Saturday, May 26, 2007

Football playboys: a "species" in danger of extinction - Pipita

George Best is still regarded as the archetype of the football playboy. During his legendary Manchester United days he appeared practically every day in either the tabloids or tv due to his achievements on the pitch, but also as a consequence of the scandals surrounding his private life. By way of his dribbles, goals and good looks he managed to captivate wide audiences, and brought about the innovation of screaming teenage girls to the English football grounds. Best owned boutiques, night clubs and sport cars and slept with various Miss Worlds. Quite simply, he was football’s answer to the movie actors and rock stars of England’s swinging sixties.

Eventually, a series of footballers with pretensions to achieve the same sort of stardom status emerged in Britain. Rodney Marsh, for example, was purchased by Manchester City in the early seventies because it was thought that both his talent and charismatic image would rival Best’s; however, no player managed to equal Bestie’s iconic playboy image. By the mid-seventies, both Best and Marsh had had enough with grey English weather, muddy pitches and with the rigid disciplinarian principles of both their clubs and the Football Association. They decided to seek exile in the sunny locations of California and Florida to play in the refurbished, and more laid back, North American Soccer League. When they returned to Britain, they played together for second division Fulham and resembled famous actors playing cameo roles rather than professional athletes. Their "partying" was now taking place in the fashionable Chelsea and Knightsbridge districts of London, but their exploits on the pitch were virtually over as Fulham just managed to avoid relegation.

Football playboys were also to be found in other parts of Europe. In the early 60’s northern Italy witnessed the appearance of the "bambino d’oro": AC Milan and Italy classy teenage midfielder Gianni Rivera. However Rivera, in spite of receiving similar film maverick treatment from the press, was not exactly a "rebel" in the style of Best. Unlike the Irishman, he was never reported to have missed training sessions due to the excesses of the previous night. On the contrary, Rivera came across as a more responsible type of player who captained his club for more than twenty years. This lack of rebellious spirit would also later apply to Italian "primadonna’s" of the seventies and eighties such as Paolo Rossi, Giancarlo Antognoni, and Antonio Cabrini. Germany did have eccentric star players with rebellious attitudes, such the cases of Paul Breitner and Gunther Netzer in the seventies, and Bernd Schuster in the eighties, but none of them were much related with the fast life, nor for that matter was the outspoken Johann Cruyff in Holland, probably even more classier and flamboyant than Best on the pitch, but a "family man" off it.

In South America, and especially in Rio de Janeiro, there were however plenty of impudent playboy footballers to be found. Brazilian internationals such as Jairzinho, Paulo Cesar Lima, Francisco Marinho and Argentine carioca legend "Gringo" Doval, set the mood of the seventies with their skills on the legendary Maracana Stadium and with their carnavalesque spirit in the beaches and night clubs of Copacabana, Leblon, and Ipanema. Doval, nicknamed "el loco" (Crazy) in his country, along with his attacking and clubbing partner the legendary "Bambino" Veira, who got his nickname from Rivera, actually paved the way for the arrival of the long haired-rebellious football star in Argentina during the sixties. They were the "party animals" of the so-called "cara sucias" (dirty faces), of a San Lorenzo team that included a bunch of equally talented and charismatic young players, who in spite of not winning trophies, managed to both captivate and scandalize the troubled Buenos Aires society of those years, thanks to their charm and irreverence both on and off the pitch.

Usually the stereotype of the Football playboy is not simply associated with womanizing, clubbing, fast cars and different type of excesses and transgressions, but also with a basic level of quality and grace on the football pitch. The achievement of reasonable degrees of sporting success is another requirement. It is probably for this reason that, in most cases, football playboys also tend to be midfielders or strikers rather than defenders and goalies.

In the last two decades football playboys have been scarce and less flamboyant. Maradona, like Pele previously, in spite of their night life inclinations, have been revered more as "gods" than playboys. Gazza’s image in the nineties in England was more in line with a "fish and chips" aesthetic than with fancy night clubs and Becks, in spite of his jet-setting entourage, somehow lacks the "physique du rol". The notorious rebel and party maniac Edmundo in Brazil and, for different reasons, controversial French stars such as Ginola, Barthez and Cantona, are the latest versions of the football playboy, an almost extinct "species" these days.

Rafa needs to sign "unproven, small names" -Ebren

In the wake of the Champions League final defeat there is talk that Rafa Benitez (not to mention every club in the world) needs to sign some "big names", "proven quality", and "world-class performers".

The idea being to inject some extra match-winning class to move on to the next stage.

But most of the big teams don't do that.

Vieira once complained to Wenger that Arsene needed to sign a world-class player. Wenger replied that Vieira wasn't "world class" when he signed him.

Ronaldihno (PSG), Essien (Lyon), Schevchenko (Kiev), Zidane (Bordeaux), Ronaldo (PSV), Ronaldo (Sporting), Rooney (Everton), Figo (Sporting), Drogba (Marseille), Henry (Juventus - but wasn't playing/rated), Vieira (Milan, but wasn't playing), Van Nis (PSV), Keane (Forrest), Bergkamp (Inter - but wasn't playing), Shearer (Southampton).

The players who have made the biggest impact have tended to be the best players in a smaller league, the best players from a middle-ranking club in a major league, or failed experiments in Milan or Juve.

Players with something to prove, not men who have already made a name.

None of these came cheap (several of them worth more than 20 mil), but the way to get world-class players seems to be to buy players that aren't world class yet.

