Category Archives: Football

Chelsea give us the PowerPoint presentation on how to win at The Football Game.

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Chelsea 2 – 1 Wigan

English Premier League, Stamford Bridge, February 28th 2009

The corporate side of sport – and especially football – is a strange thing. On the one hand you feel like a right wanker sitting in some plush little room enjoying the finer things for free whilst all the punters around you eat reallycrap, really expensive pies. On the other hand, if you’re going to put up with nitwit footballers who get paid twice your yearly salary every week, you might as well do it in some style.

For those of you so far not lucky enough to have experienced the joys of watching sport from the corporate box, allow me to run through the absurdness of it for you.

You’re ushered into a cosy little dining room, being served your choice of champagne/wine/lager by a waiter, before being sat down to enjoy a nice piece of meat, salad (and I mean cous-cous with read and green pepper type salads, not rubbishy coleslaw or something) and a quiche-type thing. Then you speculate on which member of the Chelsea squad is gay and/or cheating on his WAG and why their marriage is a convenience thing. Then, a few minutes before kick-off you pop out of a little door onto your private section to watch the game from the smugness of the corporatate box whilst everyone around you who actually had to fork out serious cash for the privilege of watching overpaid footballers prance around ignore your annoying presence but not so totally that you don’t feel like a bit of a knob for being there.

In the end, Chelsea got away with the three points, despite Wigan looking worth a draw, and thanks mostly to Frank Lampard whose late, late header looped over Chris Kirkland who, despite being one of the tallest goalkeepers in the league, didn’t have the length of arm to keep it out.

But from the corporate box, all you can see is the corporate-ness of football. Now, in the end, corporate cash is what makes these sporting spectacles possible, and what makes them bigger and bigger every year. And let’s not forget it was corporate cash that got me my seat in that plush corporate suite. So I didn’t hate it, but there’s a limit.

Chelsea seem to be what I’m going to call a PowerPoint Football Club. They play like a PowerPoint presentation. They feel like a PowerPoint presentation. Linear; predictable; stifling. You can just imagine the bigwigs at Samsung, Etihad and Adidas discussing how Chelsea’s style of play should be like an ad campaign: creating synergies with their brand values and have a halo effect on their brand, therefore generating incremental sales, and all that rubbish. And I think the fans know it. They don’t really cheer at Chelsea. That would be off-brand. Instead they evaluate and measure effectiveness. In a word it’s boring. But at least those on the Shed End got a maximum return for their investment in tickets.

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Idiot fan lights up ridiculously poor contest.

Cleverly, Susannah won't sit with non-Brazil fans.

Cleverly, Susannah won't sit with non-Brazil fans.

QPR 1 – 1 Coventry City

Loftus Road, January 10th, 2009.

As you’ve probably guessed from the picture, there wasn’t much to say about this match. Actually, sometimes there is nothing much to say about football. You spend your 30 quid on a ticket and sit in subzero conditions and watch. Then the match is over and you go home. Your life is neither enriched nor damaged by the whole thing; it just was what it was. Your life remains the same. And so try as I might, I simply could not find an interesting thing to say about QPR’s drab 1-1 draw with Coventry City. It was practically a non-event.

It’s moments like this that I wonder why we spend time looking for the bigger meaning or subtexts or themes in sport. It’s games like this that make me think that maybe there is just nothing to say. Coventry got a goal from a free kick taker who was wise to the the QPR goalie’s poor positioning, and QPR equalized with a header that came from a moment of indecisiveness between goalkeeper and defender. That’s it. 1-1.

But you tell yourself to wait and not be so dismissive. Maybe something around the game will give you a story to tell. Like the idiot Coventry fan who chose to sit with the QPR fans (the more moderate section, but home support nonetheless), and cheer like an idiot and taunt like an idiot when Coventry scored.  He actually had the courage to turn around and flip the bird (one on each hand) to the ranks of QPR supporters behind him. That idiot. He was lucky a steward was on hand to pluck him out of there and toss him into the away end. But part of me wished to see the full effect of his idiocy played out – namely via a kicking out the back of Loftus Road – just to teach him a lesson.

