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Mundial: Why I won’t be watching the World Cup this time
It has been called the beautiful game; in the past even during war the opposing sides played a game; it has made some of its players stars and household names, football or soccer has a global appeal. From the townships in South Africa, to the Brazilian Favelas, the makeshift pitches the world over to the highly pristine pitches in academies, kids the world over learn to kick a ball, and play the game that requires speed, agility, and dexterity in the feet. Kids who just play for fun in an after-school club or to bond with friends. The appeal of this game has been intertemporal.
Generations of kids, begged their parents to stay longer out to play with their friends, asked for another ball, shoes or shorts and each family responded according to their means. After all, football is/was a working-class game. The relative low cost makes it accessible; it allows plenty of kids to play together and build relationships. Football was an equaliser that did not care who you are or where you come from.
I remember as a kid, year after year playing in the summer with the same kids in teams between Greek and Yugoslavians. We were keeping score and the losing side was buying the other side ice-creams. Not quite the golden ornate cup but a wager worth playing 10 games across the summer. We called each other’s teams with the name of the country we came from. My lasting memory was the last time we played together before the civil war in Yugoslavia erupted. The Yugoslavians won and they were chanting “Yugoslavia, Yugoslavia”. Those kids did not come the following summer. In the next summer, the same kids would be carrying the flag and arms of one of the opposing sides armed to kill each other. When football is not the game, disputes are resolved in brutality.
In the past decades, football’s appeal made it the game to watch. The transition to professional football made the game lucrative, some clubs acquired big budgets and of course attracted a finer audience. The pundits, as a former footballer put it, started eating “prawn sandwiches” an indication of their more expensive tastes. Still people stick with the sport because of their own memories and experiences. My first ever game was with my grandfather. We went to the stadium of the club that was to become the team I support for life. The atmosphere, the emotional roller coaster and most importantly a shared experience with someone very dear, that even when they are gone, you carry the sounds, the emotions with you forever.
Some footballers started earning enormous fees for playing the game; the club colours became trademarked and charged over the odds for a simple scarf or a top. The rights to the games sold to private companies requiring people to pay subscriptions to watch a simple game. People objected but continued still to support, although some people were priced out of the game altogether. The game endures because it still resonates with people’s experiences.
In particular, the national games have kept some of their original appeal of playing for your country, playing for your colours! Football is an unpredictable sport and in international events you can have an outsider taking the cup against the odds! Like Greece winning the UEFA Euro in 2004! The games in international tournaments leads to knock out games, with the drama of extra time and of course the penalty shootout. Nail biting moments shared with family and friends. These magical moments of personal and collective elevation, as if you were there with the players, part of their effort, part of their victory.
When the host country was announced some years ago that will be hosting this year’s world cup there were already calls for investigation into the voting process raising concerns. Since then, there have been concerns about the safety of those who work on the infrastructure. Thousands of migrant workers, many of whom are/were undocumented have worked in building the stadiums that the games will be played in. There are accusations of numerous deaths of migrant workers (an estimate from The Guardian comes to a staggering 6,500 deaths). This has raised a significant question about priorities in our world. It is unthinkable to put a game above human life. This was later followed by “the guidelines” to teams and visitors that alternative sexualities will not be tolerated. Calls about respecting the host’s culture adding to the numbers of people calling for a boycott. So why I won’t be watching this time around?
We have been talking for years about inclusivity and tolerance. Women’s rights, LGBTQ+, immigrant rights, worker rights and all of them being trampled for the sake of a competition. Those who have been asked about the issues from the football federation, former footballers and even governments have played down all these concerns. In some cases, they opted for a tokenistic move like rainbow-coloured planes or include the rainbow on national team logo. Others will be issuing rainbow bracelets and some saying that they will raise issues if/when given the opportunity. This sounds too little considering what has happened so far especially all the fatalities caused building all the constructions. If we are not to uphold civil rights and if we are not ready to act on them, why talk about them?
I remember the game for being inclusive and serving to get people together; this competition is setting an incredibly horrible precedent that human life is cheap and expendable; that people’s rights are negotiable and that you can stop being who you are momentarily, because the game matters more than any of the above. It does not! Without rights, without respect, without life there is no game, there is nothing, because there is no humanity. These games do not bother me, they offend me as a human being. If people died to build this stadium then this space is not fit for games; it’s a monument to vanity and greed; hardly sportsmanlike qualities.
