Whatever | September 2008

Whatever | Festivals If blanket TV coverage of music festivals is to rival sport, where’s its equivalent of Alan Hansen? WhateverGlasto2008 Back in the studio after a lacklustre nil-nil draw in Group C between France and Romania, BBC pundit Alan Hansen looked set to bust out of his pressed white shirt as he declared, with a degree of overstatement, “That was the worst game I’ve ever seen in my life.” Harbour a grudging respect for him or hate him, his assessment must have chimed with the thoughts of many Euro 2008 viewers at home. Punditry in motion. As it happened, three weeks of goalmouth incident, questionable pronunciations of Xavi and jibes about the astrology-based decisions of the French coach later, the Euro 2008 final coincided with blanket TV coverage of another heavily sponsored outdoor summer spectacle, Glastonbury. While BBC1 showed the entertaining clash between Germany and Spain in one field, over on BBC3 it was the Fratellis, Kings of Leon and Buddy Guy in another. The constant refrain of those committed enough to attend major sporting events and/or music festivals is, “You had to be there.” But for the majority, television is our best chance of a ringside seat. Since I stopped going after Glastonbury ’95, I have been the target armchair festivalgoer as the Beeb’s coverage has expanded like cosmic insulation foam to fill all nooks of the digisphere. As with Wimbledon, you can even press the red button and select from a multi-screen menu which game, set or match you wish to view. In many ways – most of them logistical and hygienic – it really is better than being there. WhateverGlasto2008 However, this comparison between sport and live music on TV throws up a problem. As one gradually morphs into the other – slick, branded, omnipresent, relentlessly cross-promoted and with saturation point never too far around the next corner – the big difference between the two becomes ever more apparent. There is one crucial element missing from festival TV. I’m talking about its total dereliction of critical judgement. Imagine if, during this year’s fulsome Glastonbury coverage, Mark Radcliffe had swivelled round on his backstage hay bail and exclaimed to Jo Whiley, “Well, that was the worst set I’ve seen on the Pyramid Stage in my life.” It’s unthinkable. Alan Hansen can call the Polish defence “abysmal”; Radcliffe must describe Shakin’ Stevens as “a trooper.” This is not a criticism of Mark or Jo or any other presenter, whose job it is to talk everything up, in order to justify the vast sums invested in securing rights, setting up outside-broadcast shop in Pilton for a week and supplying content to BBC2, BBC3, BBC4, BBC News, Radio 1, 5 Live, 6 Music, 1 Xtra, BBC online and BBCi. But I can vouch for the fact that, once a broadcaster is onsite, the tendency is simply to cheerlead. “The atmosphere is amazing!” “It’s shaping up to be a vintage Glastonbury!” “It’s not just about the music.” It’ll be the same for T In The Park, Reading and Leeds, Cambridge … TV and radio coverage is less like editorial, more like advertorial. The irony in all this round-the-clock, welly-wearing Pollyannaism is that music fans are no strangers to music criticism. Whether old enough to have been raised on the sturm und drang of the weekly music press or new enough to be fluent in the snap judgements of blog and Facebook, the type of person who will actually sit down to watch Glastonbury on TV (and there are 1.9 million in peak-time, down to a respectable 500,000 after 11pm) is exactly the type who would welcome at least a heated debate on the merits of Jay-Z, rather than to hear the party line parroted (ie. that he “won the crowd over”). WhateverGlasto2008 Sporting pundits are there to dissect a match; to marvel at the way Torres lifted Xavi’s pass over the keeper’s legs, but also to bemoan the ref’s decision not to book Silva after that surreptitious headbutt on Podolski. Why are we not grown up enough to hear the same degree of expert critique from football’s festival counterparts? In fairness, this won’t come from DJs like Jo or Zane or Fearne, ambassadors for the Corporation with future guest bookings to protect, but can a substrata of critics not be arranged in a studio to offer something a little more incisive? “The atmosphere seems oddly corporate and stilted this year.” “Is there a festival the Verve aren’t playing?” “Is Beth Ditto still at it?” Actually, a couple of years ago, Jo Whiley did break ranks and offer a unique glimpse of editorial. After the Alison Goldfrapp set, she said, “It just goes to show that you can be thin and still have cellulite.” Not even Hansen would be that incisive.

Published in Word magazine, September 2008

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A lobby of green-ink heart attack candidates in the Sunday Times Culture section’s You Say TV forum (to whit: “What about the 50 million licence fee payers who don’t like football?”) have been wishing for four weeks that World Cup 2014 was all over. It is now. Thanks to the fleet left foot of the German substitute who looks like my niece’s boyfriend Shane – Mario Götze – who misshaped the bottom corner of the Argentinian net in the 112th minute from a cross by André Schürrle, Germany are now four-times World Cup champions, and this is their first team to win it since the Wall came down. A new star will have to be embroidered onto their shirt. Götze already is one, a 22-year-old symbol of Germany’s “New Generation.”

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The Maracanã, pulsing with coloured lights from above like a sea anemone as the sun went down, hosted a thrilling final, whose single goal and singular lack of shots do not quite describe the action within. Having ungratefully humiliated the host nation and sent the whole of Brazil spiraling into despond – forced, by default, to cheer them on – Germany were the stronger side, but Argentina’s defence was stout. Unfortunately for the South Americans, their “demigod”, as Alan Shearer describe him, Lionel Messi, was only occasionally the best player in the world, and couldn’t finish.

