Comrade Barnes addresses football-loving proletariat, calls on England to adopt socialism

You can forget about your Ken Livingstones and George Galloways. Believe it or not, the left has a new champion, and moreover one who has a plan to sort out England’s footballing woes. Yes, drawing inspiration from the Bolivarian revolutionary process in South America, it’s none other than Liverpool and England legend John Barnes:

“Football is a socialist sport,” he explains. “Financially, some may receive more rewards than others but, from a footballing perspective, for 90 minutes, regardless of whether you are Lionel Messi or the substitute right-back for Argentina, you are all working to the same end.

“The teams which embrace the socialist ideology rather than having superstars, are the teams that are successful. Or if there are superstars they don’t perceive themselves to be that. That’s why I use Messi as an example. As much as he’s a superstar he respects his team-mates and their collective efforts.”…

“Players from other nations when they play for their country are once again a socialist entity, all pulling in the same direction,” he tells me from a dressing room at Supersport’s studios where he is an expert analyst on the World Cup. “The most important thing for every Brazilian player is to play for Brazil.

“It doesn’t matter if he plays for Milan or Manchester United. A Brazilian who puts on that yellow shirt feels the same as the man next to him in that yellow shirt. They have a humility to the shirt. It is not the same for those who wear the Three Lions.”

Barnesy goes on to wax militant about the corporate monster that is the English Premier League, and about the virtues of collective team endeavour against the individualist egotism rampant in the England team.

I like this guy. I wish he was my MP. Or, failing that, England football manager.

Vuvuzelas and theology

Sometimes a familiar old publication still has the ability to make you sit up and take notice. Like when the wonderful Penny Red started writing a lifestyle column for the Morning Star: of course you’re pleased for her, and the result is worth reading, but the juxtaposition of the Morning Star and the whole concept of “lifestyle” makes me wonder if these are the droids we’re looking for.

And so we turn to the popular issue of the moment, the vuvuzela. One expects, of course, the tabloids to run big on the vuvuzela; one even expects the Grauniad to deal with it in an achingly postmodern way. What one doesn’t expect is to see it being discussed in the good old Church Times:

THE VUVUZELA, the plastic horn that has dominated the 2010 World Cup, is Africa’s revenge on the West, a South African theologian says.

The president of the South African Council of Churches, Dr Tinyiko Maluleke, interviewed by ENI in Edinburgh last week, praised the vuvuzela for the volume of noise it makes. Dr Maluleke described the one-note instrument as a “missile-shaped weapon”, which forced the world to wake up and acknowledge Africa’s past sufferings.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu told The Sun on Wednesday: “The vuvuzela is part of our culture. We cannot separate them from the soccer fever.”

By the middle of this week, the website banvuvuzela.com had attracted 84,000 votes to ban the instrument, and 9000 votes in its favour. The BBC has received more than 500 complaints about the background noise on its broadcasts. There are also fears about hearing-loss among fans; and football man­agers say that they can­not commun­icate with players on the field.

But Dr Makulele said: “In the 19th century, white missionaries sided with colonials and gave blacks the Bible, while they took the land. Now, we have created the vuvuzela, which is one of the most obnoxious in­struments: very noisy, very annoy­ing. It will dominate the FIFA World Cup. I see the vuvuzela as a symbol, as a symbol of Africa’s cry for acknowledgement. . .

“We see it when Africans are em­barrassed to be African in their own vernacular language, to relate to their culture positively: the schizo­phrenic relationship that Africans have to their traditions, their cul­ture, and their religions.”

A South African newspaper, the Mail and Guardian, has reported that the vuvuzela is commonly used in church services in neighbouring Bots­wana. One Botswana church­goer, Jacqueline Chireshe, explained: “The vuvuzela is a biblical instru­ment; it is a trumpet, and God expects us to blow the trumpet in offering praise to him.”

Last year, members of the Nazareth Baptist Church, founded in 1910, unsuccessfully argued that they owned the copyright on the instrument, which was used on an annual pilgrimage to a mountain in KwaZulu-Natal which they consider to be holy.

Every day’s a school day, isn’t it? In related news, Archbishop Nichols is concerned about vuvuzelas. I humbly suggest that +Vincent may have more pressing matters on his plate.

Sports roundup: Our Wee Country to host colonial settler state

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In the normal run of things, I don’t pay too much attention to the Norn Iron football team. Even if I was that way inclined, their form or lack thereof could cause the most patriotic Ulster Scot to lose interest after a while. But tomorrow night there’s a treat on at Windsor. Yes, as part of a bumper round of international friendlies, the north is hosting Israel. Definitely a match in the “can’t they both lose?” category.

