Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The USA (and other third world countries)

Simon Barnes in The Times:

WHEN SPORT mirrors the real world, it frequently does so in a bizarre and distorted fashion. How else would you get the United States in the third world? For the world of football, like the real world, can be readily divided into three and, as with the real world, it is the third one that demands the best care, attention and love that the first and second can offer.

Soccer’s first world is Europe. This is where the game began, where its first skills were developed, where its culture and its philosophy took shape, where its commercial possibilities were recognised. There are 14 first-world nations here at the World Cup and if that seems a lot, plenty have missed out: Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Hungary, Romania, Russia.

Soccer’s second world is Latin America, starting at Mexico and working south to Tierra del Fuego. Here, the European game was taken, reinterpreted, redeveloped and, most would say, reached its highest form of expression — whether you are talking about potency or mere beauty — with the 1970 team from Brazil. There are six teams of Latinos in Germany and that’s without Colombia and Uruguay.

Football, then, was a war between these worlds: the old and the new, the rich and the poor, the pedestrian and the poetic. The best team in the world has always come from one or other of these worlds.

There was a time when the World Cup was invariably played in one or other of these worlds and, generally, whichever world had home advantage won. And if you wanted to have a gathering of all the best footballing nations in the world, you might as well stop there. You could say that bringing in teams from anywhere else is counter-productive, lowers standards and produces a lopsided competition.

But as with the real world, the third was clamouring for recognition, for a fair chance, for an opening-up of the closed shop. The expansion to a 24-team competition in 1982 and then again to 32 teams in 1998 brought third-world participation in the World Cup to a level a good way beyond tokenism. They were the years that Fifa, the world governing body, legalised hope.

There are five African nations here, four from Asia, and then there are the United States, Australia and Trinidad & Tobago. At the weekend, six third-world teams were in action and five of them put on stirring performances, the US holding Italy and South Korea doing the same with France, Japan drawing with Croatia. Ghana beat the Czech Republic. I was at the Brazil game to see a marvellously spirited Australia side lose 2-0, and they were a shade unlucky to do so.

The World Cup needs all this. It needs more than excellence, it needs the feeling that footballing people have gathered together in one country from all the four corners of the earth. Togo and Australia are as important as Brazil and Germany. Trinidad & Tobago matter as much as England — and, indeed, they have embarrassed England and given Sweden a bloody nose. Without the third world, the World Cup is just a football tournament. As it is, this is a tournament that means the world.

Pele once famously predicted than an African team would win the World Cup by the year 2000.

Yet it hasn't happened, and the 2006 quarter-final line-up now contains Brazil, Argentina and six European teams,

The footballing third world still has a way to go.

The gap is narrowing – as it should do since the majority of the best players from Africa, Asia and America all play for European clubs – but it’s narrowing a lot slower than people thought it would.

Monday, June 26, 2006

More torture please, we're English

Given that following England's adventures in the World Cup is currently my (and the nation's) chief preoccupation, TofE has been strangely silent on the matter.

The reason is simple: it's hard to write about something so painful. So I'll let Robert Crampton in The Times do it for me...

...There are few experiences, surely, as worrisome as watching England play competitive football. Never mind anxious, it’s agony. We’ve had a fortnight now of utter misery with, one hopes, another fortnight of utter misery still to go. I sit chewing my nails, silent, brooding, watchful for whatever is about to go wrong, occasionally furious, very seldom happy. It’s exquisite.

I say a fortnight, more like as long as I can remember, back to the age of nine and the Poles at Wembley in 1973. Crunch qualifiers, gritty groups, knuckle-eating knockouts: dozens, scores, hundreds of games, every one spent win, lose or draw in abject gut-churning displeasure, writhing on a sofa or a stool somewhere, watching the pictures coming in from Spain, Mexico, Italy, France, Japan, the decades passing, pleas and curses and vitriol muttered to brother or father, wife or child, God or barman. Nausea beforehand, emptiness afterwards, because either they’re out or they’re not, and you can’t wait to be sitting suffering again.

For many of us, there are two World Cups going on in Germany. One involves watching England, the other involves watching teams we don’t care about. This second World Cup is great fun. Germany-Poland last week, for instance: a bunch of us watched it together, making fun of mistakes, names and hairstyles, cheering the plucky Poles, keen for the Germans to lose, but then, when the inevitable winner came, experiencing it as a momentary disappointment rather than a bayonet to the belly.

