Real Madrid’s three-peat

June 3, 2018

Just one week ago in Kiev Real Madrid beat Liverpool 3-1 to win their third European Champions League in a row, and their fourth in five years.  In American sports this is known as a three-peat. And a team with multiple successes is a sporting dynasty. Real Madrid are surely this. To put all this in context, until last season no team had been able to win back-to-back Champions League titles. 24 years of intense competition under the revamped format had produced a different winner every time. Not even Barcelona at their most brilliant managed to win the European Cup then do it again the following season. Last year’s demolition of Juventus saw them break the champion’s jinx. And now they have broken their own record. The recent burst of titles means that Real Madrid actually have a higher success rate – seven wins in 26 attempts than they did under the original format, where after winning the first five and one in 1966, they endured a drought of 32 years before winning their seventh title.  That makes a record of six wins over 37 seasons. Indeed, the last time Real Madrid lost a European final was against Alex Fergusson’s Aberdeen in 1983 – 35 years ago. Since then they have been in two UEFA Cup and seven Champions League finals winning all of them.

This success of the last 20 years is put in perspective by their role in the in their own league. Seven Champions league wins have been accompanied by “just” six league titles. In the same period Barcelona have four Champions leagues but eleven league titles. Bayern Munich have two Champions leagues and 14 Bundesligas. Juventus have just one Champions League, but they have won ten Serie A titles. This number would be twelve, but after the Calciopoli scandal they were stripped of the two titles won under Fabio Capello in 2005 and 2006. They were also relegated to Serie B for the first time in their history. Nevertheless, they won four more league titles than Real Madrid. How can a team that dominates in Europe not dominate at home?

A number of pundits have been less than generous in their appreciation. They are said to be lucky, but no team wins this tournament without a dose of luck. This fortune included the odd refereeing decision and Sergio Ramos injuring Mo Salah. Former Barça midfielder Xavi has invoked witches. I would agree that this is not a team like 1970s Ajax, Sacchi’s AC Milan or Guardiola’s Barcelona. But this team is different – they have not revolutionised football. But they do have the greatness of being competitive. They don’t mind if other teams punch them in the face – they just get up, dust themselves off and keep fighting. Their German midfielder Toni Kroos summed it up before their semi-final tie in Munich:

Many of our players played big games so we know how to stay calm in difficult situations because we know we can beat everyone. Even when we’re not winning we can change the game. We’ve experienced all kinds of situations so we don’t feel anxious.”

After their unexpected debacle in this year’s league the Champions League was their only chance; failure was not an option. This competitive DNA can sometimes seem to affect opponents three of their last four goals came from horrendous goalkeeping errors.  Sven Ullrich must have thought that he had the worst goalkeeping error against Real Madrid in the 2017-18. Of course the second goal by Bale was out of this world.

Then we have the manager Zinedine Zidane. I have to say I wasn’t especially optimistic when he was appointed. His results with Castilla were distinctly underwhelming. It shows how difficult it is to judge what makes a manager successful. Curiously he doesn’t seem to fit the profile of what club chairman Florentino Perez wants. He seems to want the authoritarian types who crack the whip with their players. The chief exponent of this style was José Mourinho. But what seems to work are the more easy-going types, such as Del Bosque, Ancelotti and Zidane. Florentino has won 23 titles, 19 of which have been with these three trainers. I don’t know if he is tactical genius, but he is an excellent man-manager. And after all the sterile controversies of the Mourinho years, Zidane was just the opposite, a wonderful ambassador for the club.  In over 300 press conferences and in all his other dealings with the media he deployed his considerable charm. His skills will be sorely missed.

The future suddenly looks a bit more complex. It started minutes after the final whistle last Saturday, with Bale and Ronaldo both asking to leave. We will see who the new trainer is. Now Florentino will be coming to the fore. I can’t say that fills me with optimism. I do rate him more in terms of the business and marketing areas, but I wouldn’t want him anywhere near the first team. Recently there haven’t been all these marquee signings so beloved of Florentino. There has been a more rational policy and this has coincided with the success. If you look at the Real Madrid midfield, it probably cost more or less the same as Pogba. I have a feeling that with a World Cup this summer the chequebook will be out again. Still, Barcelona with the great Leo Messi have won just one champions league since 2011 and are now eight trophies behind Real Madrid. And we have the three-peat to keep us going.

Sport: Inside the world of diet gurus, faith healers, power bracelets and $100 pyjamas

May 28, 2017

On Saturday 24 May 2014 it was the Champions League final between Spanish sides Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid. In the ninth minute Atlético’s star player Diego Costa limped off the field. I am a Real Madrid supporter, and I wasn’t sorry to see the back of the Brazilian-born centre-forward. In particular as a sceptic, I was glad to see bullshit exposed. Because in the weeks before the final Costa, who had a thigh injury, had been seen by Marijana Kovacevic, the “miracle doctor”. She used horse placenta to miraculously cure Costa’s injury in record time. She did get him on the pitch, but it was a fleeting appearance. That ninth-minute substitution would have been really handy later in the final. Following a 93rd-minute header by Sergio Ramos, which cancelled out Diego Godín’s first-half goal, the match went into extra time. The Atlético men were mentally and physically exhausted. In extra time Real scored three more goals and a tenth European Cup was on its way to the Bernabeau trophy room.

