Archive for Football

Thank you, Unicorns. X

On Saturday I played my final game for SFC Friedrichshain Internazionale, the football team I joined shortly after arriving in Berlin in late 2014. SFCF Inter, or “The Unicorns”, have been and will continue to be a huge part of my life. The team, as its name and nickname suggest, is a unique and diverse group of very special human beings. The squad is about twenty-strong, and features people with almost as many nationalities; in that sense, it is the essence of Berlin. It’s not the kind of gathering you readily leave, but my increasingly brittle left ankle and right knee have had other ideas.

 

It’s not as if I’m truly leaving them: I’ll still train with them whenever my work schedule allows each week. But this moment briefly felt a little poignant, as it’s the first time that I’ve had to admit that my days of regularly playing 11-a-side football are over. At such times, being a poet by disposition, I tend to get a bit misty-eyed and reminisce. I’ve been part of several clubs since the age of nine – first Golden Eagles U10 B, the reserve side so poor that when we lost only 4-0 we were delighted, and who were once defeated 35-0 in a match lasting only an hour and during which the ball entered their half just once. Then there was the all-conquering Sunningdale School 1st XI, which was my redemption for Golden Eagles having been so terrible; a few years playing for various school sides at Eton College, but sadly never once playing for their senior first team; the 105 Club; St. John’s College, Oxford; Mansfield Road; Ferry Hinksey; Brasenose Old Boys; Lovells; Stonewall; and finally, of course, the Unicorns.

 

Of course, it was never ultimately about the football; because I never played well for a team where I didn’t love those with whom I shared the dressing-room. Love is a strong word, and still not one that many men are comfortable using about one another: and that’s why I use it. I loved all those team-mates from my favourite teams, and I still do. It’s a delight to see them all on Facebook, on WhatsApp, or during the odd visit to any city where they might be living now – Barcelona, Dubai, Shanghai. Many of them are fathers now, and far stiffer of joint than they were when we all first met. But their passion for the game remains the same, as does their affection for each other. At various points, in a world so often brutally unfair and cruelly complex, the simple joy of chasing a ball around the field has been a rare form of solace.

 

Of course, it was about the football to some extent, which is why I’m not playing any longer. I only really play for teams where I feel that I can make a consistently strong contribution, and I don’t think that’s the case anymore. German football, at this level, is just as quick and physical as it is in the UK, and it is technically far superior too – there are people doing things in training and in matches that were almost unimaginable in the UK. (Alexis Lannoy, my God. You are not fully human.) Playing for the Unicorns has been very humbling, in that sense. When I was playing in the UK, I would often take the field confident in the knowledge that I was one of the quicker and more skilful players there. By the time I came to Germany, that was not remotely the case. I had lost pretty much any acceleration I had ever had (some will laugh, at this point, that I never really had much pace at all) and I found it almost impossible to dribble past players. As a result, I can now admit, I was sometimes very worried when matchday came around: doubtful that, in my greatly diminished state, I would be good enough to deliver what my peers needed.

 

That’s been the beautiful thing about playing for the Unicorns, though. For the overwhelming majority of my time with them, I relied not upon speed or skill but upon hustle and guts. I have never gladly chased so many seemingly lost causes, hunting down centre backs as they passed the ball gleefully between themselves. I now know what Harry Boyle, one of the first and best captains I ever had, meant when he ordered me to “play this game for as long as you can”. The ritual of matchday is a profound one: the arrival at a ground so alien and hostile that it may as well be the surface of Venus, the Deep Heat searing through your nostrils, the clatter of studs in the hall.  

 

During that time – over those many hundreds of matches – I’ve played in conditions from sub-zero to tropical, and in all manner of different positions. I’ve worn several shirt numbers; 4, 5, 9, 10, 11, 14, 17. I started out as a striker, a traditional centre-forward; then I was a number ten, a left-wing and a right-wing, a defensive midfielder (no, seriously, ask Rory da Costa and Peter Nedd), a left-back, and latterly even a left wing-back. I was never deployed as a keeper, but that’s probably best for all concerned. At first, I was obsessed with scoring goals – there was nothing that gave me greater pleasure – but, after a while, I lost the hunger for that. As a striker, you’re oddly distant from your team-mates, often as proud but isolated as the prow of a ship. Playing in central midfield for Stonewall, in a team of gay and bisexual men competing against a league of heterosexual teams, I learned just how wonderful it could be to do all the small things that went unnoticed but which were utterly vital to your team’s success. If Golden Eagles was where I first found my love for playing football, then Stonewall was where I rediscovered it.

