Monday, July 26, 2010

At the end of the day, it's all meaningless.

I have read alarmingly few football books. I'm yet to read any of Eamon Dunphy's output, aside from his Roy Keane biography, nor Hunter Davies, nor Phil Ball. I've read a lot of David Conn's articles, but none of his books. I've read almost nothing.

So far I've tended to keep to the 'tell-all' end of the market, focusing on the biographies of the 'troubled geniuses'; Paul McGrath's Back from the Brink, which started off as a revealing and enlightening insight into a severely damaged upbringing/abandonment and its effect (he spent 6 months at the age of 19 bed-ridden in a psychiatric ward) which by the end had descended (at least for me) into a non-stop litany of matter-of-fact results from such damage, now almost devoid of any context (You drank a pint of Domestos? Wow, what happened next?); Tony Adam's Addicted which hinted at a depth of knowledge and understanding which has been decidedly missing from his management career so far; I even scanned through Stan Collymore's Stan: Tackling My Demons to see what titillating pleasures may be derived ('I leaned in the window and had a bit of a fiddle with the wife', oh that's quality dogging Stan. Roy Evans' daughter, tee-hee).

To readdress this imbalance I visited my local library and picked up Jonathon Wilson's highly-praised Inverting the Pyramid, on the evolution of football tactics. (While I was there I also picked up Richard Williams' The Perfect 10, wherein he dedicates a single chapter each to ten seminal players who played in the number 10 position. I'm, unfairly, wary of anything Williams writes since hearing his 'John Lennon review story'*, but the chapter on Ferenc Puskas which I have read so far was excellent. I'm more confident of getting through this than the Wilson book to be honest.)

Wilson's introduction points at the fundamental difficulty many in this part of the world have in investing too much credence in the over-riding importance of tactics on football matches. His description of a fellow writer casually mentioning that in the end it comes down to the ability of the eleven players on the field seems not to be a self-serving manufactured argument but is quite representative of many in these isles (I'm not 100% sure on which side I come down myself, I'm looking forward to seeing what sway Wilson's book will have on me). This argument, that 'tactics are overrated', is one that I often hear coming at me through my TV screen, by another character from one of my few football reads, John Giles.

David Peace's The Damned United was an incendiary read for me, far better than I had anticipated and quickly encouraged me to find all his books. The Brian Clough of the novel was a powerful creation and seemed to encapsulate not just a lost character but a lost nation (Although I was born as long ago as 1980, the idea of Englishmen being such titans of industry seems alien to me. This period of the novel, when the largest and most powerful, not just football clubs but businesses and services and systems and finances were run by Englishmen and according to English principles, for all the flaws, is something I didn't really see growing up. England used to be so big. Perhaps it's Ireland's increase that has affected this view, but only to a small extent I believe.) The strongest critique of the book I saw argued that the tone was too retrospective and that Peace had taken the Clough we had seen at the end of his career (bitter, disappointed, failing) and transplanted him back to a time when he was in fact much more successful and balanced. This is a strong argument, but I can't help feeling that Peace nailed it. The man, the time, the country. Everything.

Everything includes The Irishman, Johnny Giles, menacingly stalking Clough during his 44 days and greeting all Clough's difficulties with pitiless mirth, 'laughing like a big, black fucking dog'. While Giles successfully sued the author, and later editions have been amended to reflect this, a part of me, perhaps unfairly, believes that Giles would not have brought the case had he not been afraid there was a little truth in the portrayal. A truth I think is evident in Giles' role on Tv.

As a Tv pundit Giles is notoriously non-plussed. Non-plussed by players. Non-plussed by managers . Non-plussed by those sitting beside him. (This has seeped into the public's perception of him and his representative character on the popular parody Apres Match bears an almost permanent look of detached bemusement, as though he can't actually believe the silliness of everything and every one.) He is certainly no ignoramus on football tactics but his overarching concern seems to be character. Mourinho is a good manager far more because of his personality than his tactical acumen. Ferguson's greatest quality according to Giles is his trust in his players, a trust Giles certainly doesn't share in the current crop. Players know is one of his favourite arguments. They know what to do and when to do it and if they don't no tactical change is going to educate or improve them. It may come down to semantics of course as what most refer to as tactics Giles calls 'good defending' etc. It's nonetheless surprising that someone who has played under such renowned managers in Busby and Revie is so dismissive of the job. Despite becoming a manager himself his faith and credence lies squarely with individual players. And John isn't impressed much.

The underlying impression is that it's the tacticians who are the spoofers to Giles. The chancers coming along after the fact to portray the action as a result of planned, by themselves, actions and procedures. Giles seems to have no credence in these charlatans. The question is does this come from lessons learned from experience - Giles pedigree as a footballer is often under-emphasised, maybe due to the timing of his career; he's neither fully of the glorious 1960s (despite making his debut for Manchester United in 1959) nor violent 1970s (despite playing until 1980) but straddles the period a little uncomfortably.

