Archive for Football

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.

On Malky Mackay: why prejudice may be costing England World Cups.

Prejudice may be costing England World Cups.  Why do I say this? Well, we haven’t won it since 1966, and we’ve come pretty close twice, in 1986 and 1990.  We’ve barely had a sniff since then.  In major international tournaments, these games often come down to to the smallest margins, with the last two World Cups having been at the very end of extra time.  We hear so often that every small factor can make the difference – fitness, conditioning, whether the players are happy within the camp. But what about prejudice?

The Germany team who won in Brazil had players drawn from all over the country, and from diverse communities.  They had players from the poorer East, and players of Turkish, Albanian and Ghanaian descent.  They had an environment where gay players could feel protected, with their coach Joachim Low stating in January 2014 that Thomas Hitzlsperger, who came out after he retired, was someone who “should be treated with respect from all sides”.  Inclusivity isn’t just some wishy-washy concept dreamed up by navel-gazing liberals.  It’s good for your football team.  There was a time, after all, when even Brazil barred black players from its leagues, which is something when you consider this is the country that would later produce Pele and Garrincha. It is entirely logical that you stand the greatest chance of success if you draw your talent from the widest possible pool. And that talent has to be happy to work for you, to perform for you.

This is why anyone hoping for England to achieve their true potential at international tournaments should be concerned by the FA’s inaction over Malky Mackay.  Mackay has been given a new job at Wigan Athletic only months after the revelation of a series of racist, sexist and homophobic text messages that he sent to his friend and to members of Cardiff staff.  These text messages, based upon subsequent tweets from former players of his, were indicative of a wider atmosphere where those from ethnic minorities often felt less than welcome.  The FA has so far failed to fine or even reprimand Mackay for his actions.

“Why should Wigan wait?” his defenders may ask.  “Hasn’t Mackay already suffered enough in the court of public opinion?”  Yet if they pose such questions, then they are probably not thinking about all those talented people who are dissuaded from working with people like Mackay because of his views and corresponding behaviour.  They are not thinking of the damage being done to the English game as a result.  They are not thinking of those people, who count black people, gay people and women among their dearest relatives, who would do anything rather than work in an environment allegedly as toxic as that which Mackay ultimately created at Cardiff.

All of that talent is being silently lost, week after month after year.  For all we know, so much may have been lost already, long before those people got to work with managers as enlightened as Sir Bobby Robson.  There are the anecdotal stories, and so many of us know a handful of them: the stories about those companies you wouldn’t play for or those clubs you wouldn’t join because of their attitudes to black people, to gay people, to Jews, to Asians, to women.  They’re the stories that come out over dinner tables with your trusted and loved ones.  The City law firm you avoided because the anti-Semitism from one of the senior partners was off the scale.  The professional football team your mate halted trials with because of what they said about gay people.  The commercial banker who went off on a light-hearted rant about bloody shirtlifters just after you signed that deal.

Imagine what England’s footballing infrastructure is losing every single time the FA is faced with an event like the Mackay scandal and it fails swiftly and firmly to rule that this is not remotely acceptable within the fabric of the game.  Just think about the opportunities that are being wasted. Look how little time it has taken for previously unheralded managers to sweep into the Premier League and deliver outstanding results.  And now imagine the young untested coaches from ethnic minority backgrounds who are looking for someone to take just one chance on them. They are out there just as surely as Brendan Rodgers and Mauricio Pochettino were once out there.  Of course they are.  This is England we’re talking about, one of the most diverse countries in the world. Imagine the brilliant specialists and the coaches and the players who are thinking, “you know what, I love the game, I just don’t fancy working with such a lack of support.  Life is too short to try to change these institutions from the inside”.  And some might say that if they were tough enough they’d put up with prejudice like this, and if so they’d be missing the point.  Professional footballers and football managers are plenty tough enough. Many of them have dealt with the possibility of rejection their entire careers. They’re not looking for handouts or special status, just the opportunity to be respected and judged on the same basis as everyone else.

And now Malky Mackay is walking unhindered into a job at Wigan, where he will determine the fates of many more footballers and the destination of many more millions of pounds.  And we see the foundations of English football weaken a little more, as we see other countries and professions scooping up the talent that our game with its apathy towards prejudice consistently casts aside.  And, finally, we can look at Germany with a degree of envy, and wonder why we too can’t just get it together.