Seven years ago Novak Djokovic was an elite tennis player. But he had never realised his full potential and was unable to really challenge Federer and Nadal. The Serbian nutritionist Igor Cetojevic tried a bizarre applied kinesiology experiment, asking Djokovic to put a slice of bread against his belly with his left hand while extending his right hand straight out and pushing up while he pressed on it from above. He discovered that with the bread against his stomach he felt noticeably weaker, unable to resist Cetojevic’s downward pressure. When the bread wasn’t there he felt no such loss of muscle strength in his arm.

Cetojevic concluded that Djokovic was sensitive to the gluten in the bread. Of course sceptics might say that how did the nutritionist know it had to be the gluten and not the yeast, salt or the other many chemicals, additives and ingredients typically found in a slice of bread? As a brief digression, what is happening with bread? We have been eating the stuff for millennia. For some reason the industrialised loaf does not seem to be doing us much good.

Djokovic decided to put his faith in this doctor, who would transform the Serb’s diet. The results were spectacular – Djokovic started to feel stronger, quicker, and fitter. He now has 12 Grand Slam victories, 11 of which have come after the change in his diet. In fact, much of the advice is actually quite good. He eats a lot of vegetables, pulses, fresh berries and nuts while eliminating biscuits, pizzas etc. from his diet. He also eats in a mindful way without looking at his mobile, watching TV or playing video games. I ought to do the same. In 2016 he opened a vegan restaurant in Monte Carlo, where he now lives. Maybe he really is gluten intolerant, but I don’t recommend putting a slice of bread on your as a diagnostic tool.

In the late 1990s faith healer Eileen Drewery had a controversial partnershipship with Glenn Hoddle. Although she had no sporting qualifications, he hired her as a consultant. Her remit was to cure the players of both physical and psychological ailments. Steve McManaman, compared Hoddle’s training camps to a “cult”, accusing him of favouring those players who choose didn’t drink the kool-aid.

The 1998 World Cup was on the horizon. Ray Parlour was in the squad, but he had had tweaked his calf in training that week with Arsenal. He was going for a scan, but Hoddle wanted him to go and see Drewery first. Unsure what to expect, Parlour entered the room. Drewery closed the curtains. Parlour wondered if he was in a strip joint – was Eileen about to take her clothes off? The player was feeling apprehensive. When Drewery put her hands on the back of his head, Parlour blurted out: “Short back and sides, please.”

Drewery was the subject of much ridicule. In one of the tabloids Parlour did one of those mocked-up pictures showing Drewery with her hands on his head. Hoddle did not see the funny side. Parlour was left out of the next England squad. Arsène Wenger, who had been Hoddle’s manager at Monaco, said he would get in touch with the England manager to try and find out what the problem was. Apparently Hoddle felt that Parlour had disrespected his faith and would not be playing for England while he remained manager.

I am a big fan of the NFL. I love the cocktail of strategy, power, speed and violence. And the greatest star is undoubtedly Tom Brady of the New England Patriots. A sixth-round draft pick Brady now has five Super bowl rings and is widely considered the GOAT – the greatest of all time. He is nearly 40 years old and fresh off winning his fifth ring after helping his side come back from what had been a 28-3 deficit halfway through the third quarter. What’s more he has talked of playing until he is 45 or even beyond. This would be unprecedented.

Brady is driven, ultra professional and articulate. A brilliant decision maker on the field he is in danger of becoming professional sport’s answer to Gwynneth Paltrow off it. He’s building a lifestyle brand based on pseudoscience and magic pyjamas. In 2014, Brady opened his TB12 Sports Therapy Center at Patriot Place in Foxboro, Massachusetts, home of the Patriots. TB12 sports is Brady’s joint venture with business partner Alex Guerrero. The fitness guru has a chequered career. He fell foul of the Federal Trade Commission for marketing a miracle cancer-curing supplement he falsely claimed he studied in 200 terminally ill patients. They also called him out and for not really being a doctor and he had to pay a $65,000 fine and was barred from referring to himself as a doctor again. He also had to stop selling Neurosafe, a concussion-protection water.

Last year the quarterback and Guerrero launched his TB12 website, with an online store where you can buy nutritional supplements, fitness gear, vegan snack bags and the $200 TB12 Nutritional Manual, featuring “89 seasonally-inspired recipes. There is also the UA Athlete Recovery Sleepwear, which has “a bio-ceramic print that harnesses infrared energy to reduce inflammation.” Brady’s eats 80% vegetables and avoids dairy products, sugar and white flour. This sounds a pretty good idea. However, he has also cut out olive oil, tomatoes, peppers, mushrooms and eggplants. This is because they cause inflammation. Like Djokovic’s, Tom Brady’s diet does seem quite healthy and I’m sure many English football players could learn a lot from the utter dedication of the quarterback. Much of what Guerrero does is probably but you cannot overlook the cancer scam, Neurosafe and the overpriced pyjamas.

I haven’t mentioned the energy bracelet yet. These were supposed to improve athletic performance: “Ever since I started wearing (a Power Balance band) I noticed I was falling less,” claimed ex-NBA star Lamar Odom, a member of the 2010 champions the Los Angeles Lakers. Be on the lookout for terms like negative ions, quantum, natural, energy frequencies and the like. Why is the world of sport full of pseudoscience, bogus claims and dodgy products? I think there are a number of factors. Athletes operate in a world of small margins and are trying to eke out any possible competitive advantage. They are in an activity where luck also plays a part and they may well seek what psychologists call the illusion of control. And one should not underestimate the power of the placebo effect. The sad thing is that with the influence these stars exert on society they may promote a lot of magical thinking. Sceptics are going to be needed for the foreseeable future.

