Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Curious Contradiction of Joey Barton

This piece was originally written for my Beyond the Ninety column on Voom Football

Joey Barton is not an easy man to like. Lurching from one controversy to another his career has seen two criminal convictions for assault, and he has been charged with violent conduct three times by the Football Association. Off the pitch he bristled with brash, arrogant egotism. He would pillory teammates and managers and I remember one interview Barton gave to Football Focus – at a time when both Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard were both in their pomp – where he declared himself the best English midfielder around.

And yet I have of late been warming to the QPR midfielder as he continues to remodel himself as an online social commentator. His latest foray onto social media came as Israel launched their recent brutal attacks on the people of Gaza. During the course of the conflict more than 2,000 Palestinians have been killed, 400 of whom have been children. Barton took to Twitter to say, “If this was anybody else but Israel the West would intervene. It cannot continue. Innocent children being slaughtered. This must stop.”

Barton’s position was both principled and brave and he wasn’t the only sportsperson to show solidarity with the Palestinian people. Mario Balotelli tweeted his outage when four Gazan children were killed playing football on a beach; England cricketer Moeen Ali wore “Free Palestine” wristbands; Malaysian cyclist Azizulhasni Awang had the words “Free Gaza” written on his gloves during the Commonwealth Games.

Previously Barton has used social media to speak out against homophobia in football, racism in sport and quoted George Orwell during his takedown of the FA. His burgeoning reputation is such that he was even invited to appear on the BBC’s Question Time programme earlier this year. Barton blotted his copybook only once in what was otherwise a self-assured performance. During a comment about the elections which had recently taken place he suggested, "If I'm somewhere and there was four really ugly girls, I'm thinking she's not the worst - that's all UKIP are."

It was a misogynistic comment and Barton was rightly taken to task by one young woman in the audience. To his credit he held his hands up and apologised for the crass remark. Which means we live in a country where you’re more likely to see a Premier League footballer say sorry for saying something sexist than a politician apologise for diddling their expenses or launching an illegal war in the Middle East. Go figure.

But not everything Joey Barton comes out with is progressive or enlightened. Amidst the comedy spats with such figures as Gary Lineker, Dietmar Hamann and Martin Samuel have been some downright offensive remarks. His description of Thiago Silva as an “overweight ladyboy” was the kind of transphobic insult you might expect from an insecure teenage boy. Similarly his suggestion that the people on the Channel 4 show Benefits Street shouldn’t be allowed to have children was a horribly nasty comment. A lad who grew up in Huyton should know better than to have a pop at people eeking out an existence. Were it not for football Barton might well have found himself in a similar situation.

Inevitably people have lined up to criticise Barton. Yet it is interesting that so few are prepared to actually engage with what he says. They tell him he is stupid, that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, they tell him to shut up. More often than not they fall back on a simple claim: that footballers have no right to be talking about social, political or economic issues. By taking an interest in, and commenting on, the world at large, Joey Barton has broken the unwritten rule which states sport and politics should not mix.

But there is something deeper, more pernicious going on here. When people castigate Barton merely for having an opinion they are indulging in the worst form of class prejudice. It is epitomised by media rent-a-gob Piers Morgan, once editor of the Mirror, and with whom Barton crossed swords in the Question Time debate. Before the programme the pair traded insults on Twitter, with Morgan writing, “I don’t need to train for intelligent political debates. You however… well, best of luck.”

It doesn’t take much decoding to see the inference. For the likes of Piers Morgan, Barton is uneducated, unintelligent, and has no right to enter political debate. Barton’s greatest crime is not that he speaks out but that he comes from the working class. How dare someone who grew up on a council estate have a political opinion! Of course we should call him out whenever he tweets something out of line, but by virtue of his fame Barton has been granted a platform most people can only ever dream about – and that annoys the media talking heads more than anything he actually says. 

Monday, August 18, 2014

England's Invisible World Cup Winners

Those of you who know me will be aware that I’m not one for nationalistic flag-waving. But let me set my internationalism aside for one moment to rejoice in the fact that England have won the World Cup! What? You didn’t know?

