Stamping Grounds by Charlie Connelly

Full title: Stamping Grounds: Exploring Liechtenstein and Its World Cup Dream. It’s Connelly’s account of following the Liechtenstein national soccer team during their qualification matches for the 2002 World Cup. After my previous book from Liechtenstein for the Read The World challenge turned out not to be from Liechtenstein at all, this one is at least about the country, even if it’s written by an Englishman.

Tartan Cephalopod

You can see why he thought it would be a good subject for a humorous football book; there is something fascinating about these tiny countries, fielding largely amateur teams that lose nearly every game they play and almost never score a goal. On the one hand, if you were an amateur playing your club football in the third tier of the Swiss league (Liechtenstein isn’t big enough to have its own league), it would be a terrific opportunity to play against some of the finest players in Europe in front of tens of thousands of people. But how do you cope, psychologically, with playing for a team that almost literally never wins a game?

The answer, perhaps not surprisingly, is that they adjust their expectations about what ‘success’ means. If they make their opponents work really hard to score, that’s a success; scoring themselves is a triumph. They didn’t in fact score in that campaign; their greatest moment in the book is losing only 0-2 to Spain at home. Which is admittedly impressive for a country with only 30,000 inhabitants, 10,000 of whom are foreigners who aren’t eligible for the national team.

In the end, though, the book was underwhelming. Liechtenstein just isn’t very interesting: it’s a tiny, mountainous country with an enviable standard of living, thanks to its healthy financial sector (i.e. it’s a tax haven); basically a microscopic Switzerland, without that country’s famous flamboyance. Connelly spends much of the book trying to work out what it means to be Liechtenstein, what distinct national character there is to separate it from Switzerland or Austria; it turns out there isn’t anything.

I think Connelly does a reasonable job with weak material; he gets chummy with some of the players, and interviews all the key members of the Liechtenstein FA, and tries to dig up a few local characters, but it feels a bit like squeezing blood from a stone.

» The photo is of a Scottish fan in Liechtenstein for their Euro 2012 qualifier. Tartan Cephalopod is © Robin Skibo-Birney and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

Anticipating the Champion’s League final

It’s rather refreshing to approach the Champion’s League final, or any game, with Manchester United as distinct underdogs. I started supporting United in the first place because I was pulled in by the glamour of the big European nights, when English clubs were still feeling their way back into the competition after the Heysel ban. They would go to famous stadiums like the San Siro and the Camp Nou and it all seemed incredibly glamorous and intimidating, and it seemed like a big deal to be in the quarterfinals or the semis.

Whereas for the last few years, the top English clubs have gone away to big clubs in Italy and Germany with everyone expecting them to win, and we’ve had far too many all-English ties for the big games. Manchester United v. Chelsea might well be a good game, but it’s not exactly European. I want to see players and teams that I don’t see every week on Match of the Day.

And while Barcelona are hardly an unknown quantity — I’ve probably seen more of Barça this year than quite a few teams in the Premiership — they are definitely foreign, they’re definitely glamorous, and they’re definitely scarily good. I think United can beat them, but they might need a slice of luck to do it.

Soccer in Sun and Shadow by Eduardo Galeano

Apparently Eduardo Galeano’s book sales spiked in the US last year when Hugo Chávez gave Barack Obama a copy of Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent.

Which probably gives you a fairly accurate impression of the kind of writer Galeano is: a left wing journalist/historian with a particular anti-imperialist, anti-American emphasis. I decided to read some Galeano for the Read The World challenge — he’s Uruguayan — and considered reading one of his more political works; I could certainly stand to know more about the history and politics of Latin America. And they all get very high ratings on Goodreads and Amazon; hardly a foolproof test, but a reassuring suggestion that they’ll at least be quite readable. In the end, though, I took the soft option and bought his book on football, Soccer in Sun and Shadow. And I enjoyed it; enough to make me think of buying some more of his work.

It’s a string of hundreds of little vignettes, pen portraits, anecdotes, and mini-essays, each with it’s own heading, sometimes two or three pages long but often just a couple of paragraphs. Some are about broader subjects, like crowd violence or tactics or the commercialisation of the game; others about a particular player or game or even a single memorable goal. They’re arranged in chronological order, so they form a sort of idiosyncratic history of the game according to Eduardo Galeano.

