Archive | July, 2010

Good News

Posted on 31 July 2010 by JamesHamilton

We arrived home in Edinburgh tonight to find the letter from the Home Office on the mat. My wife’s application for British citizenship has been accepted.

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Low Expectations in the International Arena

Posted on 25 July 2010 by JamesHamilton

Craig Levein

Interesting words from Craig Levein in the Scotsman:

He says he watched his first match at the helm like a scientist analysing matter through a microscope and he was baffled by what he saw. The lack of self-belief in the players was “strange”. He had expected players who are big performers at club level to walk out at Hampden, in front of their own fans, their heads held high, their chests puffed out. Instead, they seemed timid, shrinking within themselves and the shirts which had appeared to fit perfectly in the dressing room minutes earlier.

This echoes what Fabio Capello said in similar circumstances when taking England over two years ago. “Fatigue” seems to have overtaken “confidence” as the “expert” diagnosis on England, for the time being: it’ll be interesting to see how the Scottish dialogue shapes up as Levein gets through his first round of games.

In Levein’s mind things are that positive. The cynicism which seems to grow in the Scottish psyche as prevalently as the heather on the hills is kept at bay. He feels there is a change in the national mood. Instead of just moaning about what is wrong, he thinks there are a growing number of people keen to get together and actually do something constructive.

There has been a change in that direction, and it’s been good to see. And Scotland only thinks that it’s more cynical and defeatist than other countries.

Only in the job seven months and with a solitary game under his belt, he has not had enough time to gauge which players amongst the current first-team contenders get the biggest buzz from representing their country but he will. And if there are two people vying for the same position, then he would be inclined to give the nod to the one who values the cap the most.

“But the fact is, there shouldn’t be a situation like that. It should be the case that every player wants to play for Scotland and, you know, I think of people like Davie Narey, who probably went along to 80 Scotland gatherings and hardly played any games but he saw it as representing his country and he knew it was an honour and he would never have dreamed of saying ‘sod that’. And he was a top, top player.

Given that the pay gap between footballers in Scotland and Scots on average earnings is less than that between Premier League players and the English general public, Levein is saying something here that’s more interesting than a repeat of that old English control-freak canard about overpaid primadonnas. This is about low expectations.

At club level, it’s far more easy for a player to conceptualize some kind of success and to believe in it. That’s partly from necessity. The club pays the wages. But it’s also from experience: only clubs that are really trapped in a relegation spiral won’t win or draw some games along the line.

At international level, with so many fewer games, so much less continuity, and a different kind of “home advantage”, history, you might think, hangs much heavier on the players. Scotland go into qualifying tournaments leaden with previous all-so-nears. And a great deal else besides. England arrive at tournaments with an “experienced” team whose experience consists of fickle support, evisceration by the media at the first hint of failure, long years of their privacy being constantly and hideously violated, and the knowledge that anything short of a semi-final will leave them regarded as traitors to the nation.

Scottish fans – insofar as I’ve seen – don’t share the English view that high wages “should and therefore do” discount all questions of pressure, confidence, mental energy, tiredness and what happens to you after you’ve been subjected to the Premiership circus for ten or more of your more emotionally-vulnerable years. Only the Rangers-Celtic divide generates anything like the acutely personal and constant hatred that is directed at a large chunk of the England squad for a great deal of the time.

But at least England do have some unquestionably fine performances to draw upon – it’s been some time since Scotland enjoyed a comfortable victory over opponents at their own level to compare with England’s home and away wins against Croatia. Fighting rearguard wins over France, as experience has shown, are hugely cheering, good to look back on, and useless as measures of progress or builders of momentum.

Scotland have to find that momentum: no one wants to wait twenty years for the McLeish report to work whatever magic it has to offer. The mix of profound realism in Scotland about the quality of the players available, combined with Levein’s morale-boosting energy and excitement, makes this a good moment to start.

