Sunday, March 8, 2015

Red Card Israeli Racism

Of all the many crimes perpetrated by the Israeli military during Operation Protective Edge, the euphemistic title given to last year’s barbarous assault on the Gaza Strip, one in particular stays in my mind. On the 17th July shells launched from a gunboat off the coast of Gaza, killing the four brothers who were playing football on the beach. Ismail, Ahed, Zakaria, and Mohammed Bakr aged 9, 10, 10 and 11 respectively. It’s important to remember their names – because even in the midst of their condemnation many in the mainstream media never even thought to ask. Was this the purpose of Protective Edge? The footballer Joey Barton tweeted: “This is not war. These are not combatants. They are just innocent children. This is ethnic cleansing.” It was re-tweeted 19,471 times.

The awfulness of that act stayed with me for a long time, its intensity refusing to diminish over time. They were children playing on a beach. The very act of playing is to cut oneself off from the real world, to escape, to laugh, to enjoy. The idea of play resonated with me, accentuating their tender ages. Play is what children do, it’s child’s play, a world of imagination, possibility and innocence. Yet these children were slaughtered as they kicked a football across the sand.

Rewind by a little over a year to the 18th June 2013 and there was a very different type of football taking place: football as a sport, a commodity and an exercise in international relations. The final of the European Under-21 Championships is being held in the Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem. Israel had won the right to host the tournament in 2011, beating off competition from England & Wales, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic – all countries, you will note, which are actually in Europe.

Israeli finally secured membership of UEFA in 1994, some twenty years after it had left the Asian Football Confederation. Its national team regularly competes in the European qualifying groups for the European Championship and the FIFA World Cup, its club sides compete in the Europa Cup and UEFA Champions League. This was, however, the first time they had staged a premier European football event.

As the Championships approached, so the voices ranged against Israel hosting the competition became increasingly loud. In November 2012 more than 50 professional footballers, including such players as Eden Hazard, Demba Ba and Abou Diaby, dared to blur the line between athlete and activist, penning an open letter to European football’s governing body to express their solidarity with the people of Gaza. A petition was circulated by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign calling on UEFA to move the tournament. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a veteran of the anti-Apartheid struggles in South Africa, co-signed a letter condemning Israel’s “cruel and lawless behaviour” and lambasted UEFA for showing “total insensitivity to the blatant and entrenched discrimination inflicted on Palestinian sportsmen and women”.

In the end the campaign fell on deaf ears. For all the sympathetic noises that emanated from UEFA, President Michel Platini would not be moved. But the level of enthusiasm for a sporting boycott, relatively small though it may have been, was surprising.

Staging a sports mega-event allows the host nation to project a certain image on the international stage. This holds true whether one looks at the UK government and the business-friendly London 2012, or Putin’s use of Sochi 2014. Staging the (mini-mega-event) European Under-21 Championships was an example of how sport can play a vital political role for Israel. Their inclusion into the European sporting family acts to legitimise a state founded on terror and expulsions; it aids a process of sanitisation wherein the brutality meted out on a daily basis to the Palestinian people is reduced to mere background noise. It came as no surprise that with the tournament fresh in the minds of European football’s governing authorities Israel launched a bid to host the 2020 Euros. UEFA rejected the bid due to Israel’s “complex” situation.  

Of course, sport plays an important role for the Palestinians too. In a world where their very existence is denied, sport is a visible expression of Palestinian nationhood. Sport becomes a source of pride, joy in the face of adversity. Nowhere was this clearer than in the recent Asia Cup. In 2014 the men’s national football team qualified for the Asia Cup, the very first time they had reached the finals of a major tournament. When the competition began in Australia at the start of the year the team were greeted as representatives of Palestine. Yet only a week before, the Australian representative at the United Nations had voted against the resolution calling for the establishment of a viable, sovereign Palestinian state by the end of 2017.

The very fact that Palestine has both men’s and women’s international football teams – let alone qualifies for international tournaments – is testament to the sheer resilience of the Palestinian people. Sport is subject to all the same restrictions, problems and horrors that characterise Palestinian life in general. Footballers are routinely stopped from travelling, both within the Palestinian territories and overseas to play international fixtures – the most famous case coming in 2007 when the entire men’s football team were denied exit visas to travel to a World Cup qualifier in Singapore. With Israel bisecting Gaza and the West Bank, Palestine runs two separate football leagues, although only seven seasons were completed between 1977 and 2007.