And sadly this is all I can take from this match. Fan idiocy. But more specifically, football fan idiocy; that heady mix of seen-it-all-before nonchalance and ‘I’ve been going to games for 30-odd years’ arrogance, with a dash of self-loathing for good measure. After all, the majority of footy fans live to see one or two truly great moments in their lifetimes. The rest, I suppose, has to get taken up with playing a game of chicken with the opposing fans, just to keep things interesting, or something.

There’s no bigger meaning here. Just a simple, short lesson, which is this: when at the football, on a bitterly cold day, with the home team playing pub footy, and the away team (who you support) scores, keep your arse on your seat, your hands in your pockets and your mouth shut. Or sit in the away end. (It works in reverse as well, so it’s actually two lessons for the price of one). And that’s all there is to say about that.

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I survived an Old Firm derby and all I got was this stupid idea.

SOCCER-SCOTLAND/CELTIC-RANGERS

Rangers 0 – 1 Celtic
Ibrox, December 27th, 2008

Blood and thunder alone doth not a great football match make. It’s that simple. Passion is not enough to compensate for a glaring lack of quality. You can fill a stadium with as much derby rivalry (both the savoury and unsavoury varieties) as you like, but that won’t magically make mediocre players play better. Maybe they’ll play harder, but they won’t play better because they’re just not that good.

Here’s the match summary: the ball pinged around a lot; the crowd didn’t like things a lot; people kicked things a lot; managers pointed a lot; Scott McDonald scored a world-class goal; the ball pinged around a lot; the crowd didn’t like things a lot; people kicked things a lot; managers pointed a lot.

That’s it. One moment of quality in an entire 90 minutes of Old Firm derby. And this is purported to be on of the world game’s premier matches. One moment of quality. What a moment it was. But Scott MacDonald’s chest-knee-turn-volley combination – like something out of Ronaldinho’s playbook circa 2006 – was as outstanding as it was isolated.

People who think the Old Firm could just be plonked into the English Premier League are deluded. One moment of quality is not enough to beat the likes of Manchester United or Chelsea. It’s not even enough to beat Hull City. Maybe it’ll get a result against Newcastle United, but that’s not saying much now, is it?

On the evidence of this match, the only thing that would achieve is to provide months of schadenfreude for English fans at watching Scotland’s greatest clubs struggle in a relegation scrap. No, the Old Firm will have to learn to distinguish itself against English opposition if they are to avoid being branded like the new Scottish parliament building: a national disgrace. 

So, what to do then? We could just continue bemoaning the Scottish Premier League’s lack of quality and wishing the Old Firm could get to play better teams; we could resign ourselves to the futility of asking UEFA or miscellaneous FAs to do anything any time soon; or we could suggest something a bit spicy, just to see if anyone bites on it.

Here’s the pub sentence: let the Scottish champs scrap for a promotion place and send a relegated team from the English Premier League to Scotland.
 
Guffaw all you like, but give it a minute’s thought before consigning it to the dustbin marked ‘Bad Ideas 2009’ (where it probably belongs).

It would work something like this: of the three teams relegated from the English Premier League, one ends up in Scotland, possibly the eighteenth-placed team because in theory they should be ‘rewarded’ for not finishing last by being handed a seemingly easier road back into the Premiership. The nineteenth and twentieth-placed teams go to the Championship, as normal.

Then, at the season’s climax, the third and fourth-placed teams from the Championship would vie for the final promotion place with the Scottish champions and runners-up. If the Scottish teams don’t make it, they just head back to the Scottish Premier League to try again.

This is as much a reward for the Old Firm as it is a punishment for Premier League make-weights. Scottish club football is, on the whole, awful. But somehow getting the Old Firm into the English Premier league is only one part of the fixing Scottish football’s awfulness. Sending lesser English clubs the other way is bound to teach the Scots a thing or two about the quality required to play consistently against teams that acquit themselves year-in, year-out in a host of competitions, including the Champions League.

