Monday, June 30, 2014

Love Football, Hate FIFA

This piece was originally written for The Bulletin, the freesheet of Portsmouth Socialist Network.

With the World Cup underway in Brazil, protests against the government and FIFA have erupted across the country.

Thousands of people have taken to the streets, demonstrating against the cost of the tournament, which is hardly surprising when you realise staging the World Cup comes with an $11.5 billion price-tag. They carry placards saying, “We want FIFA quality schools and hospitals”. The slogan “We have the circus, now we want the bread” has become hugely popular.  In Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, transport workers have gone on strike, demanding additional payments for the extra work they face. The Homeless Workers Movement has held protests, turning out tens of thousands of people.

As the protests have gathered momentum the government has responded with brutal repression. More than 200,000 police officers and soldiers have been mobilised, demonstrations have been baton charged and tear gassed, undercover cops have fired live ammunition in the streets. In the run up to the World Cup the Brazilian government demolished homes to pave the way for stadiums and infrastructure, whilst arresting people they suspected of being political activists. Yet the people have refused to stay silent.

Brazil is the seventh largest economy in the world, but that wealth is concentrated in the hands of tiny minority of the population. Millions of the poorest Brazilians live in shanty-towns, favelas, quite literally in the shadow of the riches and opulence of the ruling class. Their ramshackle homes are flanked by open sewers; education and healthcare are of terribly low quality. The money spent on the World Cup could have transformed the lives of countless people in Brazil.

With such a crushing level of poverty it is not surprising that Brazilians are chanting, “FIFA Go Home!” Not that this has troubled Sepp Blatter, the head of football’s world governing body, who previously told protesters to stop blaming FIFA for Brazil’s social problems. Blatter is widely and rightly despised by football fans around the world. This is a man with a history of sexist and homophobic outbursts, and who thinks that racism can be resolved by “a handshake”. He is more than happy to turn a blind eye to inequality and injustice, whilst raking in $1 million a year from his role as FIFA’s bigot-in-chief.

All of this comes at a time when FIFA has been embroiled in yet more scandal. Their award of the 2022 World Cup finals to Qatar has caused major controversy, and many people are familiar with the allegations of bribery and corruption. While this news has made headlines the real tragedy is happening in Qatar itself, where hundreds of migrant workers have been killed on the construction sites of World Cup stadiums.

With Brazil scheduled to host the Olympics in 2016 it is unlikely that the protests in Brazil will subside anytime soon. If anything they will continue to grow. History shows us that the costs of staging the Games are likely to dwarf even the staggering amounts spent on the World Cup. More stadiums will be needed, more changes to the country’s infrastructure will be made, more five-star hotels will be required to satisfy the visiting dignitaries and heads of state.

Sport has become a plaything for the rich. The games that billions of people know and love are little more than vehicles for the interests of multinationals, administrators and politicians. Sport is an investment opportunity for big business interests, and a passion to exploit for sponsors such as Coca-Cola, Budweiser and McDonalds. Hosting a mega event like the World Cup or the Olympics is a way for presidents and prime ministers to showcase a country to the international markets while simultaneously ignoring the plight of millions of people in that country.

These are not the priorities of football. These are the priorities of football under capitalism. These are the priorities of FIFA. But it need not be this way. Every football fan should be as interested in what happens on the streets of Brazil as with what happens on the pitch. Marvel at the dignity and bravery of the protesters as much as the talents of Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar. And continue to love football and hate FIFA.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

England’s Problem? Too Much Englishness.

The England squad is home. While many of us predicted an early exit for the team, nobody, not even I, anticipated that their tournament would be over by the time the second round of group games had been completed. Such was the manner of their failure that there can be little doubt as to the reason behind their World Cup humiliation. They did not fall foul of terrible officiating, there were no broken metatarsals, they were not victims of divine intervention or unscrupulous opponents feigning injury. They simply were not good enough.

It means that the recriminations of the punditariat have begun, but they have little to say, their job made all the harder by the fact that few would have done things differently. Roy Hodgson, the England manager, chose youth over experience, played a more expansive game than expected and claimed that preparation for Brasil 2014 had been exemplary. There was no attempt to despair at the vicissitudes of fortune; the shortcomings of the team were all too apparent. The problems of England’s national team are too fundamental, too systemic to be detailed in a tabloid headline.

