Monday, 2 September 2013

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 attracted criticism for not making new signings before the new season.  The club had refused to outbid its opponents for the Armenian midfielder, Henrikh Mkhitaryan or the Brazilian winger, Willian.  Those players ended up at Borussia Dortmund and Chelsea. 

Today, two new central defenders, the French international, Sakho, and the young Portuguese, Tiago Ilori, have arrived at Anfield.  The Nigerian forward, Victor Moses, has also joined, on a season long loan from Chelsea. 

Whether these players can improve, substantially, on the personnel already at Liverpool, remains open to question.  However, coming quickly after a 1-0 victory against the Champions of England, Manchester 
United, they add to a sense of optimism that was not evident previously.

Earlier, the Guardian suggested, on its deadline day timeline, that Brendan Rodgers had tabled a £30 million bid for Juan Mata.  If that transfer came to fruition, then Liverpool fans genuinely would be excited. 

Meanwhile, we’ll have to see whether the next few hours bring further excitement or anti-climax.   

Thursday, 8 August 2013

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 clubs to buy new players closes.  By which point a number of competitive football matches will have taken place, forming a welcome distraction to endless dissection of the transfer market.  My personal contribution to the current tedium is that I believe Suarez will leave Liverpool before then.  But, it's not the leaving of Liverpool that grieves me, as it were, in fact it's scarcely even the point any more.

Whatever odds bookmakers are offering on the striker getting the transfer he has so publicly asked for, you can take two things to the bank right now.  If Suarez joins Arsenal the tide of disillusionment which is currently building among Liverpool supporters will become a tsunami of outright loathing and, should he stay put and keep scoring goals, it will subside completely and the fans, however much they might deny it now, will love him more than ever.

Why on earth do we, football supporters that is, do this to ourselves?  Why do we never learn?

Why are we so ready to buy into the collective illusion that yet another player, probably with no prior family, geographical or emotional connection to the team, has bought in exclusively to the culture, traditions and aspirations of our chosen football club?  We have repeated experiences which prove otherwise. 

Fernando Torres was a classic example and, let’s face it, it wasn’t so very long ago.  “His armband said he was a Red, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ it said”, Liverpool fans sang about their talismanic striker.  This boy from a Spanish barrio, we told ourselves, had signalled his undying loyalty, before he even arrived at Anfield.  Then he moved to Chelsea, and expressed bemusement at the mass delusion that he was a fierce Kopite as well as a Liverpool player.  “But I come from Madrid”, he protested, not unreasonably, “I’m an Athletico fan”. 

Indeed, and you left your boyhood heroes to seek money and trophies at Liverpool, a club where you felt your prospects were brighter.  That’s what (most) players do.  Even Steven Gerrard, the epitome of a one-club man, the Scouser who will see out his career playing for his local team, came so close to joining Chelsea that a fan famously burnt his shirt outside the Melwood training ground in disgust.  Not an episode which will have been recounted too frequently in the pubs around Anfield, before or after Gerrard received deserved acclaim, at his testimonial match last Saturday.   

Yes, there probably is an argument that Liverpool deserves more loyalty from Suarez, after the club attracted opprobrium for sticking by him, when he allegedly used a racial epithet about an opposition player and when hebit another’s ear.  You have to ask, though, was there anything in the Uruguayan’s past behaviour or in his character which suggested he would see it that way?

Supporters would certainly prefer to see their prize asset join a club elsewhere then Europe, rather than sign for Arsenal, whose Champions League spot Liverpool covet.  But then, why, at this stage of the close-season, is the only firm offer, for a player considered one of the world’s best, about £20 million under his employers’ valuation?  The truth is that Suarez’s reputation and his antics precede him.  That’s why Liverpool hasn’t been fending off bids from other Champions’ League teams and it’s why Suarez is keen to make do with signing for Arsenal.  Liverpool’s loyalty to Suarez appears likely to cost the club an arguable £20 million in transfer fees and a major boost to one of its rivals.  Many people would argue it also cost Kenny Dalglish his job.

There’s no point in castigating Arsenal, whom Brendan Rodgers accused earlier this week of ‘lacking class’, either.  Were the roles reversed, were Liverpool attempting to lure a player away from the Emirates with the promise of European football, arguments about loyalty or propriety would cut little ice at Anfield.  In fact, we’ve been quick to accuse transfer targets of ‘lacking ambition’ in the past, when they’ve shown a bit of loyalty to their current club.             

