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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What Man Drought? We’re all at the sport.

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Wales 21-18 Australia
Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, November 30th 2008

I was lucky enough to be amongst the 74,000-odd people wrapped up in the Millennium Stadium’s grand tiers last Saturday, to see a hard-running, big-tackling Wales team deservedly, albeit narrowly, beat the Wallabies. And what a game: a see-sawing contest that saw the best and worst of attacking and defensive rugby, with refereeing decisions consigned (mostly) to the sidelines, as they should be.

But what struck me most about this game was the abundance of women in attendance. They were everywhere: in the stands; at the stadium bars; running amok on the streets outside the ground; at the pub for the post-game revelry. And they all looked quite happy to be there, despite the fact that it was, you know, sport and, er, women supposedly dislike sport.

So what were they doing there? Is my previous comment that women don’t like sport hideously outdated? Maybe in Wales it is. But it just felt as though there was something else going on. After all, women don’t gather anywhere en masse unless something seriously worthwhile is going on, like Brad Pitt giving out free kisses whilst wearing a kilt.

A sneaking suspicion grew in my mind that they were, in fact, on the pull. The Welsh girls had figured out that the sport – in this case the rugby – is a perfect hunting ground. They were gathering to hunt, and hunting to gather eligible, drunk bachelors. Or just drunk bachelors.

But there’s a Man Drought on isn’t there? For those of you unfamiliar with the idea, the Man Drought started circa 2000 when women generally started complaining that there were no good men around, or available. Really what had happened was they had spent their 20s (during the late nineties and early naughties) working their way up the corporate ladder, drinking their bodyweight in champagne and watching Sex And The City, and when Mr Big didn’t suddenly appear to sweep them off their Manolo Blahnik-clad feet, they quickly cried ‘Man Drought!.’

But that’s beside the point. According to social commentators, the Man Drought is real and it’s happening RIGHT NOW and it’s serious. Serious enough for Aussie social boffin Bernard Salt to create what he calls a Fella Filter in his book The Big Picture, so women can know exactly what locations and what professions are most likely to yield husband material. Incidentally, he reckons accountants are the best bet. Yikes.

But I’m going to save you women the 15-odd bucks for Salt’s book and tell you where to go to find a husband, or at least to start looking for one where there are all kinds of blokes to choose from. I gave it away in the heading already, but hold onto your clutch purse anyway: it’s the sport.

The Welsh girls know it. And the more you think about it, the more the logic becomes glaringly obvious. As far as I can discern, here are the Top 5 reasons the sport is a great hunting ground for wannabe committed lasses:

1. It doesn’t matter if you’re into the game being played or not. The fellas there will mostly just be impressed that you’re there. You can feign interest in it all the way to five champagnes; all the way to a pub snog; all the way to the bedroom even. It’s the same as when a bloke goes shopping with you. You know he doesn’t give a rat’s about which dress goes better with which shoes, but you’re pleased with the gesture and are happy to reward him for his behaviour. Hopefully.

2. You’ve got a ready-made ice-breaker. Consider these openers: ‘Come here often?’; or ‘Can I buy you a drink?’ Then consider these ones: ‘That tackle on Stirling Mortlock was an absolute disgrace’; or ‘too much respect is given to the Haka these days. Do the All Blacks think they’re bigger than Rugby Union?’ It doesn’t take Sir Clive Woodward to tell you which game-plan will have a better outcome. And for the truly daring take Simeon De La Torre’s and Sophie Brown’s suggestion from their book Everything A Girl Needs To Know About Football, by trying an opener that stumps your would be suitors, then watch as a bunch of instantly aroused men clamber to buy you booze.

3. You’re in the minority. Simple laws of probability apply here. If you’re in a room with 67 blokes and about five girls, your chances of getting some attention are pretty good. Maybe too good. But anyway, the boys are not expecting to meet a comely lass like you at the sport, so they’re not doing their usual peackocking nonsense. In fact, they’re doing the exact opposite, which is not giving a second thought to what women are thinking. And weirdly, you’ll find their polar fleeces, uncombed hair and ratty sneakers completely refreshing.

4. Sport is an aphrodisiac. Men won’t admit it, but the sight of 30 burly boys bashing each other around the park is a turn-on. But then so is Beach Volleyball. It’s a win-win situation, really.

5. All kinds of men go to the sport. From City boys to White Van Men, the spectrum of men at the sport provides a veritable cornucopia of professions and perspectives from which to pick and choose. Live it up with the Eventing boys or slum it at the darts. Sip Pimm’s or slurp lager. Meet Mr Tall, Mr Teary, Mr Loud and Mr Sporty as well as Mr Big.

Sounds alright? Then get yourselves tickets and get to the game quicksmart. But take your umbrella; it’s raining out there.

