Friday, November 21, 2008

Mystic blog - MacMillings

Scorpio: There can be no more glamorous time or place, Scorpio, to start your International managerial career than a freezing November night in Glasgow. Sorry, no less glamorous time or place.
Lucky Number: 1986. Unlucky Number: 1990.

Sagittarius: No matter how much you preach the virtue of “good areas”, we all know, Sagittarius, that good areas for your squad do not include: Antigua, India, or Any Cricket Ground in the World.
Lucky Letters: K, P.

Capricorn: You might hate your job, Capricorn, but did it ever occur to you that working for a club called Newcastle United Eff Cee is ideal for your talents? Enjoy! It’ll never get better than this – unless, of course, the job at It Is None Of Your Effing Business. What The Eff Are You Going To Do? You Ain't Got The Balls To Be An Effing Manager Wanderers comes up.

Aquarius: My advice, Aquarius? Go at the opposition on Wednesday night. The England players don’t like it up ‘em. Especially from a Mannschaft.

Pisces: You’re top of your World Cup Qualifying Group, Pisces, and you seem to have a Coach with the vision of DaVinci, the organizational skills of Garibaldi, and the sheer, steel stugots of Tony Soprano. But on Wednesday night, the fun stops, as it so often does, in Berlin.
Lucky Number: Probably not 2010.

Aries: From Soulmates (Northwest): “Suddenly wealthy, but underachieving, club (I’m an Aries!), unsatisfied with current relationship, seeking new man. Prefer preposterous former England managers. Ridiculoush Dutch accshent a bonush.”
Lucky Form of Government: Brutal Dictatorship.

Taurus: Mystic Blog is a teacher, and he’s about to drop some science. If 1 Scot + 1 Wimbledon Title = 1 Brit, then I’m afraid you, Taurus, will always = 1 Scot.
Unlucky Letters: SW. Unlucky Number 19.

Gemini: I can’t believe you’re both Gemini, but it’s true. Nevertheless, you’ll never be compatible in the England midfield. If you really are Twins, the only question remaining is, which one of you is the Schwarzenegger, and which the DeVito?

Cancer: Some go to India to find themselves, but all you’ve found there, Cancer, is 15 useless teammates and a strange yearning for the good old days of the South African Quota System.
Unlucky Numbers: 7-0.

Leo: You may have won the hardest race of all, Leo, but if you want Middle America to take you seriously, you’re going to have to do better than this.

Virgo: So, you beat Wigan with a team of children. Congratulations, Virgo. It isn’t going to stop your Lucky Number being 4th. At best.

Libra: Last night, I dreamt I was fighting a South African. A couple of early jabs rocked him, but soon his inexorable assault had me reeling. Next thing I know, I’m lying in the pouring SW London rain with my pants round my ankles. But don’t worry, Libra, it doesn’t mean anything; it’s just a dream. And I’m just the World’s Greatest Sporting Prognosticator.
Lucky Hemisphere: Not the Southern.

In defence of Rijkaard - Allout

This autumn Frank Rijkaard’s stock has fallen more spectacularly than some Icelandic banks’. As Barcelona have smashed six past Atletico Madrid and Valladolid alike, commentators have been quick to praise new manager Josep Guardiola, and contrast his hands-on approach to Rijkaard’s laissez faire style. “It’s because they have a coach now” said Sid Lowe explaining Barca’s recent form on Football Weekly in between his editor’s ropey puns (after 19:30 here).

It is true that last season was shambolic for Barcelona with Ronaldinho disinterested, Messi often injured, Henry uninspired, and the team a disappointing third in La Liga. Their Dutch manager seemed powerless to change the club’s direction. That it was right to let him go is not in question; his legacy and coaching ability are.

Rijkaard struggled during his first months at the club in 2003 and, with Barcelona hovering perilously close to the relegation zone, he was close to being sacked. Barca turned it around spectacularly, though, eventually finishing second that season. This form continued into the next season with the Catalans winning La Liga, and in the 2005-06 season they achieved immortality, winning the Treble of the Champions League (for only the second time in their history), La Liga and Copa del Rey.

With a front four of Eto’o, Ronaldinho, Deco and Messi (or Giuly) Barcelona had an attack that could tear opponents to shreds. It showcased an awesome combination of speed, strength, technique and vision. In the Treble winning season they scored 80 goals, many of them of outstanding quality, in a 38 match campaign.

There was graft allied to this style though. Carlos Puyol may look like the Catalan Worzel Gummidge, and there is definitely something agricultural about his style of play, but his courage and defensive abilities are beyond debate. Together with the Brazilian holding midfielder Edmilson, he provided the graft and heart to accompany the front four’s terrific ability.

