Saturday, February 16, 2013

Beards, Sports and Revolution

Happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me! And what better way to mark the first anniversary of the blog - and continue Guest Post February - than with the Beard Liberation Front's own, Keith Flett. Here he ponders the crucial question: what is the relationship between beards, sport, and revolution.

What is the connection between beards, sport & revolution?
The answer I’m afraid is not as much as I would like

Some may be familiar with the picture of Castro and Che Guevara, both hirsute, playing golf. That is possibly the best connection that can be proven. Whether or not it helps that Castro is an Arsenal fan I’ll leave for others.
Still there is something about beards and sport even if it doesn’t exactly suggest revolutionary developments on most occasions.
The matter can be historically situated. Before the advent of the safety razor at the beginning of the twentieth century, sportsmen were often hirsute and not much significance could be attached to it. Once shaving became the norm beards also became something of a rarity although moustaches still had their place.
It would be difficult to argue here that sport was outside of the broader context of the societies in which it was played.
Over time however the clean shaven approach became institutionalised to the extent that in most cases a sportsman wearing a beard was regarded as exceptional if not to be prevented altogether.
There are stories of England cricket captain Ray Illingworth in the early 1970s despatching players back to the Pavilion If he felt they had not shaved properly.
We can plausibly say therefore that the clean shaven look in sport was one in which authority from above  dominated and player power was non existent.
That began to change 50 or so years ago.
The development might be loosely tied to the move to professional cricket and the end of the cap on football players wages. Traditional authority began to fade a little and with it players ability to develop their own individual sporting personas.
The appearance in numbers of beards in football and cricket can probably be dated to the 1970s. No doubt the wider societal upheavals of the 1960s also played their part.
What is the impact of the sporting beard?
The Beard Liberation Front often claims that the sporting beard can provide an aero-dynamic advantage on the field of play, directing air currents and therefore influencing the direction of the ball whether it be cricket, golf, rugby or football.
It must be said that the scientific basis for this assertion is rather slender.
But beards do have an impact, even if not revolutionary.
The impact is mainly one of intent. An example is the beard England cricket captain Mike Brearley grew during an Ashes series in Australia. It didn’t have a direct influence on the England team’s fortunes but instead of seeing a middle class University lecturer on the field, the Australians suddenly saw a rather fearsome WG Grace type figure. The point I think was taken.
Likewise in rugby one thinks of the French player Sebastien Chabal. What was Chabal’s role on the rugby field? Primarily I suspect to lurk with his bulk and beard near opposition players and use his physical and hirsute presence to make them ponder whether making that tackle was really a wise thing to do for their future well being.
Again this is not exactly revolutionary, but it does suggest that the sporting beard makes a sufficient point to provoke the possibility of revolutionary thoughts. After all H M Hyndman the hirsute founder of the Social Democratic Federation, Britian’s first marxist organisation, played first class cricket in the 1860s for Sussex.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Decline, Fall And Possible Rise Of Pompey As A Community Club

Inside Left continues Guest-Post February with a piece by Roger Welch, lifelong Pompey fan and an independent socialist.

I have been a Marxist for all of my adult life but an active supporter of Pompey (Portsmouth FC) since I was a young boy so what follows is full of an unmarxist subjectivity – indeed there is an element of irrationality (some would say total irrationality) involved in supporting any football club. The details of Pompey’s current plight are probably not that well known outside of the city’s catchment area though most people will be aware that over the past few years the club has been in financial freefall – in part caused by and certainly mirroring the financial crisis of global capitalism for which the greedy bankers are so responsible (though, of course, capitalism is inherently a system of economic crisis).

For the record, the most successful period in my (and most other current fans’) lifetime saw us promoted to the Premiership in 2003 and winning the FA cup in 2008, but this has been followed by the worst crisis the club has ever faced (and Pompey does have a history of being a club in crisis). Through a combination of gross financial mismanagement and greed on the part of those who have owned the club, and vindictiveness/incompetence on the part of football’s governing bodies, the club has faced the constant threat of liquidation since 2010. It was relegated from the Premiership at the end of the 2009/10 season, and then from the Championship at the end of last season and, if we still exist, will be relegated to League 2 at the end of this season. There are those (particularly the supporters of the club down the road[i]) who will say it serves us right for living beyond our means during the glory years of 2003-8, but, as briefly documented below, the club’s current dire situation is the fault of those who have mismanaged the club rather than the long-suffering supporters who, along with club workers who have lost their jobs or had their wages cut, are the real victims of all that has occurred.

