Archive for Football

Putin, Sochi, FIFA and appeasement.

I am seeing several comments, on Twitter and elsewhere, about appeasement. The argument is that Vladimir Putin is proceeding unchecked because the West has shown no recent military desire to rein in the excesses of other autocrats. Here’s the obvious but understated thing about appeasement: it’s neither merely nor necessarily about refusing to confront someone on the battlefield. Appeasement is incremental.  It’s about all those times that dictators are allowed to publish their public images long before conflict is even on the cards. Appeasement is the glossy centre-spread in the lifestyle magazine for the despot whose regime is ankle-deep in blood. Appeasement is making no effort to bar said despot and his or her entourage from any of their favourite haunts in your capital city. Appeasement is failing to freeze even those of their assets which you can readily identify. It’s ducking the issue and imposing sanctions on their nation’s people even as they are free to roam the world with all the opulence their hearts desire.

Appeasement is allowing Putin to go ahead with the Sochi Winter Games, an event which made an apparent mockery of several of the principles of Olympism. In that context, appeasement will also constitute inaction around the 2018 World Cup in Russia, allowing Putin another opportunity to project his imperial prestige around the world. These sporting events, in the current political context, look like little more than grotesque marquees. FIFA and the International Olympic Committee both make claims in their founding documents and on their official websites to celebrate the best of humanity; but, by giving Putin two of the globe’s biggest showcases, they may unfortunately seem complicit in celebrating its worst.

My Economic Research Council talk: “Are footballers the bankers of modern sport?”

On Monday 20 January 2014, I gave a talk at the Economic Research Council, “Are footballers the bankers of modern sport?” In their own words, “The Economic Research Council, Britain’s oldest economics-based think tank, is dedicated to extending the reach of economic education, debate and leadership. In support of this, the ERC raises the profile of economic conversations; we host events to cultivate wider accessibility, inclusion and civic participation.”  You can read the text of my talk below; you can read more about the Economic Research Council at http://www.ercouncil.org/, and follow them on Twitter at @EconResCouncil.

————————————————–

 

Before I begin this talk in earnest, I should quickly highlight the three things that, in my opinion, make me able to give it. The first thing is that I briefly worked in the corporate world, having first studied law at university and then qualified as a solicitor in the City, at a firm now known as Hogan Lovells.  During that time, I did training in the fields of, among others, capital markets and banking litigation; where, of course, a fair number of banks were our clients.  I should also say, to preclude any criticism of these institutions that I may make in this talk, that some of my best friends are bankers.  The second thing is that, having left the legal profession – about ten years ago now – I went on to write and broadcast about football.  The third thing is that I am a poet, and anyone who knows any poets will know that we are always trying to ask questions about the world around us, no matter how pointless those questions might initially seem.

But I think that this question – whether footballers are, indeed, the bankers of modern sport – really matters.  I first thought of it about two-and-a-half years ago.  There just seemed to be a handful of key parallels between the fields of banking and football.  Whether you’re a leading banker or a footballer, you’re in possession of a specialised skill which, if carefully honed, can earn you so much money that by your mid-thirties you may not have to  work again.  Whether you’re a leading banker or footballer, your wages will be the subject of much discussion – some of it disgusted, some of it envious – by millions of people who don’t think you deserve what you earn.  You may feel unfairly stigmatised and targeted.  You may find yourselves scapegoated and stereotyped, with the general public seeing one particularly reviled individual – say, Sir Fred Goodwin or Luis Suarez – as representative of your entire profession.  You may find yourself singled out for unfair scrutiny, rather like you are in talks like the one I’m giving right now.

Of course, if we explore my analogy much further, much of the comparison begins to fall away.  After all, bankers, unlike footballers, don’t spend much of their working life being jeered by tens of thousands of strangers.  They don’t provide us with jaw-dropping entertainment, they don’t have their careers ended prematurely due to injury, and they don’t have people wearing shirts with their names on the back, or drunkenly singing their praises in the street.  And perhaps the premise of the talk itself is flawed, implying as it does that all bankers and footballers are making millions of pounds: when, in fact, it’s only those at the very top of either field who are making those eye-watering sums.