Yesterday England’s women defeated Canada to win the rugby World Cup in France. The chances are that you weren’t even aware the tournament was taking place, and the first many will have heard of it will have been the (limited) attention the team received this morning. It’s rare for women’s rugby to make the back page and the final came on the same weekend as the start of the Premier League season, the final day of the test series between England and India, and the climax of the European athletics championships. It’s unsurprising that the game was farmed out to Sky Sports 4.

Which is a shame because as a sporting spectacle all the ingredients were there for a memorable encounter. England faced a Canadian side with whom they had managed only a tie in the group stages, leaving the final perfectly poised. And it followed a hat-trick of consecutive final defeats in the last three World Cups for England. Fourth time’s a charm. The game had enough drama to keep fans on the edge of their seats. England led 11-3 at half time courtesy of a try from Danielle Waterman and two penalties from Emily Scarratt. After the break Canada clawed their way back into the match, moving within two points of England before Scarratt added another penalty, a try and a conversion to her impressive points haul. England won 21-9. It is the first time in twenty years that they have lifted the trophy and yet still the coverage has been minimal.

Compare this to when the England men’s rugby team won the World Cup in 2003. Despite arriving back in the country in the wee small hours of the morning they were greeted by thousands of supporters at the airport and what followed, according to the BBC, was “an unprecedented national day of celebration, with the team greeting hundreds of thousands of fans from open top buses in a victory parade through London.” They were invited to Number 10 for some champagne by Tony Blair, a man desperate for some vicarious glory following a year of anti-war protests. Then it was on to Buckingham Palace to meet the queen for cucumber sandwiches. I expect they were on their best behaviour for this one but part of me wonders if they resorted to type and acted like the rugby club blokes I knew at university, randomly insulting passers-by and pissing on the corgis.

And it didn’t stop there. Clive Woodward, the England team supremo, was knighted in the New Year’s honours list. Captain Martin Johnson picked up a CBE and most others in the squad MBEs. Then, finally, in what can only be described as an insult to the very notion of dictionary definitions, Jonny Wilkinson was crowned BBC Sports Personality of the Year. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I just don’t see England’s women receiving the same accolades.

What we can say for sure is that women’s rugby is on the rise. The International Rugby Board says,“Women's Rugby is one of the fastest-growing forms of the Game with over 200,000 registered women actively competing in Fifteens and Sevens and 800,000 women and girls participating in leisure Rugby in all its forms around the world.” And in this country alone there are, according to the Rugby Football Union, more than 14,000 women and girls playing the game every week, meaning that participation is at “an all-time high”. Despite these advances women’s rugby, indeed women’s sport in general, lags a long way behind the men.

Women are still dissuaded from taking part in ‘muscular’, ‘masculine’ team sports and instead are patronised by government ministers and encouraged to consider more appropriate forms of physical exercise like aerobics, cheerleading and ironing (ok, I made the last one up, but you get the sarcasm). And there still exists, of course, a strong element whereby female athletes are judged on their looks rather than their sporting skills. Tennis player Maria Sharapova remains the most highly paid sportswoman in the world, despite negligible prize-money winnings. Rugby, with its rucks, mauls and cauliflower ears is a full-blooded, front-on crash tackle to society’s stereotypes of femininity

The one major, headline change that would help push women’s sport to the fore – namely a significant increase and improvement in the current levels of television coverage – is simply not on the cards. For all manner of historical reasons, men’s sport still draws the biggest audiences, and the more viewers you have the more you can charge your advertisers. For someone like Sky, a massive corporation driven by the profit motive, a long-term commitment to women’s sport doesn’t make financial sense.

That is not to say there haven’t been improvements recently. Sky did cover the rugby World Cup; BT Sport and BBC radio are running more coverage of women’s football. Hell, even the last edition of the Wisden almanac carried an article on the history of women’s cricket. I suspect this is a reflection of the growing number of women playing and watching sport at the grassroots level, as well as continued pressure from those campaigning for more balanced sports reporting. However, women’s sports are, in the main, still seen as secondary to those of their male counterparts, curious adjuncts to the ‘proper’ games played by the men. The disparity between the sexes can be illustrated with an example drawn from the athletics world where inequality is (arguably) not so great. If Christine Ohuruogu – the UK’s most successful female athlete of all time –was a man she would be one of the most feted and celebrated sportspeople this country has ever known. As it is, most people won’t even recognise her name.