Barca, Juve, Chelsea, Milan, Man U, Arsenal - much of their success has been built on this type of purchase. When Madrid went out to but "the best player in the world every year", the team was kack.

By contrast, the catalyst that made Barcelona great again was Ronaldihno. From PGS, where there were serious question marks over his ability and his lifestyle.

Ferguson's side needed new life. Ronaldo, Rooney, Carrick, Vidic. Two prospects, two under-rated players.

And he's done it before. Keane and Cantona - British transfer records broken, but neither were seen as "world class" before they reached Old Trafford. Neither were Stam, Van Nistelrooy, Yorke, or a host of others. Veron was a big name when he arrived. So was Barthez.

Mourinho needed to take a talented team and make them winners. Drogba, Essien, Carvalho did that. Even Makelele was disrespected at Madrid (he was on a 'paltry' £10,000 a week). Chelsea sign two "world class names" and it all goes a bit wrong.

Newcastle have spend the last ten years buying "big names" - Kluivert, Owen, Woodgate, Bramble, Parker, Duff, Emre, not to mention Shearer. They let Gascoigne and Carrick go. They have won nothing.

Inter anyone? Moratti spent more than £300m on players to win the Uefa cup.

Some players live up to their world-class status in a new home. For one season Zidane, Figo, and Ronaldo won Madrid the European cup in 2002. But most would agree that the Galactico experiment was not a resounding success.

So my advice to Rafa - if you want the best you have to buy from the second-tier.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Big game fishing more than sport really - DoctorShoot

I balance, supple at the knees as instructed, and curl the 13 foot thrownet across my right shoulder. Balancing in the prow of the dinghy I take up most of the white knotted fabric in my left hand, with the last ten weights clustered in my right, like a Russian bride engulfed in a giant sagging heavy wet veil. I coil to the left ready to cast.

As I look back across my right shoulder waiting for the flickering colours of yellowbellies coming to the bread crumbs I spot a leg sticking out of the distant opposite bank. The leg of a cow discarded by a sated crocodile. An old withered leg poking out of the mud with a bit of dried skin hanging limply off it. In the oppressive wet season heat it is lit oddly by a spotlight of sun shafting through a hole in the clouds. Not a breath of wind.

A crack of thunder brings old William Ezekial to mind. His bellowing laugh across the concrete floor of my office. His skin so black it is blue and grinning like a movie star he wants to know if I can buy a barge. From King Ash Bay to Bing Bong he is Yunyuwa, with more than thirty words for dugong and fifty ways to cook a turtle alive. He sits beside a map of the outstations for whom I am trying to find sustainable avenues of economic survival. An area as big as Wales with islands, estuaries, mangroves, mountains, plains and hidden canyons, and marked with red dots for the 27 outstations.

Can I organise the buyout of the local barramundi man for half a million? I want to laugh back, with him, but he is too far ahead of me, too old, too smart, and too embedded in an ocean of culture in which my little European colonial vision is humbled. I cannot see that far but promise I will try. I am his net.

A yellow flash and I swing into my cast. A great circle floats from my arms and settles gently into the swollen highway of ancient trade that is the Macarthur River. My circle disappears into the deep water. Smooth washed pebbles and casuarina forests watch me from the bank as I step one pace sideways in the boat to balance against my cast. Or try to at least. I can hear the sea eagle laughing from above as I topple sideways, leg caught in the netline.

One assumes that floating to the top is easy but in the silty murk river which hungrily enfolds me all is a half light of wet gloom. I am suspended in the silt. My shorts have come off and I have to work out which way is up. I free my leg and pull on the rope as water forces into my nostrils. The end of the rope passes by me coming down. At least I have discovered the way up.

“We don’t fish” William had told me, “we just live and enjoy. You blokes fish. Sometimes the fish come after us. It’s like a game.”

Something brushes my leg as I leap from the water back into the boat. How did I do that? I check my leg and it still has all it’s flesh intact. The thrownet is gone forever or at least until a big dry when it’s picked out of the riverstones downstream and comes alive in safer hands.

My companion in the boat is an eight year old girl I have been minding. She reads a book and sucks her thumb through pink pre-raphelite lips. She looks up and smiles and goes back to the book. Not my game really, fishing for sport. Best get back and see about that barge.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Dark Arts of Filippo Inzaghi - byebyebadman

Whilst on the phone late on Wednesday night I mentally trawled through the vault of football clich├ęs to find one that offered hope and comfort, but none seemed apt. Rays of sunshine rarely peek out of such generic quotes. My Liverpool supporting friend on the line was understandably devastated, though like many of the players in red gracious enough to concede that his team were beaten by a group of exceptionally talented Milan players. There was one though, the obvious one, to whom he could not extend any goodwill.

“That f*cking Inzaghi.” he moaned. “A deflection and a f*cking tap-in. Sums him up.”

I knew how he felt. As a Manchester United fan (which incidentally wasn’t helping the consolation process any) I watched in horror eight years ago as we went two-nil down inside ten minutes in the second leg of the Champions League semi-final at the Stadio della Alpi. Filippo Inzaghi supplied the first by tapping in a Zidane corner from inches out and minutes later his tame shot took a freak deflection off Jaap Stam to loop over Schmeichel and increase Juventus’ lead. Annoyingly, he wheeled away in triumph at this absolute fluke like he’d just scored a goal worthy of Maradona in his pomp.

