in a successful team, but actually running your guts out. We’re weird like that: we’d rather feel proud than win. Effortless players like Zidane are all right for fancy-dan foreign teams, but we like to see hard graft and, preferably, actual blood running down a player’s face and soaking into his shirt. (Top tip for future England players: win the fans over by having a razor blade in your shorts pocket and engineering a clash of heads with an opposition player. When you clutch your head in ‘pain’, sneakily slash it open, avoiding major arteries. As long as the FIFA officials don’t spot it and have you banned for life for carrying an offensive weapon on the field, you’re laughing.)

With Beckham no longer central to the team, the midfield should be rebuilt around Gerrard’s strengths – which means Hargreaves should take over the defensive duties that have stifled Gerrard for so long in England matches. You’d think I’d be satisfied with Hargreaves cementing his place in the team, wouldn’t you? But I’m not going to stop there. Instead, with Beckham having sensibly resigned the captaincy, I plan to commence my Hargreaves For Captain campaign. Just think – the first Canadian to captain England. We can make it happen.

Bringing Hargreaves into the set-up was one of Sven’s most controversial decisions, but has ultimately turned out to be one of his best. Yeah, Sven also made some bad decisions but I think we should focus on the future now rather than wasting time laying into him. There’s no need for an autopsy, we’ve been doing it as we went along – probably too much. The only thing most people have been able to agree on is that Sven was doing it wrong. The actual advice was often contradictory. People have been saying Sven should have done better with these great players… but everybody also seems to agree that they couldn’t all play in the same team. They’ve also said that the likes of Beckham, Lampard and Owen have underperformed, and that Rooney wasn’t fit enough. Take those players away and is the team really that great? Probably Sven’s biggest failing was that he did try to fit all those players into one team – that and his conservative habits.

For most of our history we’ve been a quarter-final team and Sven failed to raise us above that – but he didn't make us sink below it, which is more than you can say for a lot of England managers. With good young players coming through, the next manager has a solid base to build on. It’s just a shame that the next manager is a smug, clueless twat.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Another guest column today from Jim Smith (not the former Oxford United manager, I should add).

Sven-Goran Eriksson is an odd manager; one clearly more suited to league football than cup football (which is odd, 'cos international football is about winning cups and it's an international job he's doing), as shown by the way England handle themselves in qualifying and group stages, grinding out mostly wins, the occasional draw and the odd infrequent loss, totting up the points and being on top at the end. They then bottle it in the knock out games 'cos of the conservative way they often play.

We have much to be grateful to Eriksson for. His record is excellent (four competitive match loses, one of those on penalties, three quite easily achieved qualifications, three quarter finals) and he's made England a team that punch at their natural level, top ten if not top spot. One does have to suspect that Sven doesn't have the sheer nous and/or ruthlessness to tactically improvise sufficiently to overturn a game that his team are chasing, that he can't go the final yard. He lacks that which O'Neill, Saint Jose, Scolari and Hiddinck have. What Venables had. In that respect, the naysayers are right - he lets his players down there and he has stayed too long, but what he brought to England when he came in - organisation, efficiency, solid defending, a team spirit that goes beyond blind, stupid, ranting patriotism, shouldn't be forgotten. We thought he was mad when he said 'win the group' was his plan in the 2002 qualifiers, but win the group he did despite Keegan's lousy one point from six in the first two games. (Remember when Keegan played Gareth Southgate in midfield? What the Diego Forlan was all that about?)

I'm 100% certain that Portingale and Argentina fans (not to mention the Swedes or Mexicans or the Dutch) would much rather have ground out a 1 - 0 win in 93 minutes than fought the games they did instead and while I don't think that England will beat Portugal, it's something they are capable of. The worst thing about Britain (and I do mean Britain, not England, although the English are more guilty of this than the Scots in my experience) is an absolute inability to be moderate and balanced. Everything is amazing or shit. Doctor Who (according to its fans) is either in the middle of a golden age and everyone loves it or it's the worst thing ever and the ratings have collapsed. Tony Blair is either the most popular prime minister of all time, or he needs assassinating. England are either a brilliant team who should win everything and keep being robbed or they're lucky, fluky bastards who are overpaid, stupid and smug - and Ecuador are either really underrated, were brilliant against Poland, only lost to Germany 'cos they played their reserves and were going to really hurt England, or they're the weakest team in the last sixteen and even then England only just beat them. Where's the balance?

The British find enthusiasm embarrassing (actually, we find most things embarrassing) and I think that can be quite a good thing, because strident pride and nationalism and anger are a bit pish and lame, but relentless self-eviscerating cynicism isn't any better, really, and that's what a lot of the supposedly smarter end of the UK media do: substitute an embarrassed, off-hand, self-mocking and bet-hedging stance for the equally vile tabloid boldness and call it balance, but it isn't balance at all. It's a diametrically opposite but equally ludicrous position.

