Artificial Intelligence

A study into the death of mystery in football and how too much information has an adverse effect upon the game.

This article was written for The Football Pubcast and can be found here;

http://footballpubcast.clubfans.co.uk/2011/04/24/artificial-intelligence/

We live in enlightened times. This may not be apparent during the pained expressions of Paul Merson as he stumbles and falls over the latter syllables of even the simplest of names, but it’s true, we live in enlightened times. The emergence of an “age of immediacy” has given even the most armchair-bound fan the ability to become connoisseurs of world football.

The possibilities of expanding our own horizons are now limited only by the television package we hold or the speed of our broadband. But how much of this new found ability is a positive and are there any negative repercussions on the game from such freely available information?

The way we interact-with and consume football is constantly evolving. We now have the ability to watch live almost any top-flight game from anywhere in the world from the comfort of our own homes. While this ability has benefits for the viewer could there be a negative effect upon the game? Does the ability to easily view a smorgasbord of football actually take away some excitement from the game? Over a recent weekend I went to see my own team play and then, from the comfort of my living room, watched live games from England, Italy, Germany, Holland, Spain and Russia as well as watching highlights from every game in the top 4 flights of English football. This while discussing these games with a plethora of other like-minded football obsessive’s via various social networking sites. Even Mark Lawereson could predict that all around the world many many other people will have undertaken similar weekends.

Now don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed myself during this weekend, but I did begin to wonder what the saturation point of the game was and also how my own enjoyment of the game has changed since I started to try and understand it more.

A perceived lack of excitement within the modern game is often attributed to lack of diversity within genuine challengers for the top. The lack of diversity within the upper echelons also means that the money stays at the top and with each passing season it becomes more of a closed-shop. The inevitability of success within these closed ranks is slowly killing off the last vestments of excitement within the top flights of the game. While this argument certainly holds weight I believe that there is a hidden problem that lies elsewhere, and that is that the globalisation of the game has removed mystery and in-turn has lessened the levels of excitement.

An over-saturation of the game has also lead to an over-sanitisation. The sanitisation of the game has obviously got its benefits. For a start it has opened the gates to factions of the population who would have previously been unwilling, or at least ill-advised, to attend. For example, the stands are now much safer for younger children to attend. Great efforts have been made to remove any physical danger from attending games but there has also been a great psychological shift that has opened football to the masses. Slowly but surely prejudices surrounding sex, race and religion are being weeded out, allowing football to become a more inclusive sport.

The only frustration is that the new moral codes attributed to the game bring new talking points, and if we are to attribute new moral codes to the game then we must discuss them when they’re broken. The furore surrounding Wayne Rooney’s recent camera-aimed verbal dirty protest was seen by many as a frivolous debate. A sign that perhaps the game had moved away from its roots, this is not to say that the games roots are within cretinous thugs demonstrating that they are cretinous thugs, more that we’d moved too far away from what really mattered within the sport. It is however now the nature of the beast. If we want a more open and inclusive sport then a matter like this must be discussed if it occurs. So, for better or worse, modern football must keep discussing the issues that lie away from the pitch if it is to remain inclusive. Inclusivity of the game is truly vital, it is just frustrating that it’s need to be inclusive will keep distracting from what is truly exciting and what we have originally fallen in love with, and that’s the game.

Additionally, the vast array of multi-media platforms now available to discuss the game almost force us to discuss elements of it that would usually simply be swept away or ignored. The role of social media and the internet has, in my opinion, played one of the largest roles in the importance placed upon elements of the game away from the pitch. At times it feels like we now have a voice-piece but we have nothing to say so we discuss trivialities. There seem to be different factions who interact online and use different platforms for different uses. Anybody who does use the internet as a forum to discuss the game can probably attest to these following descriptions.

Firstly Twitter, this is arguably the place to go for the most informed debate. People from all levels of the game are freely available to discuss and share articles and work. There is a thriving online community and there are some truly enlightening discussions that can be had on this medium, though even this is being watered down now.

Secondly, the various football related websites and message boards. These are a mixed bag, you can always find like-minded individuals who want to discuss, but likewise you will find deliberate wind-up merchants (Or WUM’s).