 

But this post is getting long – what was meant to be a short piece has now tumbled on into over a thousand words. I have started this with the Unicorns, so I will finish it with them. After my last game, a 4-2 defeat to Traktor Boxhagener, I ended up being the final person out of the dressing-room, which was as fitting and melodramatic as it sounds. It’s a good thing no-one else wandered in during the few minutes I sat there, because I might have welled up in tears if they had walked in. Somewhere, almost thirty years back, there was a much younger me scraping the mud off his boots. Now, with a grey-haired goatee, I was gazing at the chalkboard where Andrew Weber, the most inspirational of coaches, had scribbled that game’s starting line-up. I had to take a picture of it all: the firmly-worded tactical instructions, the deserted space, the sacred enclave. I took a selfie in which I tried to smile, but didn’t quite manage it; and maybe that was fitting too. You can’t quite be euphoric at a time like that. I packed my things, took one last look round, and turned off the light. I then headed out to the club’s bar and a post-match beer with my friends, before going off to play a seven-a-side football tournament on the other side of town, where I was one of the younger players taking part. This game has been one of the greatest journeys of my life, and it always will be.

Thank you for everything, Unicorns; and I’ll see you all down the pub, or in that WhatsApp group, where I hope you will lovingly and mercilessly mock this sentimental post as fully it deserves. I won’t mind, though. From start to finish, it has been the greatest pleasure.

Rest in peace Carlos Alberto, a true gentleman.

Here is a quick word for Carlos Alberto, the captain of Brazil’s 1970 World Cup-winning side, who passed a few hours ago. He was a true gentleman, and I am very fortunate to have one first-hand story among doubtless many to prove it.

In 2014, I travelled to his house on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro with a brilliant team from the BBC World Service, Jim Frank and Fernanda Nidecker, to interview Mr. Alberto for “The Burden of Beauty”, a documentary that we were making about the upcoming World Cup. Mr. Alberto could not have been a more welcoming host. He spoke with notable warmth about Brazil’s players, most notably Neymar and Oscar, the latter of whom he likened favourably (off the record, since he did not want to put any more pressure on the Chelsea midfielder during the tournament) to Gerson. He pointed fondly to a picture above his mantelpiece where he was embracing Bobby Moore after their classic clash at that World Cup. “He was my friend”, he said, with a moving nostalgia.

After about an hour in Mr. Alberto’s company, during which he described in thrilling detail his famous goal in the final against Italy, we had to head back into town. However, it was rush hour by then, and taxis in Rio were at a premium. The traffic was horrific, and the waiting time for a cab was probably close to an hour. Without hesitation, Mr. Alberto asked us to get into the back of his car, and the World Cup-winning captain joined the miles-long snake of vehicles in the hope of finding us a ride back into town. After fifteen minutes or so, he caught sight of a stray, unoccupied taxi, and flagged it down. The taxi driver, double-taking at the sight of this Brazilian football great, duly pulled over and let us in, and the last we saw of Mr. Alberto was the back of his head and the back of his hand as he waved us graciously away. It was harder to imagine a gesture more humble from a man who had fulfilled the dreams of millions; and it explained why today, and for endless years to come, he will be held in the very highest esteem. Carlos Alberto; an exceptional footballer, and by untold accounts, an even better human being.

Iniesta the inevitable.

Iniesta is inexplicable. I am increasingly convinced that he is not simply playing football, but is instead practising some form of obscure and deceptively basic martial art. This morning, I sat awake watching a video of his highlights from the Copa del Rey final against Sevilla, which Barcelona won 2-0. Iniesta, despite strong showings from his team-mates, was widely acclaimed as the man of the match. If you watch that video – and good luck only watching it once – you will see one of the world’s most seasoned cup sides flailing in Iniesta’s wake.  Actually that’s not true. They’re flailing even before he gets there. Because everyone knows what Iniesta’s going to do and where he’s going to be, but no-one’s got a clue how to prevent it. There are times in that video when Iniesta’s advance through opposing challenges seems as unstoppable as radiation itself.

