Author Archives: Brian Phillips

About Brian Phillips

a regular contributor to Pitch Invasion, and writes The Run of Play.

Abusing the Referee: Your Thoughts

cole-main.jpgI’d like to start an informal poll on the subject of referee abuse, because—after a week that’s seen a major FA initiative devoted to the problem and huge controversies over Ashley Cole’s and Javier Mascherano’s behavior toward match officials—I really have no idea how most fans feel about the subject.

Is referee abuse a problem for you? Is it an issue in the games you play in, in the leagues you follow, or for the teams you support? When you see seven Chelsea players throng around Mike Dean like a school of aggrieved piranhas, do you think “Serves him right for getting the call wrong” or “Someone toss them a poisoned cow”?

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that that there’s a wide gap between the way the English media have covered the uproar and the way most fans perceive it. For the media, it’s largely been about the conflict between standards of decency and human passion. On one side are commentators who are appalled by the crude insubordination of players berating officials, on the other are commentators who argue that if we want players to play the game with passion, we have to expect them to lose their heads from time to time when a referee gets something wrong.

For fans, I think the heart of the problem has more to do with the conflict between justice and human error. We want the game to be a realm of perfect fairness, but we know that referees will always make mistakes. The question is how to demand that the game be fundamentally fair while still reconciling ourselves to the presence of error within it. This is not an easy accommodation to make, and we tend to make it partially at best, turning a blind eye to errors that benefit our own teams, reserving most of our anger for errors that benefit our opponents.

The problem with referee abuse in this framework is that it alienates us from both justice and reconciliation, pretending to demand absolute fairness from the referee but really demanding only what benefits our side (Ashley Cole certainly wasn’t making a stand for transcendent justice when he turned his back on Mike Riley on Wednesday night). Some of this is only natural, but it can make the game edgy and uncomfortable, and means we’re more concerned with our own causes for outrage than with what happens on the pitch.

I’m not suggesting that any of this is what fans are discussing when we talk about referee abuse, but I think it’s a problem we feel shifting around uneasily beneath the more general media discussion of emotion and respect. The football media, many of whose members are former players, have naturally tended to focus on the experience of the players (should they be required to control themselves? but aren’t they really angry?), while the FA has focused on problems plaguing the infrastructure of the game (7,000 referees dropping out every year, many due to abuse). The way the issue affects fans has largely remained at the level of implication.

So that’s why I’m asking what you think. Do you tend to side with players or officials during these controversies? Do you see referees as beleaguered altruists or as petty dictators? Does the abuse of referees by fans bother you as much as the abuse of referees by players? Does this seem like an essentially English problem to you (Fabio Capello has said that English referees are more lenient than referees in Europe) or does it have a wider scope (Eduardo Galeano has said that hatred of the referee is “the only universal sentiment in soccer”)? Given the FA’s emphasis on the youth game in their recent National Game Strategy document, do you think professional players have an obligation to act as role models for their younger counterparts?

Brian Phillips is writing Mark Clattenburg an agonizingly personal thank-you note at The Run of Play.

The Old, Weird Everywhere: Bristol Rovers and “Goodnight, Irene”

leadbelly.jpgNote: Like many of you, I’ve really enjoyed Jennifer’s and Vanda’s posts about football songs over the past couple of weeks, and I thought I’d add my own contribution with a look at the history of one of the strangest supporter songs in football—”Goodnight, Irene,” an American folk song about love and suicide that’s been the anthem of Bristol Rovers for almost 60 years.

Bristol Rovers Football Club and the musician known as Leadbelly were both born in the 1880s, but—for a while, at least—they both had different names. The football club was founded, by a 19-year-old schoolteacher, in 1883, in a restaurant in one of England’s major seaports; they happened to wear black kits, and to play on a pitch next to a rugby team called the Arabs, and to mark both facts, they called themselves Black Arabs F.C. The musician was born, sometime around 1888, on a plantation near Mooringsport, Louisiana; he was named Huddie William Ledbetter—presumably to mark nothing at all.

Today, of course, Bristol Rovers are as associated with “Goodnight, Irene,” Leadbelly’s most famous recording, as any English club with any song. They’ve been singing it since the 1950s, a full decade before “You’ll Never Walk Alone” was heard at Anfield, 30 years before Manchester City fans began to chant “Blue Moon.” But the path that led to the association was chancy and circuitous, and in many ways, both Rovers and Leadbelly are lucky that they survived long enough for the song and the club’s fans to find each other.

