Saturday, 18 September 2010

Football is the Opium of the People (Part II)

Back in April I wrote a piece on how football can be considered the 'opium of the people' in modern society. With the Pope currently visiting Britain, now seems like an apt time to continue the exploration of this idea.

My point is simple. The role of football in 21st Century British society is, from a strictly functionalism stance, comparable to the that of religion in centuries gone by. Football has become a cornerstone of British popular culture.

Once every week the masses wear the colours of their team and go to worship in their stadium of choice. Some convert to a team in later life, many simply adopt the team of their parents or local community from birth. They sing their songs in unison, chant the names of their idols and unite with their footballing family.

Pope Benedict stated upon his arrival on Thursday that the Catholic church in Britain was under 'severe secular threats'. Is football one of these? Football consumes much of the lives of so many people across Britain and the importance it has for millions should not be underestimated.

The open-top bus rides for trophy winning teams bare striking resemblance to the Pope-mobile's drive around Scotland. Sex scandals have become synonymous with football and the Catholic church. These stories that continuously dominate the newspapers have plagued both institutions. Violence too has been intrinsically linked with both. There has historically been an intolerance from many towards those of opposing beliefs, whether it be their faith or the team they follow.

Football performs a function in society, as religion does or did. It is about a sense of community, of belonging. The fact remains that the number of people who turn out at the stadiums across Britain at 3:00pm today will dwarf the number of people who will have attended the church, mosque or synagogue over the weekend.

Ask the average ten-year old in England if they would rather meet David Beckham or the Pope, you would imagine that the vast majority would sooner meet England's most capped outfield player than that old guy in the funny hat. I am simply trying to illustrate something that few people would question – that football has overtaken religion in both its importance and the role it performers in modern society and culture.

Football, like most modern religions, is a money-making machine. People's devotion to club and country allows ticket, shirt and club merchandise sales to continue to flourish. The latest kit and season ticket are the essentials for many, even if their economic situation means they will have to make financial cuts elsewhere.

The combination of the expanding media and an increase in disposable income have culminated in the growth of fanatical following of football. The clubs take the wealth and invest it in new arenas of worship. They build statues to commemorate past heroes and triumphs. Footballing iconography dominates corners of towns and cities all over the UK.

Football and religion are not mutually exclusive, of course. There is no reason why the two can't co-exist, indeed for many they do. However, as religious conviction is unquestionably fading in modern British society, it seems that football, albeit only to an extent, is filling the void it has left behind.

The function religion performed in society and culture have been integrated into the game of football. It has become more than just watching a sport, more than merely following a team. It is a lifestyle. It is being part of a family, a community. In turn the clubs have taken this support and exploited it financially. Football has become the opium for the masses. For the millions who pray for three points every Saturday, 'football is life, the rest is mere detail.'

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Thursday, 16 September 2010

'Judas': The Top 10 Premiership Traitors

I saw an interesting piece on the NBA website about players who have famously joined rival clubs. Shaquille O'Neill is the latest to do so as the former LA Lakers star signed for the Boston Celtics this summer.

It got me thinking of who would be considered the biggest Judas' of the Premiership era. This is my list of the ten biggest 'traitors' in the English top flight, taking into consideration the players involved and big the profile of the transfers were at the time.

  1. Eric Cantona. A trend setter by nature, in the case the trend being abandoning Leeds United to join Manchester United. He helped Howard Wilkinson and Leeds to winning the old First Division in 1992 before then crossing the Pennines to sign for the Red Devils where he made himself a cult figure.

  1. Lee Clark. The midfielder played for Newcastle for seven years in the Nineties but then, in 1997, he signed for local rivals Sunderland. After just two season at the Black Cats, however, he was seen with Newcastle fans wearing a t-shirt that read, "Sad Mackam Bastards". He never played for them again. Clark, who is now Huddersfield Town manager, rejoined the Magpies in 2005 for two more seasons.

  1. Nicky Barmby. The one time England international played for Everton for four years before, in 2000, making the short move to Anfield. He was the first player to do so since 1959.

  1. Rio Ferdinand. The central defender had little qualms with moving to one of his former clubs' biggest rivals. On the back of his outstanding performance at 2002 World Cup Ferdinand, who was Leeds captain at the time, broke the record transfer fee when Manchester United signed him for £30 million.

  1. Alan Smith. The player claimed that he would never sign for 'The Scum' but just weeks after Leeds' relegation in 2004 he jumped off the sinking ship and straight into a Manchester United shirt.

