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Only a game: football and identity politics

22 Jun

 

Madrid y nada mas

So much has happened since the Champions League Final held in Cardiff on June 3rd: the London Bridge attacks (that same night); the general election; the Grenfell Tower fire and the Finsbury Park attack. A football game is a mere trifle. But the issues that struck me on the evening of the European Champions Final in Cardiff are perhaps not entirely irrelevant, and the corporate, globalised nature of top-level football – along with its often incorrigibly corrupt officials (stand up Michel Platini) – raised some questions of identity and alienation, even in this anecdotal form.

What is in a name? Walking through my home city towards the Principality Stadium, once the Millennium Stadium, and renamed the National Stadium of Wales at the insistence of UEFA for tonight’s event, I could feel myself, just like the stadium itself, undergoing an identity crisis.

I have been overtaken by a sort of acute cognitive dissonance, in which the knowledge that, while I am in my own city, in a street I walk down every day on my way home from work, I am at the same time elsewhere, in a city of strangers, all of them football fans – which I am not – in a parade (typically, if not stereotypically) of shouting and gesticulating Italians, all adorned with shirts and scarves of the Juventus tribe, followers of the fortunes of the football club that will shortly be pitched against the might of Real Madrid, their ‘Spanish’ opponents. They are passionate in their support, and many of them would do almost anything – and have already done a great deal and paid a lot of money – to travel to this game.

My overall neutrality is a serious marker of difference, here amongst fanatics. I am both a native and a neutral, and it feels as though I have entered a parallel world, in which my familiar surroundings have been ripped away and replaced by a replica city, in which I am the alien. And I am walking down Wood Street the wrong way.

Normally, in order to enter this end of the stadium, I would leave my home in upper Grangetown, cross the bridge at the end of Tudor Road and, turn left. This evening, though, Wood Street has become a one-way system for pedestrians, and we are channelled up towards the railway station, underneath the vast and towering construction that will soon be the new home of the BBC, doubling back down towards Wood Street from the Mary Street end. It is a small matter, but one which adds to the general sense of being cast adrift within familiar surroundings. And the fact of being herded the wrong way down this road, surrounded by strangers, seems laden with metaphoric possibility. I am a little disoriented, to say the least.

But as I have started thinking about my own identity in this huge crowd of fanatics, and felt the painful onset of anomie, and an almost total disconnect from my surroundings, I begin to think, in turn, what it means to support a football club. We all know, nowadays, that support of a particular club has nothing at all to do with geographical or even cultural affinity. The reasons for supporting a club can be as fleeting as the colour of their strip or the design of their logo, or a schoolboy crush on a particular player. It isn’t like in my grandfather’s day – that’s how far you have to go back – when the players in a side were actually from the place they played for. Nowadays these specimens are rare – Stephen Gerrard of Liverpool was a notable recent case, along with Rooney when he played (briefly) for Everton, and I’m sure there are a few more, but they are not plentiful, and certainly not in the Premier League. Such characters are invariably local heroes, until they move to a bigger, richer club.

So, the notion that supporting a club may have anything to do with affiliation by country or culture or geography applies equally to playing for such a club. How many of the Juventus players starting tonight come from Turin? And how many of the Madrid players are from . . . As I write this, I realise it is not a remotely original question, but let’s check, starting with Juventus.

There is not a single player from Turin or even thereabouts in the Juventus team; of the four Italians starting for Juventus, three are from Tuscany and one from the Lazio region. I find it interesting that the actual Italians are, true to form, all defenders, as though the back line must, at least, live up to the Italian reputation for ruthless, murderous defence, and therefore be comprised of those most loyal, even at a distance, to the Italian (though strictly speaking, it should be Lombard) cause. There are even fewer Spaniards in the Real Madrid side: of the three starting, two are Andalusians, and there is one, yes one from the autonomous community of Madrid, Dani Carvajal (also a defender). I like the way the nationals (Ramos, too, is a defender) make up the defence, as if to say “we at least are loyal Spaniards/Italians and will defend the goal-line to the last”. A nice touch. There were, in total, 4 Brazilians (two apiece), 4 Italians, 3 Spaniards, 2 Germans, 2 French, 2 Croatians, 2 Argentinians, and a single representative of Bosnia, Portugal and Costa Rica out on the pitch at the start of the game.

