Archive for Sport

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.

 

 

Steph Curry and Ronaldo, the human Vines

I used to follow basketball almost as closely as football, with my fanaticism for it peaking in my mid-to-late-teens; virtually every morning, I still check ESPN for the overnight scores from the NBA. Today I woke to see what had happened in Game 3 of the Western Conference semi-finals between Houston Rockets and the Golden State Warriors, and in one sense I needn’t have bothered. Steph Curry, the Warriors’ point guard, gave yet another demonstration of his genius, scoring 40 points as his team overwhelmed the Rockets by 115 points to 80.

Curry, like every elite athlete before him, is a contradiction: he is utterly predictable, yet wholly unpredictable. He is predictable in, every single time he advances down the court, you know the nature of his most dangerous tool — his three-point shot, which is probably the greatest his sport has ever seen. Yet he is unpredictable, in that you never know quite when he is going to release it. In this sense, he is similar to the Brazil striker Ronaldo, whose own uniquely devastating move was the stepover: in Ronaldo’s case, his feet would flurry around the ball until he veered off with it to his left, a technique honed to such a point that it was irresistible.

Curry is currently performing at such a level that, on any given night, it is he who chooses whether or not he will excel: his opponents, despite their most desperate attentions, seem to have little or no choice in the matter. Watching a video of his highlights from earlier this season, it occurred to me that he is essentially a human version of a Vine: each time he releases the ball, its arc towards the basket is one of identical beauty, as though he were playing himself endlessly on repeat. This is the monotony of excellence, the majesty of routine: where the athlete has achieved such supreme command of their gifts that, even as they are scoured by a thousand cameras and millions of eyes, they may as well be at home alone firing jump-shots towards that rusty, unprotected rim.

 

“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.

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.

 

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.

An Open Letter To Dani Alves From Armchair Liberals!

Dear Dani Alves,

We now feel cheated because your reaction to racism was not as spontaneous as we had hoped! Cheated of what, we do not know!

Please be sure in future to respond to racism in an uncalculated manner. Freestyle it, if you will!

We were so disappointed that your banana protest was not off-the-dome. Next time, show us unscripted struggle so we know it’s real!

Yet you are certainly not a monkey. A monkey would perform to carefully-dictated order. Your protest was the opposite!

But back to us! God forbid that you should take it upon yourself to plan a response to months of humiliating racist acts in your place of work!

Thank you Dani!  We’re not sure what we’re going to do about racism in football, but we’re sure that we’re disappointed in you!

Yours sincerely,

Armchair Liberals!