 

The LMA’s statement: a power move that may backfire.

They are laughing at us. I am beginning to think that, in some boardroom in some part of London, behind tinted windows and a table decorated only with a bowl of untouched imperial mints, they are laughing at us; they being whoever at the League Managers Association (LMA) carefully put together their statement in defence of the comments of Malky Mackay. What other conclusion can be drawn? When the final text of that press release was approved and dispatched, it may as well have been accompanied with a collective cackle from the assembled group of male white heterosexual Gentiles. There’s just no other way that the LMA’s strategy makes sense. To state a case so boldly as this, in the face of predictable public outrage, is nothing other than a supreme power move.

A brief paragraph to bring anyone up to speed who is not aware of the story in question. The former Cardiff City manager Malky Mackay has just been reported to the Football Association for allegedly sending text messages that have been construed as offensive to gay people, black people, Asian people, Jews and women.  The LMA, in the words of its website, is “the collective, representative voice of all managers from the Barclays Premier League, the Sky Bet Championship and Sky Bet Leagues 1 and 2”. As that voice, one of their key six aims is to “protect the rights and privileges of its members.” In offering such protection, they described Mackay’s messages as “letting off steam to a friend during some friendly text message banter”. The statement has been superbly dissected by two football writers, Henry Winter and Seb Stafford-Bloor (the owner of the Premier League Owl website), and you can read their analyses at @henrywinter and @premleagueowl or at the footnotes below this post.

Let’s now consider the further implications of the LMA’s statement – which reads as an expression of contempt not only for gay people, black people, Asian people, Jews and women, but for absolutely anyone who cares about them. That’s a lot of people to offend and think that you can get away with it. It’s a spectacular level of entitlement, of belief in your infallibility. The LMA seems to think, given its representation of all those managers and given all those commercial partnerships that it apparently enjoys, that its position is unassailable. It has gambled that each of its members – whose voice it after all claims to be – will agree that: “nothing like a Jew that sees money slipping through his fingers” is just the kind of thing that you casually come out with when faced with the pressures of football management. It has bet that none of its members will be offended by the LMA’s dismissal of the phrase “fkn Chinkys” as “friendly banter”.

Well, that’s a big wager; and it’s a wager that will doubtless be put to the test by a range of journalists at press conferences or in private correspondence over the next few days, or as long as this news cycle lasts. One wonders, too, how the LMA’s sponsors – themselves multinational companies with diverse workforces – will view all this. And as if that wasn’t enough, the LMA has one other thing to worry about. Its statement seems to be a perfect representation of what the Macpherson report, in considering the murder of Stephen Lawrence, described as “institutional racism”. In that report, institutional racism was defined as:

“The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.”

The LMA’s sixth and final major aim on its website – mentioned last of all, as if an afterthought – is “to encourage honourable practice, conduct and courtesy in all professional activity”. Yet its most recent pronouncement appears to be doing precisely the opposite. It may well be that this all blows over soon enough. But in their boardroom, or wherever they are, they might not be well-advised to smirk just yet.

——–

References:

1. Mackay messages: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-2731219/Malky-Mackay-s-text-message-victims-What-said-response-followed.html

2. LMA statement on Mackay messages: http://www.leaguemanagers.com/news/news-7418.html

3. Henry Winter analysis of LMA statement: http://t.co/a5C1X1CLXx

4. Premier League Owl analysis of LMA statement:

5. LMA’s six major aims: http://www.leaguemanagers.com/about/aboutlma-2.html

 

An ode to the World Cup, for the BBC World Service: “Rio”.