Unsurprisingly sports facilities are sparse. Sports pitches are at a premium, and few have the luxury of grass. The embargoes placed on Palestine by the Israeli government stop all manner of sports goods from entering the country. Palestinian footballers, all on desperately poor incomes, are given a free pair of boots by the Palestinian Sports Authority – but there is no guarantee that they will fit. The stadium in which the Palestinians once played their matches has largely been reduced to rubble, first in an Israeli bombing raid in 2008, then again in 2012.

Such is the state of Palestine’s football stadia, training facilities and pitches that FIFA announced in January that they would be giving €840,000 to aid the development of the sport in Gaza and the West Bank. That figure is loose change compared to the vast sums sloshing around Europe’s top leagues. But it is worth placing in context. In 2013 Maccabi Tel Aviv, Israel’s most successful football club, signed striker Tal Ben Haim for a record €1.1million. In one transfer a single team spent more money that Palestinian football can afford to spend on infrastructure.

Given the sheer levels of devastation wrought by the Israeli military it is tempting to conclude that Palestinian sport has been an inevitable, perhaps even unintended, casualty in a wider conflict. Yet evidence suggests that Israel has deliberately targeted Palestinian sports.

The list of Palestinian sporting figures that have been killed, injured or imprisoned by the Israeli state is horrifyingly long, and these incidents have been catalogued elsewhere. Many people will be familiar with the incredible story of Mahmoud Sarsak, the footballer who, having been illegally detained by the Israeli military for three years, staged a hunger-strike that drew worldwide attention and the support of Eric Cantona and, eventually, Sepp Blatter. Less well known is the tragic tale of Jawhar Nassar Jawhar and Adam Abd al-Raouf Halabiya. Israeli soldiers opened fire on the young footballers as they approached a checkpoint. Falling to the floor they were attacked by dogs and subsequently beaten. As they lay battered and beaten, fearing for their lives, both were shot in their feet. They will never play football again.

Why would Israel target Palestinian sport? In part it is certainly an attempt to prevent the Palestinians enjoying even a moment of normality or excitement. Secondly, as Sarsak has suggested, Israel are all too aware of the political importance of sport: “Sport can help strengthen the relationship between cultures, which is why the Israelis are trying to stop such activities.” As a member of FIFA, Palestine enjoys a diplomacy through sport that it is otherwise denied in economic and political spheres. Palestinian sport suggests the possibility of a Palestinian nation state and as such must be quashed at every opportunity. With these considerations in mind the call for a sporting boycott of Israel becomes a crucial plank in the wider Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign.

Sport, by virtue of its global popularity, offers an opportunity to raise awareness of the Palestinian cause amongst people with whom we might never otherwise engage. The reaction to the tweets of Joey Barton and Mario Balotelli or the wristbands of Moeen Ali demonstrates this quite clearly. Derek Birley, the historian of English cricket, once suggested that sport carries within it no morality, only that which is brought to it by the players and spectators. Sport is therefore an arena, literally and figuratively, of struggle. Mahmoud Sarsak once told me, “Football is my weapon”. It should be ours too. And I can think of no better place to begin than the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff in September, when Wales play host to Israel.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Mike Marqusee

Mike Marqusee died earlier this year at the age of 61. It was a terribly sad loss for those close to him. Mike was only an acquaintance, yet those of us who knew only briefly or through his writing feel something of that loss as well.

Others will have written about Mike's politics, his activism, his fierce intelligence, his poetry, his love of India, his interest in Blake, his passion for Dylan, his writings on the NHS and his fight against cancer. Other have written of his deep humanity and compassion - not least Talha Ahsan in this beautiful, moving obituary.

I want to say something about Mike's sports books. But before I do I will offer one memory of Mike's political activism. I saw him speak at an anti-war rally shortly after 9/11. Already a narrative was being constructed in the media and by politicians that we were entering a new clash of civilisations. On one side stood America and its allies in the West, on the other the Arab world. Mike destroyed the binary rhetoric in seconds. "I am an American Jew, born in New York," he told the crowd. "And I oppose the drive to war." Principled internationalism and solidarity - it was a powerful message.