So what can England’s rugby World Cup winning women expect when they return? Dinner with dignitaries? Fame and fortune? More sponsorship deals than Joe Hart can shake a stick at? Not likely. Yet, while it may not make up for the wrongs of a misogynistic world, they can take heart from the fact that they’re more successful than the men.

The Not So Level Playing Field

This piece was originally written for my "Beyond the Ninety" column on the excellent Voom Football website.

The start of a new Premier League season brings all the usual excitement and expectation. For those of us who follow a top flight team we’re busy predicting just what our clubs might achieve over the next ten months. But the sad truth is that the position your team will finish has already been pretty much decided before a ball has been kicked. The battles for Premiership supremacy and survival are more about the billionaires in the boardroom than the players on the park.  

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the forerunners of today’s administrators – such as the MCC in cricket and the FA in football – first started to write down standardised sets of rules for their respective sports. One of the reasons behind this move was to ensure “equality of competition”. It meant that competing sides had to be of equal size, that batsmen couldn’t walk out to the wicket with a bat four-feet-wide, that there would be a change of ends at half time so neither team were running uphill or into the wind for an entire match. In short, it ensured a level playing field. 

The idea of the level playing field reminded me of something Brendon Rodgers said a couple of seasons ago when his Swansea side took on Manchester City. With five minutes to go City brought on Sergio Aguero as a substitute. After the match Rodgers said, “That’s the difference between the two teams: they have a striker on their bench who costs more than our stadium.” Now at Liverpool, Rodgers is on the other side of the fence and has been able to utilise the club’s substantial financial clout, effectively turning Southampton into a feeder club in the process. Despite spending £86million so far this summer there remain doubts that the Reds’ boss has spent enough to challenge for the title. Pundits and fans alike are lining up to voice their opinion that without a marquee signing Liverpool will be unable to improve on last season’s second place Premiership finish. They’re probably right.

For years Arsene Wenger has epitomised the softly-softly, fiscally responsible approach to team building. Yet disquiet had mounted amongst the Emirates faithful as the Frenchman refused to shell out exorbitant amounts on transfer fees and wages. At the beginning of last season, as the club made a poor start, there were even calls for Wenger to step aside. However, after the signings of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez for a combined total somewhere in the region of £75million, Arsenal appear to have changed their approach. That level of spending is a statement of intent and the Gunners now appear as serious title contenders.

But we shouldn’t see this as a simple change of heart. Wenger is locked in the logic of football’s market forces. If you look at the three clubs who have dominated English football’s top flight for the past decade – Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City – you will find that their success has been underwritten with mind-boggling sums of cold, hard cash. United were, for a time, the richest club side in the world in any sport, a global brand with almost unimaginable merchandising revenue.  Chelsea have been able to call on the oh-so-deep pockets of Roman Abramovich, a man worth in excess of £10 billion. And, strange as it is to say, Roman looks like a pauper compared to the wealth of Sheikh Mansour. The Man City owner is part of a family who reportedly have a trillion dollars’ worth of oil money in the bank. Both Wenger and Arsenal have eventually succumbed to the fact that in order to compete with these clubs you have to spend. And spend big.

You can, of course, have oodles of money and still fail to win the league, as David Moyes proved last year. Seriously, if you have £28milllion to blow on a player and you choose to buy Maurouane Fellaini then you pretty much deserve to be sacked. Equally you could point to the experience at White Hart Lane, where Spurs went on a spending spree with their Gareth Bale windfall only to go backwards.  But while no guarantee, huge wads of cash are a precondition for success. Without the bank balance you can look forward to a year of mid-table mediocrity at best, or, at worst, an entire season of relegation six-pointers.

Just as in the world of business, where market forces tend not to competition but to monopoly, so something similar has happened in football. The effect of the billionaires and oligarchs has been to erode the level playing field and destroy the equality of competition. Only the handful of clubs with mountains of cash are able to bankroll a title challenge. The rest of the teams are merely there to make up the numbers. So when someone asks you who will win the Premier League this year, respond with a question of your own: which club has the most money?

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Why I Am Marching For Palestine

This piece originally appeared on the Portsmouth Socialist Network blog.

