The August Riots

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Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Reality Britain: How long until reality television shows dominate our television scene?

The past decade has seen a sea change in television broadcasting. Shows such as Big Brother, X-Factor, Britain's Got Talent and Strictly Come Dancing have begun to define television as we know it. Whatever side of the debate you consider yourself to occupy, it is almost undeniable that the traditional programmes to which viewers became accustomed in the 1980s and 1990s are gradually being phased out. Time Magazine critic James Poniewozik asserts that, rather than being an anomaly in the televisual field, reality shows are "simply another genre", such as sitcoms or dramas. Indeed there are those, such as Today online contributor Michael Ventre, who believe that 2011 will in fact sound the death knell for reality programming. Big Brother has already fallen by the wayside, fortunately in my view, for over the past ten years it has promoted all that is wrong with society; vanity, undeserved fame, banality, selfishness and egregious self-promotion. Yet X-Factor and Britain's Got Talent, arguably ITV's flagship programmes in its current malaise, are still going strong. Indeed X-Factor, with the significant weight of media mogul Simon Cowell behind it, has come to define the musical, particularly chart, agenda in the United Kingdom with winners and runners-up rarely failing to break through into the 'big-time' and achieve significant commercial success. The major worry would be that original broadcasting is being supplanted across the board, and the programmes that are really valued, creative and memorable, will soon cease to exist in the face of the incessant march of reality television.

As mentioned earlier, some believe that reality television is in fact on its way out, although what form of programming will replace it is unclear at present. In the United States there has been criticism of American Idol and Dancing With The Stars, both of which attract a high proportion of viewers, but perhaps this is merely a sign of the times? Perhaps the public on both sides of the Atlantic have become sick of reality programming, a staple of television schedules for at least a decade. Perhaps what we are seeing is a public looking to the past for a solution to the problems of the present, and potential difficulties of the near future. I for one certainly hope so, for I believe Britain's monumental cultural heritage, of which a large part is owed to the various original, innovative and relevant programmes produced in the United Kingdom over the past half century, rather than the recent influx of cheap to produce, endlessly viable and largely creatively-moribund shows such as X-Factor. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with such programmes, my only complaint is that as time goes on far less energy goes into ensuring original and creative broadcasting, and quality is substituted for financial viability. For where would television in this country be had producers, television companies, executives and creative divisions not taken a chance on shows such as The Office, Only Fools And Horses, Yes Minister and Blackadder? Although perhaps risky at the time, each of the above has achieved significant critical acclaim and an enduring popularity that reality shows often fail to obtain; for most it is more a case of the latter, if only in a somewhat fleeting sense, than the former.

One could argue that what has been happening to our television over the past decade or so is merely an almost-exact reflection of the phenomena which has drastically altered the British music scene. In the early-mid 1990s the chart was far more unpredictable, varying in its winners and losers, and based primarily around artists producing original, creative music that they had written themselves following an extensive period of touring and a variety of attempts to 'make it' in the 'big time'. Whereas nowadays chart music is dominated by mass-produced, heavily advertised music catering primarily to one specific style which more often than not is forced upon the buying public by the various interests that the music companies represent. One could say in recent years, music has become less about art and creativity, and more about art and instant gratification, that is to say, temporary and fleeting chart success. Sadly the same has happened to British television. By no means am I trying to suggest that the 1990s was some sort of 'golden age' in television, although some may argue that the flourishing of British popular music in that particular decade was something out of the ordinary, and indeed rather special. However television appears to be going only one way; in five years’ time, although Michael Ventre vehemently disputes this point of view, I predict that we will have far fewer programmes of the calibre and originality of Peep Show, The Inbetweeners, Outnumbered and Gavin And Stacey, and more shows along the line of X-Factor, television designed to make millions overnight with little creativity involved. Now I certainly do not want to get rid of programmes such as X-Factor and Britain's Got Talent, in fact I must profess to have watched both somewhat regularly. I am merely lamenting the demise of the sitcom, a television genre often subjected to some criticism and under-representation, and the dearth of original programming available to the viewers of today. With the current, and possible future cuts to BBC funding we may be about to say goodbye to a whole host of 'risky' programmes in favour of shows guaranteed to engineer a high proportion of the prime-time audience, that are both commercially viable and sometimes creatively thin, the rest of the time bankrupt of originality.

Photos courtesy of (in order): Bee Hive City, Share TV, The British Comedy Guide

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

It's snow joke: Winter worries and festive fury, why does the snow always take us by surprise?

The past few days have seen hundreds of flights cancelled, many roads either closed, clogged, or impassable, and the travel plans of millions left in tatters. Suffice to say the conditions have been challenging, extremely so in many cases, with temperatures of -19 degrees a reality for a number of areas across the country. However the frustration of those who, since the beginning of the weekend, have been stranded at Heathrow, an airport accustomed to managing tens of millions of passengers per year, is perfectly understandable. I raise the following question: why does the snow always catch us out, and when will this country finally take the necessary precautions to avoid any repeat of the present disaster. Prime Minister David Cameron today expressed his "frustration" at the current travel problems, but in reality his words will be of little consolation to those who have been trapped, in a manner one particular news programme referred to as akin to 'refugees', in the various terminals of London's airports, particularly Heathrow. The so-called 'weather excuse' is often wheeled out by the transport, particularly the aviation, authorities during such times of travel chaos. But how long will this continue to provide an adequate explanation for such an unprecedented level of disruption?

One could plausibly argue that given the events of recent years, Britain's airport and railway operators, particularly the much maligned British Airports Authority (BAA), should have put in place an appropriate structure to deal with circumstances that were in fact easily anticipated and warned of for a number of weeks by those with the ability of foresight. Yet the failures of the past few days have been a most unimpressive cocktail of short and long-term factors. On the longer term side of the debate, for an airport known to have flown 66 million passengers during the previous year, to not have the necessary snow-clearing facilities to ensure that the runway can be kept as clear as possible during times of intense snowfall, and quickly and effectively cleared following such downpours in order to continue an 'adequate', not even full, level of operations, is outrageous. It seems to me that complacency has long been the order of the day at the busiest airport in the United Kingdom and the European Community. Corners appear to have been cut, and necessary checks and balances to guard against total collapse of flight output seem to be non-existent. The fact that, as revealed earlier today on ITV News, there are no processes in place to rate airports on the manner in which they deal with snow and ice, shows the extent to which the problem has been swept under the carpet and quietly ignored until, of course, the recent debacle.

Yet the worst part of all, for my mind, has been the short-term events which have characterised the passenger misery of the past few days. Passengers and prospective fliers have been provided with almost no information as to whether or not their flights will be going ahead; for those stranded in the terminals one would imagine that such information, however seemingly minor and insignificant, would have been akin to manna from heaven. Yet sadly the response of the authorities and those 'managing' the crisis has simply been to disregard the needs, and concerns, of the troubled and concerned passengers confined to the terminal walls in West London. Furthermore, when one takes into account that it has taken four days, three since the snowfall ended on Saturday, to bring the airport back to even limited capacity - estimated to be around 1/3 - BAA, its requisite staff members and relevant associates should be highly embarrassed. Lessons may have been learnt, but I highly doubt that an aggrieved British public will permit such a frivolous 'learning curve' to repeat itself, or that those who have seen 2010 end on a sour note will pay any regard to pleas for leniency and calm from those who may not have caused this crisis, but have undeniably exaggerated it.

The British transport network has long been a thorn in the side of the plans of millions of Britons throughout the festive period, with extortionate fares, inadequate timetabling, frequent delays and sometimes cancellations anathema to many sick of paying for such an unreliable system. Add snow to this mixture and it becomes positively toxic. One would expect, whether rightly or wrongly and I suggest that it may be a mixture of the two, that should Britain's airports fail to cope with the seasonal weather, the trains and motorways should be able to step into the breach. Alas, for this Christmas at least, it's a case of no such luck. The suspension of the East Coast Main line is by no means the end of the misery. Dozens of train companies across the country have cancelled train services at a time when those attempting to undergo domestic flights are turning to rail travel as an answer to their prayers. Eurostar passengers have been equally affected, being informed that they could experience anything up to an astonishing six-hour wait upon arrival at the St. Pancras Terminal. Southwestern Trains, Arriva Trains Wales, and many services in the North and South-East of England have been severely affected, and are not yet back to capacity.

When you consider the possibility of the High Speed 2 (HS2) rail network being factored into this debate, and the potential for greater disruption becomes monumental unless a frank and full change of attitude takes place amongst those responsible for our transport infrastructure. Roads are always a problem in snow and ice, and few can really complain about constant snowfall stretching grit supplies to breaking point; it is simply the combination of road, rail and air that has so devastated Britons heading home or to visit relatives over a festive period which, let us not forgot, comes just once a year. We can only hope that the authorities get the message, and take on board the message of this simple adage: 'fail to plan and plan to fail'. Whilst nobody is suggesting that the hold-ups, cancellations, and transport collapse have been planned; they certainly appear to have been exaggerated by the inadequate preparations, shortage of necessary equipment, incompetent and unsympathetic 'crisis management’ and failure to take into account the needs of passengers.