And I felt that same gnawing contempt my friend later would towards this man, this anti-footballer, for what he had done. His critics, and they are legion, can compile a veritable shopping list of faults in his game – he has no real pace, a mediocre first touch, his passing is erratic, he doesn’t tackle, he gets caught offside all the time, he offers nothing in terms of build-up play and he’s not very good in the air. He seems totally detached from the game until the ball arrives in the penalty area, at which point it will invariably drop to his feet and he will score a simple goal, like the irritating kid on the school yard used to, the kid they called the goal-hanger.

In the low-scoring game of football just scoring goals is not a bad ability to possess, and Inzaghi has done that with startling frequency during his career. Since his breakthrough season with Atalanta ten years ago he has scored one hundred and twenty-seven goals in Serie A, fifty-eight goals in European club competitions and twenty three goals in fifty-three internationals for Italy. He has winners medals for the World Cup, the Champions League and the Serie A title, which makes his record at first glance seem like that of one of the great strikers of his era. And yet for his utter ineffectiveness away from the six-yard box he continues to attract derision and scorn, and move the likes of the great Johann Cruyff to remark “Look, actually he can't play football at all. He's just always in the right position.”

And within that snide comment I believe lies the key to Inzaghi. Football is a game for athletes, for those who possess speed, skill and strength, but it can also be a game for thinkers. Being in the right position as often as Inzaghi manages it is not luck but intuition, a vivid reading of the intentions of other players and of situations that alter by the nanosecond. We laugh at him for being offside nine times out of ten but he is waiting for that one moment where he times his run perfectly and is clean through, alone in that vast green expanse with only the goalkeeper (often the only man on the pitch less technically accomplished than Pippo) to beat. That’s what he did on Wednesday for the second goal, and when his moment arrived he finished with the composure of a man who had, both mentally and physically, been in that situation a thousand times before. A player of this ilk is a selfless indulgence for coaches and teammates alike, yet one that clubs of the stature of Milan and Juventus have been more than happy to oblige.

Now thirty-three years old Inzaghi will probably not get credit for anything he has achieved either in the remaining few years of his career or any time soon after. Eventually though, and as with all players, his years as a footballer will be summarised in a highlights reel of his famous moments, a table of his appearances and goals and a list of his medals and honours. Considering his abilities, or lack thereof, it will be a remarkable CV.

Jerzy Dudek gets lost in translation - allwell

It is a bright Wednesday in Liverpool and Sergei is a happy man. Thickset and swarthy, he wears black trousers and a black leather jacket. A thick gold chain glistens through the open neck of his black polo shirt. Dark hair slicked back in a ponytail, he smiles and waves his copy of The Sun, much to the disgust of his tracksuited sidekick.

“Jerzy Dudek is hero,” says Sergei in an accent thick and luxurious, like treacle, or Jade Goody wrapped in velvet. “In paper he claim to be slave but paid million pound week for playing in football. And most time, he sit watch only.”

Sergei slaps a meaty hand on my shoulder. “Jerzy make job easy,” he says . “Now everyone want to be slave.” For Sergei is a people person. “Human resource,” he says with gravitas.

But not human resources like Yvonne from the third floor. Unless Yvonne devotes her weekends to herding impressionable youngsters into cramped and airless containers, the promise of a better life quickly crumbling into a brothel-bound existence so dark and squalid that those who fail to survive the journey eventually come to be envied.

“Maybe Jerzy really slave, like my girls,” muses Sergei. “Maybe he make sex with Mr Rafa and boys. Maybe wiry Polish body pump and strain like wild goat, red-faced Rafa nod head like Churchill dog and rest team stand round cheer.”

I am burdened with an image that will take some shifting but, as Sergei rumbles cheerfully on, I begin to see how such a regrettable situation might arise…

It all starts innocently enough. Attempting to keep himself occupied on match day, Jerzy lays out some of the kit. Big mistake. In the brutal world of football, any sign of charity is a sign of weakness. So the requests start coming and “Get us a drink will you Jerzy lad” quickly becomes “Oi, Dudek, scrub them boots”, and before long Dudek (for it is always now Dudek) is satisfying the new owners’ lust for profit by toiling 18 hours a day chained to a Singer in the Anfield boot room, knocking out replica jerseys.

Soon that’s not all he’s knocking out. Released for the evening from his sweatshop to serve drinks at the club Christmas party, Dudek allows a techno version of Swing Low Sweet Chariot to stir something deep inside him. Thoughts of freedom and rebellion merge as he sheds a single tear and pops a robot move so discreet as to be barely perceptible.

But he is spotted, there is a shout of “Look, a Pole dancer,” and as the players collapse in merriment Rafa’s eyes begin to twinkle. Next morning the team defend corners to a soundtrack of It’s Raining Men while Dudek writhes around the near post wearing nothing but a blond wig and a cerise diamante thong stuffed with cash. His smile is fixed; his eyes are dead.

…slowly, Sergei’s strangely soothing baritone seeps back into my consciousness. “Grunt, then splash. And that why Jerzy called Safe Hands,” he chuckles, concluding a joke I have no wish to hear.

Then Sidekick speaks. It is brave and unexpected. “Ah, Serge, bang out of order. That’s bad taste, lad, that is.”

The world goes silent. Nobody breathes. His face now utterly without expression, Sergei turns slowly to face Sidekick. I fear the worst.

Suddenly Sergei explodes with laughter. “Bad taste. Yes, bad taste,” he roars, clapping Sidekick heartily on the back. “That what Jerzy say too. I say he get used to it, just like my girls.”