Leadbelly lived through the old, weird America, as Greil Marcus would call it: deep swamp dance hall nights, brothels at St. Paul’s Bottoms, hobos on freight trains, chain gangs, Satan at the crossroads, impossible stars overhead. He was a “musicianer” as early as 1903, and learned in the red-light districts of riverboat towns to channel the mournful twang of American folk music into something distinctive and personal, made from his clear voice and his oversized 12-string guitar. He drank rotgut and fought anyone, and his prowess at one or the other resulted in the nickname he would later take on stage.

He went to prison, not for the first time, in 1918—for murder, after killing a man in a fight. He had a 35-year sentence, but was released just two years later after he wrote a song appealing to the governor for clemency. In 1930 he was in jail again, this time for attempted homicide; and it was here that he was discovered by John Lomax, the legendary musicologist, who traveled the country making recordings for the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress. With the help of another susceptible governor, Lomax arranged Leadbelly’s release, and recorded his versions of hundreds of songs—including “Goodnight, Irene,” an obscure number from the late nineteenth century that Leadbelly claimed to have learned from an uncle.

Black Arabs F.C. became Eastville Rovers in 1884, then Eastville Bristol Rovers in the late 1890s. In 1899, under their current name, they joined the Southern League, just in time for the great era of regional league play before the formation of the national Third Division. They were champions in 1905. During Leadbelly’s first serious prison stint, they were suspended for the First World War; they reformed, and joined the Football League as members of the new Third Division, around the time he was released. They stayed afloat during the ’30s, but signed a bad lease on their ground that would cause them trouble for decades, and finished last in the division in 1938-39.


The same year, Leadbelly was back in jail for assault. He’d struggled throughout the ’30s to make a living, despite the exposure he won as a protegee of John Lomax; record companies tried to turn him into a blues singer, which never really suited his style. But he was out of jail in 1940, and found himself in Greenwich Village just at the moment when the folk scene was forming: he befriended and influenced Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and experienced greater success in the 1940s than in any other decade of his life. He died in 1949, after falling ill during his first tour of Europe.

That same year, Pete Seeger’s group, the Weavers, released a cover of “Goodnight, Irene” that spent 25 weeks on the Billboard charts, peaking at #1.

It was the Billboard Single of the Year, and was quickly covered by any number of other musicians, including Frank Sinatra.

It worked its way to England, where it reached Bristol and became, by the end of the 1950-51 season, one of the Rovers fans’ favorite songs. There are any number of legends to explain the supporters’ adoption of a plaintive and slightly mystical American folk melody as their anthem, a song whose lyrics don’t exactly advertise their suitability for the purpose:

Sometimes I live in the country,
Sometimes I live in town,
Sometimes I take a great notion,
Jumpin’ into the river and drown.

I love Irene, God knows I do,
Love her until the sea run dry,
And if Irene turns her back on me,
Gonna take morphine and die.

Possibly the most persuasive story is that Plymouth Argyle fans sang the song to taunt Rovers supporters after Argyle took the lead in a match. When Rovers went on to win 3-1, their fans turned the taunt around and began to sing “Goodnight, Argyle.” And the song stuck. Something about it just fit.

I love thinking about the loose threads of beauty and meaning in this world and the way they sometimes come together in football. I love imagining Leadbelly playing in a smoky shack to an audience of hellhounds and moonshine runners while five thousand miles away a group of men with kestrel stares and pushbroom mustaches took the pitch in their high-waisted professional short pants. I love the way a game played by the children of lords and a suicide moan from the American folk tradition can make something bizarre and powerful today, something unifying, in a context that makes perfect sense to us, though it would baffle the people who invented them.

Brian Phillips is jumping in the river nightly at The Run of Play.

