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#oneaday 1: The decline of auotcracy, in the national interest…?

 Given the generally depressed outlook all the way back in dark old days of 2010, I would like to think that 2011 would be a year where things started to get a little bit  better? On a personal front 2010 was as good as any year, but as a West Ham and England supporter it was absolutely dire. Mind you, if you are a Chelsea or a Liverpool supporter, it has also been pretty dire and in Chelsea’s case this is a major change in fortunes twelve months on.  A bright start to the year for the England national team soon faded and hopes of glory ended in a seedy and bloated fashion in South Africa.  Money it seems, can’t buy you love, or indeed sustained success and certainly not the right to host a World Cup.   However, behind the easy headlines though perhaps we are getting a glimpse of a different and possibly a better way of getting collective success. 

2011 saw the slow but significant decline of the’ autocracy’. Gordon Brown, a famed autocrat, led the way in politics by losing an election, all be it narrowly, to a couple of jolly decent chaps who days before were at each other’s throats but seemingly had no choice but to bury their hatchets and work together ‘in the national interest’. We hailed the ‘New Politics’ and even the most cynical of commentators have had to admit that coalition politics is a reality which will be with us for some time, who knows may be for the next 4 1/2 years. We have already seen the compromises and ‘breaking of promises’, but that surely is a sign that change is upon us and one party ideology over another is surely too 20th century. In any case, good or bad it is a change and change can be as a good as a rest.

Moving sideways into sport and specifically football, we have seen the cracks appearing at the top, namely at Liverpool, Chelsea and to some extent at Manchester United. The debacle at Anfield has been a long time coming, but it has torn a once invicible and hugely proud club apart at the seams. A couple of ‘no nothing (about football) ‘ Americans – Gillette and Hicks –  basically borrowed unfeasible amounts of cash to buy a ‘business opportunity’ which they could not resist. The rest is history, except that history is still being written – Americans still own the club, all be it different ones, and Roy Hodgson, the critics’ chocie to replace Capello post South Africa, is on the thinest of thin ice, after only 5 months. The fans are calling for control.

Over at Old Trafford, the fans have been vocal ever since Mr Glazer and his sons and/or brothers took over, again leveraging the cash  debt against the assets of the club. Only Alec Ferguson could steady the ship, bringing an errant Rooney to heel and deliver continued success, seemingly. What will happen when Sir Alex eventually decides to press his stopwatch for the last time?  Again the fans are calling for control, via various business consortia.

However, the biggest  surprise has been in the softie South, in West London, the home of millionaires, billionaires and those who govern us. Chelsea. The absolute reign of Roman Abramovic rolls on,  but the cracks are starting to appear and the water is flooding into the ship. The Mighty Roman is almost like a latter day Captain Smith on the bridge of the Titanic. Chelsea, the unsinkable machine, have hit an iceberg and now need to change course, and make repairs fast. Ray Wilkins was sacked and no one knew why. Ancelotti is living by a thread and their players, used to winning, are getting older and their ambition is blunted. The murmurs from the fans have started and if the bad run continues, those whispers become taunts, which become boos, which become protest and leads to a boycott. The Roman is under pressure and you have to wonder how he will deal with it, given his meteoric rise to fortune and lack of experience in the ‘old’ country. I personally think that he will simply fire and forget, but time will be my judge, and those Chelsea fans may well be demanding control before 2011 is too much older.

So these autocratic club owners may be facing up to the reality of managing people, highly paid ones, who just don’t follow the script. Who knows if there will be more fan democracy at play in 2011, I personally hope so, but what other country allows their prize business assets to be sold to anyone who raises the money? After all, this was the year that Cadbury’s was sold to Kraft and promises made pre-sale, were soon broken once the paperwork had gone through. We operate in a free market, and it allegedly produces the best ‘product’, the dear old Premier League is the best in the world, we are told,  but in the national interest? From the England football team’s perspective, that will never happen.

Meanwhile over in Geneva, one autocratic organisation that is totally self interested and is not showing any signs of changing  soon has announced that they are setting up an anti corruption committee.  FIFA and corruption are words that seem to travel all over the world together on expenses. Let’s see how this one develops in 2011.

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J’Accuse

This title, which has become part of the English language in a particular  famous letter printed by French newspaper L’Aurore in January 13th 1898 penned by Emile Zola. Now this name is made up of 2 unique  names, both of which we associate with football, and close, it must be said to my heart.