Long-term, though, it will take more than Levein to cure the ills. He talks openly about the amatuerishness of certain aspects of the SFA and having come from a club background he claims there are faults there as well. But he believes there is now a willingness to look into the mirror held up to them all by the Henry McLeish report and work together to improve the game.

And why not Scotland, after all? There’s nothing inevitable about decline and poor performance. But shifting low expectations is hard, harder even than an experienced, successful manager like Fabio Capello once thought. But Capello’s travails are an opportunity for Levein. Capello solved England’s self-inflicted qualification woes: now he is determined to repeat the trick and do the same at tournament level. If Levein can do likewise – that will be the standard he’ll have matched. It’s a target worth the shooting.

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Agincourt and England 2010

Posted on 18 July 2010 by JamesHamilton

Paul Carpenter (Carpsio) takes the “passion and commitment” line of England criticism in an interesting direction with an informed comparison of Agincourt to that 4-1 defeat to Germany:

In all these cases (Agincourt, Waterloo, Dunkirk, The Battle of Britain, Rorke’s Drift), we are assured that it was English ‘spirit’ that was critical to our victory against the odds (or more commonly British, but that’s splitting hairs). All battles are framed thus in the national mind: outnumbered and outgunned by foreign forces and perfidy, our innate spunk and refusal to concede defeat see us through.

It’s a good place to start. Most of the popular reaction to England’s 2006 and 2010 World Cups has been to deride the team for spineslessness and lack of courage. The spunk and refusal to concede defeat that are, we must assume, typical of the fans, were not, we are told, seen in the behaviour of the “overpaid privileged primadonnnas” – and you can put your own choice of words between those inverted commas.

We see this unspoken story in our sports. Recall us to Beckham’s game against Greece in 2002 or “Botham’s Ashes” in 1981. In the iconography of the game, Terry Butcher’s heroics against Sweden in 1989 gave us the defining image of English sport: a man covered in blood yet unyielding in his defiance, a performance which single handedly gave us the result we needed (i.e. a draw with the footballing giants of Sweden when viewed more prosaically).

Yes, and some of us will be able to remember the 1980 Winter Olympics and a programme on the BBC called “Come on Cousins” in which this principle was extended to figure skating…

Typically, we have learned entirely the wrong set of lessons from these games. These events were exceptions - not rules.  The Beckham who charged around the pitch, tackling anything that moved might have stirred the blood – but ultimately delivered nothing. It was Beckham the dead-ball specialist who ultimately won the game by doing something he’d practised until it was a personal art form. There is no greater lesson to be taken from Beckham’s game against Greece other than clichés about “heroism”.

It’s worth noting at this point that Beckham himself used to be seen as the epitome of the weak-willed unEnglish pampered ego who, along with Sven, was keeping all of those English lions from making the nation proud. This, despite having kept going through being burnt in effigy, having abusive chants about his wife recited by English crowds, being dropped by McClaren and Capello..

The popular reaction to the World Cup in general, and the Germany match in particular, has been to accuse the team of spineless cowardice and letting the country down, of not trying, of not showing passion. Carpenter disagrees, provides a succinct alternative analysis, and caps it off quite brilliantly:

So we end up at Bloemfontaine, where Gerrard’s desire to win the game himself by himself through English virtues like willpower and passion and grit meant that he consistently drifted from his position on the left in the game plan that Capello had set for him. Terry likewise pushed ever higher up the pitch, trying to will the team to victory while Johnson uselessly attempted to conjure blood and thunder via clumsy challenges (no doubt “letting the Germans know he was there”).

Sadly, the Germans even knew that this would happen. Coach Joachim Löw:

“We knew that Gerrard and Lampard always support the forwards and that the midfield would be open, there would be spaces. Our objective was to use Miroslav Klose to draw out John Terry, to force him to come out of the defence. We knew that the fullbacks would be very much to the side and this would create the spaces between the English defenders that would help us penetrate their defence”

Far from being our killer app, those English virtues of ‘commitment’ and ‘desire’ are our achilles heel.

Read the rest.