Capello, the Mafia, and England

don-corleone.jpgThere are 262,000 Google search results that combine the words “Capello” and “Mafia.” “Capello” and “godfather” nets 30,000. A discussion in the comments section following a Guardian blog post by Richard Williams jokingly asks whether Capello is the long-lost son of Mussolini. The Scotsman discerns in his face “elements of a Roman emperor unlikely to grant clemency.” More than that, according to an online betting site: “Julius Caesar, Benito Mussolini, Tony Soprano, that nasty and temperamental emperor geezer off the film Gladiator…all would have been proud of Fabio Capello’s ruthless decision to leave David Beckham stranded on 99 caps.”

So here we are. I couldn’t find any published material comparing Capello to Cesare Borgia, but it’s not hard to see that England fans and the English-speaking media are turning to a particular sort of metaphor in order to conceptualize Capello’s term as manager of the England team. Capello as mob boss (“Don Fabio”), Capello as fascist dictator, Capello as Roman emperor: there’s a particular image in anglophone popular culture of a merciless, murderous, rapacious and intimidating style of Italian masculinity, and it’s in this image that Capello’s English tenure is being portrayed.

What’s odd—or perhaps not so odd, when you think about it—is that the tenor of the portrayal so far has been overwhelmingly positive. Capello is being described as a tyrant and a killer, but it would appear that he’s a tyrant and a killer in a good way. “No false Dons this time with Godfather Capello in charge,” ran one headline yesterday morning. “Capello Lays Down the Law,” was the headline on Football365. Best of all, from today’s Sun: “Fabio Capello gave England’s superstars the first taste of his iron fist last night.” If only the Ides of March weren’t coming up, they might have asked him for more.

There’s a fascinating process at work here, because what seems to be happening is that Capello’s foreignness—which was initially a subject of anxiety for a large segment of England supporters—is being run through a particular popular-culture filter that recasts it as an expression of English strength. It isn’t the real Julius Caesar, after all, to whom Capello is being compared, or the real mafia don. It’s the movie version of each, the figure through whom we’re able to indulge power fantasies and a dream of dominance without real-life moral consequences. None of these figures is foreign, really. Collectively they represent a kind of mythic caricature, rooted tightly in our own cultures, of the strong leader, the boss, the man no one dares to talk back to, the man who doesn’t care how you feel.

palace.jpgAfter England crashed out of their Euro 2008 qualifying campaign in November, there was a deep need among England supporters to see the players put in their place. This was both a strategic priority (because spoiled, pampered players whose wives travel everywhere with them aren’t strong enough to win major tournaments) and a psychological need (because spoiled, pampered players who lose tournaments are an object of contempt). When Capello arrived with his disciplinarian reputation, and then again when he acted to drop superstars from the team and set some rules to govern the other players, he tapped into a collective need to see the players punished, whether to shape them up for subsequent competition or simply to strike a punitive blow for their previous underachievement.

Capello’s role was a combination of both forms of discipline, and the speed with which the media and the fans began to see him through mafia imagery and icons from imperial Rome suggests how broadly and deeply that was felt. Capello would be the man who would hold no player in awe, who would insist on hard work and commitment; he would be the figure whom the players would have to fear. He would restore English values, in other words, to an England squad that no longer represented them.

Not only in the tone, then, but also in the concrete imagery in which Capello has been welcomed to England, there’s a kind of embalmed hostility toward the players that will be difficult to erase. Yesterday’s 2-1 win over Switzerland in Capello’s first match in charge may begin the process. But we may not have a definite sign that England have forgiven their team until they look for a different way to approve of their manager.

Brian Phillips makes the trains run on time at The Run of Play.

Photo credit: wallyg

Should European Football Adopt a Revenue-Sharing Scheme?

Today more than at any other time in the history of sport, fans are aware of the way the rules governing money influence the fate of their teams. We follow the money game—who taps into what markets, who accrues what debt—with a savvy that would have seemed bewildering, and perhaps a little depressing, to fans half a century ago. Knowing what’s going on behind the scenes at a club, as we’ve seen with Liverpool and Manchester United this month, is simultaneously a defensive tactic for fans concerned about the rapid expansion and commercialization of sport, and an outgrowth of the apparently illimitable interest that is driving the expansion.

But I wonder if we’re not paying too little attention to the money game as it affects the larger problems in sport, rather than problems at specific clubs. Every Man Utd fan can name the exact amount of the annual interest payment, but when we think about issues like “competitive imbalance” or “disregard for fans,” we’re still much more likely to direct our blame at individual people or general social change than at the financial structures that underlie the problems.