This was being discussed on Talk Back earlier, since the good folks of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign were not, it’s fair to say, altogether enamoured with the fixture, and were protesting outside the IFA headquarters. In response to this, we had interviews with a representative from the IFA, and that mad loyalist with ginger hair who’s always being interviewed on behalf of the Norn Iron supporters. Both of them were adamant that they wanted politics kept out of sport. This was, they said, their bedrock principle. But I don’t think it entirely works like that.

As a rule, I’m a bit cautious about sporting boycotts. If athletes don’t want to go to Zimbabwe or China, of course that’s a matter for them and they have every right to follow their conscience. On the other hand, deadbeat politicians are in the habit of calling on sportsmen to take this or that action as a fig leaf for their own inactivity – see the Foreign Office’s antics over England playing cricket with Zimbabwe. Historically, though, South Africa was a different case as sport in South Africa was run on racist lines. Once segregation and white supremacy were removed from SA sport, so too was the boycott.

That was an example of a good reason. There’s a good reason too in this case, which is a good deal more immediate than disapproval of this or that Israeli policy. You see, there is a Palestinian national football team. Via the Palestine Football Federation, it’s a member of FIFA, and has been recognised by the world governing body since 1998. Yet the team faces severe ongoing problems, most notably an inability to play either home or away fixtures as a result of restrictions imposed by the occupying power – surely that counts as bringing politics into sport. That, it seems to me, is a good enough reason to think twice about playing fixtures against Israel. Indeed, Brazil has refused to play Israel on precisely those grounds.

Worth mentioning, also, that we’re not talking here about a World Cup or Euro qualifying fixture, where you have to play whoever you’re drawn against. We’re talking about a friendly, which is taking place because the IFA issued an invitation to its Israeli counterpart. And of course, having done so, the IFA will not want to lose either face or revenue, so the match will go ahead. Well, at least there is a fair stockpile of Israeli flags in loyalist areas of Belfast. Should make the away supporters feel welcome.

He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy

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Lately I’ve been reading Tariq Ali on Pakistan, which is always worthwhile – I’ll freely admit to blowing hot and cold on Tariq, but get him on his specialist subject and he can be tremendously enjoyable. One thing he’s particularly good on, drawing on plenty of first-hand knowledge, is the peculiar character of the Pakistan Peoples Party, since it emerged from the anti-junta movement in the 1960s.

And this is an object lesson in the difference between what a party formally stands for, and its sociological function. On paper, the PPP is a party of the left, a party that stands for the working man, and moreover an affiliate party of the Socialist International. Functionally, it’s a vehicle whereby the impoverished masses can register their support for wealthy feudal magnates – primarily the Bhutto family and their entourage – and thus help these magnates become even wealthier. The more the magnates fleece the peasants, the more fervently the masochistic peasants support them.

And they’re not alone. The Second International – which has quite a few rum members, all told – has several similar affiliates. I draw to your attention the Progressive Socialist Party of Lebanon, a party which is neither progressive nor socialist but exists mainly to allow the Druze peasants of the Chouf to demonstrate their fealty to the Jumblatt family. Or there is the Democratic Party of Socialists of Montenegro, which is a vehicle for the peasants of the Black Mountain to dedicate themselves to the further enrichment of the tobacco-smuggling oligarch Milo Djukanović.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that this all sounds a bit like Premier League football. And so it does. In particular, it sounds a bit like Newcastle United, but that’s really because, as Jamie argues, the Toon demonstrate the pathologies of top-flight English football in a particularly clear form.

This is where, following Newcastle’s relegation, a little schadenfreude kicks in. It’s not unmixed, though, because over the last while I’ve been hearing quite a few sober Newcastle fans who’ve said, correctly, that they’ve been shockingly bad this season and fully deserve to go down. But on the other hand, you couldn’t get away from the kind of people who would ring TalkSport to bum and blow at inordinate length about how they were too big to go down. Now it’s clear that nobody’s too big to go down, if they don’t string some wins together.

So, let’s see that Shearer sticks around to sort things out. What are his options? Well, he may be aware of the chilling statistic that 40% of clubs relegated from the Premier League have never made it back. And he may also like to cast an eye over the fate of the best-supported club in League One – yes, it’s Leeds, another club whose fans thought they were too big and with too illustrious a history to go down. Once they were relegated, they had to face a tremendous hangover from their period of living the dream, a hangover that’s still to catch up with a huge denialist wing of their support.