“My Favourite Things”: anfieldbhoy
By way of introduction I always find the identification of any favourite things really challenging. However, I’m up for the challenge so here goes. My favourite TV show - I love great TV drama series especially the Saturday night BBC4 offerings. The Bridge, The Killing, Spiral etc. However, they really are not a patch on The Wire which was absolutely the best thing on TV ever! Last year I thoroughly enjoyed Chernobyl. My regular weekly watch includes University Challenge (we all test ourselves don’t we ?) and Newsnight My favourite place to go - Anfield, the home of Liverpool FC. Every time I visit it feels as exciting as the first time. The red set against the vivid green of the pitch, that moment when you ascend the steps and get that first glimpse of the pitch and the smell which is unique and so difficult to describe. It’s magical every time I experience it. No other football stadium compares My favourite city - Whilst Liverpool is very dear to me this would have to be Edinburgh. A great city with its old and new town. Great architecture, great museums and galleries. Cheapest taxis in any city in the UK, within striking distance of the coast, great countryside and it has some smashing hotels and bars. No visit these days would not be complete without a visit to the Oxford Bar My favourite thing to do in my free time - This largely relates to sport. In my youth I played football and cricket to a reasonable standard. Those days are past and so I play golf now with a great bunch of mates at Rutland Water Golf Club. I try to enter as many competitions as possible. It’s a great setting with stunning views across the water. It’s a real test and even if you play badly you are in good company and the walk is good for you. I do walk a lot these days and try to get out for an hour each day. Outside of sport I am very happy spending time with family. We are very close and I get enormous pleasure from my children and grandchildren My favourite athlete/sports personality - Whilst I have supported Liverpool FC all my days and it would easy to say Kenny Dalglish my all time favourite player, in terms of pure sports personality it has to be the genius that was Seve Ballesteros the Spanish golfer who played with his heart on his sleeve, continues to be an inspiration to modern day golfers and watching old footage of his antics on the course is simply magical. This iconic image on the 18th at St Andrews when he won the Open Championship will endure forever. My favourite actor - This one has challenged me the most but in the end, I’m going for Sir Ian McKellen who never lets you down whatever role he takes on. He was born to play “Gandalf” in The Lord of the Rings. The scene on the bridge where he shouts “fly you fools” is a great cinematic moment. His voice is superb, instantly recognised and from what I’ve seen on chat shows seems to be a really nice person My favourite author - Whilst I am reasonably well read and enjoy a range of genres my favourite author is the late Umberto Eco author of The Name of the Rose, Foucault’s Pendulum and my favourite book The Prague Cemetery. Umberto was an Italian novelist, literary critic, philosopher, semiotician, and university professor who worked at several universities across the world although at the time of his death he was professor emeritus at The University of Bologna ……..Never an easy read but really thought provoking with lots of historical references. The recent TV adaptation of The Name of the Rose shown on the BBC was excellent, and I would recommend this book as a way into his work. During the lockdown I have been listening to audiobooks on my daily walk and just listened to Sign of the Four by Arthur Conan Doyle. BBC Sounds is an excellent resource for books and drama My favourite drink - Coffee first thing and tea in the afternoon is my daily routine but when it comes to proper drinks then I love a good Argentinian Malbec, but if pushed it would certainly be Real Ale. We are now blessed with many ales to choose from. More recently I have really been enjoying the wide range of Craft IPAs and other “new world beers”. To sample some of the best locally I recommend a trip to “The Maule Collective” in Northampton or the “Tap and Kitchen” (Nene Valley Brewery) in Oundle. NVB’s “Release the Chimps” is a personal favourite. Whilst many Wetherspoons have a great selection of ales at very affordable prices their owner Tim Martin’s views on Brexit and his response to the lockdown in response to Covid-19 has led me to seriously consider a boycott post lockdown. Finally how could I not mention single malt whisky, especially those from Islay. If I had to choose one it would be have to be Lagavulin. Lagavulin distillery is a malt whisky distillery in the village of Lagavulin on the south of the island of Islay, Scotland My favourite food - Anyone who knows me can tell I love most foods. I have an ample girth as evidence! Very difficult to narrow this down but I do love seafood especially the way the Italians do it. Having lived in Scotland and near the coast we were spoilt with good seafood restaurants. When on holiday abroad fish