The August Riots

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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.

Friday, 18 June 2010

BP Oil Spill - Has the United States once again reacted to an international crisis in an over the top manner?

Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States, has along with his political colleagues in Washington, acted to portray the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as an attack on the 'Land of the Free', its people, businesses and in many ways, its national character. In doing this he has also managed to potentially, if not create then open a rift in the so-called 'special relationship' which has endured through many a crisis since it was first referred to during the Second World War. Whilst those on this side of the Atlantic in my opinion rightly see Obama's comments as rather misguided, many Americans do not. Of course politicians in Washington are in many ways justified in calling for BP, crassly referred to as British Petroleum by Barack Obama, to be fined for the huge economical damage it has inflicted upon the Gulf of Mexico. However I doubt many people will have failed to notice the irony in the United States government attacking the environmental credentials of any other organisation. This is the same government that only a month or so before the disastrous spill lifted a 20 year ban on offshore oil drilling along coastal areas other than the Gulf of Mexico. Personally I see the Gulf of Mexico spill as deeply regrettable, but a by-product of a number of factors, not merely due to BP's ignoring of safety requirements or ruthless pursuit of profit at the expense of due dilligence as Obama and others appear to be suggesting.

Capitalism has long had a flagrant disregard for the environment, as had the cause of progress. The Industrial Revolution, Stalin's Five-Year Plans, and China's 'Economic Miracle' all paid little to no heed to the ecological and environmental damage they were inflicting, so why should today's oil companies? Now I do not want to see BP escape without appropriate punishment, for it should be held accountable for any errors made by its management, employees or company structure that may have led to or influenced the Gulf of Mexico disaster in any way. However, the manner in which Barack Obama is lambasting, criticising and scapegoating BP is rather pathetic and suggests a certain weakness in his own position. The fact that he is adopting such an inflexible stance towards BP, and pinning the blame entirely on BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward, shows that he perhaps feels that by taking attention away from his own shortcomings he may well stabilise his position and defer criticism away from his administration. After all the United States government that has acted to high and mighty over the spill and attempted to distance itself entirely from any recrimination or criticism is the same government that failed for a long while to bring about any significant regeneration of the disaster-hit city of New Orleans. The hypocrisy of not providing adequate assistance to a city suffering from the burden of a huge natural disaster, which actually claimed the lives of 1,464 people, whilst blasting BP is quite astounding, and reflects the gross hypocrisy inherent in the American ideology.

Furthermore the bill the US government has handed to BP for the clean-up operation, which is already underway, totals a staggering £47 billion. Now I would feel absolutely no sadness nor regret at seeing over-paid executives and affluent shareholders being denied their dividends, or recieving merely a six rather than a seven-figure salary. However I agree with the warning given by David Cameron to Barack Obama not to 'go after BP', in his words 'for the sake of it'. I feel this is the route Obama has taken, and I don't believe that he will be able to enjoy the moral high-ground for very long. For disasters such as this are by no means once-in-a-lifetime occurrences, and the next time such a spill occurs it may be an American company in a position to be held 'entirely responsible and liable for all costs incurred during the clean-up operation'. Were this to occur, I would ask whether or not Barack Obama would be so quick and keen to criticise. Nor do I believe that the United States government's reaction is motivated by ecological or environmental concerns. The United States is the second biggest polluter in the world, having been recently overtaken by China, a country with a population almost four times larger.

How the United States can jump on the ecological and environmental bandwagon now is frankly beyond me, and I feel that in the coming weeks and months Barack Obama would be advised to pursue a far more low-key policy towards BP, and work towards clearing up this terrible disaster in the interests of those affected, rather than in his own short-sighted political interest. The Gulf of Mexico oil spill began as an ecological catastrophe. Barack Obama has turned it into a 'political football' of sorts, and used it as an excuse to adopt a hard-line policy in the interests of his own aggrandisement. Let's hope he has realised the limitations of this, and dropped the neo-Cold War policy of ruthlessly and hypocritically seizing on mistakes, errors and faults committed by the other side, in that particular scenario the Soviet Union, in this BP, in favour of getting a fair, just and equitable deal for those American citizens affected, and organising a quick, effective clean-up operation. For whilst BP and the Gulf of Mexico are by no means whiter than white, after its recent efforts, neither is the United States government. It would do well to remember this.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

World Cup Preview – Maybe New Zealand are in fact worth a punt at 2000/1?

