Monday, 21 March 2011

World Poetry Day

I offered them to ITV.com but they weren't interested. I called up Sepp Blatter to see if he fancied using them on his FIFA election campaign literature - to no avail. Here are three football-themed haikus to mark 21 March. No doubt these will come back to haunt me in later life.


Upton Park, 3.42pm

Parker, still Parker.
Brilliant play. He looks for
Carlton Cole...offside.


An ESPN commentator's nightmare

Krylya Sovetov,
Anzhi, Luch-Energiya:
Unpronounceable.


Romelu

It's rather a coup
To write a rhyming haiku
For R. Lukaku.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Photoblog: Giants vs Eagles, New Meadowlands


Back in September, knowing I was visiting New York over Christmas, I decided to investigate whether there would be any sport worth watching while I was there. It turned out that NFL side the New York Giants would be playing the Philadelphia Eagles at New Meadowlands Stadium, New Jersey, about half an hour away from Manhattan.

I'd heard this game was something of a local derby, Meadowlands being about 100 miles or so from Philadelphia - which by American standards is a stone's throw. At the time, though, I didn't quite anticipate how important the game would prove.

Both teams went into the match with identical 9-4 win-loss records, knowing that the winner would most likely clinch the NFC East Divisional title and guaranteed passage into the play-offs. Or, to put it another way, not only would the victor get one over their local rivals, but they'd give them a kick in the balls just in time for post-season too.

The game didn't disappoint. Far from it. 

The Giants came out of the blocks fast and took a 24-3 lead at the half and the home fans were delighted. The Eagles fans sitting around us were enduring a torrent of light-hearted but relentless piss-taking.

Mid-way through the fourth quarter the Giants led 31-10, and fans of both sides started to head for the exits - as seems to be the way in America. Those who did - particularly Eagles fans - would miss one of the most spectacular finishes in NFL history. The Eagles picked up four unanswered touchdowns, including a punt return from DeSean Jackson with no time left on the clock, to win the game 38-31, sparking wild celebrations on the field and in the locker-room.

Such was the momentousness of the occasion that the game has even been given its own place in NFL lore with a nickname - "The Miracle at the New Meadowlands". It even has its own wikipedia page.

Here are some photos of the day:

 Another subtext to this game involved Eagles quarterback Michael Vick. Playing for Atlanta Falcons back in 2007, Vick was suspended after admitting involvement in an illegal dog-fighting ring. He was jailed in December of that year for 23 months, but was offered a route back into the NFL by the Eagles.

Despite his status as a hate figure for opposing sides, Vick's form has been simply magnificent. Beginning the 2010 season as third-choice quarterback, he displaced Donovan McNabb and Kevin Kolb to become number one. 

That still hasn't satisfied many, and on the morning of the Giants game the New York Times ran an advert by an organisation for the human treatment of animals, citing Vick's crime in criticising a competing charity which has stated that Vick could now own a pet dog.

Vick was a strong candidate for NFL Most Valuable Player this season, though that award looks like going to New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. However, Vick remains a controversial character.

New Meadowlands Stadium. Opened 2010. Cost $1.6bn. Capacity 82,566. Breathtaking.

 "I can see my house from here."

It was a pretty cold day in New Jersey, only a little above freezing. Still - two sweaters, warm gloves...and shorts?! Go figure.


The Giants offense huddle. The interesting thing to the uninitiated is that at this point in the game the video screens tend to flash up a message which reads "Quiet! Offense at Work". This is where watching live American football runs rather counter-intuitively to the instincts of an Englishman.

At times like this those used to watching football (by which I naturally mean soccer) would be building the atmosphere. But American football fans recognise that their team need to be able to communicate effectively on the field, and so when the home side are on the attack the atmosphere remains fairly placid.
On the other hand, when the home side are in defense - particularly on a clutch play such as third down and short - the atmosphere builds to a deafening crescendo. It can be electric.

 Kosher hotdogs on sale in the stadium. You know you're in New York when...


The ubiquitous pretzel. $3 apiece.

 Why are you people leaving? It's 31-10 with eight minutes to go, there's still a chance of a comeback!

 Miracles can happen.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

A Russian World Cup in 2018: Some premature Q&As

Much as it seems as though the ink has only just dried on the FIFA ExCom ballot papers, and the tears have dried on the faces of many England fans (okay, sorry for the melodrama), it's time to come to terms with the fact that in less than eight years many football fans will be heading to Russia to watch World Cup 2018.