However, and this is now a commonplace, Germany were a team: unreliant on demigods or talismen, they were eleven men, who simply looked for each other, passed clearly and cleanly, cleared some space, created chances, and, more often than not, converted those chances into goals. Only one last night, but it only required one. Stoically, they dealt with the zero-hour loss of Khedira – injured during training – by replacing him with Christoph Kramer, who was himself rendered dazed and confused by a shoulder to the bonce, and replaced by Schürrle. This is how a good team works. It is a sum of its parts. Brazil, as we have seen, cannot function without Neymar. Argentina, in this instance, couldn’t win without Messi. Messi was there, but not quite.

Let us not sanctify Germany; one or two of them did their fair share of diving (albeit not at the theatrical level of Holland’s Iron Robin, whose supercilious grin made him one of the most difficult to like stars of the tournament, right through to the pointless Third Place Playoff against an undead Brazil). But there are eleven reasons why Germany are the first European side to win the World Cup in South America. Oh, and one of those reasons happened to be the best keeper of the last four weeks.

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As Gary Lineker said to the shy and retiring Alan Hansen during the suited-up half-time mull, “You like stats.” Here are some I’ve lifted from the BBC Sport website:

Germany have won the World Cup for a fourth time. Only Brazil (5) have more wins. Argentina conceded a goal in extra time at the World Cup for the first time.
Argentina failed to have a shot on target in a World Cup game for the first time since the 1990 final v West Germany. Germany are the first European team to win a World Cup in the Americas.
Germany’s total of 18 goals is the most in a World Cup since Brazil scored 18 in 2002. Argentina only trailed for seven minutes in the entire tournament.

It was, of course, over for Brazil a lifetime ago on Tuesday, just after Germany’s second goal from Klose, when they went to pieces before the eyes of the world. Or, if you prefer to dig back a bit further: the moment Colombia’s Zuniga high-tackled Neymar in the quarter final and put him out of the frame. Or, if you prefer, the moment in the same match when captain Thiago Silva got sent off, for surely it was the lack of a cohering skipper as much as the lack of what Sam Matterface later called “a goal-scoring striker” that took the legs out from under Brazil. (Or Brazeel, Brazeeel, as I still call them, after the ITV theme tune, an affectation that has taken on a melancholy air.)

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The semi final against Germany at Belo Horizonte has already gone down in the World Cup and even footballing annals as one of the most shocking ever played. And that’s according to people who’ve seen a lot more games than I have. It certainly left a lot of people horizonte. The word “humiliation” is an emotive one, but in the case of Brazil’s 7-1 drubbing – and that particularly surreal five minutes during which they scored four and the numbers went up like the counter on a pinball machine – it has hardened into cold fact. It really was all over before half time. Records were being smashed so often, there was no time to stop and appreciate the fact that Klose’s goal made him the World Cup’s highest ever scorer. (One of the reasons we didn’t have time to take it in was Kroos’s first of two, which he scored a minute after Klose’s.)

Over the last 20 years I have watched a lot of international football matches at two-year intervals, and there has been nothing like Brazil Germany, which was almost eerie. The volume on the majority Brazilian crowd dipped around the 20-minute mark and only recovered once when little Oscar pulled one back in the 90th minute. (Oh, and when they collectively booed their team off the park at the end of each half. Incidentally, you had to give shy and resigning coach Scolari some credit for taking the blame. He wore a “Forca Neymar” baseball cap as he went off, presumably with a lining of irony.)

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It has been a memorable World Cup, already fading away like a white Rubicon of referee’s foam. All those South American players crossing and prostrating themselves before God – and, conceivably, Christ the Redeemer – to no appreciable avail. Enough yellow cards to build a replica Yellow Submarine. Two African sides in the final 16. So much offside. So many talismen. So much pointless, Jonathan Pearce-flummoxing goal-line technology at the beginning, and so much less of it at the end. So little Phil Neville come the end, too. So many goal-of-the-tournament contenders! My own favourite – hope it’s one of yours – was catapulted from the toe of 23-year-old Colombian forward and ingenue James “Haymez” Rodriguez against Uruguay in the last-16. It was art.

He also won the Golden Boot with six goals in five matches, ahead of Muller and Messi.

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So much finely sculpted and greased hair. A few poodles. One or two headbands. In Neymar’s two-tone creation, a tribute to the drummer of Kajagoogoo. One ridiculous rat-tail sticking out at any angle from the otherwise shaven head of Rodrigo Palacio which, knowing my luck, will turn out to be a tribute to a dead member of his family, something he hasn’t cut since they perished, or something, in which case I’ll delete this aesthetic complaint. Apparently, Thierry Henry’s cardigan cost £505. You can’t buy that kind of style. And Adrian Chiles won’t stuff his tackle into those one-size-too-small M&S short again. He rather ruined the view when ITV’s gang were seated out on the Opinion Terrace. Only Fabio looked truly attractive with his legs out. But some kind of medal for the salmon-skinned Gordon Strachan and Neil Lennon for being outside at all. I wonder if anybody watched the Final on ITV? I mean, anybody at all.

I like the fact that, come the Final, I was able to name ten out of the eleven starting German team from their faces during what I still controversially think of as Deutschland Über Alles – albeit less of the Argentinians during Canción Patriótica Nacional. It’s small personal victories like this that make the four-week commitment worthwhile. This means that, in two years’ time, I’ll know about four of them, of course. But it’s a start.