England are in the last eight. It's about right. That's our level. Not as good as Argentina, better than Sweden or America. About as good as Germany. For anything better than that, you need a bit of luck and luck is one thing this England side have always been short of. It must be encouraging to have got there without playing to the level that they can, surely? The worry is that maybe they'll never quite cohere and become the sum of their parts. With Rooney, Beckham, Gerrard and Lampard all being players that can change a game all by themselves you'd expect this squad to catch fire. But they haven't, and they probably won't, but they might.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

As a mindless champion of the sporting underdog, I’ve been doing down Brazil’s chances of winning this World Cup (see previous post). This is partly because everybody else has been blithely proclaiming them to be favourites and I sincerely hope that they don’t walk their way to the trophy. However, it is also my genuine opinion that they won’t win it, and if they do go on to win it I promise not to go back and delete that bit. This opinion was partly based on what little I’d seen of them up to now (obviously good, but not clearly better than half a dozen other teams), and the unlikelihood of one team playing in four World Cup finals in a row, and one of those gut feelings which so rarely prove to be accurate.

I was therefore slightly relieved to see Brazil not being all that good against Croatia last night. Granted, we shouldn’t judge a team on their first outing, because we all know that England can play better than they did against Paraguay. However, even the below-par performance of Michael Owen was streets ahead of the showing from Brazil’s own former prodigy. If the 2002 tournament was Ronaldo’s equivalent of Elvis’s ’68 Comeback Special, then Croatia game was perhaps the beginning of his Vegas years.

Consider it. He’s overweight, he’s started making bizarre pronouncements (he recently called Pele ‘stupid’), and on Tuesday night he didn’t seem to care about the standard of his performance at all. I worked harder during that match than he did. (Seriously, I had my laptop on and did three pages of a script.) It was quite sad to watch, really.

Although it was also slightly funny, because for some reason Ronaldo has never been a very likeable player, has he? Unlike Ronaldinho, whose tricksy manoeuvres seem to exude a real joy for the game, Ronaldo has always had a sulky quality about him, as though he’s never come to terms with the idea that the other team also want to win the match, and they’re not just trying to stop him scoring because they want to upset him. On the evidence of the Croatia game that has now turned to arrogance. His single decent attempt on goal, a creditable long-range attempt, confirmed that his talent is still in there, but this was precisely what mitigated against any sympathy: it would be genuinely sad if he was trying hard but had lost his touch, but he instead he just didn’t seem like he was bothering.

Brazil as a whole, of course, are much better than Ronaldo. Croatia did make themselves hard to break down, Roberto Carlos was busy running up the wing, Ronaldinho wasn’t at his best but still caused problems, and Kaka’s goal will surely be in the running for best of the tournament. And they wouldn’t be the first team to improve during the tournament on the way to a win (West Germany and Argentina both lost group games on their way to victories in the 1970s, and Italy were of course dreadful in the first round in 1982). But Greece’s win at Euro 2004 should have been a wake-up call for the international superpowers, proving that a well-organised side can shoot down a team of galacticos if they work hard enough.

I think this World Cup will be won by a team that works hard. And if Ronaldo persists in being the footballing equivalent of Fat Elvis, their challenge for this trophy is going to have a heart attack on the toilet.

Friday, June 09, 2006

On a day like today, those claims that the Champions League is now a bigger event than the World Cup (admittedly usually advanced by managers of very big clubs, who have obvious reasons for saying that) look fairly silly, don’t they? When has anything in the Champions League been given this level of coverage, or seen this level of interest in its minutiae? There’s just no question about it, it’s the biggest thing in football. It’s also my favourite thing about football, and in a flurry of excitement I’m going to list some of the things I’m looking forward to.

Obscure matches. Tonight, ITV – noted caterers to the lowest common denominator – will screen Poland vs Ecuador in prime time. That’s the power of the World Cup – a match you wouldn’t usually cross the street to discover the result of suddenly becomes intensely interesting. Ideally I like to watch as many World Cup matches as possible, and I missed a lot of them last time due to the time difference. During this tournament I fully intend to enjoy Mexico vs Iran, Ukraine vs Tunisia and Ghana vs USA. I’ve realised that I’m scheduled to work on the afternoon of Japan vs Australia and am seriously thinking of taking the time off.

Complaining about whoever has sponsored ITV’s coverage. Every advertiser has been leaping on the World Cup bandwagon, regardless of whether the product has the remotest connection to football. Some of these ads have been great: the best of the bunch is Carlsberg’s all-star pub team. Some are poor: whoever did that Kellogg’s ad with the father and son eating cereal in front of a live match, it seems that nobody told them that this World Cup isn’t taking place in the Far East and will therefore be on at congruent times. But you can guarantee that the official sponsor of ITV’s coverage will come up with something that is at best poor, at worst actively irritating. I’ve actually come to look forward to this: watching ITV’s sports coverage is a necessary evil, so you might as well get some fun by mocking them. Their habit of pretending that the matches they’re not showing cannot be seen live anywhere is always good for laughs too.

Park Chu-young. And all the other players I’ve bought in Pro Evolution Soccer and never actually seen play in real life, such as Ryan Babel, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Johnny Heitinga, Xavi, Lee Woon-jae, Yuji Nakazawa, Masashi Oguro, Kim Nam-il and Naohiro Takahara (picking up Japanese and Korean players for cheap is a good way to get out of the second division in PES). I’ve singled out Park Chu-young (not to be confused with midfielder Park Ji-sung) because he’s my tip for Obscure Player Likely To Get Signed. He’s 20, currently playing for FC Seoul, and with an IQ of 150 he brings genuine meaning to the cliché ‘intelligent player’ – so I’m going around saying he’s one to watch in the hope of appearing to know something about football when in fact I just play a lot of PlayStation.

