When the net ripples

It has become clichéd for footballers to talk about whether or not scoring a goal is better than making love; Paul Ince even claimed that tackling was better than sex, which raises more questions than it answers, not least in relation to the importance of wearing shin pads. No doubt in the modern game scoring off the field is becoming easier than on it, thanks to a combination of enlightened defensive tactics introduced by foreign managers and Chinawhite’s door policy, but — with apologies to the cliché police — certain similarities remain hard to ignore. The glorious anticipation. The rising excitement. A moment of ecstasy that subsides into mere joy, accompanied by a soundtrack of thrilled exclamations and stifled screams of delight. And the analogy doesn’t end there. Note the guilt and self-loathing that attacked Shaun Wright-Philips within seconds of his sneaky “solo-effort” against Chelsea. And in 1998 I’m sure I saw Fabien De Freitas roll over and fall asleep immediately after scoring his second againstNorwich.

Facing the goal-vs-sex question in an uber-glamorous Metro interview in 2009, Ian Wright suggested that a player’s given answer would reveal a lot about their sex life. But actions speak louder than words. What could be more revealing than the behaviour we see in the seconds following a goal? Does it give us a glimpse of the goalscorer’s inner sexual soul? The lover within? The footballing world was shocked to learn of the extent of the shy and understated Ryan Giggs’ lascivious wassails, but wasn’t that hairy celebration against Arsenal a giveaway sign of the wild lothario hidden inside the wholesome yoga-toned frame?

How far can we push this analogy? Gary Lineker raises his hands to the heavens after equalising against Germany and we glimpse the joy of a man bedding a woman way out of his league. Jurgen Klinsmann’s self-deprecating dive to celebrate his debut goal in England suggests a man who’s not afraid to laugh while on the job. He’s the kind of guy who will happily joke about his own phallic inadequacy or erectile dysfunction, no matter how seriously Pele tells him to take it. There’s a heartbroken female somewhere in Manchester who thought she saw love in Emmanuel Adebayor’s eyes as he was bearing down on her, only to realise later that he’d only had sex with her to spite his ex. Meanwhile Alan Shearer, whose name is of course an anagram of Vanilla Shag, must be as bland in the bedroom as his punditry on Match of the Day; that drab salute tells you it’s going to be the same every time, and why shouldn’t it be? Who cares how many positions Prince can do in a one-night stand if our Alan can do the one so perfectly well?

The crass and superficial among us might look to countries like Italy andSpain for the hot-blood of Latin lovers inherent in goal celebrations. But then we see Francesco Totti sucking his thumb, longing no doubt for the pre-sexual innocence of his mother’s lap. And despite the rimming connotations ring-kissing might trigger in a filthy British mind, in Madrid it signifies Raul’s loyalty and love for his wife and his Real. Cross the Atlantic to stereotypically hot South America and the image that comes back is even more wholesome than that of Raul caressing the third digit on his left hand: Bebeto’s arms rocking the baby son he has yet to hold. They’re good boys those Brazilians. They belong to Jesus, and God knows sex is just for procreation.

I won’t risk wandering into the homo-erotic by wondering about the significance of Roger Milla’s rhythmic hips, or Lomana Lua Lua’s gymnastic flexibility. And it’s perhaps best not worth considering any possible links between Finidi George’s “pissing dog” celebration and either bestiality or showers of a golden variety. Ipswich supporters will of course attest to seeing Finidi take the piss without any goals available to celebrate. For legal reasons I probably shouldn’t mention the fact that Michael Owen’s celebration after scoring against Argentina in 1998 always put me in mind of a jewellery-jangling Jimmy Saville; recent revelations have obviously taken that connection to horrifically dark places. Darker still is the image of having sex with a cocaine-snorting Robbie Fowler, an eye-popping on-something Maradonna, or even a robotic piss-streaking Peter Crouch. Feel free to cross out the words “a robotic” and “piss-streaking” from that last sentence, unless of course you are currently wearing a short skirt and queueing up outside Chinawhite (in which case, save your eyeliner for later; you’re going to need it).