  1. Harry Kewell. Completing the Leeds quartet on the list. He, like Smith, was part of the exodus out of Elland Road following their fall from grace. He joined Liverpool before then going on to sign for Galatasary two years ago. The one time Leeds player signed for quite possibly their most fiercely hated rivals. The conflict between Leeds and Galatasary fans prior to their Champions League semi-final in 2000 left two Leeds fans.

  1. William Gallas. The temperamental defender left Chelsea on very unceremonious terms after five years at Stamford Bridge. He joined Arsenal in 2006 but, after four seasons with the Gunners, he has now repeated the trick of leaving for a London rival. This summer he left Arsenal to sign for Tottenham, making him a double traitor.

  1. Carlos Tevez. The Argentine created a storm in Manchester when he signed for City in 2009. Tevez spent two successful years at United but when they failed to put up the money to keep him permanently he swapped shirts for the Sky Blue of City who were more than happy to pay the fee to take him to Eastlands.

  1. Ashley Cole. The left-back's behaviour in the build up to his eventual transfer from Arsenal to Chelsea has endeared him to football fans across the country. He stated in his autobiography that he nearly crashed his car when he discovered that Arsenal were only prepared to pay him a meagre £55,000 a week, earning him the name 'Cashley Cole'. His ego-inflating, money hungry attitude combined with his treatment of his old club have made him one of, if not the most hated player in the league.

  1. Sol Campbell. Simply known as Judas by Spurs fans, the defender left Tottenham to join their bitter North London rivals, Arsenal, in a free transfer back in 2001. Campbell was captain at White Hart Lane and was offered a contract by the club that would have made him their highest ever paid player. He declined and scurried over to Highbury instead.
So there is my list. There were some notable omissions from the list including Harry Redknapp (after moving from Portsmouth to Southampton... and back to Portsmouth as a manager), David Bentley (one time Arsenal player then signed for Tottenham) and Mark Hughes (the former Manchester United player signed for Chelsea as a player and City as a manager) but there just wasn't room for them all.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

A Bad Week for British Boxing

The News of the World's mission to single-handedly expose the seedy-side of Britain's sportsmen continues. The latest star to be caught in their sticky web - Ricky Hatton. The former World Champion boxer has been caught on video taking cocaine.

It is hard to have any sympathy for the victims of the News of the World's undercover work as they are, of course, caught doing immoral and/or illegal acts. The newspaper's approach to investigative journalism clearly yields results.

I would still maintain, though, that it is somewhat unnecessary. Shock horror, overpaid sports stars indulge in some Class A drugs or have affairs. Nevertheless, it sells and sells well. As I say, few would sympathise.

Hatton, who has impressively managed to continue with both his weight gain and cocaine addiction, will surely now have had his retirement confirmed for him. Hints at a comeback will have been silenced as the career of one of Britain's greatest boxers comes to an unceremonious end.

I am not sure which news was worse for British boxing this week, however, Hatton's cocaine problems or David Haye's decision to fight Audley Harrison. Both damage the credibility of the sport. Haye, WBA World Champion, is to defend his title against the 2000 Olympic gold medallist, Harrison, on November 13th in Manchester's MEN Arena.

Although the build up to fight has already proven to be very entertaining, it can only be a step in the wrong direction for 'The Hayemaker'. The only thing Haye can gain from the bout is to, in his words, "close the curtain on the joke that is the Audley Harrison show". Haye is right, 'A-Force' has become somewhat of a comical figure in British boxing and, ultimately, the two are not in the same league.

Haye is in his prime and should win comfortably, but what will he have achieved? Even if he delivers an emphatic knock-out, it will barely grab the attention of fight fans while anything less than a decisive win will leave Haye open to his ever-present critics. Wladimir Klitschko dismissively called it a fight for the 'London Championship' and, unfortunately, he is not far from the mark. It is a fight purely of interest to English fans.

On Saturday night, Wladimir took on Samuel Peters and won comfortably. It was, however, barely a contest. The Ukrainian was never troubled by Peters as the Nigerian-born challenger proved to be little more than a plodding punching bag.

The Heavyweight division is desperately lacking in talent. Fights like the one on Saturday and the one scheduled to take place in November act only to highlight the dire state of the weight-class. They are unappealing appetisers to the fight the heavyweight division needs - Haye versus a Klitschko brother.

I hope I am not being overtly Anglo-centric when I say that David Haye unifying the weight-class would be the best thing that could happen to the division. The Klitschko brothers lack style in the ring and personality out of it. Their rule has marked a dark age for the division and Haye is the only bright spark to emerge from this darkness.