It’s a distinctly Latin American perspective, which is probably a valuable corrective to the Anglo-centric bias of most of the football writing that I read. It does mean that some players get left out who would certainly make it into an English equivalent of this book: George Best, Paul Gascoigne, John Barnes, David Beckham. It’s a compliment to his writing that I found myself wanting to know what he would have said about them. And indeed about players who are too recent to make the cut; the book was originally published in 1998 and updated in 2003, so there’s no Ronaldinho, no Messi, no Christiano Ronaldo, no account of the current amazing Spain team.

Generally I think the book loses a bit of impetus towards the later years anyway; the earlier stuff is best. Partially I think that’s because there’s a fascination with the pre-history of football before everything was captured on film; it’s not a sport which lends itself to statistics, so reading about early football is like reading about ancient Greek painters: it doesn’t matter how detailed the descriptions are, there’s still a void at the centre of it all. It probably also has something to do with being Uruguayan; Uruguay won the Olympics in 1924 and 1928, and the World Cup in 1930 and 1950, but it has been downhill since then. So for Eduardo Galeano, born in 1940, it has been a lifetime of their glory days being behind them. Something the English are increasingly able to relate to.

He’s also not a fan of the modern game:

The history of soccer is a sad voyage from beauty to duty. When the sport became an industry, the beauty that blossoms from the joy of play got torn out by its very roots. In this fin-de-siècle world, professional soccer condemns all that is useless, and useless means not profitable. Nobody earns a thing from that crazy feeling that for a moment turns a man into a child playing with a balloon, like a bat with a ball of yarn; a ballet dancer who romps with a ball as light as a balloon or a ball of yarn, playing without even knowing he’s playing, with no purpose or clock or referee.

Play has become spectacle, with few protagonists and many spectators, soccer for watching. And that spectacle has become one of the most profitable businesses in the world, organised not for play but to impede it. The technocracy of professional sport has managed to impose a soccer of lightning speed and brute strength, a soccer that negates joy, kills fantasy and outlaws daring.

Luckily, on the field you can still see, even if only once in a long while, some insolent rascal who sets aside the script and commits the blunder of dribbling past the entire opposing side, the referee and the crowd in the stands, all for the carnal delight  of embracing the forbidden adventure of freedom.

I can’t say I necessarily agree with every one of his opinions, but it was thoroughly enjoyable book; beautifully written, and with just enough politics in it to cut through all the football nostalgia.

England vs Algeria: my diagnosis

England are suffering from the world’s biggest collective case of the yips.* It seems like the only explanation for how much worse these players become when they pull on an England shirt.

Sigh.

* Well, not quite the biggest: that must be the one that afflicts the All Blacks every four years at the Rugby World Cup.

England vs USA: my diagnosis

My overall feeling was that there just wasn’t a critical mass of players in that team whose game lends itself to composed possession football. Gerrard and Lampard can’t do it on their own.

So for example, I’m a big fan of Aaron Lennon, and I think he could be an important player for England at this tournament, but he’s not someone who you would immediately associate with patient, methodical build-up play. The same goes for SWP.

I thought the best period of control England had in the friendlies was in the second half of (I think) the Japan game, when Gerrard, Lampard and Joe Cole were all on together; the more of those kinds of players you have on the pitch, the more likely it is that there will be a pass available, the more likely you are to maintain possession.

Not that they have to be midfielders, of course: I think England missed Rio Ferdinand, not for his defending, but for his willingness to carry the ball out of defence and link up with the midfield. And of course Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson can help; so can the forwards, particularly Rooney. But I think the midfield was a problem. Given how well Rooney played alone up front for his club last season, I would have been tempted to play a 4-5-1 / 4-3-3 with Joe Cole taking Heskey’s place. Or just to play Joe Cole on the left wing.

The good news is that Gareth Barry should be back for the next game, which will help.

World Cup food blogging: USA

Well, that was a bit depressing: not so much because of the result, but the tendency to revert to long balls hoofed up the front, the lack of involvement of England’s wingers, the lack of controlled possession in midfield… all the usual England failings, in fact. Not to mention the further undermining of confidence in England’s goalkeepers. Ho hum.