So what should we expect from a World Cup in Russia? Eight years is a long time in Russia - a place that barely 20 years ago was operating a state economic monopoly and where chewing gum was something of a novelty - so there's every chance we'll look back on this article in 2018 and laugh.

But here's my attempt to answer a few of the pressing questions about what it might be like to attend a World Cup in Russia.

Russia - sounds cold. Better pack the thermals, there's going to be snow all over the place, right?
Wrong. Temperatures on St Petersburg, the most northerly host city, regularly tip 30 degrees C in June and July. In fact, it'll be pretty sweltering around the cities during the tournament. Moscow's underground is a bit of an unpleasant place to be in mid-summer. But it'll be fantastic on the Black Sea coast resort of Sochi. Bring a beach towel.

Well that all sounds lovely - but Russia's also massive. How am I going to get around?
The Russia bid team sensibly decided not to stretch the tournament across the country's entire expanse. In fact, the host cities cover just three of Russia's nine time zones. Ekaterinburg is the easternmost host city, Kaliningrad the westernmost, and a flight between the two generally takes just over three hours - the same as a flight from London to Moscow. 

The chances of someone having to make that flight, however, are slim - the host cities have been separated out into regional clusters, with the implicit assumption that a team's World Cup group matches will all be staged within a single cluster. So the issue for most fans will be travelling around a single cluster.

In this respect Russia still has a long way to go. Internal flights are cheap and convenient, but I'm not sure enough flights are yet available to transport large numbers of fans. Similarly train travel is fairly convenient - though the duration of many journeys can be a shock to many Western Europeans. A trip train between, say, Saransk and Kazan (two of the nearest neighbours in the Central Cluster) is eight to nine hours.

And then there is travel by road. Such is the parlous state of many of the intercity highways in Russia that I have personally rarely used them. One thing is certain - Russia plans to build plenty of new roads before 2018. Work has recently begun, for example, to improve the M-4 highway which runs from Moscow down to the Black Sea, the first time Russia has ever attempted to build a motorway as a single unit, rather than improving it piecemeal. Work is also planned for the M-5, linking Moscow with the Ural city of Chelyabinsk - and at nearly 2000km long they'd better get cracking.

I've heard Russia's full of mafia and a dangerous place. Should I worry about going?
My first comment is this: let's not pretend Russia is all sweetness and light. Bad things can happen. But, and I'm furiously knocking on wood as I say this, nothing bad has ever happened to me as a tourist (those italics being an important caveat) in Russia. Like every place you visit, you need to observe some of the ground rules and you'll be fine. The standard exhortions to keep your valuables safely hidden away, to avoid dark, nasty-looking streets and to not walk around with your head up your arse obviously apply.

In addition, in my experience in Russia you have more to fear from the police than you do from the mysterious "mafia" of whom I've hardly ever seen hide or hair. Many of Russia's police (or militsiya as they're known) make money on the side from shaking down unsuspecting tourists, foreigners or defenceless Russians. The good (though slightly unnerving) news is that I suspect by 2018 they will be under strict instructions from the government to cut down on this kind of activity - or else.

What are Russians like generally? Aren't they a bit unwelcoming?
Far be it for me to turn this Q&A article into an advert for Russia, Russians are generally a lovely bunch to be around. The older generation can often be a little reticent - a legacy, I suspect, from the years of Communist rule. Scratch away at the surface, however, and you'll find them to be among the most hospitable people in Europe, if not the world.

The younger generation, particularly in Moscow and St Petersburg, are drifting towards Western social mores. They are very often elegant, eloquent - in English as well as their native language - and make for excellent conversation- and drinking-partners...Plus they know a hell of a lot about English football, so you won't be short of conversation topics.

What about the racism?
Ah, now that's an issue Russia certainly needs to grapple with. Until I saw this rather suspicious-looking photograph posted on Zenit St Petersburg's official website, I had never seen a black person in the stands at a football match in Russia. I'm still not convinced that's not just a nifty bit of photoshopping. It's true, Russia is not necessarily the most welcoming place for black people.

I'd say that's a consequence not of pure malevolence, but of ignorance. For so many years Russians have had very little contact with black people, which by no means excuses racism in the country's stadiums, but at least explains it. And, as Marc Bennetts points out in a nice piece for Sabotage Times, the 2018 World Cup could prove the "short, sharp shock" needed to drive racism out of Russian football.