With the World Cup drawing to a close, the BBC World Service asked me to write a poem about the time that I had spent in Rio during the tournament. You can hear it at 24:32 of the following link:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0224gvd

The text is below:

“Rio: an ode to the World Cup”

It makes sense that the heart of this World Cup,
Of this country, is Rio,
Because this city might just be
The most beautiful team the world has seen:
Each of its areas, beaches and bays
Sounds like it bears the name
Of an elegant Brazilian footballer;
Reading a map of Rio
Sounds like a list of squad members
Selected by God:
Gloria, Urca, Lapa, Leblon,
Santa Teresa, Laranjeiras,
Ipanema, Copacabana,
Flamengo, Maracana;
Long before football arrived in Brazil,
This country knew it was coming;
It made sure the sand was soft long in advance,
So that feet could dribble across it all day:
Brazil made sure that its cliffs, fields and forests
Were more spectacular than any goal that might ever be scored,
So that even if Neymar or Messi summoned up glorious deeds
Their surroundings would inspire them
To even greater feats.
Or perhaps Rio is a dressing-room
Through which, each day, parade millions;
Through the stench of steak and sweat and salt
As workmen’s tools clatter like studs against tiles
And buses disappear off into the night,
Like dreams;
And high above the door
Is Christ the Redeemer,
Standing on his mountain mantelpiece,
With the best view of each of us –
Of the beach, and, of course, of the football;
And he waves us all welcome, bem-vindos,
Welcome.

Halftime at the Copacabana

 

image

It’s halftime at the Copacabana, just under an hour after we have arrived here, on a subway train where judging by their football shirts everyone seemed to be Neymar. Back then, as we walked to the beach, cool, tree-shaded streets were turned humid with the body heat of thousands. Now we are seated, either on deckchairs or with knees pressed up against our chests, watching a mile-wide screen on which Brazil play Mexico.

Watching this match from up on the hill, Christ the Redeemer has the best view of all. Jesus, whose statue is a sort of compass by which you can judge wherever you are in the city, will later be illuminated in the dying sunlight in yellow and green, a privilege that God’s son is only afforded whenever Brazil play. Right now, it’s that time and temperature of afternoon when almost anyone can be convinced to smoke socially. Our cans of cold beer, helpfully branded Antarctica so that we won’t notice even when they turn warm, are planted up to their waists in the soft earth.

New friends – three French, one Andorran, one English – pose for a photo in their Brazil shirts; caramel-tanned, they all look like natives. Later, one of them, in as much a commentary on the host’s performance as the quantity of homemade caipirinha that he has consumed since midday, will fall asleep during the second half. Later, we will all crane our necks in vain anticipation towards Neymar, who will spend that second half entirely as he spent the first; pursued by two or three defenders at a time, like a bank robber whose security guards have been warned of his precise movements six months in advance. Later, we will half-heartedly curse and then loudly praise Ochoa, the Mexico goalkeeper who will deny an entire beach; grumbling good-naturedly, hundreds of men will amble down to the water and piss two hours’ worth of drink into the sea. The only ones not grumbling will be the small and faithful cohort of Mexicans, and a raucous band of Argentines; there are supposedly sixty thousand of them in Rio, and half of them will apparently spend the match two rows in front of us.

Soon, by 6pm, it will be midnight dark, and I will score my first ever goal on the Copacabana, during a game with fellow fans and locals; and I will jog away casually, pretending not to be filled with childish pride. Later still, the concert at the nearby FIFA fan site will continue into the evening. For now, though, there are fireworks and baile funk and barefoot dance-offs with ice-cream sellers, and I am wishing that this halftime’s final whistle never comes.

 

Richard Scudamore’s sexist emails: the triumph of low expectations.

Richard Scudamore, the chief executive of the Premier League, has apologised for the content of a series of his leaked emails, in which he refers to women in derogatory terms.  Scudamore’s former personal assistant, who leaked his emails, stated that “he has no respect for women. I don’t think anyone should have to be exposed to such language and opinions at work.”

A Premier League source, speaking to the Daily Mirror, said that “Richard realises that his comments were inappropriate and wrong but they were not intended for a wider audience. It was meant in a Frankie Howerd style way. His commitment to the equality agenda and anti-discrimination is writ large.” (My italics.)

Whoever the Premier League source was, they have made things worse, since they suggest that Scudamore’s attitude towards women is a pervasive one.  It is worrying if the above statement was carefully crafted by a press team, as it is very revealing for two reasons.  First, to open with a line that Scudamore’s sexism was “not intended for a wider audience” implies that this sexism would somehow be less damaging if no-one knew about it.  Yet this sexism, unseen till now, may already be working to corrosive effect: this sexism may prejudice, for example, every job interview that a woman sits for a senior Premier League position. It may prejudice the budgets allocated to the women’s game, which may come under renewed scrutiny as a result of Scudamore’s comments.  After all, if his commitment to equality and anti-discrimination is indeed “writ large”, we should expect to see robust investment in the women’s game.  All of a sudden, the sums pledged aren’t looking all that substantial.

