Friday Nov 23, 2007

In-ger-land


So, England will not be competing in next summer's European Championships. Frankly, I'm glad. I enjoy watching football, but not England. It isn't the inability of multi-millionaires to play a simple game in a coherent manner that puts me off, irritating as it is. It's the behaviour of the people that watch.

When people watch the club they support, they do just that: support. As a rule, they are predisposed to be nice to their own players and with an expectation that supporters of the other team will be equally partisan. But when people demonstrate their "passion" for the national team, it's far too frequently with an abusive tone, with the indignation of unmet and unrealistic expectations, and with a lack of basic decency that other countries' supporters are able to show.

Here in Sweden, most gardens have a flagpole from which the Swedish flag flies on special occasions. In England, if someone flies the cross of St George in their garden, it tends to mark them out as strange. We have difficulty expressing our nationality. Is it because we're ashamed of it, or secretly too proud, or so self aware as to be both? I'm not sure. But when the England team plays, the expression of national identity is nothing other than boorish and offensive, witness the routine booing of other countries' national anthems.

Much navel-gazing and public thought will be given to how to get these lavishly rewarded footballers to perform at something approaching the level their status would imply. But I think there's a more pressing issue: where do these polyester-clad outpourings of chauvinism and anger come from, and how can we make them stop?


ps. the views expressed here are not necessarily those of my employer.

Tuesday Aug 21, 2007

Say no to instant replays


I'm cross-posting this, having written it on the Guardian's (rather good) football blog as RightOnBrother.

Listening the Guardian's also rather good Football Weekly podcast (which is incidentally now bi-weekly), one of the senior journalists, Sean Ingle, spoke of the "inevitability" of the use of instant replay evidence in football. Calling it a "no brainer", and saying that he does not understand opposition to to the idea. This, of course, in the wake of Liverpool's 1-1 draw with Chelsea which saw referee Rob Styles awarded a bizarre penalty to Chelsea.

I'm a staunch opponent of the introduction of video replays into football. A good example of just why was last October Great Britain played New Zealand in a rugby league international. Almost all of the tries were referred to the video ref. This is by no means uncommon. The option of the video umpire undermines the authority of the referee, who will be castigated for failing to use it. So, almost every try is referred to the video referee.

Not that the video referee is infallible: watch again that rugby league international to see that on a majority of occasions two veteran commentators (Jonathan Davies and Ray French, are both former players, one with refereeing experience) disagree with the decision of the 4th official.


You're the video ref. Goal or no goal?

What's more, the experience of a live football match would be diminished by the instant replay. It is not simply that lengthy pauses in the action would slow the game down, but that the very defining moment of a game - a score - is nullified. Seeing "Goal", or "No goal" eventually appear on a video screen is a very poor second to seeing the net bulge, or a finger-tip save.

And if the effect of a goal is cathartic for the spectators, it is doubly so for the players. Having to pause for a matter of several minutes before a goal is given will reduce the shifts in confidence and momentum which see games change hands. Would Liverpool's famous 6-minute assault on AC Milan in 2005 have been possible with a video umpire present? Lengthy breaks in play are what defending teams crave to kill revivals off.

I don't blame Sean Ingle for considering this to be a "no-brainer". I was ambivalent about video referring until it totally ruined my enjoyment of rugby league, a sport with discrete passages of play. Football, with its contiguous play, lends itself even less to video refereeing. How far back in a passage of play would one go in determining whether a goal was legitimate? Or would only certain laws be enforced by technology? Wouldn't any line be arbitrary, and just as unsatisfactory?

Anyone who thinks that it is inevitable that we should have instant replays should consider just how rubbish video refereeing actually would be. Television is important enough already, and, as Liverpool have proved so well in their first two games of the season, these things do even themselves out: Liverpool beat Aston Villa the weekend before by scoring from a highly dubious free kick.


p.s. the views expressed here are not necessarily those of my employer

Thursday Jul 26, 2007

If you only vote in one online poll today about who will win the Premier League next season



make it this one.


Thursday May 24, 2007

Though your dreams be tossed and blown...



Italians don't beat you, you lose to them.
- Johan Cruijff

So, just the


then.

