Saturday, May 12, 2007

Good Evening Fellow Scoundrels - Mouth of the Mersey

332 years ago, Samuel Johnson warned us that "patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel" and the intervening period has borne out his point rather well. So how has sport become the last refuge of the patriot? (Betting without the Eurovision Song Contest, on television as I write!)

If we discount Athens vs Sparta some time ago, England vs Scotland football internationals were possibly the first platforms for flag-waving, but that's more the kind of patriotism we see at the Song Contest, so I'll date the start of scoundrel-patriotism with Leni Riefenstahl's extraordinary "Olympia" created to celebrate the Nazi hijacking of Berlin's 1936 Olympiad, but more accurately described as a love poem to the human body in motion as demonstrates. The character of Great Art is its very otherness and I find myself so transported by the beauty of the subject and the technical command and innovation of the film-makers, that it takes the jarring cutaways to the Nazi elite to remind me of Fraulein Riefenstahl's purpose.

Fast-forward seventy-odd years and millions of deaths in the service of misguided patriotism to the most cliched image in sport:

How I long for an Olympic winner to do a much more modest version of Tommie Smith's raised, gloved fist salute by throwing the flag back into the crowd and grabbing the five rings of the Olympic movement, however tainted that symbol may be. No chance of that! More chance of the winner grabbing a flag displaying the Nike swoosh. Here's a reminder of a more potent use of the platform sport provides:

Finally, the next 10 days in England will be filled with football phone-ins and journalism demanding that us English get behind Liverpool's attempt to win a sixth Big Cup in Athens. Leaving aside the dubious "Englishness" of Liverpool as a club (or, perhaps, even as a city), shouldn't every fan of any other English club be willing Maldini and friends to the victory? Frankly, the money earned by Milan from a Big Cup win would be unlikely to be spent on James Vaughan of Everton, but Liverpool's winnings might. And that's enough for me to wish Hannibal and friends well, but hope that they come home disappointed to a Premiership just a little more competitive next year for their defeat.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Football saved Sky - Margin

Sky’s 1000th Premiership match was nearly a dull reserve game between the next FA Cup finalists. Fortunately a postponed Spurs v Blackburn with two goals and rattling woodwork saved us that embarrassment. But how did we get to 1000 games so fast?

Rupert Murdoch’s Sky had a simple aim when it bought football. It sought to save its failing business model by producing content that people would finally pay to watch. High BBC standards in documentaries, comedies, dramas and news meant there was little scope for Pay TV in Britain, and Sky was struggling with low subscriptions. Even films couldn’t stop the rot as people rented videos.

In the years after screening the first match, the same company bought up more and more football. It bought rights to lower league games to stop terrestrial channels offering any games for free. And it had to. Unless it was your team any game from any league would do on a Sunday afternoon.

The plan worked. Within a few years Sky grew its subscriber base on the back of football and used that base to sell more channels, more services, more movies, and most importantly more football.

Thinking back to the first Sky game, in which Teddy Sheringham scored the only goal in a Forest win over Liverpool, it is hard to grasp Sky’s vision. Amid howls of horror and the controversy of Brian Clough declaring he’d stay home to east his Sunday roast instead of manage his team for TV, it was hard to imagine what would follow.

No one would have paid for televised English football back then. Most games were dull. Most teams dogmatically adhered to long ball ‘pragmatism’. And going to home games cost a pittance anyway. People only watched on Sundays because the pubs closed early and the other three channels offered little alternative.

But Sky had an idea.

Depriving terrestrial viewers of live matches was not enough and they knew it. The brand had to improve so they improved the brand big time.

BBC pundits offering stereotypes in place of analysis were replaced by young and enthusiastic ‘presenters’ who scribbled on screens with electronic pens. And out went a range of three angles from three mounted cameras, which allowed for an occasional missed goal they had not caught. To replace that came thirty cameras facing every which way, offering wide shots and close ups spliced together as the action unfolded.