Secondly, there is the explanation of Scudamore’s comments: that they were meant in a light, comic vein, in the style of Frankie Howerd.  When accused of sexism, there is often an effort among men in football to infantilise themselves: what you might call the “boys will be boys” defence.  “We’re just kidding”, so the argument goes, “chill out”.  However, it’s strange to see these men rely on a defence of youthful irresponsibility, and in the same breath expect to be trusted with billion-pound budgets.

Will Scudamore be disciplined by the Premier League for his comments?  Few seem to think so. Unfortunately, the institution of British football has achieved what you might call “the triumph of low expectation”.  People expect so little in the way of progressive attitudes within the sport that emails such as Scudamore’s are met with a frustrated shrug.  Yet this helplessness is something that women cannot afford.  As Anna Kessel, the Guardian/Observer journalist and co-founder of Women in Football, noted this morning on Twitter, “the impetus lies with everyone else to force [the Premier League] into action”.

Gloria de Piero, the Shadow Equalities Minister, has observed in the Mirror that “Richard Scudamore has let down women supporters, players, referees and coaches.”  I agree with that, and I would go further: he has let down men supporters, players, referees and coaches too, since his emails do not reflect the attitudes of those many men who support the women’s game and the advance of female professionals within the sport as a whole.  The Premier League should make all of this clear in whatever action it now takes.

Donald Sterling and Dani Alves: what next for the NBA, UEFA and FIFA?

The NBA has announced that it is to ban Donald Sterling, the owner of the LA Clippers, for life for his recent racist comments: a decision which gives rise, broadly speaking, to two immediate comments.  The first is “thank goodness” and the second is “what took you so long?” Somewhere, in the loud outpouring of public catharsis that accompanies this decision, the sound of this uncomfortable question may be lost.  Yet, if fundamental progress is to be made, it is one that we must strain to hear.

So, again: “what took you so long?”  After all, Donald Sterling has owned the Clippers since 1984.  When LeBron James remarked that there was “no place for Sterling in this league”, the brutal truth was that the NBA had not only indulged his place in the league for thirty years, but allowed him to sup at its very highest table.  When Sterling soon leaves the NBA, following the forced sale of his organisation, with a windfall of hundreds of millions, it may be said of him that he was merely a system error, that he was merely a flawed outlier among a group of mostly decent owners.  The worrying reality is that he may have been the system’s logical result.

In Europe, meanwhile, the Barcelona and Brazil defender Dani Alves attracted worldwide and much-deserved praise for his defiance of a racist Villareal fan, by picking up and eating a banana which the supporter had thrown at him.  Alves’ action triggered a carefully pre-planned viral campaign, where countless footballers, celebrities and members of the public showed solidarity with Alves, posting a series of selfies in which they, too, were eating bananas.  Like Donald Sterling, the fan was banned from his club for life.

Villareal, like the NBA, did the right thing in acting swiftly; but, like the NBA, they hopefully won’t let themselves off the hook so easily.  They should ask why the crowd’s atmosphere enabled this Villareal fan to make a gesture that might have caused King Leopold to cackle. Often, when incidents like this occur, they are written off as the work of an ignorant minority. Yet, for every person who stands up to throw a banana at a black player, how many more silently think of the same player as somewhat less than human?

You have to wonder.  In both the US and Europe, these visceral outbursts of racism are like the appearance of lesions on the skin of society: they are merely symptoms of a severe underlying illness. Specifically: Donald Sterling is a very wealthy man, and the one sure thing about wealth is that you need a very large infrastructure of people to help you acquire it and then keep it. So how many powerful people, knowing of the thoroughly consistent racism on which he built part of his property empire, stood on the same platforms as him and vouched for him as a colleague and friend? And why is it only now that they suddenly see his opinions as apocalyptic in their horror? Was it because his prejudice finally threatened to hit them in the two most painful places of all: their reputations, and their wallets?

