Sunday, February 22, 2015

Portsmouth Day for Palestine

I'll be speaking about Palestinian sport and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign in Portsmouth next weekend. Plus there are other - much better - speakers talking on a range of topics, not to mention some free food as well! If you're in Pompey come along and say hello!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015


This Saturday is the 20th anniversary of Eric’s Selhurst Park Kung Fu kick assault on a supporter. Philosophy Football's Mark Perryman celebrates a night when football took sides.

For football fans of a certain vintage, United or not, it has all the makings of our ‘JFK moment’. 9pm, Selhurst Park, Crystal Palace vs Man Utd on a Monday night live on the TV. Eric Cantona, after being persistently fouled lashes out in retaliation and is red carded. Nothing much very unusual in that. Minutes later though and any sense of normality is detonated, for ever. A foul mouthed Palace supporter marches down to the touchline from his seat eleven rows back. He lets fly, insulting everything he felt Eric represented. Most of all his foreignness, being French, a continental unloved by this particular representative of the South London born ‘n bred brigade. Eric turns and unleashes quite possibly the most famous Kung Fu kick in martial arts history.  Cantona crosses a line almost all in football have decided should never be crossed.

Je Suis Cantona? To identify with Eric then rather than his National Front and BNP supporting foul-mouthed verbal assailant was about taking sides. Football, from the authorities and players to the media and the fans, then and now, would excuse almost anything said at a game as ‘banter’. A collective refusal to bother with making any kind of distinction between a wind up, anti-social  behaviour causing offence and criminal acts of racist abuse.  Eric knew the difference.

Philosophy Football had been going just a few months in January ‘95,not a business yet selling T-shirts by the thousands, rather tens via word of mouth networks of friends and fellow fans. We chose the words of the world’s greatest philosophers on the beautiful game, Albert Camus , existentialist and goalie, was our first, and put them on a tee, name and squad number on the back. . But in ‘94 looking for a current player to champion that ability to speak to a world beyond touchline and terrace there was only ever going to be one candidate, Eric Cantona.

This was an era when Blackburn and England’s Graeme Le Saux’s occasional reading of the Guardian was to see him elevated to being a footballing intellectual by some, and a handbag-wielding cissy or worse by plenty of others. Eric’s musings were so quotable meanwhile they were about to be anthologised in a short book La Philosophie de Cantona , that was until the copyright police heard of this brilliant, but unauthorised, venture and forced the entire print run to be pulped. Not before though I’d got myself down to the cult, and much-missed, bookshop, Sportspages, on London’s Charing Cross Road and grabbed myself a pre-publication copy. Eric was a player who not only embraced the meaning of teamwork and the passion fans demand, could find a route, never route one, to goal but knew also the difference between Rimbaud and Rambo. Did the affection so many of us had, and still have, for Eric and all he represented smack of snobbishness? For some, almost certainly yes, but the recognition of class as a key determinant in social outcomes should never be about excusing away the limits on human ambition that inequalities impose. Eric refused to accept that the people’s game, absolutely framed by working class culture despite the worst efforts of corporate power, should be limited in this way. We loved him because he inspired us to dream of what football had the potential to become.

By one of those spooky coincidences Philosophy Football had produced our  Eric Cantona T-shirt the week before his sending-off. Trawling through his quotes we were so spoilt for choice it was almost impossible to plump for any statement to sum up Eric in a sentence or two, and make a good design. In the end we chose “ I play with passion and fire. I have to accept that sometimes the fire does harm. But I cannot be what I am without these other sides to my character.” Blimey we’d just printed up precisely why Eric reacted in the way he did and why so many admired him for doing so. When the authorities banned him we launched the tee to front an ‘Eric Cantona Defence Campaign’ live on BBC Radio Five. The fact we weren’t United fans was never an issue, the issue was about knowing the difference between right and wrong. And Eric was right, his detractors and punishers the ones in the wrong.

‘95 was still the era of fanzines, inflatable bananas in the stands, Half Man Half Biscuit and the Wedding Present on the cassette mix-tape,  the success of Fever Pitch followed with other fans’ stories of following their club being published by the bucketload, some revealing  a welcome feminine side to fan culture via their confessional writing style. ‘Fantasy Football’ started off as a cult game to become first a radio then a TV show, with the broadsheets falling over backwards to carry a version on their pages too. All of this suggested an irreverent and rebellious fan culture that wholeheartedly rejected the corporatisation and sanitisation of what was once ‘the people’s game’. The fanzine When Saturday Comes absolutely epitomised all this, it survives, or I should say thrives, to this day, testament to the enduring appeal of these values of resistance. When Saturday Comes published an editorial following Eric at Selhurst Park decrying the idea that what would follow would be player after player assaulting their abusers in the stands. “ Cantona is a one-off, Matthew Simmonds ( Cantona’s abuser), former BNP sympathiser, sadly isn’t. We know which we’d prefer to see in English football.” A sense of perspective , a willingness to take sides.