In 2009, when the financial problems the club was facing first become public knowledge, we were owned by the Gaydamak family. The nominal owner of the club was Sacha Gaydamk, but it was always believed that it was his father, Arkadi, who pulled the strings. In the wake of the banking crisis, and successful prosecution of Arkadi for financial misdemeanours (in Israel I think), the Gaydamaks decided they were no longer prepared to bankroll the club and went from being its sole financial benefactors to its major creditors. This in itself gives us an abject lesson, at a micro level, in the perverse nature of capitalism – you can be the cause of a financial crisis but go on to be its main benefactor - exactly what the banks have done, of course, the whole world over. To cut a long and very very murky story[ii] short: the club ultimately passed into the ownership of Balram Chanrai, who took over the club’s debts at a huge rate of compound interest and put it into administration in 2010; it was then purchased from Chanrai by a Russian banker, Vladimir Antonov, who was deemed a fit and proper person to run a football club by the Football League despite a history of dodgy dealings being a matter of public record; on his arrest for alleged bank fraud in Lithuania the club effectively passed back into the hands of Chanrai and into administration where it remains to this day.

As again many will be aware, the current situation is that there is an ongoing battle between Chanrai and the Portsmouth Supporters Trust to buy the club and take it out of administration (if the club is not out of administration by the start of the next season it will be expelled from the League so even League Two football will not happen). The Trust is composed of Pompey fans who, individually or as a group, can afford £1000 to buy one share in the club should the Trust become its owners. The sticking point is that Chanrai is the effective owner of our ground, Fratton Park, and he is demanding millions of pounds more than the ground is worth to sell it to the Trust – yet again, therefore, Chanrai is holding the club’s supporters to ransom. The true value of the ground is now before the courts to decide upon, but a matter that should have been resolved last month has been subject to a series of court adjournments, and this brings us to the problem with the Trust and the limits to any notion of a community club being owned and run by the supporters.

Inevitably, the supporters who will actually run the club will be those who own most of the shares and they are largely businessmen (and I mean men) who are much wealthier than the average supporter of the Trust, let along the average supporter in general. This small group of people are the only ones who really know what is going on and why the sale of the club to the Trust, despite being the official preferred bidder, is being delayed. If the Trust does buy the club it will be this group who will really own and run Pompey. Does this mean that I do not support the Trust? Well, actually, I do. There is no way that I can see that a genuine community club can come about. Such a club would be fully under the control of its supporters and those who work for it, with any management board being fully democratically accountable and subject to immediate recall. This is not going to happen. The words ‘island’, ‘socialism’, ‘sea’ and ‘capital’ spring to mind.  

However, in contrast to how the club has been run before, and I don’t just mean the recent past, ownership by the Trust would be a very definite improvement. We would no longer be subject to the whims, fortunes and misfortunes of a rich ‘Sugar Daddy’ who can promise the supporters the earth and end up bankrupting the club. Through the ordinary supporters of the Trust, supporters in general and the club’s workers could be able to learn how the club is being run financially –at the very least there will be some restrictions on, if not an actual end to, normal boardroom secrecy, and supporters, who are also shareholders, should demand that the books are made open to all.

The views of the supporters will have to be heard, even if they will not always be acted on. This has to be better than the views of supporters not being sought at all, or, if they are, then being blatantly ignored. The capitalist corporate norm of a division between ownership and control will be maintained but Pompey fans will have a hitherto unprecedented involvement in the affairs of their club. Indeed, hopefully, we will have more of a real say than was the case, for example, with the Dumas in Czarist Russia, though, as was the case in Russia, a socialist revolution is the precondition for the establishment of genuine workers’ democracy and this would include football clubs genuinely controlled by their workers and supporters. (Is the demand for a community club actually a transitional demand, I find myself wondering!)