The most striking thing about the Donald Sterling and the Villareal incidents is that, in both cases, change had to be forced from outside, not from within.  Had it not been for the actions of a disgruntled lover and a media-savvy footballer, this conversation would not be taking place at all, which suggests a dangerous complacency about the racism throughout the structures of professional sport. The onus must be taken away from the victims of racial discrimination to respond most effectively to the injustice that they have suffered. The current dynamic is too often a case of “ah, it appears that someone has set you on fire. Well, best find some water to put yourself out.”

This NBA decision should not be seen as the final act on this matter, but as the beginning of a new direction that involves severe penalties.  For example, not only should people like Sterling be fined for such behaviour but, upon the forced sale of their franchise, perhaps they should receive a further penalty, expressed as a large percentage of their profit: a “bigotry tax”, if you will.  There should also be a careful look at the racial diversity of the NBA’s executives, since there is a striking disparity between the percentage of non-white players in the NBA – some 81 per cent – the percentage of non-white coaches – some 47 per cent – and the number of non-white owners – just three per cent, or one out of thirty.  Charles Barkley referred to the NBA, given the racial composition of its athletes, as “a black league”; but, at the ownership level, it is still overwhemingly a white one.

Football’s governing bodies – UEFA, in Europe, and FIFA, worldwide – must observe the Sterling affair closely.  After all, football’s clubs also exhibit a troubling lack of diversity at managerial and boardroom level. Of course, FIFA and UEFA are also in an ideal position to apply pressure to those who bankroll the game. One thing that they could usefully do is to identify clubs with a consistent history of racial discrimination, and then warn the sponsors of those clubs that they will be denied the opportunity of being FIFA and UEFA’s official partners at international tournaments: a corporate veto, if you will. The sponsors can then either urge the clubs to change their ways, part company with them, or endure the subsequent damage to their reputations.

It is all very well banning individuals who remind us of the ills that riddle our society. But merely stopping there allows us to maintain the fiction that these acts are freak occurrences, rather than the end product of frequent and openly indulged prejudice. It is only by addressing this awkward reality that we will get anywhere, and that the dismissals of Sterling and the Villareal fan will have any worthwhile legacy.

Dani Alves, Donald Sterling, and UKIP: the black reaction is on trial.

Dani Alves is an example of what you might call “the black reaction on trial”. There has been more focus upon his response than the behaviour of his abusers.

Dani Alves’ protest is suddenly less pure as, like Rosa Parks and the Black Power athletes, he planned it. The black reaction is on trial.

Donald Sterling is spectacularly racist. The loudest question is what the black Clippers will do. The black reaction is on trial.  

Nigel Farage’s minions refer to Africa as Bongo Bongo Land and we are expected to debate politely with them. The black reaction is on trial.

“Dear blacks, your reaction is on trial.  Our response to your injustice is conditional upon the dignity with which you choose to accept it.”

The racist smacks the black person in the face and the world judges how elegantly they absorb the blow. The black reaction is on trial.

 

My poem, “Merely David Moyes”, for the BBC World Service.

David Moyes, as you all know by now, was sacked by Manchester United this week, and I was asked by the BBC World Service to write something to mark the occasion.  I think that the main reason that Moyes failed at Old Trafford was that, beyond his tactical shortcomings, he was overawed by the challenge ahead of him, and I have tried to capture that here.  If you enjoy it at all, please share; thank you very much for reading and/or listening.

“Merely David Moyes”

He was Fergie;
You are merely David Moyes.
How can you follow an act like that?
As Fergie leaves the stage to the grandest of applause
You’re standing anxious, nearby in the darkened corridor.
And now the crowd waits for you:
Up the tunnel you go;
Your stadium’s not just any stage, it’s the Theatre of Dreams
But how can you match what Scottish gods have long since achieved?
All football managers are actors,
But you’re afraid you won’t convince;
You’re scared you are the penalty-taker
Who is doomed to miss.
It is over from the first day that you walk through the door
And sit on Fergie’s throne
To find your feet don’t touch the floor.
Every day in training you are greeted by your fear
And the eyes of Fergie’s soldiers, asking:
“Why have you come here?”
Rival armies, sensing weakness, gather at your gates;
Your crowd cheers through its horror as your teams are left in flames.
The worst thing is, that while you’re sinking at Usain Bolt’s pace
You see a gleeful Liverpool
Rising to take your place.
Your back four was a fortress, and now it’s yielding goals
And your players, who were stallions once
Stumble like newborn foals.
You are a good, good man, and you work daily at your lines
But you’ve not worked under such bright lights,
And they bite you like knives.
When the end comes, there will be those who say it was wrong
That you ever took this role, that you never belonged:
And maybe you believe them –
That only special ones should claim this seat –
Yet as you leave, beneath your pain,
You may feel some relief.

