The moment Lionel Messi lifted the trophy after Argentina beat Brazil in the final of the Copa América on 10 July was a landmark in football history, almost as significant as Pelé’s breaking all records to win his third World Cup with Brazil in 1970.
If someone were to ask me how I spent my summers, the books I read, the fashions I liked (or didn’t) with each passing year, I would have little to no recollection. If you asked me where I was (and who I was) during a football tournament, I think I could tell you with a great degree of accuracy. There is something melancholic about the end of a large tournament, maybe to do with measuring life in trophies and seasons, or the way it signals that the end of summer is approaching. I look back on tournaments with the nostalgia non-football fans might feel for – I don’t know – royal weddings, general elections or solar eclipses.
Something strange happens to fans when they watch football. Even more so when watching the national team. For many, as their team progresses through a tournament, superstition takes over. They have to wear the same shirt (unwashed) as last time, or be in the same place to watch the game. The weather’s the same – an omen surely? Is the match on the BBC or ITV? In the 1998 World Cup, England even had their own faith healer. But Eileen Drewery couldn’t stop them losing to Argentina on penalties in the second round and was among the reasons Glenn Hoddle got sacked as manager the following year.
One of my happiest memories of Brazilian football comes from about fifteen years ago, when Botafogo were playing Fluminense at the Maracanã stadium in Rio de Janeiro. For reasons that were unclear even then, officials had opened only part of the ground, leaving thousands of fans milling around outside in search of tickets. My friend managed to get two from a tout but as we lined up to push through the turnstiles there was a commotion to our left. A crowd was running towards the massive iron gates. Within seconds they had forced them open and were stampeding through. As the security guards scattered, I nudged my friend and we ran, joining the throng that charged into the half empty ground. When we sat down my friend asked: ‘What was all that for? We had tickets.’ ‘We’ll always remember this,’ I replied. ‘The day we stormed the gates of the Maracanã.’
A rainy Tuesday in London was the backdrop to England v. Germany. England may have had home advantage but Germany had already won the battle of the brands: in order to prevent them going to Nike, Adidas have provided the German team with a lavish temporary home at the Adidas campus in Herzogenaurach. After a steady first half for both teams, Raheem Sterling scored in the 75th minute. When Germany’s Thomas Müller broke through on goal in the 82nd minute I held my breath, but he pulled his shot wide. Minutes later, Harry Kane scored England’s second and decisive goal. The current England squad isn’t so burdened by the nation’s history with Germany on the pitch or off, but the win felt poignant nevertheless.
Many Scotland fans will now lend their allegiance to Anyone But England. When Andy Murray was asked in 2006 who he would be supporting in the World Cup he cheekily replied: ‘Whoever England are playing against.’ The riposte caused tennis fans to brand Murray ‘anti-English’, a label which took some time to shake. If he made the comment now I think it would be more readily accepted. After years of Conservative government that very few people in Scotland voted for, why not Anyone But England?
‘He can look like God’s gift to the Union Jack soccer hooligan,’ Karl Miller wrote of Paul Gascoigne in July 1990, ‘and yet he can look sweet … He is sure to suffer from the intensified media build-up and cut down that awaits him. But at present, in his early twenties, he is magic, and fairy-tale magic at that.’ The LRB dedicated a front cover to Gascoigne’s tears in Turin in 1990. This year the England midfielder Phil Foden seemed to have dedicated an entire haircut to Gascoigne in an attempt to re-create his ‘Euro 96 vibes’. Foden claims it was inadvertent but doesn’t seem to mind the nickname ‘Stockport Gazza’. Gascoigne has reminded everyone that he was a better player ‘even when drunk’.
As they kick off, I’m thinking about England. I’m thinking I don’t care as much as I used to. The game is slow. I’m trying to tune out a man at the table behind, loudly asking no one but excited at the sound of his own voice: ‘Why is Sterling playing? Bring on Jack Grealish.’
Three weeks after the season ended, the Euros – postponed from last year and still confusingly branded as ‘Euro 2020’ – are about to start and the last couple of months have also seen the finals of the FA Cup, Champions League and Europa League, and the announcement and rapid abandonment of a European Super League. If that last sentence leaves you exhausted, spare a thought for the players. Trent Alexander-Arnold isn’t the only one missing the Euros because of an injury. The world stopped but football’s governing bodies barely took a minute. Money and greed, we go again.
I became a Manchester City fan out of principle, or contrariness. Most of the other boys at my infant school were United fans. ‘City are rubbish,’ they said. ‘No one likes City.’ After a couple of years I managed to persuade my dad – a South African with no interest in English football – to take me to a match. It was 12 December 1994 and we lost 2-1 to Arsenal. I don’t remember much about the football. I noticed the parking signs on the lampposts with distinct rules for ‘First Team Match Days’. Men were shouting and singing in the street. Football meant that the normal rules and habits of behaviour didn’t apply.