What you’ve got at Newcastle is two interlinked problems, neither of which seems easily soluble. Firstly, the team. The manager may fancy clearing out the dead wood, which in this case means virtually the entire starting eleven. Having an enormous support base, and the third largest stadium in England, counts for little when you’ve a team full of lazy shits which has been serially underperforming for years. The core of the gang is the team that got Big Sam sacked, augmented by Dennis Wise’s inspired purchases – although I’m not sure whether he was inspired by astrology, voodoo or radio beams from Venus. A swinging hatchet would seem to be on the order of the day.

This may be tempting, given the second problem, which is economic. In other words, an enormous wages bill which will need some serious pruning back. But here’s the rub. Few if any of the lazy shits seem to have relegation clauses written into their contracts, the by-product of a club that assumed it was too big to go down, so the question would never arise. So a possible fire sale becomes quite a tricky proposition – you would have to pay off the lazy shits, then hope against hope that somebody’s willing to pay enough for them to make it worth your while. And there again, while the lazy shits might reckon themselves too good to be playing in the fizzy pop league, the cold logic of the transfer market might say differently.

So what’s left? Soldier on with that crippling wage bill and hope for an immediate return to the big league? Hope that Ashley will be willing to dip further into his dwindling fortune, or, in the event of him deciding he’s had enough, hoping that some Russian oligarch or Sheik of Araby will appear over the horizon? Or start again from scratch, hunkering down to possibly years of hard slog rebuilding?

I’ll also be interested, perhaps more so, in how the fans comport themselves. For a relegated team to show signs of arrogance, an assumption that they’re too good to be where they are, and have some sort of divine entitlement to be in the top flight, is the sort of thing that seriously fucks people off. That’s why Leeds, facing their third straight season in League One, are easily the most unpopular side in the league, which is quite an achievement when they’re rubbing shoulders with MK Dons. On the other hand, there have been relegated teams that have shown some humility, grafted their way back to success and won friends in the lower leagues in the process. How will the Geordies adapt to their new environment?

And, perhaps more to the point, is anyone going to get to grips with the Premier League’s bubble economy? From the look of things, I suspect a whole series of clubs will have to go bust before serious change comes onto the clár.

You mug! You slag! You muppet!

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You know, it was quite a pleasure to watch the women’s FA Cup final the other day. Not because of the level of skill – there was quite a bit, although not on a par with the top flight of the men’s game – but because the match was played in the spirit of the game, with fair play and good humour all around. As opposed, say, to Wednesday night’s performance at Stamford Bridge.

I must admit, even though the ref had a bad day at the office, my sympathy for Chelsea is limited. They’ve won a few too many matches thanks to bad refereeing to start whining when they get the fuzzy end of the lollipop for a change. It was particularly funny to see the outrage from Didier Drogba, who’s a wonderfully talented player on his day, but has established a record for diving that would give Cristiano Ronaldo a run for his money. (On second thoughts, maybe that’s unfair to Ronaldo. It would take a Sherman tank to knock Drogba over, but he seems unable to stay upright in the penalty area.) Not to mention the officials having to get a police escort out of the game, with the crowd seemingly intent on proving the old clichés about football crowds correct. I am reminded just a bit of the Mancunian football supporters who follow Ricky Hatton around the world, or cricket’s Barmy Army, an awful lot of whom are Chelsea fans looking for some sport in the off season – not that these folks are particularly loutish or anything, more that any notion of the spirit of the game takes a poor second place to getting the right result.

And an honourable mention must go to the cock-eyed TV commentators, who were in such a state of synthetic outrage that they almost crossed the line into incitement to riot.

More to the point, this points up the sheer feebleness of the FA’s Respect campaign. It isn’t entirely useless, but in concentrating on the (very real) problem of kids’ matches being turned ugly by gobby dads on the touchline, there’s something of an elephant in the room that they’re missing. Namely, their unwillingness to upset the big clubs by insisting that the top of the game set an example.

If they were honest, they would admit that the Premier League, while being a fabulously rich league containing many of the world’s top players, has a less than sporting underside. We come back here to the famous philosophical clash between Revie’s win-at-all-costs approach and Clough’s belief that a win wasn’t worth having if it wasn’t an honest win. Sadly, lots of football fans, probably nowhere near a majority but certainly the most vocal section, are so partisan that they really don’t care how they win. If you ever watched Millwall play in the 1980s, you would recognise the mentality in an instant.

And actually, while the level of physical violence is infinitely lower than it used to be, there seems to be little let-up in the verbal violence. Abuse of the ref is one thing; another is racist or homophobic chanting directed at certain players, although grassroots campaigning has made some impact there over the years; yet another blot would be chants going up about Heysel or Munich. It’s something of a miracle that we don’t see riots in or around matches on a regular basis. It’s less surprising that Sky’s sound men have become adept at disguising crowd chants.

