Thursday, January 31, 2013

An Open Invitation to Left-Wing Sports Fans


Inside Left is rapidly approaching its first birthday - and to mark the occasion I'm opening up the blog to anybody on the left who has something to say about sport. For a year I've tried to explore the way in which sport, politics and money come together. Now seems as good a time as any to put political differences to one side and strike a non-sectarian tone. Whatever our disagreements we are united by our passion for sport, and our opposition to the commodified, commercialised, corporatised sports of the Murdoch empire. Let's not be shy. Let's tell the world want we want. We want Rebel sports, street sport. Sport that breaks down people's fear of one another. Crisis sport. Now sport. Sport that knows who the real enemy is.

For the entire month of February Inside Left will run articles from people who are fed up with the racism and sexism in our beautiful game; who are raging at the prices of tickets, shirts and pay-per-view; who are sick and tired of watching sports being used as a political football. The next month is - in the words of the Inside Left marketing department - Guest-Post February. The fact that I have a shed-load of deadlines in the coming weeks is purely coincidental. Let's take this opportunity to turn a necessity into a long overdue virtue. Let's create a space where people on the left can discuss and debate sport, games and play. Sport may not be able to change the world but it's way too important to leave it to the back pages of the Daily Express and a pull-out supplement in the Sunday Sun.

Let's make the most of this opportunity. If you have something to say about sport, theoretical or hysterical, historical or political, then please get in touch. The subject matter is up to you, as is the length (although I typically post pieces between 600-2000 words). And there is no political line to be towed. That said anyone who combines condemnation of both capitalism and Manchester United will obviously receive preferential treatment. Whether you love sport or hate it, Inside Left wants to hear your ranting, raving voices. You can contact me via insideleftblog@gmail.com. Socialists should have something to say about sport. If nothing else then, for goodness sake, won't you think of the children? And, if not that, then please, please, think of my blog stats.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The man who went beyond a boundary


Inside Left is delighted to carry Mike Marqusee's recent appraisal of CLR James' Beyond a Boundary, a work of such scope, subtlety and insight that it is still regarded as the finest book ever written on cricket. This piece was originally penned for the magazine Red Pepper. A huge thank you to Mike for allowing his article to be reproduced here. A collection of his writing on politics, culture and sport can be found at www.mikemarqusee.com.

When CLR James’ Beyond A Boundary was first published fifty years ago, the sociology of sport and the politics of popular culture had no place in the academy or on the left. The book had to create its own subject, define a new field of intervention. James aimed to establish cricket as worthy of serious study and to expose the failure to study it as an unacceptable omission. As he says at the start of the book, he could no longer credit an account of Victorian society that found no room for WG Grace. Like that other seminal work of 1963, EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, James’ book aimed to rescue the culture created by the lower orders “from the condescension of posterity.”

James was 62 when Beyond a Boundary was published. Behind him were decades of political struggle, taking in the West Indies, Britain, fifteen cricketless years in the USA and a brief spell in newly independent Ghana. His publications already covered a wide range – history, philosophy, literature, politics – through which could be charted James’ developing anti-Stalinist Marxism, as well as a vast expense of intellectual energy in years of factional struggle in the Trotskyist movement.

In 1958 James returned to Trinidad after an absence of a quarter of a century. Independence was around the corner, but exactly what shape it would take was uncertain. As editor of the independence movement’s newspaper and a key advisor to its leader, Eric Williams, James championed the newly formed West Indies Federation and opposed the US base at Chaguaramas. When Williams opted for a pro-western policy, James found himself frozen out. “I had placed myself at his disposal, adapted myself to his needs,” he observed ruefully, “He does not appreciate what that means.” By the time Trinidad was granted independence in 1962, the West Indies Federation had collapsed and James had been forced into exile.

It was in the wake of this disappointment that James sat down to write his long-gestated book on cricket, which is very much an optimistic portrayal of West Indies’ destiny. He begins by asking “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” – adapting Kipling’s double-edged imperial lament, “What do they know of England who only England know?” Declaring that the “answer involves ideas as well as facts,” he sets off on a great intellectual journey, passing through Victorian England, ancient Greece, industrial Lancashire (one of my favourite episodes, an affectionate portrait of a working class culture), the Trinidad of his youth and a Caribbean on the brink of independence. In doing so he urges us to ask not only “how men live” but also, crucially, “what they live by.” That is, he calls attention to the superstructure of ideas, values and identities, and their embodiment in the praxis of daily life, including sports.