The actual personnel that makes up the players and the management of the England football team at any one time seems to be irrelevant: there's something deep in the national psyche that means England will always play incredibly badly (but not quite badly enough to lose) against weak teams, and then incredibly well (but not quite well enough to win) against great teams.

Nothing different this year. Without doubt this is the most talented generation of footballers that England has produced since 1966, but do they sweep past the likes of Ecuador, Paraguay and Trinidad in the riot of joyous free-flowing football that each member regularly produces for his club?

They do not.

They sweat, toil and struggle in the sun, cursed with self-consciousness and weighed down with the hope and expectation of a super-critical yet hopelessly optimistic nation, doing just enough to scrape agonisingly through each round, always on the brink of national humiliation and disaster, frightened witless by each minnow, making Himalayan mountains of every molehill until, with tedious predictability, they come up against Brazil or Argentina, and then, freed from the burden of being 'favourites', they suddenly produce a performance of sustained brilliance and bravery that ends, inevitably, in desperate ill luck and glorious failure.

Watching England is mass masochism - but would we have it any other way?

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Bristolian Limericks

On having one’s reading interrupted by the insect-like noise of teenagers riding mopeds up and down the street outside

Now reading The Brothers Karamazov
May not have the razz-a-matazz of
Your glamorous scooters,
With their engines and hooters,
But all the same, do please goddamn buzz off.

A Bristolian* invites his friends for a cheap curry on the night before his wedding

(*a curiosity of the local dialect is the ‘Bristol L’, whereby a superfluous ‘l’ is added to the end of words ending in ‘a’. Most commonly, ‘idea’ becomes ‘ideal’.)

The Taj for a bhunal’s the ideal,
To celebrate the end of an eral,
You don’t pay no extral
For poppadoms, et cetral
(But there is an off chance o’ diarrhoeal).

Cold Calling

Cold Calling

Of all the world’s appalling callings,
Sales cold calling’s worst of all.

All the mornings of verbal maulings,
From those you’re calling, starts to pall.

All the more galling is that my appalling
rates of commission are so small,
That even four successful callings
barely pays for one pub crawl.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Why the English weather is the best

In response to Peter’s challenge, I shall embark on my most ambitious piece of patriotic nonsense yet: a defence – nay, a celebration ­– of the English Weather.

Some short time ago, we discovered that Britain’s weather is not in fact determined by a collection of impish and malicious demi-Gods, but by such mundane things as the westerly winds from the Atlantic, which bring rain when you least expect it, and the Gulf Stream, which heats our island in winter and chills it in summer. Obtaining this knowledge, however, has in no way improved our ability to predict the weather even on a daily basis, let alone at long-range.

But it is my contention that the English weather – a national icon and character in its own right – is the very source of our Greatness. In gloom lies our glory, in drizzle our destiny.

So here are my ten reasons why English weather is the best in the world:

1. It is the foundation of social interaction

"When two Englishmen meet their first talk is of the weather..."

...said Samuel Johnson, and that’s as true today as it ever was.

The second thing two Englishmen talk about is the respective fortunes of their football teams. Occasionally, you meet a chap who has no interest in football, so you talk about cricket or rugby or, in a real emergency, tennis. Now, just very occasionally, you meet a fellow who has no interest in sport whatsoever. This is when one’s mettle is really tested, and you have to eke every last conversational drop out of the weather. At such times, you can only thank heavens that the English weather provides so very, very much to talk about.

2. It builds character, particularly stoicism and an acceptance of the fickle nature of fate

“Whether the weather be fine, Whether the weather be not, Whether the weather be cold, Whether the weather be hot, We'll weather the weather, Whatever the weather, Whether we like it or not” Anon

When they consider those poor primitive sorts in Hot Countries who leap about, bellow and chant, wave sticks and otherwise engage in activites that might be described as a ‘Rain Dance’, the British shake their heads in pity. For they know that summoning a deluge from the weather gods is as easy as pie: just hang out the washing, or better yet, utter the magic words “let’s have a barbeque.”

There is no midsummer wedding day, no long-anticipated tennis tournament, and above all no big family-and-friends barbeque that can’t suddenly be washed out without a moment’s warning.

But do we moan and curse our fate? We do not. We bloody well put a big umbrella over the stove, don our macs and have that barbeque anyway. Century upon century of ruined plans means that making the best of things is in our blood: the Blitz was a doddle.