What’s perhaps most remarkable about him is that he seems to do what he does with so few tools. It’s as if the world’s best samurai invited him to a swordfight, and then he beat the lot with a pair of chopsticks. It happens year after year, final after final, and the only thing as inevitable as his brilliance is the fact that, years from now, a traumatised group of his man-markers will be sitting together in a suburban pub, still trying to figure out how he did it.

My new articles for The Economist on innovation and the future.

Late last year, I was commissioned by The Economist to write some articles on innovation and the future. I thought I would put them in one place, in case you’d like to read them in a spare moment or two. I hope you have time to take a look, and that you enjoy them.

  1. A wider cast: the ethics (and economics) of diversity in film
  2. Time over money: Wandering the world with the New Rich
  3. Holograms and the democratisation of modern football
  4. Softly, softly: the future of impact investing
  5. Spontaneity and the modern office
  6. In praise of “techno-optimists”
  7. The rise of the countryside

 

On the Paris Attacks.

In a few hours I’ll meet up with my local football team, SFC Friedrichshain Internazionale, to play football. I’m not sure if I’ll get a game, as my first touch seems to have regressed as quickly as my hairline in recent years, but I am so proud just to be part of the squad. I think that there is something very special about my club’s ethos: to quote, “SFC Friedrichshain Internazionale is an international ‘freizeit’ football team based in Berlin which stands against sexism, racism, fascism and homophobia.

What a beautiful, noble aim. Just last night, when news of the Paris attacks first broke, I and some fellow team-mates had been watching a friend – one of our first-choice centre-backs – launching his new single. (He’s a singer-songwriter in that late-Sixties style, really good actually. He is definitely a case of “you should probably give up the day job”.

This weekend I am indulging in two of my favourite things: watching football, and playing live music. Of course, these are two of the things that Parisians were so enjoying just before the horror. And there was something so overwhelming, so jarring, so futile about watching the news develop on our smartphones, knowing that the innocence of a night out just like ours was being torn away forever.

So, at a time like this, how can we respond? Well, I can only speak for myself, but I will try to respond in two ways. First of all, with bravery. And by bravery I don’t mean lust for retribution – for any response obviously needs to be considered calmly and carefully. By bravery I mean trying to be more kind and compassionate than ever; by critiquing and rejecting extremism wherever I can. And secondly, wherever possible, I will try to respond with gratefulness. My world was not broken apart last night, nor has it been touched by the desperation faced by so many refugees. And so, in that spirit of gratefulness, I will try to be that little bit better a son, brother, and human being; and, maybe, even that little bit better a footballer. Because this brief, gentle, fragile life is all that we have, and I will set forward to live it with as open a heart and with as much optimism as I can. And so, now all that’s said: Go Inter.

FIFA and Loretta E. Lynch: a milestone for black women.

Several of FIFA’s senior officials have been arrested on charges of corruption, news which has been welcomed by very many people outside the organisation (and, I suspect, more than a few within). The person leading this effort is Loretta E. Lynch, the US Attorney-General, who has only been in her job a matter of weeks. Lynch is the first African-American woman to hold this post, and here she is, holding possibly the most powerful organisation in world sport to account. This is, I think, a milestone for black women. At times like these, I look back at the history of civil rights activism, and consider those who fought just so women just like them could one day have access to the same opportunities as their fellow citizens. Regardless of how these charges against FIFA go, I believe that the very fact that Lynch is here to make them is historically important.

It is probably important today, too. When speaking with several of my black female friends, I see how many of them – despite their considerable success in their various fields – still experience remarkable self-doubt, as if they do not feel worthy of even greater platforms for their talents. That self-doubt is often derived from a world which through the twin stings of racism and sexism frequently tries to hold them back. I doubt that Lynch herself will stop to reflect on this moment – for her, it is probably just one more day in an outstanding career – but many black women, those long gone and those yet to come, may thank her for showing that someone just like them can make it as far as she wants to. And, somewhere out there, I hope that countless ancestors – among them Sojourner Truth, Mary Church Terrell, Rosa Parks – are raising a glass.

