Wednesday, 1 August 2018

How I tried, and failed, to boycott the World Cup

Having watched almost every kick of the previous 11 World Cups, my family and friends were sceptical about my ability to boycott the 2018 competition (see polemics passim). Having ignored the qualifiers over the preceding two years, though, I was more optimistic. Wrapped only in abstract but righteous armour, I sat out the first round of group games at Russia 2018 with barely a glance at the screen. Soon after that, I left Germany for a French hamlet in Burgundy where - thanks to the generosity of friends - I stayed alone in a farm house with thick stone walls, uneven floors, and neither a TV nor an internet connection.

2002: the innocent age of pre-HD television
The night before I left, though, my wife and youngest daughter were watching Croatia v Argentina while I packed, and their yelps and yells were impossible to ignore. I thought back to when I was watching Senegal v France, the opening game of the 2002 World Cup. I had loudly exclaimed throughout that astonishing match, but at one point found the whole family - wife and two daughters, then aged 6 and 3 - standing next to me and asking, "Jesus, is this what it's going to be like for the next four weeks?"

We've come a long way. They shout, emote and cuss now too, and they claim to have learnt it from the best. Now here I was, 16 years later, wishing that they would keep the noise down. I was wishing even more that I could sit beside them on the

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

China - Super League, super fans

How did I imagine Chinese football fans? The truth is that I expected them to be passive. I have no idea why. I'd never been to China in my life, let alone a Chinese football match. Maybe because it's a nascent league perceived as being desperate to establish itself after starting 100 years too late. Possibly, I thought (though not with much depth), the fans wouldn't really know how to support their team. You know, because they don't have a century of tradition behind them, and all that bollocks.

United in blue - Shanghai
Shenhua fans (pic: TQF)
European football's default position on any league beyond its ken is that it must be second-rate. Our perception of the Chinese Super League has largely been as follows: its owners are just chucking huge money after aging stars, in the manner of Major League Soccer since the Beckham Rule, and the North American Soccer League of the 1970s. Japan and Australia have been down that route too. We condescendingly wave a knowing goodbye to star players who fly East to bow out for one last pay-off in a sub-standard league. 

Lazy narratives are borne of a lack of curiosity. Both apathy and a lack of interest almost caused me to stay away from Shanghai Shenhua against Hebei at the tail-end of March. Yet if I'm in a new

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Boycott the World Cup properly, not diplomatically

The attempted assassination by assailants unknown on the Skripal family in Salisbury, England, has prompted the kind of decisive political action that the Russian annexation of the Crimea, the country's mass-murderous involvement in bombing Syrian rebels, the suppression of domestic dissent and gay rights, and its state-sanctioned blanket cheating at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics was unable to provoke. Yes, some countries will be boycotting the 2018 World Cup.

Not an actual boycott, though - just a symbolic one. Rather than withdrawing their teams, countries are apologetically deciding to keep their official delegations at home. So, politicians on a free jaunt to watch some football are sacrificing themselves. The retreating refugees of eastern Ghouta will surely be impressed. And just imagine the hurt of the Russians when they see that the Icelandic

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

The Quiet Fan - another explanation

Faster than the speed of publishing
- Clive and his... vehicle.
As The Quiet Fan's publication date approaches with all the speed and reliability of a Sinclair C5, I'm once again having to face up to the question, "Soooo, what's the book about?" Ask any author this question and you're splitting them internally in two. One half of them is in panic, thinking, "I do not want to answer that question because I don't even really know how." And the other half is also in panic, thinking, "I have to answer this question. Because this is something I suppose that I really ought to know, having actually written it."

It's complicated, of course. No writer wants to look so superficial that they can sum up their book in one pithy sentence that will lure in a potential reader. That's the domain, we elevated scribes suppose, of trash literature and its easily satisfied readership. "A duke falls in love with a milk-maid while on his way to rescue the last existing copy of the Magna Carta from the power-mad, totalitarian Monocrats of

Monday, 18 December 2017

Should I go the game or the anti-Trump demo?