3. It instills an appreciation of, and gratitude for, life’s transient and fleeting moments of pleasure

“Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.” John Ruskin

A corollary of stoicism in the face of fickle Dame Fortune, is the ability to make the most of unexpected gifts. No spoilt children of California are we. Stroll out at lunchtime on a warm sunny day in any English town or city and you’ll see that every possible patch of green is occupied by a reclining, sunbathing Limey, munching on a sandwich and soaking what rays he can into his pasty white skin.

Crunching up lanes on crisp, cold, clear winter days, mowing the lawn on bright spring mornings with cuckoos calling, kicking a football around the park on a golden autumnul afternoon, and sipping wine in the garden on a glorious long summer evening – when the drizzle clears, our seasons are wonderfully distinct, and we make the most of them.

4. It has enriched our language

Without the factors mentioned above, we wouldn’t have such pearls of wisdom as: ‘make hay while the sun shines’ and “If you don't like the weather, wait a minute’

Nor could we keep a weather eye on our fair-weather friends, in case they rain on our parade. After all, it never rains but it pours. But even when you’re feeling under the weather, hearing the expression ‘brass monkeys’ generally brightens your day and makes you feel right as rain.

5. It is the source of much merriment and humour

"Earlier on today, apparently, a woman rang the BBC and said she heard there was a hurricane on the way... well, if you're watching, don't worry, there isn't!"

So said TV meteorologist Michael Fish on 15 October 1987, hours before the worst storm to hit Britain since 1703, thus sealing his place in British comedy folklore.

This May, due to chronic reservoir mismanagement, some parts of southern England were officially assigned ‘drought’ status and the use of hosepipes was temporarily banned. Naturally this coincided with three weeks of incessant, relentless, driving rain – the wettest May for two decades. You need a sense of humour for that sort of thing. As Terry Wogan said on his radio show: “Good thing this drought is so wet…”

6. Poetic inspiration

When that I was and a little tiny boy,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
A foolish thing was but a toy,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came to man's estate
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
'Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came, alas! to wive,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
By swaggering could I never thrive,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came unto my beds
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
With toss-pots still had drunken heads,
For the rain it raineth every day.

A great while ago the world began,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
But that's all one, our play is done,
And we'll strive to please you every day.

William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

On shallow slates the pigeons shift together,
Backing against a thin rain from the west
Blown across each sunk head and settled feather.
Huddling round the warm stack suits them best,
Till winter daylight weakens, and they grow
Hardly defined against the brickwork. Soon,
Light from a small intense lopsided moon
Shows them, black as their shadows, sleeping so.

Philip Larkin, Pigeons

From the dew-soaked hedge creeps a crawly caterpillar,
When the dawn begins to crack.
Its all part of my autumn almanac.
Breeze blows leaves of a mustard-coloured yellow,
So I sweep them in my sack.
Yes, yes, yes, it’s my autumn almanac.

Friday evenings, people get together,
Hiding from the weather.
Tea and toasted, buttered currant buns
Cant compensate for lack of sun,
Because the summers all gone.
Oh, my poor rheumatic back!
Yes, yes, yes, it’s my autumn almanac.

The Kinks, Autumn Almanac

7. Joseph Mallord William Turner

...could only have come from England

Rain, Steam and Speed

8. Everything in moderation... the English way

No tsunamis, no hurricanes, no earthquakes, no volcanoes.

Just the wettest droughts in the world, and a comforting soft drizzle to caress you from cradle to grave.

9. Rain breaks in the cricket

Cricket is a rare sport in that it works best on radio. The commentators on Test Match Special, especially Blowers (right), CMJ, Aggers and the late Johnners, are national treasures. And true aficionados know that they really come into their own during the rain breaks, when there’s nothing to do except talk glorious cricket nonsense.

10. The civilisation of the planet

People in warm countries like Spain are lazy. When the English go on holiday they get lazy, because they are too hot and their brains melt.

English weather keeps you busy. Why invent Parliamentary democracy if you can lie around in meadows all day? Why formulate the Magna Carta if you could play beach volleyball instead?

Would Shakespeare have bothered to write all those plays if he could have spent the time sitting in his garden wearing a string vest, and a knotted handkerchief on his head? No – with so much weather, the English need indoor entertainment, and what better than a good tragedy?