It’s that time again. After thirty, no wait, hang on, 44 years of hurt, it’s our year. We have to believe, now is our time. Anyway enough of the excessive patriotism and jingoistic sentiments, because unlike most articles featuring in our venerable national press at this very moment, this is a review of the entire World Cup, not just uninformed comment on exactly how the multi-millionaires who represent us on the international stage will fail once again to pass the quarter-final stage. For those wishing to lose a great deal of money, this preview may even offer helpful and probably entirely inaccurate tips and hints; I just hope nobody looks back at this after the tournament and realises just how wide of the mark the following predictions will almost certainly turn out to be. Right so I’ll start with the biggest question of all, the real pressing issue of the tournament. Will North Korea actually be able to score a goal, and if not, is there any possibility of the players who failed to fulfil said desire ever being seen alive again? Perhaps I’m being rather unfair and juvenile on everyone’s favourite South-East Asian military dictatorship, after all Kim Jong Il may not have a North Korean equivalent to Uday Hussein amongst his entourage, so perhaps the players may even be able to live normal lives following the end of the tournament. Well, that is normal in the sense of them not being able to see the outside world, being denied free speech and indoctrinated on a daily basis. On a slightly lighter, less political and altogether more accurate note, it’s time to look at the favourites and dissect their various strengths and shortcomings. For the sake of ease and to save me a good deal of almost certainly fruitless Google searching, I will be quoting the outright odds listed on the William Hill website, also as it will help me decide which nation my hard-loaned money ought to be placed on, and subsequently lost.

Spain are the favourites to win outright at 7/2, and based purely on the strength of the Spanish squad, the wealth of experience and talent possessed by almost every member of the first team, and the traditional ability of Spanish teams to maintain possession and cut opponents open with consummate ease, they are the obvious choice. In Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta Barcelona and Spain have arguably the best centre-midfield pairing in the world, and although physicality may be an issue, particularly against more rugged sides such as Germany, and dare I say it England who would look to prevent them dominating the midfield and dictating the play. I have only witnessed one side in the past few years that was able to prevent Xavi and Iniesta playing, and they went on to win the game, albeit slightly fortuitously. That side was Inter Milan, led by former Coach Jose Mourinho, and one would think that any side unfortunate enough to meet Spain, whether in the group stages or beyond, would need to ensure they put on a disciplined, rigid tactical performance. In terms of attacking options, without turning this ‘best partnership in world football’ phrase into a cliché, it could be argued that David Villa and Fernando Torres are the Xavi and Iniesta of centre-forwards, a perfect ‘little and large’ combination of flair, impeccable finishing, excellent movement and immense goal scoring potential. For many casual observers Spain’s main weakness would appear to be in defence, with a back four of Puyol, Marchena, Capdevilla and Ramos unlikely to deter teams such as Argentina and Brazil with impressive arrays of striking talent.

Prior to Spain’s triumph two years ago in Austria, they had been considered ‘big game bottlers’, a team who ‘don’t like it up them’ and perennial underachievers prone to crashing out of big tournaments early, having only progressed as far as the Semi-Final stage in the World Cup, doing so in 1950. Whilst Spain have certainly shown themselves capable of seeing off prestigious, highly-rated sides with perhaps equal reputations and superior histories to themselves, I believe lightening is extremely unlikely to strike twice. Despite victories against Argentina and France in recent friendly encounters, I highly doubt Spain to possess the resilience, mental strength and determination necessary to triumph twice in the space of two years and win successive international competitions. Few would expect Vicente Del Bosque’s side to struggle through games against Switzerland, Chile and rare World Cup attendees Honduras, in what is definitely the ‘group of life’ of the forthcoming tournament. Whilst Spain were able to go 35 games undefeated between February 2007 and June 2009, and gain 15 consecutive victories within this spectacular run, and although it appears likely Spain will top their group with ease, and score a multitude of goals in the process, come the knockout stages it will be a very different ball game indeed. If not I will look extremely stupid for ignoring Spain and placing my confidence, and beer money, on an inferior side, and I will promise never to pollute the information highway with my inaccurate predictions again.