It is not often you see the better team on the night lose one of those games, but that was the case last night, as it was in 2005. I can't compare Milan's achievement last night to Liverpool's triumph of the imagination two years ago, but good luck to Milan, if you win it fair and square you deserve it.


Wednesday May 23, 2007

When you walk through a storm





I wrote with no little fantasy back in February that it would be wonderful for the city of Liverpool to be home to both European capital of culture and European football champions in 2008. The capital of culture project is moving ahead and the city is clearly energised by it all ("culture of captial" my dad calls it, in reference to the giant and superfluous shopping centre being built in the centre of Liverpool). And tonight, incredibly, Liverpool face AC Milan in the final of the Champions League -a rematch of the greatest game of recent years: the 2005 final.

It isn't just the fact of it being a rematch that I find romantic about the occasion. It was the AC Milan team of the late 1980s that really made it clear that Liverpool (at the time excluded from European competition after the terrible events of Brussels in 1985) no longer had a claim to be the world's best team. I can still remember the radio commentator, the night Milan beat Steaua Bucharest 4-0 to win the 1989 European title, saying, "Let's face it, not even Liverpool could have lived with AC Milan tonight".

Well, let's hope that they can this night. See you in the morning.


ps. the views expressed here are not necessarily those of my employer, who may be cheering for Milan.


Thursday Apr 19, 2007

Funny old game



This is a spectacular goal:




But what makes it truly outstanding is that the commentator then says, "he bangs it as hard as he can, nothing fancy". Mmmm. I find that when I just kick a football as hard as I can it tends to curl viciously inside the top right corner leaving the 'keeper no chance, too.

What will poor David Beckham feel when he gets to the US, unfurls his party piece and has it described as "nothing fancy"?


p.s. the views expressed here are not necessarily those of my employer who may also be strangely ambivalent about Dwayne De Rosario's amazing free kick.

Thursday Feb 22, 2007

Figures of 08



Fantastic to see Liverpool win away at Barcelona last night. Johan Cruijff's love for all things Catalan is a delightful example of a footballer going native, and recalls a time when imported players were a rarity and played for something more than money. That said, his comments that Liverpool should present "no problem" to Barcelona were ill-founded.

It's still way too early to dream of Liverpool taking another tilt at the European title they claimed in 2005 (they still have to get past Barcelona for one thing), but wouldn't it be wonderful if the city would be home both to club football champions and capital of culture in 2008? (At least, if you have any affinity with the city and one specific team, that is).

There are those who like to mock the city and its excitement about becoming European Capital of Culture in 2008. I, however, subscribe to the view that the city's evident enthusiasm shows precisely why it was the right choice.


Wednesday Jul 12, 2006

Malheuresement



Well, it's over, and ultimately, the 2006 World Cup was unedifying.

Joga Bonito (Play Beautiful), Nike's preposterous World Cup ad campaign was recently described by football fanzine When Saturday Comes as "a new high-water mark in football marketing double-speak", featuring as it did, a "depiction of Nike...as some kind of counter-cultural force". Play Beautiful? Someone should have told the players: Portugal and the Netherlands, both sporting Nike attire, contrived to equal the World Cup record for cautions (16) and set a new one for sendings-off (4) in their second round match.

(Incidentally, WSC's critique of Nike might seem far-fetched, but I think it's rather accurate: while in Berlin this year I saw for myself the careful orchestration of a giant mural of Ronaldinho. Graffiti may have played an important part in Berlin life since the Wall came down, it isn't usually first commissioned by advertising agencies.)

2006 was and remains Zidane's tournament, regardless of what happened in the final. Many seem incredulous that Zidane could have fallen for Marco Materazzi's wind-up ("How could he have been so stupid?"). Well, it was certainly unfortunate, doubly so considering the context. For so long, there has been a consensus that there are three "great" footballers: Pele, Cruijff and Maradona. Surely Zidane, as the star of a team that won 3 major international honours, compared to the verbose Dutchman's tally of, er, none, would have been placed in the same constellation. But no. Faced with Materazzi's provocations, the typically placid Zidane felt the need to extract an immediate, physical, and wholly phyrric, revenge. And so he left his side to flounder through, and out of, a penalty shoot-out.