Just as lovemaking should be spontaneous and free, so surely must goal celebrations. Search Youtube for Stjarnan FC of Iceland and you’ll find a catalogue of elaborate and expertly choreographed celebrations, performed by pretty much all the outfield players together, to which my words can do little justice. With names like bicycle, toilet, rowing team, and birth, the celebrations make for an impressive montage, and the guy who plays the hooked fish in fishing deserves some kind of award, but at the risk of coming over all Jimmy Hill, this is certainly not something I want to see creeping into the English game. Players get booked for diving into the crowd in case doing so incites violence. Pretend to have a dump after scoring against Millwall and I think you pretty much deserve the ensuing violence.

Anyone with a soul will of course point to the brilliance of Jimmy Bullard’s piss-take of his then-manager Phil Brown, sitting his teammates down and giving them a telling off after scoring against Man City. And no English man can remember Gazza and the dentist’s chair without heartstrings tugging and yearning for happier, more innocent days. So perhaps the choreographed celebration isn’t quite the post-goal equivalent of premeditated rape after all. But ah, I’ll reply, have you not forgotten Didier Drogba playing the corner flag as a guitar with Florent Malouda standing behind him playing a tiny air drumkit? The only sexual equivalent as embarrassing would be to walk in our parents engaging in rubber-clad S&M, and realising that your dad is the letterbox rather than the postman. Pre-planned group celebrations: no thank you.

Of course there are some footballers who celebrate goals with such aggression that you fear for the damage they might do in more amorous peaks of excitement. I suspect that the queues outside Temuri Kestbaia’s bedroom door are pretty short, for instance, and not just because he once wore the foul orange shirt of Wolverhampton Wanderers. Sex and violence are not a pleasant combination, and as a society we should all be concerned that someone somewhere might have had sex with a golf-club-wielding Craig Bellamy, a spiteful revenge-fuelled Ruud Van Nistelory, or a machine-gun-toting Robbie Keane (see also Rob Earnshaw — which starts to raise concerns about short footballers in general).

At a time when it’s our duty to be outraged by anything we don’t truly understand, we of course have to consider an ambiguous and hitherto unknown (at least inside Upton Park where it was “unleashed”) French gesture named after a dumpling (obviously) to be as shocking as the more recognisable salutes performed in stadia by Paulo Di Canio and Giorgos Katidis. While it must be terrible for a post-coital Mrs Di Canio to open her eyes and see her lover gazing wistfully at his Mussolini poster, spare a thought for anyone who has to spend the climax of any sexual encounter looking at Nicholas Anelka’s bored and miserable face. Anelka’s Quenelle has opened up a can of worms so ambiguous that if you tickle them in the middle, they smile at both ends, but surely his best defence against accusations of hate crimes is the fact that hatred is an emotion and there has never been any time during his career at which Anelka has looked capable of expressing an emotion. It does at least make sense that one of his best friends is a comedian who isn’t funny. It’s difficult to imagine Klinsmannesque laughter in Le Sulk’s bedroom.

Any psychoanalyst worth their salt will tell you that the sexual proclivities of the adult can be traced back to childhood (I’m making this up — I don’t even know if psychoanalysts accept condiments in payment for therapy). One of my earliest childhood memories of a goal celebration was the epic ecstasy of Marco Tardelli streaming away from the half-volley he’d just unleashed in the 1982 World Cup Final. But Tardelli’s body language is more reverential than sexual, and it’s clear that goals of great beauty and magnitude are spiritual, not corporeal. They belong to a higher power. I knew this for sure, of course, when Darren Bradley’s screamer flew in against Wolves in 1993. The sexual equivalent could only take place in heaven itself, quite possibly with a cherubic Wayne Fereday plucking away at a harp on a nearby cloud.

With the choices I’ve made in life up until now, I’m not expecting to ever have sexual intercourse with a footballer. But if life had panned out differently, I’d want my lover to be confident and in control, assured of their own brilliance and magic. Brian Laudrup, resting on his elbow after equalising against Brazil, perhaps. Cantona with his collar up, unmoved but radiating magnificence after a goal of rare rare beauty against Sunderland. Well, would.