Samba. Carnival. Copacabana. Pele. Carlos Alberto. Ronaldo. Rivaldo. Ronaldinho. Roque Junio, no wait, that doesn’t really flow, does it? For those who haven’t yet guessed, I’m talking about Brazil, the side everybody wants to see, the only national team to have competed at every World Cup since the tournament’s inception in 1930. Priced at a tempting 9/2, it is Dunga’s side whom I will be putting my faith in. Featuring an extremely impressive array of attacking talent, with the likes of Luis Fabiano, Werder Bremen’s goal scoring superstar Grafite and the stroppy, sullen superstar Robinho, Brazil will almost certainly be there or thereabouts. Dunga, in his pursuit of harmony throughout the squad, has taken the incredibly wise decision to leave out Adriano, whose attitude has long been questionable, and whose footballing contribution is often overshadowed by his lack of professionalism and commitment. Whilst pundits and supporters alike have regularly asserted over the years that Brazil’s various World Cup triumphs have been entirely or almost entirely due to their attacking prowess, this is in fact somewhat of a myth. The Brazilians boast a nominee for the 2009 Ballon d’Or and a recent Champions League winner in their goalkeeping ranks in Julio Cesar, and behind him is Spurs’ often maligned Heurelho Gomes, very much a worthy understudy. In terms of defenders, Brazil’s central defensive pairing of Juan and Lucio may struggle against younger, quicker and more vibrant opponents, and could be left in the lurch one or two times too many due to the tendency of flying wing-backs Daniel Alves and Maicon to surge forward and occasionally neglect their defensive duties.

When compared with many other sides in the tournament, Brazil’s midfield certainly appears to be rather underwhelming and could be somewhat of a weak spot. A lot will rest on the form of Kaka, which has been rather patchy of late, as he can provide the inspiration and impetus to turn a good side into world-beaters in an instant. Brazil can expect, unlike Spain, to be given a thorough test by their Group G opponents, Portugal, Cote d’Ivoire and North Korea, in what is without question this tournament’s ‘group of death’. Personally I would still expect Brazil to win all their games, albeit not by the huge margins which some may be expecting, with the main question mark hanging over their ability to overcome a relatively strong Portuguese outfit, and although North Korea are an unknown quantity for most, I wouldn’t expect them to be capable of causing any sort of upset. Cote d’Ivoire’s hopes have been significantly dashed by the news that talismanic striker Didier Drogba will miss the tournament through injury, but Brazil will still need to be at their best to overcome the Elephants, who still boast a number of excellent players and can still cause teams problems with or without the Chelsea superstar. Come the knockout stages and I am struggling to find many teams Brazil will be incapable of at least matching, and like many others I would be extremely surprised if the Samba Kings fail to at least grace the Semi-Finals.

Un poco con la mano de Dios. Diego Maradona’s Argentina shouldn’t need any such extravagant and flamboyant language to condone cheating by any of their current superstars, nor should they need to cheat to recreate the form which saw them triumph in 1986, given the presence of most probably the greatest footballer in the world at the moment in their side. Whilst I believe we should be seeking to downplay the similarities between Argentina’s brightest footballing lights of past and present, it is hard to ignore the feeling that the stage has been set at South Africa 2010 for Lionel Messi to shine for his country as he has done so often for his club. It is certainly fair to say that the 22 year old has an ideal opportunity to prove that his Ballon d’Or and FIFA World Player of the Year titles are entirely deserved by single-handedly inspiring his country to glory as Maradona was able to do 24 years ago. The way most of the international media is talking about Messi, you would think that he would be a safe bet to win the tournament single-handedly, let alone him and his team-mates at an attractive 12/2. In terms of personnel Argentina, like their bitter South American rivals, have an attacking triumvirate worthy of gracing any major final. In Carlos Tevez, Lionel Messi and Gonzalo Higuain, Argentina have three forwards capable of winning the Golden Boot, and I would imagine only a handful of defences to be capable of containing all three for 90 minutes.

