Mark Lawrenson: just SHUT UP already

It’s not that I want the football commentators to try and sell every game as a classic even when it clearly isn’t. I appreciate their willingness to be honest about their product. But having bloody Lawro gloomily commenting about how bad the game is every 30 seconds for the whole bloody match really doesn’t add to its value as a piece of entertainment. It’s like watching football with Eeyore sitting on your shoulder.

The Italian Job by Gianluca Vialli

The subtitle of this book is “A journey to the heart of two footballing cultures”, and Gianluca Vialli, having grown up and played most of his career in Italy before ending it playing and then managing in England, is well placed to make the comparison (as indeed is his co-writer Gabriele Marcotti, the UK correspondent for Corriere dello Sport). He also interviewed many of the major figures in both countries, including managers, referees and former players.

The comparison is interesting and I suspect most of his diagnoses are right: for example, that the English are not so much tactically inept as completely uninterested, that we don’t treat it as a serious profession, that the specifically working class identity of football in Britain is a key part of why it has developed differently here, and that an unjustified sense of the superiority of English football has kept us from learning useful lessons from all those countries that win World Cups more often than we do.

If that makes it sound like he portrays the English as the village idiots of European football, well, it does feel like that at times. He finds enough negative things to say about Italian football culture, but it’s pretty clear which country he thinks produces better footballers. It’s not just the football itself, though; he has interesting things to say about the differences in the media, the fans, and the attitude to managers.

There is a perhaps inevitable tendency to lapse into presenting national stereotypes as though they were explanations; not just from Vialli, either, but from many of his interviewees. I think Vialli is generally careful to go beyond stereotypes to find more specific explanations, but there’s still a certain amount of ‘Latins are like x and northern Europeans are like y’ being bandied around. Here’s an example of the kind of thing I found questionable:

These are the kind of mental acrobatics many of us go through in Italy – quite the opposite of England. But then the English are off to war, blindly trusting their leader, while the Italians aren’t quite so sure…

‘Look, it’s in the blood of the English. It’s the almost military attitude with which they approach everything,’ says Wenger. ‘They do as they’re told, they follow orders, they do not question authority and they never give up, not even when they are three goals down and there are two minutes to go. I don’t think it’s a coincidence. Every time there is a war, the English almost always win. The Italians on the other hand…

There was no need for Wenger to finish the sentence. I knew where he was going with it. And, admittedly, he has a point. As a nation, we are far less warlike than the English – not to mention the Germans – so our record in war is not quite as good as our record in football. The football-as-war analogy is popular in some coaching circles but in my opinion it is flawed. Football is a collaborative effort, it’s the synthesis of the individual and the collective: it’s not about blindly following orders.

I’m not going to argue with Wenger and Vialli’s practial experience of what it’s like to manage an English football team, but as it happens I’ve recently been reading The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World by Rupert Smith, which makes it clear that the British Army believes strongly in a devolved command structure, where soldiers lower down the command structure are given an objective but then have the responsibility of making their own decisions about the details of putting it into practice, and the flexibility to respond to events. Which means their training has to give them the kind of tactical and contextual knowledge that allows them to make those decisions. If you ever hear the Army talk about themselves, the key word they like to use is ‘professional’. In other words, the British Army’s approach to war is more like the Italian approach to football.

Which doesn’t tell us much about the chances of England winning the World Cup in my lifetime but might say something about the helpfulness of national stereotypes.

Manchester United 7, Roma 1

That’s what you watch sport for. All the dreary 1-1 draws are justified by an evening like that. Not that a 1-1 draw can’t be entertaining, but you need the crazy, Hollywood nights from time to time as an inoculation against cynicism and boredom.

  • Post Category:Other
  • Post Comments:0 Comments

Bare-faced cheek from Sky Sports

I was watching the football this evening (and no, I haven’t done my napowrimo poem yet, and yes, that’s probably what I should be doing now instead of this post), and all the players looked rather short and squat. And changing the format setting on the TV didn’t seem to help.

