Monday, March 28, 2016

The Revolutionary Johan Cruyff

It seems to me that the number of sporting revolutionaries is greatly over-estimated. They are, for instance, far less common than actual revolutions, those explosions of tumult and rebellion that challenge old orders and political regimes. Yet sporting revolutionaries do exist. And Johan Cruyff, who died last week from lung cancer at the age of 68, should certainly be counted amongst their number.  As Richard Williams notes in his piece on the Dutchman, “football has never quite had a revolutionary quite like Johan Cruyff”.

It is not difficult to see why Cruyff deserved such an accolade. His athleticism, his ability to glide past opponents, and, above all else, his grace were unique. Cruyff was the star name in the unfathomably talented Ajax side of the late 1960s and early 1970s that won six Eredivisie titles in eight seasons and swept to three consecutive European Cups. Rinus Michels may claim to have masterminded Total Football but it was Cruyff who proved to be its charismatic figurehead. 

Total Football was a style of play built upon technical excellence, fluidity and positional interchangeability; Cruyff was the brightest of its creative sparks, its theorist and conductor. As David Winner explains in the wonderful book, Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football: “His vision of perfect movement and harmony on the field was rooted in the same sublime ordering of space that one sees in the pictures of Vermeer or church painter Pieter Jansz Saenredam. It was the music of the spheres on grass." 

The way Ajax played was new but it represented more than just a tactical revolution. Winner again: “Total Football was profoundly imbued with democratic impulses. It prided itself on being the most cosmopolitan, creative conception of the game; a perfect balance between collective responsibility, equality and individualism, a system that allowed every player to excel and express himself.” While Cruyff would welcome those “democratic impulses” on the pitch, they did not always sit well with him off it. When in 1973 the Ajax players elected Piet Keizer club captain, a disgruntled Cruyff decided his time in Amsterdam had come to an end. Within three weeks he had moved to Barcelona.

As with so many revolutionaries, the enduring romance of Cruyff’s story is not his success but, rather, his glorious failure. By 1974 totaalvoetbal was to become the national style of play. The Netherlands, comprising a core of Ajax players, reunited Michels and Cruyff. Their footballing superiority and attacking abandon endeared them to fans the world over, and made them the neutral’s choice for the final against West Germany. More than this they, and Cruyff in particular, oozed cool. That they should play so well and still lose merely cemented their legendary status.

Yet the appeal of Johan Cruyff went far beyond the pitch. He was the rarest of creatures: a footballer you actually wanted to hear talk. As a manager he combined style and success. As a much sought after pundit he would skewer the fad for defensive football, attack the game’s preoccupation with statistics, and was lambasting Louis Van Gaal long before disgruntled punters in the Stretford End took up the cudgel. Equally he never seemed short of opinions on politics, religion or life. Did Cruyff have a political philosophy to match his footballing philosophy? It’s difficult to tell. Trying to fathom Cruyff’s political outlook is a bit like trying to unpick the Gordian knot whilst wearing mittens. Perhaps Cruyff didn’t know himself; perhaps he never wanted us to know. One cannot help but be reminded of Cruyff’s response to a journalist’s persistent line of questioning during a press conference: “If I wanted you to understand, I would have explained it better.”

There has always been the temptation to view Cruyff through the prism of Dutch stereotypes: the artist, the Dutch master, the synthesis of Orange inclination to arrogance and contrarianism. Such appeals to national characteristics always strike me as decidedly trite. Those traits we most associated with Cruyff – his outspokenness, originality and self-belief – might similarly be used to describe Bill Shankly and Brian Clough, products of the Scottish and English working class respectively. Each made their name prior to the point media coaching became part and parcel of one’s football training. This is not to say, however, that Cruyff was not a product of his time.