I first met Mike when he spoke at a meeting in about 2000, maybe 2001. He talked about the link between politics and sport, about the Vietnam War, about racism in the United States and about Muhammad Ali. As a young man who had grown up a sports fan and then became a socialist this was dynamite. The two passions of my life were intertwined after all. And I was captivated by Mike. He spoke convincingly, with passion and conviction, and an assuredness that I hadn't thought possible.

After the meeting, I lingered hoping to ask Mike a question. I don't for the life of me remember what I asked although I do remember that he  answered at length and with great precision. As I was about to wander off he looked down at my sweatshirt, the front of which was emblazoned with the word 'ADIDAS'. "How much are they paying you to wear that," he enquired.  Er... My mum had bought it for me, I mumbled in explanation, I had nothing else clean. Despite the gentle ribbing my hero-worship remained intact.

In the weeks that followed I sought out a copy of Anyone But England, Mike's history of English cricket. It was the first 'proper' sports book I had read, and my first impression when I had finished reading it was simply to wonder how on earth it was possible for anyone to know so much about the game. But this was no mere list of facts, names and events. Anyone But England ties together the story of this supposedly quintessential English pastime with a history of the British Empire and the vicissitudes of the nation's place in the world. It is, in turn, a biting polemic, a compelling historical investigation and an indictment of racism, commercialism and the bastardisation of play.

Some years later I listened to a lecture given by a historian who was in the process of writing his own history of English cricket. Veering somewhat off-topic he lamented the fact that Marxism had seemingly gained a certain ground in the field of sports history. For five minutes he rambled on about the left in academia before providing two pieces of evidence that proved - conclusively! - that Marxism had nothing to offer the discipline. Firstly, the fact that some football players cross themselves before coming on to the field demonstrated that Marxist talk of secularization was nonsense. Secondly, he said he had just finished reading Anyone But England and had found that it contained one or two mistakes. Is it possible that the book incorrectly records a date or attributes the wrong initials to a cricketer who plied his trade in the nineteenth century? It is possible, I presume. What I am certain of is that Mike would have taken great delight in being included as Exhibit B in this ridiculous case for the prosecution.

If Anyone But England impressed me, it had nothing on Mike's biography of the greatest sportsperson of all time, Muhammad Ali. Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties is, in my opinion, the single greatest sports biography ever written. One might argue that Ali is a gimme for a sports writer, a figure so entertaining, so interesting, that any work that included him as its subject matter was bound to prove a success. And there are certainly many great works that tell Ali's story - Thomas Hauser's encyclopaedic Muhammad Ali and the wonderful film When We Were Kings being two obvious examples. Yet Redemption Song is something else again.

Not only did Mike possess a prose style the likes of which would be envied by any writer, let alone a sports writer, he also had an immense talent for weaving together the personal, the political, wider cultural interests and the sporting. So it is that he finds time in the book to discuss Sam Cooke and Bob Dylan, Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, George Foreman and Joe Frazier. Mike's own life brought invaluable insight to the work. When he assesses the anti-Vietnam War movement, he does so with an activist's eye; his political analysis of X, Martin Luther King and the Nation of Islam is razor sharp. In Redemption Song, Ali is rescued from posterity, cast as an unlikely synthesis of opposition to racism and war, yet not once does Mike lose sight of the reluctance, bullishness and contradictions that entailed. It is a majestic piece of writing.

I last saw Mike Marqusee speak at the Ralph Miliband Memorial Lecture in February 2014 on "Nationalism, Internationalism and Global Sport". He was frail and croaky and told me he didn't think he'd be able to speak for more than half an hour. He spoke for nearly ninety minutes, warming to his task all the way. By the end - as was so often the way with Mike's words, either spoken or written - I knew a hell of a lot more and understood the world that little bit better.

Mike's death leaves an enormous void for those of us on the left. As Dave Zirin has said he is "irreplaceable". In particular those socialists among us who think that we should have something to say about sport in all its many and varied forms have lost an important voice. He leaves behind a legacy of powerful, beautiful writing. We should treasure it, learn from it, and, most of all, build on it.  

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).