Finally Facebook, I personally find that interactions on Facebook are easily the worst. Have a flick through the comments left on various football pages on Facebook and you quickly realise that this is where the stupid come to die. Knuckle dragging their one-eyed slathering views with them into a pit of despair and emoticons. The ability to openly discuss the game has its benefits, but by god does it have its negatives. It becomes very difficult to not have your view of certain teams tempered because of the actions of these fans. Their views will not be emblematic of the club as a whole, but as the idiots will always shout louder it becomes hard to remove the perception of the club beyond this baying mob.

The advances in modern technology have allowed incredible advances in communication. The fact that, say through a medium such as Twitter, you can freely interact with top level footballers, presenters and commentators, journalists and also other amateur writers and fans is simply amazing. Throughout the world there is barely a goal that is scored, a talent unearthed or a club that is shining that will not have someone from a far flung corner of the world commenting upon it. The age of immediacy has allowed us to be instantly connected to everything that is happening in the game, at almost every single level.

What this has removed is mystery, and mystery plays a vital role in the romanticism of the game. I personally feel that the game needs to retain this romanticism as with this removed we just effectively have business. For example, the Brazil national team can be seen to have lost a certain level of mystery and excitement that they once held. We can freely see all the flair players play weekly as they have dissipated around Europe. When this team comes together it’s no longer got a level of the unknown. In fact it’s very hard to find any kind of unknown or mystery in football anywhere any more. YouTube has ensured that scouting a player is as easily done as a simple click of a button. Championship & Football Manager games have ensured that kids of 15 or 16 years old become household names before they’ve even played professionally.

Such a vast spread of this artificially manifested expertise certainly does remove a level of mystery and excitement from the game. The need, or at least want, for romanticism in the game is evident in the perception of the FA Cup. A lot is said now about the death of the “magic of the cup”. While this phrase does grate slightly it does hold weight. When the Premier League is held with such grandeur and a Sunday afternoon double header is branded with the same pomp and majesty of a cup final then a tournament such as the FA Cup will begin to pale in comparison.

Romanticism is hard to find in such a corporate world and mystery is hard to create in a world of such instant interactivity. It’s nigh on impossible to bring back these elements, other than actively removing yourself from the interactive world.

Perhaps now it’s not the loss of romanticism we should worry about but the misuse of the information available. In a society where an amateur fan can build such a strong knowledge base, then the national media networks should be upping their game. Punditry of the game on national television is notoriously poor, where celebrity is placed above insight. Alan Shearer highlighted such naivety in an incident earlier this season when he commented that nobody had heard of Hatem Ben Arfa, which was rightly met with much derision. The wasted opportunity of understanding is perhaps the biggest problem associated with this matter.

Perhaps marvel can still remain if we actually fulfill the potential that these new interactive mediums offer to us. There is a quote that says “Wonder is retained by wise pondering” I feel that this is something that can ring true here.

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A History Of Violence

 

The discussion about the use of excessive force and violence in the game seems to be rearing its ugly head on a far more frequent basis. With each new incident of a crunching tackle or a malicious elbow we see the blame labelled at the players, at the managers, at the referees, at the FA or sometimes even the fans. It’s deemed unacceptable but when nobody knows who to blame it becomes a thorny issue to fix and sometimes even discuss. In this article I am going to have a brief look at historically what has role of violent play been and in what avenues of the game should the use of force and violence really have its attention switched too?

Current perception would have you believe that the types of tackles we currently see are a modern problem, that the current state of the game is somehow exacerbating the situation somehow. How true is this though? Well if we look back to the very early forms of the regulated game we can see some novels approaches to fixing perceived violence within the sport. At one point players were asked to play while holding two crowns in the palm of each hand to ensure they could grab and pull opposition players. When penalties where first trialled as a method to try and punish in game excessive force, goalkeepers would often simply stand to one side of the goal as they did not like their sporting integrity to be questioned by the referee. Can you imagine a player nowadays being this perturbed by the perception of their own integrity? So why has the violent side of the game been such a problem and why is there such a clear opposition within the way the game is perceived and what is classed as acceptable?

For the purpose of this piece I’m going to cast two known managers as the characters, though it should be noted that they are simply representative of a character type. I personally find it easier if I can visualise my protagonists so have selected these two as my actors, though what I mention will not really be specific to them. The two characters I’m going to utilise are Arsene Wenger and Sam Allardyce. One known for his longing for fair play and integrity, the other known for a more boisterous approach to the game and a face like a pitbull licking piss of a nettle.