Surprises. I think another big team will go out in the first round this time – my money’s on Italy (not literally, I don’t have enough confidence in my predictions to put an actual bet on). With all the scandals kicking off back home, and a group that features two teams with a higher FIFA ranking (admittedly one of those is the USA, who have a perennially high ranking considering the actual quality of the team), it’s well set up for them to screw up. And overall it’s a very open tournament, with no obvious winner – everybody keeps saying Brazil are obviously the favourites, but I think this is just because nobody knows and Brazil are an uncontroversial choice (they win it a lot and everybody likes them). They made heavy weather of qualification and Arsenal showed that it’s possible to contain Ronaldinho. No team has ever reached four successive World Cup finals, and I’m going to stick my neck out and say it’s not going to happen this year. Plus, I’ve just drawn Croatia in the office sweepstake and stand to win upwards of ten pounds if they finish top scorers, so fingers crossed for a leaky Brazilian defence.

Alex Ferguson getting annoyed with Sven. Because apparently he has been, over the Rooney issue, but I’ve seen no evidence of it thus far. I can believe it’s happening, but the press is claiming that the managers are at loggerheads without supplying a single quote from anybody at Manchester United, and this rather takes all the fun out of it. I want to see Fergie stamping his little foot over the issue. And hopefully breaking a metatarsal.

That’s all for now, but don’t forget that the official MCFF fantasy football game is still open to entries until 1630hrs this afternoon at

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

I’m posting today for two reasons: firstly, to invite all readers to join the official MCFF Fantasy World Cup league at I’ve picked the Metro one, in spite of it being linked to a tawdry, pathetic rag of a newspaper, because (a) it’s free and (b) it has fairly sensible rules (unlike the ones which take all the skill out of it by putting no value on each player, so you can pick whoever you like, and one absurd league which allows three transfers PER DAY). Once you’ve created your team – or if you’ve already joined the Metro’s game – e-mail me at and I’ll give you the code for the MCFF league. But you’ll need to get a move on and get your team in before the tournament starts.

Apart from that, Jim Smith has sent me another guest column, which saves me putting one up for a few days.

For an Englishman to express a dislike of Diego Maradona is, I'm sure, far from uncommon. It is also far from uncommon for people to attempt to claim that it is an overreaction to despise Maradona for his infamous ‘Hand of God’ goal twenty years ago and that it is, frankly, just another example of English football supporters whinging and moaning about a decision that didn't go their way and that they (we) should just shut up and get over it.

Well, no, it isn't and no we shouldn't. The implications of the 'Hand of God' incident should be discussed more often than they are. They should be picked over until the lessons of the that game have been fully absorbed, not into the festering and often tedious resentment culture of ‘England was robbed’ but into football's perceptions of someone still perceived as one of the greats of the game.

The ‘Hand of God’ is an action in a wholly different class to your average footballing decision gone awry. This is not any mere example of rough and tumble or of the referee getting it wrong. (Although only the criminally stupid could believe that Maradona could out-jump Shilton; given their respective heights, it is actually impossible while both are within Earth's gravitational pull.) This is not only the single most blatant bit of cheating ever seen in the World Cup finals, it is also the most successful (Shilton has stated that the England players were so shocked that the goal had stood, they found it hard to concentrate on the game afterwards). So successful, in fact, that the simple fact that it comprehensively undermines the idea of Maradona as polymath player who effectively led his team to World Cup glory is conveniently ignored.

Far more than Maradona’s other given goal in that game (often mentioned as amongst the finest ever scored) the 'Hand of God' presents us with an action that gives a broad understanding of the man responsible for it. It speaks (unlike the other, actual goal) not of his abilities, but of his selfishness, his corruption and his obvious contempt for the spirit, tone and rules of the game that the World Cup is meant to celebrate.

It speaks of a need to win which, in so far as anything in sport can have a moral context, drifted into the amoral. Only a man with no regard for football could have done that. What it demonstrates that whilst Maradona was physically very, very good at football, he was personally not good enough for football. It is, despite his abilities, his moral and personal shortcomings, his absolute failure to reach even the fairly low level of human decency expected of competitive sportsmen, that should brought to the fore by any contemplation of that match. Instead they are excused. To me this is, in and of itself, absolutely inexcusable.

It's not that I dislike Maradona because of that incident but that incident is the epitome of why I find the man quite so unpleasant. Maradona's ‘goal’ and his subsequent attempts to both label it a divine intervention and then to justify it within the political context of a then recently finished war are surely both objectively wrong and morally indefensible? Or is it only wrong to equate football and war when the English press do it? (I would argue that it's always wrong myself.)

The ‘goal’ and its aftermath are indications of the man's monstrous self-regard (a not entirely disproportionate reaction to his extraordinary talent it has to be said) and like his later convictions for drug-related cheating, his public disowning by his own son, his championing of rule by military dictatorship and his very public financial misdemeanours they say nothing good about the man responsible for them.