For Zidane to pay such a high price for this indulgence, and at the apex of his career, does seem somewhat tragic. Should we pity Zidane? Condemn him? Neither. Zidane, whether consciously or not, placed a sense of defending his family and roots above winning a football match, whatever the stakes for his personal reputation and for French national estime, and regardless of playing into the hands of his antagonist. It was not a terribly popular choice, and possibly not terribly wise, but it was Zidane's choice to make: he let noone down in the tournament, and paid a big price for his transgression. He leaves the tournament if not with his reputation enhanced, at least with his dignity intact.

But what of Materazzi? Well, at what would be the highlight of any footballer's career, he chose to behave disgustingly. His decisive contribution was to make personal insults to a far greater player until that player could not contain himself. Those that applaud Materazzi for his guile should think again. It was cheap, unpleasant and base. What should have been his finest hour, win or lose, became the exemplar of the worst kind of gamemanship and win-at-all-cost attitude, and this is how we should remember Materazzi: as an insult to sport.

Marco Materazzi does endorse a certain brand of sporting goods. Play Beautiful indeed.


ps. the views expressed here are not necessarily those of my employer

Tuesday May 30, 2006

Never mind the spine, what about the backbone?



With the end of the football season one's thoughts turn to, er, football, and the forthcoming world cup. A lazy consensus seems to have formed that Brazil will win it, but that they will be pushed close by an England team who may have Wayne Rooney available for the latter stages of the competition. This is, of course, reflected in the betting odds.

Well, this may yet come to pass, but I'm going to stick my neck out and make a few predictions:


1. Brazil won't win.

You heard me. 5/2 favourites they may be (at time of writing), but I don't think Brazil will win the tournament this summer. A South American side has won the tournament only once when it has been held in Europe (Brazil in Sweden, 48 years ago), and it was the 1962 Brazil side that was the last to retain the title. Brazil have appeared in the last three finals, and may figure in the next, but they won't win.

Noone disputes that Brazil has the best squad, but here already lies part of the problem: they don't use it. Brazil's great strength is their attacking flair, and yet their strikers will almost certainly be the out-of-form pair of Ronaldo and Adriano. Even when Ronaldo is patently unfit (as he was in the 1998 final), he still plays. Whether or not this is because the Brazilian FA is in hock to their sponsors is hard to say, but something isn't right.

Brazil's flaw remains their ability to ship in goals (17 in 18 qualifying games), and brilliant thought their midfield may be, they are vulnerable.


2. England won't win.

Like the Brazilians, the the England team is full of players with big reputations and big commercial endorsements. It's also a very talented squad, and even if Wayne Rooney does not play (as he seems certain not to), England still have a nucleus of talent which appears up to the job. At time of writing, they are 7/1 second favourites.

The last England team to cause this much excitement was Terry Venable's "Christmas Tree" team of 1996, which, just like the 2006 model, had a very good "spine", (goalkeeper, centre-half, centre-midfield and centre-forward). But when recently pressed on what made his '96 side so special, Venables did not talk about talent: he spoke of the character in the side. The 1996 side was great, he said, because he was able to field a team which contained 9 or 10 potential captains.

In 2002, England were knocked-out from the tournament after a limp second-half perfomance against Brazil, who only had 10 players. After the game, one member of the side anonymously briefed a journalist that the players weren't motivated after their half-time team talk, and that the coach, the mild-mannered Sven-Goran Eriksson, was to blame ("we needed Winston Churchill, we got Iain Duncan-Smith", was the memorable quote).

Well, perhaps, but it's hard to imagine a Terry Butcher or a Stuart Pearce or an Alan Shearer complain that a team-talk wasn't rousing enough. This, after all, is a squad that threatened to go on strike when Rio Ferdinand was properly disciplined for failing to attend with no mitigating circumstance (and therefore failing) a drugs test.