Last weekend, Premier League sides, media organisations, and sporting and political figures adhered to a social media boycott held to recognise the failure of sites such as Twitter and Facebook to tackle racism in football. From Friday to Monday, only a handful of organisations didn’t go along with the idea. One journalist was clearly sticking to the boycott until the news broke about Manchester United fans protesting against the Glazer family’s ownership of their club, causing their game against Liverpool to be postponed, at which point the journalist returned to Twitter to cover it, highlighting the inanity of the whole performance.
When the president of Real Madrid talks about ‘saving football’ he means as a business not a sport. A number of elite clubs have made untenable financial decisions in recent years (mostly regarding player contracts) that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Juventus, for example, use a fifth of their annual revenue to pay a single player: Cristiano Ronaldo.
When McDonald’s announced that it would be delivering a million free school meals to children in need, the fast food giant was said to have ‘shamed’ the government. But McDonald’s – with its union-busting techniques, poverty wages and insecure working conditions – isn’t shaming the government by intervening; it’s fulfilling one of the Conservatives’ key articles of faith: that people should be dependent on the will and generosity of the private sector and the free market. When the Conservative MP Ben Bradley claims that extending free school meals ‘increases dependency’ on the state, he is not only peddling a myth about the psychopathology of working-class people, but toeing the line that, even in a pandemic, we should not turn to the state.
Maybe it’s the patriarchy, maybe it’s the salaries, maybe it’s the bloated egos and the time spent wasted rolling around on the grass complaining. Even when you loathe the opposition there’s still admiration for any woman playing at a competitive level.
When I began working at the Freie Universität Berlin last September, I put up on the door of my office a photo of Bernhard Trautmann, captioned with Lev Yashin’s remark: ‘There have only been two world-class goalkeepers. One was Lev Yashin, the other was the German boy who played in Manchester, Trautmann.’
You won’t hear the word ‘yid’ sung at most Tottenham Hotspur matches. You’ll hear it sung at all of them. If you know which tunes to listen for, you’ll hear it whenever Spurs are on TV. The club has been Jewish-owned since 1982, and its Jewish associations go back to the 1920s. Most Spurs fans aren’t Jewish, but the story goes that when rivals began to target the Jewish minority with ‘yid’ songs in the 1960s, the rest ‘reclaimed’ the word on their behalf. Since then, every Spurs fan, and player, has been ‘a yid’. (I support Spurs and I’m not Jewish, although my father is.) Last week, the World Jewish Congress condemned football fans for using ‘yid’, ‘either as a self-designated nickname or as a slogan against rivals’, because it carries ‘a distinctly pejorative and anti-Semitic message’. It doesn’t always carry it, obviously. The WJC statement itself uses the word seven times.
In November 1982, Brazil held its first direct multiparty elections since the 1964 coup. A month before the vote, the captain of the national football team wrote a four-page spread in Placar, the country’s bestselling football magazine, in which he articulated his proposals for jobs, housing, health, education and food security. These are issues that ordinary people worry about, Sócrates said, and if addressed properly will ensure a better life for all. ‘But we will only achieve this when everyone has full and total freedom to speak, to learn, to participate, to choose and above all to protest,’ he wrote. ‘That’s what living with dignity is all about.’
I went to last Sunday’s World Cup final with my father (we sat in a box; a Russian friend of his had offered him two tickets). It was 22 years since I’d last been in Moscow. There was no sign now of the scruffy riotousness I remembered. Everything about the city gleamed: a giant project of beautification had been undertaken in the run-up to the World Cup. Decades of grime had been scrubbed from the buildings, and a plethora of new roads, parks and pedestrian precincts built. The kerbside kiosks that had once sold vodka through the night were bulldozed two years ago, in an act of official vandalism unofficially known as the ‘Night of the Long Shovels’.
Last season Raheem Sterling was a linchpin of the best club football team that England has seen in at least a decade. Manchester City smashed records, winning 100 points and scoring 106 goals, 18 of which came from Sterling (he assisted a further 11 of them). He is one of the best footballers of any nationality currently playing in this country. He is also the subject of a relentless campaign of abuse in the English media which deploys racist tropes about young black men in order to put him down.
