Sunday, August 31, 2008

Meek Chelsea and Liverpool Surrender 100% Records -- Guardian Headline

Another one. Has on-line football punditry gone mad? Are my socks black?

It's round three ladies and gentlemen. There was a time when 'one hundred percent' referred to undefeated streaks. Surely we shouldn't have to remonstrate poor old Liverpool and victimized Chelsea for not winning their third match of the 2008-2009 Premier League season?

Or, to put it another way, we should. Come on Big Four! Where's your diamond encrusted platinum fist when we need it? Perhaps in Damien Hurst's shop? Nothing but absolute domination should have sufficed today! Your puny-pointed humiliation will now be presented to the footballing world as 'news.'

Aston Villa? Excuse me while I puke all over my fully-furnished Kensington flat. Those Northern numpties should have laid down and bled to death in front of goal. In fact, they should have fashioned a carpet from their horrible light blue away kits to show you the way to the back of the net.

And Tottenham? Where are their manners? They could have at least suffered once more and humiliate their away fans by losing to rampant juggernaut Chelsea. But nooo, someone had to be greedy. We thought you had just gotten comfortable not scoring Mr. Darren Bent. Who the hell do you think you are?

Well, that's alright. Chelsea and Liverpool surrendered calmly, avoiding any bloodshed. Thank God for that. And judging by the results right about now, Barca and Madrid are following your pacifist lead and 'surrendering' their 100% records right on the first day of the season. Ghandi would be proud...

Friday, August 29, 2008

Cynicism, Football Blogs, and Barack Obama

Reading through the footballosphere, I get the impression we're in a bit of a dead zone at the moment. The Euros are past and buried, the Premiership is in its infant phase, the Olympics seemed a bit of a dud except for the usual Brazil/Argentina issues, the MLS has lost its appeal for reasons Ben Knight would be better able to talk about, and lately I've been more rapt by the Democratic National Convention than I have been by the early spasms of the Euro Vase, even with Aston Villa's easy passage to the group stages.

So, as usual, I've been filling the void with existential thoughts about just what I'm doing here on this strip of web. I think one of the reasons there are so many football blogs is because of the ineffable nature of the game. Will he or won't he play for this team or that, nil-nils or goal-fests, bankruptcy or branding success, the variables are endless. We chime in and read because we can't stand the uncertainty of it all, yet the drama grips even when we're at our most smug, cynical selves.

When I watched Euro 2008, I saw football at its finest, its most accessible and its most universal. Yet there was always some webnerd at the ready to render the magic meaningless by giving his or her officious, close-minded 'perspective.' This is blogging at its worst, the type that lends credence to the views of Buzz Bissinger and his ilk. Rather than accept the possibility that football can reach beyond its trite boundaries (UEFA, Coca-Cola, transfer fees etc.) to a higher place, we feel we must always nail our feet to the ground.

Politics seems much the same. I don't think I've ever been more depressed surfing the internet than when I read through Drudge and Huffington and all the other usual suspects in political blogging. Politics, for all the editorial booby-babble surrounding even the most innocuous spokesmen-generated quotes, resides in an opaque cloud of unknowing. Poverty, war, disease, education -- there are no pat, one-size-fits-all solutions to society's problems. The samsara of contemporary politics first led to the development of ideology as a tool to give order to chaos, but now we have the smug, unthinking sludge of political blogs, whose form dictates that emotion must come before reason, self-righteousness before empathy, self before other.

When I saw a forty-seven year old black candidate accept his candidate for presidency on the forty-fifth anniversary of Martin Luther King's Dream speech, the latter an astoundingly pragmatic call for nothing less than the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, I knew that someone, somewhere, would deem it necessary to post the most vile, reactionary on-line prose, as if nervously filling in the void left by careless wonder.

While I don't subscribe to all of the political views of Barack Obama (pinko Commie that I am), and I'm not even an American citizen, I can say with all my faculties intact that yesterday offered a glimpse of collective history, a notion almost impossible at a time when grand social narratives have given way to the detritus of discourse. It was a marvel to hear a politician exhort its citizens to action in an age when government is viewed as a service industry, and the voter the customer. What's in it for me? has been the rallying cry for so long now, we've forgotten there was once a higher impetus to political service.