As for Eriksson: he looks something of a lame duck since the FA have announced his replacement, and he has consistently lacked commitment in trying new ideas (witness Crystal Palace striker Andy Johnson having to make do with a trial on the wing in an apparently pointless friendly against Holland in February 2005). The decision to bring Theo Walcott into the squad only makes sense as a stunt to deflect attention away from the rest of the side, -it is surely ludicrous to suggest that Walcott, a 17 year-old who has yet to play at the highest level in his own country, never mind in Europe or internationally, should be given the responsibility of chasing a game for England in the world cup. If Eriksson is contending that Walcott can and should receive that responsibility, shouldn't he, as coach, at least have watched him once before selecting him?


3. Holland might.

That's right. The odds on Holland winning at time of writing are 18/1. These are long odds for a side that is currently 3rd in FIFA's world rankings. (This reflects as badly on the rankings system as it does on the betting public, of course. Indeed, second in the rankings, the Czech Republic, are available at even longer odds). So why are the odds so long, compared to those for England or Germany?

This Dutch team consists of many players unknown to an international audience, especially in defence. But while Andy Johnson was labouring out of position for England last year, Marco Van Basten, legendary striker and Dutch coach, was trying out new players with intent to change the elftal. Consequently, there are a number of young players in the squad who play their football in the Dutch league: as the financially-disadvantaged Dutch clubs do not receive the media coverage of Spanish or English clubs, this team is relatively unfamiliar.

What's more, the Dutch odds are longer because they are in an apparently hard group, Group C (the FIFA rankings people and their seeding people don't talk to eachother it seems). Holland face Argentina, Serbia and the Ivory Coast: there are no obvious weaklings in the group, and a monster in Argentina. In truth, the absence of one side much weaker than the rest makes the outcome of the group more, not less predictable. Holland's game with Argentina will decide first place, and both will go through.

Think of Dutch football, and one thinks of three sides: the great team of the 70s that played in (and lost) two world cup finals, the European Champions of 1988, and the post-Ajax team of 1995-2000 which promised much but generally would go out on penalities in major semi-finals. The flaw in these teams is generally accepted to be the lack of team spirit and discipline, and this is precisely what Van Basten addressed early on by refusing to select players whose reputation would guarantee them a place in the England side (such as Clarence Seedorf).

Greece's unanticipated European Championship win two years ago was less of a surprise to those that noticed the Greeks had the best record in qualification, and one of the meanest defences. The Dutch qualification for this world cup was even more accomplished: they finished top of the hardest group in Europe, 5 points clear of (FIFA's second best team in the world) the Czech Republic. They have yet to lose a competitive game under Van Basten.

There is no dispute that the Dutch have a potent attack: Arjen Robben, Ruud Van Nistelrooij and in-the-shop-window Dirk Kuyt produce a formidable front three. Most interestingly, the attacking midfielder Rafael Van Der Vaart is back to his best. Van Der Vaart was once considered to be the future of Dutch football, but after stagnating at Ajax he left for Hamburg, and has been one of the best players in the Bundesliga this season. It is the Dutch defence which most people question: the full-backs Giovanni van Bronckhorst of Barcelona and Jan Kromkamp of Liverpool would both appear light-weight for a world cup, and the centre-halves Mathijsen and Boulahrouz lack experience, an accusation nooone is levelling at the aged keeper, Van Der Sar. And yet this side only conceeded 3 goals in 12 qualifying matches, and haven't conceeded in a competitive fixture since October 2004, since when they have recorded 9 straight clean sheets.

Lastly, the tournament is in Germany. If the Germans like playing there, then so do the Dutch: 20th century history continutes to provide some rather tasteless motivation, and they players aren't far from home. Oranje reached the final when the tournament was last there, in 1974, and Van Basten won the European Championships there in 1988 as a player. They are not the best side at the world cup, according to Van Basten himself, but it doesn't mean they won't win: they certainly have the character.


ps. the views expressed here are not necessarily those of my employer and I'm not advocating you gamble on the world cup.