Photos courtesy of (in order): Frui, Tree Badger, Reuters, The Telegraph

Monday, 20 December 2010

Festive Football Forecast - Who will be snowed under this Christmas, and who will plow through their rivals to reach the top of the tree?

Scottish football supporters might well be accustomed to having their Christmas and winter schedule decimated by excessive snowfall and adverse weather conditions. However for those of us south of the border the mass postponements which affected 32 fixtures across all four divisions were both unprecedented and unexpected. Only three Premier League fixtures, miraculously including tonight's game at Eastlands, went ahead. Thus the table is currently rather skewed, with Manchester United currently sitting top of the three by two points, following the failure of their neighbours City to capitalise on the weekend's postponements, suffering a shock 2-1 home defeat against Everton. Following tonight's result, United are in a remarkably strong position going into the Christmas period. City will struggle to close the gap going into 2011, facing a tricky trip to Newcastle United on Boxing Day, despite very much winnable home ties against stuttering Aston Villa on 28 December and Blackpool on New Year’s Day. United also face a Christmas period which shouldn't be all too taxing, with Sunderland the visitors on Boxing Day, followed by a jaunt around The Midlands to face Birmingham City and West Bromwich Albion in the space of five days. City's form so far this season has been patchy to say the least, but with Roberto Mancini's side unbeaten in the Premier League since 30 October, and two of three festive fixtures at Eastlands, they cannot be ruled out despite tonight's result. United meanwhile, have been buoyant in recent weeks, the 7-1 thrashing of Blackburn Rovers a consummate mauling which, combined with Chelsea's stuttering recent form, has instilled a sense of belief amongst the United supporters and players alike that they can open a gap at the top once their games-in-hand come around in January. Chelsea and Arsenal are by no means spectators in this title battle; The Gunners indeed are United's closest challengers, but only on goal difference. Chelsea lie a point behind, and the winners of this Monday's colossal showdown at The Emirates will likely emerge from the Christmas period as the main competition for Sir Alex's side during the remainder of the season. United's tendency to up their game in the second half of the season, plus Arsenal's disposition to implode sometime in the final few months of the season, means that Chelsea and Manchester City will need to find some form and quick, to prevent the league leaders running away with things and pressing home their advantage.

Outside the top four positions, the top flight is as open as it has been for a while. Tottenham Hotspur, enjoying a vintage season in European competition, having won their Champions League group against all odds, currently occupy fifth place on 27 points. However with this season's overachievers-so-far Sunderland equal on points and goal difference, and Bolton just a point behind, Harry Redknapp's side must put their European exploits to one side and take advantage of the Christmas period to put some distance between them and their less-illustrious challengers. Spurs have a fairly simple sequence of games between now and 2011; a trip to Aston Villa and a couple of home games against Fulham and Newcastle all that stand between Tottenham and a full festive points haul. Bolton, for their part, have been in exceptional form; Owen Coyle has transformed the Trotters into a side playing football the right way, combining a ruthless determination to succeed with an egalitarian flair that has seen them win plaudits across the footballing spectrum. Sunderland's rise has been rather more inconspicuous, but Saturday's victory against Bolton illustrated the quiet effectiveness with which Steve Bruce and his side have firmly cemented themselves as challengers for a Europa League place. The Trotters will be up against West Bromwich Albion, who themselves have over-achieved under Roberto Di Matteo, on Boxing Day. However away games at Chelsea and Liverpool will provide a far stiffer test of the Terriers' mettle, and they will do well to maintain such a lofty position by 6pm on 1 January. For Sunderland the festive matches shouldn't be quite so troublesome; few supporters will be expecting a victory at Old Trafford on Boxing Day, particularly in light of the ease with which Blackburn were taken apart just a few weeks ago. However with Blackpool and Blackburn themselves visitors to the Stadium Of Light, a veritable fortress where the Black Cats have been unbeaten thus far, Sunderland may well be right on Spurs' coat-tails in a fortnight's time.

Just two points separate the teams from eighth-14th place, and for any of those within these particular parameters, two wins from three over the Christmas period may just be enough to entrench a top-half position. Overachievers Blackpool, Newcastle, Blackburn, Stoke, Everton and West Brom may not face the wrath of their supporters should they fall out of this closely-packed group, but for Liverpool and Aston Villa, ninth and 15th places respectively won't be enough to impress fans used to far higher league placings, and may just cost Roy Hodgson and Gerard Houllier their jobs. As for the final five, particularly bottom of the table West Ham United, it will be anything but a Happy Christmas. Hammers boss Avram Grant was allegedly handed a simple equation recently by the board at Upton Park; win one of the next three games, or face redundancy. Having secured a battling 1-1 draw at Ewood Park against a wasteful Blackburn, Grant may well argue that fans have already seen an improvement. Of course, the alleged 'ultimatum' may simply have been an invention by the press, but the old adage of there being no smoke without fire may well ring true in this scenario as well. Failing to achieve victory in either their trip to Fulham and a home showdown against tonight's heroes Everton, and the Hammers may well have lost likely the most proficient manager they could ever hope to have in such a predicament. For Wolverhampton Wanderers and Mick McCarthy, excuses of misfortune, which are indeed justified, will only wash for a certain amount of time. West Ham, Wolves and Wigan, all of whom have vastly inferior goal differences to the sides above them, face an uphill struggle to dig themselves out of the relegation slush. Fulham's position is almost equally precarious; the West Londoners lie just outside the relegation zone, level on points with third-bottom Wigan, and spared the ignominy of being in the bottom three at Christmas solely by dint of the abysmal goal difference of Roberto Martinez' side. A tricky trip to Stoke City and London Derby at Spurs will be difficult to gain any points from, so the pressure is on for the Cottagers to put another nail in the coffin of West Ham United on Boxing Day. Expect a gritty, determined performance from both sides, and a nervy, yet expectant crowd. One can only hope that even if the Hammers fail to triumph, as I expect them to, the West Ham board keep the faith with Avram Grant as he tries to unite a disparate, underachieving squad, and trim the fat accumulated by his predecessors as well as improve on a lacklustre season to date.

England's second division, The Championship, unlike its more illustrious counterpart, remains unpredictable, exciting and surprisingly resilient against the festive freeze. Just two games failed to go ahead at the weekend, although league leaders Queens Park Rangers will have wished that their trip to Elland Road had fallen victim to the snow and ice. The R's slumped to a dismal 2-0 defeat, Max Gradel scoring twice to condemn Rangers to their second defeat in a row. Things aren't set to get any easier for Neil Warnock's side, despite returning to Loftus Road on Boxing Day. A scorned Swansea City, 1-0 losers against Sheffield United on Saturday, will provide another test of QPR's promotion credentials, which have already been subject to significant doubt by supporters and pundits alike. Cardiff City will be hoping to get their season back on track with a home game against high-flying Coventry City on Boxing Day. Expect the Bluebirds to re-establish themselves as QPR's main challengers over the festive period, with poor home performers Watford and Bristol City unlikely to be capable of coping with a resurgent City side, featuring the attacking weight of Craig Bellamy, Jay Bothroyd, Peter Whittingham and Michael Chopra. Leeds United, meanwhile, who achieved what Cardiff were fundamentally unable to at the weekend, could well reach the summit themselves. Home matches against underachievers Middlesbrough and mid-table Portsmouth are the best Simon Grayson's side could have hoped for going into a 2011 which may just see Leeds reclaim their often exaggerated 'right' to play in the Premier League. Dark horses for the next few games could be Norwich City, who will play two of three festive games at home, one against faltering QPR, Reading, and Hull City, who look to be finding some sort of momentum to drag themselves away from the relegation dogfight. Leicester are another side to watch, with their 3-0 away defeat to Ipswich during Saturday's blizzard in Suffolk likely to be a blip for Sven Goran Eriksson's improving side. Doncaster are also worth a mention; having stopped the rot following a last-gasp comeback victory against Middlesbrough on Friday night, and facing visits from underperforming Ipswich and second-bottom Scunthorpe United, and lying in 11th place, just four points off the play-offs with a game in hand, Sean O'Driscoll's side look set to force themselves into the top six come the New Year. Whatever the results over the next two weeks, the onus is on the bottom four and the top six to ensure that the crucial gap from those above and below them remains. For those in the middle, the time is now to ensure whether it will be a festive flurry, or a case of brand new year, same old form.

Photos courtesy of (in order): Purse And A Glove, Who Ate All The Pies?, Football

Saturday, 11 December 2010

World Cup Vote - Has FIFA been exposed for what it is, or simply tried to honestly further the global game?