Yet still they try. The Daily Mail tells us that England’s players “have no heart for passion play”; ex-England captain Paul Ince says that this England squad “lacks the passion”; Kevin Davies has bemoaned the “lack of passion”. And on and on and on… Harry Redknapp added to the passion-conspiracy with a mischievous announcement that Spurs players had come to him whilst boss at White Hart Lane, begging him to withdraw them from the national side. Despite interrogation-by-journalist, Harry refused to name names, presumably to spare Jermaine Defoe any embarrassment. The idea that England are primed and ready for glory if only the players would show more passion and desire and heart and pride is rolled out at every defeat and is as dully repetitive as you’d imagine Phil Neville to be if he were stoned.

It was, therefore, interesting to hear a variation on the theme. In a recent article, Jonathan Freedland dared to cross the Rubicon, jumping from commentating on serious issues to talking about football. His conclusion was that, when compared to the fist-pumping, anthem-singing superstars of other nations, England looked like a team in need of a national identity. At a time when David Cameron is busy conjuring the importance of British values such as democracy and tolerance – as though the Swedish love dictatorship and the Canadians are famed for their hatred and ill-temper – now is as good a time as any to hold sport up as a mirror for the state of the nation. Yet, just as Cameron’s attempts to engage us in a ‘conversation’ about ‘British’ values is an attempt to distract us from the problems of society, so the appeal to an English sporting identity is a red-herring. The national team are suffering because of the national identity; not a lack of it.

You saw it last year during the debates about the status of Adnan Januzaj. While the young Manchester United midfielder may have opted to represent Belgium at this World Cup, there was, for a time, a possibility that he might play for England. It prompted Arsenal and England’s Jack Wilshire to wade in with his conception of English football: “We have to remember what we are. We are English. We tackle hard, are tough on the pitch and are hard to beat. We have great characters. You think of Spain and you think technical but you think of England and you think they are brave and they tackle hard. We have to remember that.”

What a strange world it is where the footballers of one country are allowed to be ‘technical’ while those of another are restricted to “tough on the pitch”. The insularity is astounding and is a little reminiscent of the way over a century ago the Football Associations of the four home countries were invited to join the ranks of FIFA. They declined on the basis that there was little that Jonny Foreigner could tell the birthplace of football about football. It’s almost as if English football continues to say, “This is the way we play football. There is no other way. And it’s up to the rest of the world to catch up.” The trouble is that the rest of the world did catch up, and they did so many years ago. English football is still reeling from that shock. In a typically insightful piece, the Guardian’s Barney Ronay traces the current crisis back to the 1950s:
“Post-mortems will come and go from here, but perhaps the most notable England football anniversary of recent times is the passing of 60-odd years since, in the wake of humiliation by Hungary, the great Jimmy Hogan, one of the godfathers of central European football, was invited by the FA to take English coaching in hand. At Chelsea barracks Hogan gave a group of managers a masterclass in how to teach technique and touch to young footballers, with the intention of introducing ball-mastery and short-passing to school and club coaching across the nation, spreading the word as he had in Holland and Germany. Except, it didn’t work out with the FA. The post was never filled. And on we went, producing for the last half century spirited and athletically impressive footballers who so often against better teams seem to have no clear idea exactly how they intend to play the game”
The difference between the England team and the rest of the world isn’t a lack of passion. It is the result of a national football culture that despite the Premier League – the quintessential product of globalisation – remains horribly insular, that historically has struggled to deploy the likes of Hoddle and Le Tissier, that values work rate over talent, and produces world class talent by accident rather than design. If only the national football culture could shelve the little-Englander, UKIP-sounding, Churchill-wannabe, ‘this team’s not for turning’ soundbite-making, sing-along-to-Cliff-at-Wimbledon, no surrender bullshit, warm beer and village green mentality. Then, maybe, just maybe, we wouldn’t have to listen to the same discussion over and over again.

Oddly this is a World Cup at which national footballing stereotypes are being turned on their heads. The hosts Brazil may be playing some football that is most certainly pleasing on the eye, but it comes as hundreds of thousands of Brazilians protest against the staging of the World Cup, with many even cheering on the opposition. Both the Dutch and French squads are eschewing tradition by failing to implode in a fit of division and egotism. The German team may still lack a single star player but have developed a brand of free-flowing football that flies in the face of the dour efficiency that would grind out results in years gone by. Meanwhile Argentina owe their second round birth largely to the individual magic of a diminutive number 10. Because, well, some things just don’t change. 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Luis Suarez Bit Me!