The biggest question mark hanging over La Albiceleste, besides the managerial experience of Maradona, his tendency towards passion rather than logic, his perhaps inordinate closeness to the first team squad, and his tactical naivety, hangs over the defence. The prospect of flying winger Jonas Gutierrez, an extremely talented forward player, occupying the right-back slot is frankly bewildering, and indicative of Maradona’s desire to slot what he considers the best, or his favourite players, into the side no matter whether or not they can truly play in the positions he allocates them. Similar doubts have been expressed about Gabriel Heinze, who suffers from a shocking lack of pace and may well be critically exposed by a fast centre-forward or pacy winger. In terms of central defenders Walter Samuel and Martin Demichelis are both solid enough, and should be able to make up for all but the most glaring deficiencies of their defensive team-mates. For those familiar primarily with English football, the inclusion of Juan Sebastian Veron in the squad and probably in the first-team as well is nothing short of mind-boggling, but in fairness to Maradona he does have an excellent record and reputation in Argentinean domestic football, and on this basis probably merits his inclusion. For those still in doubt of Argentina’s attacking potential, the fact that Maradona can justify leaving strikers of the calibre of Diego Milito and Sergio Aguero on the bench indicates the plethora of talent in the Argentinean forward ranks. Expect them to be there or thereabouts, and to comfortably emerge from the group stages, most likely having scored a hatful of goals and wowed fans all over the world with their mesmerising attacking flair. However it may well be that Maradona does indeed lack the managerial capability and tactical expertise to turn Argentina from an attacking powerhouse capable of demolishing sides such as South Korea and Greece, into serious contenders. Time will tell, but I would certainly imagine a man as passionate, and ruled by his emotions as Maradona to find the strain of coaching a side in the latter stages as step too far, and be unable to spring the tactical surprises and provide the organisational efficiency that will be necessary to triumph.

Now we come to the big one. Whenever England grace, if that really is the most appropriate word, a major tournament there are huge expectations. This year is no different, with Fabio Capello seen as an authoritarian, commanding coach with a huge amount of managerial experience, a proven track record and the level of tactical knowledge most probably lacked by his predecessors. Indeed based purely on Capello’s excellent reputation throughout the footballing world and the ease with which England qualified for the tournament, odds of 15/2 seem almost plausible. After all England boast some of the world’s foremost players, including Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney and Frank Lampard. However to blindly bow to the media’s relentless pressure to ‘back the boys’ and believe, in the absence of any real evidence, that England really are capable of outperforming the aforementioned teams, is to fundamentally ignore the facts. Whilst England’s squad undoubtedly possesses a number of talented players, there are too many weaknesses in Capello’s side to see the Three Lions as any more than outsiders to hold that famous trophy aloft for a second time. First of all England lacks a nailed-on first choice goalkeeper, and the issue of who should be selected continues to divide opinion across the nation. Some, such as myself, favour the relatively inexperienced but talented and in-form Joe Hart, whereas others would opt for the experience of David ‘Calamity’ James, and there are those who believe that of the three candidates, Robert Green is the best all round choice. Furthermore there is the perpetually divisive issue of who should partner Wayne Rooney up front, for make no mistake, Rooney will play for England whether in-form or not, and rightly so. To leave out a player with such raw talent and the potential to change a game in an instant would be unthinkable for Capello. At the moment it appears that Emile Heskey is the manager’s choice, for he is seen as being the only striking option for England able to get the best out of Rooney, and he is certainly a valuable team player and a useful aerial presence. However Heskey’s goal scoring record for England is little short of appalling, and there are many who believe Peter Crouch, who possesses a far better record, should deputise in his place. Personally I believe both options ought to be tested in the group stages, for if England are unable to beat Algeria and Slovenia, then frankly they do not deserve to progress.