Let’s start at the beginning. Those who helped form the original set of rules that governed the game often did so because then the act of playing the game was equally, if not more, important than winning. It’s important to note that it wasn’t simply a set of rules to govern the soon to be professional teams but also so that a unified game could be played at all levels, for example in schools. You can see the Wenger character in the Victorian aristocrats, the dandies, who set about creating the original rules. They believed in an honest approach to the game and losing a match was deemed unimportant as long as you had upheld a moral stance. Systemically we can see an opposition to this view, one that states the by crook or by hook we shall win, even if this means winning ugly.

So on one side with have Arsene Wenger, the typical Victorian gentleman, a bastion of integrity and fair play. On the other we have Sam Allardyce, the stout working-class Northerner who believes in the installation of a winning attitude over style and honour.

Historically you could probably trace back a sociological reasoning for these mentalities being in place. The bastions of fair play where more often than not of a richer and more affluent lineage, whereas the players of the more established northern teams are from a poorer working-class background. The reasoning behind playing this game and what they want to achieve from it could be drawn from the backgrounds of the teams and players themselves. The Victorian gentleman will play this as a past time; the working-classer will play it as a release. The working-class players may be considered to have more of a deep-seeded desire to win at something, even if by any means necessary.

The beauty of the game is about the battle of these two aspects. It always has been and it always should be. You will almost always find that a good mixture of flair and strength is what makes a great team. Of course the stronger tackles need be regulated better but in the grander scheme of things the amount of truly horrendous challenges we see, considering the vast amount of football there is on the offer, is relatively small. Just because we can suddenly see these challenges happening in super-slow motion and in high-definition, hell even in 3D if you’ve got the extra money lying around, doesn’t mean that this style of football is any more abhorrent or any more of a problem than it has ever been before. It’s all part and parcel of the risk of the game, there may be a fine line between a strong tackle and an injury but like with many things in the game it’s this fine line in which we’re interested in. It’s what draws you in as a fan, as a player and as an obsessive. The fine line between the post and the back of the net, the fine line between a super save and sloppy mistake, and some times the fine line between perfectly timed tackle and a crunching foul.

The question we need to ask when we dissect this subject is what the purpose of football is. Is it a format of entertainment, or is it a platform to attain success? The assertion of ones masculinity is often attributed to sport, both in playing and watching, and within this many problems can occur. Throughout the 70’s and 80’s the violence found in the stands turned a lot of people away from the game and lead to it becoming an unpopular sport, which seems strange to think now. This ingrained macho outlook attached to the sport is hard to shift and the ramifications of it are often felt more heavily away from the field of play.

As fans we now demand a high level of maturity from players. Especially in England we are slowly but surely moving away from the old perception and belief that somehow a crunching tackle makes you more of a man. We heavily deplore the use of excessive force, and rightfully so, though how does sport effect the fans themselves and do sets of fans perhaps need to look a little closer to home before pointing the finger? A study looking into the correlation between cities sport team losing and police reports of domestic violence, undertaken in 2004, shows a clear spike in incidents after a poor result. Usually there was around a 10% increase in police reports of a man returning home and striking his partner. Acpo (Association of Chief Police Officers) reported in 2010 that during a World Cup they usually see a 25% increase in reports of domestic abuse. A day in which the home nation had done poorly would see the figure rise by around 31%. It’s important to note that this is just in relation to reported incidents, on average it’s believed that a woman suffering from domestic abuse will often wait until around the fortieth incident before they feel it’s at crisis point. Deputy Chief Constable Carmel Napier commented, “It is often under-reported because people do try to manage it and hope it will go away. They just want it to stop, and try to live for the good times.”

For all the reporting of a bad tackle during a football game, for all the talk of how football isn’t what it once was, that men are no longer men, that there is something to be savoured in a crunching tackle there is a hidden side to the game that is not reported as much as it should. It’s easy to deride the likes of Arsene Wenger for their open opposition of violent play but his stance does hold good weight. Why do we play or watch the game? Is it entertainment or success? Perhaps we do need to adjust our moral stance upon the game and see it for what it really is, and that should be a form of entertainment. The over-selling of the importance of success, or at least perceived success, means that the inherent violence in the accepted masculinity within the game is seeping into different walks of life. If a man goes home and strikes his wife because his team lost then there are inherent problems within the game that may never be fixed, even with video technology.