tends to be my staple diet. Squid, Scallops and Langoustines would be top of the list My favourite place to eat - Again so many on the shortlist, but if I’m honest on a nice summer's day we (the family) love to go for Sunday lunch to Rutland Water Golf club. The food is always special, and the service is exceptional. For a quick lunch we love a pub in Stamford called the “Tobie Norris” where Matthew the landlord (who used to work at RWGC) always provides a warm welcome, good wine, excellent ales based on the season and the food is spot on I like people who - are honest, hardworking and are prepared to put their hand up when they make a mistake. I value those who have a sense of society and are prepared to work for the better of all. I would count myself as a socialist and have always migrated to the left in terms of my politics. I love the following quote from Bill Shankly the legendary manager of Liverpool FC. He stated; “The socialism I believe in isn’t really politics. It is a way of living. It is humanity. I believe the only way to live and to be truly successful is by collective effort, with everyone working for each other, everyone helping each other, and everyone having a share of the rewards at the end of the day. That might be asking a lot, but it’s the way I see football and the way I see life” (cited in Weber 2006, You'll Never Talk Alone, Liverpool: 21) I don’t like it when people - hide behind “window dressing” and therefore lack substance and too easily try to blind us with falsehoods and to use a modern parlance “fake news”. I detest it when people do not take responsibility for their words and actions. In recent times this has been best demonstrated with false slogans on red Buses, bluster about making America great again and social media posts with no regard for the feelings of those under attack. Manners, honesty and kindness are not weaknesses but essential strengths. My favourite book - already addressed above Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery see The Guardian review here to get a sense of the novel My favourite book character - On the basis that would really love to walk in this persons shoes I am going to choose “Rebus” from the novels by Ian Rankin. Who wouldn’t want to live in Edinburgh, work for the police but be a complete maverick, rub shoulders with the underworld and drink in The Oxford Bar. Ok there are some downsides; he supports Hibs but better than supporting Hearts! My favourite film - I’m not a massive film enthusiast, preferring TV and theatre, so this choice is particularly difficult. I did however go to the cinema to watch the Oscar winning Parasite which was excellent and thoroughly deserving of the best picture Oscar. From a bit further back I loved Field of Dreams starring Kevin Costner, where an Iowa corn farmer, hearing voices, interprets them as a command to build a baseball diamond in his fields; he does, and the 1919 Chicago White Sox come. It’s a film that makes me cry every time I watch it mainly as a father son thing. My favourite poem - I really found it difficult to choose between “Easter 1916” by W.B Yeats with it’s famous final lines of; “Now and in time to be, Wherever green is worn, Are changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.” or “Digging” by Seamus Heaney and I finally chose the latter. Mainly because of the line; “By God, the old man could handle a spade.” My old man certainly could, god rest his soul. I recall him saying to me as a child that he didn’t want me, or my brothers for that matter, making a living with a pick and shovel as he had done all his days. He was the typical Irish navvy, who relocated from Northern Ireland in the 1950s for work and to distance himself and his future family from what was to come. The poem has a particular poignancy for me given my use of the pen in my academic career My favourite artist/band - When younger I migrated from an early love of Tamla Motown and soul music to Heavy rock (Uriah Heep, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple ). However as I have grown older I have sort of turned into my parents. Brought up on classic Country and Western I now adore anything broadly classed as “Americana” or Alt Country. Richmond Fontaine, The National, Ryan Adams. Those of you who follow me on Twitter know that in 2020 I have been trying to expand my listening and so far I have definitely discovered the genius that is Stormzy and Dave. I do think I have a very broad taste in music and never thought I could appreciate “Hip Hop” but some of it is very good. My favourite song - La Cienga Just Smiled by Ryan Adams from his album “Gold” no contest.Lyrics mean a lot to me in songs especially when they paint pictures and stories. Extract from lyrics: And I hold you close in the back of my mind Feels so good but damn it makes me hurt And I'm too scared to know how I feel about you now La Cienega just smiled, "see you around" My favourite art - I Love the Surrealists, especially Salvador Dali and my absolute favourite is the Christ of Saint John of the Cross made in 1951 which is in the collection of the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow.