The authorities didn’t see it that way, nor most of the media. Moral outrage filled the papers for days on end, followed by Eric receiving an FA nine month ban from playing  football.  The longest such ban the FA had imposed for thirty odd years. Topped up by a 2-week prison sentence subsequently commuted to 120 hours community service. And when he’d served his time how did Eric react? With the enigmatic "When the seagulls follow the trawler, it's because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea". Cod philosophising of the very highest order, quite unlike the banalities of ‘take each game as it comes’ we were more used to, Philosophy Football quite  naturally turned Eric’s words into our bestselling  Cantona Sardines T-shirt.  It’s been available ever since.

But this wasn’t about a clever-clogs continental fancy-dan and the language he delighted in using. The issue was the ability to distinguish between letting fans dish it out because they’ve paid good money to see you play on the one hand and on the other taking a stand against foul-mouthed racist abuse and hate of the country you’ve come from. This is a viciousness that should have no legitimate place in society, including football. In English sporting culture it is so very rare to see any kind of stand of this sort being taken. In the USA athlete activism has a history and has erupted again recently around the  #blacklivesmatters protests. Following the police killing of Ferguson teenager  Michael Brown the local NFL team, St Louis Rams, ran out on to the pitch with hands held up in the ‘Hands Up Don’t Shoot’ style adopted by those protesting at Michael’s shooting. US sportswriter Dave Zirin described their action as so important, so daring, so transgressive. Cantona’s action 20 years ago didn’t have the purchase on a popular, militant movement that these players’ actions, and so many others acting like them  in recent months across American sport, did, but that’s hardly his fault. Eric made a stand, and some of us stood with him.

Je Suis Cantona twenty years on what does this mean now? Not the global being and nothingness of Je Suis Charlie when most of us have never read the said magazine. Standing shoulder to shoulder with some of the leaders of the world’s most repressive regimes, against an act of evil scarcely anyone in the entire world would endorse what does our opposition represent?  When Je Suis Charlie comes to mean the Saudi Arabian government lining up  in defence of free speech with Marie Le Pen beside them to oppose intolerance then there is precious little space left for satire’s cause. Taking sides is about knowing what you are for every bit as much as what you are against. 25.01.1995 some of us were for Eric. United Against Racism. You didn’t have to be a Red to know that was a a side worth joining, then, now, for ever.

Philosophy Football’s Je Suis Cantona United Against Racism T-shirt is available now from here

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

I Think Therefore I Play - An Anti-Racist Review

Martin Luther King once remarked: “The quality, not the longevity, of one's life is what is important.” The worthy sentiment certainly contains a degree of truth but it doesn’t quite explain Andrea Pirlo. The Italian is now in his 36th year and it seems that only relatively recently has his undoubted talent been widely recognised beyond the footballing cognoscenti. The magisterial midfielder disguised as Captain Caveman has entered the consciousness of fans in this country not so much for his quality but for the longevity of his quality. The fact that an English language version of his autobiography I Think Therefore I Play appeared earlier this year is testament to this recognition.

And we should all be glad that the translation has appeared because the book is a real gem, and a welcome departure from the standard, formulaic (auto)biographies of most footballers. Instead of the regular A to B narrative I Think Therefore I Play, beautifully ghosted by Alessandro Alciato, offers a series of vignettes which adhere only loosely to a chronological order. Pirlo jumps from an opening rumination on the pen he used to sign his contract with Juventus to the pain he felt as a child so much more talented than his peers. Avoiding sentimentality and arrogance he then weaves us through the 2006 World Cup final, his love of Inter, a pen picture of Silvio Berlusconi, the best ways in which to wind up Rene Gattuso and how he and Alessandro Nesta have spent way too many hours playing FIFA.