Right now it is impossible to say whether the Trust will successfully buy Pompey: indeed as I write there is breaking news that a new consortium led by an investment banker is putting in a bid for the club – bad news indeed! – though it has also been reported that for once the Football League will do the right thing by Pompey and refuse to permit a new bidder. Whilst it does not become any Pompey fan to be optimistic we could be the largest club in the land to be fully owned, if not controlled, by the fans and perhaps a beacon of light for others to follow. On the football field we will perhaps follow the model provided by Swansea, a club in which the fans have a 20% stake, and rise from the floor of the Football League to the promised land of the Premiership – though, for myself, I got bored with the likes of Man U and hardly ever playing on a Saturday afternoon, so I’ll be happy with the Championship, which I regard as Pompey’s natural home.

[i] Southampton FC for those unitiated in south coast football rivalries.
[ii] The best thing I have come across on the details of Pompey’s financial mismanagement is by David Conn in an article published in The Guardian, 26 October 2012, entitled ‘Portsmouth nightmare nears its end as fans are given reason to dream again’ – though, unfortunately in the here and now, the nightmare continues.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

England Should Play A Game Of Low Expectations

This is the third in a series of guest posts for Inside Left. It seems as good a time as any to remind readers that the views expressed in these contributions are not necessarily shared by the author of this blog. Or to phrase it somewhat differently - Come on Brazil!

Tonight England vs Brazil at Wembley marks the start of the FA’s 150th Anniversary Celebrations. Philosophy Football’s Mark Perryman argues that it is the perfect time to lower our expectations of England’s chances.
England vs Brazil, friendly or no friendly, is a tasty international fixture to mark the start of the Football Association’s 150th birthday celebrations. It will be a feast of free-flowing football, and England. Never mind, with the other home opponents lined up so far the Republic of Ireland (last qualified for a World Cup in 2002, at Euro 2012 failed to win a single game) and Scotland (last qualified for any tournament, 1998) England fans should be able to look forward to some home victories to savour. Although what exactly the players, manager and coaches will learn by playing such relatively lowly opposition is anyone’s guess. These opponents have been chosen to put bottoms on seats, and stir up memories of old, and more recent rivalries, but never mind the quality of the football.
Meantime Brazil are not only the 5-times winners of the World Cup, and hosts of the 2014 tournament they also single-handedly invented what Pele famously dubbed ‘the beautiful game’. Or as Brazil international, doctor, philosopher and left-wing political activist Socrates poetically put it, “Beauty comes first. Victory is secondary. What matters is joy."  Words which, naturally have been turned into a Philosophy Football T-shirt available here.

Brazil have had their own problems, a disappointing semi-final defeat at World Cup 2010 following their Quarter Final exit at World Cup 2006. This is a team however whose high expectations are based on recent success, winning the tournament in 2002, that semi-final in 2010, finalists in 1988 is all a lot more recent than anything England has achieved, I’m sorry I don’t count England getting to a semi- final in ‘96 when we are the tournament hosts. 

The period since Euro 96 has been a successful one for the England team, relatively speaking. Every tournament, except Euro 2008, was qualified for. This compares well with the 1990s when England failed to qualify for World Cup 94, the 1980s when the team failed to qualify for Euro 84 and the dismal 1970s with failures to qualify for the World Cup in both 1974 and 1978. The much maligned Sven Goran Eriksson took England to three consecutive quarter final stages, in 2002, 2004 and 2006. The latter two lost on penalties, while at World Cup 2002 England lost to the eventual winners of the tournament, tonight’s opponents Brazil. Very few England managers have come close to matching Sven’s achievement. Roy Hodgson has started well too, surprising many by taking England to the top of their group at Euro 2012 and going out on penalties to Italy in the quarter-finals. Not bad, but not good enough many England fans would argue, with the 47-year old memories of 1966 still fresh in the nation’s memory. Yet as Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski argue in their provocatively titled book, Why England Lose, comparatively speaking, in terms of England’s size of population and number of professional players, getting into the top eight of the World’s teams is a considerable achievement. It’s just that England’s national psyche, which is largely impossible to separate from the legacy of empire, the martial history and having invented most of the world’s sports, expects to win trophies and nothing much else will do. 