With a week having passed since FIFA's decision to award the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar respectively, the time is ripe to analyse the reasons for this unprecedented decision, and finally settle a debate which has seen FIFA accused of rampant corruption and collusion in bribery. The future of the global game is subject to consistent debate and wildly diverging views; some believe it has been, since the advent of huge television revenues and multi-million pound sponsorship deals, lamentably moving away from its reputation as the sport of the working man to a detached, billionaire's playground and a shameless self-perpetuator of wealth, whilst others merely see the its on-going development as natural and fluid, and merely an example of 'moving with the times'. Whatever side of the debate you find yourself on, there can be absolutely no doubt that the aforementioned conclusion, reached by the panel of FIFA voters on 2 December, has mired the organisation in controversy and resulted in a barrage of criticism being aimed at Sepp Blatter, FIFA's eighth President, who has often been a target for the growing 'goal-line technology' lobby, with the direction in which international football has been going since he took on the role in 1998 always a hotly-contested topic. Many of the various polemics have come from the English tabloid press, for whom FIFA's rejection of England's 2018 Bid has, perhaps rightly, been taken as a personal insult and a slight against the reputation of the country.

Now the English are often seen in a rather negative light overseas, whether this is fair or not, and their reaction to the decision, which was to emphasise the extent to which an 'anti-English' feeling within FIFA hampered England's bid, could be interpreted as a typical reaction and nothing more than sour grapes. Yet I personally do not feel this is a fair assertion. When you look at the core elements of the Russian bid, and the political, economic and social structure of Russian society, they provide an almost-perfect contrast to the central tenets of English socio-economic and political life, and the country's infrastructure? Why therefore, was a nation lacking any adequate, let alone significant or stand-out, stadia and transport infrastructure, able to defeat another whose bid was described as 'technically excellent' and 'low-risk' by FIFA analysts? Here in lies the key point of the debate: should the World Cup be used as a means to further the reach of the global game, at the cost of the passion, history, legacy and supporters who have helped it to expand throughout the world? FIFA clearly believes it ought to be a tool for socio-economic development, as the awarding of the 2022 tournament to Qatar clearly demonstrates; in doing so, one must presume that the organisation feels that by hosting the World Cup a footballing fanbase will simply 'spring up' in the tiny Emirate. However beyond all the romantic rhetoric and promises of a 'better future' the facts appear to have been entirely ignored. Qatar, since 1825, has been ruled by the Al Thani dynasty, in the form of an absolute monarchy. The Emir of Qatar is both the Head of State and of Government.

The story is similar for Russia, the beneficiary of FIFA's generosity for the 2018 tournament. Vladimir Putin, Russian President from 2000-2008 and since Prime Minister under Dmitry Medvedev (2008-present), has a rather ambiguous position in terms of the 'balance of power' at the pinnacle of Russian politics. As somebody who has studied the current Russian political system in some detail, I feel I am not only qualified but disposed to comment upon and, if I can, clarify the situation. Now in theory Russia is a democracy, ruled by an elected President who represents a political party which is part of a wider free, multi-party, pluralistic system. In practice it is rather different. For many international observers believe that, since relinquishing the Presidency in 2008, Vladimir Putin has essentially remained firmly in control of Russia's economic and political direction, which has remained more or less unchanged. Indeed, due to Russian political law stipulating that a President may not serve two consecutive terms, but stating that said person can, should the situation arise, serve an indefinite number of periods as President, that he will return to power in 2012 and remain there until 2028, should he triumph in the popular vote, which has been changed under Medvedev to be held every six years, rather than four. Therefore if you believe the doom-mongerers and often-accurate analysts, there exists in the Russian Federation a situation in which the Head of Government, Mr. Putin, is to all intents and purposes also the Head of State, due to the measure of control he enjoys over Mr. Medvedev, a man who rose to his current political rank solely due to the clientalism and influence of Mr. Putin, to whom Mr. Medvedev owes his career and, rather portentously, his position.

Therefore it may be convincingly and factually argued that both Russia and Qatar boast undemocratic, unrepresentative political systems, in which a single individual or 'clique' enjoys an unquestioned monopoly of power, in spite of any 'democratic legislation' or meaningless assurances which may exist to that effect. Now you might be thinking that I've done both nations a disservice and condemned both without providing sufficient evidence. Well in Russia there is definitely ample evidence to provide for further analysis; United Russia, created in 2008 and the current 'ruling party' in the Russian Federation, is arguably little more than a country-wide mouthpiece for Putin and, should we consider Medvedev to have his own, independent opinion, the President as well. It is backed by the multi-billion pound corporations, which include the likes of Gazprom, from which a significant amount of the support for the Putin-Medvedev 'consensus' comes. Other, truly independent political parties do exist, but are subject to significant repression, suffer from wholly disproportionate representation in the Putin-controlled media, and are often forbidden from campaigning fairly and equitably, with the same freedom afforded to United Russia. Civil society is barely tolerated, let alone allowed to flourish as it is in this country. As with the Soviet period, dissent is rigorously clamped down on, as the 2006 murder of investigative journalist Anna Politkoyskaya will attest to. Whilst state involvement in her murder has never been proven, a significant number of analysts are convinced of, if not its ultimate guilt, it’s almost-certain complicity in the assassination. A free media barely exists in the Russian Federation, and perhaps this is why FIFA chose its bid over that from England; the likelihood of any investigative television programme along the lines of Panorama being allowed to exist, let alone screen a thoroughly anti-FIFA, anti-corruption special a few days before the crucial vote, is inconceivable. Therefore I would argue that FIFA has afforded the World Cup, the highest sporting accolade one can bestow on a nation, in my view, to an intolerant, undemocratic, clientalist, repressive, controlling nation ruled by a 'one-man dictatorship in all but name'.

The news doesn't get any better for the Russians; with an appalling human rights record, their recent history as an independent state blighted by aggressive wars of expansion, destruction and unforgiveable violations of human rights in Chechnya and, more recently, North Ossetia, and huge socio-economic disparity between the state-sponsored 'nouveau-riche' and those struggling below the radar of Mr. Putin, FIFA's reasoning seems less and less justifiable. Add to this the inherent problem of racism in the Russian game, something England managed mercifully to stamp out of football some years ago, and continues to make concerted efforts to prevent, and FIFA seems to have positively betrayed the principles of fairness and equity upon which it is supposedly founded. The egregious treatment of Peter Odemwingie, a Nigerian-Russian winger previously with Lokomotiv Moscow, who was subjected to 'monkey chants' and 'banana jokes' and was afforded absolutely no support from any footballing authority in Russia, and the manner in which he has been able to ply his trade in the English Premier League with West Bromwich Albion without such abuse demonstrates the gulf between the two nations in terms of tolerance and respect. Furthermore the following statement from Oleg Blokhin, the Soviet Union's all-time top goal scorer and both a role-model and a hero for millions of Russian children even nowadays, suggests that such attitudes are indeed as widespread as I fear them to be: "The more Ukrainians that play in the national league, the more examples for the young generation. Let them learn from [Andriy] Shevchenko or Blokhin and not from some Zumba-Bumba whom they took off a tree, gave him two bananas and now he plays in the Ukrainian League. [...] I remember when I played football, if we lost a game, it was not easy to walk the Kiev streets – there were many friends out there who could beat you up for that. But is there any sense in beating up a foreigner? Okay, you beat him up – next thing he does is pack up and go." Sickening, I'm sure you'll agree, and an affront to the progress which has been made, at least in this country, in stamping out such antiquated and hateful attitudes and creating an equal game which can be played by all, without fear of prejudice, racism or any other intolerance.

Qatar, for what it is worth, is hardly a tolerant, democratic state either, certainly not along the lines of those such as Spain, Portugal, Belgium, The Netherlands, and even England. No political parties are allowed to exist, there are no elections, and the ruling party retains power courtesy of the huge revenues derived from the sale of Qatar's extensive natural resources. Furthermore, although some may consider this a 'non-issue', alcohol is legal but only with a permit, somewhat difficult to get hold of during a tournament attended by thousands from across the globe, and forbidden to be drank in public. Whilst Qatar is by no means the most repressive Islamic state in the Middle East, a status which hardly deserves applause, and women are permitted to drive and not kept subservient to quite the same extent as in many of the states bordering the Qatari emirate, FIFA are certainly pushing the boundaries of what constitutes a progressive, democratising, forward-looking state with its awarding of the 2022 World Cup. Yet the main problems with Qatar lie in its almost entire lack of any sort of meaningful infrastructure. In time for 2022 transport networks, entirely new cities, and a daunting array of stadia need to be built; indeed, once they are constructed, most will be located within a sixty-mile radius, with many cities concentrated in one single city or locale. Now from a purely pragmatic point of view, this sounds excellent, with journalists, teams, supporters and other observers being subject to fewer 'travel headaches' than those of this year's tournament in South Africa, for example. However, it does certainly seem that in 2022 a situation will come to exist whereby the 'haves', already enjoying luscious lifestyles in the largest Qatari cities, will be able to enjoy the tournament, whilst the 'have-nots', living in the countryside devoid of the benefits brought to 'the few' by the 'oil boom', will not, thereby perpetuating the sort of inequitable social strata FIFA's rhetoric suggests it wants to remove. It is also worth saying that with so many stadiums and the vast majority of the infrastructure concentrated in a handful of cities, the demands on the emirate's limited accommodation and transport resources will in all likelihood be unlikely to be fulfilled. In a final flurry of common sense I would also like to raise another point; how much of a 'footballing culture' and 'fanbase for the future', presumably only cynically designed to generate even more wealth at the pinnacle of 'our' global game, will be able to be generated by a country with a minuscule population of two million? At least in Russia, a country with a population of 141 million, there is potential for commercial expansion. Although I highly doubt any of this will benefit Russia's many 'little people', who presumably weren't factored into FIFA's 'common sense voting' and the minds of the Russian delegates in Zurich.