Yet bankers and footballers have one crucial thing in common:  which is that their perceived excesses are being held up as symbols of systems in need of profound reform.  And, imperfect though my analogy may be, I felt that this topic was worth some further reflection.

Let’s look at football.  The game’s growth has been remarkable: in just a hundred and fifty years, it has, to use an Internet term, “gone viral”, and is now the most popular sport on the planet.  Yet there are several severe indications that this popularity is being excessively exploited by those who run the game.  The most striking of these has been highlighted by Dave Boyle in his 2012 report for the High Pay Centre, “Football Mad: Are We Paying More for Less?”.  Here he wrote that “since the creation of the Premier League in 1992, top footballers’ salaries have mushroomed, rising by 1508% to 2010…Over the same period average wages [i.e., those of the ordinary UK worker] increased by just 186%.”

That’s neither here nor there, you might say: what a football club pays its players is entirely its own business.  But the problem, continues Boyle, is that these superheated salaries have hit the ordinary fan particularly hard. “Fans are now paying up to 1000% more to watch their teams play, all in order to support their club’s gargantuan wage bills,” he writes. “Fans watching at home are similarly seen as a captive market, whilst those who want to watch at the pub are paying more – or finding their local can’t afford it, given the 10,000% increase in pay TV subscriptions.”

Well, so what, you might say: if you can’t afford to watch the games live, then that’s tough luck.  Stream them online.  Well, yes, there’s that argument.  But the overarching point is that football’s running costs are such that the game itself, in its current form, may become unsustainable.  Somewhat alarmingly, Boyle observes that “since 1992, over half of England’s professional football clubs have been formally insolvent. Most only survived because the wider community received less of what they were owed in order to ensure players continued to get all of what they were promised.”

This might sound like I’m having a go at footballers, many of whom, after all, have come from poor backgrounds and might therefore be entitled to a few years’ worth of huge earnings.  But it’s ultimately not about them: it’s about how the game is choosing to allocate its resources.  Boyle notes that “the amount spent by clubs on wages has…increased dramatically. The percentage of turnover spent on players has increased, from 48% of turnover in 1997, up to 70% in 2011.”  Clubs are spending more and more money on recruitment, in order that they are not left behind.  Directors, instead of ensuring football’s long-term future, are chasing quick results, desperate for same-season gratification. Accordingly, revenues are not flowing down to football’s grassroots; they are not even trickling down. They are evaporating.  The message from Boyle’s study seems clear: just as we had a financial crash, we may soon have “a football crash”.  Football is developing a serious case of tooth decay: however, even as the game is crying out for a round of root canal surgery, we keep on feeding it bowlfuls of sugar.  Sooner or later, this is really going to hurt.

Here’s the thing about football.  Even within a successful team, there are key contributors whose skills are undervalued.  Players who score goals tend to earn more money.  Of the top ten best paid footballers in the world – a list led, unsurprisingly, by Cristiano Ronaldo, Leo Messi, Falcao and Zlatan Ibrahimovic –  seven are forwards, with one playmaker (David Silva), one midfielder (Yaya Toure) and one defender (Thiago Silva).  What’s more, when it comes to individual accolades, it’s very rare that anyone other than a forward or an attacking midfielder gets much recognition.  In recent times, only a few players have bucked this trend, with Fabio Cannavaro the only defender to have been named the World Player of the Year since its inception in 1991.  Football rewards those who most conspicuously provide the glory, but I think that it is wrong to do so.  In 1998, Zinedine Zidane scored two goals in the final of the World Cup, helping his team to a 3-0 victory against Brazil.  Yet Zidane, widely feted as the leader of that team, was arguably not even its second or third best player throughout the tournament.  Lilian Thuram, Didier Deschamps and Marcel Desailly, for example, could have laid claim to that role.

Zidane, to his credit, was aware of the true value of lesser-heralded players.  In 2003 Claude Makélelé, an outstanding defensive midfielder,  was sold by Real Madrid to Chelsea. Makélelé had asked to be paid half as much as Zidane, a suggestion which was ridiculed by Madrid’s president, Florentino Perez.  “We will not miss Makélelé,” said Perez. “His technique is average, he lacks the speed and skill to take the ball past opponents, and ninety percent of his distribution either goes backwards or sideways. He wasn’t a header of the ball and he rarely passed the ball more than three metres. Younger players will arrive who will cause Makélelé to be forgotten.”