Why negotiations have not been successful between Haye and the Klitschko brothers is unclear. Each blames the other. It is the all too common problem of boxing's big names being able to hold their separate belts while avoiding fighting one another. I have commented on a couple of occasions how the sport of boxing needs to see Manny Pacquiao fight Floyd Mayweather Jr. and so too does the Heavyweight division, if the not the sport of boxing as a whole, need to see Haye fight a Klitschko.

Heavyweight boxing has commonly headlined the sport, but not for a while now. This is largely down to the lack of any American contenders at the top level. The home of boxing remains very much in the U.S.A. That is where the money and crowds are and American interest in the heavyweight division has dwindled as a result of their own lack of competitiveness.

Haye versus either Klitschko would bring some much needed interest, intrigue and attention to the division. Haye's marketability could help sell the fight across the pond, putting the weight-class back in the limelight.

It would make for a fascinating contest between boxers of opposing styles and characters. Once the comical side show of Haye v Harrison has passed, let's hope necessity will prevail and the fight that people want, and the heavyweight division needs, will finally be made.

As for Pacquiao v Mayweather. Mayweather has had a controversial week after a video was released of his racist rant about his Filipino rival. Perhaps this will help the fight to finally go ahead.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Sunday, 12 September 2010

The Renaissance of Berbatov and Essien

*Check out my other posts at Football Streaker and Football Corner*

The new Premiership season may only be a few weeks old but already, in my eyes, there have been two stand out performers. Dimitar Berbatov and Micheal Essien both look to be back to their best after disappointing 2009-2010 seasons, albeit for very different reasons.

Berbatov has failed to meet the expectations that came with his profile move from Spurs. There were only fleeting moments of the brilliance that football fans know he is capable of over the last two seasons. His lethargic approach to football meant that when he was not at his creative or goalscoring best, he offered little to the team.

He infuriated fans. His form was mercurial and his talent was wasted by his attitude and effort. The Bulgarian striker spent much of his time last year sat on the bench watching Wayne Rooney create headlines as the lone striker.

This season, however, something seems to have clicked. Berbatov has recaptured the form that earned him such a large price tag in 2008 and, unsurprisingly, he now seems to be enjoying his football in Manchester.

He has netted three times already in the Premiership and his goal against Everton yesterday was a thing of beauty. He has great vision, his touch is sublime and he may well be the most gifted technical player currently in the league. Berbatov has the ability to amaze fans with the ease at which he can do seemingly impossible things with a football and, at last, he is doing this more often.

The rediscovery of his best form will have come as a welcome relief to United as their star player hides in the shadows after his seedy private life was exposed. After an over-reliance on Rooney last season, Berbatov's goals will certainly be an important commodity.

Michael Essien is the polar opposite to Berbatov. He is a player who's reputation is based not upon finesse but an insatiable appetite and tireless work rate. What Berbatov has in technique, Essien makes up for with his physical attributes.

The Chelsea midfielder missed most of last season through a knee injury and has been, in the words of his manager Carlo Ancelotti, “better than a new signing”. 'The Bison', as he is sometimes known, has reinvigorated the Chelsea team and looked more imposing than ever at the start of the current campaign.

Mikel's new role is critical. With him in the holding role, Essien is free to be far more expressive in his play and positioning. He was on the score-sheet twice against West Ham yesterday and his all action approach to the game has been central to Chelsea's strong start to the season.

Both United and Chelsea remained relatively inactive in the summer transfer window. The message from the managers was clear – we believe in the squads we have. Their confidence has been rewarded as Berbatov and Essien have responded superbly. Berbatov's return to form and Essien's return from injury have injected new life into their respective teams.

I suppose we should not be too surprised. They are both big money buys and fantastic players. Nevertheless, the impact they have had on their sides been clear. It will be interesting to see if they can maintain their form, fitness and influence as the season progresses.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

*Check out my other posts at Football Streaker and Football Corner*


Friday, 10 September 2010

The Wayne Rooney Saga: There is no longer such a thing as a 'private life' for modern day sports stars

The first post I ever wrote on Polly's Pause for Sport was concerning John Terry's affair with Wayne Bridge's ex-girlfriend. Now, like then, an England player is making the headlines for non-football reasons. Wayne Rooney is the latest English footballer to have his reputation dragged into disrepute following an alleged affair he had with two prostitutes in a Manchester hotel while his wife, Coleen, was pregnant with their child, Kai.

Seven months has passed since John Terry was stripped of the England captaincy for his off-the-field antics and nothing has changed. The concept of a private or personal life is little more than a fleeting dream for the modern footballer. Only that which you can keep hidden from the press will remain private. The rest will be thrust under the public spotlight, regardless of the collateral damage it causes.