A beautifully illustrated version of this piece can be found in Issue 8 of Pickles Magazine.

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Confessions of an accidental travel agent

The Barclays Premier League. Listen to any obedient top-flight manager being interviewed these days and you’ll hear those four words repeated far more often than “sick as a parrot”, “game of two halves”, “set our stall out”, or “over the moon, Brian”. Not even a minor speech impediment could prevent Roy Hodgson from using the phrase at least 8 times in every interview given as manager of West Brom. Indeed his loyalty to the league’s sponsors presumably made him a shoe-in for his current role at the FA. Harry didn’t stand a chance. Since Barclays are yet to allow pets to set up current accounts, their name was never at the forefront of simple honest Mr Redknapp’s thoughts.

The Barclays Premier League. How just and true that the first division of my childhood is now sponsored by an institution that seeks to rob from the poor to reward the rich. Any bank’s directors will happily spunk our money away on meaningless luxuries and expect us to bail out when it’s all gone. How fitting they should choose the Premier League as a product worthy of their sponsorship.

The Barclays Premier League (hereafter the BPL, you get what I’m trying to do stylistically, right?). This bank-sponsored product, this brand, is now as global as Nike and Starbucks and Apple and poverty and warming and any other globals you might care to mention. In Cambodia a couple of years ago I stayed in areas without roads or sanitation, but I was still able to watch the BPL’s West Brom get beaten by the BPL’s Fulham (no surprise about the result, obviously), surrounded by bewitched locals. The developing world salivates at the BPL’s riches in the way that gullible Cubans once ogledDynasty.

So the world is watching. It’s been watching for some time. Now, though, the world is coming to watch. An Asian fan wearing a half-and-half scarf rises from his seat among City fans to photograph a celebrating Wayne Rooney, and this is no longer a surprising sight. We may all long for stadia that provide a safe haven for anyone who wants to watch a game, do we want to extend a welcome to the tourists who believe the hype about our top-flight and our top top players, but who quite frankly don’t give a long-haul flying fuck about our clubs? The football tourist is here. They want a half-and-half scarf, they want to take photos, and they want to spend at least an hour in the club shop.

I have a confession to make. As a teacher of English as a Foreign Language, I’ve helped dozens of football tourists attend games which I felt they had no right to attend. I help them understand Man United’s fixture list, get membership at Arsenal, buy tickets at Chelsea, book coaches to Liverpool; whatever they need help with, I do it. I gave up trying to encourage them to go elsewhere long ago. When I worked in language schools in Lonodn, I’d regularly get approached — typically on a Friday — by students keen to experience a football match in England. I’d always start with lower league teams in London and always got looks of impatient dissatisfaction. “No. Premier League”. So I’d look to see if Charlton or Fulham were at home that weekend. “No, Premier League. Manchester United. Chelsea”. Some student had specific fixtures in mind (“Manchester United v Liverpool”) and eyed me with suspicion when I told them that a) these two weren’t playing each other this weekend, b) Neither of those teams play in London, and c) You won’t get tickets for a game like that anyway. “This guy clearly doesn’t know what he’s talking about” there were no doubt thinking. “He doesn’t even have a Premier League Team”. (I’ve long been accustomed to conversations in which my half goes: “Well, “favourite” isn’t really the right word, but I SUPPORT West Bromwich Albion. Have you heard of them? No? Well, we were actually the first club to visit China…no Elton John wasn’t involved…no, we don’t really have any star players…WBA? No? No, not West HAM. No I don’t have a Premier League team I support. It doesn’t really work like that…why not? Well, have you ever considered selling your own mother? Hmmm, never mind…” Incidentally, this sentiment has survived even now my team are well-established in the Premier League).

So many times I’ve just wanted to shout at them “you just don’t understand!” (an urge that arises quite often in EFL classrooms). I’ve sat biting my lips through an awful presentation on football in which the “expert” Chinese postgraduate student told his audience that the Jules Rimet trophy was replaced because it got stolen in Brazil (he also told me “I don’t think WBA is good” but I didn’t take it personally). You don’t understand! Middle-age men wandering round Yokohama shopping centres in Chelsea shirts: you don’t understand. A fellow-passenger on a Japanese train, heading home from the world club championship final with his immaculate Manchester United scarf sitting uncomfortably on his shoulders : you don’t understand.