I came to the conclusion that what Sky had done was take a picture which was being filmed in the traditional 4:3 ratio, cut the top and the bottom off, and stretch what was left to a widescreen ratio. So they had reduced the amount of the game you could see and distorted the picture in order to produce fake widescreen, on the assumption that as long as the punters thought they were getting a widescreen broadcast it didn’t matter if they crippled the picture. Which, frankly, I took as an insult.

Oh, and I couldn’t help noticing that these days Solskjaer still has the baby features, but now they’re combined with the premature aging effect of sport played at the top level, he looks more like a baby who has been preserved in a Swedish peat bog for a few hundred years.

I know, I know, less wittering, more poem-writing.

there’s only one Ronaldo

For the benefit of those of you who don’t know who he is, this is Christiano Ronaldo, who is, this season, a contender for the best footballer in the world:

George Boateng, captain of Middlesbrough FC, talking about a particularly unsubtle tackle by one of his teammates on Ronaldo:

“I’m not saying Morrison wanted to spoil his career or I’d ever do anything like that.

“But one day somebody will do it — whether in an international or in the Premier League. People don’t like it.

“People have pride in the game. No one likes to have the mickey taken out of them. One day, someone will hurt him properly and he’ll be out for a long time.

“When you’re playing Sunday football with your mates, it’s great.

“But at the top level, people don’t want to have the mick taken out of them. As professionals, we know he can do it. But if you want to do it, do it when it’s 0-0 or it’s important. Don’t do it when you’re winning 1-0 and there’s only two minutes to go.”

The reaction people have to Ronaldo really amuses me. He seems to outrage some deep streak of puritanism in the English football fan. It’s as though he was some kind of decadent affection on the part of Manchester United, a bit of imperial bling they brandish around just because they can.

I can see why he would irritate some people even without all the step-overs; he seems to have a blissfully unwavering sense of his own wonderfulness. But I think that Boateng is essentially right in his analysis: Ronaldo is in fact taking the mickey. He is showing a lack of respect. I think he knows that ‘at the top level, people don’t want to have the mick taken out of them’ and does it anyway. He’s rubbing their noses in the difference between playing at the top level and being one of the best in the world.

The mistake is to confuse a lack of respect for his opponents with a lack of seriousness, and to think that he’s failing to take the English league as the very serious business it likes to imagine it is. He wouldn’t have scored 20 goals this season if he was just goofing around. On the contrary, I think he embodies the confrontational nature of sport just as much as someone like Roy Keane. All his tricks and flicks are the equivalent of Keane’s tooth-rattling tackles, designed to impose himself on his opponents; the fact that people keep muttering about how much they’d like to kick him is a clear sign it’s working.

And if they really want to take him down a peg or two, the solution is simple enough: just cleanly and legally take the ball from him whenever he comes near. How hard can it be, right?

  • Post Category:Other
  • Post Comments:0 Comments

thoughts on England vs Spain

If Peter Crouch didn’t spend the first half hour of a game treating defenders to his best imitation of a mountaineer trying to swarm up the north face of the Eiger, he might be more likely to get decisions going in his favour later.

Shaun Wright-Phillips and Kieron Dyer have both still got the qualities that made them exciting when you first saw them, but I think we’re going to have to give up on the hope that one them will suddenly turn into Christiano Ronaldo.

I’m really sick of hearing Alan Hansen come out with some version of “Well, obviously they’re better than us at actually using a foot to control a ball, but maybe if we run around fast enough and relentlessly enough, we’ll distract them.” it’s not that I think he’s wrong, I just want it to be England who are, in that weirdly double-edged phrase, a ‘good technical side’. Of course technique isn’t enough on its own, and there are other quailities that go into making a successful sportsman, but there must be some degree of correlation between technical excellence and, you know, winning stuff.