Defensively England are also suspect, for in the absence of arguably England’s best defender in Rio Ferdinand, the Three Lions are relying on the fitness of Ledley King and the form of John Terry. If the former were to experience a recurrence of his chronic knee problem, which really has prevented King fulfilling his undoubted potential, then England would be forced to look to Jamie Carragher, recent returnee to the England fold, an uncapped Matt Dawson, and a potentially out of his depth Matthew Upson. None of these would be adequate replacements for either King or Ferdinand, and coupled with Glen Johnson’s obvious defensive frailties, England could be progressing into the knock-out stages with a defence fundamentally incapable of containing superior, or even equally talented sides. Without meaning to state the obvious, it is paramount that England manage to win their group, otherwise the unwelcome spectre of Germany, who look the most likely winners of Group D, will be looming on the horizon. If England are fortunate enough to progress to the Quarter Finals, or even further, it will be then, not in the Second Round, that they would expect to face sides of the calibre of Germany. It remains to be seen whether or not Capello will rue his decision to leave Theo Walcott, a player capable of injecting pace, impetus and drive into a side looking for inspiration and somebody capable of breaking down a stubborn opponent. In the meantime expect the usual excessive coverage, and typical mix of jingoism and despair, even before England’s almost inevitable exit in the Quarter Finals. Take my advice, keep your money, and spent it on a having a few pints down the pub and just hoping and praying that this may finally be our year. If I’m wrong, I will eat my hat, or a similar item of clothing, but I somehow doubt I will be.

I’ve just mentioned them there, the team that everyone seems to have forgotten about, despite them finishing runners-up in the 2008 European Championships, and having progressed at least as far as the Quarter Finals in every tournament since 1982. I am indeed talking about Germany, who are very much dark horses for 2010 in the sense that everybody seems to have dismissed them as a spent force and an irrelevancy, despite the presence of many young, vibrant, talented players in the German ranks. To be able to get odds of 14/1 on a side as talented as Germany, with their history and the undoubted potential of many of their players, is frankly ridiculous. Whilst a number of these, Sami Khedira, Toni Kroos, Thomas Muller and Jerome Boateng, are undoubtedly huge talents, it is Mesut Ozil whom the eyes of the world will be focused upon. The central midfielder, Turkish by origin but having been born in Gelsenkirchen, currently plays for Werder Bremen but can expect a number of offers from the best and brightest in the Premier League, Serie A and La Liga if he lives up to his phenomenal potential. So expect him to sign for Manchester City for an extortionate fee later this summer if he fails to do so, and a genuine title contender if he doesn’t. Beyond Ozil’s strong presence in midfield lies the powerful Bastian Schweinsteiger, but it remains to be seen whether or not the young German midfield will prove too light and inexperienced, due to the lack of strength in depth, to contain the likes of Spain, Argentina and Holland. In attacking terms, Germany have a hugely impressive array of forwards, most notably Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose, who have scored an incredible 88 goals between them in 177 games. Klose in particular needs just four goals to equal Ronaldo’s record as the all-time top goal scorer in World Cup history, a remarkable feat for a player whom many wouldn’t consider to have the all-round attributes necessary to be compared to those with similar records to himself, such as Pele, Gerd Muller, Jurgen Klinsmann and Gary Lineker. Podolski’s record is particularly spectacular, given that he is only 25 years of age, and doesn’t look set to be deposed in the Germany forward line any time soon. Back-up forwards Cacau, Mario Gomez and Muller should be able to deputise effectively, but Joachim Low will be looking to ensure his first choice striking line-up remains intact if Germany are to keep their excellent World Cup record going in South Africa.