Abraham Lincoln sums up the subject well with this quote, “Force is all conquering, but it’s victories are short-lived”.

 

 

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Touching The Void

Football is obviously a fairly divisive past-time. Very few things can split opinion while also bringing people together in such a way. This is clearly a fantastic thing, for anything to elicit such passion and such strong feeling can be nothing but a positive, even though this may negatively effect your own life in certain ways. Anyone who’s team has suffered a late-goal to lose a game and has subsequently spent the next week sulking can surely attest to this. I certainly can.

Now through the emergence of the blog culture and the proliferation of social networking we are seeing genuine changes in how we consume and communicate the sport. But how real are the opinions being put out? Can one truly be honest to themselves and still operate in a discussion based community? Or, as I theorise, do we simply end up operating in certain opposing roles?

There seems to be two very distinct tribes that you see operating within the football social-network community. The thinkers and the fighters. From the off-set I want to state that this piece is not going to try and state that one of these groups is right and one group wrong, or that one of these groups is more morally superior. It would be arrogant of me to try and push a single agenda so I’m going to try and remain as neutral as possible. So, how can we define these two categories?

The Thinker

Often writes their own blog pieces.

Uses social networking to engage in debate.

Will largely not wear their clubs heart on their sleeve.

Participates for respect.

The Fighter

Deliberately divisive behaviour, prone to aggression and volatility.

Will largely push their own club loyalties very hard.

Craves attention

Participates to re-enforce beliefs of own club and hatred of rivals.

This isn’t to say that writers specifically targeting and writing about their own club can’t fall into this first category, I can name you many writers that write fantastic pieces about the passion for their own clubs. Same can be said the other way, occasionally you’ll find non-affiliated fans who seem to crave volatility. Though by and large there are a majority that you can fit very loosely around these two groups.

The funny thing is that these two groups continue to rile up and antagonise each other, and in doing so, make there own logic and methods sustainable. They may look at each other and believe that their opposition is everything that is wrong with the game, though they need each other to sustain what is so fantastic about it, and that’s division. The thinker may look at the fighter and state that he’s not engaging in any type of discussion, is not opening his eyes to see greater possibilities and new experiences. The fighter will look at the thinker and state that they over analyse situations, that they have built themselves up to a state where they have potential lost touch with what they fell in love with in the first place. And that’s a simple game. Neither of these people is right. Passion should be the life blood of the game, but greater understanding of the game will come through research. Outright passion dictates a move away from logic, meaning there is always going to be an opposition between these two camps.

A good example of this would be the, in my opinion, fantastic site Zonal Marking, run by Michael Cox. For those not in the know Zonal Marking is a site focusing on the tactical analysis on the game, using chalk boards and such diagrams to demonstrate analysis of certain matches or players. ZM is clearly a “thinker” of the game. Interestingly in the last couple of months an account has been set-up called Zonal Bullshit, which then playfully (sometimes nastily) mocks the work of Zonal Marking. So on one hand we have a character who uses his time conducting in depth tactical analysis, on the other we have a character who uses his time parodying and mocking the same process. The second account is a deliberate attempt to antagonise the first, and quite the rational behind it is peculiar. Peculiar in the sense that it’s not surprising. Football, like every single entertainment strand, has it’s flows of opinion and some people like to draw attention to themselves by deliberately going against this flow. They push themselves away from collective conscious to try and find belonging by being unique. The Zonal Marking site is largely, and rightfully, revered in the football writing community. Zonal Bullshit is simply trying to find the same type of belonging but through a method of distancing himself from the popular culture.

This again brings up a point I raised within my last piece. How far would you go to feel like you belong? Would you alter your own thinking to fit in with the party line? If you’re operating in the methodology of the thinker then you’ll be aware of the social confines that apply. Essentially that if you want to be heard then there is a manner in which you should speak.  In operating within this system you will often have to tone down the ferocity of your own views so that people will still listen and people will still respect you. After all, nobody will take a ranting man too seriously all the time.