Up to World Cup 2010 the popular support for the England team was huge. Every other summer the country would be decked out in St George Cross flags. Beckham helped football reach a wider audience in the way Gazzamania did before him at Italia 90. And the team resembled serious enough contenders not to lose all hope that when they got knocked out that they might at least do better the next time. The linkage, often unfairly made, of following England with hooliganism also pretty much ended after Euro 2000 with every tournament since then England fans coming home feted for their friendliness.

World Cup 2010 pretty much dented all of this. The team was arguably the strongest since 1996. With Wayne Rooney we had a world-class player in our starting eleven. The spine of the team was looking good too from Ashley Cole at the back, Lampard and Gerrard in midfield. Plus the promise Theo Walcott had shown with his hat-trick against Croatia in the qualifying campaign. The sorry exit at the hands of Germany, losing 4-1, at the last sixteen stage following a series of dismal group games put paid to all of that pent-up optimism. The turmoil over John Terry, his manager’s , Fabio Capello, resignation over the way the FA was treating the matter, his awkward reinstatement, widely perceived as at the expense of Rio Ferdinand , and the appointment of Roy Hodgson as manager had left pre-Euro 2012 interest at an all-time low. Yes England can still fill Wembley, as it will do tonight, and count on a size of support that dwarfs most other European countries, home and away. But in terms of the much bigger broader audience, with a St George Cross flying out of every other car window, worn as a T-shirt and daubed on kids’ faces, there was precious little of this during last year’s Euro 2012. The TV viewing figures were impressive enough but this was more a case of going through the motions from the comfort of the sofa, there was little of the magnitude of the spectacle of London 2012. In last year’s Summer of sport, from Chelsea winning the Champions League, via Wiggo winning Le Tour, to Europe’s victory in the Ryder Cup and Andy Murray ending the British Tennis version of the years of hurt in New York, well England at the Euro’s hardly merits even a footnote. 

And the immediate future doesn’t look much brighter either. A qualifying group for the 2014 World Cup which had looked easy turned awkward almost from the start. The away qualifier against Montenegro (total population round the size of the London Borough of Hammersmith) has all of a sudden turned into a must-win game, last time England were there in 2011 we scrambled a draw. And even if England do get to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup the expectations which were low enough for Euro 2012 are likely to be lower still. Meanwhile England will around the same time be hosting the first three days of the Tour de France. A decent performance this year by Wiggo, Cavendish and Froome could leave the previously unrivalled ascendancy of England’s tournament campaign shaping the sporting summer severely dented, if not irreparably damaged, for the second time in three years.

So enjoy the game, but give a thought to the sport’s future as the goals rain in, hopefully in the back of Brazil net, not ours. Optimism cannot be entirely extinguished, otherwise what's the point of being a fan?  However getting used to being around the 8th best team in the world probably isn’t quite how those organising the FA’s centenary in 1963 envisaged the following fifty years through to 2013. A decent performance at the 1962 World Cup, yes once again losing a quarter-final, and spookily it was to Brazil once more, the eventual tournament winners that year too, was the cause of some hope. And they would have been looking forward as well to hosting the World Cup three years later in 1966 with the emerging talent of a youthful Bobby Moore suggesting this team had some considerable promise. Today there is precious little optimism, the crop of young players coming through look decent enough but well-short of being world beaters so far at any rate. The public excitement around the England team will take something really special in the difficult conditions of Brazil to restore it to anything like its previous scale. Still, if we finish the year having beaten Scotland at Wembley, plenty will be happy enough. Maybe actually the FA’s 150th anniversary fixture list is inspired after all, by the management of low expectations?

Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters’ of intellectual distinction, aka Philosophy Football.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Against Entropy: Psycho-Sensual Uses of Volleyball

Next up in Guest Post February is Joe Ruffell's piece considering volleyball as an allegory for life (and death). This is the second post Joe has penned for Inside Left, and I urge everyone to go back and check out his first piece Cricket on TV - The Machine is Human.