Monday May 15, 2006

FA Cup Final: Liverpool 3 3 West Ham United (Liverpool win on penalities after extra time)



Weird comment in the The Independent today following Liverpool's spectacular comeback to win the FA Cup:

The Liverpool support love an ending like this - you only need to glance at the mawkish cod philosophy of their banners to know they could quote Henry V to describe a frame of pub snooker.

wine


Well, he may have a point. At least the Liverpool support can quote Henry V. Meanwhile the Guardian does a bang-up before and after job:

Steven Gerrard is not fit to lick Duncan Edwards' jockstrap. The Guardian, Saturday



...even when excruciating cramps had ripped up through his legs, Gerrard still found the strength to carry his team. His 90th-minute equaliser defied belief. The Guardian, Monday


Wednesday Mar 22, 2006

Play beautiful



Interesting piece in The Register today about, inter alia, Joga.com a joint marketing venture between Google and Nike which purports to be "the community for soccer players dedicated to keeping the game beautiful." Having huffed, puffed and hacked my way up and down a football pitch myself last night, I cannot claim to share in such high-minded principles: those of us who are more Jamie Carragher than Ronaldinho often aspire to keeping the game merely enjoyable.

Unfortunately, it seems that the L'Oreal of football websites is not equally concerned with keeping the English language as beautiful, exhorting visitors as is does to

Play beautiful

Well, many who have studied the machinations of the agents, G-14, Chelsea and sponsors (e.g. Nike laughably pretending that Eric Cantona's vicious assault in 1995 was a stand against racism), might conclude that the highest levels of the game are at their most beautiful when not dominated by commerce, as they have been since the early 1990s. There is something profoundly unedifying about so much of professional football these days.

But let's wish Nike the best of luck in "keeping the game beautiful". Heaven knows, not all their previous attempts in this direction have met with success:

Martin Keown not looking his best



ps. the views expressed here are not necessarily those of my employer

Friday Dec 30, 2005

Djibril speaks...



...a nation holds its breath.

Cisse Watch

Djibril

"I just want to make myself clear. I am in Liverpool and I'm going to stay in Liverpool,"
"I don't want to leave after two seasons. I don't know why I'm going to leave." "The Liverpool fans are amazing, the club is amazing. We have a good team, a good manager and everything is okay. I don't know why I'm going to leave."
"I'm really fed up with all this speculation about me,"
"I'm going to move to Marseille, it's always Marseille, and it starts to be boring."


Happy New Year Djibril.

Monday Dec 19, 2005

Sao Paulo 1-0 Liverpool



Gerrard











Cheer up. 2005 was great.



FIFA World Club Championship 2005
UEFA Champions League Final 2005

Thursday Dec 01, 2005

Big, er, Red?



This story in The Register caught my attention. It seems that Manchester United are making eyes at IBM since losing their sponsorship deal with Vodafone.

Well, it's been a traumatic few weeks for United supporters in what's been a traumatic year. Schadenfreude at their shocking form in Europe and the acrimonious departure of Roy Keane turned to genuine sympathy at the death of George Best. In general, 2005 has been a horrible year for United, what with the takeover from John McCririck look-alike and genuine contender for world's least charismatic man, Malcolm Glazer, and Liverpool, dear sweet Liverpool, winning the European Cup for a fifth time (to United's paltry two). United suddenly have a mountain to climb, servicing debts the interest payments on which are approximately twice their annual profits, while rebuilding an ageing squad and needing to replace both Keane and ultimately Alex Ferguson.

Anyway, it wasn't long ago that Sun sponsored United. Not that we'd find the readies to plaster our name on their shirt mind you, but we had some advertising hoardings at Old Trafford and the logo was sometimes visible on Match of the Day, prompting some of my more quixotic Liverpudlian friends to label us "Scum" Microsystems. Charming. Taking a gentler view myself, I can't help but think that United, once a great football team, is now in danger of becoming a harbinger of a soulless era of commercialised professional sport.

So, a word of caution to both United and IBM - look before you leap.

IBM, it seems, can't make their mind up which horse to back and before you know it, they'll be offering cheap Leeds United "migration kits" to Old Trafford regulars.

Meanwhile, United are on the slide and certainly IBM wouldn't want to be associated with a commercial behemoth struggling to maintain its dominance, without a clear vision but with very worrying short-term threats to its position, now would it?

ps. these views are not necessarily those of my employer. Anyway, it's just a bit of fun.

Friday Nov 25, 2005

George Best



"Pele said I was the best player in the world, so that'll do for me." -George Best.

George Best

It's good to know that Pele and my dad agree on something.



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