Last Saturday I was cycling to the Bundesliga game between Eintracht Frankfurt and Schalke 04 when I passed close to a crowd demonstrating against the decision of US President Trump to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. I could hear someone with a megaphone calling to the protesters, who responded to each prompt with a chant about a free Palestine.

Or: 'Demos not football'?
I hadn't been aware that the demonstration was taking place. It would have been easy for me to get off my bike, lock it up, and go to join the demo instead of pedalling on to the football. But I didn't. I didn't even hesitate, even as I was arguing with myself that this was certainly what I ought to be doing.

Let us imagine a (plausible) worst case scenario - that the US decision has catastrophic consequences for the situation in Israel, the Occupied Territories and the wider Middle East region. There is a devastating war involving all the mass consequences that accompany

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

At the Champions League - with the Kardashians!

There would be no game without the fans, we are often told by football's guardians of insight. They are the most important people in the stadium. A new generation of fans is taking this truth to extremes. They are starting to think that they are the only people in the stadium.

Football from around the time
Rangers used to do well in Europe
(actually a mosaic at the Stadio Olimpico).
Last week I went to watch a Champions League group game for the first time since I saw Paul Gascoigne and Rangers humbly succumb 3-0 to the Grasshoppers of Zürich in the autumn of 1996. I had a letter printed in the Swiss daily Tages-Anzeiger complaining that the club had increased ticket prices seven-fold from what they charged for Swiss League games. It failed to trigger the popular revolution that I'd hoped for. And anyway, I was part of the problem too - I'd bought two of the jacked-up stubs for the privilege of seeing another highly tipped Scottish failure.

At games back then no one except the official photographers had a camera. It was around one year later in that very same ground when, for the first time, I was sitting next to someone who took a call on their mobile phone. I was incredulous that technology was heedlessly devouring my world view. For Christ's sake, you sociopathic

Friday, 29 September 2017

Why I don't like Derby Day

Lincoln City and Grimsby Town will contest a Lincolnshire derby at Blundell Park in the Football League tomorrow afternoon. The word 'derby' is supposed to trigger something bigger in the football fan's emotional spectrum. There are extra match-day abstractions heaped on to all the usual clichés about just how important these three points are. 'Rivalry', 'bragging rights' and even 'hatred' are thrown in to the conversational build-up, as sure as turkeys will have their throats coldly slit sometime in the early weeks of December.

Derby day - time to unearth
your statutory hatred
I can't help but feel we're being sold an artificial product when derby time rolls around. Of course the clubs hype it up to sell tickets, the media churn out hackneyed headlines to lure in more readers, and the League itself wouldn't dream of interfering to brake the Derby Day Express, because marketing and publicity are far more important nowadays than, say, the possibility of a clean, open game of football.

Yet cranking up the pre-derby rhetoric does the fixture no favours. All that furious noise puts sporting pressure on the teams, and the games will often be scrappy, hurried encounters. Players new to the area will be told "how much this game means" to the locals. They may convince themselves of the match's super-added importance in the interests of self-motivation. And then the two sides tear into each other and it's beyond anyone to even control the bloody ball.

As a Lincoln City fan, I have to confess that I don't hate Grimsby Town. I don't even dislike them. I grew up almost exactly half way

Thursday, 21 September 2017

My night as a corporate fan - a stunning exposé of free beer and shady deals

I have never been a corporate fan, but in the interests of balanced reporting I generously accepted an offer to accompany a friend who is. His firm holds six VIP tickets for every FC Cologne home game, and last night they played my local team, Eintracht Frankfurt. It's the kind of gritty, undercover work that we football bloggers are occasionally forced into when exploring the seedy under-belly of sport's darker side. My only problem would be resisting the lucrative job offers that would no doubt come my way via a shady half-time handshake. I was determined not to become 'one of us'.