Gym sodomy and the cash

May 3, 2015

Nearly twenty years ago I belonged to a gym. I don’t think it was right for me. I was told to rest between exercises. However, I think I took this a little too literally as I would actually fall asleep. This experience came to mind recently when I heard an interview with the author Eric Chaline. His book, The Temple of Perfection: A History of the Gym, has recently been published and it sounds well worth reading.

The gym as an institution goes back to ancient Greece and it encompasses nearly three millennia of history. There were some similarities with the modern gym, but there were also important differences. What we would recognise is the desire to attain an idealised body type. Our obsession with the body beautiful is not an invention of marketing types. Another similarity is that the Greeks recognised the value of rhythm in physical training they had music piped into in their gyms. Musicians were employed to play the flute to keep times for the athletes as they were training. I have to say that it sounds more appealing than the stuff that blares out in gyms today.

However, there were important differences. Ancient Athenian gyms were open-air spaces with no fixed equipment. Training in the Greek gym involved the practice of running long-jump, discus, and javelin – basically track and field disciplines. This was an important part of military training. It was an all-male environment where the athletes used to train in the nude and they were hotbeds of gay sex.

The gymnasium was an important social institution in the Classical period of Greek history. Most Greek gymnasia had libraries that could be utilized after relaxing in the baths. There was no formal school system, so the gym provided for the education in academic subjects and athletics for boys from the age of seven to fourteen. Girls were, of course, excluded. They were also like universities. The two most famous public gymnasia were Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum. This idea of combining physical and intellectual education for young men is retained in Holland, Albania and Germany. In these and many other countries gymnasiums are a kind of secondary school.

The decline of classical Greek civilisation lead to the gym falling out of favour for many centuries. Christianity saw the body as sinful and same-sex relationships as sodomy and so fourth-century Christians banned gyms. They did not re-emerge until the early nineteenth century. And once again military questions were important. At the battle of Jena the Prussian army was crushed by Napoleon. That their professional army could be defeated by a conscript French force was perceived as a national humiliation. To remedy this Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, a Prussian schoolmaster opened the first Turnplatz, an open-air gymnasium in the Berlin suburb of Hasenheide. As well as the ancient Greek sports, running and discus and javelin, etc, he incorporated equipment of his own design such as the parallel bars, the vaulting horse, and the high bar. These form the basis of the sport of modern gymnastics. The ethos at Jahn’s gymnasium was collective; he wanted turn the Prussians into soldiers who would be able to avenge Prussia’s humiliating defeat. Jahn is a controversial figure. As a German nationalist, he believed in maintaining German language and culture against foreign influence. In 1810 he wrote, “Poles, French, priests, aristocrats and Jews are Germany’s misfortune.” He may have had unsavoury views , but I think it is going a bit too far to call him the spiritual founder of Nazism, as was claimed by Peter Viereck who said that Jahn inspired the early German romantics with anti-Semitic and authoritarian doctrines, which then influenced Wagner and finally the Nazis.

Our story moves on to Brussels and Paris where Frenchman Hippolyte Triat founded the first commercial gymnasia. This fitness entrepreneur had originally been a vaudeville strongman. His gyms sound incredible. They were vast cathedral-like covered spaces built in cast iron and glass. There was an enormous exercise area with spectator galleries on the second and third floors. Patrons could participate in group calisthenics, jog, do weight training or use the strength machines.

The idea was taken on by another entrepreneurial strongman, Eugen Sandow. Born Friedrich Wilhelm Müller, he was a Prussian bodybuilder known as the father of modern bodybuilding. In 1896 he opened the Institute of Physical Culture in St James’s. Situated in an area where most of London’s gentlemen’s clubs would have been, Sandow’s club seemed to be trying to recreate their atmosphere. The palatial building boasted a luxury wood-panelled décor, smoking rooms, billiard rooms and Turkish baths. Persian rugs marked each exercise station. But it was, nevertheless, a gym. Sandow was one of the first to introduce progressive weight training with free weights, barbells and dumbbells. He was appealing to the aspirational middle classes: come and join a sort of gentlemen’s club and get fit at the same time.

In the 20th century the USA became the world’s superpower. Chaline points to certain parallels between modern American and ancient Greece. Both cultures share an individualistic and competitive ethos. The American gym became a place frequented by hyper-muscular supermen. This goal was facilitated by the invention of anabolic steroids. The hyper-muscular bodies now de rigueur in bodybuilding contests were simply not possible in the pre-steroids era.

Jane Fonda led another revolution in the1980s. Aerobics brought women into the gym. There was also a significant change in the type of equipment available and exercises that patrons could choose. Cardio equipment like bikes and treadmills became fixtures in the gym. Gym design had been built around the sweat of the bodybuilder, now gyms have become like hotels and fancy restaurants.

The economics of this are a little strange. Joining a gym is a form of what behavioural economists call pre-commitment. We convince ourselves that by putting down the money upfront we will make ourselves go to the gym. But it doesn’t work out that way.

The American chain of gyms, Planet Fitness, has, on average, 6,500 members per gym, even though most of its gyms can only hold around 300 people. If you are not going to the gym, you are actually the gym’s best customer. So gyms try to attract people who won’t come. Gyms know this and do what they can to attract people who haven’t traditionally been gym rats. In the end people who don’t go are subsidizing the membership of people who do.

Health Fanatic – John Cooper Clarke

May 3, 2015

Here is a blast from the past:


Around the block – against the clock

Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock

Running out of breath – running out of socks

Rubber on the road… flippety flop

Non-skid agility… chop chop

No time to hang about

Work out health fanatic… work out!


