Thursday, 25 February 2010

A special/dubious treat

Football fans, members of my extended circle of friends, and illiterates rejoice - The Cynical Challenge has gone from the written word to the spoken one this week. The good people (Gary and Chris) at Two Footed Tackle gave me the opportunity to run amok in their studio for an hour, talking about, amongst other things, this weekend's Premier League fixtures, Champions League and Europa League matches, and why Russian football clubs have the worst names.

All of which you can find here. Listen to it on your way to work. Listen to it on your way home from work. Listen to it in the bath, though try and avoid electrocuting yourself. But most importantly of all, listen to it.

Monday, 22 February 2010

What the Tabloids don't tell you about Portsmouth FC

There's been a lot of hand-wringing, finger-pointing, and much else this week surrounding the plight of Portsmouth FC. It's a pretty sad story which has been documented in great detail and with some skill elsewhere. Some of the most readable and rewarding articles on the sheer hubris and financial calamity which has been the last five or so years at Portsmouth can be found at Pitch Invasion, Two Hundred Percent (and Two Hundred Percent again), and The Observer.

Notice the predominance of blogs in this list - which probably says as much for The Cynical Challenge's choice of reading material as for the treatment of the story in the national press.

Still, though, it seems that only in the "blogosphere" (it's an awful word, I know), and to a lesser extent among the broadsheets, have journalists truly got a handle on the situation at Portsmouth. The tabloid press have treated the story as a scandalous example of financial excess in the Premier League - but for the most part haven't really computed the stark realities of the situation at the club.

Those realities are as follows: 

Firstly, the likelihood of anyone bailing Portsmouth out of this mess is now approaching zero. The club are not only in serious debt, but such is its financial structure that even if these debts were expunged overnight they would still run at a substantial loss.

Secondly, as a result, Portsmouth are in very real danger of going bust. We're not just talking administration and a ten point deduction, but liquidation, which effectively means the club would cease to exist.

This may not be news to many, but it's worth emphasising because, had you only been reading the red tops since the story of Portsmouth's woes broke, you might still think the club could escape this brush with the Grim Reaper (otherwise known as HM Revenue and Customs).

The Daily Mail, for example, reported as late as Sunday that Portsmouth might be able to make a quick buck on central defender Marc Wilson, and implied that the option of administration - in which the club settles its debts under the supervision of its creditors - was still on the table.

The "administration" line has cropped up again and again across the week. On Saturday The Mirror suggested that administration and a nine point deduction would be the expected outcome should Portsmouth fail to find funds by this week to carry on trading. The Sun did likewise a day earlier.

Under the circumstances, though, administration would be a preferable outcome for Portsmouth. The club would incur a points penalty, effectively consigning them to relegation. But it would allow the club to pay off its debts and restructure its finances in preparation, potentially, for a tilt at promotion from the Championship next season.

But administration appears no longer to be an option for Pompey. As the Guardian reported this week,

Simon Wilson, a partner with Zolfo Cooper, the restructuring experts, warns that despite handing in their statement of affairs, Portsmouth still face the very real threat of extinction and that going into ­administration is an unlikely salvation.
"Arguably, the level of debt associated with this case, will mean that it is unlikely that a suitable or willing benefactor will be found," said Wilson. "Portsmouth therefore face the very real threat of liquidation because it is increasingly unlikely that an administration order will be sought or granted."

 In other recent cases, such as those at Leeds United, Southampton and Leicester City, HMRC were owed a substantial amount of money (in unpaid taxes, VAT and PAYE), but had to settle for a fraction of their debt when the clubs went into administration. Leeds United, for example, settled their debts at around 8p in the pound - in other words, only having to pay 8% of the outstanding tax bill - when Ken Bates bought them out of administration in 2007. 