Clearly, then, in this globalised era of sport, what these fans are following are brands, not to be confused by loyalties of birth or geographical affiliation. And the notion of 76,000 fans baying on behalf of a brand that in reality has nothing in common with themselves as a defined cultural group from a defined place (Madrid, Turin) is a distinctly postmodern notion.

As if to prove a point, I am in the company of a Mexican and an Argentinian (invited to Cardiff to take part in Fiction Fiesta events on football and literature) and both have declared their allegiance to the cause of Juventus, while I myself am strictly neutral. A., the Argentinian – who lives in Granada – is an Atlético Madrid supporter, and therefore despises Real on principle. J.’s family on his father’s side is originally from Barcelona, and he has lived in the Catalan capital for extended periods, so he is even more contra Madrid than A. And me? Despite my protestations of neutrality, I lived in Barcelona myself for a while in the 1980s, and I am loath to see Real Madrid win anything, but there is the Gareth Bale factor, and even though Bale is not in the starting line-up, he is, after all, a Cardiff boy, and may come on as a sub (which he does, late in the game, but to no great effect). So, you see, one can get caught up in this nonsense even if one doesn’t really care. But the brand thing? The gazillions spent on players’ salaries, the products, the strips; the millions of little girls and boys who dream of getting a Messi 10 shirt in their Christmas stocking, or whatever . . . what the fuck is this all about?

hooligans

Earlier in the day I had picked up our Argentinian friend, A., from his hotel. J. and I had waited in the foyer. A group of men were on their way into reception from their rooms, also on their way to the game. There was about them a brashness, and a brittle sense of propriety that seemed presumptuous, here in a foreign city. They exuded insider knowledge and, I suspected, the potential for extreme violence. They wore sharp suits to match their hatchet faces. ‘Romanian Mafia,’ J. muttered to me; ‘they turn up at every big match.’ J. would know; he is one of the world’s great football writers. The renowned Mexican author, Carlos Fuentes, once said: ‘If you want to know about soccer, go speak to J.’ So if J. says these guys are mafia, I’m pretty sure they are. And it seems to be almost as if these guys are at the bloody heart of globalised football: the obvious crooks, milking the UEFA machine (on this occasion) – though it might as well be FIFA or any other of its world tributaries –  for personal profit in whatever deals come in this event’s trashy wake. And they are only one step away from the ones we might consider the ‘insider’ crooks – the repulsive Sepp Blatter and his cronies.

As we approach the turnstiles, the tension mounts. We have to pass through three separate rungs of security and ticket checks. At the third turnstile, a young man attempts to flash a pass, or a ticket, at security, and this is found wanting. He has no ticket. The guard immediately calls for help and the guy is ushered away by two uniformed colleagues. I wonder how on earth he got through the first two levels of security. Two weeks prior to the match, we had to provide details of our passports and – in my case – national insurance number. The form from the Welsh FA stated that this information would be shared by the South Wales and Greater Manchester Police forces. We received this request four days before the Manchester Arena bombing of 22nd May. This was odd. Why did Greater Manchester Police need our data? Did they have intelligence on a likely attack? It would seem so, and I haven’t been offered any other explanation.