Are the records of Pele, Cruyff or Puskas marred by such moments? No. In fact, the polar opposite is true. Cruyff’s noble refusal to play in the 1978 World Cup because he could not morally contemplate playing a tournament in a country ruled by a corrupt military dictatorship is one of the crowning glories of his career. Like Ali’s refusal to be drafted into the Vietnam war it places him on an inspirational moral plane above mere games and competitions. Cruyff’s actions speak volumes about the true calibre of the man. As do Maradona’s.

Of course it is not necessary, or even common, for an artist (and the best footballers are artists) to demonstrate a flawless moral character. That Eric Gill sexually preyed upon his own family does not mean that the typographical fonts he designed are of no use but it does comprehensively destroy the effectiveness and validity of his sculptures that attempts to portray a divine, paternal love to the extent that even an atheist like myself can find the continued use of his work in churches offensive. This is because there are occasions when when the essential nature of someone's work collides with their actions with such force that the work is damaged beyond repair. While it would be crassly inappropriate beyond anything even a British tabloid would do to equate Gill's actions with Maradona’s in anything other than a purely analogical sense, surely both are examples of occasions where someone’s moral shortcomings impact upon any reasonable appreciation of their art?

Maradona is not one of the greats of football for the simple reason that he was personally incapable of playing the game with even a miniscule percentage of the sportsmanship required to make any arbitrary team game functional; to make it worthwhile. Unlike other men who have imprinted themselves indelibly on the World Cup, like Viera, Pele or Ronaldo, Maradona couldn't do it within even the very broadest conceivable interpretation of the rules of the game he was meant to be playing. That, surely, doesn't simply ameliorate the achievement, but actually renders it worthless?

The bloated, ranting, hysterical, drug-crazed Maradona seen weeping uncontrollably on television after England comprehensively outplayed and outwitted Argentina in 2002 will always remain, to me, the single most enduring image of the man. I would go further. That, rather than the spectacular, magnificent other goal from that 1986 quarter-final, should be his visual epitaph. It's a far more accurate and appropriate representation of the man's venal, broken and ugly soul.

Friday, May 26, 2006

I didn't see last night's pulsating B international on account of being out watching the best new band in Britain, but I did return home in time to hear a joyless phone-in on Five Live consisting mainly of people wailing that England have no chance at the World Cup, citing as evidence a match which, once upon a time, would not even have been played in front of a paying audience, never mind broadcast live on TV and radio. Many returned to a favourite theme, that of Why Does Sven Think Owen Hargreaves Is Any Good At All?

The more pressing question, I feel, is Why Do England Fans Hate Owen Hargreaves? What has he done to them? All right, he's had some indifferent performances for England, but he's had some good ones too and when you consider that he has very rarely played in his favoured position of holding midfielder, he's done just fine (anybody critiquing his performance last night should bear in mind that he is not, in fact, a full-back). Yet nobody seems to want him anywhere near the squad. This morning I hastily convened a focus group and I have some suggestions as to how Owen Hargreaves can make himself more popular with the supporters.

Move to a Premiership club. One reason that's often put forward for Hargreaves' unpopularity is that, having played in the Bundesliga since he was a teenager, we don't see much of him and never have. Therefore, playing in England might bring its benefits, especially when you consider that any club's supporters will usually campaign for the inclusion of their best English player in the national side, regardless of how realistic this is (Villa fans can still be heard to talk of Gareth Barry as a solution to 'the left side problem'). However, given that Hargreaves is an integral part of the dominant team in German football, with which he has won the Bundesliga, the German Cup, the European Cup and the World Club Championship, the question 'Why should he?' looms large.

Become one of those showboating players that everybody is impressed by instead of being a hard-working holding midfielder. Even if he could achieve this it would be ultimately pointless. Although English fans have a romantic attachment to surging midfield players (Bobby Charlton, Bryan Robson etc) and don't really see the point in holding players, we already have more brilliant surging midfield players than we can fit in the team, so this would make Hargreaves a more popular spare part.

Make a biopic. This is an alternative solution to the problem of not knowing much about him. A movie of his life would allow fans access to the real Owen Hargreaves, recounting his journey from the Calgary foothills to the heights of footballing success. This would, unfortunately, underline a fact about Hargreaves that many England fans find uncomfortable - namely, that he is Canadian - but it would at least dispel the suspicion that he might secretly be German.

Receive honours from the Queen. This was one of a number of suggestions the group came up with to make Hargreaves appear more English (although of course, as a Canadian, he could receive honours wherever his parents came from). Other suggestions included: announce that he hates the French (except Thierry Henry); display an extensive knowledge of Carry On films; lose a semi-final (not necessarily in football, any semi-final will do); go to fight in Iraq.

Become best mates with Thierry Henry. Surely this would have some positive effect by association.

Do a self-deprecating ad campaign. You know, like those ones where Steve Davis played on the fact that everybody thinks he's boring. This could play on the public's suspicion that Hargreaves is not 'really' English: have him stand up for the wrong National Anthem or score a goal for the wrong team or something equally fucking hilarious. If the tone was right, this could endear him to English supporters by making him seem amusingly self-aware.