I still haven’t quite got to the bottom of why a taciturn Scot in his 50s is “retiring” from sitting in a chair and talking about football, but farewell, Alan Hansen, in any case. You picked a good one to go out on.

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It was either Guy Mowbray or Steve Wilson who, during the last-16 Argentina Switzerland game when the score still stood at 0-0, wondered aloud (because what other kind of wondering would a commentator do?) whether we were about to see “a Messi Moment.” We weren’t, as it happened, or at least not the goal Mowbray/Wilson was hoping for, and it went to extra time, during which one of Messi’s less talismanic compatriots, Di María, swivel-volleyed one in off his deflected pass and put them through to the quarter finals. (Di María was later benched with an ice-pack on his leg.)

This World Cup has been all about such great expectations, but it’s not always great for great men. Gary Lineker commented last night that of the six badly-drawn boys on the BBC’s Mount Rushmore-like slum-wall of fame in its opening credits, only one remains in the competition, with the other five either knocked out, banned for four months for biting, or horribly injured.

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Germany, otherwise known as “Manuel Neuer and ten other blokes”, had a fairly easy time of it against France, with Mats Hummels facing down “flu-like symptoms” (all that hot and cold) to head in the first and only goal in 12 minutes. The one good thing you can say about the 1-0 score is that at least it spared us extra time and … that other grim foot-lottery.

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Brazil Colombia was a better bet, if a festival of fouls. A South American derby with atmosphere to spare, and controversial refereeing decisions at every turn. The Spanish ref at least managed to piss off both teams, which surely clears him of bias. Colombia’s fatted calf Rodriguez was, as they say, kicked around the park, and his opposite number Neymar actually left the field, and the tournament, in agony in the orange out-tray of doom after Juan Camilo Zúñiga’s knee-high challenge from behind. Let’s see that again …

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I’m not a coach, but surely it’s a risky business, relying on one star forward. (I seem to remember Brazil having about three in 2002.) That said, it’s better than no star forward, and it’s bad luck to lose him completely before a semi final against Germany. It’s like Zúñiga kicked Jesus. (Fifa are looking into the tackle, so we’ll see, but it’s literally after the event.)

QArgBel3 The quarter finals have certainly been full of messy moments. With the brakes well and truly on, and teams more evenly matched I guess, the goal rate has plummeted. (This World Cup has apparently given us 159 goals, and it feels that way, although I don’t know if this includes penalties, which are goals, but stripped of context, and thus sort of not-goals. It could have been a lot more goals if not for the likes of Howard, Ochoa and the other super-keepers.)

Yesterday’s lumpy but nonstop Argentina Belgium game had plenty of Messi Moments while he stylishly went about equaling Maradona’s 91 caps and fending off attackers like an action hero chased by velociraptors and giving it plenty of pirouette, but it was swarthy Gonzalo Higuain who put them one-up with a volley that was decisive and powerful. It hinted at the eight-minute mark that we might be in for a high-scoring game as Argentina’s streetwise teamwork squared up against Belgium’s pluck, but no. Argentina keep winning by one goal, but I’d have rather seen another 3-2 or a 2-1, and not another top-loaded 1-0. (How demanding we become.)

Belgium couldn’t break their duck, and Argentina couldn’t put one past Courtois again. A similar pattern of deadlock dogged Holland Costa Rica, except without a single goal for 120 minutes. Plenty of chances, and most of them fumbled by the Dutch in what was never even hinted as being an international sectarian clash, even though it kind of was, with the Orangemen versus the Catholics. (The Dutch team may well be humourless atheists; but the self-crossing, saint-kissing, upward-genuflecting Latin Americans do seem to believe that God is on their side.)

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It was weird to see minor Game Of Throw-Ins character Iron Robin on his best behaviour, having had his card marked about all the diving, clutching and play-acting that frankly undermines his elegant ballsmanship and age-defying, Terminator-like energy. Costa Rica’s coach, Pinto, had apparently voiced his concerns pre-emptively to the ref, and all eyes were on the passive-aggressive egghead. Not once did he melodramatically claim a foul through the medium of mime, although, ironically, he was fouled plenty of times and the sky was filled with yellow cards to prove it. (Four Costa Ricans earned one, although – sadly – there will be no next match to miss.)

It’s partly the game’s fault, and partly mine, but I found myself dozing off during the second half, and when I snuffled awake after a sofa snooze, it was still 0-0. For reasons of middle-aged self-preservation I took myself off to bed, unaware of the next act. I was awoken this morning and advised without spoilers to rewind and watch the extra time. So I did.

It was among the most exciting blocks of football this World Cup has thus far spoiled us with, Holland reawakened by the hour and Costa Rica determined to hold them to a draw and let the penalties decide. As they searched for the hero inside themselves, they were truly in search of the CRC. But – and here’s where it gets interesting – the most thrilling moment came when the unreadable and apparently egomaniacal Dutch coach Louis Van Gaal made his chess move. He took clean-sheeted keeper Japser Cillessen off in the 121st minute and replaced him with a man I’d never heard of called Tim Krul. Newcastle United fans will have heard of him.

Could this vital game, at this vital stage, really turn on a frankly insulting substitution? Or had Van Gaal planned it all along? (Danny Murphy’s always reminding us that games can “turn” on something.)

