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.