Liverpool didn’t worry about Torres’s loyalty, as they lured him away from his boyhood team, Athletico Madrid, or Suarez’s readiness to leave Ajax.  Yet, at their new club, we expect that it will all be different and that they will buy into its aims so completely that they will only leave when their usefulness has been exhausted. 

Players often understand this delusion, play up to it and feed it.  Supporters are entitled to their myopia and it is part of what binds us together and makes football special. 

A note of caution though, if Suarez is sold and his replacement becomes just as successful, be a little sceptical about his undying commitment to Liverpool.  Daniel Aggers, in the world of football, are few and far between …….
    

Friday, 2 August 2013

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’s Fragile Empire’.  Not exactly the words of Foreign Policy magazine, and the book, subtitled How 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 clich├ęs about the Russian president as manipulative, all-powerful dictator, that you’ll find in Masha Gessen’s Man Without a Face or 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 fairly why the movement did not amount to a credible opposition to Putin.

Unfortunately, while Fragile Empire gives a diverting, if contestable, account of the President’s rise and some absorbing reporting from a country growing disillusioned with United Russia, it does not treat seriously enough Putin’s achievements, preferring to write them off as luck, and it does not credit his political project with any underlying philosophy.  Actually, the book is rather flabby around the middle and it could have done with better editing and proof reading, as there are plenty of typos, repetitions and confusing sentences.

Judah’s portrait of the young Putin is more believable and briefer than Gessen’s, although it is similar.  He at least bothers to track down the future president’s teacher, to offer some fond but hazy memories of her former pupil.  The broad outline is familiar- the tough childhood in post-war St Petersburg, the schoolyard brawling and a precocious attempt to join the KGB as a teenager.

Fragile Empire doesn’t quite subscribe to the conspiracy theories which depict Putin’s career as the outcome of a Machiavellian, Chekist plot.  Indeed the author is more inclined to portray a hapless, though resilient, opportunist, who was slow to grasp the opportunities offered by post-Soviet Russia, but managed eventually to drag himself back from a ruined career.

Rather than strength, he describes weakness, rather than a hunger for power, he describes fear of the consequences of losing it and rather than an authoritarian state, he describes a leader who cannot control his subordinates.  In this telling of the Vladimir Putin story, the President is not a powerful tyrant who menaces the West, but an insecure thief, who cannot step aside because he is terrified of getting his comeuppance. 

While Judah might be good at picking holes in the network of patronage represented by United Russia, he is unconvincingly dismissive of the regime’s successes.  He is willing to accord some of the economic success in Putin’s Russia to ‘liberalisation’, but he largely puts stabilising the world’s largest country down to being in the right place at the right time.

Neither does he offer a serious critique of the political thinking behind ‘Putinism’, unlike, for instance, Richard Sakwa in The Crisis of Russian Democracy.   In Judah’s assessment, the President is simply at the apex of a kleptocracy, whose concepts of ‘managed democracy’, ‘the dictatorship of the law’ and ‘the power vertical’ are just hollow phrases, designed to keep assets flowing in his direction. 

That bleak cynicism might reflect recent disillusionment with United Russia, but it can’t explain why Putin, as an individual, is still supported by a majority of Russians, after 14 years at the top of public life.  There is no serious reflection in Fragile Empire on the President’s attempts to rebuild sovereignty, after inheriting a state where it had been strewn, haphazardly across countless regions and republics.  Judah doesn’t try to fit some of Putin’s more draconian policies – appointing governors, requiring a minimum threshold of support for political parties - into any type of context.

Certainly, he is entitled to argue that the President failed in his projects, but he doesn’t really bother to investigate whether there was any rationale behind these actions in the first place.   And he doesn't sufficiently acknowledge that, even if the grand larceny he alleges did take place, enough money was left over to build up enormous reserves, raise living standards substantially and leave Russia the least indebted country in the G20.

Fragile Empire becomes most interesting when it starts to deal with Putin’s opponents and the protests which gained momentum after the State Duma elections in 2011.  Judah interviews opposition figures from Berezovsky to Navalny and he even corresponds with the gaoled oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Although the author is clearly sympathetic to the opposition, he doesn’t make excuses for its leaders.  He portrays Berezovsky and Khodorkovsky as wealthy manipulators, eager to use their riches to warp the political process, he paints Boris Nemtsov as an unappealing fop, who cannot connect with the wider public and he describes Navlny’s past, with all its inflammatory rhetoric and fire-arms incidents.