Sergei jerks his head. “Come.” And with that, he lumbers off chortling, “You see what I do? I say come. I very funny man.”

Sidekick doesn’t move. “Some character, your Sergei,” I say.

“Yeah. I think I preferred him when he was Fat Dave from Croxteth and worked the door at Bojangles.”

Ah, so maybe nothing is as it seems. Maybe Sergei is no Ukrainian. Maybe Jerzy Dudek is no slave. And maybe, just maybe, he didn’t say he was.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Home Advantage - DoctorShoot

“Like you they suspect idiosyncrasy of witchcraft. Above all, don't get out too easily...” from The Aboriginal Cricketer - Les Murray.

Contact from Rhino. He only writes letters and is the only person I know who quotes Les Murray. His weightlifter hands played classical guitar for fifteen years but refuse emails, so my news is slow. Rhino is at the annual Imparja Cup, a national indigenous cricket tournament in Alice Springs. Rhino has connections in New South Wales cricket and is jealous that Rod Marsh is “here stealing my future stars”. Signed: “as ever Rhino COP”.

We still exchange letters every year.

I once spent time with Rhino cramped into a university four-wheel-drive during a three week trip from Adelaide to Fregon community for the 1981 aboriginal football carnival.
He had folded his bulk amongst the swags and water bottles and, as we clattered and cramped north into the desert, he recited, through owl glasses, the form for twenty-three community teams we would witness playing in the dust over three days.

We slept on dewy cold earth under star carpets, and woke from primordeal crying dreams, each dawn a little further inland, and deeper amongst camp-fires crackling about eagles and giant goannas.

Before cutting into Pitjantjatjara lands from the highway we stopped into a roadhouse. Last pies and iced coffees. Rhino and I had last beers. Immediately below a battered, two gallon pewter mug, a bar-sign read:
“peacekeeper - if you haven’t had the vote for 18 years f..k off”

Fourteen years earlier a Commonwealth of Australia Constitution amendment granted indigenous australians citizenship. Since our trip to the carnival was partly a celebration of that emancipation, Rhino made the obvious enquiry.

“Keeps blackefellers out. Can’t hold their grog and anyone who doesn’t agree can f..k off too” came the considered reply. The dents in the pewter cup clearly showed that non-compliants were methodically dealt with. Our red, gold, and black armbands made us candidates.
The giant cup stayed on it’s wooden slab. We edged out into the gushing heat. In the shade of a Moreton Bay fig, like refugees, we agreed to always stay in touch.

The football carnival was won by home side Fregon per tradition. Fregon timekeepers kept the grand final going over four hours until their side at last hit the lead and the siren blared it’s conclusion over the mayhem of dancing and music. Fregon had won the carnival cup. We had been a hidden yet intrusive part. My Pitjantjatjara language skills advanced a little, and my understanding of indigenous carnivals and the meaning of reconciliation improved slightly.

Rhino doesn’t tell me who won the Imparja Cup, but adds a PS: he’s “off the grog and going to the Caribbean World Cup”. He fancies the home side at 15/1.
Out of my jealous window giant pines tower clear from sub-tropical rainforest canopies weaving negative blue shapes of mystery; cup after cup of peace across an unending horizon.

A Passionate Prawn Sandwich Fan by Iddy

Growing up I heard my friend’s stories of how their dad remembers standing in the Shed at Stamford Bridge when Chelsea beat Fulham in 1970 something blah, blah, blah…… BLAH.

I was born in Kingston-upon-Thames, some 200 miles away from the team I support now, Liverpool. Amongst my friends, people have their reasons for supporting their clubs - one supports Arsenal because she is a 4th generation Gooner; another supports Villa because he is from Birmingham. My reason for supporting Liverpool was as something as trivial as picking them out from the sticker book, because they had Robbie Fowler.

I wasn’t a Liverpool fan at first - I was actually a West Ham fan. From the ages of 4 to 7, I was a Hammer. My older brother told me that we had to support different teams, therefore he told me to be a Hammer, while my two other brothers were Chelsea and Arsenal respectively. I still remember my times as a West Ham fan - my auntie screaming at me ‘Don’t speak to strangers’ for asking a random man for the West Ham score. My tenure as a West Ham fan came to an abrupt end when my eldest brother told me that West Ham were going to get relegated and were going to sell my favourite players Trevor Morley and John Moncur. From that day onwards, I have been a red.

I am not a Scouser and I never make out I am. I am happy to realise that I am a Londoner Liverpool fan, but to me this is no deficiency, nor does it make me any less of a supporter. If I had the choice of either Everton or Chelsea to go down, I’d pick Chelsea, just because I know more Chelsea fans than Everton - that’s me being honest. I am a proud Londoner and at the same time proud Liverpool fan. It seems people are happy to realise that I am a Liverpool fan when things are going wrong, yet any time success come our way, they are quick to come out with things like ‘Glory Hunter’ or ‘You should support a London team’. In reply to those two quotes, I was supporting Liverpool through the nineties when we won two trophies, moreover, I have no moral obligation to support a London team.

Most people’s parents tell their kids whom to support, yet mine didn’t. My dad isn’t a sports fan, he thinks every player is David Beckham and a team should score when they are inside their own half. I go to football matches on my own accord, I could never expect my dad to drive me all the way to Liverpool, because he doesn’t see the fuss in football. He recently decided to make Fulham his team, however I doubt we will be having lengthy discussions about Brian McBride. I have never been to Anfield - I’ve only seen Liverpool twice, against Crystal Palace and Southampton. If that’s what you call a ‘prawn sandwich’ fan, then that’s fine but I am a passionate one.