Defensively Germany ought to be as strong as ever, with captain Philipp Lahm a perpetual candidate for the UEFA Team of the Year, and a hugely capable attacking full-back, whilst Per Mertesacker is an imposing presence at the back, and despite his relative lack of pace, he and Arne Freidrich form a capable and hugely experienced central defensive unit. Tactically few would expect Germany to come up short, and whilst in the past German sides have been easily dismissed as unexciting, methodical and unexciting in the extreme, but with a strong attacking line-up and clear potential for goals within the squad, maybe this year’s competition will be different. The Germans certainly ought to emerge from Group D, but they will still have to contend against the significant and very different threats posed by Ghana and Serbia. Assuming England manage to top their group, Germany can likely expect to meet the United States in the Round of 16, whom they should dispatch with relative ease. Personally I cannot envisage the Germans failing to reach the Semi-Finals unless they were to come up against a side capable of at least matching their athleticism, work-rate, precision, defensive solidity and attacking flair. They are very much the forgotten men of this World Cup, and I feel that gives them a freedom to play in the manner they and Coach Joachim Low wish, whereas many other sides are subject to far greater expectations, such as Spain, Brazil, and perhaps only in this country, England.

The Dutch, providing that internal disputes do not tear the squad apart as they have done in previous tournaments, are also definitely worth considering, especially at 9/1, a good price when the quality in their squad is taken into account. With the flair of Van Persie, the pace of Robben, the industry of Kuyt and the playmaking ability of Sneijder, the Dutch have an extremely strong spine to their side. Add to the mix younger players such as Eljero Elia, and the vastly experienced, despite his relative youth, Rafael Van Der Vaart, and it would be reasonable to suggest that Oranje should be looking to progress at least as far as the Quarter Finals. Coach Bert van Marwijk certainly has his work cut out keeping any potential rifts in the camp from spilling over into outright conflict. However should he be capable of doing so, and even he should not be, the Dutch would rightly expect to emerge from Group E as comfortable winners, despite the challenges posed by Cameroon, Japan and Denmark, and probably face either Paraguay or Slovakia in the Round of 16. With the traditions of Total Football and memories of the great Dutch side of the 1970s ever present, perhaps it is time to put rivalries, petty disputes and pointless arguments to one side and truly justify Holland’s fourth place in the often maligned FIFA rankings.

Whilst those who have placed bets on the following teams may be offended at my presentation of them as outside bets, for sides such as France, Italy and Portugal, the best they can hope for is to get through the group stages relatively unscathed, ideally as group winners, and hope for an easy draw in the Round of 16 and, if they are able to progress far enough, the Quarter Finals. Now I may be placing myself firmly in a minority by thinking and saying this, but I believe France to have a real fight on their hands to defeat any strong side in the knock-out stages, and should look forward solely to emerging from Group A, for it will likely be the only highlight of their tournament. At the crux of my critique of France’s potential, is the over-reliance on players who quite frankly are unable, for a variety of reasons, to deliver on the international stage. Nicholas Anelka may be able to demolish lower-ranking Premier League teams with ease for Chelsea, but perhaps he either experiences a higher level of motivation for his club or he is simply surrounded by better players. Whatever the reason, 14 goals in 64 internationals for France is simply not good enough for a striker set to lead the line by himself. Furthermore in my opinion Franck Ribery is a hugely underrated, ineffective player prone to feigning injury and bullying referees rather than producing the type of match-winning performances of the man he is consistently, and incorrectly compared to, Zinedine Zidane. Whilst on paper France do still have a good squad capable of perhaps having an impact on the competition, Thierry Henry, the man whom many Frenchman are still pinning their hopes on despite his age and the deterioration in his ability to perform to the high standards he was once able to, will not be the saviour for Les Blues. Furthermore, to leave out players of the calibre and reputation of Karim Benzema, Samir Nasri, Hatem Ben Arfa and Lassana Diarra was certainly hugely surprising and may prove to be a huge mistake. Now we come to the final reason why France can’t expect to win the competition, Mr. Raymond Domenech. Never in the history of international football that I am aware of, has a manager so devoid of any expertise, evident ability, respect from the players and any sort of impressive sequence of results been able to remain in gainful employment. Domenech should have been sacked immediately after France slumped to defeat in the 2006 World Cup Final, before the aberration in 2008 when France were unable to progress past the group stages. My opinion is and will remain that whilst Domenech, whom I feel no qualms about openly describing as a ‘clown’, remains the Coach of the French national team, they will not achieve what the French supporters expect from them and what the talent at Domenech’s disposal ought to be capable of achieving. I do not expect to be proved wrong, and if I am I hereby pledge to write a grovelling letter of apology to Mr. Domenech. Although only if France progress at least as far as the Semi-Finals.