Love United Hate Glazer

For instance: despite the enormous, and growing, resentment felt by many fans of European football toward the concentration of power among a few elite teams, there seems to be very little serious discussion about instituting an American-style revenue-sharing system within European leagues. The obstacles in the way of doing so would be intimidatingly large, but surely not more so than the difficulties of changing human nature or reversing the flow of time, which is what we demand of ourselves when we blame David Gill or “the Sky revolution” for everything wrong with football.

The general problem in football—or at any rate the outline that seems to emerge from the most common fan complaints—is

  1. That the consolidation of wealth, especially from television revenue, among top clubs has created a competitive environment in which it is unfairly difficult for smaller clubs to advance, or for any but a few superclubs to compete for top honors.
  2. That survival for smaller clubs, and success for larger clubs, has begun to require a prohibitive investment from fans, in the form of higher ticket prices, increased tolerance of risk, and submission, in many cases, to the primacy of the larger television market.

We might add a third category, the mismanagement of clubs by unscrupulous owners. But it would really be an extension of the first two, as it’s the influx of television money that’s made clubs vulnerable to profit-seeking owners in the first place.

Museum of Communism

Is there any other practical solution to these problems but a revenue-sharing scheme? A system designed to redistribute wealth from large clubs to small clubs and from upper to lower divisions, and perhaps to place a limit on the amount of money clubs could spend on player salaries, would have (at least) the following benefits:

  1. Smaller clubs would be able to compete in the transfer market and, as a result, to challenge for trophies. This would almost certainly spell the end of the big four in England (and its variations in other countries), and lead to significantly more parity within domestic leagues and international club tournaments. Increased competition would make the game more exciting for everyone.
  2. The survival of many smaller clubs, and the preservation of their role in local communities, could be secured regardless of their performance or ability to exploit new markets: meaning that local clubs could stay local without passing missed-opportunity costs along to their fans.

Isn’t that more or less what everyone wants? And yet how many “profit-sharing is the way forward for European football” columns have you read compared to the number of “greed is destroying football” columns? Greed is not going to abandon football until the last dollar is had; so isn’t the sensible thing to advocate a system that would keep greed in check, keep clubs from being run like playthings, and ensure some competitive balance?

Before and After

The difficulties…well, the difficulties you can foresee. Chelsea will not like being told to share their television income with Kettering Town. The Premier League itself largely exists as the top clubs’ collective refusal to do so, which means that some degree of legal coercion would most likely be required to force their compliance and end the threat of future breakaway leagues. And the EU will have to be involved, since preserving the integrity of international competition will mean establishing UEFA-wide requirements for revenue sharing within national leagues. Then there’s the problem of maintaining open leagues—preserving the promotion and relegation ladders—while ensuring an equitable distribution of income; something no American league has had to contend with, and that will be fiercely complex to work out.

Revenue sharing in European football is, in other words, an unfeasible, unlikely idea. But football administrators at top levels, Blatter and Platini included, are in favor of it, and surely if the popular clamor became loud enough the smaller clubs and larger politicians would begin to take it up. It would have costs—in American sports, it’s arguably lowered the standard of play of the best teams—and complications that I am not able to estimate. But shouldn’t we at least be talking about it? Online, I see academic papers on the subject, studies, research reports…but very little discussion from bloggers or fans, even the ones most likely to object to the current system. Isn’t this a conversation that we ought at least to start?

Brian Phillips is thinking he’ll probably go for a Subcommandante Marcos-style black mask at The Run of Play.

Photo credits: hugovk; Dunechaser; cool-baby

Trouble in Paradise: The Clericus Cup

A priestly header.So we’ve had the Second Coming at Newcastle. We’ve had a sure sign of the Apocalypse at White Hart Lane. About the only thing this week needs to make the average football fan look nervously toward the skies is news that a Vatican-backed tournament for priests and seminarians has been disrupted by unruly fans and a flurry of red cards. Well. Ask and ye shall receive, or something to that effect.

You might have heard of the Clericus Cup, a competition sponsored by the Catholic Italian Sports Center under the auspices of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Pope’s Secretary of State (also a Juventus fan). The tournament is open to teams of priests and would-be priests from around the world, and is intended, according to Sports Center Director Edio Costantini, “to reinvigorate the tradition of sport inside the Christian community.”