As in life, as in football. What's in it for me? It's not just the Ronaldos, Berbatovs, and Barrys of this world, its us, writing endless reams over a game we've forgotten why we like in the first place. We're kowtowed to by satellite networks who work hard to remove every last vesitige of mystery from the game to make the at home 'experience' superior to that of the fan who must drive out to support his local club. And then we go price that fan out of the game. Then the local club goes into administration, deducted points, scuttled off to non-league status, sold and moved up the road. It's not like it matters anyway -- everyone follows the winners, who pace through 'boring' league matches void of competitive currency. Place, history, heritage? What's in it for me?

We may think it trite to import social values onto our sporting values, yet the personal is the political, as Galeano might say. We forget that football was first codified to help young men develop a sense of obligation to society (an imperfect contract it must be said). David Forsyth, the Canadian footballing mastermind, was also a leader in education in Ontario and worked closely with the federal government. In fact, most of the members of the Canadian 1880s touring team were later involved in government or were leaders in public service. While I don't expect Robbie Savage to be culture minister any time soon, it would behoove us to remember that the developers of the beautiful game once took seriously the possibility that, rather than providing punter porn to millions of disaffected consumers, football could help engender a more splendid life in both the public and private spheres.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Peter Crouch's Nachos for Thought

I'm a freak aren't I? I am. Those bells are ringing in my ears, constantly. I forgot how long it first took me to tune them out -- Defoe said he's still getting used to it. Unbelievable. At least Vidic seems a little intimidated by me. God knows they laughed when I fought them off at Anfield. So bitter those's always a bit pathetic when players absorb fan rivalries like they matter. Gary Neville's a bloody comedian that way -- a real David Brent in the team talk I heard.

Foul!? Every player does this! Up on his shoulders, it just looks like I'm crawling all over him because I've already got two feet on him. This is ridiculous. Again. Look I'm sweating bullets. I never sweat this much with Liverpool, probably because the mid-field was always halfway up my arse. I just milled about and waited for the right pass.

Not with Pompey. It's different than the last time. Distin looks all over the shop. I'm running around like a proper center forward now. God this was the right move. The south coast is scarier than Merseyside though. I get nervous getting off the bus here -- when I first arrived I got a personalized 'Welcome Back' top hat from that psycho bloke with no shirt and tats and dreads. It came in a huge brown box. I thought it was a bomb. I got Abigail to open it and made a joke about finding 'white powder.' God she got mad.

Fletcher: you call that a goal? I might seem like a spider but I can still make goals look pretty -- he just garbaged that in. Harry doesn't look happy...cockneys never look happy when they play football. It's business. I mean it was the Inter City Firm for godssake.

Oh, another marvelous long ball. How I missed you. The long ball is my future. The long ball is the future of the world. No more midfielders crawling around like ants -- chest it, one touch, in the net. Cut out the middle man completely - DIY on the football pitch.

Oh come on! Another foul! For being freakishly tall again, right? It's a form of racism. Do I need to complain about this special treatment to the press? I think I of these days. The crowd knows it too. Actually, I think I don't mind the bells that much. I think they toll for me.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Days of the Week: Trouble at the Guardian Football Weekly Podcast

James was tired. He wiped his hands across his face, dealing with the fatigue caused from meeting all of his commitments, constantly, unendingly. Alone in the studio, he thought of his Setanta job, the meaningless voice overs, covering football, discussing it, but never of it. He ruminated over his decision. It would be all over by the end of the week.

The studio door swung open and in walked Kevin. Here we go now, James surmised.

"Och aye James, did you get my notes from last week?"

"Yes, I did. Um, I'm not sure they would fit into the format of this podcast. It's not exactly...cutting edge stuff."

"Rrright, well, we're just talking a few minutes of history once a week James."

"On Celtic."

