Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Roy Keane's death stare points to Hollywood

Roy Keane's BBC interview last week was a masterclass in understated intimidation. As a manager, Keane's intelligence shines through his aggression in a way it rarely did as a player. In his leg-breaking days, we could happily pigeonhole him somewhere between passionate and psychopath and be done with it. But as he's spent more time in front of the camera, he's added a touch of criminal genius to the hard-man routine.

When his face locks up into the death stare on 0m17, you can see the calculations running through his head. Roy will still screw you up, but he'll be imaginative about it. Mobster Keano makes good viewing, but you can see why he's struggled as a club manager. Dwight Yorke's a bit of a wally himself, but his account of Keane's Sunderland reign of terror seems totally plausible. You can't run a football team on a cult of personality alone. 

The path from footballing psycho to silver screen success has been well-trodden by Cantona and Vinnie Jones. Maybe instead of scaring the living daylights out of journeymen footballers, Keano should follow their lead and find a creative outlet for his gift for dramatising ill will?

Monday, 5 October 2009

Is the media spoiling football fans?

Gareth Southgate is quoted in today's Guardian blaming internet forums and football phone-ins for the increasing  impatience of home fans. Apparently Boro are being booed off the pitch to the extent that they prefer away games to home, which Southgate attributes to laymen being encouraged to sound off "without accountability."

Personally, I'm not too bothered about Boro, but he raises an interesting point. The Internet is supposed to be a democratising force, breaking down the experts' monopoly on opinion. But in making potential journo's of us all (ummm...), does it mean we spend more time shouting to be heard, and less time thinking or listening? In media studies, this is known as the "Babel effect ", as it recalls the Biblical tale in which God inflicts confusion and misunderstanding on humanity by replacing one language with several. So the more people chatter about what's in their heads, the less they actually communicate.

Clearly, the Internet and radio phone-ins have not given birth to opinionated football fans -  they've been around a while. For most of us, half the fun of being a fan is to talk endlessly and animatedly about it until you've forgotten where you started. But it seems plausible that in briefly giving your everyman a massive audience, opinions that would otherwise stay locked into a small circle can gather momentum very quickly. The rumbling of the mob is amplified by the media, and negativity can spiral quickly. Likewise, in our fifteen seconds of radio fame the temptation to make dramatic claims is greater than it is down the pub with your mates. And on the Internet, the anonymity of the medium has consequences galore for what we're ready to do and say. So on these counts, maybe Southgate has a point - the lack of accountability in letting everyone have their say can harden opinions against a team more quickly than in real time.

There's much discussion right now of the future of the media and journalism in the digital age. Citizen journalism and shrinking print revenues are threatening the established infrastructures, with many arguing that this erodes the "closed-shop" relationship between business and political elites and media powerhouses. In other words, they're less able to shape how we think without us realising it. This is possibly true of politics and business, although you need sites of authority of some description (these will emerge, but not painlessly). That's why the BBC is becoming less proprietorial about its content - its role is shifting from exclusive production to content facilitation, reflecting the general trend in the new media marketplace. But in sport, where sophisticated production techniques and specialist expertise are so crucial to the entertainment, and where we don't need to worry so much about Big Brother anyway, I don't think this change will be as marked. As Southgate suggests, expertise and talent in sports journalism should be preserved and cherished, because there are a lot more people who want to say something than actually have something to say.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Goldmine or minefield?

Clearly, staging a major sporting event represents a big opportunity for an emerging economy. It offers a chance to announce its newfound power and status on the world stage, and delivers an army of overexcited consumers on a mission to spend. So these blockbuster events have become a means of recognising, measuring and furthering economic progress. But the stakes are high. While the cash injection and the attention of tourists worldwide are obvious incentives, these promises bring with them the need for a massive investment in infrastructure, and international scrutiny of social and economic structures. The inclination to overpromise at the bidding stage is strong, while failure to deliver is unthinkable.

When South Africa was awarded the 2010 World Cup, many questioned its ability to produce the goods . And if it did deliver, they worried about the social cost of that preoccupation in a society beset with problems. Would the country's elites craving for international recognition that lead them to sweep inconvenient people and problems under the carpet? Those concerns linger, as they do from Beijing last year, but South Africa has surprised everyone by fast-tracking construction and development. To the naked eye at least, its house is in order for next summer's big party and its hosting has proven a net positive.

Likewise, when Poland and the Ukraine were awarded the 2012 European Championships, a similar combination of promise and apprehension presented itself. Everything needed a thorough makeover - transport, stadiums, accommodation, administration - and the Championships seemed the ideal stimulus for such investment. But with Ukraine's economy having taken a spectacular hammering in the credit crunch, it is having difficulty financing the operation and its hosting looks in doubt.  Stadiums remain substandard or unfinished, the project is riddled with corruption, critical hub airports are underdeveloped, and UEFA stands on the brink of stripping the staging rights from Donetsk, Lviv and Kharkiv.