I write this piece before the Champions League final and I know the deal. If we lose, text messages from people who are happy to see us lose: if we win, a whole load of gloating and then I am accused of non-patriotism towards the big London! I don’t feel the need to justify my position as a Liverpool fan, yet I know I will have to time and time again. On May 25th 2005 sometime between 10.30 – 10.40, I fought back the tears, as Liverpool were crowned European champions. I wasn’t in Istanbul, I was at home in my Liverpool top, and, at that moment, I felt I had more right than anyone to be a Liverpool fan.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Pakalolo's Return - by Offgrass&Greenside

The Pakalolo taproom is quietish. Nesta is in the grub corner, doing something to a snake. Ingrid and the vicar are catwalking the bar, trying on each other's frocks. Every time one of them climbs up, Offside spotlights her/him with a torch, intoning "The Stripper". Greengrass puts a finger to his lips:

- Cease that bloody moanin', Offy. I'm pennin' a letter o' protest. Now - do you think that Ebren cuts our threads and directs our regulars to Zeph's place just because she writes idolising songs to him, or what?

- Sshhhhhhh. I'm trying to work here. Hey, vicar! You wanna move those hips, man, this isn't your regular Sunday service. We have to get our clientele back, and it's going to take a little bit more than that.

Offside shines the light in Greengrass's very dilated pupils, causing him to recoil in pain.

- Oh, sorry Gigi. Listen, I don't know what's going on with Ebren, but if you ask me, I'd say it's fishy, like. And Zeph's place is nice enough, but it's all poetry readings and fancy cocktails with little umbrellas in 'em and cricket talk. Cricket! (rolls his eyes). Oh, and you know what? I hear Kokomo wants to open his own joint now. Yeah, I wonder what kind of gig he'll put up for a Saturday night, ballet maybe...

(General laughter)

- Hey, vicar, concentrate, will ya? Do you want me to call Mimi for some proper motivation? Hmmm, didn't think so.

- That's the stuff, Offy - hit 'em where it hurts most! Yeh - poetry, tarty drinks and cricket, that's about it. I reckon Ebren really goes for the ladies, me. I mean, he was lusting for our Ingrid until a session among the kegs convinced him that she was a he. (Peers incredulously) Bloody 'ell, vicar, that's comin' it a bit strong!

- No, no, don't worry Gigi, that's part of the routine. And Ingrid doesn't mind, do you ingrid? ("She" rolls her eyes lasciviously). We need to liven things up a bit. But yeah, Ebren does like to have his little harem around. I'm not sure the fellow is all above board either, you know, who do you think called the cops the night Guitou ended up in jail? He's dodgy, I tell ya. He'll be asking us to write proper articles next.

- Yeh, summat like ”Five kosher articles, and you get a free t-shirt with a picture of Ebren. Ten articles, and he’ll sign it for you. Twenty - free off-topic ale for a week.” It’s sweated labour, that’s what it is. Fifty articles, a pub crawl with Mimi. Five taprooms, a pub crawl with Genghis Sidebottom...

An Owl cries as the Blades go down - allwell

So, it’s all down to the final day, and Sheffield United, with a decent home record, play host to their rivals for survival, who are hopeless away. Winner stays up. A draw and the glory is United’s, inasmuch as avoiding relegation to Division Four can ever be considered glorious for a club whose trophy cabinet holds four FA Cups and a League Championship.

For this is not 2007 but 1981, and it’s a bad time to be a Blade. Six years earlier United finished sixth in Division One, playing football with style and a swagger, missing out on Europe by a single point. But their insistence on transforming Bramall Lane from a cricket ground into a proper four-sided football stadium left them skint. A meteoric descent ensued.

Yet, as they tumbled pell-mell through the leagues, they retained a semblance of faded glamour. At a time when English football scouts rarely ventured beyond Ireland, United nabbed Alex Sabella, an Argentinian who went on to represent his country; they snaffled a procession of talented and experienced Division One veterans; strewth, they even bagged a World Cup winner.

But they were rubbish. In 1966 Martin Peters may have been ten years ahead of his time, but now he was five years behind it; Sabella was ill-suited to Division Two never mind Division Three; and the trio of Bob Hatton, Don Givens and Stewart Houston might have boasted almost a million top-level appearances between them but they were older than most continents and moved just as slowly.

Still, as the 1970s drew to a close, recovery looked likely. On Christmas Day of United’s first ever season in Division Three they were top of the league and the following day faced Sheffield Wednesday in the first local derby for 19 seasons. It was the most eagerly awaited event in Sheffield since Marti Caine played The Locarno, and 49,309 people - a record for the division - pitched up to watch a match that is still celebrated in song. By Wednesday fans. United were trounced and failed to recover, finishing the season in twelfth.

The following year they started well again, but again, like an unwanted puppy, they sank after Christmas. Promotion looked unlikely; relegation was unthinkable. Nevertheless, going into the final game, the last drop-spot awaited either United or their opponents, Walsall, whose survival depended on their winning away for the first time since October. As a 12 year old Wednesday fan with a Blade for a brother, I reckoned that sounded like fun.