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Guardian.co.uk Big Blogger 2008: An outstanding entry

When I finally get my head around witnessing 70,000 Welsh singing “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau” (“Land of my Fathers”) on Saturday at Millennium Stadium, I’ll post something. Until then, check out this – in my opinion brilliant – piece that won The Guardian’s Big Blogger 2008 Week 4. It’s about darts; it’s excellent and it was the rightful winner of the round. Blogger D draws an analogy of darts to life, but instead of clouding it with the usual guff, it’s a simple case of darts and life either being ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Like I said, excellent. Unfortunately I don’t know the writer’s name or his blog address, but maybe he or she will find my blog and get in touch. Enjoy.

 

Blogger D


phil-the-power-taylorIt will shortly be that time of year again. Mistletoe and wine. Children singing Christian rhyme. Logs on the fire, leaves on the tree, etc. Darts.
With two world championships on the horizon, we’re about to be treated to a month of top quality darts.

Darts all day long. And for those of us who are, in the mangled words of Robert Palmer, “addicted to Stubbs”, we’ll have Darts Extra in the early hours of the morning. Oh yeah.

“Darts Extra”. There’s a clue in the name: it’s just more darts, in fact it’s inferior darts. They know it, you know it and they know that you know. But who can say no to extra darts? Not me, that’s for sure, but I have a terrible vision of waking up aged seventy to realise that I should have spent more time making love to my wife and less time watching Tony O’Shea making short work of Co Stompé. Or vice versa.

The PDC is where the serious action is nowadays, but for myself – and I refuse to believe I am alone – the BDO has an appeal that is both more elusive and evocative. It represents a land that time forgot for British sport. And is all the better for it.

Take the analysis. In welcome contrast to pretty much every other sport on television, there isn’t any. It’s just wall-to-wall drama. In Bobby George’s universe (not somewhere any sane man wants to visit) there is nothing to say about the game, there is no bullshit insight into technique or tactics, and there’s certainly no wibbling on about “understacking” or “overstacking”.

Someone is either throwing “good darts” or they are throwing “bad darts”.

And this refusal to dress up the spectacle extends to the players themselves. Only the most adventurous would even dare to make a distinction between “good scoring” and “getting his doubles”. The only tactic ever discussed is “speeding it up” or “slowing it down”.

After enough of this you can only conclude that as in darts, so in life. You’re either throwing good darts or your throwing bad darts and if the latter all you can hope is that you turn things around sharpish (but time is precious – particularly in the first round) or at the very least slow things down, put the cruel hand of fate off his game and hope he starts fluffing his out shots.

But the appeal does not stop there. At the Lakeside Arena, there is no clear difference between the people on stage and the people in the crowd. All the celebrities, the pampered professionals, have disappeared to the PDC. And they leave behind a vision of sport as it used to be, magically uninventing all the tedious, “workmanlike” identikit professionals and leaving only the ones who can’t be bothered putting too much effort in.

The pub players, the fat players, the thin players (they don’t come in medium). Men with silly hair, beards, hats. Those that tick all the boxes. Humanity in all its glorious variety is up on that stage. Some of them are Dutch for God’s sake.

So Phil Taylor can throw all the 180s he likes. Barney can defeat “The Power” in what was almost certainly the greatest sporting event yet witnessed this century. But until either of them dons a cape and throws a couple of plastic bats into the crowd, they are fighting a losing battle. At the Lakeside the audience and players are as one. Does anyone really care about how good the darts are?

A couple of years ago, whilst I checked on the progress of a young Jelle Klaasen (who stood to make me a small amount of money), the camera panned over a spectator wearing a Darth Vader suit. This caused great amusement amongst my children. Then one of them asked the question that nobody ever dares to ask. “WHY is he wearing a Darth Vader suit?” There is no answer. He just is. Just like Ted Hankey likes to dress up as a vampire and listen to trance in his loft.

You’re either throwing good darts or you’re throwing bad darts. The rest is window dressing.

 

 

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Crikey! Aussies really are the sorest losers

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In his thoughtful book, The Meaning of Sport, Simon Barnes argues that the English are born to lose. He argues that losing is nothing to be ashamed of, simply something to manfully strive against. And because the English are so pre-disposed to sporting failure, it gives them an entirely different perspective on it, and indeed, on victory.

Oh how we Aussies could learn a thing or two from the English on how to lose well, especially when it comes to Rugby League, a sport in which Australia has experienced defeat about as many times as England has reached the semi-finals of the World Cup. When Australia finally lost the Rugby League World Cup after 33 years in possession of the trophy (have you ever heard of a more ridiculous dynasty in a sport that purports to have global status?), it was summed up in those two most punchy words, ‘cunt’ and ‘fuck.’