As innovative in form as it is in content, Beyond a Boundary is uncategorisable, a blend of memoir, history, theory, journalism, political manifesto. For all its diversity, it has what many of today’s hybrid texts lack: a commanding intelligence and a distinctive voice, dry, purposeful, thrillingly and theatrically didactic. The book is all of a piece and would be diminished by the loss of any of its component parts.

James’ over-arching concern is the development of West Indian cricket. He traces its relation to the hierarchies of colonialism and colour and the unique role it played in a stratified society. Recalling his early experiences of the game, he remarks: “Cricket had plunged me into politics long before I was aware of it.”

Leftists are often taken aback by James’ reverence for the English public school ethic. But what he saw in this ethic, as embodied in cricket, was something that fit the needs of an emergent West Indian society, a self-discipline that was part of the struggle for freedom and equality. In his view West Indians were not only victims of imperialism, but agents able to seize the tools of the oppressor and use them for self-assertion and self-development. That’s the lens through which he understands cricket. In its story he sees West Indians adopting and adapting the culture and technology of their masters, making it their own, turning its disciplines to their own purposes. As a Marxist, he viewed the revolt against colonialism not as a revolt against modernity or western culture, but as a revolt into a modernity of self-determination, a new relation to a wider world. So even at his most conservative, James is always revolutionary.

James argues that the “representative” quality which dramatists struggle to infuse into their individual characters comes effortlessly to cricket: in the confrontation between bowler and batter, where the two are simultaneously individuals testing their individual strengths and embodiments of a larger group, the team, whose destiny is shaped by their actions. What James relished in cricket was this dialectic of individual and collective, moment and process, the technical and the spontaneous. His belief in the significance of exceptional individuals, figures created by history to make history, permeates Beyond a Boundary, not least in its finely-tuned portraits of George Headley and Learie Constantine, cricketers who became representative through their mould-breaking individuality.

As James notes, history blessed him with the perfect ending for his story. In 1961, he led the successful campaign to have Frank Worrell appointed captain of the West Indies, the first black man to hold the prestigious post. Here James’ love of cricket and his anti-colonial politics meshed. (Only James could depict Worrell as both the heir of Thomas Arnold and the equal of Trotsky as a powerful personality.) Worrell’s much-praised leadership of the West Indies tour of Australia later that year provides Beyond a Boundary with its triumphant conclusion, in which James describes how West Indies “clearing their way with bat and ball … made a public entry into the comity of nations.”

As it turned out, Worrell’s team were merely forerunners of the great era of West Indies cricket supremacy, from the mid 70s to the early 90s. In the team fashioned by Clive Lloyd, the team of Richards, Holding, Roberts, et al, James’ prophetic view of West Indies’ cricket was fulfilled. Like Bob Marley, the cricketers projected a West Indian identity on to a world stage, briefly making these politically, economically marginal islands a centre of global culture.

What would James have made of the long decline that has followed? Surely, he’d note in the fall of West Indies cricket the absence of the very factors that made for its rise: the anti-colonial movement and the ideals of Third World solidarity. Later cricketers, emerging from a West Indian society battered by neo-liberalism, could not match the ambition, creativity and commitment of a generation determined to liberate themselves from the colonial and racist order into which they’d been born.

James asked not only how cricketers played, but what they played for. His programme for the future entailed a “return of the cricketer to the community”. For James, what mattered in popular culture was its democratic content.

This is why I suspect he’d find much of today’s popular culture studies alien, particularly the tendency to treat the field as a continuum of texts, a self-referential symbolic order. For him the central task of the enterprise was the process of political and aesthetic discrimination, the honing of a method of evaluation. He might ask: ‘What do they know of popular culture who only popular culture know?’

Reading the book for the umpteenth time, it struck me that in his desire to do justice to cricket James overstates its claims. Perhaps he took cricket too seriously, and in doing so fell prey to what cricket historian Derek Birley called “the aesthetic fallacy”. Cricket, James declared, “is first and foremost a dramatic spectacle. It belongs with theatre, ballet, opera and the dance.” Yes, but it is also fundamentally a different type of spectacle, with a particular appeal. In sport, the aesthetic is an incidental by-product – not the purpose of the exercise, which is to win the competition. However well-rehearsed, cricket remains at root unpredictable; the result (and therefore the meaning) cannot be pre-determined.

I owe a huge personal debt to James, for many reasons. What now seems to me most important in his legacy is the example he set, more than any of his theories. It’s the virtue summed up in the title of his masterwork: thinking and living beyond boundaries, whether they’re the boundaries between cricket and the wider world, the boundaries that separate discourses and disciplines, or the boundaries of race, class and empire.

 

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Kicking A Ball Boy When He's Down

Ex-professional footballer Richie Moran returns to Inside Left to look at the morality of football in a week that saw Chelsea's Eden Hazard put the boot in.