Thus I now feel I am able to provide a summary as to why Britain was denied the opportunity to host the 2018 World Cup, which will take place 52 years since the country which invented football last hosted the tournament. Firstly, FIFA has clearly decided to turn away from the democracies of the world such as England, which enjoys a media, despite subject to criticism, outside the control of the state, and a flourishing, vibrant civil society. In this country we don't just sweep corruption under the carpet, as presumably occurs in Russia. The Panorama show was indicative of this fact. England's bid team didn't want the programme to go ahead, and implored the producers to prevent it being aired. I would imagine that the vast majority of hopeful children and adults alike across the length and breadth of the country, would have preferred to be postponed or possibly abandoned altogether. But it wasn't, for in a democratic state you have to value the right of free speech. The recent protests over the Government's decision to raise the current cap on tuition fees provide the starkest contrast possible to the situation in terms of civil society, popular democracy, and free speech in Russia. Protests such as these simply would not be allowed to occur, and in the end FIFA clearly decided that they preferred law and order to freedom of speech and integrity. Secondly it appears that England's already vast array of appropriate stadia, and mass legions of 'football mad' supporters weren't 'appropriate' to host the World Cup. Evidently stadia such as Anfield, Old Trafford, Wembley and Stamford Bridge, despite being perfect in terms of facilities and boasting rich, long legacies of triumph and disaster, were not the image FIFA wished to portray to the world of this 'global game of ours'. Finally I genuinely do believe that England is a name to be scorned around the world. To say, 'we didn't get it because we're English' could be termed an easy and wholly exaggerated solution, but one cannot deny that the lack of consideration given to England's bid, which was commercially, technically and I would argue 'morally' and 'historically' the best, raises questions about the attitude taken towards this country by the FIFA voters.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

QPR - A club back on it's feet at last?


Yesterday was one of the most satisfying nights any QPR fan could profess to have enjoyed over the past few years. Hearing our supporters taunting their Ipswich Town counterparts with 'We're just too good for you' really does underline the dramatic transition this club has been through since the appointment of Neil Warnock as manager on March 1st of this year. Whilst it would be unfair to pin the R's spectacular transition entirely on the broad shoulders of the outspoken Warnock, it is unquestionable that his arrival has given the club the stability it has needed for some time. So what are the secrets to QPR's success? You could ask the 92 Football League managers in this country and they would all tell you the same thing; an owner who leaves on-the-pitch issues to the manager and creates an environment in which the manager can work free from intrusion, unfair criticism and unnecessary meddling is a pre-requisite for success. This is what Amit Bhatia, son-in-law of QPR majority shareholder Lakshmi Mittal, has given Warnock. The type of solid foundation continuously denied by former owner Flavio Briatore to Iain Dowie, Paolo Sousa, Jim Magilton and Paul Hart. Warnock has been granted the freedom to pick the team, avoiding the type of negative headlines which surrounded Dowie's acrimonious departure in 2008, and mercifully, to sign players. This has resulted in a series of what, on the evidence of the season so far, can only be described as excellent signings. Warnock has blended what he describes as the 'bread and butter' players, such as the rock-solid Clint Hill and Shaun Derry, with the abundant flair and mercurial skill of Adel Taarabt and Jamie Mackie. In doing so he has forged a side which has defeated two pre-season favourites, Ipswich Town and Sheffield United, 3-0 apiece through devastating counter-attacking play, and only conceded two goals all season.

Despite being mentioned earlier, as a fan both captivated and frustrated by his talent in equal measure, I feel Adel Taarabt deserves to be rather more than a mere footnote in the story of QPR's resurgence. A trequartista in the mould of Totti or Zidane, Taarabt is in my eyes the most naturally gifted footballer plying his trade anywhere in the Football League. Further to this, he is the best player I have ever seen wearing the Blue and White Hoops. When Adel arrived at Loftus Road on loan last season, fans were driven crazy by his inexplicable selfishness when, in possession of the ball and predictably marked by multiple opposition players, he simply put his head down and ran, ignoring an unmarked team-mate with a clear sight of goal. Furthermore his petulance, arrogance, rather inflated perception of his own ability and consummate individualism were not exactly the most endearing traits. However this season he has, albeit not entirely, turned into a productive, occasionally-unselfish member of the first team, and this transition is primarily due to the positive influence Warnock has had upon him since arriving at the club. The Yorkshireman has made Taarabt the focal point of his side, and given him the sense of belonging and purpose he would never have been able to find at Spurs, or indeed any of the clubs at which Adel believes he ought to be plying his trade. Handing Taarabt the captaincy in the absence of the injured Martin Rowlands and Fitz Hall has been a masterstroke, forcing Adel to demonstrate a level of maturity and leadership which had previously eluded him. Even deciding to take the unprecedented step of flying out to Morocco in order to persuade the young forward to sign for QPR, Warnock's pursuit of Taarabt was masterful and his management of him so far this season has been even more so. Whilst I believe Adel will leave should the R's fail to win promotion at the end of the season, a small part of me hopes beyond all expectation that the sight of 13,000 QPR fans on their feet applauding him at the weekend, as he was substituted against Middlesbrough having turned in another spectacular performance, will be enough to persuade him to remain in West London for a while longer.

Photos courtesy of (in order): 101 Great Goals

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

World Cup 2010 - it had the fans, the passion, and the enthusiasm, but where was the football?

The 2010 FIFA World Cup, held in South Africa twenty years since the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, has been a huge success for both the country and the continent alike. It has put South Africa on the map, and demonstrated the nation's capability to rise to the challenge of hosting such a prestigious sporting event. The South African organisers deserve huge credit for putting on this World Cup in such an impeccable manner. Whilst I don't agree with the manner in which FIFA has gone about this tournament, by depriving the local community of the opportunities they both expected and deserved from the World Cup, the organisation has been excellent. There have been very few incidents of violence, fans have mixed with each other, and despite a number of issues concerning price and availability of accommodation, that are commonplace at many tournaments, there are very few problems one can lay at the door of the South African organisers. More importantly however, the World Cup has brought South Africans together, and will surely be a positive driving force in helping to further and continue to process of this country, which not long ago was so divided. The passion exhibited by the South African fans at this tournament has been infectious, and to a certain extent rekindles my belief that the World Cup has done something good for the Rainbow Nation. To see fans coming together in support of Bafana Bafana, putting past differences and present disparities to one side, really shows football's potential as a unifying force. Although South Africa were unable to progress any further than the Group Stages, their 2-1 victory over France will live long in the memory, whilst the tournament's opening goal, a wonderful strike by Shabalala, is still enough to put a smile on the face of fans everywhere, be they cheering for Bafana Bafana, England, Uruguay or even Spain.

There have been many great stories at this World Cup, but the one which stands out is that of Ghana. Forced to shoulder the burden of being the only African side remaining in the competition by the Round of 16, they quickly emerged as the 'second-team' of many supporters, including myself. Although they were defeated by eventual semi-finalists Uruguay, Ghana's determination, never-say-die attitude and passion won them many admirers, whilst South Africa and England exiting the tournament gave them a significant following across South Africa. Uruguay, despite the hugely controversial circumstances in which they knocked-out the Black Stars, Luis Suarez' deliberately handling a goalbound header to give away a penalty, which was subsequently missed by Ghanaian hero Asamoah Gyan, still deserve praise for their contribution to this tournament. Despite the sickening claims by Suarez that his disgusting act of cheating was "the real hand of God", the rest of the Uruguay side acquitted themselves extremely well, and were only a goal away from reaching the final for the first time since 1950. It was also refreshing to witness a German side committed to explosive, incisive counter-attacking football reach the latter stages, before eventually finishing as the third-placed team. Witnessing talents such as Golden Boot winner Thomas Muller, Mesut Ozil, Manchester City new boy Jerome Boateng, and Sami Khedira was a pleasure. Whilst 2010 proved to be slightly too early for them, it surely will not be too long before players such as Ozil and Muller take the place of Andres Iniesta and David Villa as World Cup or European Championship winners. Argentina were as usual excellent and a shining example of a side committed to attractive, attacking football, showcasing some of the best players in Europe at the height of their respective careers. Whilst Lionel Messi failed to score, it was still a pleasure to witness the Barcelona man destroying defences, laying on goals for his team-mates left, right and centre, and not being afforded the praise he deserved for doing so by short-sighted English commentators and pundits.