It gets worse. The European student I played football against, wearing a Chelsea shirt with Shevchenko on the back. An ageing mercenary is signing for a football club bankrolled by human rights abuses in Russia? Well I’ll need something to commemorate that momentous even in the history of football. Of course this was before the golden era of Qatari Foundations and Etihadstadiums. Yes I would like to celebrate developing countries pissing their oil money away into the gaping mouths of talented individuals who’ve never heard of the FA cup. It’s worse when you’ve seen what I’ve seen. In world cup years I’ve had conversations with Saudi students who refer to Brazil as “we”. We? I had the pleasure of entering a London schools 6-a-side tournament with a group of students. I took great delight in handing out a motley assortment of bygone Baggies shirts. While MY Brazilians (only one of them a ringer, honest) lovingly pulled on MY stripes, a rival team of mixed international students entered the changing room, each already wearing their own Brazil shirts, though not a Portuguese-inflected brogue could be hear among the lot of them. (Incidentally lads, loved your fancy ball-juggling skills in the changing rooms, but I noticed you’d already left by the time we kicked off our semi-final…in which we were robbed, of course).

I once taught a Korean student who, when introducing himself to classmates, asked his new friends to call him “Mr Rooney”, which would be easier to pronounce than his real name. Mr Rooney’s favourite Premier League team? Liverpool of course. His best friend, another Korean Liverpool fan, took the piss further. I helped him book a ticket for a Champions League game at Anfield, along with a room in a nearby hostel. When we booked his coach, however, he wanted to go via Manchester so that he could visit that popular haunt for Liverpool fans, the megastore atOld Trafford. He later told me that during the match that night he’d been surprised at how many fellow-Liverpudlians told him to put his camera away and stop taking pictures. Little did they know that his SD card held photos of him posing outside Old Trafford with Christiano Ronaldo and Anderson, who just happened to be passing as he arrived ready to shop United.

Ronaldo

And I didn’t like it when they later WANTED to come to see West Brom. A couple of away trips to Crystal Palace were fine, but when the Japanese students wanted to see Inamoto…wanting to sit on the front row (no!) expressing a dislike for Jonathon Greening for keeping Inamoto out of the side….that didn’t make me much happier either. What was driving this interest? Why did they care about an individual rather than a team. If I was living overseas I wouldn’t make any effort at all to go and watch a particular player just because he’s English. I did, however, form part of an 8-strong away end in an Italy v Wales U21 match in Italy because I wanted to see if then Albion reserve Danny Gabidon was any good. (I didn’t admit it at the time, but in case you’re wondering, he wasn’t).

For me there’s a far more acceptable type of football tourism — one that chases the game and not the product: visiting all the grounds in the country, say, and 1000-miles pilgramages to Charlton or Iceland. When teaching in Japan, I once watched Sunday league football against a backdrop of Mount Fuji because I went in search of a volcano and chanced upon an amazingly situated football pitch. I went to work in Italy expecting to attend Serie A games at every ground within a 3 hour journey of the school I worked at in Ferrara. But on my first weekend I went to see Spal, the third-tier club whose stadium sat handily in the same street as my digs. It was dire. Spal were awful: slow, cynical, and relying more long balls than I’d seen since Bobby Gould managed the Albion. But they wore blue and white stripes and I ended up going back as often as I could. I never did see Recoba and Nakata playing for Venezia, or Signori for Bologna; I never saw the pre-bankrupt Fiorentina, or the inside of the San Siro. Perhaps I’m just not that kind of tourist? But there I was singing along at Spal, tourist all the same.