Economists have commented how society now goes out of it’s way to show that it conforms to it’s own rules. Take racism for instance, even subconsciously people will have at some point overtly made the point that they are not racist. We as a society likes to push ourselves to show how open, understanding and “modern” we are. The way we act in social networking is just the same. Economy is based upon benefit and reward, and there is a logic than can be applied to both the groups suggested here. The reward for both is this sense of belonging, whether that is through recognition or aggression.

Now I can’t comment on everyone, but a few that I have spoken with have agreed, that since engaging more in the likes of Twitter and engaging in writing blogs I have felt my own views softening on certain issues. I certainly am nowhere near as forthright as I used to be. In the process of taking in other peoples views and trying to remain open to discussion I have possibly lost part of the value my own views. Has a society that demands some level of conformity altered how we handle our own views and beliefs?

Perhaps it’s the thinker who could take a leaf from the fighters book. Be gone with the pure logic, for right or wrong they fight with their heart, not with their head, and there is something to be cherished within that. As Blaise Pascal once said, “The heart has arguments with which the logic of mind is not acquainted”.

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The Age Of Stupid

Passion passion passion. Ra ra ra. Best supporters of the best league in the world! Blah blah blah.

This is a quick paraphrase of the same claptrap we see and hear put out by fans all the time. Though this weekend we had another example of football fans debasing themselves in order to “get one over” their rivals. The saddest element of this is that it didn’t even happen in senior match, it was a youth cup game. I mean Christ all mighty. A youth game! Yet we still hear about the same old Munich comments, or Hillsborough comments, or Heysel comments. Both sets of fans should be ashamed, and I’m not talking just about those that took part in these pathetic acts but also ones who just stand by and let it happen. This is a game. A GAME. Yet its deemed acceptable for grown men or maturing boys to mock the dead.

It raises the question. Do football supporters need to feel like they belong so much that they will debase and defame themselves to do so?

One could theorise that subconsciously football fans act out in this pathetic behaviour because they like to have the safety net of feeling like they belong to something. Of course you can belong to a footballing community without resorting to belittle the dead, and if you can find a way of letting these knuckle dragging idiots know that then please leave answers on a postcard.

Perhaps its just human nature. A genuine need to feel like you belong, to feel accepted. We repeat the actions of our forefathers as we naively believe that it has become part of some pathetic heritage and that keeping this heritage alive will allow us to be accepted into this holy brotherhood.

A survey taken out by the English FA in 2001 showed that those most likely to be involved in hooligan or anti-social football behaviour where from the socio-economic group between the ages of 24-40, unmarried and with no children. 24-40 should really be the time in which you are starting to settle down, form a family make those connections that will, hopefully, help to set-up a stable and happy life. Does this lack of family life, this perhaps lack of personal belonging push these men to finding solace and comfort in belonging in other areas, so perhaps getting involved with unsavory behaviour such as this?

In recent weeks we have also seen the Old Firm derby being spoiled, yet again, by the acts of the few. Yet again you can feel the notions of outside influences being bred into fan mentality. The religious divide between the clubs is clearly troublesome, the fact that there are still single faith schools which will essentially, between the school boys at least, start to ingrain within there minds a misguided hate based upon something not related to the game.

God knows what can be done to fix these problems. Probably nothing. Sadly the only thing that briefly brings fans together nowadays is some tragedy, which in turn probably becomes the butt of a joke a week later. The City of Liverpool was obviously shocked by the tragic shooting of Rhys Jones back in 2007 and both clubs and sets of supporters put on a strong show of solidarity. One particularly impressive move from Liverpool FC was playing Z-Cars at Anfield (Rhys was an Evertonian and Everton comes out to Z-Cars for those not in the know). The following season I heard fans making a mockery of the same event. If even the shooting of a mere child can be turned back around to score points and rile-up other fans then it makes you question why you even bother.

Don’t get me wrong, rivalry is a fantastic thing. It makes victories more sweet, it makes discussions more vibrant. Banter, and what it should be, not the Richard Keys interpretation of it, is often the lifeblood of the stands. When one set of fans can make the rivals laugh with a chant they start then it’s a wonderful thing. Sadly more often than not we see the flipside of the coin. It’s just a shame that it’s always the idiots that shout loudest.