The crack of dawn he’s lifting weights

His tell-tale heart reverberates

He’s high in polyunsaturates…

Low in polysaturates…

The Duke of Edinburgh’s award awaits

It’s a man’s life

He’s a health fanatic… so was his wife


A one-man war against decay

Enjoys himself the hard way

Allows himself a mars a day

How old am I – what do I weigh

Punch me there… does it hurt… no way

Running on the spot don’t get too hot

He’s a health fanatic, that’s why not


Running through the traffic jam – taking in the lead

Hyperactivity keeps him out of bed

Deep down he’d like to kick it in the head

They’ll regret it when they’re dead

There’s more to life than fun

He’s a health fanatic – he’s got to run


Beans greens and tangerines

And low cholestrol margarines

His limbs are loose, his teeth are clean

He’s a high-octane fresh-air fiend

You’ve got to admit he’s keen

What can you do but be impressed

He’s a health fanatic… give it a rest


Shadow boxing – punch the wall

One-a-side football… what’s the score… one-all

Could have been a copper… too small

Could have been a jockey… too tall

Knees up, knees up… head the ball

Nervous energy makes him tick

He’s a health fanatic… he makes you sick

The story behind the song #5: Hurricane

December 7, 2014

Rubin “Hurricane” Carter was born in 1937 in Clifton, New Jersey, the fourth of seven children. His father may have been a deacon in the Baptist church, but Rubin had a complicated adolescence. At the age of eleven he stabbed a man and was sentenced to a juvenile reformatory. He escaped and joined the Army where he learned to box. After being discharged from the army in 1956 he was once again in constant trouble. Carter was found guilty of a series of muggings, including assault and robbery of a middle-aged black woman. He would spend the next four years in East Jersey State Prison and in Trenton State Prison.

After his release from prison in September 1961, Carter became a professional boxer. He had begun well, but his career was going downhill – his record in his last five fights had been L-L-W-D-L. He clearly lost to Joey Giardello in a 15-round middleweight title bout, despite the film Hurricane portraying the unanimous verdict as a stitch-up.

In October 1966 Rubin Carter and John Artis were arrested for a triple murder that had taken place three months earlier. On June 17, 1966, at approximately 2:30 a.m., two males entered the Lafayette Bar and Grill at East 18th Street at Lafayette Street in Paterson, New Jersey, and started shooting. The bartender, James Oliver, and one customer, Fred Nauyoks died instantly. Hazel Tanis suffered severe injuries and would become the third victim a month later. A third customer, Willie Marins survived the attack. However, he lost the sight in one eye after a gunshot wound to the head. Both Marins and Tanis told police that the shooters had been black males, though neither identified Carter or John Artis. Two new eyewitnesses, petty criminals, Alfred Bello and Arthur Dexter Bradley, came forward, and they positively identified Carter and Artis

Carter and Artis had both been arrested on the night of the crime. Though they matched an eyewitness description of the gunmen they were cleared by a grand jury when a surviving victim failed to identify them as the killers. A trial followed. The two eyewitnesses, Alfred Bello and Arthur Dexter Bradley, both had criminal records, and it was later revealed that they had received reduced sentences and cash in exchange for their testimonies. In June 1967, Carter and Artis were convicted of triple murder and sentenced to successive life-in-prison terms. In jail, Carter maintained his innocence, defying authority by refusing to wear an inmate’s uniform and vowing to kill any prison official who touched him.

In 1975, the New Jersey Supreme Court overturned the convictions, and Carter and Artis were freed from prison. However, a year later, Carter was accused of assaulting his former parole officer. He and Artis were then were tried for the murders at the Lafayette Grill for a second time. Once again they were found guilty. Carter was sent back to prison in 1976, and would remain there for almost ten years. It was around this time that Bob Dylan visited Carter in prison. Impressed by the case, Dylan wrote the song in collaboration with Jacques Levy. It became Dylan’s biggest hit in years, rising to #33 on the charts.

In 1985 Carter’s lawyers filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in federal court. Judge Haddon Lee Sarokin of the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey granted the writ, noting that the prosecution had been “predicated upon an appeal to racism rather than reason, and concealment rather than disclosure,” and set aside the convictions. The prosecution decided that given that Carter had already served 19 years and that several witnesses were now dead, it was not worth trying him for a third time. Carter, 48 years old, was freed without bail in November 1985. He spent the rest of his life campaigning against wrongful convictions. He

I am not sure what to make of this case. I do think that the song simplifies the case a lot. Carter was no saint he had a violent temper and a criminal history, something which Dylan neglects to mention in his song. When someone becomes a cause célèbre like this alarm bells go off for me. Having said that, there were some worrying aspects of the prosecution case. The use of criminals, who have an incentive to lie, is typical but it does give you concern for the reliability of their testimony. I’m not sure I see evidence of a racist conspiracy. There is no doubt that racism exists in the police, and it must have been worse in 1960s New Jersey, but that doesn’t that every case should be analysed through this prism. Perhaps a piece of popular music cannot be expected to give a nuanced account of a complex criminal case like this, but many people’s perceptions of this case will have been framed by this song and the 2000 Norman Jewison film. What I have been trying to show is that there is more than this case than meets the eye.


If you want an alternative version of the story, journalist Cal Deal has a feature where he provides a verse- by-verse critique of the song.