That’s the fans. Then, in the gobby dad role, you’ve got the managers, who, when they aren’t winding up the crowd, are blatantly trying to influence officials. On top of that, a persistently high level of cynicism amongst players, even – or perhaps particularly – the Premier League prima donnas, the most high-profile players, the most highly paid, those who have the greatest responsibility to the public. What price Ray Winstone trying to re-educate those gobby dads, when the kids’ heroes, from John Terry on down, are setting a bad example?

The only way that the culture would change is if the FA took strong action at the top of the game, and stuck by its actions whatever the pressure from the big clubs who dominate the FA’s board. It may not seem that way at first sight. The top players are on such grotesquely inflated salaries that cricket-style fines would hardly perturb them. That may change as the mountain of debt at the top of English football begins to bite in conditions of recession. But that’s not to say that nothing could be done in the interim.

You could, for instance, start next season with a blizzard of red cards. There would be howls of outrage from the clubs, but if the FA had the balls to stick it out for, say, six weeks, then you’d start to see changes. If you’re a Premier League manager and all of a sudden you find four or five of your top players sitting out suspensions, then it wouldn’t take long for heads to be banged together. Top up the sanctions with touchline bans for the gobbier managers, with the ultimate penalty of points deductions for clubs who won’t exercise some discipline over their personnel or fan base. The latter in particular would concentrate minds wonderfully.

It’s all hypothetical, of course. The FA’s track record of uselessness makes it unlikely in the extreme that they would do any such thing. Paradoxically, the most likely catalyst for change would be yet more bad behaviour on the European stage, prompting Uefa to step in and smack the FA about a bit. The internal dynamics of the English game militate against any such thing. Referees may be unhappy, and it’s proving very difficult to keep them in the game for any length of time, but there are too many vested interests, between players, managers, fans and proprietors, who are quite content with things the way they are.

No, it’s much easier to make ringing declarations about fair play, while refusing to give officials the support they would need to enforce some real discipline. And, if all else fails, run another one of those engaging ads with Ray Winstone. Don’t look at that – look at this!

Brand Beckham throws down gauntlet to Fabio

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Yeah, there’s really nothing like journalistic priorities. Have you ever switched on GMTV on the morning after the Oscars, and wondered, amid all the discussion of Keira Knightley’s dress, who actually won a bloody Oscar? It really is a bit much when this sort of thing starts cropping up on the BBC evening news.

We’ve seen a little of this with Sarko’s state visit. Okay, so Mrs Sarko does bring a touch of glamour to the occasion. As a talking point, I take it. But it’s almost been a running commentary on what Mrs Sarko has been wearing, with a little aside to the effect that, oh yes, Sarko made a speech.

Which brings me to the fitba the other night. Yes, the France match was only a friendly. Yes, it was Brand Beckham’s hundredth cap. Fair enough. But…

The reporter mentions that it’s Beckham’s hundredth cap. Cue VT of fans exclaiming how happy they are that Beckham got his hundredth cap.

The reporter mentions that Beckham was on the pitch for 67 minutes. Cue some VT of Beckham coming into contact with the ball.

The reporter talks about how happy Beckham was to get to a hundred. Cue VT of Beckham saying how happy he was to get to a hundred.

In conclusion – and this is into the fourth minute of the report – the reporter says, “By the way, France won one-nil. Back to the studio.”

As it happens, this is of some significance in that it’s an early wobble from the promised authoritarian Fabio regime. Beckham, you’ll have noted, threatened to go on for a few more years. This, what we might term the Beckham Doctrine, seems to posit that a sufficiently marketable player has the God-given right to represent his country regardless of fitness or form. Talk about a gauntlet being thrown down to Fabio.

There was also an interesting point made by a caller from Liverpool on talkSPORT, who asserted, against the protests of the host, that the sort of people who follow England are the sort of people who don’t follow clubs. The subtext was that people who turn out for England matches are, to a large extent, yuppies who don’t know frig all about football. This, in the caller’s view, was why they were so happy to see Brand Beckham on the pitch, and they were welcome to him.

Things start to come into a little focus now. I’ve been saying for ages that Beckham had long since ceased to be a footballer, as opposed to a male model who occasionally plays a little football. Certainly, his action in taking a ridiculous amount of money to go to Hollywood and play for a pub team suggests that he’s effectively retired from serious football.

And yet he still wants to play for England. But then, who said that was serious football?