Am I a hypocrite? No. What’s the difference? Our game and the world game. Our game is a pie at Wigan or a roast pork bap outside the ground. The world game is the preferred supermarket of the Confederations Cup and the German World Cup stadia in which only American beer could be consumed, and where renegade marketing of rival products will land you in a Sepp Blatter-governed jail. It’s the clarity of the words “Qatari foundation” as FIFA 2013 boots up. . The world games is the one driven by money. Money’s got nothing to do with 22 salarymen having a kickabout in the shadow of a massive volcano, and Spal was cheap and convenient, but that’s not why I went back.

Sadly there are kids who only know the world game. Who no doubt value a fake shirt with a millionaire’s name on more than the prospect of two hours with their dad watching a team from THEIR town get beaten 4-0 from some slick bastards from up the road.

Of course it’s not just about what’s going on overseas. Go and watch any big club in a League Cup game (i.e. when whatever they call their third tier members get a chance to buy tickets) and you’ll see wide-eyed Brits touristing it up, taking photos of themselves with a statue of someone they’ve never heard of, and desperately hoping the Mexican wave comes around soon. They’re there for the world game too. When we were kids and only had our game, they were the ones helping out the geography teacher set up his weather box. As smart adolescents they probably once said something clever about the ridiculousness of watching a group of men chase an inflated leather bladder around. They never got our game, but the world game suits them fine.

On a bookcase in my office I have a Liverpool mug, a gift from a grateful Chinese student who I’d helped get tickets to some meaningless European tie at Anfield. I’ve hated Liverpool since they won everything in my childhood, but I didn’t tell the student that, and I’ve kept the mug on display because looking at is the closest some of my Liverpool “supporting” colleagues will ever get to attending a match involving “their” team. In my heart of hearts I have less time for these far-flung fans than their counterparts from the Far East. But what to do when Philip from St Albansor Jeon-suk from Korean is sat in front of you with his camera at the ready the next time a big club comes to your town.

Don’t hate him. Don’t hurt him. Don’t threaten to strangle him with that half and half scarf. Don’t tell him to stick his camera up his arse. If you want to come here to our ground then that’s fine. But please…just sit and fucking suffer like the rest of us.

A shorter and version of this piece can be found in Issue 6 of the beautiful Pickles Magazine.

On nationalism

“English & proud. If you are too, read this leaflet!” ENGLISH & PROUD is the largest text on a glossy fold of A4 currently being posted through letterboxes across the country. It’s a message from a right wing “political” party, compelling the public to show their pride on the 22nd of May by voting for the English Democrats, whoever the fuck they are. Sitting neatly alongside this urge for proud English behavior at the ballotbox is an emblem far more readily associated with the England football team than the European elections: the three lions. It’s no surprise, perhaps, as we head towards a World Cup, that English nationalists should try to cash in on the imagery of the national football team. But wherever did we get the notion that there’s any sense in being PROUD of your nationality? Your nationality relates to the circumstances in which you are born and raised; it’s about where you’re from and not what you’ve achieved. Back in August we didn’t expect Manuel Pellegrini to feel proud that he had the Premier League’s best squad and the most money available for adding to it; fair enough, perhaps, if he wants to feel proud that by the season his squad had accrued the most points.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a fellow 12-year-old after at a school in the South East, not long after my family had relocated from the midlands. I was shocking at how many kids at my new school claimed to be supporters of successful clubs to which they had no genuine attachment or association. One boy in particular, who “supported” Everton wound me up more than most. “Have you ever even been to Everton?” I asked him, to which he made some kind of Joey Deacon face / noise and said “Everton isn’t a place. Everton’s in Liverpool”. If only we’d had Google Maps back then. And this was the sort of kid who would refer to Everton as “we”, with PRIDE. How cheap is pride if it can be derived from backing the obvious winner? Likewise, to be proud of a past that neither you nor anyone you no made a contribution to is bullshit. Much better to be proud of who you are now and what you represent now. And if you’re not, do whatever you can to make the present something to be proud of.