Football’s left home and doesn’t look like it’s coming back

April 27, 2014

There are just 45 days to go until the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Any list of favourites will surely include Brazil, Spain, Italy, Argentina and Germany. England are not on many pundits’ lists. Why does the country which gave the world football as we know it, not considered a serious candidate? This is normally fodder for the sports pages, but I recently heard an academic analysing this issue. Anthony King, Professor of Sociology at the University of Exeter recently appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed to give sociological perspective on the English national team’s repeated failures at international competitions. He looks at five different causes of the English malaise:

1) The FA

By dint of being the first national football federation of its kind, English football’s governing body has the kudos of being called the Football Association (FA). However, being first does not mean that you have a God-given right to success. King is particularly damning in his criticism of the FA:

“… but there is a clear pattern throughout FA’s post-war history, accelerating in the last 20 years, of administrative amateurish, inconstancy, inadequacy and even incompetence. The organization has been unable to administer the national team effectively by appointing, directing and supporting an appropriate England manager. In this way, the FA has contributed to the consistently poor performance of England in international tournaments.”

King argues that the Premier League, which was created in 1992, has undermined the FA’s position. He believes that we need a more centralised system like they have in France and Germany. He may be right, but given what he says about the amateurish nature of the FA, would they be the right people to wield all this power?

2) The managers

King looks at the perennial problem of finding English-born managers of international standard, a problem which seems to have got worse over the last twenty years. Traditionally managers were chosen from the First Division with Alf Ramsey, Don Revie,            Ron Greenwood and Bobby Robson being chosen in this way. But even in this period there were a lot of managers from Scotland Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, Alex Ferguson and Kenny Dalglish were all born and raised in a small area of Glasgow. Given the limited talent pool the FA have sought talent abroad, the first being Sven Goran Eriksson in 2000. However, these foreign managers have failed to bring the desired results. This is particularly so in the case of Capello, a consummate professional with a fantastic record in international club football. What went wrong? It might be the language or maybe he wasn’t attuned to English sensibilities. It will be interesting to see how he does with Russia. While the FA could appoint a Swede, an Italian and in one failed attempt a Brazilian, it would be impossible to have a Scotsman at the helm.

For me the greatest injustice was not appointing Brian Clough, who did not fit in the profile the FA is looking for. We do not know if he would have been successful, but he was a man with u unique footballing brain capable of winning two European Cups with Nottingham Forest. He may have a drink problem, but give me a drunken Clough over a sober Taylor or McClaren any day of the week.

3) The media

The British media, or more particularly the tabloid press, are another key factor. The Leveson Inquiry was not about football, but the kind of behaviour that tabloid journalists engage in was very much relevant in football. The papers have been especially brutal with the figure of the England manager. It’s easier to remember Graham Taylor being pilloried by The Sun after England were knocked out the 1992 European Championships in the qualifying stages by Sweden: “Swedes 2 Turnips 1.” The front page, which featured a large photograph of Taylor’s head half-transformed into a turnip, was accompanied by this headline: “That’s your allotment; turnip Taylor turns up his toes”. When England failed to reach the finals of the same tournament in 2008 Steve McClaren became “the wally with the brolly“. Bobby Robson, who was the last manager to take England to a World Cup semi-final, was often treated very harshly between 1982 and 1990.  Dubbed “Plonker” by the Sun, Robson was very unpopular after a disastrous 1988 European championship, in which they went home after losing all three matches. Later that same year they could only manage a draw with Saudi Arabia in a friendly match and the knives were out Robson. The Mirror’s headline was “Go, In The Name Of Allah, Go”, while the Sun went with “England Mustafa New Boss”.

Capello was “the prat in the hat”. The current incumbent Roy Hodgson’s speech impediment was the cause to lampoon him: “Bwing on the Euwos! (We’ll see you in Ukwaine against Fwance)”.

This could be seen as a bit of harmless fun, but there are other more egregious examples of press activity. Sven Goran Eriksson, whose phone was hacked into by the News of the World and the Mirror, was also the victim of a sting operation, in which the Swede was filmed having a meeting with an individual, impersonating a wealthy Arab sheikh who claimed he was going to buy Aston Villa and wanted to hire Eriksson as its manager. His private life was also subject to relentless scrutiny. A serious candidate for the England position has to think long and hard whether it is worth submitting yourself to this kind of attention.

4) The players

For me the principal problem with the England team is the players. Here I totally agree with King. I am a believer in free trade and competition. I don’t buy the idea that the players are being blighted by the competition from foreign players. Maybe they are just not good enough. It is undoubtedly true that the Bosman ruling has facilitated a massive influx of foreign players in English clubs. However it has not stopped English footballers plying their trade abroad. British players can play in any EU league. The problem is that English players have been incapable of taking advantage of the opportunities afforded by Bosman. They were alone in all the teams in the 2012 European Championship to field a squad in which no one played in a foreign league.

It is true that British players don’t tend to travel very well. King cites that infamous Ian Rush quote after he had failed to set the world on fire at Juventus at the end of the 1980s:

It was like living in a foreign country”.

Michael Owen could not get into the Spanish way of life during his brief sojourn at Real Madrid:

“I missed my family, my house, my old team mates, the golfing, my dogs, the whole English package, even the rain.”

It is easy to poke fun at the insularity of these two players, but there is little evidence that globalisation and multiculturalism have had any significant impact on this provincialism. The FA and the clubs show no interest in teaching them foreign languages, even though many of their teammates speak French, Italian, Spanish or German. King also cites the work of Kuper and Szymanski who identify the low level of education of English footballers as a critical reason for the national team’s failure. They note that most English footballers leave school at 16 with almost no qualifications. the clubs’ academies actively discourage education; ‘all the boys we met there, bright or otherwise, were sent to do the same single GNVQ [General National Vocational Qualification] in Leisure and Tourism to fulfil the academy’s minimum education requirement’ Even the slave drivers of Barcelona’s infamous La Masia sweatshop encourage their players to get an education.