My memories are unreliable. In my mind the match is tremendous (apparently it was dross), Bramall Lane is packed (actually two-thirds empty) and the longer the game remains goalless, the more relaxed those around me become (more recent experience suggests this is unlikely). Then disaster: three minutes remain and a penalty for Walsall. Is it deserved? I’ve no idea, it’s down the other end. The outcome is clear enough. One-nil down and United are doomed. Anguish abounds (more recent experience suggests this is likely).

But hang on, there’s time for a final attack. “Handball,” screams the crowd and the referee agrees. Salvation. Barely credibly, United have a penalty of their own. It will be the last kick of the season. Score and you stay up; miss and you’re relegated. An injury to the regular penalty taker, Tony Kenworthy, means the honour is bestowed on Bob Hatton (actually John Matthews, but they both had a tache to make the Village People weep so it’s an easy mistake to make).

What’s going on? Bob (that’s John) has bottled it and doesn’t want to know. In his place is Don Givens. That’s good. What’s needed here is experience. An old head who’s been around a bit and played in games more important than a Division Three relegation decider. A man with more than 50 international caps; Ireland’s record goal scorer.

I’m standing directly behind the goal. I pretend to be the keeper. Givens walks up. I prepare to dive the wrong way before marauding around the terraces, arms aloft. Here we go.

He misses, of course. That I do remember. It’s an effort so pitiful that had the real keeper guessed incorrectly he could still have got up, brushed himself down and leaned nonchalantly against the post, smoking a pipe and reading the Daily Telegraph, before sauntering along the goal line and crouching gracefully to scoop up the ball in his cap.

It’s over. Supporters roam the ground aimlessly, bewildered, not knowing whether to dump or have haircut. The emotion is overwhelming. But I’m a Wednesday fan. I don’t care. In fact it’s brilliant. Yet my 12 year old eyes still fill with tears.

Abide with me - duncan23

When unable to get out of bed, my grandfather would loudly demand that the television be carried into his bedroom whenever Cassius Clay was fighting. Other than that I never saw him get very upset and am thankful that a man who had his sole annual teary sniff during Abide With Me didn't live to hear years of wooden caterwauling by Cup Final teams on Top Of the Pops. Those of us who did may have acquired an aversion that has caused us to overlook some magnificent records with a sporting theme. There are three, at least.

The Real Sounds of Africa arrived in Harare in the 1970s. Their joyous narrative of a match between rivals "Tornados v Dynamos (3-3)" is no standard brag, nor much of a cliffhanger, given the title. Yet the exciting blending of rhumba and soukous from their native Congo with Zimbabwean mbira-influenced guitar just can't be denied. The thirteen minute version is the one, as I don't recommend missing the introduction of the teams to "His Excellency, President Kanaan Banana". This record sparked Zimbabwe Football Fever in our house. Santa was asked for Black Rhinos shirts, despite them not actually being in the song, and Moses Chunga remains a family codeword for unstoppable wizard. Players nicknamed "The Computer" or "Kojak" instantly reveal their characteristics. Marvelously, although no team ever falls more than a goal behind, whenever they equalize the Real Sounds sing something along the lines of "2-2, 2-2, they've pulled one back!" The game doesn't actually end it just fades into the ether with eight minutes to go. Utter bliss.

Former Flamengo trainee, Jorge Ben, now known as Jorge Ben Jor, to avoid royalties being mistakenly sent to George Benson, recorded many football songs. "Camisa 10 da Gavea" about Zico, is okay, but "Ponta de Lanca Africano (Umbabarauma)" is Brazilian music at its irrepressible best. Knowledge of the centre-forward in question matters not, we just want The Goal Man to Go! This is taut afro-samba-funk call-and-response ecstasy; as if Fela Kuti, Tom Ze and James Brown signed for your team, with contracts stipulating that the crowd must always be attractive, delirious, and virtually naked. The best argument yet for the winter break.

In the midst of the noble sporting struggle that is cricket, though no sound can match that of bat on ball, some have tried. Sadly, conditions were never ideal for the very English genius Vivian Stanshall to contribute much in this area. The Bonzo Dog Band's "Sport" jibed weakly and the hint of some cricket action buried in the glorious verbal kaleidoscope of "Sir Henry at Rawlinson End" never emerged from the crumbling pavilion of Viv's dreams. Roy Harper's hazy "When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease" (left) was a great doomed knock, especially if we believe it only took fifteen minutes to write. Which brings us to The Cavaliers' creation of "It's A Beautiful Game", just possibly the finest recording dedicated to a sporting theme. Here is an ethereal litany of English cricket legends including Geoffrey Boycott, James Laker, Trevor Bailey, Thomas Graveney, John Augustine Snow, and "Sir" Frederick Trueman, balanced with faux wafts of calypso and didgeridoo. It's as if angels were serenading the dusty heroes on a faraway beach or cloud. Was that a wave or a ripple of applause? This fabulous ode proved as unrepeatable as any of those summers long since passed. I'd especially caution against hearing The Cavaliers unnervingly repeat the word "Tavare" on their album "A Perfect Action", unless you feel you absolutely must.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Sign of the times: Tevez deal could be just the start - ericverschoor

Tevez and Mascherano are not a first. This is why they should be a last.

The door that West Ham has opened, and Liverpool virtually turned revolving, is one any true football aficionado would not hesitate in slamming shut. The door sign reads “Profiteers’ Office”.