This Saturday there will be a demonstration in Portsmouth in solidarity with the people of Gaza. For 22 days Israel has mercilessly shelled the Gaza strip. Ten days in and the F-16s were joined by a ground invasion. The aerial bombardment has been devastating. It has destroyed schools and hospitals, the only power station, UN buildings and refugee centres. At the time of writing the atrocities have claimed the lives of more than 1,700 people, the majority of which are civilians, many of these are children.

This is the latest atrocity in an injustice that dates back nearly 70 years. But there is now a palpable shift in public opinion. Solidarity has been offered from people right across the world, from Texas to Dublin, from Montreal to Rome, people have chanted “Freedom for Palestine!” Here too, ever growing numbers of people are disgusted by what Israel is doing to the Palestinian people. The latest YouGov poll shows that 62% of people in the UK think that Israel is committing war crimes in Gaza and the level of support for the Palestinians is on the increase. The plight of the Palestinians is apparent for all to see.

Like so many other people I’ve seen the pictures on the news and online, deeply distressing images of innocent people who have been beaten, bombed and brutalised. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve welled up at the news of another horrific attack: At the story of the four boys killed playing football on a beach; at the sight of the man who carried the remains of his son in a plastic bag; at Jon Snow’s video and the young girl with the bruised face; at the scene from the hospital where dead bodies are being wheeled out as the newly injured are wheeled in, as though it were some desperate, macabre conveyer belt. The horrors we witness are all too real.

And yet everything seems so very far away. Some people – sympathetic to the Palestinians – have asked what we can do other than rage at the latest news report or newspaper article. What good will come from holding a demonstration? What effect can it really have? And who is going to listen? How can we make our voices heard when the media refuses to listen?

I do understand how they feel. I was one of the two million people who joined the huge anti-war demonstration in 2003 and yet still Blair backed Bush in his attack on Iraq. And people are of course spot on in their criticisms of the media bias - the BBC in particular should be thoroughly ashamed of their coverage.

But protests are vital to help us raise awareness of the situation in Gaza and help build pressure on our own government who are more than happy to
sell arms to the Israelis. Indeed, quite a few people from Pompey have gone up to London to protest outside the Israeli embassy over the past couple of weeks. But not everyone can make demonstrations in the capital, for a variety of reasons - work/family commitments, lack of money, problems with travel. A local demo gives these people the opportunity to voice their feelings.

In fact, in addition to those London demos, there have been local protests in loads of towns and cities across the country. And they've been about more than just venting anger. It highlights the issues, it gets the question of Palestine solidarity in the local paper, maybe it does get some local tv coverage (I hope this protest will!), it lets more people know that there is opposition to the atrocities carried out by Israel. Given the media bias this is crucial. I'm under no illusions, it's tough and we're talking baby-steps, but for some people who see the demo it might be the first time they've ever encountered a different point of view to that of the establishment!

Do people pay attention to these protests? Well, yes, I think they do, and I’ll try to illustrate the point with two very different examples. On Saturday The Telegraph carried an interview with Philip Hammond, the government’s new Foreign Secretary, in which he was critical of Israel’s actions. Now, I don’t trust Hammond as far as I can throw him, but his words are, at least in part, a reflection of the growing number of demonstrations and protests in solidarity with the people of Gaza. “It’s a broad swathe of British public opinion that feels deeply, deeply disturbed by what it is seeing on its television screens coming out of Gaza,” he says.

The other example comes from a vigil held this past weekend at the War Memorial in Portsmouth. Nearly forty people came to the event organised by the local Palestine Solidarity Campaign in order to remember those who died in the First World War and those needlessly dying today in Gaza. Towards the end a young man approached the group and introduced himself. He was an Iraqi who had fled his homeland and travelled to England to seek asylum. He explained, “I know war. I know the horror of living with war. I just wanted to say thank you for what you are doing today.” As people went up to shake his hand he broke down and wept. That is why these demonstrations matter.

Perhaps most importantly these acts help us to build bridges locally - bringing sympathetic people together so that collectively we are stronger and louder. No one, single demo - here or in London or anywhere else for that matter- can stop what is happening in Gaza, we all know that. But every demo, stall, meeting and conversation that changes someone's mind adds a little more to the pressure and, perhaps, inspires someone else to do something. The alternative is that we stay at home, isolated, shouting helplessly at the television, or more likely sobbing as we see the latest pictures coming out of Palestine. I simply can’t do that – and that is why I will be demonstrating next weekend.