One passage in particular captures the style of Pirlo’s book. In his recollections of the 2005 Champions League Final against Liverpool in Istanbul – a game in which Pirlo’s AC Milan side threw away a 3-0 half-time lead, eventually losing the game on penalties – there is scant detail, no mention of the goals scored or conceded, and only once does he recall any of the opposition players (a passing reference to “Jerzy Dudek – that jackass of a dancer”). Instead there is a description of the dressing room atmosphere and the intensity of collective emotion. Nearly ten years on from the match you can still feel Pirlo’s confusion in those hours following the final whistle:
“We couldn’t speak. We couldn’t move. They’d mentally destroyed us. The damage was already evident even in those early moments, and it only got more stark and serious as the hours went on. Insomnia, rage, depression, a sense of nothingness. We’d invented a new disease with multiple symptoms: Istanbul syndrome. I no longer felt like a player, and that was devastating enough. But even worse, I no longer felt like a man. All of a sudden, football had become the least important thing, precisely because it was the most important: a very painful contradiction.”
The result is that the entire book carries this lightness of touch, an Impressionistic quality that provides a fitting literary form for a player whose artistry, control and vision is all but unrivalled. It allows Pirlo to tease out small details that seem to define the people around him, to ponder the geometry of his passes, to insist it is “high-time that football’s ruling class stopped dozing in their armchairs”, to explain the calming effect of imagining crushing grapes between his toes.

But one subject above all others caught my eye. In 2008 a newspaper in Italy erroneously outed Pirlo as being from a Roma – in particular Sinti – background. As Pirlo himself explains:
“At first I let it go, simply smiling at the headlines, but before long the media onslaught became unbearable. Some really serious untruths were said and written about my family, and they started spying on everything we did. They wrote stories about our daily habits, the places we went, the people we met. It was an annoying and dangerous invasion of our privacy and that of those we hold dear.”
The more intrusive the media became the greater the temptation for Pirlo to deny that he had Sinti heritage. At the time travellers in Italy were facing a renewed and concerted attack from the Italian government who were keen to make political capital from solving the specially constructed moral panic around the “nomad problem”. From 2007 the Italian authorities had adopted a number of ‘security measures’ which disproportionately affected the Roma and Sinti communities. This was in addition to a decade of forced evictions. As this report from Amnesty International states:
“Throughout 2008, the stigmatization of Roma and Sinti [in Italy] contributed to a climate in which attacks on groups and individuals reached record proportions. Roma people have been victims of mob violence by members of the public, in which individuals were physically and verbally attacked and settlements were set on fire.”
In these circumstances it would have been easy for Pirlo to simply dismiss the suggestions that he was Sinti. Instead he chose to keep his own counsel. He explains:
“If I’d issued a strongly worded correction, a categorical denial, I’d have run the risk of causing offence. It would have looked like I was trying to distance myself from the Sinti community and position myself against them. My desire to state the truth could have been wrongly interpreted as an act of racism, and that’s a risk I wasn’t willing to take, for the simple reason that I find racists disgusting.”
Some may suggest that the truly principled position for Pirlo to take would be to have come out and sided unequivocally with the Sinti; others will suggest that Pirlo is being wise after the fact, giving his silence an undeserved air of moral authority. The first suggestion is certainly true but misses the fact that sports stars rarely take political stands in the absence of mass movements. The second is plausible if cynical. The reason I reject it is because Pirlo speaks a lot of truth in his discussion of Mario Balotelli.

Pirlo’s admiration and support for Super Mario is beyond question. “We also need Mario Balotelli. I’m not sure he really appreciates it yet,” writes Pirlo “but he’s a special kind of medicine, an antidote to the potentially lethal poison of the racists you find in Italian grounds.” With sadness Pirlo notes that racists are to be found at stadiums across the country, each having targeted Balotelli with chants and monkey noises. Pirlo’s response is to always greet his Azzurri teammate: “Whenever I see Mario at an Italy training camp, I’ll give him a big smile. It’s my way of letting him know that I’m right behind him and that he mustn’t give up. A gesture that means ‘thank you’.”

More interesting is his discussion on how he would react to his black teammates being racially abused. On the one hand he thinks that to walk off the pitch – as Kevin-Prince Boateng has done in the past – is “more a surrender than a reaction”. But at the same time he explains, “That said, if one of my team-mates was a victim of intolerance and refused to carry on playing, I’d go along with his wishes and those of the rest of the team.” Pirlo’s position is that he is willing to argue how best to confront racism but once black players give a lead he will offer his unwavering support and solidarity. People on the left in the UK could learn a lesson here.