photographers

The game itself, even for a non-fan, offered a great spectacle. I am used to attending rugby internationals at the Millennium stadium, so the atmosphere was not a shock, but I did admire the extraordinary skills of the players, their control of a ball moving at speed, their balance and precision of movement. The Juventus goal, an overhead strike by the Croatian, Mandzukić, was a staggering piece of athleticism.  I was particularly entranced by Ronaldo, a man with possibly the strangest skin colour on earth, after Donald Trump. And he was certainly the most reviled player on the pitch, which was fun. We were seated pitchside – our complimentary tickets were excellent (thank you, Nick) – near the Juventus fans at the south end of the stadium, and every time Ronaldo had the ball, a terrible hissing began. On a couple of occasions he was near enough to be spat upon. This radiantly dark orange gladiator ignored the taunts in magisterial fashion, peacocking his way across the pitch and, after his opening goal, embarked on a trademark piece of preening, flexing his muscles in a comically macho pose after first dashing to the corner to answer the taunts of the Juve fans with shaking fist. Great theatre, I guess, but such an odious fellow. I remembered reading somewhere that Ronaldo never celebrates the goals of his team-mates with them, but demands their adoration when he scores himself. If true, which I suspect it is, it struck me as the most incredibly narcissistic gesture, in what is, after all, a ‘team game’. But, then again: perhaps Ronaldo is simply being true to himself. Why would narcissism, a trait which defines contemporary celebrity culture, be out of place here, in a game that obediently tows the global capitalist line of cynical identity manipulation and idiotic self-love? It kind of follows that in such a relentlessly competitive and cash-driven arena, you wouldn’t really give a shit about anyone else in your team – even to the point of resenting them the smallest taste of glory. Team spirit? What have you got in common with these guys other than your obscenely inflated pay packet?

But despite Ronaldo’s prima donna antics, he wouldn’t be a great player without the rest of the team, and most people – in football as in life – seem compelled to form teams, to take sides, however tenuous the commonalities they share. In many ways, football at this level is the embodiment of postmodern identity politics. It is compellingly entertaining, even if the structure that supports it is rotten.

 

The players, by origin:

REAL MADRID

Keylor Navas (Costa Rica)

Dani Carvajal (Madrid, Spain)

Rafael Varane (France)

Sergio Ramos (Seville, Spain)

Marcelo (Brazil)

Casemiro (Brazil)

Toni Kroos (Germany)

Luka Modric (Croatia)

Isco (Malaga, Spain)

Karim Benzema (France)

Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)

 

JUVENTUS

Gianluigi Buffon (Tuscany, Italy)

Giorgio Chiellini (Tuscany, Italy)

Leonardo Bonucci (Lazio, Italy)

Andrea Barzagli  (Tuscany, Italy)

Alex Sandro (Brazil)

Miralem Pjanic (Bosnia)

Sami Khedira (Germany)

Dani Alves (Brazil)

Paulo Dybala (Argentina)

Mario Mandzukić (Croatia)

Gonzalo Higuain (Argentina)

 

endgame selfie

Fiction Fiesta welcomes Andrés Neuman, Juan Villoro and Niall Griffiths to Cardiff

26 May
foto Neuman 2015_Antonia Urbano

Andrés Neuman, author of Traveller of the Century

Now in its sixth year, the fiesta celebrates literature and football with events in Cardiff over 31st May and 1st June.

In The Latin American Short Story, acclaimed international writers Juan Villoro (Mexico) and Andrés Neuman (Argentina) will be in conversation with Cardiff University’s Director of Creative Writing Richard Gwyn. Both writers are acknowledged masters of the short story, and will read excerpts of their work, and discuss the form and the influences on their writing in an evening event: 31 May, 6.00pm, Council Chamber, Main Building, Park Place, Cardiff University CF10 3AT.

There will be a wine reception at this event, and donations collected for Wales PEN Cymru. Entry is free but it is recommended that you reserve tickets here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/fiction-fiesta-2017-the-latin-american-short-story-tickets-34619051515

On the second day, Villoro and Neuman kick off Football Fiction Fiesta in the Japan Room of the Wales Millennium Centre with Writing Football. Inspired by the UEFA Champions League final, writers respected internationally for their football writing will discuss the craft of writing about the beautiful game in the literary genre.

juan

Journalist and prolific writer Juan Villoro has been by turns a cultural attaché and a DJ. He is Mexico’s greatest living writer of short stories, following that country’s great tradition of the genre. Passionate about football, he is perhaps best known for his book God is Round.