5) The fans

King refers to the writing of Brian Glanville, who argued that British fans had a certain animosity to skill, preferring a fast pace and determination. What seems to have happened in recent years is a king of resigned fatalism. It is an attitude reflected in the song Football’s Coming Home by David Baddiel and Frank Skinner. Thirty years of hurt is now fast approaching the half century. Yet, there is something strangely comforting in identifying with failure, a point I covered in my post about baseball.


This stoicism is probably more realistic. However, it fails to address the technical shortcomings. I am not sure King has added very much to the debate. Any solutions will have to be long-term and there is no guarantee of success. There are other sports where you can throw money at the problem and you can achieve immediate results. Football is just so competitive and there is only one team who will win the World Cup. I certainly never foresaw Spain’s recent run of success. I probably could have written a similar article 45 days before the 2008 Euros explaining why Spain were underachievers and all the things wrong with Spanish football. What I do think is that the FA could do a better job. And English players should take advantage of the opportunities that the Bosman ruling has provided. I would love if England did win it. This would mean that my two countries would have won the last two tournaments. If not, we’ll always have 1966.

Top Ten England National Football Songs Ever

April 27, 2014

A treat for all you music lovers.

Take me to the ballpark

March 16, 2014

I may not be an avid follower of baseball, but I can tell you that the current World Series champions are the Boston Read Sox, who defeated the Saint Louis Cardinals 4-2 in the best-of-seven final. This is quite a turnaround for the Red Sox; it is their third title in the last ten years. Previously the Fenway Park club had not won the title since 1918. This drought became known in baseball circles as the “Curse of the Bambino.” It was said that Harry Fraze, the owner of the Boston club was forced to sell Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in order to finance the Broadway show, No, No, Nanette, a musical whose most famous song was “Tea for Two”. This may be a myth but what cannot be denied is that the Red Sox would rue the sale. Babe Ruth would go on to become a baseball legend and the Red Sox would go 86 years without a World Series. I don’t really understand the sport very well, but this is what I love about baseball – its rich history. I just can’t get enough of baseball lore. Here are a few of my favourite episodes of baseball history.

The 1919 World Series

This is the infamous series in which gangster Arnold Rothstein is said to have fixed the World Series Final. Rothstein, who subsisted almost entirely on milk, cake and fresh figs, allegedly paid members of the Chicago White Sox to throw the World Series. He bet against them and made a significant profit. He was never convicted. All the records and minutes of the Grand Jury disappeared. So, too, did the signed confessions of the players who had admitted to being part of the match fixing. The state had virtually nothing to pin on Rothstein. And when the players, citing the Fifth Amendment, refused to repeat their confessions on the stand, the writing was on the wall for the prosecution. The judge had no choice but to dismiss the case. The players fared worse. Despite being acquitted, the eight players involved in the scandal would never play again. Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the newly appointed Commissioner of Baseball, argued that while the players had been acquitted, none of them could ever be allowed back into the game if it was to clean up its public image. It is Joseph Jefferson Jackson, AKA Shoeless Joe Jackson, who is most associated with the scandal. He made numerous appeals to overturn his ban, none of which were successful. Some people argue that the evidence is not so clear and that Jackson belongs in baseball’s Hall of Fame. The incident has become a staple of books, films and television. Meyer Wolfsheim, the character in The Great Gatsby is based on Rothstein. And the gangster appears as one of the regulars on Boardwalk Empire. The eight banned players, most prominently Shoeless Joe Jackson, are principal characters in the novel Shoeless Joe, which was made into the film Field of Dreams.

F***ing up your team’s chances of winning the World Series: Priceless

Then we have the Steve Bartman incident. It was a playoff game between the Chicago Cubs and the Florida Marlins on October 14, 2003, at Wrigley Field in Chicago. It was Game 6 of the National League Championship Series and the Cubs were leading 3-2 and needed just one more win to clinch the series. And in the eighth inning leading 3-0 they appeared to be on their way to the World Series. But then disaster struck. The Marlins’ second baseman Luis Castillo hit a foul ball and several spectators attempted to catch it. One of them, the abovementioned Barman, reached for the ball, deflecting it foiling a potential catch by Cubs outfielder Moisés Alou. If Alou had caught the ball it would have been the second out in the inning, and the Cubs would have been just four outs away from winning their first National League pennant since 1945. What actually happened was that the Cubs surrendered eight runs in the inning and they went on to lose 8-3. They would be eliminated in the seventh game the next day. To add insult to injury the Marlins defeated the New York Yankees in six games, winning the sixth game in Yankee Stadium and claiming their second World Series.

he hapless Bartman, a lifelong Cubs fan, had to be escorted from the stadium by security guards and placed under police protection for a time when his name and address were made public on MLB message boards. T-shirts appeared parodying the MasterCard commercials:

Tickets to a Cubs game: $200

Chicago Cubs hat: $20

1987 Walkman: $10

F***ing up your team’s chances of winning the World Series: Priceless

Bartman did release an apology:

“I had my eyes glued on the approaching ball the entire time and was so caught up in the moment that I did not even see Moisés Alou much less that he may have had a play.” He decided to keep a low profile declining interviews, endorsement deals, and requests for public appearances, including an offer to appear as a VIP at Wrigley Field, the chance to be featured in an ESPN documentary and a six-figure offer for a Super Bowl commercial. Due to the irate phone calls, his family was forced to change their phone number.