However even with these excellent moments, uplifting and inspiring stories and surprise latter-stage contenders, one cannot avoid the fact that this World Cup was, in terms of the quality of the football, quality and quantity of goals scored, as well as entertainment value, unfortunately rather poor. Whilst the Group Stages weren't entirely predictable, and did feature a number of upsets, including Serbia 1-0 Germany, Switzerland 1-0 Spain and Algeria 0-0 England amongst others, by and large the games weren't particularly enjoyable and featured very few goals. The fact that most people will remember this tournament for the 'love it or hate it' vuvuzela rather than any specific games or the quality of football really does say it all. Having witnessed the vast majority of the matches played at this World Cup, only a few stand out for me. Slovenia's dramatic 3-2 victory over Italy was an excellent game, as was Spain's 1-0 win against Germany, along with Germany's 4-1 defeat of Argentina and narrow 3-2 triumph over Uruguay in the Third Place play-off were all worth tuning in for, but sadly few others come to mind. Perhaps the tournament's relatively stuttering start, and the fact that many people were still asking after the first round of games, "when's the football going to start?" contributed to the poor quality of the competition. For whilst Italy and France failing to progress further than the group stages gave us hope, their replacements were unable to spark the tournament into life. Arguably by the final on Sunday many fans were simply watching because of what the game meant, and the significance of it, rather than because they expected a great match.

The Jabulani has taken a fair slice of criticism throughout the competition, with many blaming the controversial official World Cup ball for the lack of goals scored in the tournament, and the wayward shooting of many star players who we are used to seeing hit the net on a regular basis in their domestic league. However I feel it is unfair to blame a football for the inadequacies and dreadful goalscoring records of Wayne Rooney and other 'World Cup flops'. Yet it seems this tournament will be remembered as one in which off-field, but still footballing errors, decided events on the pitch. Frank Lampard's 'ghost goal' against Germany, which was clearly over the line, wasn't given by the officials, leading to calls for goal-line technology, forcing the much-maligned FIFA President Sepp Blatter to reverse his former policy of outright refusal to even discuss such measures, at least in public. A goal scored by Carlos Tevez, who was in a blatantly off-side position against Mexico also acted to re-open the debate about referees and clear injustices spoiling the experience for fans, also distracted attention from the main attraction. The huge criticism levelled at Howard Webb, referee for perhaps one of the dirtiest and most difficult-to-handle World Cup finals in history, also proves that in the absence of decent football to discuss, fans, pundits, players and other interested spectators chose to focus on other, not unimportant, but secondary topics.

With beautiful football returning to its spritual home in Brazil in four years time, although it could be argued it never arrived in South Africa, hopes are already high for an improved showing at the next World Cup finals. However is this the way football is going now? Are defensive solidity, aggression, fitness and tactical rigidity taking precedence over free-flowing attacking football, and is the World Cup set to be played out in the media through the discussion of contentious decisions, rather than on the pitch? Spain's victory is certainly a triumph for attractive passing football played by technically-gifted, attack-minded players, and one can only hope that another team playing football in the right way wins in four years time. However this may not be enough to keep fans watching in 2014, especially if their team suffers an early exit. Whilst many of us will watch games regardless of the quality of football on display, there are those for whom this is not the case. I am not in a position to say whether or not the Jabulani played its part in the poor footballing spectacle the 2010 World Cup was, but all I know is that more of the same in 2014 cannot be good for the future of the game. No disrespect to the following sides, but few kids become football fans beccause of defensively-minded, rugged, visually-displeasing sides such as Stoke City. They fall in love with beautiful football, just as we all did, and unless things change in four years time, the next generation of fans may just find another interest to devote their time to. With the Premier League increasingly pricing youngsters and adults alike out of the game, and other divisions in this country and abroad following suit, the World Cup is the primary means of providing eye-catching, exhilirating, attractive, accessible football featuring the best players in international football for the masses. Unless of course it has disappeared forever, as the football continues to drastically change from the sport it was even twenty years ago.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

The World Cup - a vehicle for equitable wealth sharing and socio-economic development or just a shameless money-making tool for FIFA?

The Federation Internationale de Football Association, better known as FIFA, sees itself as the principle bastion of the beautiful game around the world. It's slogan "For the game, for the world", and aim to use football "as a symbol of hope and integration", certainly send out the right signals. When South Africa was chosen to host the 2010 World Cup, many both inside and outside the country imagined that staging such a prestigious event would help to improve the lives of thousands of South Africans along the lines of FIFA's mission to "develop the game, touch the world, build a better future". It doesn't take an expert to work out that this simply hasn't happened, and that FIFA's warm, fuzzy rhetoric doesn't exactly conform to reality. Originally South Africa agreed to spend 6.7 billion rand to bring their stadia up to the required standard when they were awarded the tournament in 2004. This cost has swelled to 9.8 billion rand, a not inconsiderable increase, and one that a country with the significant levels of poverty and socio-economic disparity of South Africa can really ill-afford. Chief Organiser Danny Jordaan has said that he expects the cost to rise beyond the 10 million rand mark, and this understandably leads to the question, is it all worth it? By the end of the tournament South Africa may have a string of shiny new, or at least recently updated stadia, and great memories of watching their own side and some of the best footballing nations in the world, but what good will these be to the millions of South Africans living below the poverty line, struggling to deal with the burden of AIDS, and battling daily just to feed themselves and their families? My answer is very little.

The success of the deliberately-mispelled 'Fick Fufa' t-shirts in South Africa demonstrates that its beleaguered fans are beginning to fight back against FIFA's hegemony. A local South African newspaper had the following to say after the now infamous 'beer girls' episode: "Big Brother is here and FIFA is thy name". Undoubtedly FIFA would wish to protect the World Cup as its own tournament, but to enforce the rigorous trade rules which it has and to behave in such an intolerant, domineering manner to local businesses and traders looking justifiably to profit from having such a prestigious tournament taking place in their back-yard leaves a very sour taste in the mouth indeed. Discount South African airline Kukula felt the full force of FIFA's rigorous and unflinching protection of its own interests earlier this year, when it ran a tongue-in-cheek advertising campaign featuring sketches of a football stadium and a player, and described itself as the Unofficial National Carrier of You-Know-What. FIFA turned said campaign into a huge issue, forcing Kukula to withdraw the advertisement after threatening it with a lawsuit. The injustice, as some would describe it, doesn't even end here. A local cash-and-carry chain was castigated by FIFA simply for selling lollipops branded as '2010 Pops', and actually taken to court. Personally I find it difficult to take in that an organisation as rich and supposedly committed to justice, fair play and equality, could adopt such an intransigent, stubborn and selfish attitude towards people simply attempting to better themselves, something FIFA's mission statement appears to encourage. FIFA has been quick to excuse its outrageous behaviour, claiming that it has to protect the World Cup brand as its most precious asset." Personally excuses such as this simply do not wash, and are indicative of a self-serving organisation looking to portray itself as a bastion of social and economic progress, whilst lining its own pockets at the expense of others.

Now perhaps I'm doing FIFA a disservice here. After all the international governing body of association football has made concessions to its hosts. Setting aside 800,000 cheaper match tickets for local residents and bailing out the organising committee to the tune of $100 million appear to render my previous comments inaccurate and harsh. Or do they? Providing cheaper match tickets shouldn't be something for which FIFA deserves to be commended, it should be a mandatory part of the 'World Cup experience'. If local fans were to be unable to enjoy what is a once in a lifetime experience, with no consideration is given to their socio-economic limitations, it would be nothing short of a travesty. Furthermore whilst providing $100 million dollars is commendable, and I'm sure was very helpful indeed in ensuring that the tournament actually took place, FIFA would never have contemplated South Africa failing to host the World Cup. So their generous 'payment' to the South African organising committee is actually nothing more than FIFA protecting its own interests. Brendan Seery, a columnist with Johannesburg's Saturday Star, recently wrote: "FIFA has turned this country into its private little fiefdom and we've been quite happy to put aside the constitutional freedoms we are known for to satisfy those money-grubbing Europeans (which most of them are)." The evidence would suggest th at Mr. Seery is correct. FIFA Secretary-General Jerome Valcke has lamented FIFA's poor standing in the host country, saying "Whatever we're doing we will never be seen as a nice organization," whilst later admitting "For a few things, it will be seen as, yes, we are taking over."