And given the pub team feel of this last Old Firm derby, it feels only right to point out the amusing side-benefits of this particular hair-brained scheme:

1. Seeing the Scottish champions fall in a Wembley play-off would provide at least 5 pages of fodder for the tabs.

2. The Scottish Premier League would have to give up its Champions League spot, which spares us all from the Groundhog Day that is Celtic or Rangers’ struggle in the group stage before being knocked out with a grand total of about one point.

3. With no Old Firm around to make the season a fait accompli by Christmas, witness the likes of Hearts and Hibs grapple with the idea that they might, just might, win something. At last.

4. We would be treated to wee Gordon and big Fergie teasing each other all season long.

5. Rangers fans would have to think of more creative (and less bigoted) put-downs than singing the Hokey Pokey. 

6. Soon-to-be-relegated rubbish teams like Manchester City and small-clubs-masquerading-as-big-clubs like Newcastle United get handed glamorous away fixtures at Thistle and Dundee.

7. It rewards also-ran Scottish teams like Thistle and Dundee and their fans by handing them glamorous away fixtures at Eastlands and St James’s Park.

I know what you’re thinking: it has massive holes in it; it highly implausible; it’s kind of ridiculous. But then again so was the Old Firm match last week, and so they (and the rest of the Scottish league) will remain unless we try something different. Meaningless matches like Rangers v AZ Alkmaar and Celtic v Basel week after week, or a play-off against Birmingham FC at Wembley for a shot at the best league in the world (with the added bonus of seeing Newcastle having to fight their way out of Scotland for the foreseeable future)? I know which one I’d rather see.

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Fuckin’ beautiful, that ball-kicking game is

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Arsenal 1 – 1 Liverpool
Emirates Stadium, December 21st, 2008

On the hour mark, this game got stained with hate. It actually took me surprise, how beastly football fans can be. I have never heard the word ‘cunt’ said so many times in quick succession (about a hundred times in a minute, to be precise), with so much venom behind each hard ‘c’ and each hard ‘t’.

It was because of Emmanuel Adebayor’s sending off that hatred became the hallmark emotion of this contest in north London. On that incident, the crowd morphed from your garden variety, well-heeled London football fans – they were even funny, the highlight of their pompous London middle-class humour being the chant ‘feed the Scousers/Do they know it’s Christmas time?’ – into something else altogether more disheartening.

What they turned into was nothing short of savage. In the flash of Adebayor’s studs and elbow, the Emirates Stadium became William Golding’s island. The public school boys became spear-wielding, monster-hunting savages, their normally Meridew personas giving way to the face-paint of Jack. The referee Howard Webb was cast as the hapless Piggy, ruthlessly pursued on all fronts as without his figurative glasses, he groped the air in front of him to feel his way through the last half-hour of the match.

Beauty becomes savage when it is set beside savagery. That aphorism rang clear in my mind as I sunk lower and lower into my seat, dismayed at the darker side of football fandom. The beauty of Robin Van Persie’s run, chested control and powerful right-foot finish, and of Robbie Keane’s perfectly struck half-volley in response, were rendered savage by the crowd’s incessant abuse of Webb, Keane (his years at Tottenham never to be forgotten, of course), Alvaro Arbeloa (adjudged to have milked Adebayor’s elbow to his face), and in way, of the match itself.

What is wrong with football fans? Why do we pay 30, 40, 50 quid to go and hate other human beings for their endeavour, season after season? That old argument about the working classes venting a week’s worth of frustration at the footy just doesn’t seem to fly anymore, given that if you can afford a season ticket, you’re probably not that working class. Likewise, the idea that because we are paying customers, we expect a satisfactory (read: three points for our mob, humiliation for theirs) service to be provided by players and officials alike gets shaky when you realise that we’re the mugs who’ve been paying for them to cock things up weekly for decades and yet we still pay, so we can’t get angry now, can we?