View story at Medium.com

Goals on film

At 19, Michael Owen had won the Premier League Golden boot twice and was one year away from winning the Ballon D’Or.  And he’d never read a book.  He revealed this, ironically enough, while being interviewed at the launch of what some might call his premature autobiography, Michael Owen In Person.  Not only this, he’d only ever seen the whole of ONE film, and that, bizarrely enough, was the Jamaican bobsled comedy Cool Runnings.   Michael, you should have managed a couple of football films at least.  You like the number 7, so here are 7 things you could have learned:

  1. Nobody wants you to become a professional footballer.  You and all your potato-faced mates have supported Sheffield United since forever, and you’ve got a once-in-a-lifetime make-or-break trial first thing in the morning, but what’s more important?  Playing football for your beloved Blades and becoming a wildly successful millionaire footballer, or drinking some more pints right now. It’s a no-brainer.  Neck it Sean. When Saturday Comes, we want you hungover like the rest of us. Oh, and watch out football-playing girls if your furious family are all racial stereotypes.  You can forget about Bending it like Beckham; get to your room and wait for an arranged marriage, or whatever we like to imagine they do in your fictional minority culture.

 

  1. It’s all about dribbling.  Good footballers dribble.  They dribble from one end of the pitch to the other and then side-foot the ball into the net.  Close control has no role to play in the dribbling.  Watch Dorothy in Gregory’s Girl weave her way through a typically sprawling Scottish defence, the ball never more than, say, a metre away from her toes.  And she’s a girl!  In America, not only girls, but weedy boys (Kicking and Screaming) and Soccer Dogs can achieve similar glorious success with lame dribbling montage after lame dribbling montage, believed to be known in the industry as “the Wanchope sequence”.

 

  1. Substitutes take penalties. Your debut will be as a substitute, quite possibly only days after your trial (which for some reason took place in an allotment).  If you get on the pitch and the ref points to the spot, it doesn’t matter that nobody in the ground knows who you are.  You’re taking it.  (To see this work really well in a movie, hunt out the Brazilian film Linha de Passe.  You’ll end up forgiving the implausibility and possibly wanting to watch The Italian Job again…erm…spoiler alert, kind of).

 

  1. Sometimes you’ve got to take one for the team. The team needs Sylvester Stallone to go in goal so that he can help us all escape at half time. All you need to do is rest your arm between two planks while Michael Caine stamps on it.  Your response?  “Try to make it a clean break”.  That’s the spirit.

 

  1. Nazis are evil. Look at the way they cheat in Escape to Victory.  The constant fouling, the bribing (or something similar, probably) of the ref.  Pele’s broken ribs.  There’s something strangely sinister about those Nazis. I can’t put my finger on it, but it might be the swastika and lace-up collar combination on their shirts.

 

  1. Stoke City are worse than the Nazis. OK, so this is inference, but if we’re ever going to get anywhere in life, we all have to agree that what Stoke City want to do to our beautiful game is just as bad as what Hitler wanted to do to Europe.  At least the Germans don’t try to throw the ball into the Allies’ net.  At least the Nazi major stands up and applauds the beauty of Pele’s bicycle kick.  Not even the Nazis would boo a player for having the audacity to get his leg broken by Ryan “not-that-kind-of-lad” Shawcross.

 

  1. Football is joyful.  The games lesson scene in Kes captures it perfectly.  Even in bitterly cold weather with a ball that stings and a sadistic bully of a teacher, in spite of all the inherent injustice, a game of football is a joyful event.  See the magical scene in the Swedish film Tilsammans, when the entire hippy commune is out playing football in the garden.  Everyone can join in, no matter how hairy, sad-faced, or confused about their sexual orientation they are.  It’s truly joyful. Compare this with any orgy scene in any film and you’ll see that yes, football is better than sex, and unlike sex it actually improves once children become involved.

And this is what you should have learned from movies Michael Owen.  It’s not about your huge salaries and your helicopters, properties, racehorses, and your embarrassing prospectus.  It’s definitely not about ending your career in the reserves at worse-than-the-Nazis Stoke City.  It’s all about the joy.

  • Michael Owen in Person is available from £0.01 used on Amazon, where readers have awarded it 4 ½ stars. You might also be interested in the similarly inspiring titles Gerrard: My Autobiography and, err, Carra : My Autobiography.  Who says Liverpool are no longer a great club?