Football relations between England and Argentina have a rich history. Highlights are: the sport itself being introduced in the Pampas by British settlers, the laceless ball travelling in the opposite direction, English referees being imported in times of fat cows and paranoia, Rattin in Wembley, Ossie and Ricky, the “Hand of God” followed by the “Goal of the Century”, Beckham and Simeone, Veron and Bassedas, all-seater stadiums. It has been a mixed bag of good, ridiculous, bad and brilliant. The ugly is now lurking in the playertrade routes.

That Argentine football has been in organisational and financial disarray for decades is no news. Despite having a following of world renowned passion, a seemingly inexhaustible quarry of talent and a National Team which tops rankings and bags hefty playing fees, clubs have perennially found it difficult to make ends meet (Boca and Velez are the only current exceptions). Crippling violence, astronomical administrative blunders and ubiquitous corruption and clientelism have devastating effects on balance sheets. Admittedly much of the famine is self-inflicted, but show me a country where the football background differs from the broader social one.

This environment was propitious for profiteers to flourish. “Swirling river, fisherman’s gain”.

Agents mutated. “Meagre” 5-10% transfer commissions for their “hard” work were not enough to placate their Greed. They knew how much European clubs were willing to dish out for a player. They knew how badly Argentine clubs needed cash. Why not offer some financial relief for a bigger percentage of future transfers? Player registration and economical rights were disjoined. Percentages grew steadily whilst the age of players involved fell.

It was only matter of time before Club Directors realised that this was a great way of lining their own pockets on the side. Claiming dire economical circumstances (obviously blamed on predecessors), whole batches of young players are being sold to so called “Investment Groups” for peanuts. Investors are of course always anonymous. The task of stopping the financial rot was now six feet under a heap of notes.

There are now myriad players owned by third parties (well over 50% of all players playing Primera Division). The profiteers loan them (back) to clubs who are merely used as shop windows. Registration contracts lasting more than a year are as rare as 6-all draws, six months being the norm, all of them have clauses in them allowing for termination as soon as a big(ger) fish shows some interest in the player. Control over the player’s future lies completely in outsiders’ hands.

There is one more twist to this spurious scheme. Fifa statutes only regulate registration rights. As economical rights have been severed from registration, and are in hands of actors outside Fifa’s jurisdiction, it’s 5-year contract length limit is not applicable. Players are effectively owned by profiteers until they are bought by a club, whatever time it takes.

Undoubtedly there are some who will claim there is nothing wrong with cunningly playing the market. The same could be said of trading a loaf of bread for heirloom jewelry in a war zone.

“Fair Trade Football”, anyone?

The Tevez-Mascheranogate

It is public knowledge that West Ham has been fined £5.5 million in relation to the signings of Tevez and Mascherano. The club pleaded guilty of entering in a relationship with third parties that could “materially influence its policies or the performances of its teams", and not acting “in the utmost good faith” towards the Premier League.

Two days later they did it exactly the same all over again.

For Tevez to be able to play again for the club they had to provide proof that the relation with the third party holding the player’s economic rights had been severed. They presented the PL a letter sent to the companies associated to the player, in which the club terminates with immediate effect any former agreement. This is plain nonsense, akin to sending your spouse a letter stating: “Don't love you anymore, please pack your bags, we are no longer married”.

There is absolutely no way Liverpool hasn't got some kind of agreement with the owners of Mascherano’s economical rights.

The PL has regulations in place to stop privateers, but somehow they seem to be getting around them. Could be incompetence, or maybe Kia Joorabchian (front man for the third parties involved in this particular affair) was once again one step ahead.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The FA CUP Final May 2007 (Directors Cut) - file

My first match report and if being prepared is the key then the lock is mine. Mrs. File and the little Fillets are all tucked up, the gates are closed, the gas is off and that preferred spot of prime TV viewing location has been cleared of toys, jam and knitting-alia.

We are 6 hours ahead of Wembley meantime here which means that kickoff will be at 9pm. As any seasoned spectator of sport will know; being present at the start is no way to embark on a major occasion, we have to be installed at least an hour early and preferably a week. And that’s why Mrs. File has taken the night off the pearl-one-stitch-one and has volunteered for vigilant guard duty, with lights off, eyes closed and gentle purring she goes to work. How do we sports fans repay our long-suffering spice (plural of spouse?) for all those sacrifices they make in the name of our Dog worship, not even their own Dogs? And do we?

Preparations started well early of course, the whole twilight procession of tiring, feeding, washing, baby powder, pyjamas, reading, sleeping, waking, screaming, shouting, comforting, sleeping has to be set-off an hour earlier than normal. Then there is the beer, nuts, paper, pencil, remote control and cushions to find. Remote is eventually found after half-an-hour in the paddling pool outside. Note to self: scream maniacally at children in the morning and shackle remote to TV. Whilst placing note find 318 similar neglected notes, activate denial and shuffle off for peanuts.

I relax, and gently wonder why it is that the FA cup final build-up is such velveteen nostalgia for me. Somehow those sunny days in May have merged visions of hairy-arsed players and battle scarred managers looking like dangerous schoolboys in the dodgiest of ill-fitting suits with flowers and the perfume of freshly cut grass with the imminence of liberation and school summer holidays.

It seems that no matter how badly they do it, the TV stations are on to a sure thing with me. They certainly push it though. The venerable pundits are wheeled in for my delectation, Steve McMahon is the unrivaled alpha male on ESPN/StarSports here, he’s been there and he’s done it and he enforces the respect of the other guests with ruthless determination. Tonight he comes live and direct from a throbbing Wembley and they’ve decked him out with oversized bubble headphones strapped to his red raw pate.