If it wasn’t so cold, we wouldn’t have needed furs. If our native plants weren’t so soggy and bland, we wouldn’t need to import spices. Without English weather: no Hudson’s Bay Company, no America; no British East India Company, no Empire; no rule of law; no modern world; no civilisation; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short!

So raise your glasses, cry three cheers for the constant drizzle and thank the Lord we don’t live in Scotland, where the weather’s even worse.

Monday, June 12, 2006

The beauty of the ugly game

Trinidad dig in for dream draw
By Oliver Kay

Trinidad & Tobago 0 Sweden 0

WHATEVER HE HAS ACHIEVED AS A footballer, Dwight Yorke has always come across as someone whose biggest highs came away from the pitch. The playboy image is one he has done little to play down, save for during that annus mirabilis with Manchester United, but finally, having found a cause worth fighting for, he has rediscovered the kind of joys that only sport can bring.

Saturday in Dortmund brought a Trinidad & Tobago performance that astounded on many levels — the heroics of Shaka Hislop, who had been brought in at the last minute; the resilience of a couple of centre halves from Gillingham and Wrexham; the cavalier tactics of Leo Beenhakker, the coach, after he had had a player sent off — but no less remarkable was the sight of Yorke, reinvented as a holding midfield player and with his familar smile replaced by a determined grimace as he cajoled his team-mates towards a result the significance of which far transcends the state of play in group B.

Now there’s a headline our American cousins might never understand. That’s right, a dream 0-0 draw.

The Trinidad & Tobago fans went mental at the final whistle. Just imagine what will happen if they score a goal.

A standing joke in Britain (which Budweiser are milking in their ‘You do the football, we’ll do the beer’ ads –actually, we’d prefer to do the beer as well, thanks) is the hypothetical American millionaire trying to ‘improve’ the game by making the goals ten times bigger, introducing scoring zones, making draws illegal or any other artificial mechanism for ensuring games finish 15-13 rather than 1-0.

In other words, making the beautiful game more like that most excruciatingly tedious (and interestingly, uniquely pure American-origin) sport, basketball.

But beauty is only the most superficial of football’s pleasures. A key part of football’s worldwide appeal is that the goal is still one of the highest-value currencies in sport.

Basketball reminds me of people who swear constantly. If everything gets a cuss, there’s no impact when something really deserves it. How anyone can be bothered to cheer one ‘basket’ amongst so many is beyond me.

Football, meanwhile, is about long periods of frustration, tension and brooding terror, interspersed with rare moments of genuine ecstasy. And the rarity is crucial. Cricket is my favourite sport for its own sake, but nothing beats the sudden, explosive, deafening roar of a crowd when the home team scores. Wonder goals are best, but even scruffy, bundled own-goals do the trick.

The same goes for denying the opposition a precious goal, especially when it's against all the odds. Hence the Trinidadian delight at 0-0.

Drubbing a hapless bunch of no-hopers like the Faroe Islands 8-0 is no fun at all. But scraping agonisingly past Argentina 1-0 thanks to a dodgy penalty – now that’s what what I call sport.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Nice try, Jerry

Local newsflash today:

Police have closed Bristol's central Broadmead area following the discovery of a suspected wartime bomb.

Officers were called to the new development off Bond Street after workmen unearthed an object believed to date back to World War II.

Police have cordoned off the site and surrounding roads including Newfoundland Street and Bond Street.

Many roads in the area have been closed and police are advising motorists to use alternative routes.

How do they expect our football fans to cut out the WWII jokes at the World Cup when the Germans are still trying to nobble us even now?

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

If you can keep your orderly line, when all about are losing theirs

From Magnus Linklater’s article 7/7: the heroism and the humour, in The Times today:

NONE OF US knows how we will respond to extreme danger until it happens. Will we freeze in panic? Scream uncontrollably? Or set about methodically helping others?

All three reactions are described in the testimony of those who survived the London bombings. But what emerges powerfully, movingly, and at times inspirationally, are story after story of calmness and courage, modesty and self-deprecating humour.

They seem at times to belong to another era. People form orderly queues in conditions of stark horror as smoke swirls around them and Tube tunnels threaten to collapse; a man holds the hand of a dying passenger and looks into his eyes as he tells him that everything will be all right; a commuter stops his companion lapsing into unconsciousness by talking to him about England’s rugby team, then apologises for choosing such a depressing subject; a badly injured woman refuses an ambulance and tells a nurse that there are others who need it more than she does.

