Archive for Sport

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.


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.

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.

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.

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

“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.

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.

Michael Carrick, the Samwise Gamgee of Old Trafford

Michael Carrick.  He is the Samwise Gamgee of Old Trafford.  The man does so much of the work that leads to glory but curiously ends up with very little of the credit.  I’ve just finished watching The Return of the King and it’s striking how often Sam is left to carry the burden of the Ring’s fate, with Frodo often delirious.  Frodo stumbles from scene to scene while Sam stands there, stoic, humbly and bravely seeing off all-comers.  Sam inches his way forward over ash and broken stone.  He drags himself and his friend through the lair of the most feral of predators.  And when all’s said and done it’s Frodo who gets to compose the trilogy.  Sam just gets on with life.

Getting on with it…Michael Carrick’s a bit like that.  He’s been like that since he arrived at Old Trafford in the summer of 2006, taking the shirt of  arguably Manchester United’s greatest midfielder for a fee that many thought excessive.  Four league titles and a UEFA Champions League later, he still has his doubters.  Recently Opta tweeted that “Michael Carrick made 3226 passes in 2012, 577 more than any other player in the Premier League”.  I saw Carrick mocked, as I have before, for only passing the ball sideways, a criticism as inaccurate as it is bizarre.  There is often a perception of Carrick as a player who keeps the ball slowly sloshing about the midfield like stale bathwater, when in truth he gives it something crucial: rapid and efficient circulation.  And in any event, it’s unclear why there is an obsession with relentlessly forward passing from midfield.  After all, Xavi’s not fixated with it, and it’s worked out just fine for him.

Wee Newcastle and murderous players: just Fergie having fun

Why, Sir Alex?

Ferguson is known for his headline-stealing statements, but his last two have come with an unprecedented speed and intensity.  First there was his comment that Robin van Persie could have been killed by a ball kicked in the direction of his head by Swansea’s Ashley Williams.  Then, a few days later, there was his remark that Newcastle United was “a wee club in the North-East”.

Many Manchester United fans have either laughed this off as Fergie being Fergie or as some fiendish strategy to deflect attention from his team’s wildly fluctuating form. Personally, I believe that it is more of the former than the latter.  I don’t see his words as part of some grand design.  Swansea’s qualities are well-documented. Everyone knows that a fully-fit Newcastle team is a difficult proposition.  No-one needs reminding that Real Madrid are lying in wait in the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League, or that Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes should probably be retiring soon, or that a player like Joao Moutinho is sorely needed at the base of Manchester United’s midfield.

Sir Alex Ferguson is a genius.  But he is also wholly human, with all the attendant flaws.  He seems determined to market Old Trafford as Mordor and himself as Sauron, and I suspect that he is doing it for little other reason than the fact that he can.  (One could speculate, of course, that his all-seeing gaze is becoming agitated as he sees Guardiola approaching Eastlands).  In any event, this may be a title won by the slimmest of margins, and it’s hard to see how it helps to give other clubs any extra motivation.  For better or worse, it seems like it’s just Fergie having fun.

“Full Stop”, a poem for Andy Murray and the British summer

This British sporting summer

Was a stunning sentence,

But it needed a full stop:

Something fitting; small, and round, that would bring an end to all.

High up in the New York night, we found it:

It was Murray’s match-point ball.