Singha beer and sagacious punditry is a heady mix and it all starts to flow. I am treated to a frenzied montage of New Wembley that goes off like a strobe then listen to McMahon asserting his bad boy self; ‘in the real world Wright-Philips wouldn’t have started’. Asia’s very own Frank Spencer, Shebi Singh, is then forced to plumb the depths of his insight and comes up with ‘Football’s about today, not history, and the future may never come, so Jose better watch it’, there is a pause, the show continues, I shuffle comfortably.

Eventually Giggs and Rooney fidget on the spot, the whistle blows and the thrash metal of screaming children starts, my eyes flicker and twitch. First Fillette 1 bawls for some unimaginable reason and then, like the little domino he is, Fillet 2 joins in. The door is flung open by a wild-eyed Mrs. File and a tidal wave of sound and emotion hits me smack in the face….

[Limited overs twilight procession, reprise to fade]

ASAP I rush back to my seat to see Rooney pulling up offside, the door is open again and Fillette comes tinkling running over to give me a big hug ‘Sorry Daddy’ she says ‘Never mind’ say I ‘ Can we read a book?’ she says ‘Not now darling’ ‘Why Daddy?’ she says, I shout ‘Mrs. File, HEELP?’ ‘Why Daddy why, why?’ says Fillette ‘Wot now?’ says Mrs. File with a growl…

We re-reinstall the child, bear, doll, sheet, water and increasingly sleepy and ineffective guardian. I pause in the reclaimed silence for the briefest of moments on my way back to Wembley, breathe, sit down and see a beautiful thing. A full Pas de Basque with Bras en Couranne right into the back of Drogba who falls like a sack of kale. Heinze is some little mover; I’ve never seen martial ballet performed with such power, grace and poise.

Terry rolls it into midfield, the telephone rings.

It’s me mum ‘Have your heard from your brother yet?’ ‘[sigh] Not for a week or so why?’ ‘It’s just we haven’t heard from him since Bora Bora and we were just a bit worried, well I say we, it’s more me really than your Dad, probably nothing but…’ File: ‘Have you checked your email?’ ‘Well we’d like to but your Dad has turned it on its side again and we can’t get it back.’ ‘What are you talking about Mum, turned what on it’s side?’ ‘The picture on the monitor’ ‘Do you mean the desktop?’ ‘Everything, he can’t get it to go the right way up.’ I have never heard of this symptom before ‘Err…have you tried turning the monitor over?’ ‘Ohhh, that’s a good idea! FILE [Snr.], FILE SAYS TO TURN IT OVER … TO TURN IT OVER…THE BOX…TO FIX THE ….hold on a minute dear, I’ll get your Dad…. ’

The seconds tick by, Ronaldo falls over …

‘Ooh, File, be a sweetie and dig out the Auckland address while you’re here…’

File, phone to ear waiting waiting, podders off to find long lost address obediently.

After some frantic rooting and rummaging and some rather curt pleasantries I can slide the plastic from my sweating ear and head back. It seems as if the game has livened up a bit in the second half, but what would I know, I’m only the reporter right?

The bedroom door opens again, my heart skips a beat, I hear calm patter of dainty footsteps and bathroom door. I relax slightly and get back to the game; 59 minutes gone and still no score, Drogba finds a bit of space, shoots and the ball hits the post with the sound of smashing glass and ensuing shriek. Heart pounding I head for the bathroom, shoulder barging a groggy Mrs. File for traction as I bank around the corner.

Little Fillette is stock still surrounded by broken glass, like stars on the bathroom floor. I lift her out of space and put her down on dry land, step into the hole she left and wince as shard enters bunion ...

Sweeping pan, brush, newspaper, bin, mop, alcohol (for foot), gasp, plaster, alcohol (for foot owner) and, playing through the pain of a lanced and bleeding corn, I head back to the match only to find that its adverts. The really good one with Bryan Robson selling land investment after taking his extra-double strength monotone paralysis tablets. I take a moment. Has it finished or is it extra time?

I wait, Little Fillete didn’t actually get to pee, Mum and said morcelle emerge once again, clearly sheepish on way to lav. This doesn’t concern me, I’m waiting. Hear flushing and tap, still waiting. Creaking hinges, chirpy studio presenter appears and SQUEAL, BAWL 1, beat, BAWL 2.

I rush, hobble, rush back on this well traveled path with somewhat lessening enthusiasm. It’s amazing how much punishment little fingers can take in door jams isn’t it? Groan; comfort, ice, towel…

To be honest it’s all getting a bit much at this stage, my body demands a cigarette outside with a whole can of beer Thai quickly. I get back to the TV and it’s the same bloody advert again. I slump, I snooze, I wake up to tennis and a deep calm, quiet house.

What have I learnt from undertaking my first match report? Something along the lines of lemon donations and silk purses, lemonade and sows ears.

And perhaps, that it’s difficult to effectively prioritize more than one thing at any one time and perhaps footie and family shouldn’t really vie. This inner conflict leads to perception of external stressors which rock the centre and ripple the mind. Still, as Zephirine reminded me the other day ‘Creativity comes from one of three motives: celebration, revenge or despair.’ So, file is unable to bring scintillating and historic footie commentary but is driven to offer The FA Cup Final May 2007 (Directors Cut). The Director only knows what may come next…

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