I realise that I run the risk at this juncture of uncritical eulogy – and that certainly isn’t my intention. I’m no lover of millionaires or nationalism, so Pirlo blots his copybook twice without trying too hard at all. Furthermore his anti-racist credentials are dealt a serious blow by his admission that he has, on occasion, voted for Berlusconi – the very administration that took such pride in targeting the Sinti. That said, in the context of Italian football where racism is very much a live issue, and with Pirlo himself ensconced in the heart of a Juventus team sections of whose fanbase have been guilty of racially abusing players in the past, his defence of the Sinti and support for Balotelli is a most welcome intervention. If you’ve got any Christmas money left pop out and treat yourself.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Lies, Damn Lies and Opta Statistics

The results are in and they are staggering. It has been revealed that nine out of ten match reports now include detailed statistical analysis. Over three quarters of journalists admit that they find it quicker and easier to use possession percentages and pass completion rates than go to the trouble of writing about the football game they’re paid to watch. The BBC and Sky combined spend more minutes per week discussing the figures released by Opta than they dedicate to women’s football. In other news, it turns out that 83.7% of made-up statistics are surprisingly believable.

Okay, those numbers are a fabrication. But the point still stands. Too many football articles are overly-reliant on statistics. Some of these stats can be interesting, genuinely deepening our understanding of the game. Others are obviously filler, as meaningless as being told how many times the number 33 has been drawn in the national lottery.

A quick google search reveals an abundance of tasty but irrelevant factoids. Apparently Swansea have completed fewer crosses than any other Premier League team; during the recent game between Man Utd and Chelsea, Daley Blind passed to Chris Smalling on twelve occasions; Mohamed Diamé averages five tackles a game this season. Perhaps the most pointless is the pass completion statistic, a metric which sees Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker, Josh Stones, Martin Skrtel and Phil Jagielka all feature in the top ten. Who would believe it? More pertinently, who cares? This tells us nothing more than they like to play a lot of easy, 20-yard square passes across the back four.

Football has always been home to the ‘anorak’. We all have a friend who will sit in the pub and tell you Shrewsbury Town’s top three goalscorers of all time or furnish you with a complete list of Inter-Toto Cup winners.  BBC commentator John Motson built his career – and his cult following – on his ability to pull facts and figures out of thin air. Along with his sheepskin coat it was his USP, the gimmick that set him apart from his competition behind the microphone.

These people have always been a figure of fun for fans. Back in the days when David Baddiel and Frank Skinner were living out their New Lad wet-dream on Fantasy Football in the mid-1990s, Angus Loughran made his television debut as Statto, the socially-awkward, font of all football knowledge. As his colleagues yawned with (mock) boredom, Statto would regale the studio audience with a stream of information, like Rainman in pyjamas.

What was once considered to be some sort of soccer sideshow is now big business. Opta are at the forefront of the sports statistics industry. They are the people doing the number crunching for Sky Sports, BBC, BT, ESPN and a host of internet betting exchanges. And all those spreadsheets have proved to be extremely lucrative. In the summer of 2013 the FTSE 250 company Perform purchased Opta at the heady price of £40million. The company’s joint-Chief Executive, Oliver Slipper, explained, “We felt over the past year or two that sports data for the media sector . . . is becoming a more and more important part of their content mix.”

In the age of scarce resources and Moneyball, clubs are increasingly turning to in-depth statistical analysis as a way of scouting players. The minutiae of distance run per game, shots on target, passes completed, interceptions made, and headers won are collated and calculated to assess potential signings. Writing in the Financial Times Simon Kuper argues, “In recent years, after many false starts, the number-crunchers at big English clubs have begun to unearth the player stats that truly matter.” Later in the piece he explains that David Comolli employed data analysis in the signings of both Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez whilst director of football at Liverpool. From this we can gather Comolli’s success rate is, at best, 50%.

That does rather illustrate one of the problems with the endless procession of numbers. Unlike statistics-friendly sports such as cricket and baseball, where individual contests are played out in a team setting, football is a game in which the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. There is a growing tendency to know more and more about the tiniest details and forget the bigger picture. Opta cannot tell you if a player will reach their full potential or they will form effective partnerships with their teammates. They cannott tell you if Carlos Tevez won’t be able to settle in the area, whether Mario Balotelli is really motivated, or which Mesut Ozil will turn up on the day – the world class attacking midfielder or the guy who couldn’t be bothered to break into a jog if his arse was on fire.