While it may be more accurate to say that Johan Cruyff the man was ‘progressive’ rather than ‘revolutionary’, one can detect the vestigial traces of Amsterdam’s mid-1960s radicalism. From the moment, as a brash teenager with long hair, he refused to wear anything other than the number 14 shirt, Cruyff captured the era’s anti-establishment, counter-cultural air. When Cruyff’s wife Danny gave birth in 1974 they named their child Jordi in what was widely interpreted as a gesture of solidarity with the people of Catalonia. His decision not to participate in the 1978 World Cup because it was being staged in Argentina, then under a brutal military dictatorship, was another example of a man unwilling to negotiate away his principles. “How can you play soccer,” asked Cruyff, “a thousand metres from a torture centre?” And he carried that anti-authoritarianism throughout his life – as witnessed by his numerous spats with the hierarchies of Ajax and Barcelona. Certainly he was indulged and insulated, courtesy of his wealth and reputation, but Cruyff seemed like a man who would never shy away from controversy, always on the lookout for the next conflict.

By virtue of his prodigious footballing skills, the sheer force of his personality, and his bouts of outrageous egotism, Cruyff could simultaneously forge a team around him, and, as an “explicit elitist”, supersede it. He was both the key figure in Total Football – the beautiful apotheosis of teamwork – and the man after whom the Cruyff turn was named, a piece of skill often copied but rarely mastered. This is no coincidence. At a time when society had yet to decisively determine which should come to dominate, he epitomised the glorious tension between the collective and the individual.

Monday, January 4, 2016

New Year Blues

So, that was Christmas. And what have I done? Another year over and this one has, apparently, just begun. Well, to answer your question, not only have I recycled some lyrics to baulk out a blog post, I’ve also saved a little good cheer to open 2016.

Over the past couple of years I’ve been researching and writing about Lindy Delapenha, Portsmouth Football Club’s first black player. Pompey fans might be interested to know that two recent publications carry pieces on Delapenha. First up is Neil Allen’s excellent Played Up Pompey, a beautiful book containing a whole number of interviews with some of the most loved and iconic figures from Pompey’s past. I presume it is available from the normal selection of online retailers, but if you live locally, and you’d prefer not to give your hard-earned cash to the tax-dodging bastards at Amazon, then you can pop into Waterstones in Commercial Road where there’s a whole display dedicated to the book.

Secondly, the lovely folks over at Soccer History have published a piece I’ve written charting Delapenha’s time on the south coast. Some of the article will be familiar to those of you who have read my posts elsewhere on the blog (for example here, here and here), but there’s some new stuff as well – not least some consideration as to why Delapenha faced relatively little racist abuse when in Portsmouth between 1948-50.

And if that’s not enough to whet your appetite Soccer History is chock full of other fascinating pieces, including Fulham FC during the First World War and the rise and fall of women’s football in Bradford at the start of the twentieth century. And all for the princely sum of £5.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

A Quiet Reflection on Steven Gerrard

I waited a while before writing this piece. Time is often required if we are to accurately judge the recently departed. Both our individual and our collective memories need space in which to fairly take the measure of the man, to assess his significance and gauge our loss. This is especially true when the past is so recent, and the recent past is so raw. And disappointing.

Thank Shankly we don’t have to put up with any more of those eulogies. The close season has provided enough transfer drama to distract even the most misty-eyed of Gerrard fans. Yet as the Premier League gets underway it still seems strange that Stevie G won’t be running out at Anfield this season.

That Steven Gerrard’s Liverpool career would eventually come to an end was inevitable, that the end should have lasted so long was not. By announcing his decision to swap Liverpool for Los Angeles at the start of the year, Gerrard inadvertently embarked upon an interminable farewell tour. The team stuttered. Gerrard, when not out injured, jogged through games in almost somnambulant fashion. For a brief time it looked as though the club might engineer a moment of serendipity, but defeat to Aston Villa cost them an appearance in the FA Cup final, which coincided with Gerrard’s birthday. The man who for over fifteen years had helped to paper over the cracks of his club’s mediocrity surely deserved a better send-off. By the time Liverpool were thrashed 6-1 at Stoke City on the final day of last season there was nothing left to write.