Carlo Parola was born in Turin in September 1921. He won domestic titles with Juventus as both a player and a manager and was capped ten times for Italy. But he is famous for his mastery of the overhead (or bicycle) kick. He didn’t invent the move (a version of it is depicted in an engraving of the first international match, Scotland v. England in 1872) but he was synonymous with it in Italy, where he was known as ‘Signor Rovesciata’ (‘Mr Overhead Kick’). He once played in Scotland, too, for a European Select XI at Hampden Park, in front of 137,000 fans in 1947. Showing off his signature move on the wrong side of a 6-1 mauling by Great Britain, he insisted that, despite the score, he’d played well and enjoyed the atmosphere. The Italian press still called him the ‘Man of Glasgow’ when he died in 2000.
The Swiss artist Massimo Furlan performed his Re-Enactment of the 1974 East Germany-West Germany Match in Munich’s Olympiastadion on 30 April. There were only two players on the pitch: Furlan took the role of the West German keeper, Sepp Maier; Jürgen Sparwasser, who scored the winning goal for East Germany, was played by the actor Franz Beil. Everyone else – the other players, the referee, the linesmen – along with the ball, would be imagined. The original match commentary of both state radio broadcasters was streamed on FM frequencies inside the Olympiastadion. Small radios were distributed to the crowd, which was also reduced: in the 70,000-seat stadium, we occupied only the midfield loge, once reserved for dignitaries.
After eighteen months of memoir-writing in his £25,000 shepherd’s hut, interrupted now and then by lucrative international speaking engagements on the implications of the political mess that he made, David Cameron yesterday returned to a British podium for the first time since the morning of 24 June 2016 to attack three easy targets: Trump, Putin and Fifa. In a lecture to Transparency International, he looked ahead to next year’s World Cup in Russia, and back to the bidding process that took place in 2010. ‘President Putin actually boycotted the whole thing because he said it was riddled with corruption,’ the Guardianreports Cameron as having said. ‘He was right – it was.’
My historical centre of gravity, so to speak, is the 1890s, and has involved research into the London Metropolitan Police; so I’ve been a keen watcher of Ripper Street on BBC2, starring Matthew Macfadyen as Inspector Reid, a fictional detective in Whitechapel around then. It takes a strong stomach to watch it; but historically it’s pretty accurate, despite the occasional (unsurprising) anachronism. This week’s episode centred on the Thames Ironworks factory in the East End; and in particular its football team. Thames Ironworks FC was the original name of West Ham United, a.k.a. the Hammers or the Irons. I've followed them for decades. On Monday night, we saw them playing, convincingly (i.e. roughly but skilfully), in late-19th-century strip. The plot involves the murder of one of the star players – with a hammer. It also features the Arsenal. But I don’t want to give too much away.
England played against Russia like a team that could win this tournament, but also like a team that almost certainly won’t. It’s the usual story: you worry about them getting tired. In the first half they looked at times like world-beaters – Euro-beaters anyway – but the second half wasn’t so good (it very rarely is for England at big tournaments) and in the end they couldn’t hang on. So far, so familiar. However, it’s more specific than that. This time you worry about them getting Tottenham tired.
The Euros have always had a couple of advantages over the more grandiose spectacle of the World Cup. First, genuine outsiders do sometimes win the whole thing. It’s happened twice in the last six tournaments. In 1992 the Danish team, who hadn’t qualified for the finals, were summoned off the beach after Yugoslavia had to pull out (shortly before ceasing to exist); they ended up beating the Germans in the final. In 2004 Greece came from more or less nowhere to lift the trophy, defeating home favourites Portugal in both the first match of the tournament and the last. No outsider has ever won a World Cup, unless you count West Germany in 1954 (the so-called ‘Miracle of Bern’). Almost by definition, any sporting contest that has to look to German success to provide evidence of its unpredictability is a fairly closed shop.
As someone who struggles to remember basic facts about my family (middle names, dates of birth), I’m grateful when online security questionnaires give the option of naming the sports team you most want to lose. I know the answer to that one: Manchester United. I have sometimes wondered how much use it is as a security filter. Isn’t almost everyone’s answer to that question Manchester United? Now I face a dilemma. If the question asked me to name my favourite manager I’d also have no trouble supplying an answer: Jose Mourinho. That, I realise, is a more unusual response.
I bought a black eye-patch (I’ve just had an eye operation) to frighten off any Man United hooligans at West Ham’s ‘farewell’ match at the Boleyn Ground last night. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried about them. It was ours who spoiled the day - attacking the Man U bus with bottles as it drove into the ground. West Ham's co-chairman - the ex-pornographer David Sullivan, brought up as it happens in the same East London suburb as I was - blamed the visitors for being late. (He’s since retracted.) My son and I didn’t see any of the violence, and only learned of it as we were leaving, through a cordon of riot police. The game had had been a wonderful occasion, and - almost incidentally - a terrific match: 1-0, 1-1, 1-2, 2-2, then 3-2 to the Irons. Joy was unconfined. Until we got out. As so often, it is the hooliganism that has made the headlines.