Once again it seems that Chelsea FC have been allowed to plumb the depths of decency, on this occasion it would seem ably abetted by those who really ought to know better.
 
Let's get one thing straight. Having observed the situation countless times I am prepared to concede that Hazard did not seek to injure Charlie Morgan. However what he did was plain wrong. You simply cannot kick a ball out from under a ball boy, as he did, because their is always a chance of injury and technically it was an assault. The referee was left with no option but to send him off for violent behaviour.
 
It would seem that Morgan had tweeted his intention to waste time prior to the game and therefore needs to also be punished in some form (perhaps, even as the son of the Swansea chairman, he should not be allowed to ball boy again, although I don't think that will bother him too much). Two wrongs do not a right make and I am sure that some of the abuse he is likely to receive on Twitter (including the obligatory death threats from a certain charming Chelsea faction) will ensure that he receives far harsher judgement than the idiot that kicked him. 
 
They both apologised, Morgan possibly, because he realised the enormity of what he had done and that his playacting (picked up from footballers perchance?) and Hazard, hopefully sincerely (though with the recent history of his club, I am inclined to doubt it) because his conduct was simply unacceptable.
 
I accept that emotions were running high, owing to the situation, but as a millionaire professional footballer, Eden Hazard has a responsibility to the watching millions (including young ball boys) to conduct himself in the appropriate manner or face the consequences. For the likes of Pat Nevin (whom I had previously considered one of the more erudite and articulate commentators amongst the anodyne dross) to say he would have done the same is tantamount to advocating violence against a young boy and is plain wrong. Perhaps he should watch the various programmes where young British citizens think it is OK to go to places such as Kavos, Magaluf, Zante etc and act in the most disgusting, disrespectful manner toward the local inhabitants, and even the doctors who try to repair bodies broken by drunken excess, before deciding exactly who may be in need of some physical chastisement. 

Perhaps whilst moralising thus he should extend it to young professionals who are currently up in a court of law for allegedly filming themselves sexually abusing a drunk teenage girl!

As much as I am an advocate for free speech, do you not think it may be an idea to stop footballers expressing their vacuous and ill considered opinions on Twitter? Gareth Bale's comment was a disgrace. As someone who, when I played, was even quicker than him, I know how easy it is to actually keep your balance when running at full pace, so perhaps he should think on. As regards Glenn Hoddle (and we all know his track record on pronouncements) I am pretty sure the words condone and condemn were mixed up, so we'll give him the benefit of the doubt for now. 

In another momentous week for football morality the Ferguson Association (or an even more suitable acronym) has graciously deigned to ask the omnipotent one to clarify yet another questioning of the integrity of a match official. Yet they charge Sam Allardyce. And there is still the possibility of a disgraceful scenario in which a man who led his team to two successive promotions and had two defeats in 12 games being sacked in the most cowardly and disrespectful manner.

Lest we forget has there been any action taken against Hibernian s Leigh Griffiths (the alacrity with which his [parent club Wolves washed their hands of the situation was like watching the aforementioned  Bale against Aston Villa) for tweeting "get back to your own country" to someone with an Asian name who had criticised him on Twitter?

However in a month where once again, one Steven Spielberg has again been given carte blanche to revise history with his portrayal of the supremely racist, slave owning, white supremacist Abraham Lincoln as a great emancipator and abolitionist and Tarantino as usual can use slavery (and the word nigger 109 times) as the backdrop for another of his violence glorifying spaghetti western cartoons, is it any wonder that a club owned by a billionaire has once again been allowed to besmirch, whatever name football currently has? England rugby international, Danny Care is a pillock as well for his inane comments.

At least Bradford City V Swansea at Wembley goes against the grain, restores some faith and should delight the neutrals and their fans instead of the billionaire and millionaire thugs and cowards who play, preside over and commentate on football.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

UEFA's Woeful Record on Racism

This piece was originally written for somepeopleonthepitch.co.uk

This year will not be like the last. After 25 minutes of vile racist abuse from a section of the Pro Patria crowd, AC Milan’s Kevin-Prince Boateng picked up the ball and volleyed it at the top tier of the ground towards the so-called fans. In no time at all he began walking off the pitch, refusing to continue playing. To their enormous credit both his Rossoneri teammates and the opposition followed him in solidarity. The referee was left with no option other than to abandon the game.
 