So what is it? Why is football fandom always teetering precariously on the precipice of savagery? The irony that the sport known as the ‘beautiful game’ enjoys the most barbarous of fan bases is delicious, but maybe not so complicated to figure out.

Football is primeval. If a meteor hurtled into earth this minute and the grand evolutionary act were to play out all over again, my money is on footy being the first game that would be played. It requires a vaguely spherical object and your foot. It has no apparatus, no complicated rules, no class bias, no judging panel, no odd scoring system.

Football’s simplicity is the source of its beauty. But it is also the source of its savagery. If you kick the vaguely spherical object between two other objects you get a ‘1’. If you miss, you don’t. And back in the day, if your Neanderthal friend was watching, he probably thought ‘how the fuck did he miss that? Even I could’ve scored that!’ Then he may have thrown a rock at you. Not much has changed it seems. Today, if a player misses a good chance, the Homo sapiens watching are likely to think ‘how the fuck did he miss that? Even I could’ve scored that!’ Then they throw abuse at him.

And boom, we’re back in Neanderthal man mode. We’re back to being savages. We’re wielding spears and hunting, but now we’re hunting refs and players. We have never forgotten, through our crazy evolutionary journey, that the simplicity of the game is not beyond any of us. We can all kick the bloody thing. And that’s why we still think and act the same way.

So maybe there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with football fans at all. Maybe all we’re doing is just being human: flitting between beauty and savagery, between applause and abuse and always reminding the illustrious players of the beautiful game that we could fuckin’ come down there and kick the round thing into the goal all by ourselves, you wankers. Ah, the beauty of it.

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Barber shop punditry: December 12th, 2008

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Unfortunately, not that much punditry was being offered today at the Marylebone barbershop. I guess that says something about how hum-drum the final group games of the Champions League really were, and also how generally unexciting this weekend’s Premier League round appears to be.

However, as one gent was getting his hair shaved closely, the barber remarked that Wayne Rooney’s hair had grown all the way back from the Rio-inspired shaved look he sported a few weeks back, and what a shame that was.

‘Rooney looked good with a shaved head’ the barber mused, ‘and’, he added,  ‘it did wonders for his baldness.’

After a minute of mirror-staring, the customer remarked ‘He played better when he was shaved.’ Then a few sage nods as the barber contemplated that Rooney’s shaved head could in fact have been positively correlated with his performances for England and Manchester United.

Rob Bagchi wrote about the Roo’s new ‘do in The Guardian a few weeks back, and it got me thinking: maybe an athlete’s haircut is not only correlated to a) their performance, but also b)  how seriously they are taken by their opponents and the watchful media.

Consider Roger Federer:

Pony-tailed, The Fed was a) great but b) still considered an upstart to the likes of Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras.

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Trimmed and floppy-haired he was a) in a different tennis dimension and b) the inevitable conqueror of Sampras’ all-time Grand Slam tally and the greatest ever player, probably.

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Or Agassi himself.

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On the left, Agassi was a) brilliantly temperamental and b) an affront to the decency of the blazers at the All-England Lawn Tennis Club.

On the right he was a) brilliantly consistent and b) cementing his place amongst the pantheon of all-time tennis greats.

Ok, so far my sample of two has yielded the desired results. What’s that you say? Rafa Nadal has gotten better and his hair stayed the same length? Zinedine Zidane remained a bald genius from Juventus to Real Madrid? To that I say Nadal will obviously win the Grand Slam if he shaves his head and Zidane…er, well, he only won the World Cup after he went bald. Yeah, that works.

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Chelsea remain in purgatory; Gourcuff gives glimpses of heaven

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Bordeaux 1-1 Chelsea FC

Champions League, November 26th, 2008

It looks like Chelsea have to wait in football purgatory for another two weeks. Well, technically one more week, which is when Arsenal come to visit Stamford Bridge. But in the Champions League context, their match against CFR Cluj in a fortnight will decide if they get to go to football heaven or are consigned to football hell.