The price of this 'take over' has already been paid by a significant number of ordinary South Africans. To ensure that attending fans from Europe, South America, Asia and other African nations recieve the World Cup 'experience' FIFA wishes them to have, many locals have been evicted, displaced and forcibly removed from their homes and places of business. Being branded "unsightly", it is starkly clear to myself and others that FIFA simply wants to hide the reality of life in many South African cities behind a succession of shiny new, or at least revamped football stadiums. FIFA has, by demolishing the ramshackle houses of those unfortunate enough to live near World Cup venues, destroyed the dreams of many who thought that hosting such a prestigious tournament would benefit them and other South Africans alike. Perhaps all those nations, such as England, France and Italy, who underachieved at this tournament should gain a sense of perspective by visiting the various shanty towns and disadvantaged communities for more than just a couple of hours, without television cameras watching their every move. Whilst they are at it they can bring Sepp Blatter and his cronies down with them, to see exactly what the World Cup has brought to South Africa. The decision of the Anti-Eviction Campaign, started in opposition to the ruthless exploitation of poor communities and devastation caused to so many lives, to initiate the 'Poor People's World Cup', is one I and others ought to laud. Amidst all the excitement and euphoria of the Rainbow Nation coming together as one to support their team, a large number of people have been fundamentally let down by football's international governing body, and other South Africans in high places who have overseen the country's preparation for the tournament.

As Ashraf Cassiem, chairman of the anti-eviction campaign, says: "It [The World Cup] was supposed to bring people together". This may have happened superficially, but underneath the surface the disparity has only become more pronounced. “Traders have been evicted for months now and aren’t getting any income; families have been forced to move to temporary relocation areas; street people have been forced to move into institutions because the cities must look nice,” says Cassiem, rightly outraged by a series of broken promises and shattered dreams. The fact that the $4.3 billion spent on improving and bringing up to standard existing stadia and building new grounds could have been used to, if not solve, then certainly bring some relief, to the disastrous housing situation in the Western Cape, should put football, and England's most recent failure firmly into perspective. With the poorer communities evicted from their demolished homes and pushed out of the way of the thousands of supporters descending on South Africa from abroad having been put in "decant camps" and "temporary relocation areas", it is clear that no matter the result on the pitch, disadvantaged South Africans have already lost out. Described by the Guardian as "miserable twilight zones" and "tin can towns", what does the government have planned for those unfortunate enough to have been placed in them when the tournament is over? As a parting statement, Cassiem has the following to say: "This World Cup was supposed to expose South Africa and put it on the map. It’s put the stadiums on the map definitely - but not the people." If this is FIFA's legacy for South Africa, then issues such 'ambush marketing' and the desire to 'protect FIFA's interests' have seen it exposed as the shameless, unprincipled, exploitative organisation many South Africans have lamentably discovered it to be.

Monday, 28 June 2010

England disappoint again - so what exactly is wrong with football in this country?

Fabio Capello's England were soundly beaten yesterday, suffering their biggest ever defeat in any World Cup at the hands of arch-rivals Germany. This has resulted in the great debate surrounding the England national team being opened up once again, but do criticisms of Capello, lamentations of our 'golden generation' and its inability to shine on the international stage really address the systematic problems afflicting the English game? As far as I'm concerned England's failure is less down to tactical errors, individual mistakes and a lack of passion amongst the players deemed to be our best, but moreover due to the key issue that is a lack of sufficiently talented English players coming through the system. It is my opinion that as long as the Premier League remains primarily an organisation designed to make money for its 'members', as the twenty clubs essentially can be described, England will never have a successful national team. For it takes a far smaller outlay to improve youth facilities and promote younger players into the first-team than it does to bring in a player from overseas that has already undergone the necessary training and development, but sadly it is also a far more lengthy process.

Now I'm not for one minute suggesting that the Premier League would be better off without the likes of Fernando Torres, Robin van Persie, Didier Drogba, Luka Modric or Carlos Tevez. All of these are excellent players because they add so much to the Premier League viewing experience and undoubtedly contribute to the success of English clubs in European competitions. However it is the average foreign players, who are able to be purchased cheaply, and I use the term loosely, by Premier League clubs, and take the place of perhaps equally talented young English players. In 1990, prior to the foundation of the Premier League, the majority of clubs in the First Division had only a handful of foreign-born players in their squads, and a majority of those 'foreigners' were Irish. Due to the dearth of English footballers in the Premier League currently Irish players are often regarded as 'domestic' footballers, such is the deterioration that has occurred. Sadly as long as the Premier League continues to generate huge wealth for the clubs lucky enough to be competing in it, there will be no improvement and the number of English players in the division will continue to diminish. In 2008 just 34% of players in the Premier League were eligible to play for England, a frankly embarrassing statistic that demonstrates the true extent of the problem.

Yet is the Premier League the only organisation us beleaguered England fans can attribute our national team's failure to? Perhaps another major reason for the lack of English players in the top division is the inherent problems in the way players are trained in this country? Instead of being taught discipline, and focusing on strength and pace from an early age, why aren't young English footballers encouraged to develop their technique, play with flair and enjoy their football? Instead of being made to play on large pitches too early on in their footballing development, players should be encouraged to develop their individual skill. As far as I'm concerned it isn't a coincidence that England lack players able to put through a killer pass, keep possession of the ball for extended periods, or unlock games through a moment of individual brilliance. England players at the highest level look to be scared of the ball, desperately lacking in confidence in front of goal, and devoid of any tactical understanding.

The problem doesn' even stop there, for if as has been suggested there is a crisis surrounding English footballers, the issue with coaches and managers from this country is if anything even more pressing and severe. Not only is there an almost total lack of skilled, experienced, tactically-sound managers at the highest level, the problem is reflected at every rung on the footballing ladder. Managers lack the understanding of how to play a sophisticated, some might say 'European game', and this is reflected by the England coaching crisis. Every time we fail at an international tournament, if it is an English manager who has disappointed the nation, we call for a foreigner to take his place, and vice-versa. This is not a healthy situation. The fact that some people have clamoured for such figures as Glen Hoddle and even Alan Shearer to take over the England hot seat demonstrates that in the absence of any successful, adequately talented English coaches in charge of top clubs in the Premier League, we return to the tried, tested, and ultimately unsuccessful formula of hiring a famous former England player. Has this worked over the years? No it hasn't.

Finally we come to the FA. An organisation unable to direct or dare I say even influence the future state of football in this country, which has systematically failed over the past few years to manage its finances, encourage the development of young talent, or keep control over the Premier League. The fact is that the Premier League operates entirely independently from the FA, a situation which has been allowed to continue since it broke-away from the Football League in 1992 in pursuit of financial gain, to the detriment of our national team. Now there may not be any way for the FA to re-establish itself as the key footballing body in this country, or for it to correct the abysmal situation of English players being forced out of Premier League sides due to the huge monetary rewards that division is able to offer its members, but why is the FA so perenially weak and incompetent? Surely a strong, well-run organisation that genuinely cared about the state of football in this country would press for a stringent limit on the number of foreign players in English teams, from the Premier League down to non-league football?

The FA is certainly not this. The fact that since Ian Watmore resigned in March of this year a replacement has not been found shows that the FA is nothing but an amateurish, weak organisation representing all that is wrong with our great national game. Furthermore the decision to give Fabio Capello a brand new contract lasting until 2012 before his England side had actually been tested at a major tournament, in the knowledge of the financial costs that would be involved in terminating his contract should England fail to meet expectations, was at the least shortsighted and unprofessional and at the most scandalous. Personally I see no way forward for English football whilst the Premier League, a grouping of professional football clubs born out of vanity and greed and continued in the same vein, and the Football Assocation, a weak, incompetent, catastrophically-run organisation that is frankly not fit for purpose, continue to be the main bodies representing our inadequate, over-paid, passion-deficient, tactically inept so-called 'golden generation of footballers'. Notice that at no point during this rant have I needed to mention in any detail England's disastrous defeat yesterday. What a sad situation we currently find ourselves in.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Labour Leadership Contest - Is it really any more than just "the battle of the brothers?"

Although most eyes will still be fixed on the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, in the background a power struggle is taking place that may well be key in shaping Britain's future. Despite what the Conservative Party propagandists have claimed, the public didn't overwhelmingly vote to reject the Labour Party after the cliched '13 wasted years', nor did they overwhelmingly choose the Tories. Should David Cameron's party continue with its programme of spending cuts and tax increases, which have been described as 'unavoidable' and indeed may well be so, by 2015 there is a distinct possibility that unless the British economy drastically picks up, Labour may well be poised to sweep back into power. Therefore the current battle for the leadership of the Labour Party is, as far as I'm concerned, absolutely crucial. The reason for this is that Labour will be the only party with a realistic chance of being elected in 2015 not to have been associated with the coalition government, and if the policies currently being enacted by said government fail to produce the desired improvement, Labour will be the only 'untainted' major party. Labour has come a long way since 1992, when it was still to all intents and purposes 'socialist', to the essentially middle-of-the-spectrum, yet with a social conscience party it could be rather kindly described as now.

Much of this change can be attributed to one Tony Blair, a slightly marmite figure in British politics, but somebody who undeniably utilised the media, 'spin' and the support of big business to excellent effect. He saw the way in which politics was going, and continuing from the stellar work began by the late and slightly forgotten about John Smith, turned the Labour Party into an electable political force once again. During his ten years as Prime Minister, Blair made several notable achievements, including the introduction of the minimum wage, and the seminal Good Friday Agreement. His replacement, Gordon Brown, found top-level politics and the unflinching glare of the media spotlight slightly more difficult to deal with than his predecessor. Brown was certainly a more traditional Labour leader, from a rather more modest background than most of his fellow politicians, and in many ways he was a breath of fresh air following the PR-orientated politics of Tony Blair. With five candidates set to do battle to succeed him, it remains to be seen whether Labour will look for a Brownite, or a Blairite as the party aims to transform itself into a credible electoral force once again, ready to capitalise on any mistakes by, dips in popularity of, or splits within the coalition government.