Or is it something deeper, a view Peace appears to hold. In the book, when Clough tries to get Giles onside by excitedly detailing his plans for the future he is met only by Giles' steadfast rebuttal that Giles is concerned only with the past, not the future. While most probably factually incorrect, it succinctly elucidates a type of fatalism rooted in many Irish people, a hopelessness born of shameful history. It's not that we don't think it can be done, it's just that we don't place any stock in it. It could all fall apart tomorrow anyway, why bother building it so carefully?

After I read the book I googled Giles a bit and came across a revealing and strikingly open interview he had given to the Evening Herald which I can't find now unfortunately. In it Giles talked about a period when he was aged about 29 as the only time he had significant doubts in his life. His daily routine had become monotonous. He trained, had lunch, had a nap, had dinner, went to bed. Probably a more accurate description of a footballer's life than the tabloids present. Wondering if he could be bothered carrying his career on much longer he took a trip home to Dublin and when there went out with his father. His father was an unsuccessful footballer who was at his element in a crowd. Popular and enthusiastic, a jack-the-lad celebrating all his seconds on earth. Giles described this meeting as a little epiphany that ensured him his own life was fine. Strengthened by the weakness of others he left for home.

This is not so far from The Irishman of Peace's book I feel. The life of a footballer, certainly in the 70s, was most likely a dull and fairly prosaic existence. Would his father's carefree lifestyle not have been even a little desirable. No, here was one more spoofer. Another know-nothing in a bar tediously detailing his might-bes and could-haves. But the beer soaked bar-fly is no more of a chancer to be dismissed than the earnest tactical professor with his statistics and clip-boards. John places no great merit in either.

Players know maybe.

* If anybody wants to know the Williams/Lennon story - while in his role reviewing music (for Melody Maker?) he was commissioned to review one of John Lennon's new releases (The Wedding Album?). The advance copy he received was pressed up on double vinyl but is only a single vinyl record so two sides were naturally blank. Williams however went on to review it as a double lp, praising the blank sides as audacious experiments etc. I mean it just goes to show you, they think they know everything but they don't know as much...HEY! HEY, WHERE ARE YOU GOING? I'M TALKING TO YOU. I'M SAYING, IT JUST GOES TO SHOW...

Friday, July 23, 2010

What a Funny Story

I wonder who got the power pack?

So then I bought it and it arrived and I started building it and then I got injured and then I had to go back home and I never finished it but my kids were obsessed by Lego so then, you know, I'm good friends with James Corden so I text him, I said 'Can you believe it, I'm playing Man United in 2 days and I'm sat here building a Taj Mahal' and he sent one back saying 'Can you believe it, I'm sat in a hotel and I'm so bored I just said to myself 'Should I shower?'' He said 'I'm talking to myself', so we're both having this really boring conversation

It's the banter in the dressing room I miss the most, the training and matches I can do without being honest.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

We Are All Made Of Stars

The failure of established 'Stars' to shine, certainly in the manner which they had in much of the promotional material issued by sponsors in the run-up to the tournament, seemed a defining feature of the 2010 World Cup. There were many debates around this on Minus the Shooting and Loki posted a piece questioning the ability of the Premier League to create stars. There's a huge amount of interesting tangents here to me and one is the nature of determining a Premier League star.

Star status, as conveyed by the Premier League, seems to be decided by a curiously liquid set of metrics. Nobody's quite sure what they are, but there comes a point when a player seems to be universally agreed to have qualified. It will start off slow, usually appearing in print or among supporters until no less a sage than Alan Shearer will declare some Saturday evening that "For me, he's World Class and at the moment he'd be my firstname on the teamsheet." A little probationary period will then follow where the judgement will be cemented or broken. A continuation of good form will see the endorsements and WAG opportunities start to roll in but a drop in form will do irreparable damage, negating almost all the previous good work. Just a couple of short weeks later may see number one fan Al declare "He doesn't do it often enough for me".

You flunked kid. You only get one shot here and you missed it. Oh well, it's Portsmouth and not Chelsea for you I'm afraid. Perhaps a move to the Bundesliga beckons and that's pretty much Siberia as far as we're concerned.

While there is no one way of ensuring World Class status, obviously it is often based on the number of goals a player scores, with the quality of them (tap-ins versus wonderstrikes etc) perhaps only influencing what kind of World Class player you will be - a great goalscorer being just as feted as a scorer of great goals. So van Nistlerooy quickly became World Class based on aggregate. If you score enough, its undeniable. Steven Gerrard on the other hand may never have been declared World Class were it not for his impressive ability to smash in 20-yard screamers often enough for it to be evident this is down to technique and not luck or opportunism.