“And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth forever and ever ... that there should be time no longer” (Revelations 10:1-2, 5-7)
When Thanatos, dragging his golf trolley, devising tactics for Bolton Wanderers, with his skeletal hand operating the sock puppet known as Geoffrey Boycott, expelled his foul breath over our professional sports he found a tenacious ally in the capitalist mode of production. Where else has the life-force known as play putrefied into such a degenerative alienated series of rituals, so detached from the urges and uses that were their genesis?

If the effect of alienated society is to turn Eros into inertia, then the passage of time is representative of a steep downward curve. So as projects to break that curve can abate and push against it in solidarity with life, the effect of pausing time can fleetingly liberate our buried instinct for unproductive unmediated joy.

The thrill of the volley is undeniable. From the game of keepie-uppie at the garden BBQ to the court of play, avoiding the inevitable grounding of the ball posits human action against inevitable logic. Life against death. That brief moment of breathlessly striving to keep the ball in the air interrupts our incessant perception of our lives moving towards the end.

We encounter this effect in tennis, football, cricket and badminton (and no doubt many other games) to some degree or another but in volleyball it finds its magisterial realisation. The moment of timelessness is not only highly extended but is the real crux of the game. Notice when playing with friends the competitive aspect and player rules are unimportant, the spike – the smash to hit the ball on the other team’s parts of the court and score – is done away with. The effort to keep the ball in flight counts for all. If there is competition it is only against gravity.

Played in teams of six the effort to undo entropy, to push against its psychologically debilitating corollary, by keeping the ball in the air no matter what is a truly exhilarating experience. Not only are our minds and body temporarily freed from the dualism that ruins us psychologically under the social division of labour but goes further (like musical performance) into a psycho-sensual coming together of different people, physically and mentally, into an unalienated collective. When capitalism is finally done away with, volleyball shall be played still, surely, for this effervescent affect.

Friday, February 1, 2013

David Beckham: All For Charity?

Inside Left kicks off Guest Post February with blog regular, Richie Moran. The anti-racist stalwart and ex-pro footballer looks at David Beckham's move to PSG and can't help but feel a little cynical.