With this combination Barca won big matches in style. The peak of their 2005-06 domestic campaign was the 3-0 win at the Bernabeu over arch-rivals Real Madrid with Ronaldinho settling proceedings with a classic goal. And they did this abroad as well, winning a crucial Champions League match 2-1 at Stamford Bridge, showing both substance and style by playing attractive football.

In London two of England’s best teams couldn’t match Barcelona during this time. Jose Mournho’s Chelsea won trophies but few friends with their plodding style; Arsenal had the purists purring but left Highbury’s silver polishers underemployed. Barca, on the other hand, produced the ultimate combination of the beautiful and the effective, winning major trophies but in a style that inspired and entertained in equal measure. It was as close to footballing perfection as I have seen.

So, whilst congratulating Guardiola on Barca’s current form and accepting that Rijkaard had to go, let’s remember the years in the middle of this decade where Rijkaard’s management allowed his team to flourish and be true to that otherwise so demanding of mottos: “More than a club”.

Thinking inside and outside the Box - Mouth of the Mersey

Just three months ago, we could believe that the money was real, but we know now that the money was funny . As the world tips into recession, football is already finding empty spaces in the stands and on the shirts. Like every other industry, football must come to terms with what the credit crunch means for its future.

Even in the days when Tony Benn was the only man who
advocated nationalising banks, Liverpool’s plans for a new stadium progressed glacially slowly and Everton’s plans to move to Kirkby were vigorously opposed. So it’s time to find the middle ground, financially and geographically – a shared stadium for Merseyside’s clubs is the solution and Stanley Park is the location.

Many fans will never entertain such a thought, but those with open minds should read on and imagine this vision as reality.


The shared stadium must seat 80,000 fans with hospitality as impressive as that on offer at The Emirates. A variety of season ticket and multi-match packages should be sold to fans, with single match tickets sold over the internet using a sophisticated real-time price modelling programme (as used by airlines such as Ryanair) which varies prices with availability. Fans willing to buy tickets in packages or in advance for less popular matches would receive hard discounts helping to bring back the supporters, especially young ones, priced out of Anfield or Goodison.


The stadium will have two names, one for each club. Though this would be awkward at first, fans would soon settle into hearing, “Over to (say) New Anfield, where Wigan have taken a shock lead” or “Stuart Hall has a fifth goal for Everton at New Goodison”. Stadiums without their club context are just buildings, so it would be The Stanley Park Stadium for conferencing etc.

Match day experience

The stadium must transform visually to create an “Everton” or “Liverpool” identity. Plain white exterior walls offer the opportunity to project giant images of “Dixie” Dean, Howard Kendall, Kevin Sheedy, and other
Hall of Famers on to the Stadium (for an Everton match) which identify the seating areas (no more Section B16 Row 23 Seat 144, it’s Alan Ball Row 23 Seat 144). This identity is followed through on the website, in promotional materials and on tickets. Inside the stadium, screens, signage and staff uniforms etc are used to brand (sorry, but it’s the right word) spaces according to which team is at home. The transformation would be thoroughgoing and complete, with only the “away” derby feeling artificial.

This proposal honours the rich histories of the clubs, keeps both in a city that is identified by them and identifies with them, and allows the Boards to build the long-term financial stability success requires. Furthermore, it allows live football to be watched by twice as many fans as at present and at a lower price. My father, dead now, but a regular at Goodison for over fifty years, would like the proposal.

Am I alone?
Not quite.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

What's Missing from Football? - Beyond the Pale

For the past two years or so, football's been missing something for this writer, and, what with his his being a bit slow, it's taken this long for him to figure out what that something was. Then it came to him all in a rush, one November morning in the dark, while watching, from many thousands of miles and several cultural light-years away, a famously petulant starlet-of-the-moment gracelessly take out his dissatisfaction with the attentions of that terrifying entity the Stoke City travelling support (and, presumably, with his insufficient 120,000-quid-a-week pay packet) by pouting and complaining all through an afternoon otherwise decorated by his own significantly skilful and by now familiar-to-the-point-of-redundant sporting glory.