For many fans, football is a dad’s game. Fathers introduce their sons (and, less often, daughters) to it, and they may build their relationship to each other through the game. Club loyalty is often passed on from father to son. For adult fans, following football can be a legitimate return to lost childhood, with managers as replacement father figures. Football phone-in radio shows are a Freudian feast of grown men blaming managers for all their problems or showing boundless faith in them. In O, Louis: In Search of Louis van Gaal, the Dutch journalist Hugo Borst zones in on the death of van Gaal’s father when Louis was 11 as the formative event in his development. Van Gaal remembers his father as an ‘authoritarian figure; at home there was a mixture of warmth and strict adherence to moral standards.’ According to Borst, van Gaal as a football manager is trying to be the father he had taken away from him.
Why did Mourinho get the push? The word is that he lost the dressing-room – too many Chelsea players had clearly grown sick of the sight of him – but there’s something else he’s recently lost as well: his astonishing good looks. Photos in this morning’s papers of Mourinho on the training ground just before his dismissal show a balding, puffy, slightly dishevelled figure. Once agelessly glamorous, he now looks older than his 52 years. When he arrived in English football in 2004 he came trailing not just a reputation for arrogance and achievement but unquestioned sex appeal. He was frankly a lot better looking than any of his players. In such a deeply homoerotic sport, this counts for a lot. The extraordinary hold he had over homely superstars like Frank Lampard and John Terry stemmed in large part from their desire to please their handsome boss: they used to look at him with adoring eyes, just waiting for a hug. Their fondest hope was that some of his stardust would rub off on them. Not any more. Now he looks more like Terry’s grumpy uncle.
‘The most bloodthirsty line in the French national anthem was written with the English in mind,’ David Bell wrote in the LRB in 1998. Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle, the military engineer who composed the words to the ‘Marseillaise’ in 1792, took the line about watering furrows with ‘sang impur’ from a poem which was much more specific about whose impure blood it should be.
AfCON features European-based players and European managers, but it resolutely sticks to its awkward calendar, taking place every other January, unlike most international tournaments, which are fitted in between the seasons of the major European leagues. It always finds a way to overcome crises: when Morocco withdrew as host because of the Ebola epidemic, Equatorial Guinea stepped into the breach. AfCON also unites the African diaspora in a way that no other international football tournament can.
When I began following West Ham fifty years ago nearly all the team was made up of local lads, including the World Cup-winning trio of Moore, Hurst and Peters; plus Harry Redknapp – a bit of a joke on the wing. (How we loved him! I still do.) Of course there were players bought in, one or two of them even from abroad; but the core was made up of East Enders and Essex boys. One of them (Andy Malcolm) went to my Dad’s school. We supported them because they were us.
Last week someone on Twitter sent me a photograph of the late German iconoclast Rainer Werner Fassbinder, decked out in the crisp white livery of FC Bayern Munich. Ach, der einzige Fassbinder! A waxy faced slob who worked harder than anyone alive; a queer and dreamy aesthete who necked Bavarian beer by the steinful and counted German league football an all-consuming passion. (All Fassbinder’s passions were all consuming: this was both his song, and his downfall.)
Last month the governing body of the US National Football League considered banning the use of the N-word on the field, on pain of a penalty. Several black players criticised the suggestion, including the Superbowl-winning cornerback Richard Sherman. ‘It’s a pretty common word in the locker room... But once a white person says it, it’s a derogatory term.’ Banning it ‘would be almost racist’, Sherman said, as it would discriminate against black players who used it between themselves. The organisation Kick It Out, which campaigns against discrimination in English football, is holding a debate in Manchester tonight on the Y-word. Since the early 1980s, at least, some supporters of Tottenham Hotspur have referred to themselves as ‘yids’. The nickname, if it can be called that, is supposed to have been adopted as a defence mechanism, a way of positively embracing the perceived Jewish identity of the club, and throwing it back in the faces of opposition fans, some of whom targeted Spurs with anti-semitic songs. Most Spurs fans, including many who use the word to describe themselves, are not Jewish.
For most clubs in the NPower Championship, the football division below the Premier League, the season is now over. Cardiff City will be promoted as champions, along with Hull City, who came second. The next four teams are competing for the third promotion place. Leicester City beat Watford 1-0 in their first leg last night; Crystal Palace are playing Brighton and Hove Albion this evening; after the second legs on Sunday and Monday the winners will meet at Wembley. Palace and Brighton have a longstanding rivalry. Violence between fans isn’t unknown.