A friend recently told me a story about his six-year-old grandson, a polite, sweet soul who I've known since birth. A request to get ready for bed was met with an unexpected tantrum of epic proportions. As the little boy stormed off, he suddenly stopped, turned very slowly to look at his grandfather through menacingly half-closed eyes, and hissed, "Fucking bitch!"

This tale came to mind yesterday as I watched Luis Suarez sink his teeth into the shoulder of Italy's Giorgio Chiellini, mostly because my response to both incidents was the same: my jaw dropped, my eyebrows lurched towards my hairline, and my palm covered my open mouth in an utterly futile attempt to stop myself from exclaiming, "He did what?!"

Anyone who thought that Suarez was on a mission of redemption following his brilliant form for Liverpool last season has been brought crashing back to reality. Following two years of racism, diving and arm nibbling, the striker seemed to have found some peace. He is, according to most sources, a loving family man, a quiet good humoured chap who gives time and money to charity. He propelled a young Liverpool team with a creaky defence to Premier League runners-up with his mixture of audacity and skill. As Chiellini pulled back his jersey to reveal the impressions of Suarez's teeth sunk deep into his skin, it seemed the last ten months have been nothing more than a false dawn.

Some Uruguayan papers are, it seems, trying to argue Suarez's corner, claiming that he was retaliating having been on the end of a flailing arm from the Italian defender earlier in the game. (Incidentally, the rumour that Chiellini has accused Suarez of being an alcoholic is untrue. Apparently his claim that the Uruguayan has always been in need of a small aperitif was a simple transcription error.) Fifa, in a desperate attempt to look like they're doing something more meaningful than piss off the entire population of Brazil, are launching an investigation. 

And let us not forget - as if we could - this is not his first incisor indiscretion. The man has previous, a dental record, if you will; an oral fixation that borders on the Freudian. There is something bizarrely infantile about Suarez's inclination to bite. And as such it is not only a transgression of the rules of the game, but also the machismo-fuelled unwritten code of men's professional football. Chiellini said in a post-match interview that Suarez was a "sneak", a choice term which seemed to carry a double-meaning. First it was obvious reference to the play-acting that accompanied the snack attack, with Suarez clutching at his teeth as though he'd just fallen victim of an evil orthodontist. Yet there was another, implicit, connotation. The Italian was questioning Suarez's masculinity, as though he wasn't 'man enough' to square up to Chiellini.

As I'm in Jackanory mode I should say that this brought to mind another story, though possibly one of the apocryphal variety. When the decathlete Daley Thompson retired from athletics he tried his hand at football, first with Mansfield Town, and later with Stevenage Borough. During one of his matches he was sent off for headbutting an opponent. Afterwards an unrepentant Thompson said, "I thought this was supposed to be a man's game." And the former Olympian isn't the only exponent of the Glasgow kiss. Zinedine Zidane marked his retirement on the bridge of Marco Materazzi's nose; Alan Pardew's cost him a total of £160,000 in fines; Duncan Ferguson practically turned it into an art form.

Violence on a football pitch comes in all shapes and sizes, from the kung-fu kick to the two-footed lunge, the wild stamp to the good old fashioned bare-knuckle brawl. It would seem that in the beautiful game there are acceptable forms of unacceptable violence. Suarez's penchant to chow down on defenders crosses a line. It's not just ungentlemanly conduct; it is somehow unmanly. In the end it was left to Joey Barton to offer a little contrarian perspective via Twitter: “I love Suárez. I love his passion for the game. I would have him on my team every day of the week. I am also aware you can’t defend him here. All things considered I’d rather receive a bite than a leg-breaking challenge. Whilst he should be punished, it is not the end of the world."

Obviously nobody could or should condone what Suarez has done, although there may, perhaps, be one man who won't have minded Luis Suarez's latest controversy: Liverpool manager, Brendan Rodgers. The Reds have shown that they will go to any lengths to retain the services of their star forward - whether that meant defending his racial abuse of Patrice Evra, stoically standing by him as he served out his ban for biting Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic, or ignoring a contract clause that could have seen him move to London. Despite last season's title challenge and Champions League qualification, there was always the possibility that, should Suarez light up the World Cup with his undoubted talent, a club such as Barcelona or Real Madrid would make Liverpool an offer they couldn't refuse for the Uruguayan striker. That seems most unlikely now. 