 

 

My tweets on that racist football fan video (with RapGenius annotations, and Johnny Cash).

Last night I saw a video where a bunch of racist football fans stopped a black man getting onto a train. I then went onto Twitter and wrote a series of tweets giving my thoughts on the incident. I didn’t mention the club whom the fans supported as I didn’t think that this was a phenomenon particular to their club.

I then received answers from some people who agreed with me, and some who didn’t, which is after all the nature of Twitter. Some people thought I was saying that this video should not be condemned, and so I thought I should write a short note clarifying my tweets.

So I’m going to do the following, which might seem a bit of an odd approach, but I am doing it mainly because I don’t have time to write a full new article on this (deadlines etc etc).

First I will republish the tweets I wrote. Then I will briefly annotate them, RapGenius style, explaining further what I meant by them. Then I will finish up with some music from Johnny Cash.

I hope that makes sense, and that you’re not bored yet. Right – here goes.

My tweets were as follows:

1. Hm. Many people who will express revulsion at that racist football fan video are just as unpleasant in far subtler and more dangerous ways.

(Explanation: If you condemned that video, awesome. My wider point was that there are a lot of people who have an eye for a conveniently easy fight. The same people who will condemn video of these fans will continue to laugh along with people who make jokes about gas chambers. They are the same people who will embrace bigoted individuals if they can bring some kind of advantage to their club, or simply if they are just fun to hang out with. It is these hypocrites who were the subject of this tweet.)  

2. Extreme, overt, drunken racism by fans is only the symptom of attitudes that may be more commonplace that people would like to admit.

(Explanation: The black man last night faced racism in a very intimidating form. What is particularly worrying is that those racists felt comfortable enough to express those views at such volume and with such confidence, just like that racist who threw the bananas at Dani Alves. We will never know how many passive onlookers silently agreed with their reprehensible views. At such times, the club’s reaction is vital, and to Chelsea’s credit they have acted swiftly in response to this matter.)  

3. The outraged condemnation of drunken racist football fans, without further examination of the underlying issues, is nothing but cathartic.

(Explanation: Yes, you’re right to be angry, absolutely. Let’s also be vigilant about other forms of racial discrimination within the game, and not be quick to dismiss them when they arise. If you are already vigilant, then this tweet was not aimed at you.) 

4. The average racist these days is far, far smarter than a football fan on an away day who gets hammered and abuses a random black person.

(Explanation: The one redeeming feature of those football fans on the train is that they were stupid and so we know exactly what they thought. Again, I was merely saying: let’s stay vigilant. There’s a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment out there at the moment – just look at UK politics. If you’re already vigilant, then that is awesome – you don’t have to duck, this tweet was not aimed at you.)

5. The drunken racist football fan on the evening train is the least dangerous racist of all since you know exactly where you stand with them.

(Explanation: This isn’t entirely accurate as a racist frothing abuse in your face can be pretty intimidating, particularly if they are bigger than you or if there are more than you or if there is nowhere to run or if they are quicker than you. Those ones are pretty scary but they’re thankfully not as commonplace as they have been. So they are physically dangerous, yes. I guess I have just become a little bit desensitised to their excesses. At least, because they make their threat so obvious, I know what I am dealing with.)  

6. The most dangerous racists of all are those who will keep you conveniently at arm’s length for years. They are the ones I worry about.

(Explanation: These are often the really scary ones – the ones who discriminate against you in the workplace, the ones who pass discriminatory laws, the ones who practice what Ta-Nehisi Coates has referred to as “elegant racism”. They are the ones who are clever enough to marginalise you without telling you that it’s down to your race, and it’s only when you look back over the accumulated evidence that you realise that’s what it was. A good friend has a successful claim at an employment tribunal to show for it.)

7. As someone who has experienced both verbal and physical racist abuse on the street, I am not belittling what happened tonight.

(Explanation: No, I’m really not. I hope that poor guy was not too shaken this morning.)