So once again, when there are far more fundamentally important things going on in the world, the ultimate self-publicist has once more pulled off perhaps his greatest PR stunt (strange how cockney rhyming slang suddenly springs to mind) to ensure that he dominates the front and back pages.
As laudable and altruistic as David Beckham may initially appear after announcing that he will donate five months wages to a Parisian children's charity on signing a short term deal at Paris St. Germain (arguably now the worlds richest club) lest we forget, every single breath this man (and his wife) take is calculated to ensure their name remains in the ascendancy.
From the Alice band worn to ensure that everyone could see the stitches required when he copped a boot in the boat race from Alex Ferguson, through the vomit inducing corn rows when he went to meet the worlds greatest living human being, Nelson Mandela, to his orchestrated tearful world cup resignation as captain of England (and much more) it is all about 'Brand Beckham' and nothing else (although giving Cruz a girl's name was a bit of a faux pas if you'll pardon my French)!
I'm sure it has not occurred to him (or those who advise him) that this will inevitably restart the pathetic clamour to make him "Sir" David Beckham, although his previous mission to be captain of the Great Britain football team at the 2012 Olympics went a bit Pete Tong.
So let's cut to the chase regarding his benevolence. He has apparently signed for five months, whilst under his own admission being some weeks away from match fitness. He signed on a free transfer, which generally means a huge signing on fee, in the case of such a profile, possibly more, or at least equitable, to his salary. As the owners of PSG are the Qatar Sports Investment (Qatar of course, being the hosts of the 2022 World Cup) there has already been talk of an ambassadorial role which I'm fairly sure will not be free and gratis. And it is surely not inconceivable that any such payments could be nestling softly in tax free offshore bank accounts.
Although I don't profess a great knowledge of French tax laws, there is of course the possibility that 75% of said salary would have gone to the French government in tax and it may be that having earned so much out of the country over the last several years, Beckham may only be able to stay in the UK for 90 days.
As our politicians, multi-national companies, shrewd footballers such as Michael Ballack (who whilst at Chelsea was allegedly paid in Euros and paid little if any tax) and the occasional comedian know there are many ways to surmount such trivial obstacles.
Again if I was overly cynical I would venture to suggest that the infamous "image rights" were part of the package (remember his wife trying to sue Peterborough to retain the rights to the nickname Posh) and I wouldn't be surprised if every shirt bearing his name contributes to the Beckham coffers. He apparently, during the press conference (which with offers on the table for months he chose to hold on the last day of the transfer window, funny that) described himself as part of a project.
When I played, and throughout my working life, I gave part of my salary (which was slightly less than his) to various charities. I still belong to and support various organisations, close to my heart and beliefs, which I have never felt necessary to have publicised. There are many current and ex-players such as George Weah, Patrick Vieira, Andy Cole, Didier Drogba and even Craig Bellamy who have opened academies in Africa and tried to bring peace to their countries who are deserving of far more respect than this deed. I have a wonderful friend, who is an optometrist, who I found out quite by accident goes to Africa every year to operate on people who can't afford it, completely self-funded, yet seeks no publicity or praise.
What about people such as Rachel Corrie (killed by an Israeli bulldozer trying to protect Palestinian homes) and Malala Yousafzai (shot in the head for advocating education for Pakistani women)? Those who belong to Greenpeace, who regularly risk their lives to make the world a better place for all, even those who vehemently oppose them These are proper selfless and yes, HEROIC acts.
I even find Beckham's comments about how he couldn't play in the Premiership for anyone other than Manchester United disingenuous in the extreme. I do not doubt that he had offers, but obviously not from clubs that suited his profile or image. I also firmly believe that he is aware that (with no disrespect) having spent so long playing in a league that doesn't meet the standard of the self-proclaimed "best league in the world" he would be found out.
While I don't doubt that Beckham is indeed a consummate professional, let's examine his actual ability. He undoubtedly possesses a great right foot, but no better or more accurate than so many before or since.
His passing is good (although Iniesta or Xavi he ain't) and I can name many midfielders of his era who were far better, including his flame-haired team mate at Manchester United. At Real Madrid he was regularly eclipsed by the great Zidane and even by Michael Owen in his brief spell. I acknowledge that like Kevin Keegan he worked hard to compensate for a lack of natural ability, but he has never had pace, can't tackle, can't head, is not especially skillful and for me (like his wife, Robbie Williams and so many more) is extremely fortuitous to have gone so far on so little actual talent. As I stated recently I challenge people to remember a dozen or so of the 115 times he played for England when he made a difference (and yes he was fantastic against Greece).
I have often heard it said that he played with passion for his country and is an ambassador. Aside from the fact that everyone should play with passion for their country is that not insulting to the likes of Stuart Pearce and so many others, who were equally proud, but didn't have to trumpet it all over the papers? The opprobrium he received after his sending off against Argentina was disgusting and completely out of proportion, in the same vein as much of the chanting he has had to endure about Victoria (and those who said they hoped his children died of cancer are beyond redemption) but the fact remains that his stupid act of indiscretion almost certainly cost the country he loves so much progress in that tournament.
The "ideal family man" is alleged to have had affairs with Rebecca Loos (and he didn't sue when it was revealed), Sarah Marbeck (when his wife was heavily pregnant) and at least two others to boot. He has at least (possibly with a great deal of coaching) progressed interview wise from the monosyllabic mumbler it used to be so painful to watch. So in conclusion, he is no more worthy of a knighthood than Bradley Wiggins is for riding a bike, or indeed any footballer, sportsman, actor or musician, with the possible exception of those such as David Weir who have overcome huge obstacles to reach the pinnacle. Not that I believe in the system anyway.
He is no ambassador or role model (except to his family). He is a multi-millionaire whose every nuance, haircut, tattoo serves only to earn him money and keep him on the front pages. I hope the Parisian charity benefits from his "money" and the additional publicity from the inevitable visit where he is seen playing footie with the residents, but I would have some respect for him had he kept this quiet, which would be the sign of true benevolence and to be perfectly honest it is the equivalent of you or I donating a tenner.