The potential lack of suitors brings its own problems. Namely, how much more negative publicity can Liverpool tolerate before they are forced to jettison Suarez? As Anfield legend Robbie Fowler said today: "I’m flummoxed for words. It’s a real, real tough predicament most Liverpool fans are in. They love him as a player, but he’s continually dragging the club’s name through the mud. It’s not right, especially after how they helped him last time. They tried to rehabilitate him. I wouldn’t be surprised if he went now.”

As one of those Liverpool fans of whom Fowler speaks, I understand all too well that "real tough predicament", although I'd suggest the club hasn't helped itself, and has at times been prepared to jump straight into the mud, crawling along on its hands and knees all of its own volition. Last year I argued that if Liverpool were serious about restoring their reputation off the pitch as well as on it, they should show Luis Suarez the door. I wished I was wrong. I hoped that he would back an anti-racist campaign and show how much he'd changed. I hoped that he would offer fans a full apology for the way he'd treated us. I hoped I could finally enjoy his footballing brilliance without that horrible, almost guilty, feeling. None of that happened. This is one of the few times I'm not happy to be proved right. But Suarez has to go.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The World Cup of our Dreams

To drag ourselves away from the banalities of the Brazil 2014 TV studio punditariat Mark Perryman provides a World Cup reading list.

The professionally cautious Roy Hodgson just couldn’t resist it could he? ‘England can win this World Cup’ he declares on the eve of the tournament. Not if Roy consults the match histories elegantly provided by Brain Glanville’s classic The Story of the World Cup they won’t. No European side has won a World Cup hosted in South America, Central America or North America. No England side has made it past the quarter-finals in a World Cup for 24 years. No England side has ever made it past the quarter finals at a World Cup in South or Central America. Why should things be any different this time Roy? That’s not to say the next three and a bit weeks can’t be hugely enjoyable for football fans, England loyal or otherwise. Chris England’s witty and accessible pocket guide How To Enjoy the World Cup provides ample enough ways to drag ourselves away from what the TV studio punditariat serves up and consume the tournament on our own terms. Or delve intoThirty One Nil. A footballing travelogue which explores the global reach of the World Cup via the qualifying games we would otherwise never have heard of because the losers haven’t a hope in the proverbial of ever making it to Brazil for the finals. Yet without this international back-history the World Cup loses much of its sense of meaning, a case superbly made by author James Montague.

As tournament hosts Brazil will unsurprisingly be the focus for much of the TV and other media coverage. Yet the richness of Brazilian football culture cannot be disconnected from the broader place of football right across Latin American society. Alongside Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and possibly Colombia will be serious contender. The collection The Football Crónicas provides a football-writing insight into the state of, and culture of, the game across the region. A prison team in Argentina, a team of Colombian transvestites, Peruvian women’s football, Chilean football hooligans. Romario’s campaign for a just World Cup. This collection really has got the lot. Golazo! by Andreas Camponar is a splendid history of Latin American football on both the continent and the international stage, including of course most importantly success at World Cups. This is football writing at its very best, epic on the pitch, socially aware off it.

The best writing on society and culture repays this kind of literary compliment by accounting for sport’s role in making the social. Justin McGuirk’s Radical Cities is critical travel-writing with an expert eye for urban design. The author tells his story via a tour across Latin America, on the the way accounting for how urbanism shapes the politics of Brazil. This is a powerfully original way to begin an understanding how the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Rio Olympics both seek to represent modern Brazil. Published by the Latin America Bureau, their brand new guide Brazil Inside Out is easily easily the best guidebook to have handy beside the TV as we wade through a month of banalities and lazy stereotypes. Perfect for a half-time alternative catch up to keep yourself better informed on Brazilian politics and culture.