  • Post Category:Other
  • Post Comments:4 Comments

Soccer in the US

All the coverage about the position of soccer in the US, and whether Beckham moving there will have any impact, had me thinking. If his new home ground is only half-full, he’ll still be playing in front of about 13,000 fans. It’s true, that’s not very many compared to the Bernabéu or Old Trafford, but it’s a good crowd for a match in the Rugby Union Premiership and a miraculous one for county cricket.

Average attendances for soccer in the US (the 5th most popular team sport) are significantly higher than those for rugby in the UK (the 2nd most popular team sport). In fact, according to this list of sports attendances on Wikipedia, the English rugby premiership draws the biggest audiences of any non-soccer league in Europe, and it still only has an average attendance of 10,271; not just less than Major League Soccer, but less than the National Lacrosse League in the US.

Perhaps ‘why don’t Americans like soccer?’ is the wrong question. More interestingly: why does Europe only manage to support one team sport as a megabusiness while North America supports three or four? Why is Europe a sporting monoculture?

  • Post Category:Other
  • Post Comments:0 Comments

Summer days driftin’ away

Flicking channels the other day, I was horrified to come across ‘Live Champions League Football’ – a pre-qualifier between Arsenal and Zagreb. Much as I like football, the start of the season marks the start of winter. It always seems especially grim to see football before the end of the cricket season.

Despite the realities of the English weather, I always visualise cricket bathed in sunshine. As long as the cricketers haven’t fluttered away like swallows in search of warmer climes, I can pretend it’s still summer; and as far as I’m concerned the footballers could do the decent thing and wait until after the Oval test against Pakistan. I’m sure everyone in Zagreb will be watching the cricket anyway.

  • Post Category:Other
  • Post Comments:2 Comments

Today’s big question

What did Materazzi say to Zidane to provoke such a violent reation?

EDIT: I’ve had a bit of a spike in traffic because this blog is the top-ranked result on Google for “what did materazzi say to zidane.” Welcome to my blog, but I’m afraid I don’t know the answer. I’ve seen people confidently claim it was “dirty Muslim terrorist” and “son of a terrorist whore” as well as other things, and it’s always claimed as coming from ‘a high ranking FIFA official’ or ‘a friend of Zidane’ or similar. It all sounds like speculation to me. I think I read that Zidane is planning to make a statement over the next couple of days, so perhaps we’ll learn then.

  • Post Category:Other
  • Post Comments:1 Comment

Bookings, red cards and the sin bin

Having seen several matches at this World Cup mucked up by sendings off, I’m increasingly persuaded that it’s time to reform the yellow and red card system.

I just don’t think the progression of punishments is very well worked out. The free kick for minor fouls makes perfect sense. Sending a player off for genuinely dangerous play or blatant cheating also makes sense. The problem is with the yellow card.

On the one hand, it doesn’t have enough immediate impact on the game to be much of a deterrent. It’s marginally more effective in the World Cup, where you only need to be booked in two games to be suspended for the next match and all matches are important, but in league football bookings are a bit of theatre with minimal real significance.

But at the same time, the sudden stepping up of the punishment if you get two yellow cards seems catastrophically out of proportion. Two marginal bookings can force a team to play with ten men for much of the match. It also seems like what should be a personal punishment has a disproportionate effect on the rest of the team. That is, a team can receive seven bookings and have no-one sent off, or have someone sent off after just two. The impact on the likely result is unbalanced.

The alternative would be a five minute sin binning for each yellow card, however many of them you get, and the red card being reserved for straight sendings-off. Obviously, that would make a yellow much more serious than it is now, and the refs would need to learn not to be slightly more sparing with them; but they’d suddenly be a much more efective deterrent. Take shirt-pulling, for example. As much as I’m keen to eliminate it, sending someone off for doing it twice seems disproportionate. Having them miss ten minutes of the game seems quite reasonable. You could even have five minutes for a first booking and ten for a second, but actually I think that would be unnecessary.