Where do they come from, these atavistic responses, this gritty, phlegmatic, diffident heroism? Sixty years ago, in a city used to bombing raids, V2 rockets and collapsing buildings, they were the order of the day; military notions of discipline and self-restraint were part of the national psyche, and wartime solidarity instilled the idea of teamwork and camaraderie.

None of that would have come naturally to the victims of July 7 [...]

There is another contrast to the New York bombings, where survivors gave vent to their emotions in very public expressions of grief. The London victims hold back from tears, but are aware, even as they do so, that they are betraying signs of typically British behaviour. They mock themselves for their stiff upper lips; but they are proud of them too. “Some guy was looking for his glasses,” says Michael. “Typical British mentality — he put them on, and one was blown out. He said, ‘At least I can see out of one eye. Thank you.” Jane describes helping passengers along the track, in the dark and smoke, at King’s Cross: “We then slowly, and in a very British way, queued as we walked down the tunnel — ‘After you’….

Probably the biggest culture shock when visiting the continent (especially Italy) is the lack of queuing. It's not peculiarly British to queue: it's peculiarly foreign not to.

Our boys abroad may get disgracefully legless, but they bloody well wait their turn at the bar to do so.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Wotyoulookinat Mate (in three moves)

Battle of the chess grandmasters as leading England player 'attacks' rival over dancefloor move

FOR one British grandmaster, his rival had made a move too far. Danny Gormally, one of Britain’s leading chess players, allegedly attacked the world No 3 at an international tournament for dancing with a beautiful Australian player.

Levon Aronian, leading light of the Armenian chess scene, was apparently punched and shoved, and ended up on the floor during a party at the recent Chess Olympiad in Turin.

He had been spotted jiving with Arianne Caoili, 19, an Australian grandmaster known as the Anna Kournikova of the chess world. Mr Gormally was known by team-mates to be fond of her.

But the next day, after the England captain apologised to the Armenian team, the repercussions continued. When Mr Gormally went out for a coffee with friends, he was attacked by a group of young Armenian players seemingly bent on revenge for their star player.

The unseemly events are expected to lead to an urgent inquiry by the English Chess Federation into Mr Gormally’s behaviour. He was advised to leave the tournament early to avoid further confrontation.

Allan Beardsworth, the England captain, said that drink appeared to play a part. “Danny seems to have punched Aronian for innocently dancing with a girl that he liked. The following day, there was a retaliatory incident. It is a shame, and something that we will have to look into properly,” he said.


Ms Caoili, a child prodigy of Filipino descent who has ambitions of becoming a professional singer, was dancing “energetically” with Mr Aronian. She is ranked No 3 in Australia.

Oh dear, even our chess players are binge-drinking hooligans…

Friday, June 02, 2006

Dancing about architecture…

…is what writing about music is like, according to Elvis Costello.

And he’s right, but suffice it to say that from the first note Nicola Benedetti played of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto at Bristol’s Colston Hall last night, I had a vicious attack of the spine-tingles and eye-moisteners that didn’t subside until she’d played the last.

She was accompanied by the Philharmonia, who sandwiched her performance with a frivolous Rossini overture and Elgar’s solid and stodgily-English First Symphony, but Benedetti (the winner of the Young Musician of the Year in 2004) was the show, really.

Which got me thinking about the spine-tingles. I’m not sure how much of it was the actual noise she was making and how much the mere fact of witnessing supreme virtuosity at first hand (doesn’t hurt that she is young and beautiful, of course).

A great puzzle to me is that although good music never fails to directly wallop my emotional and sometimes even my religious buttons in a way that nothing else does, and although according to some tests I apparently have a very good ear for pitch, I have no musical talent whatsoever. Can’t even sing in tune. The only difference between me and a tone-deaf droner is that at least I know when I’m singing out of tune.

And yet here is this 18 year old girl, playing a piece we’ve heard many times before, and still giving the whole audience the tingles. She’s playing the same notes we’ve all heard, yet she’s somehow managed to get her personality into them. Pure religious mystery.

Mozart was, by all accounts, a jerk, yet he wrote the Requiem. Beethoven was a mad, deaf, nasty bastard, who also happened to be the greatest artistic genius of all time not called Shakespeare. Even Tchaikovsky was a tortured soul – a homosexual riddled with self-loathing in a sham marriage. Did he have the spine-tingling gift despite this, or because of it? Does it matter? Should I be doing the cha-cha-cha about St Paul’s?