The Curse of the Billy Goat

Many fans associated the Bartman incident with the Curse of the Billy Goat, allegedly laid on the Cubs during the 1945 World Series after Billy Sianis and his pet goat were ejected from Wrigley Field because the pet goat’s odour was bothering other fans. An outraged Sianis declared, “Them Cubs, they ain’t gonna win no more.” The Cubs lost that series to the Detroit Tigers in seven games and have yet to return to the championship round.

According to Tobias Moskowitz and Jon Wertheim in their entertaining Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won, the Cubs’ consistently dire results cannot be explained by invoking curses or bad luck. They have reached the bottom far more often than random chance says they should, finishing last or second to last nearly 40 percent of the time. The odds of this happening by chance are 527 to 1. The real question is why they haven’t put better teams together.

Generally sports teams seek titles. This is in part for the glory recognition and prestige that comes with success on the field. But it’s also about the bottom line. A more successful team generates more fans, which generates more revenue. Winning teams should attract more sell-out crowds and be able to command more lucrative sponsorship deals, higher local and national TV ratings and souvenir sales. All things being equal winning regularly should boost the brand name of the franchise, and increase revenue. And losing should have the opposite effect.

However, not all teams have the same need for sporting glory. The Cubs seem to be a special case. They have one of baseball’s most rabid and committed fan bases who seem to subconsciously enjoy their repeated failures – it is part of their image as loveable losers. It turns out that attendance at Wrigley Field is the least sensitive to performance in all of baseball. The sensitivity of attendance per game to winning percentage for the Cubs is only 0.6, much less than one. The Yankees, on the other hand, have an attendance sensitivity of 0.9, meaning that attendance moves almost one for one with winning percentage. No wonder that the authors have branded the Cubs America’s Teflon team.

From 1990 to 2009 every team in the Major Leagues gained value the more it won – except one – the Cubs. Incredibly, the Cubs saw their value rise slightly the more it lost.  Despite having a dismal 48.6% winning record over the last two decades, the Cubs’ owners have still been able to increase ticket prices by 67% since 1990. This is quite a feat given that the league average is 44.7% over the same period. Attendance is now at an all-time high 99% of capacity.

We’re only here for the beer

Attendance seems to be much more sensitive to beer prices than to whether the team actually wins or loses.  The atmosphere is summed up in a T-shirt slogan:

Cubs baseball: Shut up and drink your beer.”

Wrigley Field had the third-highest ticket prices in all MLB, averaging nearly $48 a seat. The only two stadiums which charged more were Fenway Park and the new Yankee Stadium, which charged an average of $50 and $73 a ticket respectively. However, the price of a small beer at Wrigley Field, $5 at the concession stand, was the third lowest in the league. As Moskowitz and Wertheim point out, Cubs fans will tolerate bad baseball and high ticket prices, but draw the line at bad baseball and expensive beer. With fans like these bringing a winning team to Wrigley Field may not be a priority. They have found an unusual niche in sport. In financial terms there may well be a number of teams who wish that they too were cursed.

The Red Sox may have broken their curse in 2004, 2007 and 2013, but have they lost something too. They’ve become more like a version of their hated rivals – the Yankees. They too splash the cash and a season without a World Series title is now regarded as a failure. The Chicago Cubs’ fans are now the ones who have the bragging rights to a curse.

My favourite sporting films

March 16, 2014

Here is a the list in alphabetical order:


Any Given Sunday

Bull Durham

Chariots of Fire

Escape to Victory

Fever Pitch

Field of Dreams

Hoop Dreams


Raging Bull


Searching for Bobby Fischer

The Color of Money

The Damned United

The Hustler

Tin Cup

When We Were Kings

White Men Can’t Jump

Shanks for the memories

November 9, 2013

I have recently read David Peace’s Red or Dead, a 700-page novel about the legendary football manager Bill Shankly. The story goes from Shankly’s first week with Liverpool in 1959 to his premature death 22 years later. Peace became a successful writer while working as an English teacher in Tokyo. His previous works include the Red Riding Quartet, GB84 and The Damned Utd. The latter, his most successful novel to date, dealt with Brian Clough’s ill-fated 44-day reign at Leeds United.

Red or Dead’s first three words are “Repetition. Repetition. Repetition.” And we certainly get it in spades. This book is a symphony of daily life. Not only do we hear all about the training sessions and the matches, we also get repeated descriptions of Shankly laying the breakfast table, washing the dishes or cleaning the oven. On one page Bill is used 84 times and he takes eight pages to describe Shankly washing his car. Peace is trying to capture the methodical nature of the great Scottish manager. Here is a piece which captures the style of the book:

In the house, in their bed. Bill opened his eyes. Bill closed his eyes. And then Bill opened his eyes again. In the dark and in the silence. Bill stared up at the ceiling. The bedroom ceiling. And Bill breathed out. Bill had been dreaming. Only dreaming. In the dark and in the silence. Bill turned to look at the clock on the table beside the bed. The alarm clock. Ticking, ticking. In the dark. Bill got out of bed. Bill shaved and Bill washed. Bill put on his shirt. Bill put on his suit. Bill put on his tie. His red tie. His Liverpool Football Club tie. Bill went down the stairs. Bill went into the kitchen. In the light and in the silence. Bill saw the cloth on the table. The cutlery and the crockery. The salt and pepper pots. The jars of honey and marmalade. The butter dish. The two glasses of fresh orange juice. And Bill smiled. In the kitchen, at the table. Bill and Ness ate breakfast. A slice of toast and honey, a glass of orange juice and a cup of tea. And then Bill helped Ness clear away the breakfast things. Bill dried up the breakfast things. Bill helped Ness put away the breakfast things. And then Bill kissed Ness on her cheek. Bill went into the hall. Bill put on his hat. Bill went out of the front door. Bill went down the drive. Bill got into the car –

And Bill went off to work.