Better judges than I have attempted to capture the essence of Stevie G: what Gerrard meant to Liverpool FC and English football more widely. In my opinion only two pieces – by Barney Ronay and Henry Winter – have come close. Winter in particular is accurate in his assessment of Gerrard the footballer:
“In his prime, particularly in the mid-Noughties, Gerrard was a footballer who seized games because of his huge heart, stamina and will to win. An instinctive footballer often fuelled by emotion and adrenalin, Gerrard responded to adversity thrillingly, unquestioningly, often triumphantly. He did not pause for thought. He acted. Hence those split-seconds that shape seasons, those vital goals amongst the 180 in 695 games”
There was no doubting that, when on the top of his game, Gerrard was one of the best midfielders in the world with a skill-set few could match. Don’t just take my word for it - Zinedine Zidane thought Gerrard at his peak was the best midfielder in the world and was “desperate” for Real Madrid to sign him in 2004. But ever since his debut in 1998 Gerrard was more than the sum of his footballing parts. He was talisman, leader, stalwart and inspiration.

Gerrard’s time at Anfield was defined by sport’s essential binary: success and failure. First is his catalogue of unforgettable moments, each easily encapsulated in a word or two: Olympiakos; Istanbul; Cup final. At times Gerrard all but single-handedly dragged Liverpool to silverware. Second is what would go down as Gerrard’s lasting regret - his unsuccessful quest to win the Premier League. It could all have been so different if Gerrard had accepted either of the offers made by Chelsea in 2004 and 2005. Had he moved to London he would certainly have collected more winners’ medals. Alternatively he could have moved to one of the European powerhouses, gracing the Bernabau or the San Siro, and pocketing an even larger wage in the process. But Gerrard didn’t leave; he was always too connected to Liverpool, to the fans, the club and the city.

Gerrard was raised on the Bluebell Estate in Huyton, a poor, working class area which perennially features in lists of the most deprived communities in the UK. In his autobiography Gerrard says little about the world in which he grew up, but does acknowledge that “money was tight”. He was barely a year old when the Toxteth riots took place, 5 years old when Derek Hatton joined the rate-capping rebellion, still only seven when Margaret Thatcher won her third term in Downing Street. And Gerrard was not quite nine years old when his cousin, Jon-Paul Gilhooley, died at Hillsborough. Liverpool felt the harsh effects of Thatcherism as keenly as any city in the country. It was the scene of a seemingly unstoppable economic decline; unemployment in the city rose from 10.6% in 1971 to 21.6% in 1991. In that same year Liverpool Riverside had an unemployment rate of 27.5%, with male unemployment at 37.7% – this was the highest unemployment rate of any parliamentary constituency in the UK. Boys from the Black Stuff was more documentary than drama. The government were advised to abandon the city to “managed decline”.

By the time Gerrard played his first game for Liverpool the city had begun to show flickering signs of renewal, yet work remained scarce, poverty rife. Does any of this help us to understand Gerrard the midfield dynamo and inspirational skipper? Can we detect traces of his roots in his on-field mentality and never-say-die attitude? Maybe, although in life cause and effect seldom operates so cleanly.

What is beyond doubt, however, is the effect Gerrard’s life story had on Liverpool fans. How could it not? Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher became the fabled Scouse beating-heart of the team, the local lads who provided a much needed identity for a club who could no longer be defined by its success. Moreover they gave fans an emotional link to a club that was adapting to the era of corporate football ushered in with the Premier League. When Liverpool last won the League in 1989/90 adult supporters could get a spot on the Kop for as little as £4. When Gerrard made his debut a similar ticket set you back £18. Today the price of admission ranges from £37 - £59 depending on the opposition. Working class people in Liverpool, indeed working class people all over the country, were, and still are, being systematically priced out of football.

Gerrard in particular, with his all-action style and Roy of the Rovers heroics, became the embodiment of Koppites wish-fulfilment. Not only were he and Carragher players you could cheer on come match-day, they were proof that not everyone in the city was condemned to a life of joblessness and the harsh realities of alienation, monotony and poverty. Even if we couldn’t escape perhaps our sons or grandsons might. (Thanks to the sexism of both society and sport, such opportunities are not, of course, afforded to our daughters and granddaughters.) There seemed to be an organic link between Gerrard and the fans, one that was stretched to near breaking point by the Chelsea transfer saga. How could he even contemplate leaving Anfield? It wasn’t that we thought of him as ours, a footballer-commodity to be retained or traded on the whim of market forces. On some level we identified him as us.