Cry in the middle of a big match. Surprisingly, this apparently works.

Release a pop single. This could either be a song about Owen Hargreaves a la 'I Wish I Could Play Like Charlie George' or performed by Owen Hargreaves in tribute to the glory days of Hod 'n' Wad. The record should probably not, however, be both by and about Owen Hargreaves as this might seem needlessly self-aggrandising. If successful this could prompt a bout of Hargreavesmania, accompanied by a craze for curly wigs and speaking in a curious Scouse/Canadian/vaguely German-inflected accent. It is unknown whether Hargreaves can actually sing, but the tradition of football records demonstrates this to be a very minor issue.

Score the winning goal for England in the World Cup Final. That'd fucking shut them up, wouldn't it?

Saturday, May 20, 2006

To accompany the announcement of Thierry Henry’s new contract with Arsenal, the BBC Sport website put together a page of comments about the event from various fans. Now, it’s hardly surprising that Arsenal fans have practically – in some cases, probably literally – been weeping with relief that he’s going to stay. But what’s really striking is the number of fans of other clubs who expressed their delight at his decision, and the fact that there wasn’t a single negative or even apathetic comment.

Henry is like the footballing equivalent of the Elgin Marbles: he’s not from Britain, but he’s a national treasure all the same and we’d really rather not lose him. In fact, he’s better than the Elgin Marbles because he chooses to stay here and so there isn’t the same sense of post-colonial guilt.

I don’t disagree with this mass jubilation: I’m similarly pleased that he’s staying and that we’ll still get to see him on a weekly basis. The Premiership would be a poorer spectacle if he left, and there’s surely a sneaking sense of pride that one of the world’s best players wants to play here. As well as being arguably the best footballer to have played here in decades, he’s an inspiration in terms of his attitude and I never cease to be amused by the fact that he actually does proper Gallic shrugs when he disagrees with an off-side decision. But does nobody in Britain have a bad word to say about this man?

The ex-Liverpool player Michael Robinson declared in today’s Guardian that Henry had demonstrated poor sportsmanship and a lack of dignity by complaining about the referee after the European Cup final. It’s notable, however, that Robinson did this from a safe distance, i.e. Spain. It’s obvious that he knows that such talk will not be tolerated in Britain, and so he has taken the coward’s way out, i.e. Spain. The offence might not have been so serious had he not zoned in on Henry’s dignity, when everybody knows that Henry is the most dignified footballer currently playing (admittedly this is not a hotly contested award).

Hence, I don’t expect to get much of a reaction when I ask: Does anybody not love Thierry Henry? If you don’t, leave your comments (with reasons) at the bottom, where they will be preserved for the ridicule of future visitors.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Today we host a guest column from m’colleague Jim Smith, because producing a few hundred words of bibble about football more than once a month is apparently beyond me.

The FA Cup Final is being played as I type this, we're eleven minutes in and we've just had the first of those stupid little onscreen offside flags of the game. The FA Cup Final traditionally announces the end of the domestic season and this year, as it does every four, it means that the World Cup is almost upon us. Twenty Seven days to go and already I'm sick to the back teeth of it.

Sick of the World Cup? That's a bit out of character for me, surely? No, not a bit of it, because I'm not sick of the World Cup at all. I'm sick of people moaning about the World Cup. You know what I mean, the endless bleating we're subjected to whenever an international tournament is on the horizon. The petty whinging and broadsheet editorialising that accompanies the imminence of the premier international football tournament.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that everyone should be anticipating the World Cup with the same relish that I am. I'm not even suggesting that everyone should like football (never mind international football – there are of course those die-hard fans for whom club will always hold the only interest). Both of those positions would be rather dumb. All I'm suggesting is that people who don't like might like to get over themselves and stop moaning because the world, and particularly the television schedules, are not exactly as they wish them to be at all times. Aww diddums.

You know what I do with things I don't like, even with things I actively dislike? I ignore them. Do you know what happens then? They go away. No, really, they do. More Winter Olympics than I can count, decades worth of EastEnders and Coronation Street, Casualty and Last of the Summer Wine, not to mention the entire sport of rugby and the whole Da Vinci Code phenomenon have entirely passed me by due to my simple tactic of not taking any notice of them when they're mentioned. I don't climb astride my metaphorical high horse and attempt to browbeat admirers of these particular things with my own withering scorn, the irate product of my own lack of interest in such things.

England apparently managed to win the Rugby World Cup (or whatever the rugby tournament is called) a couple of years ago (I honestly don't know how many, not being interested and all that) and not once did I complain about the sport's dominance of the news in that period. Not even when a parade of players through the streets messed up public transport in London and severely damaged some plans I had for what should have been a very enjoyable afternoon out. Do you know why? Because I am, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, a grown up and I understand that some people like things I don't – such as drinking mild, reading Harry Potter books, wearing short trousers and tolerating the presence of dogs to name but four.