Hell, in the case of the club, is the UEFA Cup, the equivalent of bad sex in football terms: it’s still sex, but it’s ultimately drawn-out, overblown and boring. And it’s now a real possibility should they slip against the Romanians and Bordeaux somehow sack Rome. Hell for Luiz Felipe Scolari is Brazil, for that’s where he intends to go should his team fail to qualify for the last 16 and he presumably resigns.

In his article yesterday, Martin Samuel argued that Chelsea are potentially the next crisis club, especially if they were to suffer a reverse in France. They didn’t, but the image of the cartoon black cloud hovering over Stamford Bridge conjured by Samuel has yet to dissipate.

This contest between two former World Cup winners failed to produce any stand-out quality, except the occasionally dazzling Yoann Gourcuff who’s spin and left-shoot shot in the 26th minute was world class. In fact, it was Gourcuff who consistently made Bordeaux look interesting. Indeed, it was the playmaker’s dogged pursuit of Joe Cole that won his team a corner and, for the resultant kick, their equalizing goal through Alou Diarra. Expect English clubs to be sniffing around in the summer.

But for all Chelsea’s high-profile players, they made hard work of this and it told in the end. They held an industrious, and at times very clever, Bordeaux team at bay in the same way an older brother holds his younger sibling just far away enough to not get hit. But eventually they tired of it, they lost concetration, and they lost an important two points.

Nicolas Anelka gave Chelsea a lead that he could not have timed better if he himself has scripted it. The Frenchman chose the 60th minute to latch onto Frank Lampard’s pass and coolly slide the ball home, just as Didier Drogba was summoned to the touch line. With questions over the Ivorian’s future at the club looming, Anelka made his case for frontline hegemony, and forced his moody team-mate into a somewhat awkward celebration with his equally grumpy manager.

But eventually Bordeaux’s doggedness tired Chelsea out. With yellow cards mounting up for Ashley Cole, John Terry and Frank Lampard, the French side won a corner that was poorly marked, especially by Terry, from which Diarra capitalised. And the lack of discipline didn’t end there, as there was still time for Frank Lampard to throw a needless challenge at Gourcuff and earn a second yellow card. All of a sudden the home fixture against Cluj feels uncomfortable.

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Why it’s right to hate Cristiano Ronaldo.

'I'm the greatest'
Aston Villa 0 – 0 Manchester United
Villa Park, November 22nd, 2008

Let’s get all the obligatory stuff out of the way quickly so we can get down to elaborating on this article’s purposely inflammatory headline.

There was a lot talk around how Aston Villa would take it to Manchester United in this game. Villa have had a good season so far; Villa are ready to break the hold of the big four on the four Champions League places; Villa finally had the players, and in Martin O’Neill the manager, to do one over the Champions and make themselves quite comfortable in the upper echelon of the Barclay’s Premier League, thank you very much.

None of that happened.

In fact, all that did happen was a maybe-maybe-not penalty claim for the impressive Gabriel Agbonlahor towards the end of a high-tempo match, low on technical excellence but high on physicality. Villa didn’t get the penalty. The match finished 0-0.

But the more interesting sub-plot was, unsurprisingly, Cristiano Ronaldo. Let’s be clear now: this is not a rant about what a wanker (or winker, if you still will) Ronaldo is. His silver short-shorts fiasco was enough to settle that issue in the summer. This is no unsubstantiated strop. The evidence for this indictment was supplied by Ronaldo himself when he was subbed off by Sir Alex Ferguson around the 70 minute mark. And the comment is this: Cristiano Ronaldo is not a footballer, and that’s why we hate him.

We hate him because he uses the game of football to keep the bubble in which he exists, permanently inflated. Football to Ronaldo is but a buxom masseuse; just a reason to style his hair. To him, football is a mere plaything. And that’s why we’re right to hate him.