Gianfranco Zola, the wonderful footballer and possibly the nicest man in football disgracefully treated by the new owners of West Ham, messrs David Gold and Sullivan and Emile Heskey, the England footballer who has just announced his retirement from international football.

J’accuse the owners of West Ham and J’accuse the world for the abuse heaped on poor old Emile. He is not the best footballer in England,  he does not possess the finest of touches and does not read the game in the same way as players such as Shearer and Sheringham, but at least he always tried. How must he feel time and time again in the run up to an international game. It starts with his selection as a squad member, always universally met with howls of derison from the media. Then, heaven forbid, he gets picked for a game and the media and the fans howl again. If he is substituted, he is often seen off to a chorus of disapproval. Worse still his name is used in a song sung by the fans in an attempt at irony, ‘ 5-1 and even Heskey scored’ , doubly ironic as this was the baiting cry that heradled the opening exchanges between English and German fans in Bloemfontein a few weeks back. His goal scoring record is worse than Rene Higuita and Jose Luis Chilaver, both internationals for Columbia and Paraguay respectively, and both goalkeepers.

So he has tied his last international bootlace up and will never be seen in the England colours again, unless Robbie Williams tempts him one more time for Soccer Aid.  I bet he is actually relieved to be away from the whole furore. Let’s face it, all he ever did was agree to play, and that many managers have picked him, from memory Capello, O’Neill, Bruce, Houlier, Eriksson, McClaren, Keegan and more it goes to show that there is consistency. So don’t blame Heskey, please. It’s like picking a one armed pianist to play at your wedding, whilst you may get the semblance of a tune, it will not be balanced or indeed what you were expecting. What it does highlight is one, simple fact. England just do not have many good forwards and given that the heir apparent to Heskey is either Darren Bent or Gabriel Agbonlahor, well it a’int going to get better before it stays the same or even gets worse.  J’accuse the system that simply does not produce footballers who have technique over power, touch over pace, balance over strength and intelligence over brawn. Emile, I salute you, you did your best and that’s that.

One last thought. My approach to the current England football team is not to drop them all and start again, yet. Rather Capello should pick the same 11 that started against Germany, barring Emile and anyone else who announces their retirement from international football and let them face the few who pay good money to attend the ‘friendly’ against another faded nation, Hungary, on August 11th. I for one will be attending that game, and it will be very interesting to see what actually happens that night. Hungary arguably showed England the way to play in1953 when they thumped us 6-3. We are one game on from year zero, so let’s indulge the old regime one last time and start afresh after the fans who travelled to support their team in South Africa have had their catharsis. That or change the whole lot at half time……

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The Legacy of the World Cup

Not my words but the words of Peter Delonno from Business Report. Incidentally the British couple mentioned at the foot of the page under Cyberspace is in fact Kirsty and I. Funny old world. Enjoy!

http://www.busrep.co.za/index.php?fSectionId=552&fArticleId=4102101

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A Fitting Finale, if not Final

So the end of the World Cup happened and we have to wait another four years before we can enjoy it all over again. Now this may not seem like a long time to those of you young enough to have your best years ahead of you, but to us older types, the years are increasingly precious and we don’t know how many more we will be able to attend. I would hope to still be attending well into my seventies and beyond. For some this will probably be the last, and for Nelson Mandela surely the oldest man in Soccer City last night, his appearance before the game capped a near perfect tournament. If the football had been better, it would have been a perfect 10, that’s for sure.

Watching on TV is never satisfactory, and if England had made the final, we would have been there, unlikely as that event would have been of course. Some good friends had been lucky enough to have made the trip, David who I cycled with earlier this year on the Dallaglio Cycleslam, Ian who climbed Kilimanjaro with the rest of us in 2004 and Dom, with whom I went to school and who was the host with the most whilst we were in Johannesburg and I am sure they would have sucked in the atmosphere, which I know would have been electric. But to be there, in that stadium in Soccer City, when Nelson Mandela was driven in on his little golfing buggy across a white carpet, well that must have been a very special moment, and boy did Madiba have the biggest smile in the whole world. He must have been so proud, so pleased and above all so happy that his beloved land had delivered this the biggest sporting tournament in the world. Whether or not FIFA had put this old, frail man who will be 92 next week under pressure is another story ( as they say in South Africa). Rather fitting that he did not stay for the matchthen, as it really did not do anything to enhance the reputation of the so called beautiful game. Indeed another ‘leader’ looked on whilst the battle between the total footballers of Spain and the Total Cloggers of the Netherlands played out. One Robert Mugabe. Hero of Zimbabwe in 1980, now pariah of Africa. What exactly that evil man was doing there is anyone’s guess. If FIFA invited him, shame on them. If South Africa invited him, shame on them too. The only black mark in this whole tournament was his presence at this final.