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Hardly worth mentioning that he’s a gangly fellow but he lacks the neat, boyish, Germanic look of Cillessen. Krul – helpfully named for headline writers (“Krul summer … Krul fate … Krul to be kind … Royal Society for the Prevention of Krulty to Animals”) – seemed to me a bit of a yob. I certainly crinkled my nose when he started psyching the penalty-takers out by marching up and down in front of them like a sentry and then giving them some verbal and a you’re-going-down hand gesture before taking up his line. I was already a Costa Rican so I wished him ill with this grubby technique. Imagine my dismay when it seemed to work. And imagine my joy when it didn’t, twice. And then my dismay again.

There is no shame whatsoever in Costa Rica’s defeat, not with a performance like theirs. Their first World Cup quarter final will have to be milestone and testament enough for a Central American republic and medical-tourism hotspot with a population of 4.5m and no military since 1949 (although “plenty of fighters” in their team, as Sam Matterface chirruped).

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As you might imagine, I’ve been saving the Sports section of my newspaper from the recycling tub for over three weeks now, and even a visitor picks up on things. I’ve divined previously that people don’t like Andy Townsend, so I continue to not-mind him just to be my own man. I’ve no idea if it’s OK to like Danny Murphy? But I do like him. Although he overuses the word “actually” and mixed up the last 16 with the quarter finals last night, he seems sincere and self-effacing (perhaps to a fault), and knows when to join in. I’ve looked him up and he only started punditing for Match Of The Day last year, so maybe he’s still on probation with the hanging jury. I also like the fact that he looks like he’s related to Morrissey, and very well might be. Clearly, Glenn Hoddle remains a figure of fun, and I have no defence for him.

Gary Lineker really needs to spend less time on the weights. His shoulders will soon be so rounded he is unable to carry a bag without it sliding off. Alan Hansen has announced his retirement after this World Cup. From Match Of The Day? That sounds a bit grand to me. He’s not even 60. Is he simply leaving, rather than retiring?

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Roll on the semis. My fever-dream of a Brazil Belgium final is a future I’m glad I didn’t put money on. (I don’t put money on anything.) It’s going to be Brazil Argentina, isn’t it? That’s fine. Even though I keep reading that Brazil are “ordinary” – and certainly left spineless without Neymar – they have so many home-team advantages and now a fallen comrade to play for, the Germans will have to tighten a few nuts and add a lot of oil if they want to achieve Vorsprung durch Technik. I certainly find myself – without prejudice or discrimination, Fifa! – hoping Holland go out.

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It’s a knockout. And, as the canopy of shade creeps diagonally across pitches from Manaus in the north to Porto Alegre in the south, we have borne witness to the birth of the “cooling break”, whose very name refreshes those of us at home, where temperatures are not in the thirties and humidity a lot less than 66%. The hallucinations constantly threatened if the players don’t rehydrate are all happening to us, the armchair spectators. With the group stages over and my Guardian World Cup Guide fastidiously spidered with numbers, we’re at that point where every match counts. Even, on a low level, Costa Rica Greece, which I forewent last night in order to catch up on Glastonbury, but turned out to have gone to dratted penalties (5-3 to Costa Rica). Aside from the sight of Adrian Chiles in tight shorts with his legs wide apart under the garden table last night on ITV, during the channel’s unique on-the-patio bit before the game (he dresses to the left, cock fans), there’s little to complain about. Suárez is long gone – subsequently joined, connectedly, by Uruguay, after a sound thrashing by Colombia. The narrative (and I love a narrative, as has been pointed out to me on Twitter) is that one superstar is gone, and another is born: 22-year-old striker James Rodriguez, whose 29th-minute volley is being talked about as the goal of the tournament – and that’s with stiff competition.

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As already established, the post-England phase of any international cup is always my favourite part. No more residual stress about whether or not “our boys” can prove, or improve, their world ranking, and the sheer joy of being able to cheer on whichever team I like, switching allegiance mid-game if I fancy. I do not blame the whole of Uruguay for the developmental and denial issues of Suárez, although the shine did come off them as a result of his toothmanship and when Colombia went one up with That Goal, I pinned my allegiance to their yellow shirts, perhaps in subliminal solidarity with the hickey-marked Italy, or with Gloria from Modern Family.

Either way, poster boy Rodriguez, who’s now scored in all four of his World Cup games, delivered a magic moment when he chested, then left-footed a 25-yarder past the Uruguay goalie. To quote from the write-up by the BBC’s Phil McNulty, who will have seen and described more goals than I ever will do, “It was the most perfect combination of technique and talent, drawing gasps from around this iconic stadium when it was replayed on the four giant screens that hang from the roof of the vast bowl.”

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What a game Brazil Colombia will be on Friday (Colombia’s first ever quarter final). Another serious South American derby, especially now that Brazil have recovered their mojo. Their victory against Chile in the first knockout match may have been decided on penalties – just checking: nobody wants a World Cup match to go to penalties do they? – but it was no kickabout in the 120 minutes preceding.

A goal apiece from Brazil’s Alan Davies-haired David Luis and Chile’s Sanchez evened things out in the first half-hour, but the turning point came in the second half: a disallowed goal from Hulk, who appeared to use his bicep before getting one past Claudio Bravo, an anatomical subtlety identified and penalised by brave British ref Howard Webb, whose shiny head always makes me think of my last editor at the NME, and my own Uncle Phil, who was a professional referee in his prime, which seemed supercool to me as a boy. (We witnessed him spraying the medicinal-smelling Ralgex onto his legs before a game, which was an eye-opener. It was like he operated in another world and yet he was Uncle Phil.) Webb was at least balanced: he denied a penalty appeal by both sides. Much for the pundits to unpick at half-time.