Behind France, although not necessarily deservedly so, we have 2006 Champions Italy, a country I am greatly fond of and a football team I am indifferent to, almost to the point of dislike. Whatever my personal feelings towards the Italian national team, like France I do not expect them to be a major player in the final stages of this tournament. Marcelo Lippi’s decision to stick with a number of those players who were victorious in 2006 may prove to be unwise, or an entirely shrewd bet. Time will tell, but based purely on my convictions, and my assessment of Italy’s footballing ability and potential, they are not in the same league as many of the aforementioned sides. Having said that, I would be shocked should Italy fail to emerge from Group F, competing against weaker opposition in Paraguay, New Zealand and Slovakia. Furthermore I would be greatly surprised to see Italy bow out of the competition before the Quarter Final stage, but should they reach this point, I find it unlikely that they would be able to cope with sides such as Germany, Spain, Brazil and Argentina whom I feel have a slight edge at this tournament. I remain unconvinced by Italy’s striking line-up, and I believe they will struggle to score the crucial goals necessary to edge out the top teams in the latter stages. Gilardino in the lone striker role, with his admittedly not terrible return of 16 goals in 42 matches, worries me slightly, and I feel Italy’s main strengths lie in the midfield engine-room, where the exceptional Daniele De Rossi offers passion, dedication and no small measure of skill, and relative newcomers Riccardo Montolivo and Claudio Marchisio are both able partners for the Roma player. Defensively Italy should be solid enough, but their attacking weaknesses will, for me, prevent them repeating the excellent form which saw the Azzurri triumph in 2006.

Without meaning to disregard the rest of the teams in this tournament, I will conclude my preview by addressing the sides with an outside chance of progressing to the latter stages of this tournament. Portugal fall directly into this category as far as I’m concerned, who possess a number of talented players but in many ways restricted by their dependence on one Cristiano Ronaldo. For a player who hasn’t scored in 15 months to be his country’s main hope and most likely goal scorer at the World Cup is certainly a dangerous situation, and I would warrant that Ronaldo, despite his huge popularity at home, has underachieved for his country. Furthermore his fellow strikers do not inspire me with any confidence; having mercifully seen the light and ditched Nuno Gomes, and I in no way mean to complement the player here, his replacements are no better. Hugo Almeida, Liedson and Danny have scored just 14 goals in 49 games between them. This, and the fact that Carlos Quieroz’ main attacking hopes are two wingers, Ronaldo and Simao Sabrosa, leads me to believe that they will have a rather barren World Cup, and be unfortunately knocked out before the tournament becomes serious at the Quarter Final stage. Next we have Cote d’Ivoire, more commonly known in Anglophone nations as the Ivory Coast, who would feature rather higher up this preview, were it not for the injury to star forward and talisman, Didier Drogba, and former England Coach Sven Goran Eriksson. The Elephants have a well-equipped squad, and despite having been drawn in this World Cup’s ‘Group of Death’ alongside Brazil, North Korea and Portugal, they should still harbour ambitions to reach the knock-out stages. They are certainly Africa’s main hope at this tournament, with established, experienced players such as Kolo and Yaya Toure, Abdul Kader Keita, Didier Zokora, Salomon Kalou and Arouna Dindane, who should be capable of causing any side at these finals significant problems.