The game was absorbing if ultimately disappointing. Spain’s football is sublime and in Iniesta, Xavi, Busquets and Alonso they have a quartet that not only pull every string, but make every string sing. Not since Brazil 70 have we seen such masters.

This was a victory for the little man. Even their power house at the back, Puyol is shorter than would be accepted in the English leagues and plays with his heart on his sleeve. With his distinctive locks, resembling Tony Iommi or David Coverdale circa 1976 (ironically in the times of the truly great Dutch footballers), he was an inspiration. Spain hold the ball and as my co watcher last night Steve said, ‘they are not afraid to go backwards’. By contrast Holland decided to become the new West Germany. No shortage of skill was secondary to pure muscle and more often than not overt aggression. Van Bommell plays like Graeme Souness without the touch and De Jong is like Jimmy Case. One attack on Alonso begged the question ‘was De Jong a big Bruce Lee fan as a kid’ karate, or otherwise, and De Jong was lucky not to be sent off before half time. Indeed the martial arts approach was contagious with Schneidjer auditioning as Cato for an episode in the Green Hornet. I bet Howard Webb wondered what he had walked into last night.

A moment of sublime brilliance from Spain’s biggest bit part player, Fabregas, a man who would walk into any of the other thirty one teams taking part, was met equally by one from the diminutive Iniesta, who for me was the man of the match, despite some journalists and commentators stating he had had a poor game (?). The cup was Spain’s and they swapped shirts from blue to red (with a star of course) as is their tradition – I have now found out – but a significant departure from World Cup tradition, I may add. A future trivia question will be what is unusual about the picture of Spain receiving the World Cup in 2010. Add in ‘who was the only unbeaten team in the tournament’ and children not yet born will never guess it was the part timers from New Zealand.

Faced with BBC TV coverage, ITV was frankly beyond the pale, it was evident that Lee Dixon, Alan Hansen, Alan Shearer and Gary Lineker had all been impressed by the people and the country that is South Africa. They were all visibly moved by the appearance of Mandela and all pleased that Spain had won. On a night where good triumphed over bad (barring one certain Robert Mugabe’s presence of course), the BBC ended their coverage with a District 9 style cinematic piece. Whether you thought it was cheese or not, and I did not, it did point to the questions that remain. Those of legacy, inequality, poverty and social justice. District 6 has long gone, but let’s hope its legacy is going now. Indeed let’s hope the World Cup 2010 is the kick start that all of Africa needs in this ever competitive world dominated by the new colonial powers of multinational globalisation.

South Africa – wave your flag with pride and belief. Well done.

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The Final Act

As the final act of a wonderful World Cup is upon us, one thing is certain; a new name on the trophy. And a new name on the map. South Africa and Africa in general has been the winner. Let’s hope the best football team wins it tonight. It is sure to be a classic. One of THE best World Cups ever in terms of atmosphere and feeling.

Loads more in my note book, just need some time to write it all up….story of my life really.

PS – And Madiba, Nelson Mandela is there. Fabulous. Absolutely brilliant. I wish I was there!

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Karma Police arrest these men….

So here we are, almost at the end of the 2010 World Cup and 11 days after England’s exit made without a bang but with plenty of whimper.

I have no idea if those that run the English game will make any major changes, but I am very pleased to report that the loyal fans who travelled thousands of miles in support of the team have changed, and changed for the better.

This is the third World Cup that there has been virtually no sign of the bad old days. I believe that there have been no arrests for violence amongst the fans, yes zero this time around. Now this is definitely a good thing and shows the rest of the world that we have changed a lot, and will continue to do so. Has this change happened ‘naturally’ and in line with the free market theory? Or has there been intervention?