It is understandable that people should seek to use ‘loyalty’ as their frame of reference when talking about Gerrard. Loyalty to the club; loyalty to the fans. I have no objection but I do wonder if there is not another way of approaching the question. Perhaps it is not loyalty that defines Steven Gerrard, but rather aspiration.

The candidates for the Labour Party leadership, who, with the honourable exception of Jeremy Corbyn, are a mix of re-animated Blairites and outright Tories, have talked a lot about ‘aspiration’ over the past few weeks. Their conception seems to be based on the belief that people are essentially only ever out for themselves, that they are selfish and greedy, and their only goals in life are nicer houses, bigger TVs, and newer cars. People won’t vote for you unless you can appeal to their sense of aspiration. It’s all nonsense – as Corbyn’s excellent campaign has demonstrated. But how does it apply to Steven Gerrard?

Without question Gerrard could have gone to Stamford Bridge or Real or Inter. He would have made more money, won more medals, his status as a world class footballer would have been assured. I don’t doubt for a moment that he desperately wanted all of those things. However, he stayed at Liverpool, not through a lack of personal aspiration but because he wanted to achieve these things with the team he had joined as a boy. Gerrard’s aspiration stretched beyond mere individualism to include the club, the players, the fans.

Perhaps in trying to identify the essence of Gerrard we have been looking in the wrong direction. We should instead have been asking what he could tell us about the world we live in and the football that we love. Gerrard’s career at Liverpool captured the contradictions of a working class game that has long since been bought and branded. He is the archetypal one-club player who is now at his second club. A millionaire who understands that aspiration is a collective endeavour. The irony is that for so much of his career as a player his aspiration was thwarted by the mediocrity of those around him.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Palestine at FIFA: What Happened?

The motion to expel Israel from world football was never put to the delegates at the 65th annual Congress of FIFA. The proposal, drafted by the Palestinian Football Association (PFA), was dropped a few hours before the vote was due to take place. This occurred, of course, just days after FIFA, world football’s governing body, was thrown into chaos following the arrests of a number of its officials in the United States on corruption charges. Eventually, amidst last minute changes to the agenda and talk of ‘compromise’ solutions, the debate on the situation in Palestine ended in what Vice described as a “baffling display of confusion”.

For those of us trying to understand what happened to the PFA motion, the waters were muddied by the toxic combination of institutional turmoil and the lack of transparency which characterises FIFA’s democratic practices. The subsequent, often contradictory, reports reflected this. Some attempted to unpick exactly what had gone on behind the scenes, others simply shoe-horned a limited number of ‘facts’ into a pre-determined narrative. At their very worst some articles seemed to suggest (in a nudge-nudge, wink-wink fashion) that the FBI’s arrest of leading FIFA members had been timed in order to scupper the PFA’s efforts. Given that the assorted partial truths fail to make a consistent whole, it seems worthwhile examining the events of late May.

In some quarters there has been suggestion that the PFA motion was junked as the result of some nefarious activity on behalf of FIFA and/or the Israeli Football Association (IFA). For example, this article in the Morning Star talks about "brinksmanship" of the two organisations as the vote approached, insinuating that either FIFA or the Israeli FA (or both) were in some way responsible for the decision to drop the motion calling for Israel to be expelled from world football’s governing body. As I understand it, this is not quite the case. The Palestinian Football Association (PFA) had, of course, spent a long time trying to generate support for their motion, but it became increasingly clear that they were not going to get anywhere near the 75% of the conference vote required for it to pass. The Palestinians were met with a familiar refrain about politics and sport not mixing - a member of the South African FA delegation allegedly said that sporting boycotts had no place in political matters!

Faced with a choice of watching the motion inevitably fall or pulling it and keeping their powder dry, the PFA opted for the latter.