Poet, writer, translator and blogger Andrés Neuman is author of Traveller of the Century, selected as a Book of the Year by The Guardian, the FT and The Independent in 2013. His award-winning work has led to nominations as most outstanding Latin American author (Hay Festival), as well as inclusion in Granta magazine’s special edition on emerging Spanish language authors, with a short story translated by Richard Gwyn, who will be chairing the event.

Football Fiction Fiesta completes its hat-trick of events with Liverpool and Wales legend Ian Rush in conversation with Niall Griffiths.

niall griffiths_pic

Niall Griffiths, author of Kelly + Victor

Ian Rush, who, amongst other notable deeds, scored the winning goal in Wales’ only victory against Germany in Cardiff in 1991, is this year’s ambassador for the 2016/17 UEFA Champions League final in Cardiff. Niall Griffiths is a Welsh novelist and journalist, author of GritsSheepshagger, and Kelly + Victor. He is also a life-long Liverpool fan.

Creator of Fiction Fiesta, Cardiff University’s Director of Creative Writing, Richard Gwyn is excited about the creative mix of football and writing: “The UEFA Champions League Final provides the perfect opportunity to bring three great writers to Cardiff. Juan Villoro, with God is Round, has written what is possibly the greatest book ever about football, while Andrés Neuman writes regularly in the Spanish media on football. Both are passionate advocates of the belief that football and great literature can mix. Niall Griffiths and Ian Rush make that fusion a living reality.”

 

fiction-fiesta-poster-2017-latin-america-web

fiction-fiesta-poster-2017-football-web

Mexican history, pasties, & the fall of Europe

18 May

wall

 

crack in the wall

Perhaps nowhere on earth is the contiguity of past and present more strikingly evident than in Mexico. An ancient wall, cracked from an earthquake, stands before a pair of ascending high rise towers, from one of which emanates a constant hammering and pounding that echoes across the hot afternoon. Through the crack in the ancient wall modernity surges skyward, oblivious.

My last night in Mexico City I watch the Mexican cup final in a taqueria with some friends. The match is between Leon and Pachuca. The second of these is known as Pachuca la airosa (Pachuca the windy) and its football team has a curious history. It is the oldest club in Mexico, having been formed in 1901 by Cornish miners who had arrived in the area to work in mines owned byWilliam Blamey at the end of the nineteenth century. The team was augmented with locals who took to the game, and became one of the country’s leading clubs. It is in the Mexican Premier League and has won five championships as well as four CONCACAF Champions’ Cups, the 2007 SuperLiga and one Copa Sudamericana. One detail that truly impressed me was that the dish for which Pachuca cuisine is famed – harking back to those miners – is a variety of Cornish Pasty, known locally as pastes. On Thursday night, despite the howls of disapproval around me (I was evidently in a hotbed of Leon supporters), the pasties won 3-2.

Next day, at the airport bar in Mexico City a very besoffen German with a shaved head engages me in conversation in unstable English. Europe is finished, he tells me, thanks to the dictatorship of Brussels. Ve haf many dictators in Europ, ze last was Hitler, and before that ze Swedish Gustavus Adolphus and ze other was, er, er . . . – he seems in actual physical pain, struggling to remember another European dictator. Napoleon? I suggest. Ja, ja, Napoleon, he says, relieved at what is evidently a gargantuan struggle against alcohol’s tendency to obliterate memory. But now ve haf Brussels and all is finished.

The gist of his argument, as far as I can make out, is that Europe was better off as a collection of independent nation states with their own laws and their own currencies. So you are against any idea of a federal Europe? Ja, he says, nodding his shiny pate with extraordinary vigour. I want to point out that it was precisely because of the continual warmongering between these independent nation states – his own in particular – that the idea of a Federal Europe emerged, but I fear that his grasp of such a concept is imperilled by the dispatching in rapid succession of two more tequilas. What has he been doing in Mexico? I ask. I haf been doing my work, which I do, he tells me, helpfully. He explains that his plane to Geneva leaves at 9.00 pm and he likes to be the last on board, in order to make the others wait. This amuses him greatly and he guffaws into his empty glass. I leave to catch my own plane. I glance at the departures board on the way. There is no 9.00 pm flight to Geneva listed.