Goals scored are the one true way a sport like soccer can be reduced to statistics. If you score 1 in 2 for long enough you're World Class. It cannot be denied. While there may be mutterings about 'not doing it against the big teams' this will only stick amongst a pernicious elite. People want stars. Why are you denying us them with these subtle counter arguments? Despite the increasing awareness of other stats - passes complete, assists made, ground covered - that will even appear on the screen throughout the game, the simple undeniable objectivity of goals scored is unrivaled. There are no variables or doubts or undermining little grey areas. It's your goal, all yours, your name will appear beside it forever in the annals. You can even run off on your own to celebrate it wildly and bask in the glory. Fuck the rest.

This is perhaps why people, at least those casually interested in football in this part of the world, have difficulty deeming a player like Iniesta or Xavi 'World Class'. The appreciation required doesn't fit neatly into a 'News at Ten' style clip reel. The match has to be watched in its entirety to fully appreciate their talent. This makes it difficult to transfer their status across borders the way Beckham's was - you only needed 10 seconds of your time to watch Beckham curl a delicious free-kick into the top corner and you could be safely assured that they weren't trying to trick you. He's World Class, don't you worry about that. But this Xavi guy, what does he do? If he's doing more than i think/notice maybe they all are? Maybe Beckham's doing less? I didn't sign up for this kind of questioning, I want certainty and assuredness from my media interaction thank you.

The result of this desire for certainty is that once World Class status is conveyed it can never be taken away. Michael Owen will be World Class until the day he retires, regardless of form or fitness or changing tactics in the game. It's a permanent title, like a Knighthood. As a result, there will always be some manager, most likely English, that will be willing to 'take a punt on a proven goalscorer'. "We all know Michael's World Class", they'll say, "hopefully we can give him the platform here to show everybody what he can still do". While it is obviously fitting that on retiring certain players are recognised as having been World Class, the difficulty lies in removing that status during their playing career.

The flip-side of course is that if you flunk your initial assessment, judgement can almost never be reversed. This was highlighted when Diego Forlan's victory as Golden Ball player in the World Cup was greeted by unseemly derision by the BBC punditry team. This was Forlan. Forlorn. The Sally Gunnell lookalike who (I think) ushered in the 'yellow card for taking off your shirt' law after an overenthusiastic goal celebration saw the game tipping-off again with Diego shirtless, the offending shirt balled up in his hands, running around terrier-like trying to regain possession. He's obviously improved but, come on, he's the same person. And, you know, it is the Spanish League/Uruguay.

It's funny how quickly arguments that are dismissed as bitty or excessively begrudging when made against a player in the PL - 'He's a flat-track bully' etc. - suddenly become valid when trying to prevent recognition of a foreigners status - 'The Spanish defences are terrible though'. (I wonder is there a precise measurement for a goal scored in La Liga. Maybe it's worth .61 of a Premier League goal?). This is all seemingly done not to protect the player, but to protect the judgement system. The output has to be unchallengeable. Surety is necessary.

I like to imagine Forlan contacting a sort of equivalent to the 'Dubious Goals' panel, some Kafkaesque bureau at the end of an anonymous telephone line, to see if he can get his case heard again. Plead the mitigating circumstances that prevented him from successfully auditioning for a place as a 'Star' during his time in England.

But we can't Diego, I'm sorry. You seem like a really nice guy and we're really happpy that everything's going well for you, we are, but we can't entertain doubt. If we do it for you we're going to have every Joe Soap looking for a re-count and it will make a mockery of the whole system. And we need to protect our current members, we can't go diluting their brand and related employment prospects because we want to have a more fair or efficient system.

And therein lies the rub Diego, if you don't get it first time, you can never get it, but if you do you'll get a first-class ticket to an unrivaled gravy train that never stops running.

It could be you. Or not.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Planned Obsolescence

My mother has a Kenwood Food Mixer which simultaneously represents everything that is good and bad about the human race to her. The Kenwood, as it is referred to, was a wedding present upon marrying my father.

"It's...What year were you born?"
"Well then it's...(counts on fingers)...9, almost 10 years older than you. And it's never given A DAY of trouble."

They don't make them any more. You can't get them. They don't make them.

Sometimes when at a family get together I can see my mother cast her eye around the particular kitchen, to find what food mixer these people have. The relevant mixer will comfortably confirm my mother's gut instinct. It's not The Kenwood. It doesn't look nearly solid enough. Plastic.

My mother sometimes buys denim jeans from Tesco. They can cost as little as 4 euro. But they're just the same as the ones you'd pay 50 euro for in town. There's no difference. They're the same jeans.