I watched the entire Germany game again this afternoon, and once again failed to recognize any of the popular criticisms that have been levelled at the team. I agree with George Szirtes’ analysis – this was a game in which Upson, Terry and Barry played unusually poorly. That’s true. I also find myself amongst that tiny number of people who see the disallowing of Lampard’s goal as a turning point: England troubled Germany deeply at times, and although Germany were the better side, it wasn’t 4-1 better, or even 4-2.

What did for England was the speed of attack Germany’s youngsters could provide. Muller and Ozil were just faster than the men assigned to stop them, and Klose not far behind on the day. That use of speed is worth reflecting on: both McClaren and Capello felt that speed out wide was the future for England – as it has proved to be for Germany.

Some fans felt so too, in 2006, although that had more to do with a reflexive desire to punish Beckham for not being a shouting neckless skinhead than anything else. It’s precisely the failure of England’s fast young wide players that has marked both the Englands of McClaren and Capello.

Injury has had much to do with it. Aaron Lennon spent most of 2010 “coming back from..” one worrying setback after another. Walcott, the younger of the two, didn’t play a full match until December, but was nonetheless a surprising omission from the World Cup 23.

Both Lennon and Walcott are very young men with developing still to do. Lennon’s 23, and Walcott 21. I want to be fair to them. For comparison, Germany’s Mueller is 20, and Ozil 21. Neither of these men is as yet a club player of the stature of Lennon or Walcott, and it might yet prove that their 2010 will be a version of Michael Owen’s 1998: a footballing demonstration of a kind that we would never really see in the same way again. It wasn’t that Owen who scored the bulk of his 40 international goals.

At least the Lennon and Walcott stories aren’t about lack of first team opportunities. Both have had exactly the careers you’d have wanted for them – barring the injuries, of course.

But if England’s fast players really are key – and the success of Mueller and Ozil suggest as much – then what Lennon and Walcott serve to underline is that there really was something about the real Golden Generation – the United kids plus Owen, Fowler, Campbell and the Cole brothers – that set them apart from the usual products of the English system. The excitement about that group was not completely delusional, and neither was the desire to find them proper European management.

Lennon’s injury struggles this year make it unfair, as I’ve said, to set him up against his predecessor on England’s right.  Lennon at his best is fast – really fast – a Finney on skates. A player who can get you on your feet in a second. So is Walcott.

But just look at David Beckham, aged 23..

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Real World Football

Posted on 13 July 2010 by JamesHamilton

Whatever you might say about the professionalism controversies in England in the 1880s, it was the case then, and has been ever since, that practically all the actual football is played by amateurs.

Snopes-type legends about amateur football abound. About street football, which is alleged to have honed ballplaying skills so well – you can see an October 1930 clip of a street game here and decide for yourself. (British Movietone: registration possibly required). In other countries, it’s beach football, or a relationship between football and forms of dance, forms of self-defence, or football and dances which are self-defence in disguise.

At any rate, the Snopes-style myth connects poverty with skill on the ball.

South American countries were the first to truly value that kind of skill, and were the first to use football as a specific means of national self-expression. Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina went from football beginners to the best in the World in about 20 years – i.e. their very first footballing generation came up trumps (I’m assuming here that the 1924-1930 Uruguayans were a match for England and Scotland, which they almost certainly were).

By modern standards, these were poor countries whose kids did not allow poverty to keep them from taking up the craze. But I wonder. Not all of their best players came from the humblest backgrounds. And the pre-War period was South America’s golden age of growth and reform and relative prosperity.

Things are getting better in parts of Africa, but for much of the continent, “golden age of growth and reform and relative prosperity” aren’t the ones you’d choose to describe, say, 1970-1995. I’d like to know more than I do about the comparative levels of coaching and football education in early-century South America as compared to post-colonial Africa.

Here are two interesting sets of photographs which show two aspects of the contemporary scene in either place. David Thompson of the eponymous comment site brings us images of some extraordinary grounds in Brazil. And here is Jessica Hilltout’s fascinating series about contemporary African street football.