 

hat seller DF

Hat-seller, Mexico City.

 

sleeping man Puebla

Man asleep, Puebla.

 

Snouts, gizzards, offal.

Snouts, gizzards, offal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Good things about being Welsh: No. 6 – beating Germany at football, meeting Ian Rush (and becoming a father).

22 Sep

Ian Rush and Blanco

 

Blanco, not renowned as a great footballing fan, more of a rugby man, must confess to having had a little thrill last night meeting and having a drink with Ian Rush, Liverpool and Wales footballing legend. We were introduced by mutual friend, owner of The Promised Land and general good chap Nick Davidson at the Park Plaza Hotel in Cardiff. (Rushy’s hand is actually on my left shoulder, which means we are kind of mates, no?)

Among his many achievements, Rushy scored the winner in Wales’ 1991 defeat of reigning World Champions Germany in a European Championship qualifying match played at Cardiff Arms Park on the evening of 5 June, the only occasion, as far as I know, on which Wales have beaten Germany at anything. I happen to remember the date particularly well as it was the night our first child, Sioned Maria, was born. In fact – as I let Mr Rush know last night – it was because of his goal that the obstetrician was late arriving on the ward, coming into the room in which Mrs Blanco was at the closing stages of a difficult 10-hour labour. The doctor burst in proclaiming ‘Rush has scored’. ‘What’s he on about? mumbled Mrs Blanco, in a slightly medicated drawl, ‘and who the hell is Rush?’ Well, his spectacular goal, shown below, provides the answer to that one.

 

 

We won, Sioned was borned (yes, borned) and Cardiff went bonkers. Dazed, I wandered into the hospital car park at 2.00 a.m. and could not remember where I’d put the car. A security guard approached me, and when I said I couldn’t remember where the car was, for some reason assumed I was inebriated, and asked whether I was sure I should be driving. I wasn’t drunk, but driving through the city centre – very carefully, due to the inconsiderate presence of so many citizens – to get back home, most of the rest of the city was in a state of great exuberance. Truly, amigos, a night to remember, and one to bore the grandchildren with when I start repeating myself incessantly. When I start repeating myself, incessantly.

 

 

 

 

Big John Toshack

17 Jan

Imagine my surprise last Thursday when, standing sardine-packed on the bus that was to take me and my fellow Easy Jetters to our plane at Barcelona airport, I realised that the man into whose coat my nose was pressed was none other than John Toshack O.B.E., once Liverpool’s top striker and twice (rather briefly) manager of Real Madrid, and now . . . coach of Macedonia. Anyhow, I didn’t give it any more thought until the other evening, when watching the highlights of Swansea City’s defeat of Arsenal on TV, I saw Tosh in the stand, wearing the same rather nasty coat he had on the bus.

Now I don’t want to cast aspersions, but other than beings a truly awful Wales manager (admittedly a thankless job) Toshack has always struck me as a particularly morose figure, and he may have good reason, but it makes you wonder how he inspires his players if he speaks to them with the same enthusiasm that he conveys in interviews. And I mean, christ, does he ever smile? (Actually there are a few pictures of him smiling on the Facebook John Toshack page, but most of them are from his days as a player). Not that smiling is obligatory for football managers, after all they have to spend their lives catering to the whims and wiles of their overpaid moronic prima donna players; but Tosh makes Fergie (Sir Alex Ferguson to those of you who don’t follow football, or soccer) look like Mister Happy.

Of course Swansea was Toshack’s first project as a manager, and a very good job he made of it too, bringing the club from the old Fourth Division to the First in successive seasons. Then he went to Portugal, and then was scooped up by the San Sebastian club Real Sociedad, where he was very successful (as well as being hugely popular with the Basque supporters) before Real Madrid signed him for the first time and from then it was mostly downhill.

Which kind of explains why he was flying Easy Jet. You can’t imagine José Mourinho flying Easy Jet from Barcelona to Bristol, can you? (Actually you can’t imagine Mourinho flying from Barcelona to anywhere). But that is really no excuse for such a glum face. He might, after all have been flying Ryanair.