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Those penalties. It was hot out there and even those used to the stifling humidity and wilting temperatures didn’t really want to play on for another 30 minutes. But there it was. Somebody must always go home empty handed from now on. Or empty-armed in Hulk’s case. If this game had been blocked and written in a writers’ room, then Hulk, so ambiguously denied his second, would-be-decisive goal, would have scored Brazil’s winning penalty, thus redeeming himself, and allowing Howard Webb to get home from work safely and sleep more easily. As it was, Hulk’s shot was saved by the estimable Bravo – bravo! – but it was Julio Cesar’s denial of Sanchez’s penalty kick – hail, Cesar! – that sealed it at 3-2 for the hosts. Tense, yes, a ridiculous in-out way to decide a match so steeped in chance and subtlety, but the shootout was not without nuance: Neymar’s mindfuck shuffle was quality entertainment.

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In our house, we’re still unable to get over the image of Holland’s star striker as a character in Game Of Thrones: Iron Robin. But this is a minor impediment to the enjoyment of watching him lead a seriously below-par team to a squeaked victory against my favourites Mexico. I decided they were my favourites during the first half, when they gave as good as they got and their first quarter final in 28 years seemed a delicious possibility. I love to watch Holland pass, but they couldn’t break the Mexican wall. If I had more analytical skills, I’d tell you precisely why like Glenn Hoddle did at half-time when it was still 0-0, but I find it difficult to follow him. It was 38.8C out there, and fans unlucky enough to be sat in the sun literally abandoned their seats. If both teams had agreed only to play in the shade throughout, I would have taken my hat off to them, and then put it back on again for protection. It may have explained the Dutch failure to convert. The Netherlands is not a hot country, and the orangemen (sorry) who aren’t bald, have shaggy dog hair – neither ideal in a bake-off.

HolMexQsave I know this much, Mexico’s keeper Guillermo Ochoa was the man of the match. Commentator Sam Matterface may have mocked him for looking like something out of an “80s fitness video” (he favours a thick headband to keep his head looking like a tied-up bunch of fresh carrots), but his quick-witted ability saw a parade of Dutch chances punched, slapped or body-bounced off the line. When Mexico’s Dos Santos put them one-up at the start of the second half from the fabled 25 yards (I don’t even know what a yard looks like), things really hotted up. Holland didn’t equalise until the 88th minute – despite Iron Robin’s repeated attempts to lie down in the penalty area and feign injury – but the man we call V2 Schneider (but is actually called Wesley Sneijder) turned it around in style. Hallucinatory extra time seemed inevitable, but Robin finally had his way, earned a penalty after a Marquez trip-up, and Easter Island-browed substitute Klaas Jan Huntelaar scored the winner from the spot. As you will see from this picture, the wrong player is called Hulk.

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Because I remained a loyal Mexico supporter to the end, telling anyone who’d listen, including our cat, that they deserved to go through, I was crestfallen by Holland’s zero-hour comeback, as juicy and dramatic as it was. Also, as with the Oscars, I like surprises and dislike sure things. But with whole sections of the crowd burnt to a crisp like extras in Threads and welded to their plastic seats like puddles of face paint, Holland celebrated not just getting through to the quarter finals, but to a potentially comfy tie against either Costa Rica or Greece (it turned out to be the former).

On with the games.

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Brazeel, BrazeelDay 7 of the World Cup; 16 games into the group stages; one cardigan; one headbutt; one smashed studio window; one England goal. But it’s not about England. Alright, it is a bit. If you’re new to my expert football writing, I do not profess – and never have done – to being a football fan in the sense of someone who lives for when Saturday comes and knows who scored what and when against whom and was transferred from where for how much. I do not follow club football, and I have no team (which is how come I was able to “support” Norwich City for a year or so when I was first on 6 Music, out of heartfelt allegiance to Gary, an ardent fan who worked on the show). The closest I get to such a thing is to feel a sort of vague geographical pull deep in my guts for England, and they make me pay for that sentimental weakness. We’ll come back to them presently.

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If you are halfway interested in my previous football reports from World Cups, please put “World Cup” into the search engine above right. I re-read a few entries yesterday and was frankly impressed by the level of detail and observation. Was I really so blessed with free time in the summers of 2010 and 2006? Apparently so. Unlike most top football players, I appear to working harder and earning less. Ah well, let’s give this roundup a crack.

I  must admit, watching Brazil fail to be Brazil against Mexico last night, and thus seeing a team play for the second time, I started to feel a bit of context forming around my position as a well-meaning fairweather enthusiast running to stand still and then finding out that standing still is pointless and running again. As the group stages unfold, generalisations can be confidently made, themes and tropes harden into a narrative, and hairstyles and habits can be matched with men and their positions in teams.

Due to being in Northampton last week, I was able to experience the first night – ie. the interminable interpretative dance-based opening ceremony and speculative heel-kicking in advance of the tournament’s first nightmarishly late kickoff – at my sister’s house with three card-carrying male football fans: my brother-in-law Graham and two of their boys, Ben and William, both glued to iPads throughout, naturally. (Although this enabled Ben to find out if “Hulk”, “Fred” and “Oscar” were the actual names of the Brazilian players so listed – no, yes and yes.) Due to school and work in the morning, staying up until the final whistle was tricky, so I nipped home at half-time and continued watching at Mum and Dad’s, on my own. Beers were taken, as is traditional. I fear for my waistline over the next month. Last World Cup, I had to foreswear the hops and move to chilled tapwater, mid-tournament.