However, World Cup food blogging must carry on. And so, my USA-themed food: cornbread and creole fried shrimp. The cornbread recipe I used was this one. Partially because it’s a British recipe, so I can weigh my ingredients rather than all that measuring quantities by the cup that American recipes do. And partially because it suggests substituting yoghurt for buttermilk, which is what I was planning to do anyway. I cut down the quantity of chillies slightly and cooked it in a pre-heated cast iron frying pan, though. It turned out rather nice, I must say:

The shrimp was a bit of an improvised recipe; I covered the prawns in a homemade creole-type seasoning mix — chopped thyme, dried oregano, paprika, crushed garlic, a dribble of pepper sauce, black pepper — and left for a couple of hours (the duration of the Nigeria-Argentina game, in fact).

Then I basically did the standard flour-egg-breadcrumb thing except with a mixture of cornmeal and cornstarch instead of breadcrumbs, and deep-fried them. Came out looking quite impressive:

But actually, although it tasted OK, the coating was a bit coarse and not very crispy. I don’t do a lot of deep-frying, so I don’t really know why… oil not hot enough? I think if I tried to do a cornmeal based coating again, I would use a wet batter rather than dry cornmeal coating. You live and learn.

I’d definitely do the cornbread again, though. Yummy.

So, roll on Algeria!

Football advertising

As all the sportswear manufacturers unveil their big ad campaigns in the run-up to the World Cup, the one which has been the biggest hit is Nike’s epic Write the Future.

And don’t get me wrong, it’s certainly impressive, if only for the sheer amount of money thrown at the screen. And while it’s conceptually and narratively a bit chaotic, it has some amusing moments and striking images. But it’s all about fame and glory and money and glamour and even more fame. It is the self-importance of football writ large. I miss the days when ads used to make football look, you know, entertaining. Even fun.

So I prefer this one, for Puma:

Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika

So, the World Cup is almost upon us, and inevitably our attention has been narrowed in on the nervy minutiae of squad selections and injury worries and tactical arguments. So before the action starts, can I just take a moment to say how fucking marvellous it is to see the World Cup being hosted in Africa.

I do understand that there are commercial and practical reasons why the USA and Japan both got to host the tournament before an African nation, but it’s not particularly edifying to watch a desparate FIFA trying to break America like some bloated, bombastic Robbie Williams.

How much nicer it is to see the World Cup finally go to the third great heartland of football, somewhere where the locals will be hugely excited to have it. And having seen the ICC manage to host a cricket tournament in the West Indies without any Caribbean atmosphere, let’s hope that the clammy corporate hand of FIFA doesn’t manage to drain all the Africanness out of the experience.

How to reform the FA Cup

My solution to the periodic handwringing about how to make the FA Cup more popular again, and as a bonus, to reform the UEFA Cup as well.

It’s simple: make the UEFA Cup an extension of the FA Cup. The genius of the FA Cup is that the format maximises the chance of shock results. No group stage, no seeding, no ties played over two legs with the away goals rule: just straight knockout competition, winner takes all. It has a similar conceptual purity to the league; in the league, every team plays every other team home and away and you tally up the points. In the FA Cup, you just put all the names into a hat to decide who plays who, and the winner gets to stay in the competition. And whereas the league is set up to decide which is the best team in the country in the fairest, most objective way possible, the FA Cup is just the opposite: it maximises the impact of luck. And that’s a good thing. It provides a counterpoint to the league.

Now there are practical reasons why we can’t have a proper European league running in parallel to the domestic leagues, but the Champion’s League does its best to provide something similar: with a seeded group stage and ties played over two games, it maximises the chances that the big names get through to the later stages. Cynically, you might say that’s because the big names pull the big TV audiences; but it does also mean that whoever wins the competition has a good claim to being the best team in Europe.

What Europe needs to complement this ‘league’ is a proper cup competition: the four semifinalists from every national cup competition in Europe being entered into an unseeded cup which is straightforward knockout football from beginning to end. And if Barcelona gets drawn against Manchester United in the first round, well, that’s the luck of the draw. And if Juventus get knocked out in the first round after a flukey goal and a lung-busting defensive performance by a team in the Polish second division: that’s part of the fun.

Of course for this to work, you would need all the top teams to take part. They’d have to play both in the Champion’s League and the new-format UEFA Cup. And that gives you scheduling problems. But if you could find a way to do it — you could exempt teams in the UEFA Cup from having to play in the League Cup, for a start — it would be such a fab competition. Are you listening, Michel Platini?

