Friday, 20 August 2010

From our man in China: Beijing v Barcelona

A friend of mine Ally is out in Beijing at the moment, and managed to get along to watch the local side Beijing Guoan play a friendly against Barcelona, boasting the likes of Leo Messi and Zlatan Ibrahimovic but mainly their reserve players.

The generally pedestrian match ended 3-0 but wasn't without incident in the stands. I'll let Ally pick up the story:

Being a pre-season friendly the atmosphere was pretty relaxed on the whole, with lots of people cheering a bit for both sides. We were however sat a few blocks from the Barcelona fan club, which was mainly local Chinese but did appear to include a few Catalonians who had come out to Asia for the tour. Part way through the second half they started a chant and lots of the crowd joined in.
Some nearby Beijing fans - unhappy that lots of Chinese people were cheering for the visitors rather than their local club - decided to respond by filling in the gaps shouting xiabi xiabi, which roughly translated means f***ing c**t.
However some of the Catalans - presumably thinking the Beijingers were showing support for their (not playing) midfielder Xavi - stood up and started to applaud them! Obviously some of the local Barcelona fans told them what it meant though because they quickly sat back down again!!
No such luck though for the match reporter on the official Barca website. He or she reported afterwards that "a number of fans started chanting Barca Barca, to which others replied Madrid Madrid." Either their local translator was embarrassed by the chanting and lied to the reporter about what the home fans were singing, or he/she just thought they'd take the opportunity to call Real f***ing c**ts...

Proof, if ever we needed it, that football (and the associated tribalism) transcends barriers of race, language and politics...

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Photoblog: Derby day in Bucharest

A weekend in Bucharest - hardly the most romantic of holidays, you might think.

Well that depends on your priorities. For me a trip away necessitates a change of scenery, and there's no greater antidote to the sterility of orderliness in the UK (respect for rules, queueing, attentiveness to other people's private space) than spending a few days in the relative anarchy of Eastern Europe. I was looking for a place to spend a couple of days getting away from London, and Bucharest seemed like just the ticket.

So Romania it was - a place where manhole covers are removed, seemingly at random, with the holes left unmarked so that if you happen to not be watching where you're walking, you could find yourself falling 40 feet down to an untimely and unglamorous death in Bucharest's sewer system.

Romania - where the despotic Communist-era leader Nicolae Ceauşescu knocked down 30,000 homes in central Bucharest in order to build for himself a palace. Now used as the country's parliament, it is the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon.

But enough of the tour-guide - the main reason for Bucharest as my destination of choice was the football. This weekend was the occasion of the city's second derby between Dinamo and Rapid (Steaua are the best-supported of Romania's football clubs and so their game with Dinamo is considered the bigger derby match).

In the event the game was a classic. Away side Rapid, spurred on by some of the most committed fans I've seen, raced into a 2-0 lead at half time, only for Dinamo to score three times after the break and record a breathtaking comeback win, 3-2. Winger Gabriel Torje was the hero for Dinamo, scoring a brilliant winner which wouldn't disgrace the English Premier League.

I went along with a camera, and a mobile telephone with the police on speed dial, to capture events.

In an article in 2009 Dinamo Stadium was named by The Times as one of the ten best stadiums in the world. One assumes that a predilection for "Communist-chic" was the guiding principle behind such a decision, and it's fair to say that the arena didn't disappoint. A series of characteristic neo-classical statues in Olympian poses man the grounds around the entrances, while the obligatory running track and floodlight pylons, as well as the concrete tower blocks, lent the whole place a distinctly nostalgic air. It's a stadium that never lets you forget where you are.

And here is Dinamo Stadium in all it's glory, as the players warm up.

Overlooking the stadium stands Spitalul Clinic de Urgenta Floreasca - a hospital. During the game patients wearing green smocks and medical workers wearing blue stood out on the balconies to watch. I particularly like the man on the left of the top balcony with a plaster cast on his arm.

These were among the most heavy-duty crowd control units I have ever seen at a football match. Many people - in fact, almost every Romanian - I spoke to prior to the game warned me of the potential dangers of attending the Dinamo-Rapid derby but I didn't take them too seriously until I saw these riot police. In the event, it was among the Rapid fans where the worst trouble occurred...

Just minutes into the game Rapid fans set off a series of smoke bombs from the away end.

The match was halted for a couple of minutes while the smoke cleared. Cue a baton charge from the riot police in the away end.

The scoreboard end in Dinamo Stadium is known semi-formally as the "Peluza [Stand] Cătălin Hîldan" after a former Dinamo player who died on the pitch in a friendly in 2000. The banner dedicated to Hîldan decorates the end behind the goal.

Meanwhile the Rapid fans responded with their own banner - "We wear the cherry-red shirt with pride". Indeed, throughout the game the fans taunted one another by unfurling successive banners. In this photo "Galerie pula" is directed at the fans in the Cătălin Hîldan Stand (known as the Galerie) - let's just say "pula" translates as a particularly nasty word and leave it at that.

Another of the themes for the night's banners was Dinamo's recent disastrous result in Europe. Leading Hajduk Split 3-1 from the first leg of their Europa League third round qualifier, Dinamo - amid whispers of match-fixing - contrived to concede three goals without reply in Split to lose the tie and crash out of the competition. Rapid's fans held up banners reading "Hvala Hajduk" (Thanks Hajduk, in Croatian), and one euphemistically asking whether Dinamo had played "with a handicap". In the above photo Dinamo's fans respond - "Honour cannot be bought, symbols cannot be sold" reads the lower one, while another on display throughout the game spoke of the club as having "a clear conscience".