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All of the World Cup Balls 1930-2010

Posted on 13 July 2010 by JamesHamilton

Here’s a gallery of all of the balls used at FIFA World Cups from the beginning. (H/T Metafilter).

The top row of the gallery contains the kind of footballs that would have been familiar both to participants in friendlies in the 1960s and British schoolboys ninety years later.

Row 2 contains what my generation might consider the Ur-ball, the Adidas Telstar, father of a million hollow plastic replicas. A couple of months of being kicked up against a brick wall would take off that clean black-and-white and leave the basic leather exposed, but the panel pattern would still show through.

The most recent footballs – the aerodynamic, waterproof serious pieces of sporting kit – are the ones that look most transient, temporary and liable to break. You could say the same for today’s boots. Odd that the footballs and the football boots look least like their ancient forebears just at the time when shirts, shorts and socks have gone back – on the surface at least – to a bagginess Billy Wright might have recognised and his Hungarian opponents rejected.

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The World Cup Final 2010

Posted on 12 July 2010 by JamesHamilton

It was, in the end, a Final for people who enjoy complex, technical, thinking football. There has been plenty of this throughout the tournament, especially from the three European semi-finalists, and the standard of commentary on television and in the press has struggled to keep up. It struggled in the Final too. In musical terms, this was late Bach and late Beethoven, interpreted on screen by fans of Korngold.

Radio 5 have been a cut apart as ever, but even they have had low moments. Graham Taylor and Mark Pougatch proposing an Argentina-style set-up for England (“a morale-raising figure – an Alan Shearer – with experienced coaches around him to help him out”), for instance, although that idea didn’t survive Argentina’s encounter with Germany. And last night, Alan Green decrying an enthralling and skilful stand-off as “one of the worst finals ever” which is an opinion he’s entitled to of course.

For me, the best part was simply being able to sit back and watch Howard Webb cope with the quite incredible levels of psychological pressure which the two teams deliberately placed upon him. Such is the fear factor at huge games like this that even experienced and capable sides like Spain and Holland can spend them doing more to deflect the blame for defeat than to win the thing. And they asked the question of Howard Webb in the first half: are you going to ruin the game? Because we’ll push and push and push and make it hard for you. Because it’s the World Cup Final, ref. And when you’ve given way, and splashed out the red cards, we’ll relax and play – because whatever happens from then on is your fault, Webb, and not ours.

They couldn’t break him. Time and time again Webb’s calm and good judgement kept the lid on things. By the end, the behaviour of the Dutch in particular had shaded into the embarrassing, and Iniesta’s goal, for which he and Spain had waited with such patience and strength of mind, prevented injustice and fiasco.

Webb made one error over 120 minutes – a minor error, which only overheated minds could see as having any effect on the outcome of the game. And even that error could be put down to the Dutch, who were pulling on Webb’s attention yet again as the shot was tipped over.

I was proud of Howard Webb. And, as I’m declaring that the refereeing was successful, only the football questions are left, and there’s only one of those: what happened to Holland?

In the end, Spain were a step too far for them of course, but nonetheless Holland have played better than that against tough opposition. The patience and clever passing which they displayed against Brazil were absent here. It was as if for all their pre-match talk about their long unbeaten run, and their sense of invulnerability, they went into the Final nonetheless with low expectations. What fragile belief they retained didn’t last out Spain’s scintillating first fifteen minutes. Thereafter, the game plan was to kick and harry, and trust that Arjen Robben’s bullet-proof sense of entitlement would pull them out of trouble.

He had the chance to do it, but even he, a man who has never doubted his own ability nor his own right to win despite the most unencouraging of circumstances, went into that chance with one eye over his shoulder for help from the referee.