Links

  • “I spent the first 17 years of my life dirt-poor,” said Cassano, who was raised by a single mother in one of the most crime-ridden neighbourhoods in Italy and said he is certain that had it not been for football, he would have become a hoodlum. “Then I spent nine years living the life of a millionaire. That means I need another eight years living the way I do now and then I’ll be even.”
    (del.icio.us tags: football Italy )
  • 'On Boxing Day 1789, Franklin wrote to Webster in Hartford, returning the compliment: 'It is an excellent work, and will be greatly useful in turning the thoughts of our countrymen to correct writing.' He shared and appreciated his friend's prescriptivist distaste for vulgar idiom, and wanted to contribute further follies to a future edition of the work.'

Hot News!

Forget the elections about to be held in the Canada/Mexico area, forget the way the Dow Jones and the FTSE are chasing each other up and down like a pair of territorial squirrels who both want the same tree trunk, something really newsworthy is happening.

Argentina have apparently picked a new manager for their national football team, and it is the one, the only: Diego Maradona.

Employing a man with minimal management experience, who is a drug cheat, a cheat cheat, a political radical, a cocaine user, someone whose weight problem lead to him having a gastric bypass: what could possibly go wrong?

It’s as though they saw Newcastle United pick Kevin Keegan as manager and thought ‘Call that soap opera? Hell, we can do better than that.’

[Seriously, though, watch the video: it’s four and a half minutes of pure joy. Even when he’s scoring against England.]

The Olympic sport I’d like to see

I was thinking about whether Michael Phelps is the ‘greatest Olympian of all time’, and the relative value of medals in different events. For example, the fact that it’s even possible to enter eight events at the same Games means that Phelps has a medal-collecting advantage over, say, a boxer. And the 52 gold medals available in rowing (fourteen events, but multiple people in each boat) seems a lot for a sport with such limited global participation: those events are surely less competitive than, say, the athletics.

So how to go about levelling the field? Well, you could start by cutting events; certainly from the rowing, and probably the fencing (currently 10 events), canoeing (16), judo (14), shooting (15) and wrestling (18). But you still might need to introduce new events to the more competitive sports. In athletics, there’s clearly room for a 50m race, a 300m, a 600m, maybe 2000m and 8000m; we could revive the standing long-jump and high-jump; and learning from the swimmers, there must be room for 4x200m and 4x800m relays. If we got really desperate, we could take an idea from the boxers and weightlifters: have weight classes for the throwing events. The featherweight javelin: it’s an idea whose time has come.

But the sport which is clearly most underrepresented in Olympic medals is the most popular sport of them all: soccer. At the moment there are only two events — men and women — so with 18 players in each squad, that’s a maximum of 36 gold medals, less than are currently awarded in the rowing. So we need some new events. Obviously you’d start with an indoor/five-a-side tournament: what FIFA calls futsal; beach soccer also seems like a plausible idea. Wikipedia reveals the existence of a baffling-sounding Norwegian variant called Synchronised Football. And a penalty shootout tournament might be interesting, too.

But the one which has got me most excited is: keepy-uppy. It is, after all, like a slightly blokier version of rhythmic gymnastics. And the possibilities are endless: there’s the classic version, with the player performing a routine and being marked for the difficulty and style of his tricks. You could have doubles keepy-uppy, with two players keeping the ball in the air between them. There’s endurance keepy-uppy, although as the world record is over 19 hours, that would be a hell of an event to stage. There’s the keepy-uppy 100m sprint. And of course the magic of synchronised keepy-uppy.

I am joking about most this, but actually I would love to see keepy-uppy (or, if you prefer, freestyle football) as an Olympic event. It would be fabulous. And it might actually be a good idea to introduce futsal, but as a replacement for normal soccer: that way football could still have a presence at the Olympics without just duplicating the World Cup.

Links

Congratulations Spain

A much deserved win.

Which, incidentally, means that there are now 10 countries who have won a major international football tournament since England last did it. Germany, Italy and Brazil have won 10 between them in that period.