It had started with Ingle. About a year ago after the show, when he was off to catch an eleven o'clock flight to Milan, Sean had grabbed him by the arm in the studio hallway, and said the words, "Walk with me." The podcast was going to go in new dynamic directions, more international football, perhaps even guests, football players, you have connections right? James had smiled through clenched teeth, and tried not to protest when Sean insisted in getting in his airport limo to give his opinions on the show. Sean did own the thing, if only in title. Maybe it was for the best.

Then a few weeks later, Doyle chimed in over lunch on doing a bit on Asante Kotoko, then Tom Lutz actually handed him notes about doing a series on corruption at Birmingham City, and soon after that he found himself avoiding Jonathan Wilson in the hallway lest he get a fifteen minute lecture about why there should be more Lithuanian football on the pod and, by the way, could he get a regular spot on the show.

All bothered him, except of course Barry. Barry had long confided to James he'd rather be dead than do the show anymore, but his bird appreciated the extra cash. For the others, "Talk to Sean" was the verbal auto-reply, but they knew who called the shots. The man had cracked jokes with Elvis Costello and had Paul Ince on speed dial, he would be making the decisions.

AC Jimbo had a decision to make of his own.

"You know, Kev, I'm thinking of leaving the show."

"No this again James. Come on. Who's going to do it? Curling? We'd be dead and under and Fighting Talk would be picking up the pieces of our mangled corpse."

"No, Kevin, I think this is really it for me. I'm really tired of all this, this blather. The posts are truly awful, we talk all the time about the same four teams, my Italy time is getting rounded down each week, I mean crikey, I'm just a talking monkey aren't I?"

Kevin laughed out some of his sandwich on the mahogany conference table.

"Come on, we all know who the monkey is." Kevin nodded toward Barry's empty seat. Baz would often come in halfway through the pod, so the producers had become adept at cutting in his groans in the post edit.

"And that's another thing. Barry is really hurting about the way you're treating him. He's seriously thinking of abandoning ship to the music pod completely, and then we really are in trouble. You know how many times I've convinced him to stay on the show?"

James noticed Kevin's face narrow. It was a look he'd never seen on Kevin's face before.

"Is it the money James?"

"You know it's not. It's...the uselessness of it all. How is our talking making the game any better for anyone? What new information are we introducing to the listening public?"

Kevin's face grew more serious. James found himself getting a little uncomfortable.

"I don't know. But I do know that you and Barry aren't going anywhere. You've both got quite a reputation now around town, thanks to Sean and I. If you left, things could get a lot worse... your Setanta job could evaporate in a matter of weeks."

James felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.

"Kevin, what the hell are you talking about?" He looked to the clock. When was, someone, anyone else going to arrive, James thought.

"We have enough on both of you to make your lives quite difficult if you go..."

"Enough what? You have nothing on Barry and I."

"It will be our word against yours Jimbo. About expense accounts in Austria perhaps? Sean's found someone in the tech department whose done up some lovely receipts...misspending, misappropriated funds, heinous abuse of journalistic privileges. No, you won't be leaving James, and you will be reading my notes on Celtic."

"You're...Kevin, you're mad!"

Then Kevin laughed -- a deep low, hideous laugh, like the devil himself.

"Am I? You know the Guardian James, you don't need to be mad to work here, etcetera, etcetera."

James looked at Kevin in disgust. And then fear. And then resignation. A few more months maybe. Perhaps Kevin's just pulling my leg he thought. And then Paul Doyle walked in with a French Championat break down he wanted to read, and then Rafa Honigstein and the rest, the notes, the suggestions, the horrible familiarity of it all...a few more months he thought. Maybe to spread some 'truths' of his own.

Kevin finished his sandwich, and the producer signalled for quiet for the sound check. James put his face back into his hands, to try and coax back the tears. He looked to Barry's empty seat, and pictured San Siro, 1986, lovely in the late Spring breeze, the lovely languid football. And the feeling it would last forever.

As he looked up, the light went red.

This is a work of fiction, any resemblance to anyone living or dead is a coincidence. A total coincidence. And I apparently have WAY too much time on my hands.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Ronaldo may have to adapt to a drop in adulation -- Guardian Headline

So this is news now is it? Manchester United fans can't bring themselves to support their top-scorer's boyhood dreams -- report. And why does the wording make me feel wrong, like an apple that takes four or five bites to know if its mealy?