It depicts Jesus Christ on the cross in a darkened sky floating over a body of water complete with a boat and fishermen. Although it is a depiction of the crucifixion, it is devoid of nails, blood, and a crown of thorns, because, according to Dalí, he was convinced by a dream that these features would mar his depiction of Christ. It is genius. I had planned to visit to Kelvingrove art gallery the other week as part of a weekend in Glasgow to watch the famous “hoops” but Covid-19 put paid to that
My favourite person from history - Not necessarily a favourite but If I could go back in time I would want to sit down and have a conversation with this man.
James Connolly was a Scottish-born Irish republican and socialist leader. Connolly was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, to Irish parents. He was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World and founder of the Irish Socialist Republican Party. He was centrally involved in the Dublin lock-out of 1913, as a result of he helped form the Irish Citizen Army that year. He opposed British rule in Ireland and was one of the leaders of the Easter Rising of 1916. He was executed by firing squad following the Rising. My Irish heritage is very important to me in terms of my identity and to be able to explore and understand what made men like Connolly rebels would be fascinating. What is it that makes men like him willing to die for his cause? Steadfast to the end the following quote sums it up; “I said to him, "Will you pray for the men who are about to shoot you" and he said: "I will say a prayer for all brave men who do their duty.". His prayer was "Forgive them for they know not what they do" and then they shot him.” Dr Stephen O’Brien Visiting Professor: Faculty of Health, Education and Society The University of Northampton
The logic of racism
A few weeks ago, Danny Rose the Tottenham and England footballer was in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. He indicated he couldn’t wait to quit football because of racism in the game. He’s not the only black player that has spoken out, Raheem Stirling of Manchester City and England had previously raised the issue of racism and additionally pointed to the way the media portrayed black players.
I have no idea what its like to be subjected to racist abuse, how could I, I’m a white, middle class male? I have however, lived in and was for the best part of my life brought up in, a country dominated by racism. I lived in South Africa during the apartheid regime and to some extent I suppose I suffered some racism there, being English, a rooinek (redneck) but it was in the main limited to name calling from the other kids in school and after all, I was still white. There was some form of logic in apartheid; separate development was intended to maintain the dominance of the white population. Black people were viewed as inferior and a threat, kaffirs (non-believers) even though the majority were probably more devout than their white counterparts. I understand the logic of the discourse around ‘foreigners coming into this country and taking our jobs or abusing our services’, if you are told enough times by the media that this is the case then eventually you believe. I always say to colleagues they should read the Daily Mail newspaper and the like, to be informed about what news fables many of the population are fed.
I understand that logic even though I cannot ever condone it, but I just don’t get the logic around football and racism. Take the above two players, they are the epitome of what every footballing boy or girl would dream of. They are two of the best players in England, they have to be to survive in the English Premiership. In fact, the Premiership is one of the best football leagues in the world and has a significant proportion of black players in it, many from other parts of the world. It is what makes the league so good, it is what adds to the beautiful game.
So apart from being brilliant footballers, these two players are English, as English as I am, maybe more so if they spent all of their lives in this country and represent the country at the highest level. They don’t ‘sponge’ off the state, in fact through taxes they pay more than I and probably most of us will in my lifetime. They no doubt donate lots of money to and do work for charities, there aren’t many Premiership footballers that don’t. The only thing I can say to their detriment, being an avid Hammers fan, is that they play for the wrong teams in the Premiership. I’m not able to say much more about them because I do not know them. And therein lies my problem with the logic behind the racist abuse they and many other black players receive, where is that evidence to suggest that they are not entitled to support, praise and everything else that successful people should get. The only thing that sets them aside from their white fellow players is that they have black skins.
To make sense of this I have to conclude that the only logical answer behind the racism must be jealousy and fear. Jealousy regarding what they have and fear that somehow there success might be detrimental to the racists. They are better than the racists in so many ways, and the racists know this. Just as the white regime in South Africa felt threatened by the black population so too must the racists* in this country feel threatened by the success of these black players. Now admit that and I might be able to see the logic.