Fabio takes over England

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One of the more delicious aspects of the way the Euro 2008 qualifiers panned out has been the discussion of what England, who tend to assume they have a divine right to go to these things, will do next summer. Not to mention the other teams from these islands. I’m rather taken with this idea floating around of a Celtic championship, which would basically be the old Home Nations championship only with the ‘Republic’ taking the place of England.

This, of course, cuts little ice with the punters on talkSPORT, who aren’t interested in that sort of thing. They wouldn’t mind a fixture with Scotland, but couldn’t be bothered with the rest of these Mickey Mouse countries. No, they reckon England should be playing against countries like Italy, France or Brazil, who they imagine themselves to be in the same league as. You know what I think the Celts should do? Bring in teams from Brittany, Cornwall and the Isle of Man, just to wind them up even more.

And what of the new reign of Fabio? Well, what he has going for him is that he’s a tough old bird (having dropped both Beckham and Ronaldo at Real), very experienced and with his team of Italians around him. He’s also got that four-year contract as insurance against all the punters who expect him to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear immediately.

So will we see England turning its back on ugly football and trying its hand at the sort of technical game the Italians, Portuguese and even Croats and Romanians have prospered with? What would be nice would be a demonstrative break with the discredited regime of Svenism-McClarenism, whose weaknesses have been cruelly exposed.

One thing that needs to go overboard is the marriage to a rigid 4-4-2 formation, persisted with under pressure from dopey fans who reckon England can’t play in any fancy formations. Of course, since England has no real wingers and the midfield therefore tends to be a shambles of players doing whatever they want, in practice the 4-4-2 breaks down almost instantly a match starts.

Another thing that needs to be done is to have more than two tactics. England have persisted a very long time with the strategy of sticking a long ball up the front and hoping their strikers can do something with it. It’s a tactic that brought a lot of exceedingly ugly victories to Jackie Charlton’s Ireland, but it’s terrible to watch and not much use against technical teams. The other tactic is an over-reliance on the set-piece, and in particular the Beckham free kick. This will not cut the mustard.

I don’t pretend to be any great football strategist, but here are a few ideas Fabio might like to take under advisement.

Drop Beckham once and for all. I know he has sentimental value and he can still shift jerseys, but the man is basically heading into retirement, if he would only admit it. He can’t run any more, can only kick with one foot and almost never scores in open play. If you want a free kick specialist, fine, but to have a free kick specialist who can hardly do anything else is an extravagance.

Leave Lampard on the bench. When you’re selecting a team you have to think about balance. Lampard may be one of the four top English midfielders, but that shouldn’t guarantee him a spot in midfield. If you can’t get Lampard and Gerrard playing as a unit with well-defined roles – if in fact they’re getting in each other’s way – then you only play one of them.

Give Rooney something to do. What you have with Rooney is a naturally talented striker who maybe isn’t fast, but is creative. But he spends far too much time standing around with his two arms the one length. You could do a lot worse than, instead of trying to shoehorn him into a strategy, trying to build a strategy around him. And get the bloody midfield to feed him. Only not KFC, he looks like he’s had enough of those.

What? No statue?!

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The late George Best may be Norn Iron’s answer to Princess Diana, but the commemorations seem to have been slacking off of late. It would appear that the broad masses are beginning to get Bestie fatigue.

I refer of course to the mooted plan to put up a statue of Bestie in the grounds of City Hall, which was supposed to be going up next month for the second anniversary of the great man’s death. This would follow on from George Best Airport, the George Best five pound notes, the George Best Fabergé egg, the commemorative plaques and literally tons of Bestie kitsch available to the punter who is that way inclined. And that’s before we even get to the rumours you hear floating around of ambitious plans to turn the Cregagh estate into a George Best theme park.

But the populace have fallen through on the statue. Of a target of £80,000 to be raised by public subscription, only £2000 has been raised to date. This really doesn’t speak well of the fitba-loving masses, who are all in favour of Bestie memorials unless it means sparing a few shillings for their hero. Next thing you know, they’ll be expecting Edwin Poots and the Stormont Executive to step into the breach.

And where’s the big populist campaign? This is surely a perfect opportunity for a few cheap headlines. Where are Stephen Nolan and Eamonn McCann when you need them?

Bestie remembered again

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Dear God, I know I wrote recently that the late George Best was Norn Iron’s answer to Princess Diana, but even I was startled to see this story about a new George Best Fabergé egg. If you fancy seeing it up close, it’ll be going on display tomorrow at George Best Airport. If you don’t drive, you could always pay your fare with a George Best fiver.