Statistics can never, ever hope to capture the extraordinary passion, excitement or beauty of football. They will never explain the feeling that sweeps a crowd as Lionel Messi picks up the ball, or tell us why a shot that nestles in the corner of the net is more aesthetically pleasing than one that catches the fingertips of a flailing, unsuccessful keeper. It might be stretching the truth to say that football is working class ballet, but it is a game in which even those with the stoniest of hearts are taken by its poetics. We talk of a ‘gorgeous’ pass, a ‘stunning’ volley, a ‘sublime’ piece of skill. The endless quest of the money-men and the statisticians to quantify the unquantifiable is futile. There is a reason we call it the beautiful game. 

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Liverpool FC - Cursed by God?

This season Liverpool have been a study in turgid ineffectiveness – the Boxing Day encounter with Burnley at Turf Moor being a case in point. It is often said that the mark of a good team is that they can play badly and still pick up three points. On the evidence of that display Liverpool must be the best team in world right now. Oceans of ink, both the traditional and virtual varieties, have been spilled as pundits and fans alike seek explanations for the Reds loss of form. People have pointed to the sale of Suarez, the injury to Sturridge, the age of Gerrard, the inability of a jittery defence to deal with incoming crosses, Mario Balotelli and the transfer committee. Brendon Rodgers would do well to remember, rather than simply mimic, the words of David Brent: “Accept that some days you are the pigeon and some days you are the statue.”

So what has gone wrong at Anfield this season?  Thankfully those of us searching for answers need look no further. Paul Rimmer, a former Ukip candidate, has revealed that Liverpool have been cursed by god. Channelling the spirits of Mike Bassett and Iain Paisley, the wonderfully named Rimmer believes the almighty is punishing the club following its support for the Liverpool Gay Pride parade in 2012. On Facebook he wrote:
“From the Bible, Sodomy defiles a Nation. Those who promote it will be punished & vomited out of the Land. In 2012 Liverpool FC sponsored the City’s Gay Pride Parade. Unless they repent they will be under a continual curse. Liverpool were amazing last year, but the title was denied them. Everyone knows homosexuality is wrong, but now we have to pretend its nice and normal and anyone who points out it’s a perversion is evil. This is a deep moral and spiritual sickness in our nation.”
At first look this seems to be just another example of a far-right nutbar using scripture-fodder to justify their latest round of bigotry. And to be fair it looks like that at second and third sight as well. This is after all a guy who has made his way from the BNP to Ukip to the English Democrats. Rimmer countered by claiming “I am only repeating what is said in the Bible – it's not my opinion, it's what the Bible says.” But wait… what if there is some truth to all of this? What if the club has failed to win a single league title for the past 25 years because they have been breaking the rules hidden in the Bible? What if Liverpool could only draw with Arsenal because Rodgers was coveting Arsene Wenger’s Ox? A quick look at Leviticus, that Old Testament rulebook, reveals a whole series of other offences liable to piss-off our football obsessed deity.

What if Stevie G slipped against Chelsea because he had accidentally eaten some fat (Leviticus, 3:17)? Perhaps the polyester blend of the Liverpool kit is behind the dip in form, since mixing fabrics in clothing is also a no-no (19:19). Does it seem all a bit far-fetched? Well it can be no coincidence that Martin Skrtel has found his feet since playing with a bandaged head (Uncover not your heads, neither rend your clothes; lest ye die, and lest wrath come upon all the people”) or that Raheem Sterling has netted in consecutive games since his haircut (10:6). All of a sudden I’m warming to my task. ‘OMG’ one might remark, were it not for the fear that such an oath could scupper a potential FA Cup run.

Indeed all of football should be in trouble were it to be punished for transgressions of Biblical prohibitions. Sky’s Super Sundays would be very different were it to keep to the rule about working on the Sabbath (23:3) and there should hardly be a footballer in the land playing well given that the big G ain’t all that keen on people getting tattoos (19:28). Still not convinced? Well how about this. Is it any surprise that so many players with sideburns scored goals in the 1970s when you realise that Leviticus is so particular about people cutting their hair at the sides (19:27)?

It’s all nonsense of course. Paul Rimmer takes his selective reading from the Bible to justify a homophobia that has no place in the world. Anytime you find your politics to be behind those of Hollyoaks then you should know you’re in trouble. And if Rimmer really wanted to remain consistent in his reading of Leviticus he might want to pay attention to the passage that reads “the foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born” (19:33-34). 

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Beyond the Froth

Mark Perryman of Philosophy Football picks out the best of the autumn sports books.

I’m sorry but you won’t find here the just-in-time-for Christmas sports autobiography blockbusters. With enough manufactured controversy to ensure blanket coverage when they are launched even a skim read will reveal that on the contrary they tell the reader very little they didn’t either know or suspect already.