Is this adulation thing like the stock market, buy low, sell high? Is that why JC kicked off at a relative peak in Jerusalem? Is Ronaldo busy laying off staff to deal with the downturn? Judging by Gareth Barry's and Adebayor's situation, maybe we're entering an adulation recession.

Happier Days in the Adulation Business. We were
all so naive.

I mean, I used to adulate John Carew every weekday and twice on Sunday. Now, you're lucky if you can catch me burning incense to his dogeared and yellowing photograph even once a fortnight. Times are tough; the thousand or British Daily rumor mills are wreaking havoc on the market, and when John Arne Riise's payslip got found out last year, that was the last straw.

Many are weathering the storm by endlessly replaying Ian Rush and Glenn Hoddle vids on Youtube. This is a band-aid solution at best. What the public needs more of is underaged wunderkinds like Theo Walcott. If we can flood the market with footballing youngsters much as Manchester United did against Newcastle last weekend, adulation stocks could soar. That is, if they don't all die from the immense and unrealistic pressure heaped on them by fans, the media, and those responsible for their care and well-being.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

David Bentley's Weird 1940s Era Pilot Haircut

Bentley knew from the first whistle this wouldn't be his 'debut performance.' Tottenham didn't have the pressure-free pleasure enjoyed by Rovers, who didn't have anything to prove at least as far as the league was concerned. But he was tired of all the running and wanted to live in London again. He we would only really miss Santa Cruz...once Hughes left his regret dissolved completely. And yet.

Tottenham might have come off as a bit rogue-ish. But when North London beckons. A nice year-round f*ck you to the Arsenal then. Bentley felt the crust of his hairdo against the breeze. He couldn't help but notice in the crisp Riverside sun that his starting eleven looked like something out of a World War Two newsreel. They were stars, boys on the verge of the Top Four breakthrough. Remember the Tottenham of yore? Before Sugar and Klinsmann and Jol? Now it would be Jenas, Lennon and Woodgate. England for the English.

Something was wrong early -- first of all, David Wheater was everywhere. A wrongly disallowed goal from nothing and more than one play-destroying tackles. Wheater looked exactly the same as last year. No opening day hairstyle then, although this was Teesside. He didn't know much of Wheater except that he was the England U21 captain. Under twenty-one?

As the whistle blew for a free-kick left there for him to approach and mis-hit, one of many that day, Bentley remembered when he was 19 and playing for Arsenal, lobbing the keeper against Boro in the Cup. Now he was completely anonymous at the Riverside with strange pretentious hair, playing for the bad guys. That stylist said it was coming back. In North London maybe. He could feel the strain of his running, and looked to Ramos, then again to Wheater.

Goal number one. His instinct had been right. Bentley tried to focus but his hair was distracting him. And his anger toward this giant freak-jaw Wheater. And his stylist. The thing was crusting up, like it was crisco. Who was he kidding? He should have waited until his White Hart Lane debut. Then goal number two came and the almost certain loss meant he could focus on how stupid he was to have gotten the thing. He found himself smirking as he stepped over the halfway line, thinking of what Jason Roberts would have said if he'd walked out at Ewood with his hair combed down.

By the end, when his free-kick was own-goaled nicely by Huth, Bentley walked off the pitch feeling a bit sad at the thought of Jason Roberts, and then Ewood Park, and then Lancashire. A new beginning he had said to Ramos, when he joined. A new beginning. Bentley reminded himself to look at the fixture list when he got to the dressing room, and then taking off his white shirt, shook the feeling off. The haircut would stay.

Friday, August 15, 2008

A Look-See Around the Corner

So, tomorrow the ruckus begins, and in the spirit of starting afresh, here's a quick breakdown of what to look forward to at A More Splendid Life over the 2008-2009 European football season.

You can have some, but only if you're good.

Footie Fiction

To further elbow my way to the vague middle of the football blog queue, AMSL will try something different by offering a fictionalized summary of one of the week's matches, basically whatever is on Setanta on Saturday morning or if there's something curious on GolTV.