8. I am merely saying: let us be clear. Racism does not simply arise from nowhere. It is mould that has been allowed to fester too long.

(Explana – actually no I think this one is pretty clear.)

9. So no, I’m not going to get on my high horse about the drunken racist fans, and I would advise you to be very very wary of anyone who does.

(Explanation: I am as angry about this as you presumably are. Just watch out for the people who are up in arms about this video, but then go back to their own bigoted ways next week. Trust me, they’re out there.)

10. *end transmission*

(Explanation: I always give some kind of sign-off when I have finished an extended series of tweets, normally when my thumb gets tired, so that anyone who has tuned out in the process of my stream of conscious knows that they can have the timeline back.)

I will now send this article to everyone who wrote to me last night asking for further clarification of my thoughts. And I would like to thank Mashable for putting all of these tweets in one place so that their readers could review them for themselves. Have a great day, all.

(And PS – if it does turn out that these tweets were indeed aimed at you, then they should burn, burn, burn, like the ring of fire, the ring of fire.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Searching for Walter Tull.”

A head and shoulders portrait of Walter Tull

Last December, as part of an event held by Philosophy Football to mark the role that football played during the Christmas truce in World War One, I performed the poem below.  “Searching for Walter Tull”, which I was commissioned to write for that event, reflects on the life of one of the first black professional footballers in the UK (for Clapton FC, Northampton Town and Spurs), and the first black man in the British Army ever to lead his white peers into battle. As the day of my reading drew closer, I found myself more and more moved by his story, and the reality that the best and the bravest of human beings too rarely get the lives that they deserve. The title of this piece refers to the fact that his body was never found; but, despite that, he still left a remarkable legacy behind.

————

“Searching for Walter Tull”

Walter Tull.

His life was the ink that stands out on history’s page.
The orphan, this mixed-race grandson of a slave,
The footballer slow in stride but swift of thought,
The soldier who survived the Somme
But who died in World War One’s injury time.
A few weeks from the end of that churning conflict,
In no-man’s land, as he was leading a charge,
Life handed him the red card.
Months earlier, in Italy, he had been the maker of history,
Going where no person of colour or Negro had been allowed to go before,
A black officer leading his white peers into the hungry mouth of War.
So loved was he by his men, that they risked their lives to recover his body after his death.
But Walter Tull‘s slumbering form was never found;
And, a century after his death, we are still looking for him now.
Known for his calm when the world was aflame,
We need his memory at this time
When the humanity of Britain’s immigrants is being so furiously denied.
So sleep well, Walter Tull, and we’ll do what it takes
To ensure that, to your story,
The world remains awake.

SATURDAY 20th DECEMBER CENTENARY NIGHT OUT TO MARK THE 1914 CHRISTMAS FOOTBALL TRUCE STARRING KATE SMURTHWAITE

A Philosophy Football Christmas Night Out to Remember. An evening of comedy, ideas, live music and comedy inspired by this historic moment when football stopped a war.

Opened by Musa Okwonga, performing a specially commissioned poem in tribute to Walter Tull, one of the first Black British footballers, in 1914 he joined up, was made an officer and lost his life serving his country in 1918. With comedy from Kate Smurthwaite and Simon Munnery. Headlining set from Grace Petrie and her band The Benefits Culture. Folk legends Finlay Allison and Jimmy Ross play a specially commissioned set of 1914-8 songs of peace and resistance ‘ Its Never Over by Christmas’. A night of ideas too with acclaimed US sportswriter Dave Zirin who will be joined by David Goldblatt author of the football book of the year The Game of Our Lives, with football writers from Germany. Plus dance-floor filling set from our house DJ Melstars Soundsystem.

Doors open 6pm, show starts 7pm at the superb Rich Mix Arts Venue in East London. Tickets just £9.99, from http://www.philosophyfootball.com/view_item.php?pid=1039.

My response to The Times on Malky Mackay.