Obviously I am not condoning adulterous behaviour. I would ask the question though, why does the rest of the world need to know what an individual does in their 'private' life? If it does not impact upon them professionally then why should we allow scandals to hold such gravitas in public opinion?

While news about Rooney ought to be about his return to form, instead, the unquenchable thirst for details about the seedy events of that night in June 2009 means that this story will continue to dominate the newspapers and websites for a while yet. Personally, I do not care what Wayne Rooney, John Terry, Tiger Woods or anyone else do in their own time. They should not have to sacrifice the right to a private life simply because they play sport for a living.

Many are quick to wag the finger and claim that people like Rooney are role models. This, although it may be true, is unfair. Role models are those in the public eye, those who people aspire to be like. They are in the public eye, of course, because they are extremely good at what they do and usually in some way controversial, not because they are shining example or how one ought to act. Is Amy Winehouse a good role model? What about Pete Doherty, Lindsay Lohan or even Kevin Pietersen? Almost certainly not.

The point I am trying to make is simple. They don't have to be role models. Judge Rooney on his football. Criticise him for his woeful World Cup performances for example, but there is no need to drag his, or indeed any other sportsmen's personal life into the public sphere. I am not naïve, though. These stories sell magazines and newspapers and thus they will always be scrutinised and plastered across the various media sources.

John Terry's affair did have an extra dimension insofar as it involved the mother to the children of an England team-mate. Capello acted decisively in February by dismissing the Chelsea defender as England captain. However, the precedent that Capello set during the John Terry saga was conveniently abandoned this week. When the news broke of Rooney's affair the national team squad were preparing for their European Championship qualifiers and the manager assured the press and fans that Rooney would play regardless.

Rooney faces a hostile trip to Goodison Park as Manchester United face Everton tomorrow lunchtime. Whether Ferguson will protect his striker from the booing mob by hiding him away is yet to be known. I hope Rooney plays so that, for ninety minutes at least, the focus can be on his football and not his private life.

Thought, comments and opinions please...

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Betting Scandals in Sport: An unwanted and irremovable evil

I returned home from holiday to discover it had been a dramatic two weeks in sport. The spot-fixing charges against the Pakistan trio of Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir from the Lords Test comfortably overshadowed the others though.

“Clearly the threat is that the events at Lord's are merely the gas bubbles on a huge swamp of skulduggery.”

These are the words The Guardian's Paul Hayward on the latest story of corruption in sport. His bleak and sinister view on modern sport may have some validity, even if we would hope that it didn't, and I thought I would offer my opinion on the problem in a more general sense.

The accusation facing the Pakistan trio is the latest in a line of betting scandals surrounding not only cricket but all sports. Modern sports have, indisputably, become money making industries.

One of the main revenues from sport is betting. As coverage and interest in sports continues to increase it is understandable that the opportunity for match fixing or spot fixing will follow the same trend. It is an unavoidable truth.

Betting scandals have taken place in most sports. Matt Le Tisier has admitted to attempting to kick a ball immediately out of play at the start of a match so as to win money on a bet involving the time of the first throw-in. Earlier this year John Higgins was suspended from snooker for accepting money to fix the outcome of frames.

It is not unique to cricket. Illegal drug use in athletics and cycling is another form of attempting to fix the outcome of an event, according to Paul Hayward.

Incidents of cheating, to use a general all encompassing term, will always drag the integrity of any given sport into question. Sports are enjoyed because of their uncertainty and unpredictability. When it becomes evident that a match is no longer an even or fair contest, with the outcome being in some or any way predetermined, the credibility of it diminishes.

Deciphering just how much corruption there is in sport is extremely difficult, despite the News of the World's best efforts of late. We would like to believe that these are rare cases but most would accept that this is not the case.

Just today Yasir Hameed has stated that agents in Pakistani cricket act as little more than bookmakers. The batsmen claimed the Pakistani team made £1.8 million in their Test against Australia in Sydney. The problem is clearly not isolated to the Lord's Test but is constant temptation on offer to the players.

What can be done? How can it be eradicated? In reality, it can't. More severe punishments may go some way to prevent it happening as often. Life time bans and massive fines would be a deterrent but the issue can never be fully removed. Ultimately, as long as sport attracts such vast financial interest it will always be plagued by money hungry opportunists.

It must be accepted that corruption is an unwanted but irremovable facet of modern sport. The corruption fades into the shadows until stories, like the one involving the Pakistani cricketers, allow it rear its ugly head.

As I say, it is hard to know who widespread the problem is. It is certainly more common than we are told or know. It need not, however, cast doubt over every sporting event.

Every no ball, every missed pot, every time a world record or any suspect sporting moment ought not to be met with unquantified pessimism and cynicism.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

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