Once it eventually kicked off, Brazil Croatia was entertaining enough. With a welcome early-ish Brazilian goal – albeit on behalf of Croatia – the game and World Cup at least broke their duck at 11 minutes. Defender Marcelo – and not blameless, brilliantly-named keeper Julio Cesar – will have to live with the unwelcome accolade: Brazil’s first ever World Cup own goal. Although what his OG meant ultimately was that Brazil basically played themselves to 3-1. Incidentally, Marcelo is one of an alarming number of players with a “sleeve” tattoo. I respect them but don’t like them. And I won’t have to wake up to one when I’m 70 and they will.

Poster boy Neymar (who my Guardian World Cup Guide tells me plays for Barcelona, a city being homogenised by the holiday cruise ship trade, so I read elsewhere in the Guardian) scored two for his own team, once in each half, the first from 25 yards, the second from the penalty spot after “Fred” was fouled (sorry, Fred was “fouled”). I have little context beyond their World Cup performance in 2010 to help place their continued international brilliance, but I have learned that Neymar keeps scoring for them. (I have major trouble remembering previous World Cups and Euros. I can just about recall which countries they took place in; this is what happens when you take your eye off the ball for two-year stretches.)

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I missed Chile beat Australia and Mexico beat Cameroon (I usually enjoy watching the African sides play, so I’ll remedy this), but the big goal haul came with Spain Netherlands, a decisive 5-1 dismantling of a once formidable team now in the doldrums. You could tell a lot had changed since I last saw Spain reign: when Torres was brought on in the last act, the BBC commentator wondered aloud why coach del Bosque had even bothered playing him. How the mighty are fallen, even when they’ve moved on from their Alice-band period. (Spain have not conceded five goals in a World Cup since 1950, stat fans.) Good to see some other old faces: non-too-shabby Xabi Alonso, who took the misleading penalty for Spain at the top of the shop; Holland’s statuesque Arjen Robben, who made it five at the other end; Robin van Persie, or RVP, who now seems now to be carrying the whole team on his shoulders, like Balotelli and Italy, or Messi and Argentina, or … cough … Rooney and England? (As we speak there is talk that Roy Hodgson might not even start Rooney against Uruguay as the owlish multilinguist seems to be all about the young players and I rather applaud him for that.)

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It might be remembered in all the easy Rooney-bashing that he set up England’s only goal of the tournament. England’s first game against Italy (get the toughest of their group out of the way first) was, initially, a revelation. Revelations are all relative, but “our boys” – and some of them are boys – seemed to be playing as a unit, pushing forward, creating chances, passing to each other. If you followed England during the friendlies here and in unfriendly Miami, you’ll already have a handle on their current form, but I didn’t. (Adrian Chiles made a remark last night about the general disdain for “soccer” among the Floridian camera operators he spoke to, who can’t get to grips with all the amateur-dramatic rolling around in pain involved in the game – they probably can’t understand why we don’t wear armour either, or split the matches up into tiny chunks to accommodate the advertisers.) I’m excited not to know so many of the England squad: Phil Jones? Luke Shaw? Raheem Sterling? Adam Lallana? Ross Barkley? Daniel Sturridge? I know who Sturridge is now, of course. His cool equaliser at 37 minutes, so soon after Marchisio’s goal for Italy, acted as a symbol for our raised hopes and dampened fears. I, for one, approached the second half with optimism, which duly evaporated like a line of that squirty cream the refs now carry on their utility belts. So we’re left with England in third place in Group D and Costa Rica first. It’s not over ’till it’s over, of course, but it’s started, hasn’t it?

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Mexico were “accomplished” against Brazeel last night, according to Jonathan Pearce (a man still confused by the goal-line technology: “NO GOAL!”). Free-flowing football was expected from Brazil; in actual fact, it was flowing-free. As I say, after witnessing two below-par Brazilian matches, I can now say with confidence that the team could provide a serviceable Kajagoogoo tribute act, or at least two Sideshow Bob lookalikes, should the bottom fall out of their football careers. I don’t know if he actually was the man of the match, but the man of the match was Guillermo Ochoa, the Mexican keeper, who’s definitely a “keeper”. Every time a Brazilian goal looked likely, there he was, with his supermop of hair bouncing behind his headband, in front of the ball: fists, chest, stomach, whichever part of him was nearest, as as graceless as it may have looked. (As Mark Lawrenson wryly commented, “You get no marks for artistic impression.”) It was enjoyable to see Fred replaced by Jo, who has even less letters in his full name.

If Brazil and Spain can cock up on the world stage, England are in good company.

What Brazil need to do is bottle the unity and spirit that was actually free-flowing during the singing of their massive national anthem, from the tortuously long intro to the a capella final verse. Tremendous. Accomplished. Total anthem singing.

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Writer’s blog, Week 26, Monday

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Back in London, as I missed the humidity, litter, scaffolding, oligarchs, controlled parking and housing bubble. They don’t even have an Aldi here! It’s Monday. A new week of fiddling while Rome burns, if fiddling is a metaphor for doing little bits of jobs rather than anything meaningful on a large-scale ongoing commission, and Rome is a metaphor for my career.