That's the optimistic way of looking at things. It's also the lazy way of looking at it. I'm not black, so I won't have to put that to the test. What I would say is this - in Russia in the year 2010 I wouldn't want to walk the streets alone as a black man. That is enough to convince me that this could be one of the major problems lying in wait eight years from now.

Monday, 29 November 2010

We're not singing any more

Last week I penned some thoughts on the decline of English terrace culture for the superb whoateallthepies.tv. Here it is in full:

“You’re not singing any more.” It’s the classic football catcall, the terrace version of cuckolding. The message, effectively, is as follows: We’ve silenced you, and as a result you are collectively shamed. Your silence suggests you are weak. You are impotent. Your wife is almost certainly cheating on you.

When you boil it down, so much about English fan culture revolves around the verbal jousting between sets of supporters. There are countless versions of “you’re not singing any more” – think “you’re supposed to be at home”, or even the sound of hushing – all of which reflect a mockery of the quiet, passive football fan. Which is strange, because having spent time touring stadiums around Europe over the last few years, I would argue that English fans are now fairly low down the pecking (shouting?) order.

Though our continental chums often laud us as the example to follow, mostly citing the high-watermark of the 1980s as a time when English fans outshouted all-comers, these days it’s across the Channel where you get a proper match-day atmosphere.

In my experience, for real colour and vibrancy on the terraces, England’s top flight is no match for many European leagues. Some of the things I’ve witnessed in stadiums across the continent – Rapid Bucharest fans loudly rejoicing as they set off smoke bombs, Spartak Moscow fans unfurling banners 300ft wide – simply take your breath away.

And the difference isn’t just visible, it’s audible too. To put it another way: we’re not singing any more.

I accept that not all readers will welcome such a statement. Some will dispute the truth of the initial hypothesis. Others will say that, while many clubs do suffer from this problem, their own club’s fans are the loudest/most colourful/hardest this side of the Urals/the Channel/the Pennines. To those I say: travel abroad and see/hear it for yourself. Or, failing that, dig out some YoutTube clips of Lech Poznan v Manchester City or Young Boys v Spurs from this season’s European competition. Even England’s best-supported clubs have some way to go to beat that.

Others will try to shoot me down by second-guessing my line of argumentation. To those I say: you’re right, I do think that the combined forces of the Premier League and the Taylor Report have killed the atmosphere in England’s top-flight stadiums – hackneyed though this argument undoubtedly is.

But I’m not calling for a return to the good-old bad-old-days of the ’80s. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have survived on the terraces a generation ago. Nor am I connecting the word ‘atmosphere’ with the word ‘violence’ – the German Bundesliga is no less civilised than the Premier League, and yet their fan culture is very much alive and kicking.

What I would argue is that the combined advent of the Premier League and the Taylor Report forced English football into a trade-off. From 1992 the safety and security of fans were made paramount; at the same time, business-oriented football clubs sought to break into previously untapped markets for new fans: women, children, the middle classes, aka the prawn sandwich nibblers who Roy Keane once berated. You can’t argue with the logic, nor dismiss its benefits.

But along with the knives and the bottles, the flares and the banners also became contraband in English stadiums; the raucous terraces became seated and serene; and those who traditionally sung the loudest, young working-class males, found their collective voice diluted by others who were there for a nice day out.

Moreover, with its market-oriented approach, the Premier League has turned many fans into passive consumers, spending their money with the expectation that entertainment wille be provided. Singing (i.e. approval) is now conditional on the quality of the football being played.

And so over the last 20 years the volume has been turned down, and colour has slowly turned to monochrome. I find this a lamentable situation. If I wanted to sit and watch a game in silence I can do that at home for a fraction of the price of a match ticket.

Is there a solution? I have a feeling re-introducing terraces might be part of it, but coming from the post-Hillsborough generation means I am less appreciative of the problems which standing areas can cause.

Whatever the answer, identifying the problem is a small step on the way towards solving it. And I for one am convinced: it’s all gone quiet over here.

Friday, 19 November 2010

A small appeal

Some readers may know that I'm a fairly regular guest on the twofootedtackle podcast. In fact, can I urge you to listen to this week's podcast, featuring myself and French football connoisseur Chris Oakley - which includes subjects as disparate as the problem(s) with English football, Jay DeMerit's next destination and cake. Lots of cake. 

Anyway, in the run-up to Christmas, twofootedtackle.com editor Chris and podcast host Gary are championing a very good cause which I want to lend my weight to. They are hoping to raise £1,000 for Cardiac Risk in the Young (CRY).