Zidane took a different view, referring to Makélelé as the engine of Real Madrid’s Bentley, and the club captain, Fernando Hierro, was even more effusive in his praise.  “I think Claude has this kind of gift”, said Hierro, a few years later.  “He’s been the best player in the team for years but people just don’t notice him, don’t notice what he does. But you ask anyone at Real Madrid during the years we were talking about and they will tell you he was the best player at Real. We all knew, the players all knew he was the most important. The loss of Makélelé was the beginning of the end [for us… You can see that it was also the beginning of a new dawn for Chelsea. He was the base, the key and I think he is the same to Chelsea now.”  Perez might disagree with Zidane and Hierro’s assessment of Makélelé.  But, regardless of his view, it’s notable that his club haven’t won the UEFA Champions League in the eleven years since he sold this player of supposedly average technique.

What does all of this have to do with bankers?  Well, I think that we as a society have a problem.  I think that we have a system which gives excessive rewards to people whose gift or ambition happens to be making money.  I don’t wish to sound like a hater: after all, my three best friends from university are all millionaires, and I’m pretty sure my best friends from law school are by now too.  It’s just that we’re living in a world where the costs of living are rising so fast for everyone that only the most affluent are able to stay afloat with any measure of comfort.

I had an argument a few months ago with a friend, who works in the City, when I voiced concern about the distribution of wealth in the UK.  Her position was that if people wanted to earn what she did, then they should simply become bankers and work the hours that she did, which were in the region of eighty, ninety and sometimes a hundred per week.  But, I said, what about those people who don’t want to become bankers?  What about those people who just wanted to be able to afford a house not too far from where they worked?  What about nurses, for example, who earn just ninety per cent of the average wage in the UK, many of whom are finding themselves priced out of London?  I happen to biased, because I come from a family of doctors, but I think that if our society is a football team, then the nurse is its Makélelé.  Just like Makélelé for Real Madrid, nurses are doing essential work which, relative to its importance, is largely undervalued and unsung.

I mentioned before that I was a poet, and part of being a poet is looking at how language evolves.  One theme that has consistently concerned me over the last few years is the way that we seem to revere people with a great deal of money, as if the wealth itself were a measure of their character.  The media often speak of someone as having a net worth of x million pounds, of being worth x million pounds, as if their value as a human being were somehow in direct correlation with the content of their bank account.  This is a worrying narrative, as the flipside of that view – no matter how subconsciously it is adopted – is that those who earn less are somehow worth less.

This is a pressing issue in the world of football, just as surely as it is in the wider world: that those who have little cash are given less consideration than those who have a lot.  There are several clubs who have excellent charitable programmes in their communities, which aim at engaging young people.  Yet those same clubs, particularly in the Premier League, often charge ticket prices so high that the average young person cannot afford to attend their games with any degree of regularity.

It is tempting, at a time like this, to look enviously at Germany.  There, notes the report, “clubs are owned by their supporters, who must control at least 50+1% of the votes within a club.   That ensures a degree of accountability to fans (which works to keep ticket prices lower) and has prevented oligarchs and other wealthy individuals taking over clubs.”   There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with a wealthy individual’s takeover – you will not hear many complaints from Chelsea or Manchester City fans, for example – but the question becomes a more vexed one when those individuals, as in the cases of Portsmouth, Malaga and Manchester United, have financial goals that are at variance with the club’s best interests.

Fortunately for football in the UK, following excellent lobbying from supporters’ organisations – chiefly among them, the Football Supporters Federation – some of these issues have been addressed.  Most notably, as a result of the Away Fans Matter campaign, some clubs have agreed to cap the cost of away tickets at twenty pounds.  This initiative has attracted the support of Swansea, Norwich City, Hull City, Newcastle United and West Ham United, and the hope is that Football League clubs will follow suit.  As a result of this advocacy, too, the Premier League has announced a £12million Away Fans’ Initiative, under which “clubs must use the money to reduce ticket prices for away fans, subsidise transport or otherwise enhance the matchday experience”.