What the hell does that mean, you might justifiably ask yourself. Well, since you can get an expertly-written match summary on any old Guardian Football Re-Vamped website, I will be taking the perspective of a key player and offering up my own fictionalized account of their experience over the course of a game. As a colleague has already surmised, Sport is indeed a TV Show, but it can also be a short story too. You'll see what I mean after this Sunday evening.

Soccer History

Last month, I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. William Hoyle, head the board of governors of the Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame. He has kindly asked my involvement with the board, so you should expect interviews, features, and more surprising tidbits from the annals of Canadian soccer history, delivered right to your computer screen, hopefully at the rate of once a week or so. Like anything Canadian, it's not kosher unless it has at least thirty percent Canadian content. Rock on everyone.

Media Criticism

Because really, who is watching the watchers these days? Just because When Saturday Comes can cut Sky Sports to ribbons in a matter of an opening paragraph doesn't mean a complete amateur can't do the same to them, can it? The Blogosphere panopticon knows no sense of decency...

Am I missing something? Anything else you'd like to see here? Is there something I do well and something I bomb at so badly that you wonder why you ever clicked on this thing in the first place? Let me know which is which! YOU are the editor.

See you soon!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

How Long Will We All Bother with the Premier League?

Well, it's almost that time again. The Community Shield has gone and been futile as only it can be, the networks are booming with knee-knocking, bladder-bursting promos featuring men screaming like 19th century parsons about Passion, Glory and Honour, the English leftwing cranks are crying hell and damnation at the prospect of another eight-month orgy of misspent wealth, and the technocrats sprinkle soft reassuring pablum on the raging masses with one hand while massaging their shareholders with the other.

Yes it's the return of the Football Association's Barclays English Premier League. I can't help but feel pretty much nothing, much the same way I feel when a blockbuster movie comes out and all I get from my friends and family for three weeks after is, "Did you see it yet? Oh man it's amazing, Heath Ledger IS the joker," etcetera etcetera etcetera. Yet, like a sucker, I will still wake up hungover as sin on a Saturday and punch in '429' to see which Top Four team will make mincemeat of the not-so-plucky underdog of the day.

I can't help it. I've never been able to pin down exactly what it is about the English game that draws me to it. As shameful as it is to admit, it might be because English fans get angry like I get angry, sing like I like to sing, and really, really like goals, not so much for the glory of athletic achievement but more because they're a big cathartic 'F*ck you!' to the faceless 'Them' sitting two stands away. The PL Intelligentsia claims their 'Global Following' has always been about the league's 'Pace and Passion,' but as much as I like that stuff sometimes I need the Football Hate-On that the English, when they're not being violent xenophobic maniacs, do so well. It was Jurgen Klinsmann after all who once suggested it's the proximity of the rabidly partisan fans to the pitch and not some inherent native quirk of the English game that gives the Premier League all it's 'Pace and Passion.'

With inflated ticket prices, zero competition outside of the Large Quartet, and a morbidly obese fixture list, that fuel is at risk of running out. The fan demographic is changing in England. Blue-collar fans watch at the pub while faceless corporate management overlords chillax on the side stands to Blackberry one another about gate receipts and sponsorship deals rather than goals and points. Yes, the stadiums are full, but nobody knows the songs anymore. Some don't even know who they're playing against. All that Pace and Passion may eventually wind up staying at home to do the gardening.

Scudamore doesn't think so. As long as they're watching on telly the money will roll on in. But to watch what exactly? A mish-mash of players with no more attachment to the club crest on their shirt other than they happen to be wearing it, playing in front of fans who've fair-weathered their way from London's ponciest pads to get a taste of the 'real fan' experience in the executive box while the 'real fans' have moved on to darts or rugby. This is of course too much bang and not enough whimper to be plausible, but it does give a vision of the world we've Blaired ourselves into. Whether it changes anytime soon will depend on the lifespan of the current threadbare neoliberal commerce-at-all-cost ideology that has permeated Western thinking since the early 1980s. I give it another twenty years or so. Best we sit back for now, lager in hand, and weather the storm. See you next weekend!