Costantini says that football can serve as a means to “personal, social and spiritual growth.” And the Pope himself, who has endorsed the tournament, believes that football can “increasingly be the vehicle of the values of honesty, solidarity and fraternity.” (He’s a Bayern fan, Benedict, but he isn’t renowned for his fervor.)

What no prophet foretold, though, as visions of solidarity and fraternity danced in their heads, was that once the priests strapped on their boots, they were going to want to win the thing, social and spiritual growth be damned. Last year, the final descended into chaos when seminarians from the Pontifical Lateran University believed the striker for Redemptoris Mater College had dived to win the decisive penalty. After the match, the victorious Redemptoris Mater players covered one another in champagne. “Priestly footballers?” La Stampa harrumphed. “Worse than Materazzi.”


This year, the tournament has already seen three straight red cards handed out in a week—two for verbal abuse—and, best of all, rowdy crowds who have shown up with, as the Guardian chronicles it, “drums, megaphones, trumpets, maracas and ghetto blasters.” The volume has disturbed the neighbors, and now the teams are being threatened with supporter bans if they can’t show more of the peace that passeth all understanding and make less of a joyful noise unto the Lord.

An intense piece of Clericus Cup action.The prohibition extends to the loud chants, many of them in Latin, that fans of various teams have dreamed up, as well as to the drum-beating of the Maria Mater Ecclesiae College contingent (Mexican), the reggae music of the Urban College contingent (African), and the megaphones of the Romano Maggiore Pontifical Seminary (Italian). It’s like a tiny, obnoxious World Cup!

Fans of the Martyrs of the Pontifical North American College have taken to chanting “Come on you Knackers, kick some caboose,” for which, surely, they would all go to hell if they weren’t so comprehensively protected.

My only question about this tournament is: Why, why can’t I get it on TV? Sure, the African Cup of Nations has been terrific so far, and there’s top-flight cup action all over the place this week. But wouldn’t you drop it in a second to watch two teams of out-of-shape priests knock the living daylights out of each other as their supporters chanted in Latin while playing maracas and trumpets? Have you got a soul? What’s the point of living in the modern world if I can’t even get a pirated Chinese stream of the Clericus Cup?

I will walk through the valley of the shadow of having no idea. Let there be a light lunch.

Brian Phillips is having a light lunch at The Run of Play.

Dinner with Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini

I didn’t know what to expect that night when I pulled into the parking lot of the Red Lobster. I’d suggested meeting at the Union League—had gotten reservations, in fact—but Mr. Blatter’s assistant called back, quickly, to tell me in no uncertain terms that there’d been a change of plans. I didn’t see them when I got out of the car, so I waited, a little unsure of myself, by the entrance. A sign stuck to the glass of a giant lit-up menu case alerted the public to the fact that it was “Crab Crackin’ Wednesday,” and that a pound and a half of snow-crab legs could be bought for $19.95.

After a few minutes, I felt the telltale buzz of my Motorola vibrating in my pocket. Through a thick French accent, a voice on the other end said, “You are at ze Red Lobster?” Then: “Stup it, Seppy, he says he is zayr, be quiet! Yes? We will arrive shortly. Seppy, stup!”

A loud metallic clanking drew my attention to the 1986 Cadillac Seville sedan slowly rounding into the parking lot. Through the windshield I could see FIFA President SEPP BLATTER with both hands on the wheel, intently piloting the car toward the nearest parking space. Beside him, the unkempt mane of UEFA President MICHEL PLATINI was partly obscured by an enormous fold-out map.

Blatter got out of the car and came toward me, beaming. He had a small cowboy hat in his hands and, as he approached, he planted it firmly on his head. Platini followed—somewhat sulkily, I thought.

We exchanged greetings. Vanessa showed us to our seats.

ME: Did you find the place okay. Did you know how to find the place.

MICHEL PLATINI: Our map, you see, it was from…what is ze name again? Denny’s.

SEPP BLATTER: Look! They have the “Admiral’s Feast”!

MICHEL PLATINI: It did not show anysing but other Denny’s restaurants.

SEPP BLATTER: Great heavens, that’s a lot of food for $18.95!