Five hopefuls have recieved the requisite number of nominations to stand as leadership candidates, and the race to the finish looks set to take off over the next few weeks and months. All of the candidates offer something different, all of the candidates have their own vision for the future direction of the British Labour Party, and all of the candidates will be hoping their ideas and principles will be shared by Labour supporters, MPs and shadow cabinet members alike. As with all contests of this variety, the battle between the frontrunners is almost always the most intriguing. However the battle between David and Ed Miliband is not merely a struggle for power between two leadership favourites and close colleagues, but two brothers. Whilst David has insisted that "brotherly love will survive" despite the two going head-to-head for victory, and Ed has affirmed that he thought long and hard about standing against his older brother, one can't help but think that a family rift can't be too far around the corner. Commentators have warned of the potential for a "Cain and Abel" struggle between the two, who each represent one of the two key factions in this leadership race, with Ed the 'Brownite', believing more than his brother in honest, straight-up, no-frills politics, and David the 'Blairite', not averse to manipulating PR or using 'spin', and able to enunciate his ideas in a very intellectual and eloquent manner.

With a total of 74 nominations according to the most recently published figures, David Miliband is the favourite to become the next Labour leader. A politician in the Blair, and dare I say it Cameron mould, David was appointed Foreign Secretary in 2007 at just 41 years old, making him the youngest MP in 30 years to hold the position. Prior to this he established a good reputation for himself as Environment Secretary, and was encouraged by his supporters in the Labour Party to mount a coup against the beleaguered Gordon Brown in 2008, but perhaps wisely decided against doing so. David has claimed that he wants Labour to "rebuild itself as a great reforming champion of social and economic change", in what he sees as a "new era" in British politics. These sort of words may be rather familiar to those who in 1997 voted overwhelmingly to reject the divided and unelectable Conservatives in favour of New Labour, and very much indicate David's Blairite leanings. However is he simply another 'spin politician' who favours style over substance? I have certainly identified David in the past as being just this, and I'm sure many others have drawn similar conclusions. Despite this it must be noted that he does have the backing of several influential figures in the Labour Party, including former Home Secretary Alan Johnson. David's call for Labour to be the "great unifying force on all shades of centre left opinion in this country" certainly sounds like the right thing to be saying, and out of all the potential candidates he seems the most capable of facing up to David Cameron in a contest of style and presentation. Whether or not he has the right policies to go with the rhetoric, and whether he will be able to unite the disparate elements of the Labour Party behind him in very much another Blairite administration remains to be seen.

Brother Ed is lagging behind slightly, with 57 nominations, but the fact that he is thought to have the backing of many unions, and be highly regarded amongst grass-roots Labour supporters and activists may give him a different sort of leadership credibility. Although David arguably has more friends in high places, undeniably an important factor, the fact that Ed is regarded as a 'Brownite' may play in his favour. It really depends what sort of leader the party is looking for, and whether or not they wish for a neo-New Labour, or a continuation of the Labour Party Gordon Brown fashioned during his three years as leader. Ed has been regarded as being very much part of Brown's inner circle of special advisers, and this definitely has the potential to either play his in favour or work against him. In his role as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Ed established a reputation for himself as an up-and-coming figure within the Labour Party, but has he risen enough to be seen as a credible candidate? At 40 years old he is the youngest hopefuls for the leadership, and with only five years experience as an MP he may well be a 'next time around' candidate, who perhaps requires a number of years experience in one of the four Great Offices of State before he can be considered a real contender.

The next hopeful is Ed Balls, who has emerged in recent weeks as somewhat of an unlikely frontrunner, at least according to various news outlets and interested spectators. He has received only the 33 nominations required to stand as a candidate, and he looks certain to recieve rapturous backing from the tabloid press due to his, shall we say, unfortunate surname. Yet away from such excellent headlines as 'another balls up' and 'what a load of balls', the second Ed running in the race to succeed Gordon Brown was also one of his closest advisers, if not the closest. His past experience includes 10 years as Brown's Chief Economics Adviser at the Treasury, before his appointment as Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families in 2007. A tough and combative character, he is seemingly a 'marmite' figure for many in the Labour Party, which could prove to be a crucial factor in what is, at its basest level, a popularity contest. His closeness to Brown means he may suffer from being labelled as the 'continuity candidate', who will simply repeat the mistakes and suffer from the same percieved shortcomings of the recent Labour leader. At 43 he is, like both Milibands, a young candidate with plenty of time to learn and develop, but the question is, will he be able to shake off his 'loyal Brownite' image, and would he even wish to?

Fourth on the list is Andy Burnham, the fresh-faced youthful Shadow Secretary for Health, who recieved the 33 votes required for nomination only on the final day of voting. Having watched Andy struggle on Question Time in the past, he may perhaps require a touch more media training to live up to the impressive standards set by Tony Blair in the past, and David Cameron currently. A keen football fan and musician, he certainly appears to be one of the more 'human', if I can use that word in a non-derogatory sense, figures in the Shadow Cabinet. Such a quality could well play in his favour over the coming weeks, but he is still very much an outside bet. Andy's position as a relative unknown to many Britons may also hurt his chances, but likely on slightly, as this is a contest within the Labour Party itself, where he has been on the scene since the mid-1990s. His 'youthful' appearance shouldn't harm his chances either, after all Nick Clegg probably benefited in his campaign to become the next Prime Minister from his, 'middle-ground and pleasantly attractive" appearance alongside an older Gordon Brown. However his lack of experience will almost certainly stand against him, as it does for many people in all areasa of life. Like Ed Miliband he could do with a few more years at the centre of the Labour Party, making the crucial friends and alliances required to enter high political office, but who knows what will happen. If Labour supporters genuinely do want a change in direction, even without analysing policy Andy Burnham would arguably be a candidate capable of providing this.

The final candidate is the only woman to be contesting the Labour leadership, and the oldest contender of the final five. Diane Abbott, who has recieved the support of acting Labour leader Harriet Harman as the only female candidate in what is seen as a male dominated battle, like Andy Burnham only recieved the 33 required nominations on the final day. Despite the unexpectedness of her bid to become the first female leader of the Labour Party, Diane insists that it is "genuine" and believes her outspoken, fiesty personality will give her the edge amongst her perhaps more 'acceptable', 'usual' and maybe even 'boring' opponents. The fact that she is well-known both within the party and amongst the general public gives her bid a certain authenticity, but Diane remains a relative outsider in this contest. Her position on BBC's This Week and reputation as not being averse to going against the party leadership will certainly win her favour amongst the more radical grass-roots supporters, and those who favour strong women and outspoken characters. Yet perhaps to become party leader, a position which can only be described as mainstream, she would be the wrong person to bring together the various disparate elements that make up Labour, and represent the views of all those involved in the party. At 57 years of age and having been an MP for 23 years, Diane has the experience required. Yet will experience be enough in this contest? Diane claims she decided to stand because of how little there was to choose between the other contenders, but will her position as a bit of a maverick, a radical and a past critic stand against her in the coming weeks and months? It is hard to say, but whoever gets the job will have the task of turning Labour from electoral disappointments into favourites by 2015.

Friday, 25 June 2010

The Lib-Con Coalition - Is this unlikely political marriage destined for an early divorce?

Those who voted Liberal Democrat in the recent General Election, and have seen their vote be essentially 'disregarded' by leader Nick Clegg's decision to join with the Conservative Party, will probably already see the 'Lib-Con' coalition as less an unlikely political union and more a sham marriage borne out of convenience and Mr. Clegg's desire to chum up to David Cameron and occupy the corridors of power at whatever cost to his party and its ideological foundations. Whilst Clegg appears to have managed to bed himself in to the Conservative Party with consummate ease, the transition seems to have been far more difficult for others in his party. The sight of Nick Clegg, a man whom many placed their faith in as a true 'alternative' to Labour and the Conservatives, who would revolutionise British politics and facilitate the creation of a true three-party system, playing second-fiddle to David Cameron in the House of Commons, is rather sickening. Whereas Clegg clearly had the upper hand in the televised election debates, with Gordon Brown and David Cameron clamouring to be the first to say, 'I agree with Nick', the roles have reversed somewhat. Clegg appears to have been demoted to little more than Cameron's loyal terrier, nodding whenever the great man reveals yet another policy in almost total contravention of the core beliefs of most Liberal Democrat MPs. Clearly this is the price Clegg has decided to pay for a position of power, and it is equally obvious that he feels it to be a price worth paying.