CRY was launched in 1995 by Alison Cox MBE to raise awareness of conditions that can lead to sudden cardiac death and sudden death syndrome in apparently fit and healthy young people. As you can imagine, these are conditions that affect young sportspeople and many footballers have sadly lost their lives due to heart conditions that instinct tells us healthy people shouldn’t develop.

This is a gentle prod to readers of The Cynical Challenge to a) download the latest TFT podcast and b) go to www.justgiving.com/twofootedtackle and donate whatever you might be able to afford to a worthy cause.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Zenit fans stand alongside their Serb "brothers"

A butterfly flaps its wings in Tokyo and a storm rises in California. Or perhaps that should be: a Serbian man dons a balaclava in Genoa, and four Hajduk Split supporters are beaten up in St Petersburg.

Eastern European politics is an immensely complex arena. Events in Russia this week have provided a nice illustration of this point. Hajduk Split fans have travelled to St Petersburg for a Europa League group match against Zenit St Petersburg.

On Wednesday evening there was a stand-off at the Hotel Dostoevsky, where many of the Hajduk fans were staying. Some fifty men wearing balaclavas entered the building and began to attack the supporters with chairs. Four sustained head injuries and were hospitalised.

St Petersburg governor Valentina Matvienko - who has been considered for some time as a natural successor to the Presidency of the Russian Federation - described the attackers as hooligans and vowed to prosecute those responsible.

In response, one Zenit fan contacted newspaper Sovetsky Sport to give his side of events. Essentially, this was much more than football-related violence - this was a defence of Orthodox Slavs (in Serbia as well as Russia) from their "enemies" in largely Catholic Croatia.

The connections between Serbia and Russia run deep. Russia's attempt to defend Serbian independence from the Habsburgs precipitated World War I. Russia's refusal to acknowledge the independence of Kosovo stems to a large degree from sympathy with the Serbs.

Now, if the statement of one Zenit fan is anything to go by at least, this political alignment has found new expression in the footballing arena. One thing's for sure - there will be fireworks at Zenit's Petrovsky Stadium on Thursday night.

The Zenit fan's statement in full:

Let's not evaluate what happened as typical hooliganism. Rather, it is a pre-emptive strike. These Hajduk fans are far from angels, they belong to one of the most serious "firms" in Eastern Europe - Torsida 57. The majority of those 300 fans who have flown to St Petersburg are by no means rich tourists, who have come to support their team and witness the beauty of St Petersburg. They are pretty tough guys who won't back down from a fight.
You don't know what Croatian fans did in Athens during their match with AEK? They came to Greece in even greater numbers - around a thousand people. And, armed with belts, they attacked the Greek police, and ejected them from the stands. Basically, the fight in "Hotel Dostoevsky" is no surprise - what happened could have been predicted in advance. And the Croats were ready for what happened.

As always the reasons are political. Serbs are our brothers, Croats - for well-known reasons - hate them. Given that we are friends with Serbian fans, Croats consider us enemies too. Also, we have our own reasons for being antagonistic towards them. Go on the internet and have a look how their Ultras talk about our churches, our religion. The bad language in these statements are typical. By the way, if you go to a match in Split, I advise you not to speak in Russian or carry scarves or flags which give you away as a Russian. That would be dangerous.

On the bodies of those injured Croatian fans we took away two banners, one of which reads "Torsida Biograd". I hardly need to explain what it means to take away a trophy - a scarf or a banner - from a group of opponents...Now on Croatian websites fans write that they "spit on this banner". Last year they lost one of them, but they just made a new one. But it's doubtful that they'll resolve the situation so simply...
There will be a continuation, though I'm not sure exactly what. I think the Croatian fans will show themselves for what they are. I can't even suggest what exactly we should be expecting. But they will definitely actively "light the touchpaper" in the away end. It's definitely possible that there will be some kind of abuse or provocation from the away end.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

European Football Special: Podcast Episode 2

Question: Name a podcast which crams into an hour subjects as disparate as the history of the Russian city of Samara (1917-91), the buying policy of Stade Rennais, the sporting allegiances of Mainz's Lewis Holtby and the origins of the Serbian ultra-nationalist three-finger salute.

Answer: The European Football Special - featuring in no particular order Chris Nee, Jonathan Fadugba, Graham Sibley, Chris Oakley, Terry Duffelen and myself. Episode 2 is out...now. NOW.