A More Splendid Life apologizes for the brief hiatus. I'm not a machine you know.

Monday, August 4, 2008

The Undiscovered Country -- On the Importance of Soccer's Legacy in North America

Eduardo Galleano once remarked that you can't grasp the whole of cultural history in the West over the past century without discussing the game of football. Most modern historians, sociologists and cultural critics are only now discovering the importance of the sport when analyzing the myriad cultural shifts of the 20th and early 21st centuries.

The last few years have seen some remarkable historical works on soccer from historians, authors and journalists like Simon Kuper, David Goldblatt, Jonathan Wilson, and of course, Galleano. Yet within this small but important group there persists the belief that soccer in North America is a blank slate until the NASL years, and later, the MLS.

The reasons are obvious: most reliable histories on the beautiful game have originated from Europe or South America, footballing superpowers. Why expect the giants of the game to waste pages covering scrips and scraps of North American soccer history when the ultimate truth is soccer 'never really caught on there'? Yet as I've witnessed researching the history of football in Toronto over the past month, the whole of these scrips and scraps is much greater than the sum of its parts.

I did this series to prove two points: first, that there was enough soccer history in this city alone to populate thirty days worth of vignettes, and second, much of it is out there waiting to be discovered, even by an amateur like myself. While I focussed on the town of my birth, it's my belief that this series could have been written about Chicago, St. Louis, New York City, Newark, Seattle, Vancouver, Winnipeg, or Montreal. As the game slowly gains a following in North America, we owe it to ourselves to research and re-write the official story of football in North America. Colin Jose has laid the foundation, and all it takes is for some interested writers to take up the challenge and fill in the gaps.

The question remains of course: why bother? The MLS has come a long way since 1996, and many fans know nothing more about the local history of soccer than the New York Cosmos, Baggio's missed penalty, and their own broken ankle playing left-back in grade six (or if you're American, the sixth grade). And it's not likely the legions of young people supporting the Premier League's Big Four know anything of the Chelsea Smile, Bob Paisley's tea-room tactical meetings at Anfield, Matt Busby's youth teams of the mid-fifties or Herbert Chapman's revolutionary formations at Highbury in the mid-twenties.

Yet history provides a richness that can help circumnavigate the modern commercialism that is ruining football, and it can also point to solutions for present-day problems. A month ago I would have railed against any player who criticized Toronto's FieldTurf -- now, I don't think Toronto FC or the national team will fare well at BMO in the long term unless grass is introduced within the next five years. I am also now a firm believer in a single, accepted league structure in North America, without East or West divisions, and yes, I think promotion/relegation must at some stage play a role so that teams will be able to move seamlessly between leagues without costly and arbitrary franchise fees getting in the way (much more on this in future, don't come flailing at me yet!).

However the most important reason for studying local soccer history in North America is confounding the post-modern credo that 'there is nothing new under the sun.' What a thrill it is to know Canada v. USA was the first international match played outside of Britain, a mere thirteen years after England v. Scotland, or that a team from Ontario (!) matched British clubs game for game in the earliest days of club football. There is a legacy waiting to be uncovered, and it's all there in newspapers and local city and state/provincial archives across the continent. As Galleano proffered, by studying soccer's legacy here, you are tapping into local culture in ways many historians have long overlooked.

One of the most striking thing Colin Jose ever mentioned to me was about the utter lack of interest Torontonians have in their history. So ingrained is this attitude in the city that local author Michael Redhill wrote a Booker-nominated novel on the same subject, Consolation, about how Toronto's politicians, business-people and planners would rather abandon the secrets of our past than miss out on a quick buck in the present. This needs to change, and soon. The longer we continue to ignore our historical treasures, the less likely we will be able to recover them in the future. If we don't recognize soccer's past within our city borders, we have no reason to ensure the health of soccer's future.

A More Splendid Life would like to apologize for the delay in getting this out. There is still much to cover in the next few months, including reasons why John Carver must leave Toronto FC and why Aston Villa will fight relegation this year. Yeah, you heard me.