In truth there is evidence that free market, evolutionary principles have played their part, but so have authorities on both sides. A coming together of various ideas and approaches means that following England’s football team is no longer the dangerous pursuit it once was. Go back to the eighties and nineties and one’s memories of the local or host culture was more likely to be centred around police tactics, local thug hotspots and tales of skirmishes and chair throwing on warm sunny days. Warring factions within the England support was also always a factor. I can speak from experience in the 80s whereby being a West Ham supporter meant exactly that and there was no quarter given to other England fans. Firms from Burnley, Stoke, Carlisle, Portsmouth, Millwall, Sunderland would always clash along with Chelsea, Leeds, and biggest of the lot Man Utd. Liverpool and Everton fans would arrive before everyone else, avoid much of the violence and concentrate on ‘monetising’ their trips, much to the loss of local traders.

Over the years the dynamic changed from offensive in the early 80’s, to herd like in the 90’s into reactive and sometimes defensive at the turn of the century. Although I did not travel to South Korea (England were based in Japan for the tournament), the overall feeling was one of initial scepticism that the Japanese and Koreans would never be able to host a World Cup to a feeling of ‘what a fantastic World Cup and hats off to both hosts’. Indeed Japan/South Korea 2002 saw some key ‘game changers’.

1) Reception. This was the first time in my experience that the locals actually wanted the legions of foreign supporters in their country. Not only that, but the Japanese went out of their way to welcome us – even offering us gifts before matches and smiling constantly. There were no mobs of locals trying to make a reputation by fighting England football fans. Even the police were cool and did not behave proactively aggressively to us. That makes a big difference.
2) Example. Having seen the behaviour of English cricket and rugby fans down the years, despite copious amounts of alcohol and often crazy exposure to hard sunshine, football fans or at least some of them, decided to take the lead and change things. They also saw the rebranding of Scotland’s fans into the loveable ‘Tartan Army’ and thought, why can’t we do this? Whilst this has been an evolution rather than a revolution, the change is real and it is being noticed abroad.
3) Cost. Japan was and is expensive and thus much of the ‘exciteable youth’ could not afford it.
4) Intervention. The English police and government have steadily taken action against known troublemakers for years and have in excess of 3,500 banning orders in place to stop idiots travelling. This has helped enormously.
5) Time. Many of the passionate England football fans of the early 80’s let their passion boil over into violence. It is only a game and it is all about your mates and having a laugh. Some, if not all, have realised that marauding round some foreign city on a state of perpetual alert is actually quite stressful and completely unnecessary. Indeed, sitting in a bar drinking fine wine, foreign beer, and sampling all sorts of different foods is eminently more appealing.
6) Entertainment. One of the few things that FIFA has done outside of making billions of dollars out of the World Cup is to set up the biggest and longest sporting party in the world bar none. Football is all about entertainment ultimately, much as that will grate with the 40 somethings who have been brought up to follow the team of their forefathers without question. The passion for the shirt is still there, and so it should be, but it is no longer frowned upon to watch other games live and just live the whole footballing extravaganza to the full. The World Cup gets bigger, not necessarily better in terms of the quality of football, but it does get better in terms of the overall entertainment and vibe.

So, given that the fans have made changes, let’s see if the England players both present and future can do the same. The fans have shown the right example, leadership and commitment. Indeed, I wonder just how many England fans took the time to visit Robben Island, surely the most inspiring place in South Africa? I suspect thousands of them. Every single one I met had been there. How many England players did the same? Precisely zero. They were all too busy playing golf, or just tired out by the whole thing. Not so in the Netherlands camp. Those boys all gave up their time to visit the place of Nelson Mandela’s incarceration. Karma police note, who got into the final and who may just win this World Cup. Hup Holland!

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Leaviing on a Jet Plane

Goodbye and goodnight to South Africa. Regardless of who actually wins the World Cup, you are the winners. Amazing country and amazing people. Rainbow Nation? Yes. Leaving Johannesburg now, after an emotional time on all fronts. From Robben Island, to Madikwe, to Wilderness, to Isandlwana this has been better than Japan 2002 and that is saying something.

Plenty of writing to do as we have been signal less for three days, whilst visiting Fugitives Drift, KwaZulu Natal. Tune in over the next few days for more fun. Meanwhile we are surrounded on both sides, not by brave Zulus, but by about two dozen mini children, where is my air pistol when I need it?

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