Here--playing, mind you, against vastly inferior opposition, in front of some 65,000 of his "home" fans, who support him however much he disrespects them every time he talks to a non-English journalist--the wonderfully gifted lad drives home spectacular free kicks for the first and fifth goals, sets up the second goal, and shows off his spectacular skills with practically every touch. But consider the whole panorama: in the 34th minute he dives theatrically (another of his famous skills), in the 36th minute he utters a bitter complaint (aggrieved is his current standard mode, even when demonstrating his overwhelming genius), in the 40th minute he fakes an injury (poor baby is another familiar chord in his emotional symphony), in the 57th minute he begs for a foul (the mean streets of American cities, in the current encroaching world Depression, offer less evidence of dramatic begging), in the 64th minute we get the I can't-believe-I didn't-score routine (another of his standards), in the 70th minute his ersatz dignity is offended by so low a creature as Amdy Faye (poor me!), a minute later he exacts pettish revenge by retaliating against the hapless Faye, in the 78th minute he again begs for a foul, in the 79th minute his bad miss is accompanied by the shocked how could I? gesture we all know and love by now, and in the 89th minute he puts the last touches to this absorbing panorama (will it be remembered in the future that anybody else was playing in this game?) by scoring his 101st goal for the Theatre-of-Dreams-Team, to the tune of the announcer's fawning gushes--"Whatever he does, he's huge, great box office, great entertainment...Ronaldo has the last word!" Of course this adoring ten-minute video leaves out numerous instances of the young hero's irritation with the heckling of the Stoke supporters, his displays of what in Yank sporting parlance is called rabbit ears or the red ass. But anyone who didn't see the game can paint in those details by-the-numbers to complete the picture.

So, in looking this gift show-horse in the mouth, does one reveal merely an ingratitude bred of inveterate and chronic dyspepsia? How dare one suggest that something's missing from this picture of footballing sublimity at its current radiant pinnacle?

What's been missing, perhaps, are "intangible" things like soul, heart, dignity, pride, integrity, gravity, class: to sum up, all that famous "other stuff" that really has little to do with sport--although indeed not so very long ago the international sport of football did indeed boast at least a piece of it. Whatever one wishes to call this stuff, it was wonderfully embodied, as far as this writer is concerned, in a balding fellow in a blue shirt we last saw on the world stage in the summer of 2006. Zinedine Zidane, for those with micro-memories. To me Zidane represents the antithesis of Cristiano Ronaldo. In his career he embodied everything the latter player, for all his wondrous gifts, is not.

None of this is meant to suggest that Cristiano Ronaldo is not an absolute virtuoso. But it's like the moment in the film Tous Les Matins du Monde (All the Mornings of the World) in which the master musician breaks it to the young wunderkind that virtuosity is only the first step on the ladder to artistic perfection. There are worlds-within-worlds, and worlds-beyond-worlds, that remain to be conquered. And, curiously enough, the conquest probably must begin with a little murmur from that still, small voice within, otherwise known as modesty.

No one could deny the magnificent skills of the pouting, petulant, red-shirted "me first" lad, who has just now helpfully admitted to a Sao Paolo reporter that he considers himself not only the world's best footballer, but the second and third best as well.

But the balding fellow had a few skills also.

And the theme-music title of that last video clip, When We Were Kings, brings me toward the heart of my argument. His impoverished background aside, Zizou always stood out in the world of football for his character, which few could deny bore constant traces of something one can only call "noble" or even "aristocratic".

Just consider for a moment the picture that emerges in the remarkable film Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait.

Scrolling beneath this clip--during which we watch Zizou on the pitch, late in his career, playing for Real Madrid against Villareal, and doing nothing more remarkable than breathing, running a bit, and dispassionately executing a number of routine (for him) yet nonetheless perfect touches--we are given a sense of how this man dealt with crowd response: so very differently than the way the pouter-in-crimson reacted to those wicked Stoke hecklers.

As a child, he says, I had a running commentary in my head when I was playing. It wasn't really my voice... When you step on the field, you can hear the presence of the crowd. There is sound--the sound of noise. When you are immersed in the game you don't really hear the crowd. You can almost decide for yourself what you want to hear. You are never alone. I can hear someone shift around in their chair. I can hear someone coughing. I can hear someone whispering in the ear of someone next to them. I can imagine that I hear the ticking of a watch.
Stillness, inwardness, an ability to be both inside oneself and outside oneself in the same instant of time--are these qualities one often identifies in the footballers we presently admire?

Or, in case performances for which the player is paid nothing might be brought into this argument, see this match "Against Poverty" played on a Monday night in Morocco, two days after the aforementioned United/Stoke "contest". It's a charity game, organized by Zidane himself, together with that other, now all-but-forgotten Ronaldo (the one not named after a Republican president of the United States). Nothing is at stake here but the beauty of the experience of the game--and of the world.

Do those goals made and scored by ZZ for the sheer joy of it matter? Do they help anybody win?
And speaking of unrewarded noble acts on the pitch, who could exceed this one.