Instead I would recommend a weighty volume of this sort A Companion to Sport edited by David Andrews and Ben Carrington. The range of coverage from Monty Panesar to football’s 2010 World Cup is matched by the variety of insights, sport as a contested space being the overarching theme. As an academic book scandalously expensive, but  any well-stocked library. should have a copy. 

As a writer Rob Steen straddles that frustrating divide between the academic and the journalistic. His new book Floodlights and Touchlines reveals the richness of writing this mix can sometimes produce. A living history of the relationship between the spectator and his, or increasingly as Rob chronicles, her sport. This is social history of the very highest standard. Simon Inglis is rightly renowned for his writing on the cultural significance of stadia and other sporting buildings. His Played in Britain project has helped transform our understanding of what these structures mean to their localities, and his latest account of this relationship, Played in London not only continues the richness of Simon’s explanation but is unarguably his finest book in this extraordinary Played In...series yet.

Michael Walker’s Up There is a hugely entertaining application of the social and historical, along with the political and cultural, to the place of football in England’s North-East. Newcastle, Sunderland, ‘Boro, but also the likes of Hartlepool and Darlo, where would English football be without them? The First Game With My Father by Michael Tierney expertly, and movingly applies this macro-analysis of big picture football connectivity to the micro, the personal. A tale of how football frames many families' lives in the way it is a central influence in shaping both fatherhood and masculine adolescence, for good, and sometimes bad. Football once had this degree of influence because it truly was ‘the people’s game’. Today it dominates so many lives because it is big business, almost impossible to escape from. Alex Fynn is a renowned chronicler of the processes behind this very particular evolution, his latest book Arsène & Arsenal continues what amounts to an in-depth study of Arsenal both as a football club and a business, a brand even, what Alex terms a ‘superclub’. If such a notion fills fans with horror, have a read of Ian Plendereith’s  rip-roaring Rock n Roll Soccer an account of the 1970s North American Soccer League which serves as a warning of what happens when football chooses to be simply a branch of a global entertainment industry and forgets where it came from on the way. 

Of course wholesale resistance to any change amounts to a conservatism, few progressives should welcome. Has the penalty shoot-out spelt the end of football as we know it? No, an occasional thrilling end to a tightly-fought match. Ben Lytlleton’s carefully researched Twelve Yards contains plenty of original insight into how to take penalties successfully and turns this quirky idea for a book into a fine read along the way. The last tournament England exited following a penalty shoot-out was Euro 2012. The high point of Roy Hodgson’s England managerial reign to date getting out of a tough group consisting of France, Sweden and Ukraine. In the year of London 2012 and Wiggomania however few took any notice and England have been down ever since. Peter Kennedy and Christos Kassimeris have put together a really excellent academic survey of the tournament, Exploring the Cultural, Ideological and Economic Legacies of Euro 2012. A legacy for the Ukraine which in essence was a tournament which united the nation instead of the bloody separation which followed so shortly afterwards. 

No figure better represents the world English football fears lost to the excesses of commerce as it monetised our sport better than the late Bobby Moore.  Matt Dickinson’s new biography BobbyMoore: The Man In Full reveals both Moore’s supreme achievements, with England and West Ham, but also the flaws even the most heroic contain within themselves. In Moore’s day the media spotlight was nothing like as intense as it is now. We even have the phenomenon of the anonymous insider dishing whatever dirt that might otherwise be hidden from public gaze. Guide to the Modern Game is the third volume of  home truths from the suspiciously well-informed ‘Secret Footballer.’ Who is he? Who knows? And who cares as he continues to open the changing room door to put all behind it on show for his readers. And this time it is the tactics board, team talks and training he treats us to.

Two books kind of book-end the romance and the misery of modern football. Both happen to be about Arsenal, they could have been written about almost any club. Amy Lawrence’s Invincible tells the story of the club’s 2003-2004 unbeaten season. Amy is a writer who will help you to appreciate the football on the pitch with an understanding of how the game is played few can match. At the same time she never fails to appreciate the passion that makes us fans. The Arsenal Shirt by James Elkin and Simon Shakeshaft is a beautifully designed art book visually detailing the history of the club’s most iconic of shirt designs. But of course since the advent of sponsors logos and merchandising profits any legendary kit simply becomes a moneymaking billboard. Unwittingly perhaps the book eloquently reveals the death of tradition that football’s monetisation has successfully engineered.  Progress? In some areas certainly, but at what cost? It is the shift over the past twenty years from the positives Post Italia 90 to the negatives after two decades’ worth of the dire Premier League (sic) that Martin Cloake charts in his new book Taking Our Ball Back. This is writing with well-informed anger. Martin carefully unpicks the causes, and effects of a growing discontent with  how what was once the people’s game is being transformed.