Slow motion replays and Andy Gray’s scribbles rightly drew derision. But they paved the way for computer generated offside lines, animated tactical diagram’s, and the option to watch from the angle of your choice. And that has all been good for us viewers.

But all this was still just gloss over a sadly grim picture. The game itself was awful. Tactics, technique and fitness had stagnated since the seventies. Grounds were dilapidated. And in 1992 the biggest foreign signing the game had known was still that of two Argentineans 1978 that led many to accuse Spurs of effectively cheating.

The game had to change. Attitudes had to change. And Sky had one tool with which to do change things. Money.

Pouring cash into the sport helped. It allowed sides to buy aging stars like Klinsmann and Vialli. And those aging stars bought with them new ideas about training and diet that overcame early resistance and rubbed off on managers and players alike. It even allowed sides to bring in foreign managers like Wenger, who overcame a ‘nine pints a night’ culture to make arsenal; the fittest team in England.

The cash did something else too. It enabled clubs to rebuild their grounds. I often lament the loss of great venues like the Baseball Ground or Roker Park. But the Kop is better now than when it was little more than a large bike shed, and White Hart Lane’s futuristic roof-mounted screens are a sight to behold even now they are ten years old.

As the game started to fix itself Sky profited from its vision. The early days of aged stars picking up pensions have long gone. Instead young stars from across the globe queue up to play here.

Ronaldo, widely touted among the world’s best players, has signed a new five year contract to stay in England long term. Cesc Fabregas left Spain to learn his trade at Arsenal. And Essien overlooked Italy to play for Chelsea? That would have been unthinkable in 1992, and for that we should all thank Sky.

Of course there are down sides.

It is now rare to watch a game at three o’clock on Saturday afternoon. People wrongly consider themselves experts about players they have only seen through a cameraman’s lens. Games and players are over-hyped by a medium that needs every game to draw big crowds. And controversy has expanded beyond reality with any contentious refereeing decision, even absolutely correct ones, turned into ‘drama’ for the sake of selling.

But other complaints are fatuous.

Sky money did not create lazy, pampered and over paid stars. Complaints about them have existed for years with little evidence ever offered in the form of concrete examples. And the foreign stars it bought in didn’t invent cheating. John Barnes moved to Liverpool from Watford and admitted he had to get used to going down instead of shooting in the box.

And the most fatuous complaint of all is that Sky has hurt attendances. The oft said truth that gates have fallen this season has been ludicrously linked with football on TV. Yet common sense says that if Wigan, Watford and Reading replace Sunderland, Leeds and Birmingham, attendances must inevitably be lower.

Of course that misdiagnosis is partly Sky’s fault. After all, who are Birmingham, Sunderland and Leeds? Are they on a different channel?

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Argentinos Juniors and the city of goals - ericverschoor

Speak of “City of God” and everybody knows where to look in an atlas. What about “City of Goals”? I am sure many would put in a shout for that title. Cold numbers show that Buenos Aires has the highest number of League Grounds within it’s limits, bar one (sorry, you’ll have to google it, or guess).

Of course this doesn't guarantee you will get a netbashing fest whatever match you decide to attend. Studying this semester’s fixtures, I went for a season ticket at the Diego Armando Maradona Stadium; recently refurbished and enlarged (2004) home of Argentinos Juniors. River, Racing, Boca and San Lorenzo were due a visit. Wallet health played a part too.

Surely the words “Maradona Stadium” , “refurbished” and "enlarged" got your imagination going. A Great stadium to honour the the Great(est) player. Hold it. Next thing you know a Tsunami will be needed to get you closer to reality. Think of it as an indigent’s Highbury. Small pitch, bang in the middle of a neighborhood.

Yesterday it was Boca Juniors’ turn.

On Saturday night San Lorenzo, top of the heap, 4 points clear of Boca, unexpectedly lost against the “Villan’s” Velez. Boca decided to hand in a full strength teamsheet in what could be a key game in their persuit of the “Double” (League+Libertadores). Argentinos had already harvested 6 points from games againt River and Racing in their allotment-size pitch. Riquelme, part of the last golden batch from the Argentinos quarry, snatched by Boca at 16, would be playing his first game in La Paternal. Omens were good.