MICHEL PLATINI: Ze one-way streets…zey were unknown to us.

SEPP BLATTER: I simply adore this country. I feel like I can stretch out!

MICHEL PLATINI: We could easily haf driven from Denny’s to Denny’s, in an unending loop, forever, like two damned souls.

ME: Interesting. Did you try Google maps. Are you familiar with that concept.

MICHEL PLATINI: Bah! I do not understand zis sing, zis “internet.” What is ze meaning of a simulacrum whose purpose is to be co-extensive with ze sing it simulates? Ze reality within, it bears no substantive relation to ze reality without, and yet, zey are ze same? How can I use zis, “sidewalk view”? All zese automobiles frozen in place on ze highways. What are ze semiotics of memory?

BRANDY: Can I take y’all’s order, please?

SEPP BLATTER: I’ll start with the Southwest chipotle Habanera shrimp poppers. Then, the “Admiral’s Feast”.

BRANDY: To drink?

SEPP BLATTER: Great falcon in the morning, I haven’t even considered the drinks menu yet.

SEPP BLATTER: Bring me one Kahlua mudslide with your finest top-shelf liquors, Brandy, if you please.

BRANDY: And for you, sir?

MICHEL PLATINI (miserably): Filet of halibut.

BRANDY: I’ll put that in for you, sir.

ME: So the big news this week is that you have crushed the G-14. How did you do that. What gave you the idea that you would crush the G-14.

MICHEL PLATINI: Peter Kenyon, he says to me, “Michel—

SEPP BLATTER: —my belle!” (giggles)

MICHEL PLATINI: “Michel, we can seize zis opportunity to strike a blow for ze underprivileged football clubs, and for underdogs everywhere, like Chelsea.”

SEPP BLATTER: “These are words that go together well!”

MICHEL PLATINI: So we said, zese big clubs, zey have ze money but zey do not haf ze numbers. You say, one of Barcelona is worth ten of Trabzonspor. I say, but zayr are fifty Trabzonspors. You say, of course, but zayr is only one Trabzonspor, ze well-known “Black Sea Storm” of Hussein Avni Aker Stadium, in Turkey. I say, ah! But it is figurative. You see?

SEPP BLATTER: Look here, it’s like Elvis, understand? Just when the Colonel thinks he can run everything…BAM! (smashing his fist into his palm) That’s when the King strikes!

MICHEL PLATINI: So we formed ze European Clubs Forum. Now, ze G-14? Zey are not ze only organized group. Now zayr is an answer to ze question, “Who will speak for Chelsea?”

SEPP BLATTER: You do not step on my blue suede shoes. You do not step on them!

MICHEL PLATINI: And so ze G-14, zey decide zat it is better, yes, to work wis zis new group. Zey will try to dominate it from within.

SEPP BLATTER: And by the neck of the great Fitzgerald, I’ll stop them.

MICHEL PLATINI: I will stup zem wis you, Seppy. We are a team, remember?

SEPP BLATTER (shaking his torso at Platini in a gesture that is somehow aggressive and taunting): A one for the money! A two for the show! A three to get ready, now, go, cat, go!

BRANDY: Here are y’all’s dinners. Careful, sir, that plate’s hot.

ME: I guess the big question I have for you is this. Why do you keep having ideas. What are your ideas good for. What do you think you will accomplish with them.

MICHEL PLATINI: What do you mean? Ideas are ze ripe mind’s fruit. We are men, we are—

SEPP BLATTER: Sweet Mary mustache, this is a fantastic piece of shrimp.

ME: I mean, the game is pretty good, right? Soccer, right? It’s pretty good? And yet you two are always strutting around on the sidelines in like black vulture hoods tutting about how one thing or another ought to be different.

MICHEL PLATINI (shrugs): Sings can always be improved…

ME: Sure, but I mean, that doesn’t even seem like why you’re in it. Some of your ideas are sort of sensible, but some of them just seem like making chess out of politics, man. Today you want extra officials on corner kicks. Yesterday you were tinkering with the Champions League. Tomorrow it’ll be computer eyes on the goal-lines, and next Thursday you’re going to want seatbelts for every seat in the stadium. You’ve got silver goals and golden goals. It’s about net effect, here, man. You’re giving people the idea that fixed things are broken, man. Why do you do that. Why do you have to do that.