It's a peculiar propensity of members of the English middle classes to assume something that they (we) don't like is inherently 'wrong' rather than 'not to one's taste'. This usually expresses itself via a claim, overt or veiled, that the person who doesn't like the ostensibly popular thing is 'oppressed' by that thing's cultural omnipresence. This smug myopia is inevitably the underlying subtext of the attitudes of people who pen columns or articles mocking the World Cup (and especially those who allow their, let's face it remarkably active, lack of interest to infect places that it has absolutely no business to be – Mil Millington's 'Space' column in today's Guardian, for example). Such people usually have not the faintest notion of what oppression actually is, they probably think it's a bit like 'political correctness gone mad' or 'jumping the shark'. (Two phrases which, should one hear an adult use the without irony surely make it impossible to take anything that person say seriously ever again.)

Yes, the childish nationalism which is ill-expressed by followers of World Cup sides from all countries can be distasteful, but concentrating on that over the sport itself misses the point and is probably a deliberate mistake made by the above-mentioned to bolster their own pseudo moral arguments. Rampant nationalism is, I agree, as crass as it is dull, as unnecessary as it is thoughtless, but the argument is largely there to obscure the fact that their whole point is a lot of ill-thought through, self-indulgent muttering about something they don't like being a bit more popular than something they do.

Most football fans I know would watch, and indeed are watching, the tournament regardless of whether or not their own nation has qualified, or has the faintest breath of a chance of lifting the trophy - and besides which, have you ever been in an area full of roaring cricket fans? Such displays are not limited to what Pele called, with absolute perspicacity, 'the global game'. International football is about the football rather than the nations. Only people with no knowledge of the latter fail to understand that. Unfortunately, they persist in foisting this, perhaps deliberate, misapprehension on the rest of us, being holier than thou as they do so.

If you don't like what's on TV, then switch off and do something else (it’s not as if there’s generally much on over the summer anyway – and the coverage is almost entirely confined to BBC1 and ITV, which are rarely the favoured channels of World Cup whiners). Turn to a different page of the newspaper if you don't want to read about football in the sports section and ignore the sport related gossip in 'Heat' and the tabloids. Better still, don't read 'Heat' or the tabloids at all and go and read a decent book in the sunshine instead.

Trust me, it works. Give it a try.

The views in this article are not necessarily those of Middle Class Football Fan. Although, actually, they pretty much are.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Of course, nobody will believe me now, but in the past week it did briefly drift through my mind that Theo Walcott might be a potential replacement for Rooney at the World Cup. However, my next thought was “Naaaah”, so I can only claim to have been marginally less surprised than the rest of the country at his selection yesterday. Even so, I can see exactly why Sven has made this choice and I’ll happily stick my neck out and say that he has done the right thing.

The main reason Sven has given is a sound one: Walcott has pace and pace is what England will need against the top-class sides at the World Cup. Our two quickest strikers are both carrying injuries and Sven needed to find a player who can do what they do. The endless replays of Walcott’s five (count ’em) goals for Southampton provide at least some evidence that he can. The fact that Arsene Wenger hasn’t played him yet is no reflection on his talent, but says more about Wenger’s patient approach to management and the numerous alternatives at Arsenal (with question marks over the future of Henry and Bergkamp – have a happy 37th birthday tomorrow, Dennis – he could well get his chance next year).

Although sound claims have been made for Jermain Defoe and Darren Bent, ultimately you don’t look at either of them and think ‘world class player’, whereas you look at Walcott and think ‘potential world class player’, which is better than nothing. The England squad is only a meritocracy up to a point: sometimes you don’t take the best players available, but the players who might win you matches. Hence the inclusion of Peter Crouch, whose form this season has been variable, but who is difficult to play against and can unsettle defences. And yes, I know you don’t look at Crouch and think ‘world class player’ either: I might have taken Defoe instead, but both have suffered fluctuating form this season and Crouch has the advantage of not being very similar to Michael Owen but not quite as good, unlike Defoe.

However, with Rooney unlikely to make the tournament and a question mark over Michael Owen’s fitness, I do think we need to take Defoe regardless. We don’t want to be in a situation where Owen’s injury recurs halfway through the first match and we’re left starting Walcott and Crouch up front in every game. Unless it looks like Rooney is likely to be fit for the knock-out stage, I’d drop him for Defoe. Odd that nobody is wondering where Emile Heskey is in all this.

For an encore, I will now go on to defend the selection of Owen Hargreaves, who for some reason only me and Sven think is a good player. Personally I think he doesn’t get much credit because he plays in Germany (which is a small asset in itself at this World Cup) and we don’t see enough of him to get excited. I’ve always been impressed by his workrate for England, he’s finished the season strongly for Bayern Munich and, crucially, he’s a good utility player. You always need a couple of those at a World Cup, and between them Hargreaves and Jamie Carragher can cover injuries across most of the outfield. Compare to Shaun Wright-Phillips, who does a specific thing very well – and has unfortunately lost out to a man who is playing more regularly and impressively than him, Aaron Lennon. That’s the risk of moving to Chelsea, I suppose.