Africa’s second biggest hope is Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire’s neighbour to the East, arguably the most established African team in international football. The Black Stars will sadly be without their obvious star man, Michael ‘The Bison’ Essien, who misses out with a knee injury. Although slightly light up front, with Asamoah Gyan definitely the stand-out man in Ghana’s attacking line-up, they have the vastly experienced Stephen Appiah and Sulley Muntari in midfield, along with the tempestuous youth of Kevin-Prince Boateng, who could well be the Black Stars’ driving force. As for the rest, whilst we can say with little doubt that Honduras, North Korea, New Zealand and Greece will almost certainly bow out at the Group Stage, for the rest opportunities may well open up through the profligacy and under-performance of more illustrious opponents. Expect to see a few teams, such as South Korea, Nigeria, Japan or perhaps even Slovakia making their way through to the Round of 16, and perhaps even further. After all, it’s the World Cup, anything can happen. Apart from England going all the way, of course; looks like it’ll be 46 years of hurt at the very least, despite or perhaps because of Fabio Capello’s best efforts. Oh well, at least we should sail through the group stages without breaking a sweat...

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

I have nothing specific to say, yet so many little, insignificant thoughts

Having not posted in a long while, I felt it was time to clog the internet with my views once again, although hopefully this time my writings won't attract such vociferous, pseudo-intellectual criticism as one of my previous posts on the pointlessness of the UK Top 40 Music Chart, which I won't go into now. Anyway, after watching a YouTube clip entitled 'Making Love vs. Having Sex', I felt almost obliged to comment on the world as I see it. Now anybody, no matter their opinion, background, nationality, origin, political opinion or social prejudice, can set up a blog. However in reality how many of us are saying anything new? I've written almost 50 blogs on This Chemical World, and since posting my first entry I'm sure I must have covered at least some original ground, but with more and more of us having blogs, posting our views and trying to keep up with multi-million pound news agencies, isn't it about time we stopped competing?

So anyway this evening's (or morning for those who went to bed at a reasonable hour) post relates to the nature of modern life. Now I am not a manic depressive, and as someone rather satisfied with the life I lead, which as far as I am concerned is the optimum level available to most of us who are unwilling to lie about how amazing what they are doing is, I am deeply confused about the nature of the modern world. What should we be? Nowadays it seems that there is a vague design for life, and anybody not conforming to said design is not worthy of consideration. However what is this design? Am I, as one hypocritical person commented on one of my previous articles, merely somebody attempting to differentiate myself from the 'masses' in order to shield the fact that I am very much removed from said sub-culture? Now I feel it would be a waste of time to analyse this in any depth, but over the past few months I have felt that we live in a society that rewards conformity, uniformity and adherence to a strict set of guidelines, whereas we should be rewarding individualiity and integrity. Now I would love to be proved wrong, and I am open to coherent, well thought-out and structured suggestions as to why my views are completely wrong, but is there a 'right' way to live our lives that some of us avoid but others feel compelled to adhere to?

As a university student I have felt this most of all, as although university has for me been infinitely preferable to secondary school, I have felt pressured to adapt myself to other people. Change my jokes, change my interests, change my views and change the way I approach situations in order to attract other people to me. However do those who are willing to do all of these things not realise that any person unwilling to accept you for who you are is unworthy of your time, attention and friendship? I feel that I've been able to build relationships without changing myself to such a degree that I would lose the fundamental characteristics that define me as a person, and I don't believe anybody else should have to. So for those who have ever felt pressured to like a certain type of music, do certain activities instead of others, and completely change their personalities in order to fit in with the various cliques that exist, I am writing this blog to say, if this is what you want to be, then fine; but if it isn't, then don't sacrifice who you are to be what someone else wants you to be. For if we all thought the same, looked the same, talked the same, did the same things, and had our passions inflamed by the same things/people, what would the world be but a collection of mindless clones?