More specifically, it was ‘you’re the cunt who cost us the World Cup…you fucking cheat.’ This from the Kangaroos coach, Ricky Stuart, to Ashley Klein, the Briton who refereed the final game that Australia lost to New Zealand, 34-20. But that wasn’t the lot of it. The Aussies didn’t bother collecting their runners-up medals and even shirked the post-match dinner and drinks affair, in the process fobbing off members of the much-lauded Rugby League Team of the Century.

Is defeat really that hard to take? Really? And why is it seemingly so hard for Australia to lose? What is wrong with us?

Let’s go back to Barnes for a second. He reckons that when the national psyche is already prepared for failure, it makes the next defeat part of the ongoing cultural narrative, and in England’s case, makes their victories all the more important. When England win, they don’t really do the smug satisfaction thing. They do the ‘wow, that might not happen again for a really long time, good thing we won that’ thing.

Australia, on the other hand, becomes a collective basket case in the face of defeat. We’re a young country, and have spent the majority of our time proving we’re not just the rabble England chucked down south a couple of hundred years ago. So desperate are we to prove it, and so perfect an arena is sport in which to prove it, that a sporting defeat is like an assault on national identity. Consider the ‘big three’ defeats up till now:

1. England beats Australia in the 2003 Rugby World Cup final. This one really hurt. Australia got past the All Blacks in the semis (which no-one expected, don’t believe anyone who says otherwise), then got done by Johnny Wilkinson’s left boot. On home ground. The press then was all about how Wilkinson beat Australia; that England didn’t have a ‘team’ in the way Australia has a ‘team’; that only Australia wanted to play rugby the way it’s meant to be played. What a load of hogwash. It’s not like Australia didn’t see Wilkinson coming. It’s not like England’s forwards didn’t do their job in making space for him. It’s not like Australia didn’t depend on kicking just as much as England. The real tragedy of that result is that Elton Flatley’s supreme kicking in that game has been forgotten in the years since.

2. England beats Australia in the 2005 Ashes. This was simply a shock. No-one, perhaps even the English themselves, really saw this one coming. The media wrote it off as a weird, flukey event; that England were just lucky in victory, whilst Australia were brave in defeat. Attention immediately turned to ‘the next one.’ Rather than congratulate the English on a job well done, Australia started talking about how they would win the 2007 series 5-0. They did, incidentally, but starting that chat in 2005 before the England team had even done their lap of Trafalgar Square smacked of a badly banged up ego.

3. Italy beats Australia in the 2006 World Cup. This was more about naivety that anything else. Having qualified, Australians figured the Socceroos might as well go on and win the damn thing because, you know, we’re pretty good at other sports. But that is where international football had a surprise in store. International football doesn’t like plucky upstarts. It likes the established order. And Italy are the most established of that order. So when Lucas Neill ‘tripped’ Fabio Grosso to concede a penalty in the last minute of their round-of-16 match, a nation pointed a collective finger at the ‘cheats’ of world football, which included the referees. We’re honest, you’re liars. We’re physical, you’re weak. But that is what you get for supposing that the international order will be turned on its head because Australia finally managed to turn up.

And so back to Rugby League and this seemingly impossible defeat, and our reaction to it. Are we actually the worst losers in the world? My gut tells me yes. Where a country sees defeat as an outrage on our national sovereignty rather than what it simply is – the most common part of sport – is when we need to rethink things. Maybe we should just do what the Americans do and play amongst ourselves yet call everything a ‘world championship.’ That way we’ll never have to experience being beaten by another country. Yep, the sore loser in me thinks that sounds alright.

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Barber shop punditry: better than real punditry

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I just came back from my barber where the standard of punditry was excellent. Here’s the latest:

Chelsea ‘are rubbish.’

Liverpool will win the League. Crucially, they need a big dose of luck to get there but that is ‘what all teams need to win the title.’

Man United need Berbatov back in the line-up and doing ‘his Cantona thing’ to beat Man City on Saturday. Also, their failure to capitalise on Chelsea and Liverpool drawing their respective matches was ‘ridiculous.’

Portsmouth did themselves proud last night against AC Milan. In fact, they did England proud against those over-paid, pompous Italians. But Ronaldinho is still ‘the man.’

That’s the long and short of it. Pun intended.

What I like about it all is the directness. No guff; no fluff; just brutal, clear opinion. So here’s my idea:

Rebuild the entire barber shop on the Setanta or Sky set, so at half-time of this weekend’s Manchester derby or London ‘derby’, we can all be treated to such concise thought. And all while customers got their hair cut of course. Now that would be entertaining. Or at least more entertaining than the stock-standard phrases and quips turned out by former players in sharp suits, week-in, week-out. It would, of course, have to be called something pun-tastic like ‘The Cut Back.’ Would footy-lovers across the UK be interested in the rantings of John Smith who wants a number 4 or Pete Jones who just wants a bit off the top? I think they would. Don’t think so? I’ve got two words for you: Big Brother.

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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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