Posted tagged ‘football’

Football wars

October 12, 2010

Readers of this blog may know that I am a supporter of English premiership club Newcastle United. Just over a week ago the club experienced a major blow when one of its new star players, Hatem Ben Arfa, suffered a major injury when his leg was broken twice as a result of a tackle by Manchester City and Netherlands player Nigel de Jong. Ben Arfa will now be out of action for several months, perhaps for the rest of the season. If you have a strong stomach, you can see the incident here.

The extraordinary thing about the tackle and its result is that the referee didn’t even see a foul, never mind something suggesting a harsher judgement. Indeed de Jong, as crime parlance might put it, was ‘known to the police’. In the World Cup finals in South Africa he was seen doing a similarly outrageous tackle, here.

Soccer, like many team sports, can be a fairly rugged game, and injuries happen. However there must be limits, and where these are exceeded there should be consequences. In that context, the reported decision by the Football Association to take no action over the tackle on Ben Arfa seems to me at least to be hard to understand. If such over-the-top conduct on the field is completely unpunished, then it suggests a type and style of football, and perhaps a kind of conduct off the football pitch, that is aggressive and violent is acceptable. It should not be.

The Newcastle story

August 25, 2010

OK, I haven’t written about Newcastle United FC for a while, and you won’t expect me to be completely silent on events… For those who don’t know what this is about, a little bit of background on the life and times of this football (soccer) club. Two years ago the sky fell on Newcastle, as the owner fell out with the much loved manager, Kevin Keegan. Keegan left, and a completely chaotic season followed, at the end of which the club was relegated from the Premier League to the (then) Coca Cola Championship. In the meantime the owner, Mike Ashley, was trying to offload the club but couldn’t find a buyer, the fans hated him, the biggest players left. Fatalistic fans were already talking about further relegation to League One.

And then it all changed. Newcastle’s players bonded in adversity with each other and with the caretaker manager, former Ireland international player Chris Hughton, a steely determination set in, and the club started winning games. Actually, winning them again and again. Until at the end of the season Newcastle easily came out on top of the Championship and were promoted back to the Premier League. Then, ten days ago or so, in the opening game of the new season, the club faltered against Manchester United at Trafford Park, and some were already predicting they would be relegated again. But just for now, no-one is saying that, because on Sunday last Newcastle annihilated Aston Villa, beating last season’s number 6 club by 6-0. Maybe things are looking brighter at last.

For me, the Newcastle story is a romantic one, of enthusiasm and determination in adversity, and the desire to do something and be something in and for a city that lives and breathes football. Of course there are still all the questions about where international soccer is going: the inflated salaries and transfer payments, the mountain-sized egos that the modern game has produced, the role of super-rich owners who don’t know how to respect the game, and so forth. But there is also the sheer excitement at seeing these dramatic struggles, and the joy of watching the game when it is at its best.

Go, Newcastle!

The great, great football show

June 13, 2010

No matter what you might think about soccer as a game, there is something dramatic, exciting and seductive about the FIFA World Cup. Of course there is the game itself – and patient readers of this blog know I am something of a fan – but there is also the bigger narrative of international encounters and intercultural understanding. There’s simply nothing like it, not even the Olympic Games provide this kind of story; particularly because the honours are spread much more evenly in football, and the results are much less predictable. And also, where can you have a global game with fans in every continent in which the United States are underdogs and China doesn’t feature at all?

Of course, courtesy of Thierry Henry’s famous hand ball Ireland isn’t there. For a while I thought that would kill my interest in the whole thing, but of course I’ve come around and am glued to the games. And who am I backing? I haven’t made up my mind yet. There needs to be an heroic story in there somewhere, of courage overcoming the odds, of romantic adventures. I’m not sure yet where that will take me. That’s part of the beauty of these games.

The power of the community

April 12, 2010

Margaret Thatcher famously said that there was ‘no such thing as society’, and in recent years it has become commonplace for commentators to suggest that affluence, the internet and demographic changes had brought the traditional concept of the ‘community’ to an end. In fact, various academics and thinkers have been suggesting new models of society and community to arrest this apparent development.

Over the past couple of days I have been reminded, however, that the community still has immense power, particularly during times of stress, to comfort and unite. Watching the response of the Polish people to the plane crash that killed the country’s President and other leaders provided an example of the effect of community solidarity.