There are two things that I like about this example.  The first is that the football clubs acknowledged the existence of their supporters as vital to their survival.  The second is that there was a willingness to accept that the financial balance in football, at some level, is wrong.  It feels especially poignant to speak about financial imbalances this evening, given the release today of an Oxfam report which states that the wealth of the 1% richest people in the world is 65 times that of the poorest half of the world.  In the words of Winnie Byanyima, Oxfam’s executive director, “it is staggering that in the 21st Century, half of the world’s population – that’s three and a half billion people – own no more than a tiny elite whose numbers could all fit comfortably on a double-decker bus.”

To this statement, some might say: so what?  No-one is entitled to wealth.  No-one is entitled to a high standard of living.  No-one is entitled, for example, to enjoy accommodation in the world’s finest cities.  So what if you find yourselves shunted out to the suburbs?  You should find a job that pays more money.

Well, I disagree with that.  I’m going to sound a bit naive for some tastes here, maybe even somewhat romantic: but I read a paper by the New Economics Foundation and the Cripplegate Foundation a few months ago, whose conclusions made me feel a little sad.  The paper, “Poverty In Islington”, looked at the cost of living in the borough, and predicted that by the end of the decade a family would need to earn more than £90,000 to live there.  The result, argued the paper’s authors, was that “this will leave Islington polarised – with very wealthy families at the top, a youthful, transient and childless sector in the middle, and those on low incomes at the bottom, living in social housing.”  What’s happening in Islington is happening across the capital, in a city where the cost of homes rose last summer by ten per cent in just one month.

I think there’s something wrong with London, a city I love as much as any place on earth, turning into a place that only the affluent can afford to enjoy.  London’s greatest strength has long been that it is a town that welcomes everyone: now, though, the accelerating prices of almost everything are making it a much less accommodating place.  The same, too, is true of football; the tipping point for many people coming in the 2011 UEFA Champions League Final, when the cheapest ticket was £176.  The following year, a chastened UEFA reduced the same ticket to £60.

In conclusion: are footballers the bankers of modern sport?  I’m not sure that they are: but the question has hopefully been a useful prompt to examine wider issues in the game and the world around us.  I believe that it takes all sorts to make a happy, thriving society, just as it takes more than just a bunch of strikers to make a successful football team: and I hope that, for the sake of both the beautiful game and the world around us, that we stop showing so much deference to high finance, and once again start putting people first.

Thomas Hitzlsperger, set to storm the gay dating market.

Thomas Hitzlsperger, the former Germany international, has revealed that he is gay, stating that “it is only in the last few years I have realised I would rather live with a man”. The midfielder, who played for Bayern Munich, Aston Villa, VFB Stuttgart and Lazio, is arguably the highest-profile player to make such an announcement. Many have drawn attention to the timing of his statement, noting that no male footballer – Hitzlsperger has just retired at 31 years of age – has come out while playing. The only man to have done so is Robbie Rogers, who left the game for a time and is now plying his trade in the Major Soccer League.

One of Hitzlsperger’s comments will resonate strongly with anyone who has walked the often hauntingly lonely path that is coming out. He referred to it as “a long and difficult process”; the knowledge that you are not like most others, the terror that your life may be incalculably harder than theirs, the fear of rejection by others which initially leads you to reject yourself. The internal voices of condemnation are frequently deafening and seemingly endless: he would have had to outlast them all, whilst building self-esteem that at times may have had all the fragility of a sandcastle.

It makes perfect sense that he would choose to say this now: many gay people choose a fresh environment in which to live as truly as they can to themselves, be that moving city, moving country, or, in Hitzlsperger’s case, leaving a profession. There is, of course, a further and obvious pragmatism to what he has done. “The sporting worst case is a possibility”, he told the German publication Die Zeit. “An openly gay footballer would have to be prepared for that. He should not let himself be guided by what other people think and say about him. On the other hand he could also become a great role model for gay sports stars”, he says. Of course, in taking such a step today, he has become a role model himself.

Hitzlsperger, judging from the largely positive reaction thus far, should be just fine. And, on a lighter note, there should be no shortage of takers for a recently-retired multimillionaire with a social conscience and an athlete’s physique. Indeed, if there is any immediate cause for profound sympathy, then it should probably go first to his competition in the gay dating market. Going up against those credentials, they’re going to need it.