With Sitcom A in post-BBC3 limbo and Drama A in a holding pattern while a potential broadcaster gets round to reading the 32-page, 17,000-word synopsis (come on, hurry up!), my creative juices are being diverted into the channel marked “NEW IDEAS”. Although what we call in the trade “small jobs” overlapped and expanded to fill my three full days in glorious, sun-dappled, Northamptonian exile (a TV review for the Guardian Guide’s Other Side page which shouldn’t have taken that long but I still feel as if I’m on probation in the actual paper; my Telly Addict script plus clips; some time-consuming editing work which already feels as if it’s taken three times as much time as I charged for), I am now dedicating that key bumper period between being awake and falling asleep to formulating at least three new sitcom pitches.

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The World Cup is on. (The football one.) Because of the four- and five-hour time difference between here and Brazeel – to use the official pronunciation from ITV’s lilting credits sequence – some games kick off at 11 o’clock. At night. I’m usually tucked up in bed by then, not gearing up for 90 minutes of silky footballing action, sometimes involving a team that happens to share my nationality which has a Pavlovian effect on my general interest. England supplied their traditional dose of expectation and disappointment on Saturday night and into Sunday morning. I managed not to drink anything until 10pm, which was restraint in excelsis, but I was still imbibing at 1am, which is not my usual style unless at a wedding.

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This is me at the Guardian yesterday afternoon, fighting my way through the Lego (they’re doing their now-traditional Lego reenactments of the World Cup highlights, which are always a joy), to enact this week’s Telly Addict (coming imminently, watch this space) which includes a review of the opening ceremony and a little comment on the difference between the ITV and BBC presentation. I won’t be reviewing any games for the Guardian, and although somehow, in previous years, I’ve found time to post regular bulletins from World Cups and Euro Championships on this blog (representative samples: World Cup 2010, Euro 2012), I don’t see that luxury happening this tournament.

It’s not that I don’t have anything to say (Pogba’s cake-style haircut, Andy Townsend’s continued use of the phrase, “got a toe to it”), it’s just that the best pithy commentary comes from armchair experts on Twitter, and my brain isn’t big enough to have my phone on during televised matches. The TV picture, the phenomenal Guardian World Cup Guide, conversation: that’s quite enough stimulus for me. I admire you if you can cope with all that plus social media and stay sociable in the room.

I’ve enjoyed the high-scoring matches I’ve seen so far, by the way. Own goals, yellow cards, famous players being rubbish, headbutts, physio breaks his own ankle … it’s not been without incident, has it? I can’t believe I had to choose between it and the Game Of Thrones season finale. Culture can be so cruel.Blog16JunG2

I may well make this radiant, sanguine face while producer Tom has left the studio to do something important and to tread Lego into the carpet. There’s a serious insurgency afoot in Iraq, and as if the imminent destabilisation of the Middle East and a faction too horrible for al-Qaeda committing something we loftily call “war crimes” wasn’t depressing enough, it means Tony Blair is on my television and in my newspaper. Fuck off! Admit defeat! Go and live in Donald Rumsfeld’s house if you like it so much!

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Stop press: managed one World Cup game – the game of one half: Germany Portugal – and the finale of Game Of Thrones. The latter lacked a character as vicious, malevolent and ruthless as Pepe. And it went to penalties. [Throw in further Game Of Thrones/football allusions here]

Health, and safety

I have been co-writing a script which is now going into production. You know how I roll well enough by now, so I won’t name or describe the project. But I will tell you this: while writing the script, my co-writer and I enthusiastically set one scene in a park lake, and I mean in it. Two characters are in a rowing boat, and one of them has to walk through the shallow water to the shore. This is fine when it’s just words on a MacBook screen, but becomes an “issue” when the words have to be turned into action in front of a camera. We discovered – and we should have guessed – that filming in a lake is a Health & Safety nightmare.

Apparently, even in a shallow pond, once you put an actor into it up to their knees, tests have to be made on the water for specific diseases that may be present, inoculations are required, and a safety boat and a diver must be present. It’s not a problem. We changed the location of the scene. Not really a nightmare at all. But it made me think about the way that the concepts of health and safety have taken on negative connotations since being joined by ampersand in holy non-departmental matrimony. If, for instance, you glance at the Daily Mail, you will see Health & Safety constantly cited as a folk devil for our times; proof that the “nanny state” is out to ruin our lives with its focus on maintaining the rights of employees to work in safety, and without endangering their health. (Richard Littlejohn, the famous wit, likes to write it out as “Elf’n’Safety”, and although I’m not entirely sure why, you get his drift: the very idea is comical to him.)

The Healthy & Safety At Work Act was enshrined as long ago as 1974. It’s not a new concept. It’s not “New Labour”. The Health & Safety Executive, merged with the Health & Safety Commission, is responsible for “the encouragement, regulation and enforcement of workplace health, safety and welfare.” Some might say that its reach extends too far, and into farce, so that the simple act of going about one’s work is often a minefield of regulation and administration. But there is common sense at its heart.

In today’s Guardian, journalist David Conn has written a long and vigilant assessment of the safety failings that contributed to the death of 96 Liverpool fans at Hillsborough on 15 April 1989. It’s worth reading in full although I’ll precis it here. What struck me about this deadly litany of fudging and finger-crossing and hoping for the best is that the evil spectre of Health & Safety was nowhere to be seen, and look what happened. The Hillsborough Independent Panel, chaired by James Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool and charged with combing through all the evidence two years ago by Labour’s Alan Johnson, presented its findings last week, since which all manner of bodies have queued up to issue full, frank and unreserved apologies to the families of the dead, including South Yorkshire Police, the FA, the Sun (not that one more blot on News International’s copybook is going to make much difference this year) and a sniveling Boris Johnson, on behalf of The Spectator. But Conn’s report looks past the appalling mishandling of the situation by the police, and the disgraceful misreporting of the tragedy by the tabloid media, and points the spotlight at Sheffield Wednesday, whose application to host the ill-fated FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Forest in 1989 was made despite its ground’s safety certificate not having been updated since 1979.