MICHEL PLATINI: You are suggesting we are intellectual vulgarians, Monsieur?

SEPP BLATTER: Are you implying I’m some sort of crass opportunist?

ME: No, it’s just—

MICHEL PLATINI: But listen! Without our ideas we are nothing more than—


MICHEL PLATINI: Accountants!

SEPP BLATTER: Shop boys!


MICHEL PLATINI: What we are doing, why, ze significance is obvious.

SEPP BLATTER: We’re like John Wayne in the closing scenes of Hondo.

MICHEL PLATINI: Ze game is a series of imposed semantic conventions zat cease to mean anysing if zey are not constantly renewed by ze application of materio-dialectical engagement!

SEPP BLATTER: I swear on the soul of Byron Leftwich that I have never loved a woman as much as I love the taste of this sweet Kahlua mudslide.

Brian Phillips is offering Surf n’ Turf at very reasonable prices at The Run of Play.

Photo credits: drewesque; artposada; utcathy83; Joits

An Exclusive Interview with Newcastle Owner Mike Ashley

Mike Ashley laughing in the stands.The owner of Newcastle United, the eccentric billionaire Mike Ashley, is famous for taking his obsession with privacy to extraordinary lengths. He’s thought to live somewhere in Herefordshire, in a large mansion protected by an elaborate security apparatus, and to emerge only in order to distribute lager to fans at Newcastle games. He never gives interviews.

But in an astonishing turn of events, he agreed last night to sit down with Pitch Invasion writer Brian Phillips for an in-depth discussion about the decision to sack recently departed Newcastle manager Sam Allardyce. What follows is a transcript of their erudite and wide-ranging conversation, conducted over a dish of pickled herrings at Ashley’s favorite dining spot, a diving bell sunk 60m into the northern Caspian Sea.

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Five Stories You Don’t Have to Care About in 2008

As we hurtle into 2008, Brian from The Run of Play looks at what not to care about in the coming year.
Joey Barton

The start of a new year is traditionally a time to take stock, reassess your priorities, and decide what to focus on during the year to come. For football fans, that means figuring out which of the dozens of storylines running through the media at any given time — some of them fascinating, some of them duller than a jar of olives on Valium — you’re going to follow, and which you can safely ignore.

That’s why, to help you plot your approach to 2008, I’ve isolated five stories which I think you can cut out of your life without missing anything important — no matter how much the television, the press, or the internet tries to persuade you otherwise. Each of these stories is going to come back during the coming weeks and months, and I highly encourage you to get in on the ground floor and start ignoring them now. Clearing them from your mind can only help you focus on aspects of football that you might actually enjoy.

1. Joey Barton’s legal troubles. Because they have nothing to do with anything and aren’t even interesting or funny in themselves. Honestly, if the news that Joey Barton got into a scuffle over a stuffed peacock outside a 24-hour dry cleaner makes you feel the faintest twinge of curiosity, I’m afraid you’re already lost. It’s not a great sign that you’re even still reading this paragraph. There are days when I care so little about whether Joey Barton is in jail that I can barely chew my own food.

What to care about instead: The more sympathetically crazy Stephen Ireland.
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The Tower of Ryan Babel: Football, Language, and Translation

The Tower of Babel.In the global bazaar of contemporary football, in which a top-flight team is apt to have a Paraguayan striker, twin Hungarian left-backs, and a goalkeeper who was downloaded directly from the Internet (“JENS LEHMANN: Avg user rating: 3.2 stars. Estimated time to download: ~3 min. Note: This program has not been tested for malware. Please exercise caution when running this executable.”) one of the most puzzling questions is how we manage to communicate at all.

When an average club contains players with seven or eight different native languages, has a manager who speaks a ninth, and is tracked by media from 65 countries and by fans from every corner of the globe, how do we avoid a complete breakdown of meaning? What’s keeping us from endlessly replicating all those old stories about Tokyo hotels with signs reading, “You are invited to take advantage of the chambermaid,” or Hong Kong dry cleaners that urged gentlemen to “drop your trousers here for best results”?