None of which is to say that either the IFA or FIFA sat idly by in the run to and during the Congress. The Israeli delegates will have pressed the flesh at every available opportunity, pushing their arguments to as many other delegates as possible. We also know that the Israelis embarked on a diplomatic mission to head off the vote, hinting that some Palestinian footballers were involved in terrorist activity. And FIFA’s opposition to the proposed expulsion is well documented; indeed Blatter explained this position at length after his meeting with Mahmoud Abass in April earlier this year. Such political manoeuvres were to be expected.

Where the Palestinians were stitched up, however, was in the talks that took place between FIFA, the PFA and IFA during the Congress revolving around a potential FIFA monitoring group, tasked with examining football in Palestine. As part of a compromise ‘solution’ the PFA had originally wanted the issues of racism and Israeli teams in the illegal settlements referred to the United Nations. When this was rejected out of hand by Blatter, a committee comprised, at least in part, of international representatives from ‘neutral’ football associations was suggested. This was in turn countered with a proposal that the committee should be comprised of individuals drawn from the IFA, PFA and FIFA. Such a group is clearly a means of equivocation, far preferable to both FIFA and the IFA than a successful vote to expel Israel, it was duly implemented and is to be headed by ex-ANC government minister, Tokyo Sexwale.

Interestingly nobody in Palestine seemed to think that the outcome of the FIFA congress was a result of Blatter-inspired subterfuge or an FBI-Mossad conspiracy. Instead their ire was reserved for the head of the Palestinian Football Association, Djbril Rajoub, who they saw as having sold out under pressure. As this report in the Middle East Monitor reported:
“Fadi Quran, a Palestinian activist and head of the Avaaz campaigns in Palestine, disagreed strongly with the Palestinian official and called on Rajoub to resign. In a press release issued along with a petition that garnered 8,000 votes in a very short time, Rajoub's action was described as the waste of a golden opportunity. "By withdrawing the motion to expel [Israel] without any accomplishments, the Palestinian cause lost a new opportunity for partial justice because of the weakness of its leadership and its short-sightedness," Quran explained. ‘In agreeing to a compromise over a clear violation of FIFA statutes, Rajoub actually proved that Palestinians were playing politics rather than insisting on the implementation of the laws of the game.’"
The Palestine Monitor website makes a similar point in its report:
“The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) was among the most vocal critics of the PFA’s decision to drop a bid to have the Israel’s Football Association suspended from FIFA. The PFLP charged yesterday that the PFA’s decision was an, “outrageous deviation from our values, principles and efforts to expose the Israeli occupation's crimes and to oust Israel from international organizations,” the leftist group issued in a statement Saturday.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one retired Palestinian politician speculated to the Palestine Monitor that, “it’s not fair [of the PFA] to raise the expectations of the public. People were hoping and left with the impression the the PFA was taking on the fight. It’s unfortunate that not only we did not win, but we did not even fight.” He went on to speculate that Rajoub’s, “credibility was hurt in the outcome of this failed bid.””
In any event, in both Palestine and elsewhere there was something more than mere disappointment at the result at the Congress; there was a definite dejection amongst pro-Palestinian activists, as though what should have been a certainty had been wrought from our grasp. Why should this be the case? Firstly it was almost certainly the result of an overly-optimistic appraisal of the situation prior to the Congress. Certainly there were some national FAs (such as the Dutch and Swedes) who were rumoured to be sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, but these were mistaken for guarantees of support. Similarly the number of signatories to online petitions in support of the expulsion motion was always unlikely to act as a barometer of the feeling within the body of Congress delegates. In the run-up to the event some truly believed that Israel would be expelled from FIFA. In truth it was never on the cards.

Israel’s status as a member of FIFA was never going to be settled, decisively or otherwise, by the strength of the Palestinian’s argument or the weight of evidence in support of their case. This is not to say that FIFA is the grips of a Zionist cabal. Rather it speaks to a truth of global sports administration. The likes of FIFA and the International Olympic Committee are by any definition ‘political actors’ but their first instinct when confronted with political questions is to run a mile in the opposite direction. They occupy an ideological space in which they believe politics only serves to taint the purity of sport – actually they would go so far as to argue that sport can play the sort of positive role that politicians can barely imagine. This is why Blatter can envisage a ‘friendly’ international between Palestine and Israel as transcending the political divide.