Sport of course doesn’t simply collide with economic forces it is indivisible from the political and social too. This is the basis of these quarterly forays into reviewing the best of current sportswriting. The Nazi Olympics of 1936 remain the strongest example yet of this combination. a platform for Hitler, sport used to seek to prove the physical superiority of the Aryan race, brilliantly demolished of course by  black American athlete Jesse Owens’ four gold medals on the track and in the long jump pit. A superb achievement that has been allowed to mask countless examples of large sections of the sporting establishment’s effective covering-up and collaboration with the Nazi regime in order to save their sports’ relations with Germany. An England football team ordered to give the Nazi salute before an England v Germany game an incredible, and shameful, moment in football’s history. Field of Shadows by Dan Waddell uncovers a part of sporting history from this period which I suspect even the most well-informed sports fan would be unaware of. The 1937 English cricket tour of Nazi Germany! The impulses and reasoning behind such a bizarre adventure for the Germans and  the English were many and varied. What Dan Waddell’s account reveals though in this most extraordinary of settings was how the cricket was framed by Germany’s fast-moving descent into Nazi barbarism while England remained divided by tendencies towards appeasement and collaboration  versus popular and militant anti-fascism. When being knocked for six could land Hitler a propaganda victory cricket is not quite the gentle sport we’re used to Dan Waddell’s tale is scarcely believable. The fact it is just the makes the book an even better read.

Herbie Sykes covers a different sport , cycling, and a different era for Germany, the East German GDR years of state socialism and the Berlin Wall. Of course comparisons with the Nazi era are both crass and ill-founded historically yet the clash between politics and sport all the same was a constant across these two contrasting period in German history. Herbie’s wonderful book The Race against the Stasi details the career, life and times of one of the sporting heroes of East Germany,  Dieter Wiedeman. The culture that turned him firstly into an elite athlete, then into an icon of GDR socialism the disillusionment that led him to escape, turn pro, ride Le Tour and the efforts of the Stasi to repatriate hum. This is sport as a record of post-war politics with a plot good enough to make it as a thriller.

The cycling intrigue we are perhaps more used to are the drug scandals, particularly of the Lance Armstrong era. Michael Barry is the latest rider to break ranks with the peloton to reveal the consequences of the sport’s drug culture and how cycling has to change in order to rid itself from this scourge. Michael’s autobiographical Shadowson the Road is both brutally honest while elegantly moving in terms of his vision for what riding clean means. Restoring the undoubted romance, heroic endeavours and idealism of road cycling at its best is what Jan Cleijoine’s graphic history of Le Tour achieves. Jan’s Legends of the Tour is a stunning graphic history of what remains the greatest race on earth. Until relatively recently British cyclists wouldn’t be much more than an honourable footnote in such a history, Ellis Bacon’s Great British Cycling tracks the irresistible rise of the sport on these shores from modest beginnings. to such achievements at World, Olympic and Grand Tour level to be thought of as worldbeaters. At the core of that achievement in recent years have been women cyclists. Victoria Pendleton, Lizzie Armistead, Laura Trott and others. Nicole Cooke’s autobiographical The Breakaway is both a powerfully-written testament to the measure of that achievement by a former World and European champion on the road plus a well-argued critique of the barriers that stand in the way of women's cycling.

The latest edition of The Cycling Anthology remains the must-read collection of the very best writing on two wheels. Keep Calm and Pedal On is a great collection of quotes on cycling which gives us an idea of the breadth and depth of inspiration riding a bike fast, slow or in-between can provide. Getting our hands dirty fixing what might have gone wrong with a bicycle might not seem  much of a radical act. Sam Tracy would dispute this and has written a Bicycle Repair Manifesto full of useful diy maintenance tips to keep the bike, if not a revolution, on the road. Still not convinced? Bike Mechanic is one of the most beautifully produced books I’ve ever read. In words but, most of all with arthouse standard photographs and layout a homage to those who build and maintain bikes. 

Sport of course should never be treated as a fixed, unchanging, entity. It is shaped by powerful cultural and economic factors as well as the political and social. It demands investigation and often a critique too. Allyson Pollock’s pioneering Tackling Rugby provides both with a sparkling abundance of well-researched writing. Her target? Children and youth rugby, the risk of injury, especially head injuries, and the failure of the sport’s governing bodies to react, with practical suggestions for how to safeguard both young players’ health and the future of the game. A textbook example of how to  investigate sport, expose and help to make change possible.