Ukraine has perhaps been unlucky, but its problems also expose the fault lines in the policy of using major sporting events as catalysts for further growth in developing economies. There are tensions between the need to resuscitate its economy and the need to stage a safe and successful tournament. Construction at the Lviv stadium is on hiatus because the Austrian contractors were dropped in favor of Ukrainian equivalents who have no experience of stadium construction. What is good for the Ukrainian economy is potentially calamitous for the football tournament it is staging. Likewise, there is concern that the games have become another pawn in the increasingly desperate power struggle between President Yushchenko and Prime Minister Tymoshenko. Accusations of politicking, withholding funds and overpromising are traded back and forth, whilst progress stagnates and the prospect of a footballing celebration of Ukraine's progress looks like increasingly unlikely.

If it comes to it, UEFA's Michel Platini has said he will be brutal in his assessment, and is ready to strip Ukraine of some or all of its rights. The tournament should be neither a life raft for the economy, nor a plaything for its politicians. Of course he's right, but this precarious situation demonstrates how sporting bonanzas bring unique pressures as well as opportunities for developing economies. They are axes of rather than agents for change, and can serve to catalyse problems as well as potential. In Beijing and apparently South Africa, the pressing need to keep up appearances has led many to believe that social problems have been silenced rather than remedied. In Ukraine, the problems are more immediate and globalised, but the legacy of a failure this conspicuous and systemic may hamper its progress more in the long term. Hopefully, these issues will be factored into assessment of bids going forward, with fewer promises and more caution.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Let's get silly

Nobody chooses to be an England fan - we're saddled with it. We've all spent the quieter moments of major tournaments questioning why we're investing all this emotion in a largely pedestrian outfit, with ideas above its station and a media that likes talking to itself. Most of the finals I've been alive for have suddenly become enjoyable as soon as we're out of the picture - that's why Euro 2008 was so brilliant. Without England to be silly about, football was just a spectacle again and we could bowl around carefree, stick £3 on Spain and come over all composed and perceptive in our punditry. No more screaming and gurning and footstamping, none of those awkward jumpy hugs when we score, no nagging sense of shame about getting in such a tiz. It was great.

But this time we are going, and they reckon it might be different. England look good right now, even allowing for our unhappy knack of overpromising. Fabio Capello is sniffy, terrifying and brilliant, and he's on our side. The media like him, and he doesn't care. The players respect him, and he'd expect no less. He's our greatest asset and he can't get injured.

All this is good. Personally, I'm excited about us all blowing our tops for the next 10 months, stewing and chewing and teamsheeting ourselves into a right old lather. The best thing about talking about football is that nobody really has a clue about any of it. It's completely circular - you can witter on for days about formations and combinations and SWP vs Lennon, because nobody really knows and when it comes down to it we forget the lot in a flash. In 90 little minutes the truth we never saw coming will catch us clean on the nose, and it'll all suddenly seem very obvious and hollow again. That's what it's like - being an England fan is an absurd cycle of extremes, a screaming, boozy kneeslide from false promise to cold truth and back again, seldom tasting the bit between.

I'm not suggesting we take a rational approach to supporting England - balancing the odds would be much less fun. Like everyone else, I'll hope and chinstroke and get wildly indignant about starting Emile Heskey, and it'll be great. But by the time those BBC montages that make real life seem all dreary and grayscale are rolling in July, I reckon I'll feel silly again.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

The case for Crouchy

Now I'm as big an England fan as the next man, but if we win the World Cup with Emile Heskey up front, it'll be a miserable old tournament. There's not enough space on the Internet to explain why Heskey is not a good enough player to lead the attack at the World Cup finals. All the layoffs and knockdowns in the world do not make up for a striker with no touch who can't shoot. In any case, if we really are fixated with having a big man up front, we've a much better model in Peter Crouch. And the good thing about him is he can actually play proper football. First touch and everything. Granted, he's not been starting for Tottenham, but he is at least an important part of Harry Redknapp's plans this season, which is more than can be said for Heskey and Martin O'Neill.

Personally, I'd play Defoe up front tonight anyway, but if we want the aerial presence it surely has to be Crouchy. He can knock it about, holds play up just as well as Heskey, and scores enough goals to represent more than a mere foil for Rooney. He perhaps lacks Heskey's shoulder barge, but that's about it. Historically, the problem with Crouch has been that the players fall into the same trap as everyone else, assume he's got no ball skills and start playing target practice with him. There are few more depressing sights than watching England lump it forward aimlessly, but it doesn't need to be like that, and Capello is a good enough coach to drill this small piece of sense into them. They seem to manage to keep the ball on the deck with Heskey up front, and use his bulk judiciously - the same should be possible with Crouch.