Yes, it’s arch-hypocrisy. Yes, it’s an example of double-think. But it exists, and as such a boycott movement is the last thing on the collective mind of football’s governing bodies. The lever that can change this barrier to action is the pressure which can be exerted by an international mass movement. And this takes time.

Here the case of Apartheid is particularly illustrative (although there are crucial differences between the attempts to exclude Israel from world football and the anti-Apartheid movement: the Soviet Union made the call for boycott a central plank of its sporting foreign policy; African states which had come through liberation struggles were instinctively in opposition to the racism in South Africa).

South Africa’s racist policies famously led to its exclusion from world sport, most notably being expelled by the IOC in 1970 and FIFA in 1976. In historical discussion it is, as Malcolm McClean has pointed out, “common to identify 1959 as the year that the boycott movement came together into coordinated international activism”. Yet the first calls for an international boycott of South African sports happened in the early 1950s and the first time they were ejected from an international sports body came in 1955 when the whites-only South African Table Tennis Union were barred from the International Table Tennis Federation. There was, therefore, at least a two decade gap between the first calls for a sports boycott of Apartheid and the eventual expulsion of South Africa from FIFA.

Those twenty years saw any number of protests, demonstrations and actions against Apartheid take place across the world. Something on a similar scale is required if the objective of a sporting boycott of Israel is to be realised. We are, in all honesty, only at the beginning of that movement. If the events of the past fifty years – not to mention those of the last FIFA Congress - tell us anything it is that ‘boycott’ is as much a process as an act.

Monday, July 6, 2015

In Praise of Martyn Rooney

A big well done and thank you to Martyn Rooney. The 400m runner proved to be an oasis of sense in a British Athletics Championships threatening to be side-tracked by a crass, xenophobic discussion of national identity, opportunity, and the supposedly ‘plastic’ Brits.

Harangued by a BBC trackside-pain-in-the-ass, probably Phil Jones, Rooney was quizzed post-race not only on his performance in the 400m heats, but also on his attitude to those athletes, born overseas, who have recently been cleared to compete for Great Britain. In defiance of his lung-busting run, the lactic acid build-up in his legs, and the views of the Daily Mail, Rooney offered this articulate response:
“It’s kind of an offensive term ‘plastic Brits’. Y’know we’re very lucky to have guys who can run, compete for us, and they make the events better. All of those guys contribute to British sport, British culture, so we’re very lucky to have them here.”
To be fair, Rooney was not the only voice speaking out for British athletes hailing from abroad. Although Gabby Logan was quick to tell us that “reaction had been mixed”, there was a unanimity among the analysts joining the coverage from Birmingham. “I actually think, the way sport is at the moment – cricket, rugby, football – it doesn’t matter… They have legitimate dual-nationality. It’s fine. We have to move on,” said Denise Lewis, gold medallist in the heptathlon at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Paula Radcliffe (a migrant herself who now resides in the south of France) agreed, if somewhat reluctantly: “We’re not talking about some other countries who have gone out and brought runners in – these people have a legitimate right to represent Great Britain.” On Friday Steve Cram, writing in a piece for the BBC Sport website, put the whole furore into perspective, explaining why he has “no problem” with the so-called ‘plastic Brits’:
“Some might argue that they didn't train in the British system but, in fact, there's no system here. There's a funding programme, but below that there isn't anything. People can learn to be an athlete in any part of the world. There's no investment in athletics clubs in Britain, which means only those who run here are eligible to run for Britain.
"I guess the big issue is that newcomers arriving puts others in the team under a lot of pressure. But that can happen if an athlete pops up from anywhere - it doesn't matter where they were born. If you think you were shoo-in to get into the team and somebody else pops up you weren't expecting, then you have to deal with that."
The plastic Brit ‘controversy’ – such as it is – was sparked by the announcement that “five foreign-born athletes” had switched allegiance to Team GB over the past month. This drew a sarcastic and negative response from Richard Kilty, a World and European indoor 60m champion, and apparently caused similar outrage amongst his fellow competitors: “All sprinters,” tweeted Kilty, “I’ve spoken to this morning in the team feel exactly the same as me but daren’t speak out.” The roots of the debate however can be traced back to 2012 and the run-up to the London Olympics. It was then that the Daily Mail ran a story informing the world that there would be 61 ‘plastic’ Brits competing at the Games for Team GB.