And my sports book of the quarter? David Goldblatt has already produced one definitive work The Ball is Round, his global and social history of football. His latest book The Game of Our Lives is both a social history of the domestic game and a critique of its modern, monetised manifestation. David combines a sympathetic and original explanation of why football is of such importance to so many while accounting for why it deserves nothing resembling a hagiography because of its many, mostly self-inflicted out of commercial greed, failings. As such it is a book that informs and inspires, a truly great piece of writing.

No links are provided to Amazon. If you can avoid buying from tax-dodgers please do so.

Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka PhilosophyFootball

Friday, November 14, 2014

Dear Jose Mourinho - A Letter on Racism

Dear Jose Mourinho,

Sorry I haven’t been in touch sooner. I’ve been meaning to write ever since you joined the discussion about black managers in the English game by saying, “there is no racism in football”. That really was one of the dumbest things I have ever heard. I mean, fair play to you, it takes some real front to make that claim and also retain John Terry as the captain of your side, but you should really engage your brain before you let the words slip out of your mouth.

We know you’re arrogant. Dare I say it, some of us quite like your trademark persona. It brightens up our football days. Our eyes widen in mock incredulity when you have the temerity to describe yourself as “The Special One”; we snigger as you go to shake Roy Keane’s hand minutes before the final whistle. But tell me, Jose, how does it feel to be the multi-millionaire manager of one of the world’s richest clubs and tell struggling black coaches that racism doesn’t exist?

And it takes a special kind of arrogance to state there is no racism in football and offer no evidence whatsoever in support. Instead you say: “If you are good, you are good. If you are good, you get the job. If you are good, you prove that you deserve the job. Football is not stupid to close the doors to top people. If you are top, you are top.” Yes, Jose, we all know that this is how it should work. The problem is that something is quite obviously wrong with the supposed meritocracy. Can you honestly say that football truly reflects the talents of black managers in this country?

I suppose you might respond by arguing that the burden of proof rests on those of us who seek to confront racism in football. Fair enough – there’s plenty of evidence. Only two of the 92 managers working in the top four divisions of English football are not white. And both Keith Curle and Chris Powell were appointed at the start of the current season. The Professional Footballers’ Association chief executive, Gordon Taylor, claims “there is a hidden racism which holds clubs back” from appointing black managers. In this interesting segment from Football Focus both Dion Dublin and Paul Ince discuss the difficulties facing black people in football and say that action is urgently needed.

Perhaps you’re still not convinced. Perhaps you’re waiting for a smoking gun. Perhaps you’ll only accept that racism exists in football if you see video footage of dozens of white club chairmen sitting in a room discussing their favourite racial slurs. Jose, there are none as blind as those that will not see.

By ignoring the evidence that does exist, you not only belittle the struggle of ethnic minorities in English football, you also pander to the worst sort of class prejudice. Everyone is quick to point out the problems of racism as long as it is being perpetrated by working class people on the terraces or on the pitch. And rightly so. But is it really so inconceivable to you that bigotry and racial prejudice can also be found in the boardroom? Are the great and the good, the movers and shakers and king-makers immunised against intolerance by virtue of their education and their riches? The answer, in case you were wondering, is no.

All the time racism exists in society then it will exist in football – at every level of the game. Burying your head in the sand won’t change that. Instead we have to look at ways to fight it. That is why so many people are looking towards a version of the Rooney rule. First adopted in American football the rule states that clubs seeking a new head coach must interview at least one person from an ethnic minority.

There is a debate over how effective this would be. Les Ferdinand seems to be against it while Rio Ferdinand is for it, which should make for fun conversation at the family Christmas get-together. Let’s be honest. Such a regulation would hardly change the world. What it would do is show that English football is taking the issue of racism seriously,

Sadly it feels like we have been here before. It’s nearly 40 years since Laurie Cunningham, Brendon Batson and Cyrille Regis played together for West Brom and were booed by racist sections of their own fans. It’s nearly 30 years since John Barnes back-heeled a banana thrown at him from the crowd in one of the most iconic anti-racist images football has ever produced. As these generations of black footballers moved into coaching they faced the old racism in a new setting and have stared long enough at the glass ceiling. They have never enjoyed your privileged position Jose. The very least you can do is to acknowledge their struggle.

Yours sincerely

Inside Left