It now appears the taxman has grown tired this situation, and is instead pursuing Portsmouth's liquidation. In this case the club would be shut down and all assets sold off to pay outstanding bills. All players' contracts would be immediately nullified. All the off-field staff would be immediately laid off. Everything of value would be sold off, including the the very name and emblem of Portsmouth FC. The club's registration with the Premier League would be terminated, and Portsmouth FC would no longer exist.

Under these circumstances it is irresponsible for the tabloid newspapers to continue to speak ignorantly of the potential for Portsmouth to survive the season intact. From the viewpoint of The Cynical Challenge only a miracle will save the club - in the form of a philanthropist who is prepared not only to pay off the £12 million in back taxes sought by HMRC, but to bankroll a loss-making business until the end of the season, when contracts and agreements will be up for renegotiation after the club's inevitable relegation from the Premier League.

That miracle looks increasingly unlikely to occur, even as rumours of a buyout from a South African consortium grow. And in dumbly repeating the "administration" line, the red tops are seriously misleading Portsmouth fans. The sooner we come to terms with the likelihood of Portsmouth's demise, the better. It's a bitter pill for those who hold Portsmouth dear to swallow - but more palatable than the shock which an unanticipated liquidation of the club would bring.

It's time to wake up to this likely outcome.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Afghan Cricket: A Valentine's Day Heart-Warmer

Even the most hardened sports fan can be forgiven for having missed one story this week. The press gave a surprisingly muted reception to the news on Saturday that the Afghanistan national cricket team had sensationally qualified for May's Twenty20 World Cup.

Perhaps timing played a role. Unfortunately for the Afghan cricketers, while they were doing some sterling work at the qualifying tournament in the United Arab Emirates, the British and US governments began a headline-grabbing military offensive in Helmand Province in Southern Afghanistan. Still, coming as it did on Valentine's Day weekend, Afghanistan's qualification for the 2010 Twenty20 World Cup in the Caribbean is the stuff of true sporting romance.

Cricket has been played in Afghanistan since the mid-19th century when the country came under British colonial rule, though owing to political instability and patchy infrastructure the sport never really took root. At its nadir, during the Taliban era, playing cricket in the country was banned.

However, parallel to these setbacks to the development of the game, encouraging signs were taking place. Over the border in Pakistan, large numbers of Afghan refugees who had fled during the Soviet invasion, Taliban rule and, more recently, the Allied invasion, began watching and playing cricket again. In 1995 an Afghanistan Cricket Board "in exile" was formed in Pakistan, with the northern Pakistani city of Peshawar becoming a hotbed of Afghan cricketing talent - so much so, indeed, that in 2000 the Taliban relented on their ban, making cricket the only sanctioned sport in the country.

For obvious reasons, since the 2001 Allied invasion cricket has been a secondary concern for most in the country, but following their elevation to international competition in 2008 the team's rise has been meteoric. Consecutive promotions from Division Five to Division Three of the World Cricket League have ensued. 

But these pale into insignificance when compared with the exploits of the team in the UAE last week. In defeating the likes of Ireland and Scotland - both of whom have competed regularly against ICC Test Nations (Ireland famously defeated Pakistan in the 2007 World Cup) - the team demonstrated their readiness to take on the best in world cricket. More than that, their eventual victory over Ireland in the tournament finale, and the awarding of a trophy, represents a tangible achievement. As talented fast bowler Hamid Hassan commented in his blog,

"I am sure that our people want us to bring the trophy back to Kabul and celebrate with us."

One of those brought up on cricket in Peshawar, Hassan, 22, encapsulates the minor miracle of Afghanistan's rise up the world stage. Having fled Afghanistan with his family aged 6, Hassan played club cricket in Pakistan, and as a teenager linked up with the nascent Afghan national side after the fall of the Taliban. According to cricinfo.com's Will Luke,

"[he] was first spotted when playing for Afghanistan in March 2006 in Mumbai when they defeated an MCC side led by Mike Gatting, where the then MCC president, Robin Marlar, noticed his potential, and was stunned to see him bowling in flat trainers [fast bowlers ordinarily wear spikes to add grip]. Hasan toured England with the national side in 2006, playing several matches against county second XIs, winning them all and was drafted onto MCC's groundstaff where he bowled against his hero, Andrew Flintoff, and was quick enough to smash Monty Panesar's helmet in the nets."