I think that, with this being Sven’s last tournament with England, he’s decided that he doesn’t want to go out of it the way that he went out of the last two, being lambasted for his caution. He’s been dealt a bad hand, with the player he needs the most getting injured at a crucial moment, and he’s decided he’d rather take a gamble on an exciting player than pick a worthy but uninspiring alternative. Given the flack that’s been aimed his way in the past few years, I frankly don’t blame him. Or maybe I’m just too sentimental about the World Cup and like the idea of an untried kid being the hero of the hour: if so, I would like to be permitted to live in my happy little world until England get dumped out on their arses.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

He’s a stupid thing that’s been bugging me lately – why do we refer to the Italian Serie A club Internazionale as Inter Milan? Correct me if I’m wrong, but surely that’s not actually what they’re called?

It’s notable that Italian clubs generally don’t go in for the cute little addenda that many English, Spanish and German clubs have, such as ‘United’, ‘Real’ and ‘Borussia’ (what does that last one actually mean? I can think of at least two clubs that use it, so it can’t be that specific. Post a comment if you know). Italian clubs prefer simple, one-word names like ‘Juventus’, ‘Lazio’, ‘Napoli’. Personally I prefer our way of doing it because it leads to charmingly silly names like Sheffield Wednesday and Accrington Stanley, but horses for courses I suppose.

Glance at the Serie A table on most British websites and the names of the two Milan clubs are obvious odd men out, as we tend to differentiate them by sticking extra bits on for our own (unnecessary) convenience. This results in AC Milan often being referred to as AC to avoid confusion with Milan’s other club, which is incredibly stupid as it’s equivalent to referring to Liverpool as ‘FC’. Similarly, referring to Internazionale as Inter Milan is a bit like referring to Everton as ‘Eve Liverpool’. And we seem to be able to cope with Rome having two clubs, one named after the city and one not, without calling Roma ‘AS Roma’ all the time and deciding that Lazio are actually called ‘Laz Roma’.

Am I wrong, or do Italian football fans think it’s rather odd that we’ve added something to the name of one of their teams as if we have terrible trouble remembering where they play, or as if ‘Internazionale’ wasn’t a distinctive enough name already? And if I’m right, can’t we do something about it so we don’t look like such craven idiots?

Thank you for your attention.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

I haven’t had time to post here for a few weeks, and in fact I don’t really have time now, but I couldn’t let today’s news about the G14’s plans pass without comment.

The G14 – a cabal of 18 of Europe’s top clubs – are drafting plans to take over the running of the Champions League, in a grab which bears resemblance to the formation of the Premiership. The result of that was that the top clubs in English football were able to grab more money for themselves, resulting in financial crises at numerous lower-division clubs. The G14’s plans speak of ‘maximising revenue’ and it’s clear to see that the big clubs believe that they deserve to get the cash generated by the tournament.

From their point of view, I’m sure this seems reasonable. But one only has to look at how their previous efforts as a pressure group have affected football to conclude that their hands should be kept away from the governance of the game at all costs. It was the G14 which prompted the formation of the Champions League – so called because it’s not a league and clubs other than the champions play in it – in the early 1990s. Whilst a good tournament in itself, its status as a cash cow – and a set-up which virtually guarantees that certain top clubs will be involved each and every season – has had a detrimental effect on domestic football. By making the big clubs richer, competition within domestic leagues is milder and the only way to compete is to spend.

Whether the G14’s plans are serious, or just a stepping-up of their pressure tactics, is a moot point. It probably won’t happen, at least not yet. But the fact that UEFA is spelling out its interpretation of the G14’s proposals – no more promotion and relegation, no qualification, but instead an American-style ‘Major League’ where the big clubs are guaranteed participation every year – indicates that UEFA are worried, and unsurprisingly so. They’re aware of the damage that their past concessions to the G14 have caused, and I have to agree that there is the potential for the sport to become a listless spectacle – especially the Champions League, which often has the air of an exhibition tournament about it (admittedly the last couple of years have produced some pleasing surprises). Unpredictability is central to the appeal of all sport, which is why the business side cannot be allowed to have too much of an influence – business doesn’t like unpredictability. They’ll edge towards making it safe, and when that happens, the continued interest of the fans cannot be taken for granted.

Perhaps the aspect of the G14’s paper which causes the most irritation is the assertion that the primary loyalty of fans is to their clubs, not the national side. Whether this is true or not – I know fans who care about one more than the other, and vice versa – it misses the point that only a minority of football fans have anything invested in the Champions League, given that only four clubs are going to be involved at any given time. I watch the Champions League, I even enjoy seeing the British clubs win, but I don’t get a tenth as involved as I do when watching England matches. And the point of national tournaments is that everybody can get involved.

The clubs’ growing resentment of international football, and their desire for the Champions League to replace the World Cup as football’s biggest stage, is a slap in the face to everybody who doesn’t support one of the big clubs. Moreover, their belief that it’s unfair that their employees can be requisitioned to play for somebody else is a pathetic whinge. The fact that such players are called upon to represent their countries brings prestige to the club and is a source of great pride to the fans. It’s been reported that the Premier League club chairmen have threatened to withdraw their players from playing for England, and to that I would say: Just try it. See what reaction you get at the next home game when that’s been announced. Personally, the World Cup is my favourite thing about football and I can honestly say that my interest in the sport would be diminished if it no longer existed.