One of the by-products of hosting a World Cup is the unprecedented focus on the host nation. Brazil remains best known for its football, there is no obvious way of avoiding that salient fact . Jogo Bonito helps us to understand the central importance of global footballing success, dating back to the 1950s and pretty much ever-present since then, both to Brazil’s self image and external profile. Futebol by Alex Bellos is the definitive social history of Brazilian football and an absolutely joy to read. David Goldblatt’s Futebol Nation is also an historical account of Brazilian football with a sharp political edge to connect this story both to the formation of Brazil as a nation and the current state of this nation as 2014’s host, and favourites to win the tournament.

And my book of the World Cup? Written by the finest critical sportswriter in the world today, Dave Zirin, his new book Brazil’s Dance with the Devil mixes incisive sporting commentary with an angry polemical style that drags readers along to marvel both at the sport we love and the outrage FIFA with corrupt politicians in tow quite rightly spark. Read it to be informed in your anger. Not to spoil your watching of the World Cup, but to enrich the experience.

Note A signed copy of Futebol Nation with Futebol, Brazil Inside Out and Football Crónicas, all half-price is available for just £24.99 from Philosophy Football

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

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Big Match Circus vs Bread

The best World Cup t-shirt you can hope to find, from our friends at Philosophy Football.

Translation: 'We have the circus, now we want the bread'

Brazil is the home of the beautiful game. A nation where football is treasured as the people's game. FIFA's model for the World Cup is the antithesis of such ideals, serving instead the interests of corporate power, multinational sponsors, corruption and nepotism.

Via friends at the campaign group The Latin America Bureau Philosophy Football found a wonderful placard Brazilian protesters against the corporatisation of the World Cup have been carrying, see the original design by Brazilian artist Isabela Rodrigues and adapted it for a very special World Cup T-shirt design. Wear it for the beautiful game that should always and forever be the people's game. The World Cup belongs to us, the fans, the world over, not FIFA or their big business buddies.

Available from Philosophy Football.


Saturday, June 7, 2014

ASDA and the KKK-Style England Flag

Shops across the country are cashing in on the upcoming World Cup with all sorts of England themed tat, but it's only Asda that has put out a wearable flag that looks like a Ku Klux Klan outfit. The supermarket giant has received a barrage of criticism for the pointy-hooded flag yet still they refuse to pull it from their shelves. As random acts of corporate stupidity go, it’s difficult to beat.

If you were feeling charitable you might describe the wearable flag as a massive error in judgement on the part of the retailer, but their intransigence in the face of widespread condemnation is hard to fathom. It all smacks of corporate arrogance and ingrained insensitivity. Asda is owned by Wal-Mart, the world’s largest multinational who last year posted profits in excess of $2 billion dollars. Their commitment to equality, diversity and social responsibility is nothing more than a fig-leaf, a business strategy to be jettisoned whenever there’s the possibility to make a quick buck.

Surely, once the KKK resemblance had been pointed out, Asda would drop the flag in a blur of shame and embarrassment. Given that the Klan is a racist, white supremacist organisation with a history of violence, lynching, rape and murder, you would imagine Asda would go to any lengths to avoid the association (however unintentional) and the negative publicity that would inevitably follow. Instead the company has engaged in implausible deniability. “It’s a flag with a hood, nothing more, nothing less,” said a spokesperson. You have to ask: Why on earth would you want to produce anything that looked like a KKK outfit? It’s a simple enough rule of thumb - if it looks like something the Klan might wear, you really shouldn’t sell it.

Unsurprisingly the flag is already proving particularly popular with racists across the country, giving Asda the dubious honour of being the far-right’s summer outfitter of choice. Already Stormfront, a favoured online cesspool for white supremacists, has posted about the flag, with one contributor promising he’s off to his local superstore to pick one up as soon as possible. He won’t be the first Nazi to fork out three quid. The picture to the left shows Darren Miller of the North West Infidels decked out in the flag from Asda’s KKK range.

Thankfully the flag has sparked a fair degree of outrage on social media. In a twist on the usual supermarket wars, some cad at Tesco HQ has apparently been re-tweeting messages posted by anti-racist activists. I'm not sure that every little helps in this case. London-based activist Zita Holbourne emailed Asda CEO Andy Clarke to voice her disgust. This is part of the response she received:
"I’m sorry you’re unhappy with our wearable flag, I can assure you it was never our intentions to upset any of our customers. We opted for a hood on our wearable England and Brazilian flags as we know how unpredictable the English weather can be. We want customers to get behind the teams at the World Cup without getting wet."
The weather! They justify the KKK style wearable flag on the grounds of the English weather! Top marks for farcical excuse-mongering, but the reality is that there is no defence for this flag remaining on sale. The gap between their “intentions” and the eventual outcome is huge and they need to rectify the situation fast. The company should go and have a word with themselves, withdraw the product, and apologise for the offence it has caused.