This is 2014.  This is actually Britain, in 2014. Where Jeremy Clarkson uses the N-word and doesn’t get so much as a minor fine by the BBC.  Where Malky Mackay uses language on his work phone that is so vile, so prejudiced that it reminds me of the BNP flyers that used to get dropped through my front door during the local by-election in the late Nineties: where Mackay then goes on to walk into another job to relatively little public concern.  And I am trying to keep a lid on this, really I am. Because I never really used to write about racism.  When I first began to write about football, I wrote about things like Xavi’s passing and Kanu’s dribbling and AC Milan tearing every single team apart in the Sacchi years. You know, on-the-pitch, football stuff.  The majesty of Van Basten’s first touch, etc, etc.  But now, I am seeing things about the sport that I love that I cannot ignore.  I am seeing racism encouraged either actively, via apology or via apathy.

I have just read an article by Alyson Rudd in The Times, entitled “Mackay’s move proves that you can learn from your mistakes”.  The article is no longer available for free on the Times website, so I will provide you with a summary. You may feel that I have taken the following quotes out of context, so I can only reproduce them at some length and allow you to make your own judgement.

Rudd states that the text messages sent by Mackay – she omits to mention that they were sent to members of Cardiff staff apart from Iain Moody – “do not prove beyond doubt that the two men are racist or sexist or homophobic”.

Let us look at some of the texts that were sent.

One of them stated that there was “nothing like a Jew that likes money slipping through his fingers”.

This is language that could have been taken straight from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

A South Korean player was signed by Cardiff, to which Mackay’s response was “Fkn chinkys. Fk it.  There’s enough dogs in Cardiff for us all to go round.”

“Fkn chinkys”. Fkn chinkys.  If that is not racist, I do not know what is.

One of them referred to an official from another club as “a snake, a gay snake”, and “the homo..not to be trusted”, and another to “an independently minded young homo”.

Now, some might not think that is homophobic, but to my mind that is not the language of someone who is particularly accepting or even tolerant of gay people.

Of a player’s female agent, he states to the player in question that “I bet you love her falsies”. That is sexist to put it mildly.

And so on.  Rudd’s article continues:

“It cannot be concluded that the victims are disliked purely because they are black or female or gay. When annoyed or overly exuberant, some people will fall into disrespectful language because it is, they think, witty or even perceptive. It is, they might think, even a bit daring, close to the bone and a way to let off steam.”

There is no mention in her article of the anti-Semitism or the racism towards Asians, which is pretty eye-watering, but it is pretty clear to me that the language used to describe women, blacks and gay people is indicative of a strong dislike of those groups.  What is more, Rudd makes the argument that this language may be “close to the bone”.  Let us look at the context. In a sport where women, gay people and black people readily face discrimination, it is fairly obvious that this language is not that of daring.  It is the language of entitlement, of the status quo.

Rudd then suggests that by giving Mackay “a public platform and a chance to display his humility and acceptance that he was a fool to stoop so low, the campaign against discrimination will be boosted.”  She concludes that “there are others out there who fool about and trade insults and stray into unacceptable terminology. Mackay is proof both that such mistakes can lose you a job and that learning from them can give you another chance.”

What can be said here, coherently, through a fast-falling glaze of fury?  There are other ways to give people public platforms if they want to make a show of contrition than putting them in charge of yet another group of players whom they can discriminate against.  There are no indications that Mackay was offered the job because he had learned anything from his mistakes. For goodness’ sake. Mackay is not Malcolm X returning from pilgrimage and renouncing his views on racial prejudice.  He is a talented manager who imposed his bigoted beliefs on a club for a time, and has merely found another club where the chairman has a history of not finding bigotry a problem.  That’s it.

I find it frightening that the author either believed every word of this article or published it without conviction in the hope that it would be provocative – to “spark a debate”, as if this were a game. We are currently in a climate that is as hostile to ethnic minorities as I can remember – as hostile, in fact, as those days in the late Nineties when the local area was so racist that black people had faeces posted through their letterboxes.  We are in an environment where the Football Association is worrying slow to act upon racism in the game, and where we need mainstream journalists more than ever to show institutional support for those being marginalised.  And instead we see editorials that purport to provide nuanced, alternative analyses, but which instead rigidly enforce the structures of discrimination that continue to blight English football.  And I can find no better way to describe this approach than both irresponsible and dangerous.