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This Is England

This piece was originally written for Those Feet. It was written on the train home from England’s friendly with Hungary.  I may have had a drink.

I’m going to start off with an apology. This article is not going to be for the faint hearted. This is full of bile and misguided anger that has built for a good long while. If you disagree with me then fantastic, opinions are a great thing. Leave a comment and we can discuss it until the cows come home, but for the moment strap yourselves in and welcome to the world of my anger.

Let’s start with some positives from last night. First and foremost England won. Gerrard once reverted to his favoured central role finally performed like the world class midfielder that he can be, Terry and Jags made for a solid enough partnership in the first half, Kierran Gibbs came in and gave a very competent performance that was full of future promise. They are the positives, but this article is not really about the performance or the result. Its about the event so bare with me.

A lot has been made about the importance of giving youth a chance, but it wasn’t the youth on the pitch that impressed me it was the youth packed into the stadium. Last night was the seventh time I have been to Wembley in recent years and never before have I seen so many kids attending a game. You just don’t see this enough at football anymore, let alone at an international match. This is a huge positive. It’s just a shame that the experience was spoilt by a bunch of mindless cretins who should know better, and that’s not a reference to the England players.

What’s the point? Honestly. You sit there and you think, just what is the point? Sat in a magnificent stadium surrounded by a bunch of fans, most of whom I really would not urinate on if they where on fire, I would however probably happily urinate on them in any other situation though.

It wasn’t just the booing that got to me, it wasn’t just the painfully embarrassing club loyalties that exist, it wasn’t just the guy sat to my right blowing a bloody vuvuzela in my ear for the entirety of the game, it wasn’t just the grumpy Aston Villa fan sat to my left who kept on getting Ashley Young confused with Kierran Gibbs, it wasn’t just the guy in a Stone Island jacket who threatened to knock out a seventy year old Hungary fan for celebrating their goal, it wasn’t just the guy who took a piss in the sink of the toilets, it wasn’t just the bunch of piss heads sat in front of me who barely watched three passes get strung together because they were to engrossed in their pathetic xenophobic chatter. It was the whole lot. All of it together. This is England? It was sickening. For the second home international in a row I felt the need to apologise to a group of away fans, with my very embarrassed and beffudled “oh I’m so sorry, we’re not all like that”. This is England. This is England United. Its a disgrace really. The press make a lot of the fact that the players are bad role models for the kids because of their off the field antics. Bull. The kids don’t care what happens off the park, they don’t understand what happens off the park and most likely they don’t know what happens off the park. I grew up with Gazza in his pomp for England, he was no saint but that didn’t matter to me at all. I didn’t know what he did in his spare time and it didn’t matter to me. What mattered was what he was doing on the pitch. When he celebrated with the dentist chair I wasn’t thinking “ooo I could really go for a bit of a booze now” I was thinking how brilliant football was. I discussed this with fellow Those Feet writer Luke Edwards and he made the brilliant point that when he grew up it was his parents that where his role models. That’s how it should be, if you don’t set the example yourself and expect some young sportsman with more money than sense to set the examples of how to live then you can’t complain when they grow up like thuggish cretins. The bloke in the Stone Island jacket, whom I referred to earlier, at one point picked up his son, who could only have been five years old at most, and kissed him on the cheek after Gerrard got his second goal. For a moment it warmed my heart, I thought that maybe their was still hope. This was until he turned around, son still in his arms, and yelled at a Hungarian family a few rows away “have that you stupid c***s, now f**k off back to where you came from”. This is England.

But who’s to say I’m any better than the people I berate? I’m sat there with my notepad and my holier than thou attitude and my snarling looks and my bitter resentment. I’m no better. I’m just the flip side of the coin and neither of us can be right in the bigger picture. Perhaps I’m too weary and perhaps I don’t communicate in the passionate grunts that seem to be in vogue with these cretins. But I’m English. We’re all the problem and I’m tired of it. Once we’re back on the same page then we’re moving in the same direction. Unfortunately half of us are studying Ulysses and the other half are still confused by Spot The Dog.