Argentinos presented a rigid 4-4-2 a la Graham’s Arsenal. Boca, 4-3-Riquelme-2. It was clear from the start thar Boca would have control of the ball and Argentinos sit back looking to counter attack. Lured by the unusual size of the goal when viewed from half way, Boca started to put people forward indiscriminately and it wasn’t long before Argentinos had 2 clear chances (1 wrongly invalidated score). Boca controlled leather and ground, but appeared to be just a sum of individual efforts. Clearly, the team on the pitch was Argentinos.

Like a bully who doesnt realise it is being outwitted, Boca kept on going forward idea-less, only to find out that Argentinos had fine tuned its finishing and deservedly were two goals up (Choy and Nunez). Both scores were textbook fast breaks: deep middfield ball recovery, short one-touch offload, quick long square pass for a wide open player who would storm down the pitch and cross the ball for the forwards, loosely marked one-on-one by returning defenders. Twice the ball went from boot to hair to nylon. Argentinos’ tactics proved to be spot-on (horrid Boca defending aside). Maybe too successful. 65 minutes still ahead.

Surprisingly it was Argentinos who appeared to be fazed by the unexpected state of the affair. An over-zealous result-preservation instinct kicked in. A robust 4-4-2 turned into a bus-like 6-3-1. With only a lone striker to fear, Boca started the siege. Boca had only managed to muster a string of half chances when their deficit was halved 10 minutes before halftime: it had to be something special. It was. A majestic long range shot, ball crossing the line up there, where spiders web (Cardozo). By half time you couldnt avoid the feeling that everything was set for an epic comeback.

Nothing changed at the start of the second half. Argentinos’s dicipline and efectiveness was a distant memory. Boca placed men wide open on both flanks and its fullbacks resembled well oiled pistons of a powerful V12. Defending was’t bad, but the Law of Probability plays against you when crosses shower. 15 minutes into the half Palermo (B) pounced onto the inevitable missclearance and the game was tied. 30 minutes to go.

The stands drapped in blue and gold were roaring. More so five minutes later when Ibarra (B-rigthback), who has the habit of scoring decisive wondergoals, dribbled past a defender and 25 meters out, launched an unstoppable left foot missile. We all saw it comming. A minute later Pontirolli (A-Gkeeper) saved a free header. Could Argentinos stop the rot?

There was plenty of time left (25 min), but the players in red had the semblance of a convict on death row. It was their manager who triggered a change in attitude when the substituted the man in charge of Riquelme with an offensive midfielder (Cordoba x Ortigoza). The gamble paid off 7 minutes later. From a free kick gained by himself, Cordoba crossed and found the head of Joy...sorry Choy, who placed the ball superbly. 3 red headers, 3 goals.

Still circa 15 minutes left and this game had new life in it. The home team could see that their opponents, despite greater quality, started to show the effects of playing middweek, and accepted the blow for blow proposition. Both teams had now a 4-2-4 shape. Middfield was mere transit area and both sets of fans were chanting their guts out.

Palermo had it once, saved by Pontirolli. Argentinos had it twice, the last one just a whisper wide (another header). Amid frantic tempo last resort defending was king.

In the end it was a tie. There was something for everyone in it. Boca came back from 2 down to shave off at least a point from San Lorenzo’s lead. Argentinos certified once again that its castle has thick walls. I enjoyed 6 nice goals and great entertainment. And Buenos Aires has strengthened its claim to be the “City of Goals”.

Man of the Match: Choy (A). Riquelme? I will have to check in the newspapers if he actually made it to the stadium.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Is Football Tart? - file

Which should swiftly be distanced from other, similar but (equally) preposterous, questions such as is football a tart? Are footballers' tarts? Or even is football art?

Is it sour is it sharp, is football tart?