Indeed, while Judah enthuses about the mood which brought demonstrators to the streets, he acknowledges that there is no common purpose or viable leadership in the opposition movement.  The Moscow liberals, whom he says formed the back-bone of the demonstrations in the capital, had little in common with, or interest in, less cosmopolitan Russians beyond the Garden Ring.  They rubbed shoulders at these events with nationalists demanding the reinstatement of Tsarist autocracy, quasi-fascists and communists.  There were no coherent demands, no leaders who could capture attention beyond the capital and no electoral vehicle to harness anti-United Russia feeling.

Even the movement's brightest star, Navlny, was an obscure figure outside Moscow, attracting the derision of regional protesters, who alleged that he didn't care about them.      

A major flaw with the book, is that it appears to overstate Putin’s decline.  The latest polls from the Levada Centre show that he has a 65% approval rating, which is a small improvement on last month and largely in line with figures from this time last year.  Those are numbers which most politicians would kill for.  The idea that there is no longer a ‘Putin consensus’ is not sustainable, even though the argument that the President’s popularity relies on the absence of a viable opposition is stronger.

Fragile Empire is an interesting book, occasionally let down by sloppy writing, but it is certainly not the tired, anti-Putin hackery that Edward Lucas or Luke Harding pump out.  It’s a pity that Judah didn’t concentrate on writing about the opposition and sharing snapshots of ordinary people’s lives from some of Russia’s farthest flung corners.  These passages form the most insightful material in the book rather than the second hand, cynical commentary of Putin’s years in the Kremlin.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

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 quite sure.

A couple of weeks ago, I returned to Ukraine, staying in the capital again for a number of days, before heading east, this time to Crimea.  Without attempting to be too analytical or drawing any sweeping conclusions, it’s fair to say that a lot appeared to have changed, but a lot of things about the country also felt rather familiar. 

Certainly the authorities in Kiev have sorted out the dodgy street lighting and any building work now seems to take the health and safety of pedestrians into consideration.  It’s hardly surprising that many areas of the city centre look like they’ve recently been spruced up, given that the final of last year’s European 2012 tournament took place in the Olympic Stadium. 

There are more 4*4s crowding the roads in central Kiev, the people look even more stylish and the streets are lined with fashionable restaurants and boutiques.  You still get glimpses of crushing poverty, although it's hard for a casual visitor to tell how deep this runs.  In nearly every large city you see homeless and addicted people in the scruffier corners.

What few people could have anticipated back in 2003 was how ubiquitous mobile technology would become over the next ten years.  I remember being rather proud when I used my first digital camera in Ukraine and I may have taken a mobile phone, for emergencies.  Now it seems that every child in Kiev clutches a tablet computer and commuters on the metro rarely glance up from the games of Angry Birds they’re playing on their smart-phones.

Of course Kiev is the capital city.  It is expensive, comparatively speaking, and much of Ukraine’s prosperity is concentrated there.   On the twelve hour train journey to Crimea we passed through villages which looked desperately poor.  Statistically, Ukraine is still one of Europe’s poorest countries.  A large amount of this poverty is in sleepy rural areas, which younger people often leave to live in towns and cities.

I remember discovering, in Donetsk, that many people considered themselves Russian rather than Ukrainian and that, for example, much of the television they watched was from Russia rather than Ukraine.  If anything Crimea is even more firmly Russian in its orientation. 

Ten years ago, I’m afraid I couldn’t have reported accurately whether the people of Ukraine were speaking Ukrainian, Russian or Esperanto.  While my language skills have improved only a little, this time I noticed that people in both Kiev and Crimea frequently spoke Russian.  However, in Crimea, many of the signs were also in Russian, there were plenty of Russian tricolours on display and a high proportion of cars had Russian number plates. 

It would be terribly unfair to draw any other comparisons between Donetsk, which was, back in 2003, a grimy, industrial town, with slagheaps on its outskirts, and Crimea, which has a sunny, hilly interior and a craggy coast with azure seas. 

The Donbass was a great deal of fun though.  At that time, before Euro 2012 and the arrival of hordes of England football supporters, Donetsk was not a common destination for English speaking travellers and people were curious about our group and keen to talk.