*I can’t call them football supporters because their behaviour is evidence that they are not.
The not so beautiful game?
Dr Stephen O’Brien is the Dean for the Faculty of Health and Society at the University of Northampton
The country is in the middle of “World Cup Fever”. At the time of writing, England play Sweden in a quarter final match tomorrow that if successful would see them through to a World Cup semi-final for the first time since Italia 90. We all know what happened next; the so called Gazza semi-final ending in tears. There is a large caveat though to this current wave of football fever. I suspect my friends north of the border are not sharing this fever in the way people are in England given the historic rivalry associated with one of the oldest international contests on a football pitch. That set aside, which is difficult when one is married to a Scot, as a dedicated football supporter the World Cup in Russia has, thus far, been a roaring success. It is probably the best tournament that I can remember watching for all sorts of reasons. Established football nations with a pedigree such as Holland and Italy failed to qualify and the so called “lesser” nations have been punching above their football weight in knocking out pre-tournament favourites Germany and Argentina. It is according to the vast majority of media reports a fantastic spectacle. Everyone seems to have forgotten the political disquiet about awarding the tournament to Russia in the first place with on-going concerns about their recent sporting track record and their place generally on the world’s political stage. I suspect even in Ukraine we are all entranced by the festival unfolding before our very eyes on our television screens each day. Football at Russia 2018 is indeed the beautiful game.
Scratch the surface however and things are perhaps not so beautiful. Any quick google search of the terms football and crime will yield a plethora of news stories, documentaries and other media. The major headline is always hooliganism which has dogged football for years. At its height in the UK in the 1970s the establishment response to this was robust with reference to legislative change, new criminal offences and the re-construction of football grounds to be hooligan proof. Hillsborough changed all that. Not immediately because the hooligan narrative was pervasive throughout the initial reporting, police response, subsequent enquiries and reports. A future blog will explore Hillsborough and the fall out in much more detail. For now let’s return to the World Cup. The hooligan narrative was certainly played out in the run up to the tournament with media reports of the dangers posed by staging it in Russia. By and large this has not materialised, but it must be clear that hooliganism and violence are never far away when passions run high but let’s hope it stays away. The other term which crops up in the google search is corruption and FIFA as the lead organisation has over the past years never been too far away from claims and counter claims about corruption linked to financial irregularity, bribing of officials in an attempt to win the right to stage the tournament, tax issues and ticket touting. Indeed the evidence suggests that financial irregularity appears to be rife from the top to the bottom of the football organisational structure. This has affected clubs as diverse as Juventus, Leeds United, Hartlepool and Glasgow Rangers. Football is a global business and the financial rewards are immense. The consequences are far reaching for clubs, organisations and the very game itself. I would argue that negativity around the financial implications of football has driven a wedge between club, country and the ordinary fan. Many have become disillusioned with the game.
However, despite the concerns about Russia 2018 and Qatar 2020 something about the actual tournament, the teams competing and the players themselves has changed in many peoples’ minds over the past three weeks. It looks like the ordinary fan is reconnecting. The England team, young and inexperienced they may be but they are social media savvy and have shown that they are also fans of the game and not aloof from the rest of us who marvel at how they and others play. I have even heard die hard Scottish fans remark that they are finding it hard to dislike the England team. Now that is a turn up for the books. The beautiful game may well be a terrible beauty to quote to W. B. Yeats but let’s revel in the current beauty. If anyone is in doubt about the game’s beauty take a look at Brazil’s fourth goal in the 1970 final against Italy. Scored by Carlos Alberta but crafted like a fine poem by the rest of the team. It is magical and my personal World Cup favourite moment.
So as we venture into the final rounds of this year’s World Cup we can all enjoy this international festival of football and hope that things are genuinely starting to change. Success on the pitch means everything and has such an impact on the country as a whole. By the time you read this that fever I mentioned at the start might have been ratcheted up or indeed may have dissipated. As a confessed Republic of Ireland fan I have to admit I’m quietly enjoying England’s success to date and secretly wish them well.