"Sometimes I think they're better."

I was flicking through a colour supplement recently advertising a home-ware sale in one of Dublin's big department stores, probably Arnott's. They listed a Kenwood food mixer that was reduced to 299 from 599. I brought this to my mother's attention to try and explain the Kenwood issue from my point of view.

While I do accept things are no longer 'built to last', it doesn't mean they don't exist. Here was proof the standard of The Kenwood was still available, it was just highly priced. The trend in modern consumerism has long moved away from quality to accessibility. We can have more things, at inferior quality. Most people would (perhaps sensibly) opt to buy a cheaper, inferior mixer rather than the 599 Kenwood nowadays.

I like to believe that, in her day, while people had less, what little they had was of a similar standard to that of the most fortunate. Perhaps you had scant furniture, but you had one item that would not have looked out of place in any house in the city, carefully preserved and passed through generations so you too could have a slight taste of what the good life may be like. (I like to celebrate the grace of other people's poverty maybe.)

Now pragmatism rules; They perform the same function anyway. There's no difference between them really, it's all advertising. They're the same jeans.

My mother wouldn't have a word of this. She'd seen those Kenwoods. They're awful. The plastic knobs wouldn't last a week.

They don't make them any more. You can't get them. They don't make them.

Watching Manchester United over the last few years I constantly hope for the club to address the poor quality of its midfield. Try and find a purposeful, powerful body of players that could comfortably rank against their stellar cast of the 90s. Perhaps a big money signing would do it, preferably from one of their rivals. Or maybe they have a box-to-box midfielder in the mould of Roy Keane waiting in their youth ranks. Something is drastically needed to end this limbo-like stasis of an aged Scholes and insufficient Carrick.

I see they're looking at Joe Cole as a free transfer. The similarities to the Owen signing are eerie.

But he's free.

He's just as good as anyone else.

There's no difference.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Mine's a Pint Treble

So the title of this blog refers to a piece of commentary during the Man United-Arsenal Semi-Final replay at Villa Park in 1999, describing a wayward pass from Vieira into Giggs' path from which he scored his 'wondergoal'. I, like 99% of United fans, own the DVD (Or at least those of us who still have the habit of wanting things in a hard copy. I'm increasingly losing this desire as 'space' is starting to seem ever more valuable. Why would I want things cluttering up my universe when it's only ever a mouse-click away?) and not to come over all Nick Hornby-like but I'm surprised at how often I still watch it, and how much enjoyment I still derive from it.

There a lot's of factors that may contribute to the enjoyment and obviously basic nostalgia looms large but I tend not to let any of these impede the joy the 'Treble' has always inspired. I can remember the day it came out. Coming home after working at my first serious job on Dublin's Dart train system I heard a woman(!) tell her husband over her mobile phone that she'd just bought the VHS and it was one piece of dialogue, that I think is the main blurb for the DVD, that caught my attention. It had apparently; 'All the goals, all the games.' It sounded like the most solid, undeniable signifier of supremacy there could possibly be. All the goals, all the games. What more could you feasibly want? All your desires are being met.

And a lot of the Treble is about the games. As pointless as these exercises are, I'm fairly happy to nail my colours to the mast and select the semi-final replay as my favourite ever football game. (It may be hard to find any United fan between the ages of, say, 25-55 who won't plump for a match from that season for their choice.) While the match was undoubtedly objectively exciting - the sending off, the missed penalty, the Giggs goal; who could deny this drama? - it's how the drama was celebrated that pleases me most. I wan't to be there, watching it is not enough. The pitch invasion at the end seems like nothing of the sort. The sheer hilarity of it, the piss-your-pants funniness a mass of people find that a game that was surely, inarguably lost has been snatched as victory. The sight of Bergkamp so disconsolate, struggling to place exactly how he's lost this match and how much blame he has to shoulder considering his excellent performance v. his missed penalty, doesn't bring me awareness - just joy.

In recent times I've been struck by how tense football fans are over results, a curious inverse relationship that as the importance of winning seems to decrease - the lack of a bond between supporters and clubs, the mobility of the players reducing loyalty, the shrinking of genuine challengers to a group that, if they don't win it this year, will win it again soon enough - the impact of results seem to be felt ever more forcefully. When you hear about a Arsenal fan in Africa driving a car into a bunch of African United fans you wonder what on earth are they dealing with through English football clubs (a charge which may well be extended to Irish fans of course)? Jesus, why do you care so much? But it's not just those in distant lands that disappoint, the crowds at Premier League games can seem excessively agitated and nervous, and goals often appear to be less celebrated than welcomed as disaster-averting interventions. Rather than lifting people up, goals/victories are just bringing them back to an even keel. Nowadays I almost never look at a PL game and think, wow I wish I was there.