Crimea is a popular holiday destination, but the tourists are mainly Russian and Ukrainian there too.  We didn’t hear a single, native English speaker from the moment we left Kiev, until we touched down again briefly at Borispol Airport on the way home.  Although its attractions are thronged with visitors, a holiday to Crimea feels refreshingly like you’re getting off the beaten track.

We visited Bakchisaray, a dusty town, set in a rocky valley in the mountains, which is synonymous with the Crimean Tatars.  This Muslim people was exiled to Central Asia in 1944, but since 1989 they’ve returned to Ukraine in large numbers.  The centre of their culture is the Khan’s Palace, where coach loads of day-trippers arrive each afternoon, to enjoy shady rose gardens and tour the Ottoman harem.  Bakhchisaray is also an ideal centre for hiking the surrounding hills, and in particular the ‘cave cities’, where monks, Jews and others took refuge on remote mountain-tops.

In Alushta, on the southern coast, we enjoyed the Russian / Ukrainian take on the seaside resort.  Crimea’s climate and the warm seas made it enormously enjoyable.


Two casual trips to any country, over a space of ten years, can hardly sustain any serious insight.  It is possible to say that Ukraine is still a great place to visit, though, and, although it has become more popular, it’s still a relatively unusual destination.  Some of the rougher edges have been smoothed down a little since 2003 and, best of all, British citizens can now travel without a visa.

Monday, 22 July 2013

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 grounds to act and there were both legal and moral arguments to do so.

Navalny does not have immense wealth at his disposal, he does not own a television station and he is not sponsoring political opposition for personal gain.  He became prominent through the very modern methods of blogging and Tweeting.  His opinions, which are strongly nationalist, may be unpleasant, but that doesn’t entitle the authorities to remove him from the electoral scene or to stop him from protesting, if those are the pretexts behind the case.

The strategic puzzle is that Navalny’s trial has made him more prominent.  From a relatively obscure figure he could become a serious contender in Moscow’s mayoral race, should he be permitted to take part.  There are suggestions that, from a standing start, he could command up to 30% of the vote. 

Khodorkovsky is an odious character and he had become one of the wealthiest, most influential men in the world, through highly dubious methods.  His apparent conversion in gaol to a benevolent, freedom-loving champion of the Russian people was unconvincing and as the owner of Russia’s biggest company, Yukos, he posed a credible threat to the rejuvenated country which Vladimir Putin was struggling to build.


In contrast Alexei Navalny is a minor figure and, should the 5 year sentence he has received be upheld on appeal, the result will be to create another dubious, high-profile martyr and a rallying point for opposition in Russia.          

Monday, 3 June 2013

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.  The Sunni are shown as a rigid, dogmatic group of believers, while the Shia are more ritualistic, according to Nasr.

The author thinks that the dominant Sunni faith views success and power as an endorsement from Allah, while Shiites are inclined to revel in martyrdom.  He argues that the difference in temperament has political implications, which have been played out across the Middle East. 

Nasr certainly knows his subject intimately and makes challenging points.  The difficulty is that the argument that most Shiites are relative moderates can appear strained when specific examples are discussed.  Nasr deals with this by presenting the likes of Ayatollah Khomeini as aberrations, who have distorted the true character of Shiism.

He is more convincing discussing Iraq and the influence of Sistani.  Indeed the book is an excellent primer on sectarian conflict after the second Gulf War.  It should also be required reading for the politicians who are responsible for foreign policy decisions regarding the Middle East.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

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.      

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

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 childhood in the industrial, Volga city of Chabaevsk, life as a vagrant – hopping trains across the Soviet empire – and the grim existence of a prisoner in a succession of lock-ups and work camps.

His life is varied and remarkable enough to read like a novel, but the memoir is also a considerable account of a seamy underbelly of the USSR.  There are failed collective farms, where everyone is too drunk to bother to take in the harvest, mental institutions filled with alcoholics undergoing courses of brutal drugs and a cast of drifters, conmen and criminals, living on the edge of society.

Petrov argues that, in the USSR, there are few differences between ‘those behind the wire and those looking in’.  Although he is an alcoholic he says he is no ‘white raven’.  The disease disfigures Soviet society, but while a majority pretends to work and have a family life in grim tenements, the ‘alkashi’ travel across the Union, eking out a few roubles to buy ‘a hair of the dog’.  Their lives are certainly bleak, violent and often brief, but the author also portrays glimpses of generosity, comradeship and even dignity.