» Winners Spain, uploaded to Flickr by mwboeckmann and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Dispatches from the Uncanny Valley

I’ve just bought Pro Evolution Soccer 2008 for the Wii, and I’m thoroughly enjoying it, but it does take you into a weird parallel world. Not just because of the licensing restrictions that mean the English league is full of clubs called things like ‘Man Red’ and ‘Lancashire Athletic’, and Germany has players called ‘Fnich’ and ‘Harmey’, or the fact that you can play matches like England vs. Barcelona*, or even the robotic, repetitive commentary from Jon Champion and Mark Lawrenson. No, it’s the strange, shiny looking, dead-eyed players with faces that look like they’ve been painted onto blocks of wood from memory. Here’s Christiano Ronaldo, congratulating Rooney on scoring a goal for Man Red.

And yet for all the little bits of clunkiness, it feels enough like football that there’s a real joy to be had from scoring a good goal. It doesn’t feel like playing football, but it does feel like watching-football-on-telly-but-I-can-control-the-players. And even if they look a bit peculiar, I still want to use my favourite players in the game.

If Coleridge came back from the grave and encountered computer games, I wonder how it would affect his concept of the willing suspension of disbelief. He only had theatre as a subject; I wonder what he would have made of a game where you control a little Italian plumber as he jumps up scaffolding, avoiding flaming barrels thrown at him by a gorilla, in order to rescue a princess? Because at some level I think you do have to ‘believe’ in computer games, even the most primitive ones.

 *I lost 7-1: Ronaldinho had Gary Neville on toast.

Manchester United 1-0 Barcelona

… and Paul Scholes scores. It’s just like the old days.

Really, though, I know we’re all supposed to get terribly excited by the prospect of all-English semifinals and finals, but I don’t watch the Champion’s League for the chance to see Chelsea play Liverpool at Stamford Bridge. I watch to see games like today’s: English teams playing against glamorous foreign opposition, with players like Messi, Eto’o and Deco that have amazing reputations but who I’ve rarely seen play.

A question.

I’ve been wondering: what proportion of Premiership football matches this season have featured the players wearing black armbands?

Santa Cruz

It seems like they never take the field without them. And far as I know Britain isn’t currently experiencing a surge of extra deaths due to, say, an outbreak of the Black Death.

I know, it’s a completely harmless trend, and I’m sure that, whoever is being memorialised, their family and friends appreciate the gesture. So why not? It’s just a slightly odd phenomenon: the more commercialised the sport becomes, the more prone it is to very public displays of sentiment.

Uncomplicated pleasures

Watching Chelsea get knocked out of the FA Cup by Barnsley, followed by a big plate of ribs, greens and Hoppin’ John.

My version of soul food wouldn’t pass the Southern Grandmother Authenticity Test, btw, but it was pretty tasty though I do say so myself.

più alto, più rapido, più forte

Well, today the Capello era really gets started. After two months of blissfully fact-free speculation, conjecture, analysis and day-dreaming, we have to get down to the sordid reality of playing actual football.

rooney

Even after the match, it’ll be too soon to tell much really. Not that that’ll stop the pundits. Obviously they have to offer some kind of opinion—they have airtime or newsprint to fill—but it’s a rare bird indeed who truly manages to bear in mind that, as the health warning on financial advertising puts it, past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results.

It’s not just the professionals, of course; we all do it. If a team is playing brilliantly in November, we confidently predict that they’re going to win the league. Even over the micro-short term: if a match is 3-0 at half time, and one team has been dominant, you can guarantee that the pundits, even the Beeb’s collection of melancholic pessimists, will predict a scoreline of 5, 6, or 7 to nil. This despite the fact that the balance of play almost always swings back and forward during a match, and that if one team has been particularly good it’s much more likely that they’ll go off the boil a bit in the second half.

No Euro 2008 for us, then.

I had a bad feeling before the match, but I wasn’t expecting it to go quite the way it did. I was worried that playing a 4-5-1 and only needing a draw, England would defend deeper and deeper, as they so often have recently, only to be caught out by a goal too late to do anything about it.

And that was what happened, but only after we’d gone 2-0 down and clawed back to 2-2 again, so I’m not going to claim too much Mystic Meg kudos on the subject.

We can hardly say we deserved anything different, though: we just didn’t win enough football matches. And although they have looked pretty good in fits and spurts, they’ve also looked dreadful at times, especially last night. I appreciate that the Bridge-Lescott-Campbell-Richards back line was pretty much forced on McClaren, who was genuinely unlucky to have every one of his first choice strikers and defenders missing for such a crucial game, but geez they were crap.

So now we need a new manager. It’s a complete poisoned chalice of a job, of course, although the millions of pounds would help you grin and bear it.

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