But that desire to participate, to be there, to fully experience what that unprecedented season was allowing is a defining feature of the time. The most popular t-shirt commemorating the Final win over Bayern simply said YO ESTABA ALLI. I was there. And from us, the global audience, I always thought this desire to be there also has been the main attraction of English clubs. Why people travel thousands of miles to attend one game, to chalk off that item on their to do list. To experience something unique and non-transferable. You choose to support United as much because of the Stretford End as for Roy Keane. For the songs sung about Giggs as much for Giggs himself.

Ferguson always understood this, I feel, and I remember reading a story about his time at Aberdeen where his half-time team talk was just a description of how much the crowd enjoyed the performance so sure was he the team would take as much inpiration from this as he himself did. There are many things about him on the Treble DVD that make me like him - his preserved youth (sometimes watching United now i feel, like a dog beginning to resemble to their owner, Utd can be staid and slow, doing just enough, treating energy as a precious ever-reducing commodity to be only carefully expended); his after-the-fact creditation of the comeback against Liverpool in the FA Cup being the springboard for the whole season (success is always sweeter when it is at the expense of the scousers); and his brilliant display in the Champions League final that encapsulates everything I like about the man - after Sheringham equalises, MacLaren grabs Ferguson's attention by jabbing at his clipboard. He wants to revert to a 5 man midfield to hold the draw. Ferguson dismisses him with a flap of his arm they way you might a foolish child. We'll win this now. Too right.

But my favourite is his interview (with Gary Naylor?) after the Arsenal match. As the interviewer tries to focus on the seriousness, the importance of United's position and how this epic match will have drained the team, Ferguson quickly gives him a lesson in living,

Look, who's to know what's going to happen in football Gary? It could all blow up in our face at the end of the day. But can you forget moments like this? Our supporters will be talking about that for years, our players will be talking about that for years. That's what football's about.

And it's the contrast between the two attitudes, not even philosophies, that I like most. While the interviewer should be the calm one - recognising the bigger picture, the context etc., it's Ferguson, celebrating the joy of transient victory who comes across as the measured perspective. Life is short, victories should be treasured, who does know what tomorrow will bring. This isn't a juvenile immature outlook, it's the calm, sensible, right approach.

Football, eh, bloody hell.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Ghosts in the system

I hadn't really taken sufficient note of the fear the Spanish team, and all their followers, seem to carry arising from their long history of under performance in tournaments before reading some of the posts and comments on Minus the Shooting. It is perhaps this fear and its effect that results in a team that ought to be forward-looking and hopeful culminating in the curiously unsastisfactory experience of watching them. I know I should like them, but there's just something wrong with them.

There are many excellent analyses of this fear, and its possible cause/effect, by contributors there which I won't be able to improve on. Zeno makes the excellent comment that Spain needed to prosper without sacrificing their principles and identity (expressed primarily in their tiki-taka style) to fully exorcise such fears/ghosts. This resulted in them dogmatically sticking with their chosen style of play (and perhaps even prohibited them from adequately addressing any flaws it may have?), contributing greatly to the wrought tension that seemed to categorise this tournament.

Part of me completely agrees with this view, and equally admonishes myself for not being generous enough to hold it myself. Seeing the Spanish bench exstatically rush towards Iniesta to celebrate the winning goal, seeing all these unquestionably great players overcome by the joy of their achievement - and I want to begrudge them this? I really need to get out more.

Part of me also thinks however, that their tiki-taka system is inherently fearful. Their emphasis on retention of the ball, while initially seeming like a commendable, positive philosophy, also has an air of desperation. This terrified panic that we must not lose it. Once you lose the ball, control is lost and you suffer at the fates of these cruel gods. 'Look what happened against Switzerland, we gave them one chance and there was no way back.' Even the Spanish diving, which does seem excessive, seems not to be seeking to gain an advantage but to ensure possession isn't lost, desperately hoping to convert a ball-winning tackle into a play stopping foul (Xavi's penalty dive against Holland being excused as a consequence of the high-stakes 'next goal wins' nature of the final.). If you lose it, they will score. Coming from another Catholic country I understand this sort of belief, this fear of things being out of our hands. Being contrary, I instinctively dislike it. Spain are probably never going to be the team for me.

Another part of me however (and perhaps the largest and true 'meat and potatoes' part of me) thinks Fuck that. Really, what exactly do these Spaniards have to be so haunted by. Seeing Casillas collapse to the the ground in a crushing wave of tears (so overcome was he that a team who have seemed to be on an inexorable 1-0 march to victory have won a match they have been favourites for since 2008) like some unforeseen miracle had just occurred, was just uncouth. I understand it's plainly an emotional time for you, but come on, be a fucking man. What if he didn't win (perish the thought)? How could we all carry on knowing of the injustice that a player who has won 4 La Ligas, 3 Spanish Cups, 2 Champions Leagues and a European Championship may not have a World Cup medal to add to the haul. Perhaps we could create a special award for them to prevent this utter collapse of everything we hold to be right and proper.