It is perhaps tempting to cite the Afghan cricket team as an example of the benefits of the Western-instigated political and social regeneration taking place in the country. Similar sentiments were expressed after Iraq, then in the midst of internecine strife after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, won the Asian Football Confederation's Asian Cup in 2007. 

Then again, one hopes that the team's success will not give rise to a bout of political points-scoring among those who debate the consequences of military intervention in Afghanistan since 2001. Never mind the artificial nature of drawing such conclusions, the upholding of Afghanistan's cricketers as exemplars of the rebirth of the country is rather distasteful. 

Throughout the qualifying tournament none of the Afghan team have shown any desire to send out a political message - even when given an obvious opportunity to do so. When the team defeated the USA on 11th February, Hamid Hassan refused to enter into a discussion of the clear political ramifications of the result, commenting that

"after the match, I had to go to do a post-match media conference and they all wanted to know how it felt to beat USA, but the opposition didn’t matter to me. I was just happy to win another cricket match."

If the story has any message, it is of sport's ability to produce the remarkable. Moreover, events in the UAE can at least provide Afghanistan with some news coverage outside the dominant narrative of war and reconstruction. In these respects, irrespective of where one stands on the political spectrum, Afghanistan's cricketing triumph is something we can all salute.

*A documentary on the rise of the Afghan cricket team is to be aired on the BBC this year. For more details visit http://outoftheashes.tv/

Monday, 8 February 2010

Terry and Tebow - A Moral Maze

Barely could you pick up a newspaper, browse the news online, or take a journey on public transport this week without encountering some opinion about the rise and fall of Chelsea (and now ex-England) captain John Terry. Expectations have been that everybody, from MPs to tabloid journalists, and obviously The Cynical Challenge, has to wade in, and throw its two-penn'orth into, the murky, foul-smelling waters of Terry's sex-life.

If these various vox-pops and opinion pieces about the issue are representative of the general consensus, then the British public are disgusted with Terry's infidelity, and are satisfied with England coach Fabio Capello's decision to strip him of the captaincy. The message is clear - any man who sleeps around, and especially with the ex-partner of an England teammate - is not fit to enjoy the ambassadorial and leadership role which the captaincy bestows.

Two fundamental points seriously muddy the waters of this narrative.

The first is the nature of Terry's indiscretion. Undoubtedly, beyond the tabloid "think of the children" brigade, people are angry. Many have drawn parallels with their own workplace and suggested that if Terry's behaviour were repeated in other professional contexts he might be out on his ear. Others are just upset that Terry - 'Dad of the Year', "my family means the world to me" - has fooled the public about the nature of his private life, and (worse, in a way) sought to cover it up by paying off the parties involved. That includes a rumoured £750,000 payment to Vanessa Perroncel.

As understandable as these reactions are, neither are reasons to relieve Terry of the captaincy. Indeed, the argument that Terry's wandering eye makes him an inappropriate leader of the England team is surely a red herring. As Guardian columnist Paul Hayward notes, it was his misuse of the position of England captain which forced Capello's hand:
"[The argument that] an England captain should be sacked for having extra-marital sex [was something] this saga was never really about. At its heart was persistent misuse of the leader's role: the latest being the allegation that an associate of Terry's management team offered the use of his skipper's subsidised Wembley box for £4,000 in readies."
Coming off the back of revelations in December 2009 that Terry had touted tours of Chelsea's Cobham training ground for £10,000 a pop, along with his contracting of an agency to market himself for advertising and endorsements, Terry's use of the captaincy was teetering towards abuse. The sexual dalliances in this story provide titillation, but not grounds for Terry's dismissal.