I much prefer activism to clicktivism, but in this case I think it’s worth letting ASDA know that they’re out of line. I urge all of you to sign the petition over at  Better still, ping an email to Asda bigwig Andy Clarke and vent your spleen. You can contact him at this address:

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Bail-Gate: English Cricket, MP's Expenses and the Bedroom Tax

We've been here before, haven't we? There's an economic crisis, the Tories are in power, everybody is arguing about Europe and the England cricket team is crying foul, claiming that the other team isn't playing fair. Tonight I'm gonna party like it's 1991, hell yeah! If Chesney Hawkes somehow gets to number one in the hit parade it's likely I'll explode through nostalgia overload. 

Alas, while nostalgia isn't what it used to be, we can all rest uncomfortably knowing that the whinging and whining of the English cricket establishment is much as it ever was. The latest 'injustice' to befall the national team occurred yesterday, during the one-day series decider against Sri Lanka. As the off-spinner, Senanayake, reached his delivery stride he spotted the non-striker, Jos Buttler, creeping out of his crease. Having half-completed his bowling action, but not released the ball, the Sri Lankan clipped the top of the stumps thus running Buttler out.  

While this kind of dismissal is uncommon, and usually frowned upon, the Sri Lankan captain, Angelo Mathews was well within his rights to appeal. Buttler had already been warned twice for taking liberties whilst backing-up and Law 42.11 states that "the bowler is permitted, before releasing the ball and provided he has not completed his usual delivery swing, to attempt to run out the non-striker". 
The England team's response was, unsurprisingly, one of self-righteousness and moral indignation. The decision may have been within the letter of the law, they said, but it was certainly was not within the spirit of the law. In other words, it just wasn't cricket. 

I should say that I have some sympathy with Buttler, mostly because I too have known the ignominy of getting out in such fashion. There are however some crucial differences between my dismissal and that of England's test wicketkeeper-in-waiting. Firstly I was twelve. Secondly I was not an international cricketer. Thirdly I was warned only once before the bowler dislodged the bails. While I feel Buttler's pain, my sympathies extend only so far.

The insinuations and the half-criticisms coming from the England camp only makes things worse. Alastair Cook denounced it as a "pretty poor act", while England coach Peter Moores chipped in with "Angelo has made his decision. It's not for me to comment why he did it. I was disappointed in it. That's all I can really say. He's made his choice and obviously he's happy with it." It was left to Steve Harmison to offer the Sri Lankans some advice: "When they took the bails off, Mathews should have gone up to Buttler and said: 'Next time you're off.'" Really? That's what he thought they should have done? Perhaps Harmy is ready to crusade for a change in the laws of cricket which mean that England players have to be warned three times before they're eligible for dismissal. 

After all, changing the laws of the game because of an alleged breach of the spirit is hardly new. Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s the West Indian cricket team had established themselves as the best in the world. A succession of fast bowlers (Garner, Holding, Marshall, Ambrose, Walsh) proved unplayable with their combination of pace, bounce and sublime control. As their dominance endured the egg and tomato tie brigade became obsessed with the "viciousness" of the pace attack. David Frith took to the pages of Wisden Cricket Monthly to fulminate against the West Indian's game "founded on vengeance and violence and fringed by arrogance" before calling for "sanctions against the bullies". Sure, there was no law preventing anyone from bowling six bouncers in an over, but did their actions fall within the spirit of cricket? With England unable to deal with short-pitched bowling - and consistently humiliated at the hands of their former colony - the answer was 'no'. In 1991 the laws of the game were changed to permit only one bouncer per over.  

Oddly the whole furore has made me think about the MP expenses scandal, which is perhaps the mirror image of the Semanayake/Buttler Bail-Gate affair. Amidst the news of house-flipping, duck ponds and claims for the cost of a packet of Nik-Naks, members of Parliament quickly developed their defence. None of what they had done was wrong according to the letter of the law; they may have bent the rules a tad, but they had never broken them. What becomes clear is that the people at the top of their respective fields (what one might, rather sneeringly, describe as the 'great and the good') have a talent for invoking the spirit, or the letter, of the law depending on which will prove to be most beneficial. 

