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Exciting or overhyped? Transfer deadline day is here.

Are the transfer deadline days (because there are two of them every season) the most gripping moments in football’s calendar or the most overhyped? 
Last January the transfer window, if we’re honest, was a colossal bore.  The BBC commissioned a special programme to capture the ‘drama’ approaching 12 midnight, while clubs responded by negotiating deals like Everton’s successful attempt to secure the signature of John Stones.
The latest deadline shows more promise.  There isn’t much surprise as regards the most valuable transfer of the year.  It’s long been apparent that Gareth Bale will play for Real Madrid this season, particularly as Tottenham had already revamped their squad with the expected proceeds.
Still, Arsenal fans will be excited that Arsene Wenger has finally dipped into the club’s reserves to buy a quality player like Mesut Ozil.  The London club may not stop there, with the Daily Telegraph predicting something of a spree.
Liverpool manager, Brendan Rodgers, had also at…

Luis Suarez: Football players and expectations of loyalty

Although there is stiff competition from the sagas around Gareth Bale and Wayne Rooney, by far the most protracted, boring transfer epic over the close season has involved Luis Suarez.  Will Arsenal’s cheeky £40 million + £1 bid release him from his contract at Anfield?  Does he owe Liverpool a debt of loyalty, after the club stuck by him when he was accused of racism, and again, when he took a bite out of a Chelsea defender’s ear?
In the absence of an actual transfer, the newspapers have reported each minute nuance of Suarez’s relationship with his employers.  And for those of us with social media, it’s been possible to follow every scrap of gossip, every facial expression captured at every training session and every comment from every conceivable journalist or pundit, 24 hours a day, across hundreds of thousands of tweets, stretching back, it seems, beyond the dawn of time itself
When will the Uruguayan’s future ever be resolved?
The answer is by September 2nd,,when the window for…

Fragile Empire by Ben Judah - a review of the latest book about Putin

‘If you read twenty five books about foreign policy this year, make one of them Ben Judah’sFragile Empire’.  Not exactly the words of Foreign Policy magazine, and the book, subtitledHow Russia fell in and out of love with Vladimir Putin, has attracted praise from a number of reviewers.
The author’s central thesis isn’t quite the re-tread of worn-out clichés about the Russian president as manipulative, all-powerful dictator, that you’ll find in Masha Gessen’sMan Without a Faceor countless other works.  In fact Judah believes that Putin has failed to build a strong, centralised system and, as a result, both his personal political authority and the integrity of the state he rules are under threat. 
I didn’t expect to accept this argument wholesale, and nor did I, but the book was far from irredeemable.  It forms a reasonable account of the protests which developed in Moscow and other large cities last winter, and, although Judah clearly has sympathy with the demonstrators, he describes fai…

Ukraine ten years on

In 2003 I travelled to Ukraine with supporters of the Northern Ireland football team, a trip that cemented a long-standing interest in the countries of the former Soviet Union.  I was with a group of fans who visited Kiev, before taking an overnight train to Donetsk - the capital of the Donbass coal-mining region - where the match was played. 
I found the country hospitable and fascinating, although, at times, it could be a little rough around the edges. 
I remember the pitiful brown trickle which emerged from the shower in our first hotel room and being startled by lumps of falling masonry, which crashed into the pavement beside buildings undergoing refurbishment. Only a short distance from Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Kiev’s main square, we had to stumble along unlit streets when we made our way back to the hotel at night and, in a bar in Donetsk, a drinker took out a gun and waved it about, after a dispute over an arm-wrestling match.  Whether it was the real thing or a replica, no-one was …

Gaol term for Navalny will be counterproductive

The media’s reaction to the 5 year prison sentence handed to Russian opposition activist, Alexei Navalny, after his trial for embezzling timber, is familiar.  The editorials read very much like any number of columns written after Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s multiple appearances in court, or the outcry after members of ‘Pussy Riot’ were sent to prison.  However this verdict is different and has more regrettable implications.   
Firstly, even staunchly pro-Russia commentators acknowledge that the case against Navalny is not strong.  At Da Russophile Anatoly Karlin argues that the trial is ‘further delegitimizing’ the Russian legal system.
When the state previously used legal methods or the threat of proceedings to sweep aside political challenges from Gusinsky, Berezovsky and, famously, Khodorkovsky, it was acting against men who were determined to use their wealth and influence to manipulate the democratic process.  The nature of the oligarchs’ asset grab in the 1990s provided ample ground…