The same is true of the England team. The lack of genuine communication throughout the team that has been apparent for a number of years now is unnerving. Each department connect well within each other but the link up between, say defence and midfield, is non existent. Fabio seems to have tried to instill a pass and move mentality in the team, but like with the fans in the stadium we have some players quoting Plato and some sounding out each word of the Mr Men series. Our Italian correspondent, Andrew Buonocore, spoke of how the mentality of the Italians has already moved on from looking at the national team in terms of shame and anger and have moved on to think in terms of change. We have yet to move on from that. As a team and as a set of fans we continually live in a state of shame, and with 44 years without success you think we would have got over ourselves. In a certain way it’s very much like The Emperors New Clothes. We drape ourselves in the surroundings of a state of the art stadium telling all the world that “don’t we look marvelous, aren’t we brilliant, don’t we deserve success now, just look at us”. Take a step back and we’re all just naked and the fancy vestiges we think we drape ourselves in are nothing.

I’m not sure what it is about England games which brings the cretins out of the woodwork. I’ve been to league games up and down the country and not experienced anything like it, and it’s not about the quality of football that is on display. I’ve seen some abject performances and still had a brilliant time at a game. For example, despite not supporting them myself, I have attended many many Walsall games. I’ve witnessed some stunning games at Bescot Stadium. One that jumps to mind is the 2003 game against West Brom, in which the newly promoted Walsall faced a West Brom side that had just come down from the Premier League. Thanks to an inspired debut performance from Paul Merson, before he went all boozy and (allegedly) druggy again and pissed it up the wall, Walsall won 4-1 and for a brief moment sat atop the Championship. Now despite games like this I have also seen a few displays at Bescot that were hardly trouser tighteningly tantalisng, and the saddler faithful won’t really disagree with me there, but the experience can be fantastic. The banter, the jokes, the commeradorie. You just don’t get that at England games and it’s a crying shame as this should be the time when we all come together. But attitudes, over important club loyalties and an over inflated sense of worth always get in the way.

We’re not an awful team, we know that. But we’re not a great team either, and it’s that which we need to grasp now. The fancy stadium and large pay packets belie a huge and ongoing problem. We don’t really have history, we had a good tournament 44 years ago. This doesn’t mean a god given right to success. Hopefully the kids in attendance will grow up knowing this, hopefully the kids coming through in the team know this. Then we can rid ourselves of this albatros that has hung so heavy around our necks. Football is a wonderful thing but the experience shouldn’t make me feel like this. The continual Americanistion of the game has got out of hand and the press have rammed it into our heads that we deserve success and that we can achieve anything we want as long as we rid the league of foreign talent. The whole thing is an endemic. This is England now and I just don’t know what to think anymore. I’m too young to feel this much bitterness and anger at a meaningless friendly. Perhaps the passion I feel towards this is a good thing, then again perhaps this is exactly what is wrong with fan mentality.

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Search For Beauty

After 4 years of anticipation, months of build up, hundreds of qualifiers and 64 tournament games the much waited for South African World Cup is over, and I for one loved it. We had some cracking games, some cracking goals and some surprise performers. The fact that so many people have bemoaned and belittled this tournament really gets to me. We get football (almost) everyday for four weeks, sometime up to four games a day, yet some still complain. It’s ridiculous. Be thankful that such an exhibition piece exists in world football, be thankful that such an event can unify almost the entire globe over a simple game. Too many people seem to be obsessed with the notion of beautiful football and have lost sight of what the beautiful game really is.

During the World Cup pretty much everyone is suddenly a football fan, everyone is interested, has always been interested and is automatically an expert. This is part of a flawed beauty about the game, it elicits such a strong response in such a short amount of time. It’s fantastic when one of your friends or colleagues who has never shown the slightest bit of interest in football previously is suddenly jumping up and shouting at the TV with you, and this is even better when it’s over a game such as Italy vs New Zealand. A game that from a non-football fan shouldn’t really draw you in that much. That’s the brilliant side of the world cup, that’s the side that I love so much. What I can’t stand however is the idiots that suddenly start coming out of the woodwork and spout of nonsense as if it’s stone-cold fact. I’m a talkative chap and I enjoy engaging in conversation with as many people as possible about football, but more and more during this World Cup I have felt the need to bite my tongue and simply walk away, usually also with clenched fists and gritted teeth.