Compare this to the bedroom tax, the vile, pernicious levy which punishes the poor for daring to have too much space in their homes. Yesterday The Mirror ran a story about Paul and Sue Rutherford, two disabled people who care for their grandson, Warren, who has Potocki-Shaffer syndrome. Having recently lost a court battle they are having to pay £14 a week for a room used to store Warren's equipment and where respite carers may sleep. Now, in my view the whole Bedroom Tax should be scrapped, but the Rutherford's case shows that for working class people there is no wiggle room in interpretation, no differentiation to be made about the spirit of the law and the letter of the law. 

This was not so much proof, as if it were needed, of the old maxim that there is one rule for them and another one for us. Rather it was confirmation that the spirit of the law depends entirely on the wealth and power you are lucky enough to wield.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Our World of Sport

Mark Perryman reviews the perfect reading companions to the sporting summer

Summer 2013. The British and Irish Lions win their test series against the Aussies down under. Andy Murray wins Wimbledon. Chris Froome makes it a second Tour de France British Yellow Jersey in a row. Mo Farah does the double in the 5000m and 10,000m at the World Athletics Championships. Sporting Brits are forced for once to come to terns with what it feels like to be winners. 

Of course the glorious appeal of sport is its unpredictability. A year ago Man Utd won the League by 11 points with Sir Alex in his retirement pomp. A year later Utd managed to hold on to 7th place. The best sportswriters engage with the cause and effect of unpredictability to capture not only the glories of victory but the far more common experience, the miseries of defeat. 2013’s summer of British victories only meant so much because most of us were better accustomed to the experience of British plucky losers. Amongst the finest sportswriters to cover this emotional scope was Frank Keating, The Highlights a posthumous collection of his superb writing spanning more than fifty years of sport. But sport’s appeal is about more than just emotions. 

Sport’s potential to mobilise for social change across issues stretching from peace and environmentalism to women’s liberation and anti-racism is expertly chronicled in the collection Sport and Social Movements. It is a potential rarely acknowledged by the Left, in what should be regarded as a ‘classic’ work on this subject, Marxism, Cultural Studies and Sport Editors Ben Carrington and Ian McDonald definitively rebuff this underestimation. Or by way of practical example., the extraordinary story retold in Nicholas Griffin's Ping-Pong Diplomacy. Mao’s China, a long-standing British communist, the Cold War and table-tennis is an unlikely mix yet proves to be a true-life story of how sport can matter enough to change history, sometimes. 

Sport is not only socially-constructed but is heavily circumscribed by a classic binary divide, competition vs recreation. One that is largely meaningless however to the vast majority of us who participate because for most of our time watching, or doing, we are inevitably on the losing side. The pleasure rather is being there, or doing it. As a doer and a writer Richard Askwith is the supreme champion of the appeal of the most basic sporting activity of all, running , and in his new book Running Free, subtitled ‘ a runner’s journey back to nature’ he explores with some wonderful writing what running ‘free’ means as opposed to Olympian ambition on the track or big city marathons on the road. 

For those cynics still to be convinced of the potential connect between sport and politics James Montague’s When Friday Comes could prove the most enjoyable dose of re-education imaginable. A travelogue combining war, revolution and religion with football all in the Middle East, a quite remarkable read. Or with the summer World Cup fast-approaching try Alan Tomlinson’s handy counter-history of Blatter and company, FIFA : The Men, The Myths and the Money Written by the pre-eminent expert on what FIFA has done to football , a vital accompaniment to understanding the divorce in Brazil between the tournament and the passion of the people . Cult football teams, can help popular fascination with the game. Danish Dynamite, is a tale of what that passion can come to represent. In this case Denmark’s 1986 World Cup Squad. A similar approach, uncovering what particular teams at particular times represent to those they captivate with their skill and personality is covered by the collection Falling for Football This is fan-oriented writing at its best. Yet for every moment of joy there’s plenty more of misery. You simply can’t have one without the other, and can’t really relish the former without your air share of the latter. The “Where were you when you were shit conundrum’. 