Moyes in or Moyes out? A way forward for him and the Glazers.

So, David Moyes; should he stay, or should he go? It seems scarcely credible that, only a few months into the Scotsman’s tenure at Old Trafford, his departure should even be in question. Yet nerves are fraying as the former Everton manager presides over one of the most lacklustre title defences in recent memory. His side have taken only five points from a possible 24 against the other top 8 teams in the league, and are eleven points behind leaders Arsenal. They have already been knocked out of the FA Cup. They have lost five times at Old Trafford this season, including four of their last six. They are often playing football that is uninspired. Meanwhile, Moyes – who lacks the charisma of his predecessor, but then again who doesn’t – is very often defeatist about his team’s prospects.

Despite all this, David Moyes should stay, though it at present seems unlikely that he will see out the full six years of his contract. (There have, in fairness to him, been positive indications, most notably in the UEFA Champions League, and the Premier League victory over Arsenal). Peering at the recent balance sheets, the Glazers are realising just how much of the club’s commercial value was down to the unparalleled brilliance of Sir Alex Ferguson. Years of endless success were music to their ears. But unfortunately for their bank accounts, Mozart isn’t composing the tunes anymore.

This is about more than the Glazers, and about more than Moyes. It’s about whether the club wants to become as voraciously and ruthlessly corporate with its managers as it is with its financial planning. The club would be ill-advised to go down this route, and not merely for sentimental reasons. If Old Trafford develops a reputation as a place where managers feel that they have to sleep with one eye open, then Manchester United may easily become the British version of Inter Milan: a club with a great and proud history, overshadowed by a wealthy and nearby rival, whose attempts at future success are continually ravaged by internal instability. No: this is what, in American sports, is often referred to as “a teachable moment”, and what the Glazers could usefully, if implausibly, do is the following:

1) Have a private meeting with Moyes and give him reassurance that his job is safe in the immediate term, and that they’ll review matters at the end of the second season. No need for public votes of confidence – they spook shareholders and supporters, and most of all managers.

2) Make a mental note that Moyes, for all his competence as a manager, may have been handed shoes too big to fill, and that he may not see out his full six years at Old Trafford. Consider that two years, including a large transfer budget, is enough time for Moyes to bring significant improvement from the current ailing squad (say, a top-five finish by of the end of 2014/15.  If he falls far short of that, then it’s probably time to say goodbye).

3) Give Moyes and Ed Woodward real money to spend this January transfer window and summer, and tell them that they expect them to spend most or all of it, and that they will be judged by how much they spend – the more the better – and how well they spend it. Tell him that ultimately the key to Manchester United’s success as a club is their success on the pitch, and they therefore expect to see improvements to the squad. After all, you don’t go to a fancy black tie do without a crisp tuxedo, and right now the team’s threads are looking a little tattered.

4) Make sure that some of the club’s greatest players are part of the delegation who approach potential signings, if they aren’t already (look at the sway that Zinedine Zidane had in bringing Raphael Varane to the Bernabeu).  A welcome committee of David Beckham and Paul Scholes, for example, might turn the head of any young player.

5) Begin very, very discreet conversations with one or two managers about their career plans over the next three years: say, if they might consider taking over the summer after next if things go spectacularly wrong for Moyes in 2014/15.  (As in, mid-table dressing room revolt wrong).  And if that means quietly sounding out, say, Louis van Gaal or Luciano Spalletti with the possibility of a three-year contract, then so be it: a contingency plan never hurt. Just don’t get caught doing it, or that would publicly undermine Moyes.

6) Reflect anew on how, actually, to run a successful football club what matters is the football first, not the money, and nothing more.

 

My Ode to Football, commissioned for the FA’s 150th anniversary.

Earlier this year, I was commissioned by the Football Association to write a poem to mark their 150th anniversary.  We shot the poem, “An Ode to Football”, at Wembley and in south-west London, and it features guest appearances from several prominent figures in the football world, including Steven Gerrard, Arsene Wenger, Eniola Aluko, Gabby Logan and Theo Walcott. There are also several celebrity football fans who deliver lines of the poem, the best thing about which is that I can now say I have collaborated with Dizzee Rascal and Wretch 32. (Yes, it’s a bit tenuous, but hey, what the hell.)  The text of the poem is below, the video is at this link, and I hope you enjoy it; if so, please share.