On Saturday I spend the day in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, in the North of England, watching Newcastle United play Blackpool. Newcastle, as readers here know, has been promoted back into the English football premier league. The North of England has, over a decade or two, been seriously affected by the decline of traditional industries and the resulting unemployment and poverty. Amidst all this, Newcastle’s football club stood as the embodiment of the community in its hunger for something better. More than anywhere else that I am aware of, this sports club represents the community, and the community lives in part through it – which is one of the key reasons why I am a supporter of this club. You can now see the surge of optimism running through the city on the back of the club’s promotion: may it not all turn to ashes next year!

But one way or another, the idea of the community still lives.

Magpie restoration

April 7, 2010

All right-thinking people will be aware of the fact that Newcastle United FC are on their way back to the English Premier League. Only a year ago the sky seemed to have fallen on the club: owner Mike Ashley had fallen out with manager (and club hero) Kevin Keegan, and had been keeping everyone guessing with a will-he-won’t-he, on-again-off-again attempt to sell the club. In the ensuing chaos Newcastle were relegated from the premiership to the Coca-Cola Championship, where it then looked as if there could be a terminal meltdown when Ashley failed to get Alan Shearer for the job of manager and the team was beaten 6-0 by Leyton Orient, whom nobody had even heard of before.

But then, quietly, everything turned around. The players got their act together, caretaker manager (and ex-Ireland player) Chris Hughton managed to calm everything down, and the club started winning games. Lots of them, in fact, so that five games before the end of the season their promotion was confirmed.

Of course it can all go horribly wrong again, but just for now supporters are feeling that almost forgotten sensation, confidence and optimism.

But even if all goes well, the Newcastle experience over the past 12 months does suggest that some issues in English (and international) club football need to be addressed. Does it really make sense that the world’s largest clubs are ‘owned’ by rich businessmen? Indeed, does it make sense that these same businessmen often really own the clubs only with the help of impossibly large bank loans? Are footballers overpaid? Can the executive management teams of these clubs not understand that football managers need to be allowed to develop their tactics over a longer period, and that changing them every time a team has lost three consecutive games is simply insane? How should we evaluate the role and influence of television stations (in particular Sky TV) in soccer?

For Newcastle fans like me this is a great moment. But it is also a good moment to ask these larger questions, and it is perhaps a good time for serious reform.

Hand games

November 19, 2009

For a period during my teens I played a lot of handball and got really rather good at it. For those who don’t know it, the quickest way of describing it would be to say that it’s like a trimmed down version of indoor soccer played with the hands rather than the feet. Back then, I was a prolific goalscorer. And from that vantage point, I can tell you that Thierry Henry’s skills at handball are excellent: his move to control the ball with his hand before scoring was a classic. The only slight problem is that he wasn’t playing handball.

OK, so what am I talking about? If you don’t know the answer you are not Irish and have not seen any Irish news media over the past 24 hours. No harm to you, here’s the brief explanation. Last night the Irish football (soccer) team played its last qualifying game for the World Cup in South Africa next year. It was the second (and final) game against France; the first leg had been played last Saturday in Dublin, and last night (in Paris) Ireland needed to win the game in order to qualify. Things were going well, with an Irish goal courtesy of Robbie Keane, when just before the end the ball fell to French player Henry, who handled it deftly and allowed team mate Gallas to score. The goal should have been disallowed and Ireland should have had a free kick, but the referee didn’t see it and allowed the goal, and Ireland were cheated out of their place in the World Cup.

In case you think this is a partisan account, let me quote Thierry Henry himself:

‘It was a handball, but I’m not the ref. The ball hit my arm, fell in front of me and I played it. The ref allowed it. That’s a question you should ask him.’

Well of course, all sorts of people are asking the referee. And there is now a campaign for a replay. What has happened here is that an admitted foul was the basis for an undeserved French win. It really should not be allowed to stand. The people should rise up in anger! I fear justice will not prevail, but we should never let it go by default.

Football woes

July 22, 2009

Regular readers of this blog will be used to my occasional forays into the world of soccer, and these days it is mainly to allow me to voice my utter despair at things in the club I support, Newcastle United FC. As some may know, Newcastle were relegated this summer from the English Premiership to the Championship. This little disaster was largely the result of the sheer catastrophe of the management by the current owner, businessman Mike Ashley. Having forced out the much loved and successful manager, Kevin Keegan, and then bounced along with a succession of managers dogged by bad luck, inexperience or illness, Ashley eventually – but far too late – appointed local hero Alan Shearer.