Many of the tropes deployed in discussion of the ‘plastic’ Brits will be familiar to anyone paying attention to the long-running demonization and scapegoating of migrants arriving in the UK. They perceived as foreign interlopers, costing the ‘true’, ‘hard-working’ Brits their jobs and squad places. No matter the ‘validity’ of their decision to relocate to this country, their motives are treated with distrust and disdain. They are seen to have arrived as mercenaries, in search of welfare state handouts or Lottery funding. Whether he realises it or not, Kilty has assumed the role of the defiant truthsayer (traditionally reserved for such intellects as Rod Liddle, Richard Littlejohn or Nigel Farrage), the voice of a silent majority too browbeaten by the forces of political correctness to stand up to the perceived injustice.

In six weeks’ time the World Athletics Championship will begin in Beijing. If the performances seen during the early Diamond League meetings are anything to go by, then it promises to be a magnificent week of track and field competition. It would be truly terrible if this sporting spectacle was hijacked by the right-wing press looking to spout off over their latest manufactured scare story. That Martyn Rooney spoke out is to be applauded.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Run, Mo, Run – It’s the Daily Mail!

So Paddy Power have done this. No surprise really. As befits an online bookmaker, they have form. Previous Paddy Power ads have played fast and loose with taste and decency thanks to their rampant sexism and the sort of nationalist sentiment that wouldn’t look out of place at a rally of the far-right.

But this time they’ve outdone themselves by turning the plight of thousands of migrants into a ‘jokey’ advertising campaign. Pure bantz! These people have nowhere to live, ha ha ha! Look at how desperate they are – but don’t forget to place your bets first! They can come over if they’re good at sports, fnar fnar!

In Paddy Power’s defence this last point does at least mean their attitude towards immigration is slightly more liberal than that of the government, whose policies seem to consist solely of ‘bomb their homeland’, ‘let them drown’, ‘build a wall’ and ‘lock them up’. Paddy Power even had a particular athlete in mind when they commissioned their ’hilarious’ ad.

Mo Farah was just eight years old when he arrived in the UK, a refugee from the Somalian civil war. Since his move to London in 1991 he has become one of the most successful and (despite those atrocious Quorn commercials) most loved British athletes of all time. His victories in both the 5,000m and 10,000m at the London 2012 Olympic Games have guaranteed his place in sports history.

Yet it has been a rough few weeks for the long-distance runner. Last month the BBC aired an edition of Panorama that alleged Alberto Salazar, Farah’s coach, had provided performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) to some of his athletes. Salazar, a coach at the famed Nike Oregon Project, is said to have encouraged runners, such as Farah’s training partner Galen Rupp, to experiment in micro-doping (taking PEDs in such small amounts so as not to be detected in routine testing) and, in a move seemingly taken from a John le Carre novel, sent athletes pills and sprays in the hollowed out pages of books. For the record, Salazar denies these claims.

Although the Panorama documentary mentioned both Salazar’s relationship with Mo Farah and his role as “unpaid consultant” for UK Athletics (how could they not?), it was careful to avoid insinuating that Farah himself was implicated in any way during their investigation. However, it was inevitable that Mo would be subject to close scrutiny because of his association with the Cuban coach.