Far from the 'wild horde' at
FC Köln's Müngersdorfer Stadium
First, let me tell you about my friend, 'John' (his real name). We met when we were both proper journalists several years ago before our profession died and he crossed to a more generous paymaster to work in something called 'communications' (and I crossed into a cash-free zone called 'freelancing'). His job, however, is not to communicate, but to obfuscate. That's why his firm's web site proclaims that it "provides solutions to propel our customers from start to finish to unlock new insights". Understand?

John has three colleagues along on the corporate tab who are all FC Cologne fans. John himself claims to be a Bayern Munich supporter for some tenuous reason I can't recall, although he's from Chicago and lives near Frankfurt. Let's just say he's a truly global customer in

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

"Watch the news!" When rogue players express interesting views

Reading interviews with active footballers is like beach-combing with a blindfold on. The chances of stumbling on something worthwhile among the miles of sand and seaweed are as high as a player saying something interesting under the watchful auspices of their agents and club press officers. Very occasionally, though, you might come across a pearl, or at least a nice colourful cowrie.

"If someone says football's the
 only thing in my life, I
think that's stupid."
It's especially pleasing to hear from players who can look beyond the game. In the latest issue of German monthly 11 Freunde, the Hoffenheim striker Sandro Wagner talks about football's place in society. Wagner, who made his German international debut this past summer at the age of 29, is a feisty, physical player who, to say the least, has made himself unpopular down the years with opposing fans thanks to his robust style. He fouls a lot, and he gets fouled a lot.

I like him, though. Last season when he played for Hoffenheim at Eintracht Frankfurt he took a nasty, deliberate elbow to the face from Frankfurt's captain David Abraham, which went unseen and unpunished by the referees. Wagner got up, played on, and after the game made no fuss about it at all. In the 11 Freunde interview he says that Abraham apologised for the incident even as the game was still being played, and for him that was the end of the matter.

What I really like in the interview, though, is when he answers the question, "Do fans take football too seriously?" Wagner replies, "I see it like a lot of fans do - I love football, it's the greatest sport in the world. But many go over the top. If someone says to me, football's the only thing in my life, then I think that's stupid. To someone like that I

Friday, 25 August 2017

Who are "the fans"? None of us, all of us

Why I Wrote The Quiet Fan

As a book title, The Quiet Fan is meant to be more than slightly tongue in cheek. Sometimes I'm quiet when I watch a game (through shyness, fear, boredom or indifference), and sometimes I'm as noisy as hell (thrilled, annoyed, or I just feel like shouting out loud). I haven't written this book to point out the virtues of being quiet. In fact, it's the opposite. The quiet fan is the unrepresented fan - and that's pretty much all of us. I've had it with the idle pigeonholing of fans as violent morons (70s/80s), or dupes willing to do anything and buy anything for the sake of their team (90s and beyond).

"A Fan's Life."
One fan's life.
Fever Pitch was a good enough work, but it was only one fan's experience. One of the book's consequences (not Nick Hornby's fault) was the media's abandonment of its previous fan stereotype, the drunken hooligan (see Hillsborough and everything that came before). In itself, this wasn't a bad thing. It was published shortly after Paul Gascoigne's tears at Italia 90, and an emerging fan culture that had actually started to enjoy being in the stadium. The downside was that the apparent hooligan was replaced by the apparent fanatic - the obsessive, the so-called real fan. The only true and proper fans were season ticket holders who cared about their team to the exclusion of all else in life. This fan lived for something now called 'footie' and had no family (or at least none they paid attention to), and no life to speak of outside of the game. Emotionally inadequate misfits to be pitied and patronised, yet moulded and manipulated into becoming the Sky era's "passionate" customer core.

I dislike being told when I have to be passionate, or that I have to be passionate at all. I dislike being told that I would do anything for my team. No I wouldn't, and neither would most of the fans I've ever met. We don't always get angry when our team loses, we don't always look