Off the field, racism dominated the football world throughout 2012 in much the same way as Spain dominated on the pitch. Liverpool’s Luis Suarez was found guilty of racially abusing Man Utd’s Patrice Evra by the Football Association (FA), while a court cleared John Terry of the same charge after TV cameras had caught the Chelsea defender mouthing obscenities at Anton Ferdinand. Given the evidence the FA felt obliged to ban Terry and also stripped him of the England captaincy. As the headlines were being dominated by these two high profile cases, the European Championships took place amid fears that neo-Nazi groups in Poland and Ukraine, the host nations, would target black players and travelling fans. By the end of the year fascist Ultras from Rome’s two clubs, Lazio and Roma, put aside their domestic rivalry to viciously attack Tottenham supporters, yelling anti-Semitic insults as they did so. A House of Commons committee report concluded that racism was still a “significant problem” in football. 
 
2012 was the year in which we talked about racism in football, and for a moment there was the terrible sinking feeling that with its passing we were left with little more than same shit, different year. Not now. The actions of Kevin-Prince Boateng could, potentially, become a watershed moment in the sport. 2013 could be the year when we start talking about anti-racism in football. 
 
In fairness the debate started late last year. In October the England Under-21 match in Serbia ended in a brawl following a 90 minutes in which every touch of the ball by a black England player was met with racist chanting from the home fans. After the final whistle Danny Rose blasted the ball into Serbian section of the crowd, and was sent off by the ref. As he left the pitch he “mimicked monkey gestures, signalling that he had been racially abused”. During the game England’s players were pelted with coins and stones.
 
The ugly scenes drew a swift response from the English FA, who called for disciplinary action to be taken against the Serbian FA. The ex-England midfielder Paul Ince (whose son played in the game) went much further arguing: "If it was me, they [Serbia] would be kicked out for the next five tournaments - European, World Cups - but they will get a little ban and that will be it. Things like that are not what we want to see in football. It takes it back to the dark ages." Everybody agreed that sanctions of one kind or another needed to be enforced and looked to UEFA, European football’s governing body, in the hope that they would take a lead. England U21 boss Stuart Pierce said he “would trust UEFA to make the right and proper decision”.
 
What did UEFA do? They banned six players, including two from the England team, as well as two Serbian coaches for their part in the brawl. In addition they ordered the Serbian Under-21 team to play their next competitive match behind closed doors, and fined the Serbian FA £65,000. It was a derisory outcome, and an insult to black players and anti-racists everywhere. This should come as no surprise. Indeed it says a great deal about their track record that the fine was the largest it has ever imposed on a national body over the issue of racism. Time and time again UEFA have been found wanting when it comes to confronting racism in the beautiful game.
 
Since 2002 UEFA have issued a number of fines against national teams for racially abusing black English players. Slovakia, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Serbia and Croatia have all been punished, yet the fine in each case was minimal, the largest being £34,230. UEFA have at every turn rejected the suggestion that these sanctions are not nearly harsh enough. Similarly they have ignored calls to dock points from offending nations who are seeking qualification to major tournaments. This is not to say that there are no problems of racism in the English game. These are just examples readily available and illustrate the poverty of UEFA’s approach to combatting racism – especially when you consider that Denmark’s Niklas Bendtner was fined £80,000 for ‘unauthorised sponsorship’ when he revealed the name of a sponsor during a goal celebration at Euro 2012. It would seem that ambush marketing is a greater crime than racism in the eyes of UEFA.
 
With such a long and woeful record on tackling racism it is no surprise that Andre Villas-Boas can say, "I keep saying the same - actions are decisive. I am not sure if UEFA once again sets a good example”. How then can we explain UEFA unwillingness or inability to act?
 
RACISM IN UEFA?
Politicians and the media like nothing more than to suggest that racism is a working class phenomenon. But rest assured, racism can be found in the boardroom just as easily as we may find it on the terraces. A brief look at the number of black coaches and managers in the British game would indicate that racism is a systemic issue. Formally UEFA are, of course, committed to opposing racism, but then again so are FIFA, and just look at their record. The current bigot-in-chief at FIFA is Sepp Blatter, who ‘earns’ a million pounds each year and is, for my money, quite obviously a racist. This is a man who suggested that racism could be sorted out by a handshake at the end of a game, and who this week criticised the Milan players for walking off the pitch. In response AC Milan president Silvio Berlusconi said he thought Blatter was “wrong”. Put simply, any time you find yourself to the right of Berlusconi then you really shouldn’t be trusted to cross the road, let alone run the world’s most popular sport.
 
Platini is obviously somewhat different. He has yet to produce the kind of outrageous statements that the gaffe-prone Blatter splutters out as a matter of course. When UEFA decided to appeal the judgement passed on the Serbian FA by its own independent disciplinary panel, it was Platini who was seen to lead the charge, deriding the penalty as “paltry”. His call for a more severe punishment is in stark contrast to a history of sports’ administrators who would rather bury their heads in the sand.
 