Finding someone who’s opinion you actual agree with, let alone respect, is very very difficult. The more I speak to random people about football the more I usually get annoyed, it’s not the opinions that annoy me because there can never ever be a wrong opinion. An opinion is personal, it’s something that belongs to you and it’s something that should be treasured. It’s good when people have opinions, especially controversial opinions. This is, of course, as long as they can back up these opinions. I can’t count how many times I have been involved with or overheard a conversation that went along these lines:-

Man 1:- “ I thought Lampard had a good game.”
Man 2:- “Wot?”
Man 1:- “Lampard, I thought he had a good game.”
Man 2:- “Nah, he’s shit”
Man 1:- “ Why do you say that?”
Man 2:- “He just is”
Man 1:- Who do you support?”
Man 2:- “Liverpool”
Man 1:- Where are you from?”
Man 2:- Lowestoft.

Now before I comment on this let me state that this is not a statement on Lampard, on Liverpool or on Lowestoft. This is a statement on the nature of the comment. You could interchange the names, teams or towns very easily. To appease any Liverpool fans I have heard a similar conversation many times about Gerrard from Manchester United fans from places such as Ashford. Now back to the point I want to make here. The problem is that too often you hear baseless comments stated like they are fact and when questioned there is never a reasoned answer. You average “guy down the pub” is exactly what is wrong with the game. These are usually the people that have only ever watched football on the gogglebox, probably haven’t even been within 50 miles of the city where the team that they “support” come from, and if they are from a town or city which doesn’t contain a Premier League club then they would struggle to name the majority of the starting line up of their actual local team.

Recently there has also been an over-glamorisation of the notion of “beautiful football”, and anyone who doesn’t live up to this notion is somehow labelled as barbaric, especially if they go onto success. Inter Milan’s Champions League victory was much maligned, especially by large numbers of the press. Their tactical victory against Barcelona in particular was rubbished as “anti-football”, the attributes of a defensive display are apparently abhorrent and have no place in football. Perhaps if it was an English side that had achieved this result through a defensive performance then it would be heralded by the press. It is interesting to note the changes in attitudes that the British hold about what is an acceptable form of play and football and what is unacceptable. Take the World Cup final, Holland have been much criticised for their physical approach to the game whereas Spain have been hailed as some sort of saviour to world football because they passed it about a bit. Now don’t get me wrong Holland were a physical team but only de Jong’s karate kick was worthy of a straight red and he should have walked, but the rest is just about ambition, it’s about getting stuck in. The Spanish did not help proceedings by hounding the referee for bookings every time a tackle went in, even if there was nothing in it. A number of times a Spanish player stood on the foot of a Dutch player and then dived to the ground thus winning a free-kick. In my eyes the Spanish play acting was just as bad as the Dutch aggression. It’s interesting to think that ten or so years ago the media would have said that the Dutch were just playing the game with passion and playing like men, playing the English way and that the Spanish were a bunch of fawning prima donnas, yet now we get the opposite view. I wonder what the notion of beautiful and acceptable football will be in another ten years time.

The beautiful game is not just stringing together twenty passes in a World Cup final, it’s a misplaced pass in Dagenham & Redbridge vs Exeter. It’s a kick around with your friends down the park, it really is jumpers for goal-post. For it’s in these situations when you, and the game, really become alive. It’s looking for that pass, it’s about controlling it with your chest, it’s about nutmegging that guy you secretly detest, it’s about connecting with that ball and you just know, you just know, that you hit it sweet. It’s that feeling.

If you are a casual football fan, and there is nothing wrong with that, and you’ve felt your interest and love for the game pique more during this tournament then don’t let your passion just fall fallow. If your from, say, Lincoln, then don’t wait for Man Utd to come on the telly, go down to Sincil Bank watch the Imps play. You can bemoan the English game all you want but if you sit on your arse all day and simply spit bile at the telly just at the sight of Stevie G and Lampsy then you can’t really complain. Support your local team, support them not just vocally down the boozer but by attending games. Go and see the beautiful game and afterwards go out and play the beautiful game, just don’t fall into the trap of longing only for beautiful football. It’s a myth. The beautiful game is about flaws. Love the flaws and you’ll love the game. Simple as that.

This piece was originally written for Those Feet.  

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