Bear in mind, of course, that I’m a supporter of a once-great and probably-never-will-be-great-again mid-table Premiership side, and therefore quite bitter. But I think many of my points still stand.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The announcement of Sven Goran-Eriksson’s exit from the England manager’s job has resulted in a show of sympathy for the FA unprecedented in recent years. Why? More than a few pundits have noted that Sven had forced the FA’s hand into agreeing his departure, that they couldn’t tolerate his antics any more. But you have to wonder why the FA thought it necessary, a couple of years back, to extend his contract by two years and put themselves in a situation in 2006 where they wanted him to leave and have probably had to pay him a few million quid for the privilege.

This, of course, followed his scandalous decision to investigate what job opportunities might exist for him elsewhere. It seems clear from what has transpired this month that the FA frowns upon such activities – or, at least, that it wishes to be seen to frown – which begs the question why they rewarded him for them back then. However much blame one attempts to slough onto Sven’s shoulders, the entire episode has the feel of yet another golden entry into the annals of FA incompetence. It’d almost be funny, if it wasn’t at the centre of a multi-billion pound global industry of which Britain is one of the market leaders. Never mind, I’m sure when they’ve utterly destroyed football for good we’ll be able to look back and have a chuckle.

As for Sven, I still don’t see what he did as a manager that was so wrong. He’s taken England to three major tournaments, topping the qualifying group each time. It’s true that the performances which saw the team knocked out of those tournaments left something to be desired, but against Portugal this was as much because of half-hearted showings by the players, and against Brazil… well, they were Brazil. England had a good chance but Brazil, with ten men, shut up shop very well. Who cares if he experiments in friendlies, except the people who pay extortionate ticket prices to go and watch them (which, again, is surely the FA’s fault)? And as for his off-the-field conduct, it strikes me that he’s been treated as if he’s a politician, which is patently ridiculous. We’re not looking to him for moral leadership, we’re looking to him to advise some men on ways to move a ball around.

In any case, an ad reading ‘Ethically lily-white tactical genius with common touch wanted to fulfil near-impossible expectations and deflect attention away from employers’ howling idiocy’ is going up in job centres as we speak. I firmly believe that there is only one obvious candidate for the England job, and he’s bafflingly rated at a mere 12-1 to get it. Luiz Felipe Scolari is set to leave Portugal after the summer, he’s said he’d be interested in the England job if it was offered and, for Christ’s sake, he’s won the World Cup. What can any current English manager offer in response to that? Most of them haven’t even won the League Cup. The English candidates are all in jobs already, and none of those jobs really prove they could do the England job. I’m sure that if Sam Allardyce were put in charge of Man United he could do very well, but I think he would need that experience before moving on to England. If not Scolari, then I’d go for Martin O’Neill, provided he makes himself available.

But many in the FA want somebody English, probably because they want to curry favour with fans who usually, quite rightly, deride them. And there are plenty of fans who agree, going so far as to suggest former England heroes with no managerial experience whatsoever, such as Alan Shearer or Ian Wright. Please, though, not Steve ‘I’ve got the credentials’ McClaren.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Now there’s a seismic news story: Man Considers Leaving Job If He Achieves Highest Possible Accolade Within That Job. How dare he. What a bastard.

How much effort did the News of the World go to in order to extract the ‘admission’ from Sven-Goran Eriksson that he may leave England if he wins the World Cup? One suspects they were gunning for something rather bigger and had to puff up the laughable notion of him going to Aston Villa and using Middle Eastern cash to transform the club into something akin to the Villa side I’ve painstakingly assembled in Pro Evolution Soccer (Robinson, Riise, Evotargo, Ferdinand, Carvalho, Gerrard, Emre, Park Ji-Sung, Nakamura, Rooney and, er, Johan Cruyff).

I hope this bizarre obsession with Sven’s loyalty doesn’t extend beyond the Sunday press trying to shift a few extra copies,. I don’t remember this happening with any previous England manager, so why does it? It’s tempting to think it’s xenophobia and the press are trying to drive him out, but I think it’s yet another example of England’s twisted self-image. We assume that if any English manager was offered the chance to manage England, they’d sign the contract immediately just as soon as they had been able to wipe away the tears of sentimental pride for long enough to read the small print. In fact, they wouldn’t even bother reading the small print. No clause could bar a true Englishman from doing the job.

However, if a foreign manager wants to do the job, we don’t seem sure why. The very substantial salary Sven is on seems to be a sticking point, leading to the suspicion that that’s the only reason he’s doing it – but the whole point of the big salary is to make the England job competitive with top club management jobs. QED, he could be making as much or more money managing a club, so I think we can assume that he is genuinely interested in the job itself. But nobody quite seems to believe that Sven has anything much invested in England, an impression reinforced by his largely impassive demeanour during matches. But it’s the players who need the passion: the manager’s job is to pick the team, and you can hardly argue he’s putting no effort into that when he’s tried so many different combinations. In fact, shifting the team around is another thing he’s criticised for.

It’s always the way in football, though: in any other profession it’s acceptable – advisable, even – to make yourself aware of what other opportunities might be out there, but do this in football and accusations of disloyalty crash down on your head. Apparently it isn’t enough to merely do your job to a good standard. Anyway, whatever happens, please don’t give Steve McClaren the full-time job. He’s not all that as a manager, and he’s annoyingly smug too.