It was, in modern parlance, a Health & Safety nightmare. According to the report, helpfully and clearly disseminated by the Guardian, “the risks were known and the fatal crush … was foreseeable.” Counsel on behalf of the Hillsborough Family Support Group is calling on the director of public prosecutions to charge Sheffield Wednesday for corporate manslaughter. This is an interesting development, but not one that should come as a surprise. News International have been punished, in Liverpool at least, ever since the egregious Sun headline of April 19, 1989 (“THE TRUTH”). It seems likely that those officers at fault within South Yorkshire Police will at least be investigated by the IPCC. But what of the owners of the stadium itself?

I didn’t know this, but there was a “serious crush” at the Leppings Lane terrace in 1981, at which 38 people were injured. The club’s then-chairman Bert McGee, reacting to the police’s claim that they had averted “a real chance of fatalities” in a post-match meeting, replied, “Bollocks – no-one would have been killed.” This cavalier attitude to health and safety masks a much deeper contempt for the fans. The club erected those metal fences which created “pens”, something the report said made “a demonstrably unsafe terrace dangerous.” A supporter wrote to the FA after another crush at the “old, inadequate” turnstiles in 1988, calling the Leppings Lane terrace “a death trap.” What a chillingly prescient prediction; what a shame it was from a fan. Fans appear not to have mattered much to the FA, or Sheffield Wednesday, in 1988.

The FA asked Wednesday no questions about safety when it awarded them the FA Cup semi in 1989. Lord Justice Taylor, who delivered the first report four months after the disaster, listed all of the club’s “safety deficiencies and breaches of the Home Office Guide to Safety in Sports Grounds (or Green Guide)”, and described Leppings Lane – whose name is now etched on the minds of all who remembers that horrible day – as “unsatisfactory and ill-suited to admit the numbers invited.” The new report merely underlines these findings.

There was a disconnect between the club’s eagerness to host a glamour tie and count the ticket money of the 54,000 people who attended, and the reality of safely siphoning those fans into the stands. 10,100 fans came from Liverpool, and yet the turnstiles at Leppings Lane were “too few to admit so many supporters.” The tunnel into the pens had a gradient of one in six, much steeper than the Green Guide maximum; 40% of the fans were too far from the prescribed distance to an exit; the crush barriers were the wrong height and too far apart; and liaison between the club and the police – as we know – “failed.”

Good heavens, it really is a nightmare, and yet most of this stuff we’re only officially treating as gospel  now. (I think most ordinary people knew what went wrong at the time. Certainly Jimmy McGovern’s powerful Hillsborough made it plain in 1996.) But Sheffield Wednesday never admitted liability and not a single director or employee of the club resigned at the time. They didn’t even put up a memorial until 1999. As you know, I’m not a dedicated follower of league football. I come at this story from a pretty casual stratum of devotion to the sport, so if it sounds like I have it in for Wednesday, I clearly don’t; my reaction is based on what I’m reading – and, more viscerally, what I remember so vividly from the heartbreaking news pictures on the day. Trevor Hicks, chairman of the HFSG, speaks of the club’s “contempt” for those fans that died, or their families.

Sheffield Wednesday only made an official apology last Wednesday, on the morning of the report. Dave Richards, who took over from McGee as chairman in March 1990 – apparently prompted to join the board by what he saw on the day at Hillsborough – presided over the dead-air period when the club refused to memorialise the tragedy. He left in 2000, since which he’s been a well-rewarded chairman at the Premier League (his salary last year was £347,000). Under his chairmanship at Sheffield, the ground became all-seated. But the Guardian says that he now admits he didn’t put a memorial up to the 96 who died after legal advice; he was advised that if they put up a plaque it would compromise the club’s denial of liability. This is pretty rum. The families’ lawyer – who happens to be Charlie Falconer, former Blair flatmate and then Lord Chancellor, but wipe those old prejudices aside – says, “The idea that Sheffield Wednesday putting up a memorial would amount to admitting liability is utter rubbish … they wanted to reduce their association with the disaster as much as possible.”

Yes, that Health & Safety disaster.

It’s all too easy to fall in line with lazy, Daily Mail orthodoxy and regard Health & Safety with sneering disdain. But if Hillsborough’s safety certificate had been renewed at any time between 1979 and 1989, maybe 96 people wouldn’t be dead (41 of those deaths are currently adjudged to have been avoidable). It might be slightly irritating to have to wear a high-viz tabard, or a safety helmet, or protective gloves, in the workplace, but the same paranoia behind such measures might have reduced the chances of Leppings Lane becoming a “death trap”, into which fans were herded, down an inappropriate gradient, with many different sorts of contempt and neglect.

When representatives of official bodies give a “full and unreserved apology”, as the FA did, you have to check the wording. Are they really apologising fully? Or are they actually apologising partially, in order to avoid admitting liability?

I have been able to rewrite a comedy script to that an actor doesn’t have to be inoculated and stand in a pond, by relocating the scene to a children’s playground. Not so easy to rewrite – or relocate – Hillsborough.