Indeed, the ins-and-outs (excuse the innuendo) of Terry's private life are far less interesting than the manner in which they have been discussed in public. And this forms the second reason why we should be more cautious in joining in the public airing of Terry's dirty laundry.

To illustrate the point, let's switch to another major sporting story going on across the Atlantic. Superbowl XLIV is being played literally as I type. It's one of the most-watched sporting occasions on the planet, and for some the most keenly-anticipated part of the Superbowl television coverage is the half-time advert break. Unsurprising really, since, at a cost of around $100,000 per second, each advert is a hand-crafted piece of televisual history.

This year's series of adverts included one rather controversial offering from an organisation named Focus on the Family. Starring Florida Gators quarterback Tim Tebow, rated as one of the NFL's biggest prospects (he will be drafted in 2010), the advert explicitly promoted a pro-life message. Never before has such a potentially divisive issue been given airtime during the Superbowl, and many observers, including one commentary from ABC news, are angry that the usually non-political flavour of sports programming has been tainted.
"If you're a sports fan, and I am, that's the holiest day of the year," wrote Gregg Doyel of CBSsports.com. "It's not a day to discuss abortion. For it, or against it, I don't care what you are. On Super Bowl Sunday, I don't care what I am. Feb. 7 is simply not the day to have that discussion."
Whatever ones view on abortion, it's hard to disagree that the use of a sporting occasion to open up debate on a moral issue leaves a bitter taste.

Sport and morality are uneasy bedfellows. Are sports stars expected to behave as paragons of virtue? Should sporting authorities encourage athletes to give a moral lead? When does a sportsman's private life become of public interest? These are tough questions, but I'm inclined to think that most people would prefer to see sport and morality largely kept separate.

Yet if we heap opprobrium on John Terry for his misdemeanours one minute - in other words, asking sport to be a moral arbiter - we cannot oppose the moral lead provided by the Tebow pro-life commercial the next. It's this inconsistency, this hypocrisy, which exposes an unpalatable truth about the tale of John Terry and Vanessa Perroncel: that Terry's job description does not include the role of moral leader to his fellow players and England fans. Whatever awful things he gets up to in private, they are irrelevant when they have little bearing on his on-field performance.

Euro 2012's own moral dilemma

A brief addendum to the sorry Terry story - UEFA revealed before Sunday's draw for the Euro 2012 qualifiers that, because of an unwillingness to mix politics and sport, neither Armenia and Azerbaijan, nor Russia and Georgia, would be drawn together. It's a point that quite neatly fits in with the argument of this blog - sport and politics, much like sport and morality, do not easily mix.

The problem is, of course, that by pandering to the political factionalism of these warring countries, UEFA has paradoxically done the very thing it sought to avoid - politicising sport, bringing football into the disputes over Nagorno-Karabakh and South Ossetia.

Funny: UEFA was pretty keen to extoll the virtues of sport as a unifying force in a similar example last year, the process dubbed 'football diplomacy' which brought together Turkey and Armenia after nearly a century of strife. Now the goalposts have been moved, it's hard to say where sport begins and politics ends. Like the private life of John Terry at the moment, it's all a bit of a mess.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

The Nostalgia Industry

Zagreb isn't the first place most people think of for a trip away in mid-winter. Nor is it a city which grabs all that many sporting headlines. Those who follow skiing, or who remember England goalkeeper Paul Robinson's night of shame at Zagreb's Maksimir Stadium in 2006, may beg to differ. But, on the whole, I hadn't expected too much to write about in today's Cynical Challenge when I booked to visit a friend in the Croatian capital over the weekend.

The one item of note was, I had assumed, a fairly inconsequential ice hockey match between the local side, ZG Medveščak, and Austrian side EC VSV from the town of Villach. About a fortnight ago, hoping it might provide something to do on a Friday night, I contacted Medveščak and acquired some press tickets.

What I hadn't realised was what a big deal the game was. 