However in the midst of all the glamour, influence and notoriety associated with the position of Deputy Prime Minister, is Clegg at risk of splitting his party? I would feel that, should the Tories' savage cuts and somewhat unfair tax rises continue, as they almost certainly will, that Nick Clegg will be placing many of his best and brightest party members in extremely difficult positions indeed. An ideological split in the coalition is by no means unpreventable, but any schism within the Liberal Democrats would have far more negative effects on its already slight electoral chances. Divisions along the lines of those experienced by the Labour Party during its wildnerness years in the 1950s, between the Gaitskellites on the right of the party, and the Bevanites on the left, as well as those over Britain's role in the European Economic Community which tore the Conservatives apart during the 1990s, would be devastating for the Liberal Democrats. Personally I feel that Nick Clegg is playing an extremely dangerous game with the future of the party he represents, for whilst he may be satisfied with a full-time role as David Cameron's official lackey, I very much doubt that grassroots Lib Dems will put up with the core tenets of their political ideology being so readily abandoned in favour of an alliance with the Conservatives. Whilst the Lib-Con Alliance appears to have survived Chancellor George Osbourne's announcement of a budget that seems to be largely bereft of Liberal Democrat input and influence, will it survive the many questions that have to be answered and the many issues that require a solution over the next few years? With Lord Browne's tuition fee review due to be published in the Autumn, I wonder if, given the Liberal Democrats' staunch commitment to the abolition of fees, but the imbalance of power in the coalition in favour of the Tories, who would emerge victorious in the power struggle that would likely ensue? My money would be on David Cameron's Conservatives, and if this were to happen, I would be very surprised if Lib Dem politicians such as Chris Huhne, Danny Alexander and Vince Cable were willing to continue with a power-sharing arrangement that is clearly not in the interests of most Lib Dems.

The Trident issue is another potential area for future conflict, with both the Conservatives and Labour likely to support its renewal, and the Liberal Democrats, at least according to their election manifesto, entirely opposed to any such motion. I can only conclude by saying that whilst Nick Clegg certainly appears to have abandoned the principles, commitment to genuine change and ability to put party needs above his own, selfish desire for power, conflict may well be brewing under the surface of the coalition. Vince Cable's somewhat awkward demeanour during last night's Question Time seemed to confirm the difficulty he, and many other Lib Dems are having in adapting to the new state of affairs. Perhaps a change of direction is needed, but with Clegg appearing to be nothing short of 'in Cameron's pocket', from where would it come? The pursuit of power may have been placed above the sanctity of ideology for the moment, but for how much longer? With many difficult questions and tricky decisions to be taken over the coming months by the Lib-Con coalition, we will see whether or not this 'marriage of political convenience' is destined for divorce once the honeymoon period is over. We can only hope that the Liberal Democrats' participation in this coalition, and experience of being in the corridors of power benefits the party in the long-term, but I somehow doubt it will. With rumblings of disquiet already evident amongst certain sections of the party, how long will it take before these rumblings turn into outright rebellion? Nick Clegg ought to be very careful that he doesn't forget which party he is actually representing, because over the past few weeks he has increasingly come to represent an archetypal Tory. Perhaps he will re-locate his pride and principles, or maybe Cameron will decide he doesn't need a lickspittle after all. Whatever happens, maybe Ms. Clegg ought to purchase her husband a jumbo pack of smart yellow ties, just so he doesn't give in to temptation and wear that rather fetching blue one to work instead.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

The Saville Enquiry - 12 years and £195 million later, has it told us anything we didn't know before?

The Saville Enquiry into the events of January 30th, 1972, better known as Bloody Sunday, was finally published last week. Having taken a total of 12 years to complete since its instigation by then Prime Minister Tony Blair, and cost a staggering £195 million, it seems to me that the Right Honourable Lord Saville of Newdigate has merely reached a conclusion that has long been accepted by a significant proportion of the population of these Isles. Said conclusion is that the actions taken by certain members of the First Batallion of the Parachute Regiment in murdering 13 un-armed, innocent civil rights protestors was, is and will forever be utterly indefensible, unacceptable and entirely improper conduct from soldiers representing a democratic, free and fair society. However I would question the need for such a lengthy, expensive and wasteful enquiry, for a number of reasons. Now I accept that the Widgery Report, published in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday, and perhaps lacking adequate evidence and testimony from both sides, needed to be overturned by a fresh verdict, in the interests of providing a sense of closure to the families of Bloody Sunday victims. The report, despite being accepted by the British government and the Unionists in Northern Ireland, was widely and rightly condemned and disregarded as a whitewash, and thanks to the Saville Enquiry it has been officially exposed as the inaccurate, false, face-saving measure that it was. However, has Lord Saville's enquiry, besides hopefully putting the Bloody Sunday issue to rest, delivered value for money? I would have to say no, it hasn't. £195 million sounds like a large amount of money without even being put into perspective, but once put into perspective it becomes even more astronomical. To think that Britain's apparantly under-equipped and inadequately-resourced troops could have been bolstered in their efforts to overcome the Taliban in Afghanistan by delivery of 6 extra Apache helicopters, rather than spending an equivalent sum of money to the cost of said equipment on an enquiry that told us nothing new, is rather regrettable. Now these figures are not my own, and the fact that they have come from a Conservative Party politician may lend to them a certain inaccuracy and exaggeration, but the message is clear. Saville's Enquiry cost far too much, said nothing new, and merely re-opened old wounds.

We must not forget that over 3,000 people died during the period known as 'The Troubles', a significant death toll relative to Northern Ireland's population of 1.5 million. During the period of 1969-1997, if one accepts that the Good Friday Agreement marked an official end to 'The Troubles', there were countless incidents of violence, murder and terrorism committed by both sides, as well as many acts perpetrated and decisions taken by the British government which served to exacerbate the situation and fundamentally increase tensions in Northern Ireland. Now is not the time to play the blame game, for I believe that the Peace Process in Northern Ireland has made excellent progress over the past 15 or so years, and such a degree of co-operation has been achieved as to render attempts to do so undesirable and ultimately pointless. Furthermore I do not doubt that when Tony Blair took the decision to launch an enquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday he did so with the intention of providing a sense of closure to the families of the 13 victims, aiding the transition towards peace in Northern Ireland and reaching a fair and just conclusion. However both the cost involved in the enquiry and its lengthy duration have perhaps soured its ability to meet these noble intentions. Many people have been, whether rightly or wrongly, asking when there will be an enquiry into the Omagh Bombing of 1998, the Eniskillen Bombing of 1987, or the attempted assassination of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1984. Personally I feel that to launch enquiries into such incidents would be to undermine the Peace Process and re-open old wounds, whilst turning the Northern Ireland issue into a potentially divisive political football. This would of course help nobody, but there has to be some sense of fairness on both sides. Perhaps had the Saville Enquiry been less costly, and completed shortly after the turn of the millenium it would have recieved a better reception amongst many British citizens. Furthermore the fact that said enquiry has taken 12 years to be published has also meant that the British Armed Forces have been held in a sort of limbo, tarnished by the mistakes made by a handful of soldiers 38 years ago in an undeniably volatile situation.

Whilst I will never attempt to defend the actions of British troops on that fateful day, and any other injustices they commit, the professionalism, dedication, humanity and commitment to the cause of peace and reconcilation demonstrated by the vast majority of British servicemen over the past few decades must not be forgotten. Bloody Sunday needs to be held up and remembered as a tragic sequence of events that must never be repeated. However whilst closure is necessary for the families of the victims, I feel current British servicemen and indeed those who served in Northern Ireland and were not guilty of such cold-blooded atrocities should also recieve closure and not have their own actions and reputation tarnished by the mistakes of others. One of the report's most notable conclusions, that current Northern Irish Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness "was probably armed with a Thompson sub-machine gun" on the day of the shootings, will undoubtedly anger many in Britain, who may feel that he should not be in such a prominent position in Northern Irish politics given his potential implication in IRA terrorist activities. However we must not forgot that Mr. McGuinness' role in Northern Irish politics is crucial to stability in the region, and that the key price of obtaining the seminal Good Friday Agreement, a huge achievement by Tony Blair's Labour government, was the release of many Republican paramilitaries who may have been involved in terrorist atrocities. Personally if that is the price of peace, I feel it's one worth paying. I am glad that the Saville Report has been published and will hopefully provide closure on Bloody Sunday to everybody involved in, associated with or merely interested in the shocking events of that tragic day. A day on which the reputation of certain British soldiers, sent into a volatile and potentially explosive situation as peacekeepers, was tarnished, and the period known as 'The Troubles' truly began. However the huge cost of the enquiry, the time taken to publish its findings, and the undesirable effect it has had upon the reputation of the many professional soldiers who were sent in to Northern Ireland to keep the peace, and have performed a similar role around the world ever since, I do not feel is entirely acceptable. As a final thought, perhaps some sort of 'reverse whitewash', which stated the truth as most right-minded people saw it, may have been a more lasting legacy, and prevented a lot of the needless bloodshed and suffering in Northern Ireland. Alas, we shall never know.