There is no doubting Ronaldo’s supreme talent. But if he’s not a footballer, what is he? Frankly, he is just a player of the game. A player. Not a footballer. And here is the difference: in all great footballers (as in all great athletes), skill is entwined with those intangible qualities that set the best men head-and-shoulders above their peers. Honesty; the willingness to muck in; an awareness of the bigger picture; graciousness for a highly-paid but ultimately frivolous life. Ronaldo lacks them all. Players showboat; they whine about what they didn’t get; they graze until they find greener pastures; they bite the hand that feeds them. In these aspects, Ronaldo is in surplus.

What will not be questioned here is his fitness, pace, close control, goal-scoring prowess, and appetite for destruction. But what must be questioned are his qualities as a man. For football at the highest level is a ruthless expose of a man’s soul and if they are left wanting in the analysis, 50,000 people are on-hand to witness it.

And Ronaldo was exposed at Villa Park. The window into his soul was opened wide as he made his way down the tunnel. Limping off, his leg as bruised as his ego, he felt compelled to remind the Villa fans close by that he, not them, was ‘number one.’ That he, not them, was a superstar. That he, not them, was stinking rich. That he, not them, was allowed to speak. He did it by pointing at himself, then pointing skywards, then pointing at himself again. You got that? I’m number one. Me. Not you. Me. Fuck you. And shut up. (He signaled that by holding that same finger to his pursed lips).

Ronaldo thinks that he is above the searching examination that is a football match. Ronaldo supposes that his skill, so sublime as it is, would not, could not, dare be usurped by some lowly tackler; someone who relies on sheer tenacity to win the ball, and the game. Ronaldo believes he is beyond all physical contact. That he is literally untouchable. Hence the little hands-on-hips tantrums he throws whenever he has adjudged himself to be wrongfully touched.

Aston Villa dealt with Ronaldo this time around. They dealt with him the way all players in opposing teams should deal with Ronaldo. They tackled him. They hassled him. They weren’t afraid of him. They denied him the freedom of the pitch. They ignored the hype. And yet it was always fair. Meaty, yes. But fair. And so every time Ronaldo went down under a challenge, which was under every challenge, referee Chris Foy saw no reason to halt play. No foul had been committed. So the players continued. They didn’t kick the ball out of play so he could receive treatment. They knew that there was nothing wrong with him. They refused to bow to his whining. The paying hordes knew there was nothing wrong with him. So they refused to give him the adulation he craves when he was replaced by Nani.

Instead, they jeered him. They jeered him because when they peered into his soul, they saw that there was no footballing character there. They saw that there was no character, full-stop.

If you could tap the collective consciousness of the Manchester United support, you may find they view Ronaldo as the kind of guy who finds a way to skip out on rounds when you’re at the pub, but is let off because he gets girls. They may never admit it, but United supporters must know Ronaldo fancies himself as bigger than the club, bigger than the game of football and, most crucially, bigger than all of them. But football and its fans were there before Ronaldo, and they will be there long after he has gone.

A word of warning to United fans: do not dare think that Ronaldo would not do the same to you should he feel the need to remind you of the pecking order he believes exists: him at the top and everyone else beneath him. He already did it over the summer in what amounted to the most drawn out public handjob in the history of transfer windows. But this is the nature of mere players.

Perhaps I have overlooked the flip-side of this argument: that all the world’s top footballers have the belief that they are somehow ‘better’ than everyone else. And what’s more, that they must cling to that belief in order to stay at the very top of the game. So let’s take a look around at the best players in the world at the moment and see if I stand to be corrected.

Javier Mascherano reluctantly accepted the Argentine captaincy, despite open endorsement from his new national boss, Diego Maradona. Xavi recently pointed out that he ‘is nothing without his team-mates’. The former is an Olympic champion, the latter is a European Champion. Meanwhile, it’s the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovich and Joey Barton who have professed to being ‘better’ than us mortals. The former is a prolific waster, the latter is a mediocre footballer at a mediocre club.

No, for now the argument stands. The game-player may succeed at the game for a time, but the footballer will succeed at life, because he can see beyond the goalposts and beyond the stands. Ronaldo cannot see past himself. And for that reason he will remain merely a game-player, and never be a true footballer.

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