I’m not sure that Hull City are good enough to play in the Premiership – they’ve been rubbish in recent games, and the very last stages of their campaign were pretty nail-biting – but their promotion is terrific for the city. With so much worldwide interest in the English Premier League, playing there puts this poor, isolated and much denigrated town on the map. Quite literally: I remember, the last time they were (briefly) in the Premiership, checking into a hotel in Copenhagen, giving my Hull address, and saying (based on my experience abroad): ‘I don’t suppose you know where that is.’ ‘Oh yes I do,’ the man replied. ‘It’s in the Premier League.’ Those of us who live there, especially if we came from the South (as I did, in 1968; the Hull-born and bred may be less bothered), greatly resent the way it’s generally presented by our softer neighbours. Being placed top of a list of ‘Crap Towns' a few years ago hurt. My son, who lives and works in London, gets it all the time – though he's better than I am at laughing it off.
In the Champions League tie between Manchester United and Real Madrid which finished last night, for roughly 145 minutes the two sides played at even strength, and United outscored Real 2-1. For roughly 35 minutes, Real were a man up, and outscored United 2-0. Real went through. The shape and flow of the game changed instantly after Nani’s controversial sending off. Whether or not his particular red card was justified, it seems to me that the whole idea of the red card itself is not, and it would make more sense if teams were able to replace a sent-off player, using one of their substitutions.
Coup de tête is one of the works in Adel Abdessemed’s exhibition at the David Zwirner gallery in New York. Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf ‘brings together recent works that revolve around the themes of war, violence, and spectatorship’. Coup de tête depicts the most famous moment from the 2006 World Cup. It’s not the first time Zinédine Zidane has been made the subject of an artwork. Paul Myerscough wrote about Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s film Zidane: A 21st-Century Portrait in October 2006:
Eleven-eleven-eleven is upon us, and the 93rd anniversary of the Armistice. Politicos and telly folk have long vied to out-poppy each other by getting on their red blooms ever earlier in October, and this week the poppy piety has merged with its near-ringer, the death-piety of the Premiership, where it only takes the groundsman’s cat to croak for a minute’s silence and black armbands all round. The entirely proper matter of honouring war dead has been 'overshadowed' by teacup squalls over the England football team’s royal-enforced right to wear poppies and Muslims’ lack of a right to burn them – with, as usual, the red-tops riding shotgun on the catafalque. Thursday’s Question Time panel, sanctimonious even by QT standards, unanimously agreed with the home secretary’s decision to ban poppy-burning, on the strange ground that this 'glorifies' terrorism.
‘I invite anyone who has a copy of this book to bring it into Piazza Bra for a public burning.’ The man speaking purported to be a priest. He was phoning a local radio station in Verona. The book in question was my exploration of Italy through football, A Season with Verona (2002), translated as Questa pazza fede (‘This Mad Faith’). But the priest wasn’t concerned about heresy. Italian football fans constantly refer to their ‘faith’. The first chapter, an account of an all-night bus trip from Verona to Bari, offered examples of the fans’ obsessive use of blasphemy to establish their credentials as bad boys, their opposition to a mood of political correctness that was seeking to ‘clean up football’.
Several people have asked about fascism and football. The key figure here was Mussolini, who saw soccer as a key tool for creating national unity and international prestige. He created the Serie A as the first national league in 1929 and, once the World Cup had been launched in 1930, he made Fifa an offer it couldn't refuse to hold the 1934 Cup in Italy. It was, of course, essential that Italy should win (they had already won the first European Cup), so Mussolini himself invited a favoured Swedish referee to run the semi-final between Italy and Austria, in which the Italians were allowed to barge the Austrian goalkeeper into his net from three metres out. The ref duly gave a goal. Mussolini naturally selected the same ref for the final, Italy v. Czechoslovakia, and the ref again failed to notice a rather prominent Italian handball, so Italy won.
The first things a new nation needs are a football team and an army. The last thing it needs is for either to disappear overnight and it’s an embarrassment to Eritrea, which won independence from Ethiopia in 1993, that all 12 members of the national squad should have dumped their strip in the wheelie-bins at the back of their hotel during a CECAFA tournament in Kenya and vanished without further ado. ‘Cazzo,’ I hear the Eritrean leadership whispering to itself. ‘But at least we’ve still got the army.’ The trouble is that the army – or rather military service – is one of the reasons so many Eritreans want to get out. (The UN puts the monthly emigration figures in the low hundreds.) Another is poverty, another is the angular, repressive style of the regime, which hasn’t changed its ways since it got control of the liberation struggle in the mid-1970s.