And when relegation came, of course Ashley quickly confirmed Shearer in the post and provided funds to reconstitute the team? Like hell he did! Rather, he messed around telling everyone one day he would now focus on getting everything right and confirm Alan Shearer, and then on the next saying he would sell the club while stalling the manager appointment. True, Newcastle has won all three pre-season friendlies so far – one of them was in Dublin against Shamrock Rovers, and my son and I were there; but that’s not enough when the club is rudderless and drifting along. The worst pessimists among the fans are already whispering the words ‘Leeds United’ sotto voce, God help us.

Anyway, to drag myself away from all this pessimism, this evening I accompanied my son to Dalymount Park to watch Bohemians (the ‘Bohs’) play a qualifying round match for the UEFA Champions’ League against Red Bull Salzburg. A capacity crowd, supporters in excellent voice (and indeed there was what we shall call some choice language from the stands). The Bohs started with an advantage, having finished the away game against Salzburg with a 1-1 draw – meaning that a scoreless draw would see them through on this occasion. In the event, just a few minutes from the final whistle, the Austrians scored, and that dream was over.

Who said that soccer can let you escape from the misery of daily life? I am now reading the report of ‘An Bord Snip’ to take my mind off the football woes.

Oh dear!!!

May 24, 2009

No doubt some readers of this blog will find it difficult to care much one way or another, but to my despair Newcastle United went down today – relegated from the Premier League, they’ll be playing in the Championship next season. What a tragedy this season has been – but I hope they’ll hang on to Alan Shearer anyway. Maybe life in the Championship will not be all bad for them, as they’ll be able to sort themselves out a little, which on the evidence of much of this season is badly needed.

And the lessons to be learnt? That rich owners coming in and thinking they know better how management should be structured is a disaster. I suspect that the whole framework governing football (soccer) needs to be reviewed. But while big money is still flowing into the game there may not be much urgency in all that.

There, I needed to get that off my chest. No more posts about Newcastle for a little while!

Newcastle – oh dear, oh dear!

January 30, 2009

Forgive the self-indulgence of my posting again about Newcastle United FC. But there is a very sad Irish angle to the terrible and sometimes farcical events afflicting the Magpies. Right now, it looks certain that veteran goalkeeper and long-serving member of the Irish national squad Shay Given will leave for the fleshpots of Manchester City; and there are rumours that Irish team-mate Damien Duff may also be heading elsewhere. And one person Newcastle haven’t lost is owner Mike Ashley, so any thoughts about the return of Kevin Keegan can be forgotten.

One bit of news that might be good is that Kevin Nolan (of Bolton Wanderers) is coming to Toon. He’s English, but with that name there must be some Irish roots.

It is sometimes argued that premiership football is not just sport, but an ongoing and often highly implausible soap opera. Nowhere does it get more surreal than Newcastle. Still, in some ways temporary-going-on-permanent manager Joe Kinnear (and at least there’s an Irish link) is not doing a bad job. But the long-suffering fans could do with less soap and more success!

Football: an update

October 22, 2008

As readers of this blog will know, I support two teams in the English Premier League: Newcastle United FC, and Hull City FC. Well, I cannot remember a season that has been quite as exciting as this, so far. The Newcastle saga, with its cast of villains and personalities making cameo appearances, runs on, but now we have expletive-driven Joe Kinnear acting as interim manager – and actually, he appears to be stabilising the operation, and for the past two games the team have put in decent appearances. Mind you, the comment on the NUFC fan website,, that the game against Manchester city could be described as ‘Crazy game, crazy goals, for Joe’s new Crazy Gang’ was more or less spot on.

But in the meantime, Hull City FC have been confounding all the pundits. Promoted via the play-offs to the Premiership, Hull were the subject of knowing comments from really everyone that they would be this year’s Derby County and would sink without a trace. And, after eight games, where are they? Number 3 in the table! Hard to believe, but true. Not only that, but by now most neutral commentators have really taken to this team and their manager, Phil Brown, and are willing them to win. The next big test for that will be the home game against Chelsea in two weeks. I am betting on Hull winning…