I'm sure this seems like bitterness and maybe even that I'm the one lacking perspective, but I can't shake the wrongness of granting their (actually passably successful) history with such gravity. They're not haunted, they're just desperate for success.

If we want to see a true haunting, it's far more evident in someone like Gascoigne. Here is a man so beset by ghosts he seems to embody the experience - the dramatic weight-loss, the incessant shaking, the shock of white hair - that's a haunting, and it's terrible to see. These ghosts are actual, they result from things done, mistakes, crimes, failures, none of which can be (or perhaps feel like they can be) erased or excused by a future action. Gazza is his ghosts, his present a detailed map of all his past wrongs, a living acknowledgement of actions and times we can all pleasantly go on to forget (at least the bits we want to forget). There are no World Cups left for him to address his problems, or at least how he sees his problems, and redemption is forever stuck agonisingly close - a missed penalty, an outstretched leg - leaving him with nothing to do , no point to be made.

At one stage during the final, as another minor scuffle or dive or assault or whatever broke out, Mark Lawrenson said, surprisingly forcefully, 'some of these players really need to grow up'. This will be my abiding opinion of the tournament I feel, football as a product of a system wildly out of control, something I really don't wan't to be part of anymore (in whatever way a spectator is 'part' of it) and so awfully, awfully tedious.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Casino Capitalism

A slight 'Rear Window' style period of recuperation has led me to finally engage actively with the internet, culminating in this blog (I'm really going to have to learn to touch-type). I've also embraced the phenomenon of online poker where, in a striking case of cognitive dissonance, despite being universally held as a 'F@CKING DONK' by almost all other players, I'm happy to say I've being tremendously successful.(Of course there may be no inconsistency here, 'donks' may be perfectly likely to prosper at no-limit poker, perhaps we're even predisposed to it. I'm not sure, I don't know what a donk is.)

Some of my winnings, 100 ever decreasing euro(s), will be going on tonight's final. I think/guess the outcome will be decided either by Sergio Ramos or Mark van Bommell. While I don't have much time for the inordinately celebrated RTE punditry team, Eamon Dunphy's description of Ramos as 'a headbanger, like Paul McShane on steroids' actually seems on the money to me and i think he'll play a significant role tonight, either positively or negatively. While I've backed them both to score and various other scores half my stake is on there being a red card. I would love to see a thoroughly distasteful encounter full of rancour and bad feeling that sours the watching publics' spirits. And I can make a minuscule profit.

Living the dream baby.

Jabulani as capitalist failure?

I've been reluctant to grant too much weight to the idea that the poor quality of the Adidas Jabulani ball is at fault for the poor quality on the field in this World Cup. Part of this is because any criticism of it seems a sort of faulty logic. It can't be poor for both strikers and goalkeepers, can it? Surely what hinders one benefits the other? But criticism of its performance seems universal throughout all players, coaches and pundits - with former Liverpool player, and Adidas Predator boot creator, Craig Johnson composing a 12 page letter outlining its deficiencies to Sepp Blatter and charging it with with the dramatic claim of possibly 'ruining the game as we know it'. Now it seems a body no less auspicious as Nasa have confirmed this opinion, going on to discuss something called the 'knuckle effect' which I'm not overly interested in to be honest, at least at the moment.

What interests me more is the lack of anything anybody can seemingly do about it. From before the start of the World Cup rumblings about the ball were brewing and it quickly became a talking point. Everybody seemingly knew this ball was going to be a problem, so surely our efficient market (which FIFA so willingly embrace), responding to demand and necessity would swiftly rush in and solve this problem effectively - perhaps through re-engineering or replacement with a superior substitute. Er no, that's not possible actually. Due to a very complicated and important process which we'd rather not discuss, no change is available - Adidas have paid us a shit load of money you see.

There's so much invested in this and it is not just money but expertise - the thermo dynamic sealing was supposed to be great progress, a striking display of Western dominance and security that we are still at the forefront of progressive, beneficial technology. Like financial products, efficient market hypothesis, and the complete adoption of a FIRE economy - failure cannot be tolerated. Not that it won't happen, we just won't/can't admit to it when it does. In the same way the financial crisis was initially attempted to be explained away as a smallish problem resulting from an insignificant sub-prime market (rather than the culmination of decades of financial alchemy which is still waiting to truly unwind such is our fundamental inability to deal with it without acknowledging a lot of unpleasant truths about our exact position), the problems were down to altitude apparently. When teams more used to playing at altitude then claimed that they had never experienced this effect, certainly not to this extreme degree, a rebuttal was unforthcoming.