 

“The Burden of Beauty”: a note on my visit to Brazil.

flipped

I have just visited Brazil, where I spent ten days working on a documentary that I will be presenting for the BBC World Service. The documentary, called “The Burden of Beauty” and due out in May, will take a look at the pressure on the host nation not only to win the World Cup, but to win it in a style befitting their most glorious forefathers. Towards the end of my visit, a friend asked me if I had enjoyed it. I tried to agree, but instead I sort of nodded. Enjoyment wasn’t the word.  I didn’t just enjoy it: I loved it.  It was overwhelming.

I have always seen football as two things: first and foremost, as a game, and secondly, as a sport. I love the game: the playfulness, the freedom, the spontaneity, the self-expression. So often, though, I have found myself hating the sport: the snarling money-men, the growling profiteers, the blindly tribal. This isn’t what I signed up for when I first set foot upon a ball. I write about football now, something which pays a substantial part of my bills, but I spend more time occupied with the sport than with the game. Learning more and more of the sport’s excesses, I have frequently found myself engaged in the often joyless deconstruction of one of my life’s greatest loves.

I don’t love football because of the sponsorship deals my club has just struck. In truth, I don’t love it because a rival team is struggling. At best, I might smirk if one of them comes a cropper, but it goes no further than that. I love football because it’s the one thing I’ve ever found, beyond even being on stage, which leaves me giddy with the liberation of it all. It’ll sound sad, or revealing, or hopelessly tragic, or perhaps all three, but I have never known any moment more pure than being put through on goal, ten yards from the penalty area, with the wind at your back and the knowledge, the arrogance of the knowledge, that whatever the goalkeeper does you will score.

I know there’s probably some way for a psychoanalyst to explain that – that being through on goal represents breaking boundaries in one’s personal life, it represents going it alone, and knowing I will score means knowing that, when truly under pressure, I will deliver. Yes, maybe it does mean that. But maybe it also means that, whenever I’ve ever felt that nothing else in life is providing answers – when I was coming out of the closet, or having the shit kicked out of me at school – I have sought out the nearest field or five-a-side pitch, put on those boots or trainers, and approached goal thinking: “This. At least, I can do this”.

This is why I love the game that is football. And being in Brazil reminded me why I love this game, and always will. Walking along the Ipanema beach, seeing men in their fifties, sixties and seventies playing volleyball with everything other than their hands, I felt my heart clattering against my ribcage. Standing in the crowd at the Maracana Stadium, as the golden clouds welcomed the evening, I felt as happy on my travels as I ever have. Walking into the trophy room at Santos’ football ground, the home of a team which was the foundation of three of Brazil’s World Cups, I was as breathless as a pilgrim might be on entering a temple. Sitting listening to Carlos Alberto talk his way through his goal, the last one in Brazil’s 4-1 triumph over Italy in the 1970 final, I had to compose myself briefly after he had done so. My grandfather, who coached Uganda’s national team for several years, would have loved to meet Carlos Alberto. He was another great man of football, and the thought of the two of them talking the game together gave me an emotion I cannot, for all my supposed skill as a writer, put into words.

Brazil blew me away. It made me look at Neymar, the player whose transfer to Barcelona is currently surrounded in such scandal, in a new light. Neymar is a man, scarcely in his twenties, who is carrying the bulk of a nation’s hopes; and how lightly he wears that pressure. He is a man who brought the Copa Libertadores, South America’s club championship, back to Santos almost forty years since Pele and his illustrious colleagues had last done it. Neymar understands the burden of beauty all too well, and he bears it with a smile. He is a player who illustrates like no other the sharp divergence of the game, which he plays with such thrilling abandon, and the sport, whose corruption may yet engulf him. In Brazil, I became acquainted again with the former, with the simple and eternal magic of the ball, endlessly welcome at my instep. And, forever, I will be grateful for that.