Would it work better? I don’t know. It makes sense to me. It would be an interesting experiment, anyway.

World Cup food blogging – Sweden

I’ve been trying to keep optimistic about England’s chances in the World Cup, but it’s not easy. Michael Owen was the only forward in the squad with a history of scoring lots of goals, so that injury is a real blow. Crouch actually did OK today in midfield areas, but I just don’t think he’s a real goalscorer. At least Rooney gave a couple of reminders of just how good he is. But mainly: we still haven’t seen a performance of conviction or cohesion from the team as a whole. As long as they’re still in the competition, there’s a chance that they’ll suddenly get their act together, but at the moment it feels like they’re just limping from one crisis to the next.

Anyway. The food blogging. I didn’t fancy herring or akvavit, so I poked around on the web and found a recipe for pepparkakor (ginger biscuits). I just don’t get why Americans insist on measuring everything in cups. I mean, flour – OK, although I’d still personally prefer to measure it by weight. But butter? Why would you measure butter by volume? They turned out quite nice, a bit like gingernuts. Apparently they improve if you leave them for a bit, as well. I doubled the quantity of spices, because it just didn’t seem very much, and they certainly aren’t overpoweringly gingery.

Argentina, Angola, and Africa

Argentina played the most beautiful football yesterday in thrashing Serbia and Montenegro. That’s the kind of play that you watch the World Cup to see – great individual flair combining in a great team performance. Great goals, great skills. It was like a highlight reel. The only thing it lacked to be a true all-time classic was a great opposing team.

You don’t win the World Cup by playing beautiful football in the group stages, of course. No team produces that kind of quality every time they play, and they’ll face tougher opposition. For the time being, you just have to watch and marvel and take joy in the moment.

I also enjoyed watching Angola scrap out a 0-0 draw with Mexico. We’re always told that Americans will never accept football because it’s too low-scoring and they won’t watch sports that end in a draw; and to be fair, it’s not a lot of fun watching a scoreless draw between Fulham and Middlesborough. But on the right day, between the right teams, 0-0 can be a brilliant and exciting result.

And I always like to see the African teams doing well. There aren’t many circumstances in which African countries get to be portrayed in a positive light, let alone compete with the world’s richest countries as equals, but football is one of them. The great African players – Eusebio, Weah, Eto’o – are legends. The assumption always seems to be that an African team couldn’t win the whole tournament, and there’s not (yet) an African footballing superpower to compete with Brazil, Argentina, Italy and Germany, but over the past few World Cups, they’ve consistently produced at least one team that has mounted a serious challenge. And as more and more African players play in the top European leagues, they’re only going to get better. Who knows what they would have achieved already if so many of their countries weren’t having to deal with poverty, corruption and war.

The consensus seems to be that this time, the best teams in Africa haven’t made it to the World Cup, and that the two strongest teams, Ghana and Ivory Coast, were very unlucky in the draw for the groups. So probably this isn’t their year. But as long as they’re in the competition, I’ll be cheering them. Against everyone except England, obviously.

EDIT:Hooray for Ghana, who just whupped the Czechs. That was such a fun game to watch. If they play like that again I’d certainly back them to beat the USA in their third group game, which would probably mean they qualify for the knock-out stages.

Cult of Brasil

I wish the BBC commentators wouldn’t be quite so uncritically fanboy when they talk about Brazil. Yes, they have produced some brilliant players; yes, Ronaldinho is the world’s best player at the moment; yes the current squad is extremely talented and deservedly favourites to win the tournament. But they aren’t superhuman. Today, they looked pretty ordinary, and if the commentators had stopped drooling long enough to actually watch the game, they would have noticed that much sooner.

No wonder England looked so intimidated by them in 2002 – all the players have been brought up on a diet of pro-Brazilian propaganda that even Nike’s marketing department would be hard-pressed to equal.