“An Ode to Football”

This is football:

Yes, jumpers for goalposts in your local park

With the lamp-posts as your floodlights,

And no-one watching but the stars:

This is football –

Where the groundstaff cut grass with a barber’s care

Where the terraces forever sing hymns to their favourite players:

This is football –

Hot coffee in the stands on midweek nights

This is players squaring up

But never actually starting fights

This is football

Each battle lasts an hour-and-a-half

It’s that war of rival scarves

You can fight fair, or plunge to grass –

This is football

Imitating that voice that reads Final Score

This is transfer-window shopping,

It’s Deadline Day on Sky Sports

This is football

Last in that half-time queue for the loo then food:

This is Sir Geoff Hurst on Wembley’s turf in destiny’s pursuit

This is football

Humming Match of the Day’s theme tune as it starts:

Keeping your head down from thirty yards, and shivering crossbars:

This is football

This is panic,

Your defenders scrambling back

When they realised the other team sitting deep

Was just a trap

This is football, this is football

Cracked shinpads and all

It’s the innocent protest –

It’s the “I barely touched him, ref!”

This is football

This is not just 4-4-2 or 4-3-3

This is what you do when you go one player down, and then concede

This is football

This is that banter you get at away grounds

Which when you score that last-minute winning goal

Is not so loud

This is football

Cup tie:

You’ve gone to penalties to sever the knot

But your guts are all you’ve got

And sudden death now marks the spot:

This is football

Not prawn sandwiches

You can find it in all languages

It’s your spilled pint in the pub

When your team goes one-nil up:

This is football

This is that fanzine which calls it harsh but fair

This is catching coaches, planes and trains since your club needs you there

This is football

Practised against the wall, and in the hall

It’s those concrete playground moves

That have ruined all your shoes:

This is football

Lugging your team’s laundry home from Sunday league

This is playing online tournaments until sleep intervenes

This is football:

It’s a very big deal,

You can ask Bill Shankly

It’s that click-clack of the turnstile,

It’s that Gazza-needs-a-hanky

This is football

Brought to you by the Football Association

Formed in the Tavern of Freemasons

One-fifty years in the making

This is football:

Of all the sports, this is our nation’s favourite

And we speak to celebrate it

So if you have a drink, please raise it

My new poem, about football: “The best bruises”.

I played a game of football once.

It was on the furthest field from my college;

To get there,

You had to walk off the edge of the map of the town.

Of the eleven men on their team that day,

I only remember one:

A centre-back, his ankles thick as my neck,

Thighs twice as wide as mine,

His flesh the faintest shade,

Like two drops of blood in a pint of milk.

Squat and broad, topped off with a scalp bearing rusted grass,

He had a careful fury about him;

After each challenge,

He slowly, thoughtfully wiped his right boot on the grass,

A butcher cleaning his cleaver.

He carved at me many times,

But found little meat into which he could cut deep,

My legs being two shivering stalks of black bamboo.

Maybe I feared him,

But I was lured back always

By the promise of those fifteen yards between his heels and his goalkeeper,

The most exciting patch of land in sport.

Late in the game, which we were leading by now,

I finally found myself there,

Surging into the headwind, my ambition stronger,

Tearing beyond that last, fatigued slash of his limbs,

Then rolling the ball low, firm and decisive.

My team-mates gathered around me like brothers,

And their smiles meant as much as a father’s.

Later, I limped slowly home,

Proudly bearing the best bruises

I had ever earned.

“Beckham”: a poem

With the news of David Beckham’s retirement, here’s my new poem, “Beckham”; I’m recording it for the BBC World Service, to be broadcast on the morning of Saturday 18 May.