Players, obviously, have been transformed by necessity into highly sophisticated linguists, and have learned to communicate with one another in a complex and little-understood patois of English, Romance languages, and Playstation. In addition, many of their interactions now take place via text message, and “pwn,” unlike love, is the same in any language. Their dealings with the media are eased by the services of the same professional translators who never seem to be at hand when I order in a Thai restaurant, and also by the fact that 90% of the questions they’re asked are so stupefyingly dull and repetitive that to give them serious thought would be beneath the dignity of a parrot. (Witness: Steven Gerrard responding to Japanese reporters at the 2005 Club World Cup.) Unlike love, soul-destroying ennui is the same in any language.

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Fabio Capello: Can a Manager Change the Identity of a Team?

Capello in the Sun.England are on the verge of appointing a new manager, which means that it’s a day to have opinions. If Italianness is not a quality you look for in a football coach, this is not the day to keep your thoughts a secret. If you had a dream about David Beckham last night, and he was holding a calzone, and he was in black and white, and he just looked at you in a way that said, “I’m so beautiful that I haven’t opened my mouth in fourteen years,” please get to a phone immediately.

It’s a day for opinions, and here’s mine: I think this Capello fellow is going to be an interesting choice for England. England, right now, are like a team that woke up in a hospital bed with a headache and a strange family sobbing beside them. They don’t seem to know who they are. They’re missing their identity. And Capello seems like a stubborn enough ego (unlike Steve McClaren, who was basically a slice of cheese ready to melt on the sandwich of anyone who approached him with a camera) to have an actual chance of giving them a new one.

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The Media, Transfer Gossip, and the Soul of Football

Nuns playing footballIt’s not usually my style to criticize the media. Bloggers do too much of that sort of thing already, and frankly, when it comes to the football press, I can’t imagine a better system for keeping up to speed with the inner world of Tony Mowbray. Reporters seem to be everywhere; I honestly don’t think anyone has ever backed anyone else without the press being there to record it.

Half the time, the media actually anticipates my desires: there I’ll be, browsing through the headlines, with no thought of wondering how much muscle Emanuel Adebayor has put on during the past five months, when along comes Sky Sports with a meticulously sourced piece to tell me. Before I read “Adebayor – I’ve Bulked Up,” I was in the dark and I didn’t even know it. After I read “Adebayor – I’ve Bulked Up,” with its thoughtful allusion to yesterday’s Daily Mirror and its carefully placed section break (“Muscles”), my world is a richer place.

I’ve been especially conscious of this over the past few days as, for one reason or another, I’ve been thinking over the question, “What is the soul of football?” Some people will tell you that the soul of football is a solitary child dribbling a ball under a street lamp while his heart fills with left-wing political principles. Others would say that the soul of football is a beautifully executed Johan Cruyff stop-spin leading to a magnificent goal. Still others would argue that the soul of football is a mysterious twinkle which Sepp Blatter keeps hidden in his eye.

But me? I think the soul of football is transfer gossip.

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Corruption in English Football: A Field Guide


Editor’s note: Brian, whose own marvelous Run of Play blog you really should be sure not to miss out on, will be bringing his brand of insight and irreverance weekly to Pitch Invasion.

In light of yesterday’s sensational arrests for fraud and corruption in football (scene: Police officers in riot gear swarm through the door of a modest Portsmouth home. MRS. HARRY REDKNAPP, clad in a nightgown, with curlers in her hair and a rolling pin in her hand, retreats with a shriek while her HUSBAND, flexing enormously, disappears under a mountain of policemen. Suddenly, a roar comes from under the pile, and Harry heaves them off, standing with a gleam of mad laughter in his eye as cops go flying) today seems like a good day to take a look at the state of the various corruption investigations in recent English football. I can’t keep them straight to save my life, but it doesn’t matter, because the first rule of any good corruption investigation is that you never worry much about the facts.

There are three basic levels of corruption in football: trivial, apocalyptic, and Italian. The lines of demarcation between these levels are extremely well-defined. Apocalyptic corruption becomes Italian corruption at the precise moment when a falling human body completes its descent from a seventh-story window. Trivial corruption becomes apocalyptic corruption when it happens within fifty feet of a reporter from the Daily Mirror. Of the three major corruption investigations in English football recently, all have involved merely apocalyptic corruption, although a full-scale Italian rating could still be achieved if someone makes Harry Redknapp angry at a sufficient height above sea level. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

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