I found it compelling, but I can imagine it is not everyone’s cup of tea. But, this is not going to be review of the book. Instead I am going to look back at the 22 years covered by the author.

When Shankly took charge of Liverpool, they were in the Second Division. They had seen better days. Since their foundation in 1892, the club had already claimed four league titles, their first coming in 1901. However, after 50 years in the top flight, they had been relegated in the 1953-54 season.

Shankly wanted to bring the greatness back to Liverpool. He soon created one of the symbols of “the Liverpool Way,” the famous boot room. This small room, where the squad’s football boots were kept, became an informal coaches’ meeting room. It was here where Shankly and his assistants, Bob Paisley, Reuben Bennett, Tom Saunders and Joe Fagan would, with the help of whisky, discuss team selection, go over tactics and plot how to beat their next opponents. Shankly’s football philosophy was deceptively simple: “pass and move”, a style that became synonymous with the golden age of Liverpool. One particular training routine involved something called the “Sweat Box,” which was used to improve players’ short passing and touch.

The other aspect which marked Shankly’s reign was his relationship with the fans. He wanted to show the supporters they were the ones who mattered. The two were made for each other. His devotion to the fans really does come across in the book. In return, the manager and the team received the fervent support of the Liverpool fans. Shankly was and remains an idol on Merseyside.

Football really was very different in this time. European ties which ended in a draw were decided by replays. There was no away goals rule. And there were no penalty shootouts either. If the replay failed to provide a solution, then the result would be decided with a coin toss. Shankly himself is a rich source of anecdotes. My favourite has to be the 1964 club tour of the USA, when he bizarrely insisted on keeping English time. No American was going to tell him what time it was.

The first half concludes with his shock retirement on July 12, 1974. It was a decision he would soon come to regret. Many players and managers end up as alcoholics, drug addicts or living on the breadline. That was not what afflicted Shankly. He was a man without a hinterland, for whom football was the be-all and end-all. He just couldn’t cope without his daily fix. Now every day was like Sunday.

He tried to maintain his ties with the club of his life by turning up for team training at Melwood, but he cut a forlorn figure. Feeling unwanted, Shankly became embittered about the club. It was not the way this relationship should have ended. Kevin Keegan summed it up:

It was the saddest, saddest thing that ever happened at Liverpool.”

But I can also understand it from Liverpool’s point of view. Shankly had resigned, even though he had been begged him to stay on. It is also true that there had been an antagonistic relationship between Shankly and the directors. The board were also well aware what had happened when Matt Busby had retired at Manchester United. His long shadow undermined the successors; a club that had been champions of Europe in 1968 was relegated to the second division in 1974. Liverpool did not want to undermine Bob Paisley’s position. Their treatment of Shankly may seem disrespectful, and they probably should have found a way to keep him involved, but they wanted to look to the future. In part he was a victim of the ruthless single-mindedness that he himself had brought to the club. They would go to win four European Cups and ten league titles in the fifteen years after Shankly’s resignation. In this sense the board were vindicated. Would Liverpool have enjoyed the same success had Shankly continued? We will never know the answer to that counterfactual. He did a brilliant job in reviving a team that had been languishing in the second division. He was the architect of their success. However, maybe Bob Paisley, who is said to have been the one with the tactical nous, was the man to take them to the next level.

Bill Shankly’s retirement would be short-lived. Following a heart attack, on the morning of Saturday 26th September 1981, he was taken to Broadgreen Hospital, an NHS facility situated on the outskirts of Liverpool. He seemed to have stabilised and he did not appear to be in danger. However, after his condition suddenly deteriorated, he was transferred into intensive care. At 00:30 on the following day, he suffered a second heart attack and was certified dead less than an hour later. He was 68 years old. His wife Nessie was by his side.  At his funeral Canon Arnold Myers summed up the city’s mood: “Bill Shankly did not live for himself but for a team, a vast family, for a city, for an ideal.” After being cremated at the Anfield Crematorium on 2 October, his ashes were scattered on the Anfield pitch at the Kop end.

I wouldn’t go as far as David Peace, who describes Shankly as “a saint, one of the greatest men who ever lived”. But he was a great man and it is sad to contemplate the years after he retired. At least he was not around to see the decline of his beloved Liverpool. The team has never won the Premier League; their last league title was in 1990. Margaret Thatcher was still Prime Minister! He was also spared the two events that marked the club in the 1980s Heysel and Hillsborough. What would he make of the multi-billion pound global franchise that the Premier League is today? I think Shankly, a lifelong socialist, would be horrified by players’ salaries, ticket prices and some of the modern breed of owners.  Liverpool has not been immune to these trends. Five years ago, when Liverpool was owned by two American businessmen Tom Hicks and George Gillett, a banner appeared on the Kop with an SOS to Dubai International Capital, pleading with them to buy out Liverpool. Indeed, the Spirit of Shankly supporters’ group were in talks with the private equity arm of the Dubai government. Such is the fans’ desperation for trophies today. I am convinced that if Al Capone were alive today, he would be welcomed at more than one club.

I don’t think we should overdo the nostalgia for the football of yesteryear. I support some of the changes. In 2008 the Premier proposed holding league matches in Asia, Africa, Australia or America. Bill Shankly would not have approved and had he been involved, he most certainly would have stuck to English time.