At full time the Dinamo players celebrated their fine comeback with the Cătălin Hîldan Stand. Those who watch football on the continent will be familiar with the sight of a running track soaked wet by hosepipes, but for those who have never seen this before, it's so that flares and firecrackers which find their way onto the running track from the stands are extinguished.

3-2 indeed.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

David Beckham - A Post-Postscript

Fabio Capello's "new" England beat Hungary 2-1 at Wembley in their first friendly after the World Cup debacle. But perhaps the majority of headlines will concern Capello's pre-match revelation that he does not intend to pick David Beckham again.

Apart from the rather bizarre delivery of this message - "The end for David?" asked ITV's Gabriel Clarke, to which Capello replied: "Thanks" - the England coach was clear that Beckham's age would prevent him from playing a meaningful role on the field for his country. Capello did indicate after the match that Beckham could be called up for a final hurrah in front of the Wembley crowd, but the likelihood is this would be a purely symbolic gesture, an unusual international 'testimonial'.

And so, after 115 caps and 17 goals, the curtain falls on Beckham's England career.

We've been here before of course. When Steve McClaren dropped Beckham in August 2006, many in the media penned the obituaries on Beckham's then 94-cap international record. That he returned to play 21 more times for his country is testament not just to the man's abilities but also to his resolve. In a week in which Paul Robinson and Wes Brown both retired from international football, Beckham's refusal to do so for four years ago suggests a man with great self-confidence and undiminished desire to play.

Which is why, even as Beckham hits his 36th year, The Cynical Challenge risks making a mistake by running a postscript - perhaps more appropriately a post-postscript after the round of eulogies in 2006 - at this juncture.

But the truth is that, as with others from the 2010 World Cup squad (David James in particular), the time has come where we accept that picking the most talented and highly-rated players is over. I've argued elsewhere that after the so-called Golden Generation must come an appreciation that lazy shoe-horning great players into a tactical system which may not suit them no longer cuts the mustard. This is a watershed, and Beckham is one of the casualties.

So what of Beckham's England career?

His supporters will point to the high points - a superb first goal for England against Colombia in France 98, his magnificent last-minute free-kick against Greece in 2002, his penalty against Argentina that same year to banish the demons of his sending off four years earlier.

Likewise his detractors will cite the failures - the aforementioned petulant red card for kicking out at Diego Simeone, the missed penalties against France in Euro 2004, the sense that his role on the England's right and his preference for the long ball limited the team's creativity.

Both arguments have their merits. But those who watch football with a keen tactical eye see a man who relied too heavily on a "killer pass", and who, despite his well-known prowess with the dead ball, did not score or assist often enough.

Yet Beckham will be missed - and it will be those who watch England only casually who will miss him the most. For Beckham was one of those players who was rated more highly by the non-football-watching public than by devotees, a little like Pele, as struck me in a superbly-argued piece by Brian Phillips on The Run of Play this week.

Some might argue that this isn't important, that being loved by a legion of non-football fans is not the primary role of a football player.

Except that in a period such as the current one, in which England's players have fallen from their lofty perch and no longer command the esteem of the English public, Beckham was a shining light - a man who remains respected in both his on- and off-field guises, and who inspires those who watch him. 

Both in their private lives and their performances on the pitch, England players have disappointed their fans this year. Beckham is himself no saint, but he has not made the same mistakes in his private life as, say, John Terry or Steven Gerrard, nor has he alienated fans by his on-field performances as Wayne Rooney has. He is still loved to an unfathomable degree, as will no doubt be shown should he be granted a last appearance at Wembley in an England shirt.
How unfortunate then that, as Beckham in all likelihood exits the international scene, England needs someone like him more than ever to restore public faith in the team.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Europa League Qualifiers - Ties to watch

Some of us like to use our summer holidays to travel abroad, lay on a beach and forget all about what's going on in the world.

On the other hand, many, including myself, prefer to sit at home and watch the European qualifying rounds. You can always tell which ones we are - pasty white skin, bloodshot eyes (from the late finishes to games in Iceland or Madeira) and able to distinguish FC Honka from FK Spartak Zlatibor Voda in an instant.

For those who revel in obscurity - or perhaps more kindly, for those who love all kinds of football, warts and all - the early rounds of European competition are a godsend. In the middle of the summer break, when hardly any football of consequence is being played, dozens of fascinating ties suddenly fall into our laps.

Moreover, watching games from the far-flung reaches of Europe reveals much about the political and social make-up of the continent.

During last week's tie between Liverpool and FK Rabotnicki in Skopje, for instance, there were many viewers who couldn't understand why the home crowd booed every touch of Liverpool defender Sotirios Kyrgiakos, until it was pointed out the long history of animosity between Macedonians and Greeks.

There was the strange sensation of watching a Champions League qualifier, billed as a big game by many, played in an almost empty stadium. Unirea Urziceni took on Zenit St Petersburg in a drab 0-0 draw, with only 7,000 in attendance at Bucharest's 28,000 capacity Steaua Stadium. The reason? Urziceni is 60km away from Bucharest and has a population of around 17,000.

There was also the unusual spectacle of a European tie on a weekday kicking off at 1pm British time, as Sibir vs Apollon took place in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, six time zones ahead of London. I for one would love to see Sibir progress through the Europa League - the 10,000km round trip from the UK would make it a daunting place to go for, say, Manchester City's feted millionaires.

On Thursday, when the third qualifying round of the Europa League resumes, there a few ties worth keeping an eye on. This week I've picked a few out for in an article which you can read here.

And for those of you with one eye on Liverpool's return leg against FK Rabotnicki, which they lead 2-0 on aggregate, here's 10 trivial things I meticulously researched about the Macedonians.