Shia Revival

The Iranian author, Vali Nasr, has written an interesting book called The Shia Revival: How conflicts within Islam will shape the future.  Its argument is exceptionally pertinent at a time when European governments are edging toward arming Sunni extremists in Syria.
Nasr portrays Shiism as the more liberal, palatable strand of Islam and a religion for underdogs.  He makes his point persuasively, although putting a progressive gloss on the regime in Iran and Hezbollah does undermine his thesis.
A lot of the material is focussed on Iraq, where there is a Shia majority, which was suppressed during the presidency of Saddam Hussein.  The leading cleric, Ayatollah Sistani, is depicted as a moderating influence, who opposed retaliation as Sunni extremism threatened to cause sectarian civil war.
The book’s opening chapter provides an erudite and fascinating history of factions within Islam.  The split dates back to the origins of the faith and a dispute over the prophet Mohammed’s successor.  Th…

The Russia Debate

Anatoly Karlin, who writes one of the most interesting and thought provoking blogs about Russia, has just launched a new forum for people wishing to indulge in 'Russia related discussions'.

It's called The Russia Debate and I'm sure it'll soon be a first stop for anyone interested in debating Russian politics and current affairs regularly.  The house rules are 'earnest and mutually civil'.  Pop over and have a look.

Smashed in the USSR - a brief review

I picked up a book over the weekend called Smashed in the USSR and felt obliged to write a short review, simply because it is very good but appears to have been largely ignored, if the lack of mentions on Google and its non-inclusion on Goodreads is a fair gauge.  Subtitled ‘Fear, Loathing and Vodka on the Steppes’ it tells the story of Ivan Petrov, a Russian tramp, as told to co-author, Caroline Walton.
Some research reveals that the book was previously published as Russia Through a Shot Glass and perhaps that title was better.  Smashed in the USSR is a little trite and it suggests a booze-fuelled, gonzo-style romp, whereas Petrov’s tale is actually a sad and thoughtful account of alcoholism, personal and national, against a broad sweep of the USSR’s history and an even broader sweep of Soviet geography.
His voice is captured particularly elegantly by Walton and it reveals a great deal of humour and a surprising lack of self-pity.  Petrov describes the crushing poverty of a wartime …

A sad day as Northern Ireland plays Alex Bruce

Wednesday was another dark day for international football in Northern Ireland.  Michael O’Neill’s side drew 0-0 with lowly Malta, a team made up of part-time players, meaning that the manager has yet to achieve a win, after 18 months in charge.
That’s not the reason, though, that it was a dark day for Northern Ireland football.  Managers come and go, players are capped and retire, lose form or fall out of favour; matches are played and sometimes the result is good while more often, particularly in friendly matches, it is bad. 
The only thing that should be constant is the honour of playing for one’s country.  The Irish Football Association can change the international coach, revitalise the playing panel, modify tactics, but the prestige attached to the award of an international cap, if it is diminished, cannot be recovered.
That’s why by far the most significant event on Wednesday evening was the selection of Alex Bruce and his participation in 70 minutes of a grim, lacklustre inter…

Lamenting USSR's break-up isn't 'rewriting history'

As an occasional newspaper columnist I understand the pressures of coming up with an instant opinion on something .... anything.  Still, an article in The Times today by Ben Macintyre is a particularly lame affair.  The premise is that Mussolini, Stalin and Hitler were very bad men and that Italy and Russia aren’t contrite enough about it, while Germany is.
In the round that’s a fairly un-startling observation, although it’s less clear what purpose this national self-flagellation that Macintyre wants to see would serve.  He hangs his argument on some fairly flimsy facts. Take this piece of evidence that ‘the rehabilitation of Stalin is also gathering pace’.
“Under Vladimir Putin’s government, a revised school curriculum describes him as a ‘competent manager’ whose actions were ‘entirely rational’”. 
Some of the best historians of Russia in the English language have already gone to quite some length to emphasise that Stalin’s purges were not the actions of a paranoid lunatic.  It’s p…

Standing up for big spending football clubs isn't egalitarian

There is a perverse article in The Times today by Stefan Syzmanski, which argues that UEFA’s Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules are elitist.  I’m afraid I can’t link the article, because the newspaper expects people to pay for journalism.
FFP requires football clubs to stay solvent and dictates that their spending must be covered by income generated through football activities.  The aim is to ensure competition and prevent wealthy owners from bankrolling star-studded teams without any regard for sustainability.  The Premier League is still having a discussion about whether to adopt UEFA’s code, but four clubs, Liverpool, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal, are lobbying to ensure that it comes into force.
Syzmanski’s piece says that ‘big clubs’ are attempting to prevent smaller teams from challenging their ascendency.  It’s a truly depressing thought that the only way to challenge football’s elite is to spend astronomical sums of money.
The tendency for clubs to become the …