Two additional factors do little to dampen the rumours and back page intrigue. First was the revelation Farah had missed two consecutive drug tests prior to the London Olympics. Secondly, looking back over Farah’s career, one notes that his jump from nearly-man to champion occurred at a relatively late stage – and coincided with the switch to Salazar’s tutelage. As Dave Renton pointed out two years ago:
“Without much doubt, the moment that changed Mo from a successful Team GB athlete into a world-beater was his decision in 2011 to relocate to Portland, Oregon in the United States, to work with new coach, Alberto Salazar. Here Farah trained with the American athlete Galen Rupp, and Salazar refocused their training regimes to reduce their sprinting times over the very shortest distances.”
Neither of these factors definitively point to Farah having ever experimented with PEDs, of course. Missing drug tests may not be common, but neither is it completely unheard of. As Kelly Sotheron was quick to point out, ‘clean’ athletes do miss tests from time to time, for all sorts of perfectly innocent reasons, while Chris Froome revealed that he had also missed two such tests during his career. And, while a mid-career upturn in fortunes can be evidence of doping (see Lance Armstrong), it is far from conclusive proof. Any number of factors can trigger a jump to world-class status: a change in coach, a change in training, the retirement of rivals, an unlikely victory, a maturing of physical and/or mental competitiveness. One needs look no further than triple-jumper turned broadcaster Jonathan Edwards for an example of an athlete who blossomed at a relatively late stage in their career.

As more and more questions were asked of Salazar, so Farah increasingly found himself in the spotlight. Even those, such as Jo Pavey, who do not doubt his innocence suggested it would be wise for the double-Olympic champion to distance himself from his coach. As the public and media gaze intensified so Farah was forced to respond, telling the world he was angry his name was “being dragged through the mud” and claiming that the accusations were “killing him”. He offered this riposte via Facebook:
“I have never taken performance enhancing drugs in my life and I never will. Over the course of my career I have taken hundreds of drugs tests and every single one has been negative. I’ve fully explained the only two tests in my career that I have ever missed, which the authorities understood, and there was never any suggestion that these were anything more than simple mistakes.
The last two weeks have been the toughest of my life – with rumours and speculation about me that are completely false – and the impact this has had on my family and friends has left me angry, frustrated and upset. In particular, the media pressure on my young family and my wife, who is 5 months pregnant, is extremely painful, especially as I’m away training for some important races.”
Steve Cram leapt to Farah’s defence. The legendary middle-distance runner who, like Edwards, is now a key member of BBC Sport’s athletics team, claimed Mo was the victim of a witch-hunt saying, “It seems as if some people are deliberately going after him and that is a shame.” Current Team GB athlete Hannah England had made the same point two days previously. Given the status and popularity he enjoys, who would possibly want to conduct a witch-hunt against Farah? The answer, undoubtedly, is the Daily Mail, although Cram was far too savvy to say that out loud, referring only to “sections of the media”.

Since the Panorama story aired, Farah has featured in approximately 130 stories in the Daily Mail. No great shakes there considering he has been tagged in more than 110 articles on the Guardian website over the same time period. But the tone of the pieces featured in the Mail is, shall we say, accusatory. In the wake of the allegations against Salazar, Richard Pendlebury reflected on Farah’s Olympic success and “with an edge of scepticism” asked “How did Mo do it?” Immediately the Mail listed “seven key questions for Mo Farah to answer”, and went to great lengths to stress that Farah and his agent Ricky Simms had failed to answer questions put to them by the paper. The implication being that there “was something nefarious in Farah's two missed tests.” Farah, the Mail continued, had “handled [the] incident surrounding his coach as badly as possible” before adding, “[t]he double Olympic champion is an emotional individual, prone to the occasional tantrum”.

Why the Daily Mail should take such a line is not difficult to fathom. Farah represents everything the paper despises: an ethnically diverse Britain in which migrants can become heroes. As they seek to (re)ignite a three-year-old controversy over so-called ‘plastic Brits’ – the sporting version of the immigrant bogeyman, coming over here, stealing our jobs – the Mail also senses the opportunity to put the boot in on Farah.

Let’s be clear. No one - not me, not the Mail, not UK Athletics – knows if the allegations made against Salazar have any truth to them. Still less can any of us conclude that Farah, an athlete who has never failed a drugs test, is guilty of doping.

But one thing is for sure. The Daily Mail is desperate for Mo Farah, the Muslim, Somalian asylum-seeker with the wrong colour skin, to be guilty as hell. Those of us who see the runner as symbolising the kind of open, welcoming, multi-cultural society in which we want to live, hope he is clean. Not least of all because watching the Mail eat their hate-fuelled insinuation will be more enjoyable than any gold medal.