Beckham.
He went from a football man
To a global brand;
From Manchester United,
To, maybe, a knighthood;
To get there, he did two things; first he ran, and he ran, and he ran;
And secondly, he made a weapon of his right foot.
If you were a target on which its red dot was placed
Then not until you’d marched back seventy yards
Were you safe.
Madrid, LA, Paris, Milan: his career sounded like a catwalk;
He had charm and the national armband,
Was one of the few men that women might cat-call.
His style was
James Bond meets sarong.
As if they were blond curtains,
He brushed aside his harsh critics;
You could trust him to bring home cups
Or free-kicks in last minutes.

Paul Scholes: a tribute

In his first few years at United,

He wasn’t seen as the danger.

It was just Beckham, Keane, Giggs –

And some ginger.

Sometimes, he seemed to bring his shyness

Onto the field of play,

Waiting politely for everyone to enter the box

Before he did:

After you, after you,

Letting his other team-mates approach,

Then sending ahead the ball, and, last of all,

Silently slipping in at the far post:

Head down, always down, in an aggressive burst,

Like a fervent worshipper arriving late for church.

I don’t know how he managed

To stay so long out of the media’s sight.

Perhaps because his shots travelled faster than the speed of hype.

Perhaps it was his playing style, elegant and minimal,

Often seeing even two-touch as too much.

Whatever his ploy, it was several seasons till I heard his voice,

Since those quietly great have others to speak for their legend:

People like Zidane, who considered him an equal.

He was a man of erratic passion,

Followed by fiery confetti

Throughout his career, conjuring plumes of red and yellow

From topmost pockets:

But those sins are forgiven

For all the rhythm he brought to endless games,

Over which on YouTube we can cast our endless gaze.

Paul Scholes: twenty-odd medals, all told:

He came, he saw;

He scored goals.

My poem on the African Cup of Nations 2013

Here’s a new poem I wrote for the BBC World Service to mark the opening of the African Cup of Nations, hosted this year by South Africa and defended by Zambia, last year’s unlikely winners. Hope you enjoy it.

———

The African Cup of Nations
Is boxing disguised as football
Every year there’s a rematch.
Last time, after jabbing their way through the early rounds,
Humble Zambia uppercut everyone;
Now, they are the punch each country sees coming.
Ding, ding:
A whole ring of sixteen continental contenders in South Africa
Who all want their belt back.
The World Cup was only a warm-up;
Yes, that tournament was global
But these rivalries are personal,
More bitter than Tottenham
Versus Arsenal.
So let’s go, Togo;
Let’s go Ghana, Cape Verde, Niger,
Nigeria, Algeria,
Ethiopia, Tunisia,
Let’s swing our limbs till the referee tells us it’s time to give it up;
Let’s go Burkina Faso,
Mali and Morocco,
DR Congo, Angola, Ivory Coast –
Let’s go up against the hosts
And the reigning champions
For this is the African Cup of Nations
And only one will get to stand in the sun,
Arms raised,
To a standing ovation.

A short post on Kevin-Prince Boateng

Kevin-Prince Boateng has done what Mario Balotelli threatened to do at the Euro 2012 tournament.  In response to racial abuse from a section of fans during a friendly match against Pro Patria, the AC Milan forward walked off the pitch, shortly followed by his team-mates.  The game was abandoned soon afterwards.

There has been support for Boateng’s actions, with several players, fans, and members of the public sending their support to the Ghana player’s Twitter account.  However, there has also been concern that his decision to leave the field will make the problem worse: that it will actually provoke fans to louder and more offensive tirades.  In addition, there is worry that footballers are taking the law into their own hands, and that they and not the match officials will have the key say in when games should be called off.

I believe that this fear is overstated.  Footballers, after all, want to play football above all else.  I do not think we should expect a mass exodus from the pitch each week. Today’s act of protest by Boateng and  his colleagues was certainly disruptive, as is the nature of all effective protest, but judging by the reaction of many on Twitter – among others, Vincent Kompany, Patrick Vieira and Rio Ferdinand – it was somewhat overdue.

The conversation has now moved on to what can be done to prevent racist chanting at football matches.  This, of course, is a good thing. There was a time when foreign players did not have the leverage or the goodwill to encourage such a conversation.  Now they do.  Perhaps there has been complacency around this issue to date, with foreign players largely expected to accept dehumanising rants as part of the matchday experience.  Yet just because they can play through these outbursts, it does not mean that they should.