This obvious failure is then compounded by the fact that the ball is displayed absolutely fucking everywhere throughout the tournament. Has the official ball always been such a prominent part of proceedings in recent times (I was away for 2006 but can't remember the ball being such a feature in 2002)? The sight of the players coming out of the tunnel marching towards the ball on its little podium like it's Excalibur's sword, the prominent place on the desk at press conferences - it's a level of product placement that would make Alan Partridge blush. Do Adidas not realise what bad PR this has now become? Can they not do the decent thing and sweep it under the carpet and we can all get back to pretending it doesn't exist.

And surely this is what power, and traditional capitalist success is - the leeway to make mistakes. The surety that you can have a few duds and still reign supreme, comfortable in the knowledge that perhaps there's no room in the market for new challengers or perhaps a more commendable belief that you can still prosper in the future by doing the right thing (hmmm). This clinging to the idea of the Jabulani as something to be celebrated seems jarring. Is it as important to Adidas as financial products were to the banking system? Presumably not, I mean surely scrapping it would not induce bankruptcy, yet this ardent propping up of it seems remarkably similar to the banking industry (and perhaps whole national economies). It's such a display of weakness it makes you feel an instinctive sort of unease.

I had similar thoughts to this in the immediate aftermath of Thierry Henry's handball in the World Cup Playoff. While Irish, I tend not to get too excited by international sport, at least not team sports where they usually comprise a number of people I don't really like. While not struck by righteous indignation by Henry's action, being such a cynical soul, I was taken aback by just how upset I was. At 29 this was undoubtedly the most impacted I'd ever been by a sporting performance (and it was the performance, not the result -we've had a few - that was so astounding: to dominate France (before everyone and their dog was doing it) in not just possession but style! And in Paris! It may never happen again in my lifetime).

When, the admittedly dreadful, John Delaney of the FAI then made the plea to FIFA to allow us into the World Cup as a 33rd team there was almost universal embarrassment among Irish people. While this can be somewhat explained by the curious 'inferiority complex yet willingness to walk down a street pissed with our trousers down' that we seem to carry as a nation, there was a general feeling that this was a preposterous request. Small-time. Cringe-worthy. Personally I couldn't see what was so wrong, wouldn't it perhaps even be charming? An excerpt in the narrative that would need to be explained as an interesting episode in history where in the interest of fair play...

But this is not possible. There is no space in the system for change. Even if we wanted to, we couldn't. While I now expect this from our financial system, part of me was cautiously hopeful that football still had a little maneuverability left in it, where the system was truly dynamic and we were not subject to it. But it looks like yet another another system which on one hand is proclaimed as being in a position of unprecedented strength while on the other everybody is warned any slight change (or perhaps dissent?) could rapidly bring it tumbling down.

Bag of shite.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The curious reluctance to love the Spanish: Part 1, Barca

A debate is raging on the excellent Minus the Shooting regarding the dissatisfaction wrought by Spain's performance at the World Cup so far. A lot of really interesting points are being made about the cognitive dissonance of the media's framing of Spain and the difficulty to be excited by the virtuosity inherent in their performances.

I probably come down on the side of those left cold by their virtuosity (the inevitability that they will succeed grinds you down. The relentless 'death of a thousand cuts' passing style ensures that a goal will come and their incredible ability to consistently produce this level of skill results in that, even when they somehow lose, they're still better) but I don't think it's just that. The problem with Spain/Barcelona (and the distinction between the two is ever decreasing - while it may be a little disingenuous to count Villa as a Barcelona player, although obv factually correct, Fabregas seems to have retained this identity, maintaining the huge player representation/playing style) is not just that they're so technically superior, it's that they're also morally superior. There are no outs for opponents. They don't have the millionaire misanthropes we're so used to seeing in the Premier League, a Van Bommell spoiler to make us uneasy or a willingness to sacrifice their principles to achieve an end - they plainly fight the good fight. And while the logical step would be to take some warmth/inspiration from their example, this doesn't seem to be happening, at least certainly not universally.

At club level, the reaction to Barcelona is largely one of negation and destruction rather than creation or imitation. Real Madrid, after initially trying to reclaim the mantle of standard bearers for exciting attacking football (and increasing their lost Spanish identity) through the most lavish spending on talent ever seen in world football, have quickly surrendered to fatalism. An acceptance of the seeming impossibility of beating Barcelona 'fair and square' has led to them employing Mourinho as a sort of hired assassin, the mythical Portuguese seer who can slay this ghost that haunts them. As in a ghost returning it is Madrid's sins which Barcelona represent. All those Galacticos, the constant bailing out of any financial trouble by a coercive ruling class, the surrendering of identity in search of success - you knew you we're going to have to pay for this right?