At least the Dutch knew that they weren’t quite good enough. I don’t think the commentary teams on UK television or in the UK press have that kind of self-knowledge. Anyone who has read Italian sports newspapers, or seen reports from Dutch youth training camps, or (insert your own alternative) must find themselves wondering at the state of football thinking here. Perhaps the idea that what we have here amounts to a football culture is one of the few remaining hangovers from our invention of the modern game in 1870-1885. I didn’t see a football culture in the UK this World Cup. Yes, the usual recycled footie tropes were there, but these don’t change and the Brits rehearse them like lines from a foreign phrasebook or Proverbs. The UK interacts with football with the same personality-driven, storyline approach that it brings to novels, TV drama and reality television.

There’s nothing wrong with that. It works with George Eliot, or Alexander McCall Smith, or Ashes to Ashes. But I worry that the UK wants this approach to deliver footballing success. And the only things down that road are yet more faux outrage and yet more lingering bitterness, betrayal and disappointment.

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Putting a Curse Upon Uruguay

Posted on 10 July 2010 by JamesHamilton

Given that I’ll be shouting for the Germans in tonight’s 3rd place playoff, I thought it appropriate to show this clip of the Uruguayans – when the South American team were still World Champions – coming a horrible cropper against Scotland:

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Lost 30 minute film of the 1938 World Cup

Posted on 08 July 2010 by JamesHamilton

A “lost” official-esque 30 minute film about the 1938 World Cup: fantastic work in uncovering this by Tom Dunmore at Pitchinvasion, and you can read his account of it – and watch the film – here.

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Weight and the Jabulani Ball

Posted on 07 July 2010 by JamesHamilton

Football made for the 1936 Berlin Olympics

I just wanted to post a clarification to my previous post on the historic weight of the official football.

The Jabulani ball’s dry weight is 440g. That’s 15.52 oz. (Typo corrected – Thanks to @darcysarto)

You’ll recall that since 1937, Law 2 has specified the dry weight of the ball. It has to be between 14 and 16 oz. Thus, in terms of the dry weight of the ball, the Jabulani is at the high end of what’s permitted.

This is not to deny two things:

  1. Issues about the flight of the Jabulani ball and how easy it is to predict that flight. Clearly the new ball is different in terms of aerodynamics from the balls of 10, 20, 30 or 70 years ago. But most commentary on the matter seems to assume that the primary difference with this ball from its predecessors is its weight. It isn’t. The flight of the ball is all to do with shape. Don’t forget that most of the complaints are comparing the Jabulani ball with other recent modern balls that were subject to the same complaints in their turn. 
  2. Previous balls taking on weight from accumulated moisture. Modern balls are better at staying dry. This means that on a wet pitch, a 1937 ball was very likely to finish 90 minutes heavier than it began. Furthermore, the 1937 ball would most likely stay on the pitch for the whole game – something that cheap, reliable football production has rendered unnecessary. Pace Dearieme, not every football match in the black-and-white era took place on a mud pudding. More Mitchell and Kenyon films show dry, dusty, grassless surfaces than soaked ones, and in such circumstances, the weight of the ball would be the same – or even lighter – than it is now.

How much drier is a Jabulani ball compared to, say, the balls at France 1998? For a size 5 ball, FIFA requires that it not take on more than 10% of its dry weight during official water absorption testing. The Jabulani ball, so the test results claim, takes on no extra weight at all. (FIFA’s actual criteria are slightly more complicated than I’ve described, but that’s the gist). But every World Cup ball from the Adidas Etrusco Unico of 1990 on has been completely water resistant. It’s not weight: it’s aerodynamics. And old men forget: former players, now commentators, talking about “new lighter balls” are giving people the wrong idea.

Given that many of the matches at the 2010 World Cup have taken place in torrential rain, it’s interesting to speculate just how much would have been different had traditional materials been used for balls, boots and shirts. You can find out for yourselves: get your shirts here, and your ball here. I’ll be Holland, and you can be Uruguay.

UPDATE: Alive and Kicking are right: the South African World Cup should have used their leather footballs – hand stitched in Africa and providing African jobs. Read more about Alive and Kicking Here.

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