Not that the man is without his faults. In the run up to the Euros, Platini was effectively in a state of denial about the levels of racism in Eastern Europe. He would go on to insist that any player who left the field after being racially abused during the tournament would be shown a yellow card. More broadly we should avoid being so careless as to judge UEFA – for good or ill - simply on the pronouncements and character of this one man alone. As a body it does help organise anti-racist initiatives, such as FARE, although how successful these are remain to be proven.
 
If a charge of racism is unproven then perhaps it is the case that UEFA under-estimate the level of racism in football. Liberals everywhere love to believe that racism is merely a lack of education and understanding. If you overcome this obstacle then we will move inexorably to a more enlightened society. The history of British football would suggest that this may be true. In the 1970s and 1980s black players in this country were subjected to the worst kinds of abuse. Their entrance onto the pitch would be met with monkey noises, their every touch booed and banana skins hurled at them. It was through the work of fan-based groups, Kick It Out (whether or not you believe it to be now compromised by its close relationship to the FA) and Show Racism the Red Card that these attitudes were challenged. Together with broader initiatives such as the Anti-Nazi League the effect was to drive the worst excesses out of the grounds.
 
However, what such arguments fail to take into account is that the struggle for equality can go backwards as well as forward. Racist ideas can return and their prevalence is more likely to increase as the harsh realities of recession and austerity bear down ever harder. There has been a noticeable increase in the activities of the far right across Europe and inevitably this finds its echo in the world of football. Italy has been plagued by racism, often directed at Mario Balotelli. Black players have been abused in Spain, and the case of Eastern Europe has already been touched upon above. Is it possible that UEFA have become complacent in the fight against racism? Maybe, but the incidents of abuse and are so well documented that it seems unlikely. And, even if it did explain the present situation, it doesn’t explain why their record has been so poor historically.
 
PASSING THE BUCK
John Barnes has long argued that racism is first and foremost a societal problem, Barnes is one of the more articulate ex-professional footballers, and his point is well made. Racism exists in football because it exists in society – not the other way around. This is an especially important point to make at those times, such as the 1980s, when governments simultaneously attempt to vilify football fans and excuse themselves for social ills. But unless treated carefully such thinking can lead to a terrible passivity. What good is challenging racism in football if the real problem is wider society?
 
This logic is apparent in Barnes’ recent statement: "You can't target racism in football as long as it exists in society … We're trying to do it the wrong way round. A lot can be done but all we can do in football is target and tackle the symptom." UEFA deploy a variation of this argument. But football – indeed sport in general - is more than just a mirror reflecting back a picture of society. It is also a site of struggle and contestation. When racism is challenged in the game it can in turn affect society. When people come together to combat discrimination in all its forms the effects are felt far beyond the confines of the stadium.
 
Taking such a position enables UEFA to pass the buck and excuse their inertia, but also allows them to talk tough when they find themselves under pressure. And it fits perfectly with the position they occupy in the football world and the role they play. In essence UEFA mediate between the interests of various groups, forced to juggle the economic motivations of multinational sponsors and broadcasters, the political power-plays of individual national football associations, the whims of the mass media, and occasionally the legitimate concerns of players and spectators. UEFA are well aware of this and even headlined Platini’s Christmas statement with a line welcoming the “consensus among football’s stakeholders”. Such an ugly and revealing phrase!
 
The power of each group in relation to the others will vary at different points, and not all will be able to exert the same influence. It is quite clear, for example, that fans have less say than Sky when it comes to the running of football. UEFA may attempt to manage these often conflicting expectations, but inevitably those with the most money have the loudest voice and it is their needs which are prioritised. The primary consideration is to produce a sporting spectacle, a footballing product that can be bought and sold. The health of the sport is now measured in terms of profit and loss - all other considerations are secondary. The custodians of the game have long since abdicated their wider responsibility, which means that although they may well be committed to opposing racism, they are not necessarily committed to fighting it. Fundamentally the business of UEFA is business – not fighting oppression.
 
Whatever conclusion one draws, however one explains the woeful record of UEFA, one thing is clear: we cannot simply rely on the people in charge of the game to tackle racism. Bigotry will be most effectively challenged by the people on the terraces organising and arguing. It will be beaten down by grassroots and community campaigns. And players can give a lead in stamping out racism with their principled actions and by remaining consistently outspoken. For this very reason we should celebrate Kevin-Prince Boateng. In an outcome worthy of an attacking midfielder, he may just have changed the course of the game.