Refs of course are one of the main causes of such joylessnes. Paul Trevillion and Keith Hackett’s latest volume of their cult series You are the Ref enables us all to be the arbiter of the disallowed goal, offside controversy, did he dive or was he tripped? Ideal reading as England go out of the World Cup thanks to a goal that never was. Originally titled Why England Lose authors Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski came up ahead of World Cup 2006 with an original set of arguments to explain away the nation’s four decades and more of hurt. A 4-1 thrashing at the hands of a young and hugely talented German team helped make the book a well-deserved best-seller. But four years on precious few now expect England to do anything but lose at World Cup 2014 so the book has been revised, updated and given the new title of Soccernomics. A book rich in arguments and statistics, debunking the mythologies of football from penalty shoot outs can’t be trained for to big cities producing the best clubs. More sense than you’ll ever get out of a Match of the Day Sofa.

Elizabeth Wilson is a committed Marxist, a feminist, and a tennis fan. Her new book Love Game is not only the definitive social history of tennis but also provides a template of range, argument and wonderfully engaging writing style for a similar progressive account of each and every other sport too. An incredibly important book whether tennis is your sport or not. Wimbledon fortnight for as long as most us can remember has been a mainstay of the British sporting summer. Notoriously insular, the Tour de France scarcely got a look-in, something those flash continentals got up to. All that has changed now, with first Olympic success on the velodrome track closely followed by Wiggomania and Chris Froome’s victory last year too. Yorkshire hosting the start of Le Tour’s 2014 edition is symbolic of the soft internationalism sport has an almost unique capacity to foster. Tim Moore’s Gironimo is a tribute to Italy’s Grand Tour Race, ‘The Giro’ which this year started in Belfast. Tracing the route of the 1914 race on an ancient bike, this exploration of what cycling means to Italians is a rare, and hugely effective, mix of the historic and the comic. Alasdair Fotheringham’s Reckless covers a more recent period of cycling history, Luis Ocana, the great Eddy Merckx’s most serious rival in the 1970s. A vivid portrayal of the sport before the scourge of performance-enhancing drugs threatened to destroy it, rider against rider in what is surely the single longest battle for physical supremacy in any sport , the four weeks of Le Tour, and Fotheringham captures the mental and muscular intensity this demands brilliantly.

Cycling appears to the layperson as a sport simply of individuals , but dig deeper and rather this is a sport contested by teams of individuals. Pro cyclist Charly Wegelius records this in his autobiography Domestique. Every team has a leader, pushing for the Yellow Jersey or equivalent, but sprint finishers, mountain climbers, a rouleur to help keep the pace going, sometime to make a breakaway, often to close the breakaway down. And in Charly’s case a domestique too, with a wide variety of roles to keep the team united behind the interests of their leader. A book that helps us to understand the varying parts of what make up cycling’s peloton which produces such a thrilling sport. Le Tour will this summer surely establish itself as one of the highlights of the British sporting summer. But the rest of the continental great cycling races remain so low profile in terms of coverage and understanding they may as well not exist. Cycling in that sense has a long way to go before breaking into the British sporting mainstream. To understand the appeal of the one-day classics read the brilliant new book The Monuments. A bit like football-writing in the early 1990s, publishers have woken up to the fact that there is a great literature to be written about cycling and a growing readership too. Crucial tools towards the popular breakthrough the sport deserves. There’s not much doubt part of the appeal of cycling is the pursuit of speed. From commuting and the recreational to touring and racing, the bike offers us the potential for unheard of speed by almost any other vehicles fuelled by our own body. Few of us are going to reach elite levels of performance, but the dreaming and wondering is pervasive. Desires satisfied by Michael Hutchinson's imaginative book on the science of cycling speed Faster.

And my book of the quarter? One to restore faith in the capacity of sport to inspire, to form a collective, to spark social change. The remarkable story of Germany’s FC St Pauli, told with energy and insight in the brand new book (the title says it all), Pirates, Punks & Politics by Nick Davidson. This is a tale, and writing , to take us back to spiky music and DIY politics that framed a long-forgotten moment of football with attitude. A book to remind us that across sport those sparks still exist, vividly illustrated by all that St Pauli fans have achieved. A book to lift spirits, and horizons, just what sport needs. My perfect read for the sporting Summer.. 

Note No links in this book review to Amazon. If you can avoid buying from the tax-dodgers please do so.
Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’. aka, Philosophy Football