Togo vs. South Korea – live blogging!

With their glowing pink shirts and white shorts, the South Koreans look like they’re starring in a washing powder advert. The dazzle effect hasn’t stopped Togo taking the lead, though.

EDIT: the Rutherford kiss of death comes into play: almost immediately the Togolese have a man sent off and the Koreans score with a cracking free kick.

EDIT: SK won it pretty comfortably in the end. I was vaguely supporting Togo as underdogs, but I was very impressed by the number and volume of the Korean fans. It’s a long way to come.

FIFA London Cup 2006

I was thinking the other day that it’s surprising and slightly disappointing that, while London is covered in England flags for the World Cup, you don’t see many flags from other countries. Something like 25% of people resident in London were born outside the UK, so there must be plenty of people supporting just about everywhere.

But I went to a friend’s house in Oval yesterday. Oval is ‘Little Lisbon’, the Portuguese centre of London, and Portugal were playing their first World Cup game that evening against ex-colony Angola. Everywhere were people wearing Portugal shirts, or the Portugal strip, or Portugal scarves, or waving the Portuguese flag. It was great. There was even some banter between Angolan and Portuguese fans on the bus (at least I think it was banter, but I don’t speak Portuguese).

I love that. I loved the fact that when South Korea won some key match at the last World Cup – beating Italy maybe? – hundreds of Koreans turned up in Trafalgar Square singing and waving Korean flags.

I suppose a comment about England’s first game is in order. it wasn’t that encouraging, let’s be honest. But we got the three points; we’re clear at the top of the group; it’s a marathon not a sprint; it’s a game of fourteen halves; it’s still a while until the fat lad sings.

Peculiar subtitles

it’s still Michael Allen – and he scores a girl!

I was watching the football build-up with the sound off and the subtitles on.

countdown: 6 giorni, 16 ore, 24 minuti, 41 secondi

You will have noticed my incredible self control in not yet mentioning the World Cup.

But I was just watching a program called ‘World Cup Goals Galore’ featuring, well, lots and lots and lots of goals (top 10 free kicks; top ten goals scored by defenders; top ten goals scored by players with moustaches etc etc). Even just watching a couple of hundred goals one after another, without the context of the game and with a rather laboured jokey commentary, was joyous.

The great moments in football, more than any other sport I watch, are just wonderful. I think perhaps it’s just the extraordinary implausibility of the fact that they’re doing it with their feet. The human foot is not designed for manipulating objects, and even after years spent watching the game, I don’t think I’ve ever quite lost the sense that it just shouldn’t be possible to intentionally kick a ball into the corner of the goal from 25 yards. Even without defenders and a goalie to worry about.

And yet when it all comes off, it looks so easy and natural that you find yourself thinking “if you can dribble past three people, swivel and whip the ball into the corner of the net, why don’t you do it more often?”

Don’t mention the war

Because the World Cup is in Germany, yesterday the Guardian decided to theme a whole section of the newspaper around the subject of “our peculiar relationship with Deutschland”.

It’s certainly true that the British have a generally negative idea of Germany. But these days I don’t think it’s particularly deeply felt or deeply held. And the common suggestion that it’s all about the war is, I think, only marginally true. All those films with humourless Nazi commandants certainly can’t help, but I don’t think many people really equate modern Germany with the Nazis. The humourless stereotype is almost worse for their image than the actual war.

The real problem for Germany’s image in the UK is that there’s nothing positive to balance against the bad stuff. We have plenty of negative stereotypes of the French, but we like their food, fashion, films, and their actresses. We are often anti-American, but we enjoy their music, movies, and novels. Germany has absolutely nothing that has captured the British imagination. You’d think the blondes, beer and fast cars would give the country a certain laddish appeal, but somehow even they don’t manage to make Germany seem any more fun.

I don’t know. Perhaps I’ve got it completely backwards, and the existing prejudice is the reason the British never find anything to like about Germany.