The manager seems intent on building his attack around Rooney in the second striker role. This makes sense - he's our best player, and has responded well so far. But one striker is not worth sacrificing another for, especially when there are other option which bring the same advantages without the same compromise. And Crouchy always does provide some good entertainment, too.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

6 into 1 won't go

The men's draw at the US Open is beautifully set up this year. For the first time in ages, the natural hierarchy seems unclear, with Nadal's prolonged absence qualifying both the rankings and the achievements of Roger Federer and Andy Murray. But it's impossible to say how much.

Right the way down to Del Potro at No. 6, the rankings don't tell the full story. If the Argentine can overhaul his fitness, he should emerge as the main challenger to Murray and Nadal in the longterm. Roddick is in his best run of form since winning the US aged 19, and his resurgence marks a genuine development of his game. Djokovic is stagnating but not regressing, while Nadal at No. 3 looks like a misprint. Murray is probably the most consistent player on the Tour, but has developed an unfortunate knack of bringing out the very best in opponents at crucial points in Slams - for Verdasco in Melbourne, read Gonzalez at Roland Garros and Roddick at Wimbledon. Coasting through the early rounds of majors will start to look ominous if he continues this pattern. A first Grand Slam win may open the floodgates - he seems to have the determination to overhaul a waning Federer, but probably not the aggression to better a fully fit Nadal. So each would be king, but it's hard to see who should be.

Federer's case is the most interesting. It seems bizarre in the context of his achievements and previous invincibility that he could now be No. 1 without really deserving it, as he's quite keen on reminding everyone. The gracious, easy figure of old has faded away both on and off the court, replaced by a man who not only believes his own headlines, but seems quite keen on writing them. Nominally world No. 1, "RF" has won ugly this year against a depleted field, but you won't catch him acknowledging it. Instead he repeatedly places lucky escapes and strangled victories in the context of what he calls his "crazy" achievements. It would be no great surprise to see him enter Center Court next week on a horse-drawn cart in the shape of a '16'. This need to frame his own legacy is a habit that has developed as his grip on power has loosened. Anyone who saw him sunken after the Australian Open final knows that Nadal has got inside his head, and that the two subsequent major wins were by default. It is of course true that you can only beat who's put in front of you, but it's equally true that you can acknowledge a crucially weakened field in the moment of victory.

Who will be on top one year from now? Any from Del Potro, Murray, Nadal and Federer seems equally plausible, with Djokovic needing fresh impetus and Roddick probably having reached his personal xenith. It's exciting, it starts next week, and it is to be hoped that Nadal returns to form, so that whoever is world No. 1 can wear his crown with undisputed pride.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Barc-ing mad

Apparently Barcelona have just signed Zlatan Ibrahimovic for £40m plus Samuel Eto'o. Plus Samuel Eto'o? Until now I've nobly resisted the urge to huff and puff about this summer's transfer activity, but this one is priceless.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is 27 years old and has long shown great promise, but only recently delivered on the biggest stages. He has a suspect temperament, a bulletproof ego and a rare talent for irritating his teammates. Samuel Eto'o is 28 years old, and also a bit of a divisive character. As well as a three-time African player of the year with 2 Champions Leagues, 3 La Ligas and countless personal accolades to his name.

Ibrahimovic was the major disappointment in Inter's Champions League last-16 defeat to United last season, with Vidic and Ferdinand easily containing him over the two legs. Eto'o sliced open the United defence to kickstart a sublime victory for Barcelona in the final, and deliver the trophy to Catalonia. It completed a memorable season in which he was second top scorer in Spain, behind his strike partner Leo Messi.

Paying £40m to break that up is just bonkers. For all the crackpot posturing of Real Madrid, at least you could see the rationale - it was just the scale that seemed mad. This one's a complete anomaly.

It's shows how small differences in perception can result in such huge financial swings at the upper end of the transfer market. Eto'o may have only a year left on his contract, but at full tilt Man City would have paid £40m for him alone. Someone in the Barca camp has clearly become fixated with Ibrahimovic and pursued him 'at any cost'.

This 'at any cost' mentality has been the distinctive feature of the big hitters in the transfer market this summer. It's as if Fred the Shred has started giving summer schools in football investment - the fact of the purchase is becoming more important than the sense of it. Certainly, City seem intent on making marquee signings rather than building a team. So far they've succeeded only in mopping up the problem children of the Premiership, paying last summer's prices for players who have had disappointing seasons. And they've been snubbed by the real big guns - the more cash City throw at players to entice them to come, the cheaper they look. No such problems at Real, who are at least targeting the very finest - although £30m for a 27 year-old Alonso is a dubious call.

Thankfully, the big English clubs have been notable this summer for their scorn of the 'at any cost' approach. Ferguson and Benitez both explicitly refused to get caught up in an overheated market, Wenger is Wenger and Chelsea are proving themselves reassuringly unattractive to everyone except John Terry. It might be less fun now, but at least they've not saddled themselves with Franck Ribery for £70m.