The list of teams which Barcelona have shaken in their belief is growing ever larger. Manchester United's defeat in the 2009 Champions League Final was an end of much of the narrative in which the club places itself. The inadequacies of the Premiership 'superstars' like Ronaldo (not a discredit to the player, more an acknowledgement that the margins between good/great/'the best ever!' are more fine than the media will admit), the acknowledgement of the loss of their adventurous playing style in recent years and the complete destruction of questionable players (Michael Carrick, you're time is up) all presented an unarguable challenge to previously held beliefs (At the time a movement was tentatively starting that this United team was one of the best club teams ever, fit to rival Sacchi's Milan. Although obviously a great team, especially the Rooney-Ronaldo-Tevez axis and the Ferdinand-Vidic partnership, Barca's ruthless demonstration of the paucity of their midfield severely damaged their posterity).

Seeing Barcelona play fantastically, with players largely produced by their local youth system (commentators still talk about 'Manchester United's famous production line' despite it having produce nothing of real note in over 15 years, aside from a steady stream of players destined to end up playing for Steve Bruce/Paul Ince/Roy Keane at some stage), the Unicef versus AIG sponsorship/donation (Christ, was Lehmann Brothers not available?) and Barca's supporter owned model versus the Glazers brutally smashed United's confidence. (I don't think this impact was limited to the fans either. Ferguson's shock at the superiority of Barcelona has caused lasting damage. His reaction to Fabio's sending off against Bayern Munich this season was a tactical display out of 'the bad old days' of a mid-90s European performance, a type of performance I thought he had buried with the second CL win. Watching him sitting rigidly, refusing to make a change despite it being increasingly obvious Bayern would score, was a distressing replay of history.)

While United fans, exceptionally, have responded to the Glazers/football's ever-increasing compromises with the fantastic FC United - an obvious example of ripping it up and starting again - this creation still comes with an unfortunate sort of admittance and challenge to history. When did supporting this system become unjustifiable - is it all fine up to the Glazers? Sky? Becoming a PLC? The Edwards family? Can I watch it occasionally? Can I ever go Back? All that goes before becomes tainted by the present, part of the lesson learned from Barcelona's example is that rejection of a once dearly held affection is necessary. Considering how Manchester as a city/people likes/needs to see itself as big the loss of United as a celebratory feature is drastic, especially considering the once reliable music output can no longer take up the slack. Man City's fortunes are a drastically inferior substitute - the soulless stadium, the history of failure, an image of a long-term loser suddenly winning the lottery. It looks ill-fitting.

Not even Arsenal can escape Barcelona's brutal revelations. Long considering themselves as a sort of brothers-in-kind stylistically and morally to Barca, their encounter this season has firmly removed that comfort blanket (A 2-2 draw that managed to be embarrassing, where even Ibrahimovic scored - and he's the shit one! A 4-1 rout that was more the level of a Getafe than a team which only 5 years previously could be considered as 'Invincibles' without too much hyperbole). Finally forced to admit to their obvious decline. No longer can they explain away heavy defeats to Chelsea or United as some sort of bullying or exploitation but objective confirmation of inadequacy.

Similarly, Barcelona's superior morals regarding player production damage one of the last remaining celebrated virtues of the 'Arsene knows' brigade (An unerringly accurate eye for talent and flair that scours the globe to selflessly bring it back to England for us all to enjoy dangerously reducing to one of a kind of child catcher exploiting more stringent labour laws in less ruthlessly capitalistic countries). Interestingly, however, as the model Wenger follows is fundamentally similar to Barca's, their ideal may well be achievable. It will still be an inferior version due to the lack of indigenous talent but that may be excused as failings of England and the FA on a strategic level rather than short-termism on Wenger's part. As Arsenal do look to be actively addressing their fundamental flaws this summer perhaps they will be one team who do gain positively and constructively from encountering the Catalans.

It is this limited possibility for change from Barcelona that displeases me most, both in those that encounter them and Barca themselves. While I would like to see myself predisposed to wanting a 'proper' club like them to prosper, I find myself hoping for a challenger. But what if they never decline? What if they just keep producing interchangeable 5'7" tippy-tappy players for 20 years (Which one's Pedro? I thought that was Busquets? Is that Xavi or Iniesta)? This thought is far more depressing than, say, thinking that Real Madrid may never decline. Even with Real being permanently dominant I know there will be variety. Managers will come and go, imposing their particular style, new players purchased bringing difference and possibilities. It's the gap between what I wan't (thrill, excitement) and what I feel I should wan't (precision, decency) where the dissatisfaction lies.