This is of course the singular view of an old topiary pachyderm lumbering out on his particular opinion-limb, as he head-butts his way toward the brink of that mortal cliff. Still one can't help wondering: does anybody else miss all that non-sport stuff once gifted upon the sweaty trade of football by the too-soon-departed Zizou?

AhcumfiGovan! - Donwendyagain

So reads a plaque on the desk of Sir Alex Ferguson. It is a stark reminder, if one were needed, of the working class Glaswegian roots of the greatest manager to grace the British game. While Sir Alex may have travelled far from those tough beginnings and now enjoys the finer things in life, on the 50th anniversary of the signing of his first professional football contract, he is still driven by a perpetual motion work ethic and a burning desire to succeed. This desire has often seen him at odds with officials, the FA, opponents the media and even his own players.

Many look at him now and dismiss his achievements on the grounds that he has immense financial might at his disposal and it is this that has brought the success. While it is true that United are a financial behemoth these days many forget that Sir Alex was, allegedly, 90 minutes from the sack in 1990 when a young lad named Mark Robins, remember him, plundered a priceless winner at Forest in the Cup. During those dark days when he was at his lowest ebb he was always the first to arrive and the last to leave Old Trafford or the Cliff. Steadily things got better and with the help of a phenomenal group of youngsters and some astute transfer deals he forged a dynasty of success.

He has often said that he does not want to suffer the same fate as his mentor, the late great Jock Stein, but is difficult to envisage him laying down the Old Trafford reins voluntarily. At the beginning of the 2001-2002 season he prematurely announced he would be retiring at the end of the season only to have a change of heart later in February. He announced then that he would serve at least another 3 years. That was 6 years ago and there are no immediate signs that he is thinking of retiring although he does tease the press from time to time.

And why would he? The current United squad is one of the best ever seen at the club with a heady mixture of tantalising young talent like Ronaldo, Rooney, Tevez, Nani, Anderson, Rafael and battle hardened veterans like Ferdinand, Berbatov & Vidic. He can also call on the wizened old stagers Giggs, Neville & Scholes who have been with him most of the way. With one double already under their collective belts Sir Alex must go to bed at night dreaming of just how good this current crop can become.

Of course the day is steadily approaching when United will have to find their way without the stewardship of their greatest general, a day all United fans dare not think about. But there is plenty of life in the old dog yet and perhaps another treble is not beyond his reach yet. What a fitting finale that would be for the working class boy fi Govan!

Personality of the Year blog - swander

It's been an amazing year for British sport: Team GB collects its finest Olympic haul since London 1908, the youngest ever F1 champion seals a nail-biting victory at the end of only his sophomore season, and tennis sees its first British-born Grand Slam finalist for over 30 years. With no home country involvement in Euro 2008, some new stars finally got to bask in the adulation of their public…which is exactly why the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award must go to John Terry.

The victories of cyclists and swimmers are hollow. Their medals may be gold, but these individuals' legacies are made of brittle wood, disintegrating under the harsh conditions of British apathy. Tennis stars command attention for perhaps four weeks each year, with boxers and racing drivers lucky to receive four days of intense press coverage. These are not sporting heroes; these are fleeting memories, mild distractions as we wait for the next pre-season match from the Amsterdam Tournament, Adidas Cup or Cillit Bang Vase. We cannot allow ourselves to be caught up in the zeitgeist by picking Hamilton, or get bogged down by history in congratulating Murray: it is our duty to honour the man responsible for the single greatest moment of individual sporting drama of 2008, whose detractors shed two tears of joy for every one the man himself shed of despondence.

John Terry led his merry band of brothers to the brink of history, to the heart of his paymaster's Russia, and stood twelve yards from glory. He placed the starred ball in the bitter cold and lashing rain, blinking under the harsh Moscow floodlights as millions around Europe watched what would become a landmark British moment. John Terry's strike was set to be the full-stop to conclude a breathtaking season of football, the culmination of Abramovich's flamboyant project, and so the fact that he missed – that the story was allowed to continue and ultimately reveal one final twist – is the strongest example anyone could possibly provide of a selfless contribution to British sport.

But that's not all. Do we recall Rebecca Adlington's victorious histrionics? Did Hamilton's celebrations extend past the tired champagne-spraying of decades past? These are not even sporting personalities. For the pathetic capitulation, both of his standing foot and his emotional stability, John Terry deserves to be named Sports Personality of the Year. The fact that seven years have now passed since the last true sports personality – a footballer – won the award is truly galling, and can only be rectified by the rightful ignoring of other flash-in-the-pan nobodies. We must give Terry the trophy; it will finally give him a chance to hold something over his head this calendar year.

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