Medveščak are Zagreb's most successful hockey team, having won the domestic championship 14 years out of the last 16 since Croatia emerged from the war in the Former Yugoslavia. Ice hockey, along with many other professional sports, fell apart in the country during the war. But the game is undergoing a resurgence in Zagreb, with Medveščak having been invited to compete in the Erste Bank Liga, comprising teams from across Central Europe, for the first time in 2009-10.

Over the weekend, the club happened to be hosting a special event dubbed the "Šalata Winter Classic". Ordinarily Medveščak play their home games at the indoor Dom Sportova complex. But the Šalata Winter Classic was different - two matches, the first against Villach and the second two days later against the Vienna Capitals, held at Medveščak's former home, the outdoor Šalata Sport and Recreational Centre. These would be the club's first matches at Šalata, by all accounts a much-loved stadium among residents of Zagreb, in nearly 40 years.

Friday's game was an absolute joy. The slightly crumbling stadium was a sell-out, with 4,000 fans turning up to roar on Medveščak, even as the temperature dropped to -5C. The pre-match entertainment only added to the sense that this was a evening for looking back as much as forwards, with renditions of Stompin Tom Connors' The Hockey Song, released in 1973 - a year after Medveščak left Šalata. And, as if to emphasise the point, the crowd joined in a rendition of the Croatian song Za Stara Dobra Vremena - "to the good old times".

Sporting nostalgia works in mysterious ways. It has the ability to unite disparate supporters in a way that discussion of current sporting trends rarely does. The passing of a respected former footballer - one thinks of Bobby Moore or Stanley Matthews as recent examples - seems invariably to provoke eulogies from across the board, irrespective of partisan loyalties, and despite the potential for dissent. Even Manchester City supporters (broadly) respected the minute's applause at a home game after the death of former nemesis George Best in 2005.

In another way, fans often resort to the use of their club's history as a rallying call and a signal of their credibility. Witness the Manchester United fans who, in recent weeks, have adopted the green and yellow of Newton Heath FC, the Old Trafford club's forerunners, as the banner for their movement against the Glazer family - perceived to be outsiders and therefore improper guardians of the club's history.

Toasting the "good old times" in sport isn't always so positively-received, though. In his excellent Englischer Fussball German author Raphael Honigstein argues persuasively that English fans' inflated perception of their country's importance in world football has inhibited their team's performances at international level; while Germany's reluctance to think too hard about its past (particularly the years 1933-45) has allowed players the freedom to play, and win, without the weight of history on their shoulders.

And sometimes nostalgia can even be cynical manipulation. In football especially, the resort to appropriating club traditions - the interviews with faded stars, the tours round dusty old trophy rooms - is often, perversely, a symptom of the destruction of that history. As the game becomes ever more global, and the focus of clubs transcends the local communities which house them, tradition itself becomes commercialised, packaged and sold to fans the same as replica kits. In this way the clubs satisfy the emotional bond between a team and its local support base, while expanding into the global marketplace and thereby, slowly but surely, rendering that bond illusory.

However, albeit viewed from a position of ignorance, the Šalata Winter Classic represented a truly successful return to the roots of a sporting institution, the sell-out crowd a testament to the profound meaning attached to Medveščak's return to the club's Tito-era home.

Friday's game plainly demonstrated the fact that, for many sports fans, remembering their club's past can often be more important than planning for its future. It's a lesson that many who run sporting institutions in the UK may pay lip service to - but Medveščak's example is a relatively rare one, a beacon of credibility in a sea of clumsy attempts by many, particularly in the Premier League, to 'sell' tradition to fans.

The only let-down - the result. Medveščak lost on penalties after a 2-2 draw.

 

One hour to go. Nothing says 'Eastern European sport' like a floodlight pylon

 


Wheel out the prematch entertainment

 


Let's get ready to rumble. By the way, the little yellow lights in the crowd are sparklers

 


Game on!

 


The punching, stamping and general violence begins



A view from the gantry