Ultimately Petrov seeks asylum in the United Kingdom, after coming to these shores with a Georgian theatre company.  He is not impressed by the ‘freedom’ offered in ‘the West’, where he thinks people have become trapped by an endless pursuit of possessions.  In an epilogue written in her own voice Walton wonders doubtfully whether he could have pursued a similar existence in post-Soviet Russia, without coming to a premature end.

Smashed in the USSR is a fascinating story, gracefully told.  I’m at a loss as to why it is has not captured more attention.  The memoir is an impressive personal account of alcoholism, as well as an important historical description of life in the Soviet Union.

Hopefully many more people will read this republished version. 
     

Friday, 8 February 2013

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 international challenge match.  Bruce was first asked to play for Northern Ireland a number of years ago, but declined, saying that his ‘lifelong’ ambition was to play for the Republic.

He achieved this goal twice, representing the FAI’s senior side in two international challenge matches. 

If a player has not competed in at least one full competitive match he can change his international allegiance once, if he is eligible to represent another association.  So, as it became clear that Alex Bruce would not establish himself permanently with the Republic, Nigel Worthington asked him to reconsider playing for Northern Ireland.  Which is how we arrive at the extraordinary situation of the player debuting for a second international team.

Although this was within the rules it sets a deplorable precedent.

Likewise, back in 2010 Adam Barton was selected for the international team and awarded a ‘trial’ cap in a challenge match, after refusing to commit himself to Northern Ireland.  He subsequently defected to the southern, breakaway association.  That example meant a player could represent Northern Ireland in a friendly game without any expectation that they were committing themselves to play for the IFA in the future.

Now, thanks to a combination of the Association, Nigel Worthington and Michael O’Neill, Alex Bruce has established the precedent that, if a player is eligible for both Irish teams, he is free to turn Northern Ireland down, pursue his ambitions with the Republic and assume that, if he still satisfies the criteria, the IFA will select him when his southern adventure is a failure. 

Can the IFA drag the prestige of a Northern Ireland cap any lower?  It will be a challenge, but I suspect they will find a way.  Selecting Alex Bruce was a disgraceful decision, which showed no pride and very little principle.  

Friday, 1 February 2013

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 perfectly reasonable to describe his actions as ‘rational’, without excusing their purpose or brutality.  The aim being to assert personal power, rapidly industrialise the USSR and catch up with the development of ‘western’ countries, most of Stalin’s crimes were perfectly logical, albeit ruthless, bloodthirsty and sociopathic.

And although Macintyre’s contention that ‘anyone who [regrets the passing of the USSR] has no memory’ might seem fair in Latvia or Lithuania, it’s hardly the case in Kyrgyzstan, Pridnestrovie or Nagorno Karabakh.  Lamenting the destruction of the USSR as a multi-national state is not the same as condoning communism or any of the atrocities committed in its name. 

The Soviet Union’s break-up resulted in much greater violence, ethnic strife and poverty in many of its former republics.  To accuse the people who live there, or Vladimir Putin, of ‘rewriting history’ by regretting that fact is unjustified and arrogant.  

Thursday, 17 January 2013

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 playthings of rich owners is severely damaging the sport.  Older elements of ‘football mobility’, like building a strong youth system, attracting more fans, developing a stadium and appointing an astute manager, are being replaced by cheque-book chairmen, who pay astronomical sums to recruit journeymen players.

It is actually very refreshing that Pep Guardiola, the former Barcelona manager, has decided to take charge of Bayern Munich, a proper football club, rather than Chelsea or Manchester City.  English sides could learn a great deal from their German counterparts, whose spending is restricted, who charge fans a sensible price for admission to games and create a steady stream of home-grown talent for their national team.

Smaller clubs, like Greuther Furth or FC Augsburg, have certainly not been prevented from reaching the top tier of football in Germany.  If the Premier League adopts the FFP it will ensure that teams which reach the top in England concentrate on player development, rather than spending money they don’t have on overpaid professionals from overseas. 

Before a club’s bank balance became the main criterion for its success the likes of Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa were able to win league titles and European Cups, while Man Utd and Arsenal often struggled to challenge.  It’s simply nonsense to suggest that more money has created more mobility in English football.

It is right for UEFA to ask clubs in its member associations to operate as going concerns.  It is right that it acts to restrict outrageous salaries which have put some teams out of business.  If the owner of Dogsnot Athletic is prevented from propelling his toy to the top of the Premier League by spending ill-gotten billions on pampered mercenaries from Bolivia, then all the better.