Each game is its very own TV dinner portion of sweet and sour stir-fry pineapple and bitter capsicum, plump chicken breast and sharp spring onions. Each tackle, each, cross, each goal, each mouthful is both dolce and amarone in the mouths of the be-eaters, one mans nasty is another mans nectar depending on their faith in Ronaldo or in Nesta.

Every season is a swashbuckling smorgasbord of perceived and individual delicacies and this one has been no different. The salty caviar of the MU Roma win, the dry and grassy Sauvignon Blanc of Steve Coppell, the wafer-thin slices of pink Sir Alex garnished with tangy Rooney horseradishes, the frankly bizarre smokey bacon flavour goings on at West Ham.

How was your season? Cod and chips and a Cornetto, smoked salmon canap├ęs and papillote of rascass, or sushi and steak tartare? When you burp now what's the overriding flavour? Is it tart?

Sometimes I feel as if I can really taste peoples gastronomic auras, every time I listen to Wourinho I get the strongest bite of green gooseberries, Wenger – prunes, Mark Lawrenson – Heinz tomato soup

I've even started to categorize, it's important because the saccharine experience of a Stevie G volley for a 'pudlian is different again from the thick syrup of an Essien recovery for a pensioner. If one event smacks of ripe mangoes then the other is surely molasses. One Pompey fans gritty trip up to St James's Park is altogether other than the saltiness of a trip across Landan to watch your former manager's new and present manager's old team beat you 4-0. Ready salted crisps and anchovies seem to have been seperated at birth.

Some folk have slipped down the bittery slope of resenting those lucky rich clubs and to them everything they do tastes of cold black coffee and cloves and while it's true that the capitalist gorgon has turned all those unsuspecting blue meanies to stone it is also true that they are as happy as pigs in shit with their eels and mash. But when will they, and all of us, taste freedom from economic servitude? When indeed…

Dave Whelan might argue that footie is not tart enough on rule breakers and it may be true that South American contractual flavours have yet to hit the Lancashire greasy spoons, but it will surely leave a sour taste in his mouth. Can't see how the EPL (Duck Stew) can override an independently commissioned QC (Duck Liver and Port Pate) or how public courts will rule on Premiership points or regulations (Duck Fricassee).

What taste was in De Nilsons mouth after Fererros dainty amuse bouche on Sunday? The sweet peachiness of a run out at the Emirates or just raw rhubarb. What about Alfe Inga Haalands palate or Roy Keanes, cold quiche or vicious vol-au-vent?

How exactly does the Dennis and Ken on-again, off-again romance fit on the menu? Dennis Wise reminds me most of a sociopathic Bangkok motorcycle taxi driver of my acquaintance but if I really had to taste him, at gunpoint for example, then mouse-shit chili's wouldn't surprise me. Ken Bates should naturally be kept in cold storage with the other tubs of I-Can't-Believe-It's-Not-Butter. Leeds is definitely my Pernod. There were, truth be told, some good times but I can't look at them anymore without feeling nauseous.

You've sat at the last supper of the feast of football on the eve of Armageddon, you've eaten the food and drank the wine, some of it was good and some of it was Jean-Alain Boumsong but what was it? Roast beef and yorkies with lashings of English mustard or Meurguez and Harrissa? Sticky rice and tofu or champagne and oysters?

For me its whisky sour with cherries and tequila lime slammers from rusty baked bean cans –, tart.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Offgrass&Greenside - The Bandy Legs Inn

Outside: A sign reads "FOR THIS NIGHT ONLY - PAKALOLO GALORE!!!"

Inside: A suspiciously Tasmanian-looking bloke arranges suspicious-looking foodstuffs on a corner table. Offside sits on a bar stool, teaching a kangaroo to sing "Waltzing Matilda" in Tahitian. Mimi, filling in for Ingrid, is lining them up on the bar.

Greengrass: A pint of off-topic, please, luv.

Offside: I'll have six pints please, Mimi. And the same for my friend here. He's got a title to celebrate and I have to drown my sorrows. Tonight's a night for licking wounds and celebrating togertherness. Let's leave the door open. Everyone is welcome and we need some fresh air.

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