Category Archives: Sport

Nations’ League further example of greed

I was asked the other day what I made of the proposal for a “Nations’ League” of some sort. I can’t say I’ve had time to read the proposal in any detail, but the idea seems to be to have a scheduled set of friendlies between European countries split into divisions, with a play-off of some sort at the end (presumably in June).

In principle, I have heard of worse ideas. However, there are two big problems that immediately strike me.

Firstly, UEFA’s  and FIFA’s main events – the European Championship and the World Cup – are already limited by the fatigue of many of the best players. Rarely do Messis or Ronaldos shine on the ultimate stage, for the quite simple reason that they are tired – after playing through the quest for the national league championship, the latter stages of the Champions’ League and an array of cup fixtures all of which probably began with a pre-season tour of the Far East or North America.

To be clear, it doesn’t matter how many zillions a week you pay players, you cannot possibly maintain a mental and physical peak 12 months a year for 15 years or so consecutively. We should in fact be trying to reduce competitive fixtures, not broaden them still further. If we want to see the best players performing at their best level at the best stage, we need fewer games before World Cups, European Championships and Champions’ League Finals, not more.

Secondly, the whole thing is bound to be a damp squib in any case (or alternatively it could in fact reduce the appeal of World Cups and European Championships, in the same way the FA’s takeover of England’s top league saw the reduction of the appeal of the FA Cup). Ultimately FIFA and UEFA can stick their noses in all they like, the fact is the clubs pay the players and poll and poll shows fans are more interested in their club than their country (this explains the relative success of the Champions’ League and the lack of interest in imposing restrictions on foreign players).

The trend is already established towards bigger countries playing bigger countries in “friendly weeks” (Germany-England, Spain-Italy and so on) and the likes of Northern Ireland being left with epic fixtures away to Cyprus and home to Malta. I suspect the final playoff series will attract the same interest as the World Club Championship. Remember that? Thought not…

Football’s “Professional Foul” law needs changed

One of my many frustrations with the abysmal level of punditry associated with television coverage of football in the British Isles is that pundits (with rare exceptions) show absolutely no knowledge of refereeing, nor even the actual laws of the game. Thus, you get no serious analysis of the laws of the game or how they are applied. Maybe we could try some in this article, concerning the “professional foul”.

I don’t watch as much football as I would like, but I did get to watch the Manchester City-Barcelona game and then attend the Arsenal-Bayern game in midweek. Both games were similar – a brave start by the home Premier League team was halted by a single incident resulting in a sending off and penalty, which turned the game into something more akin to a training session as the visiting team used its extra numbers to win 2-0.

In both cases, the laws of the game were applied entirely correctly and consistently. Yet in both cases, we were also deprived of a great end-to-end 90 minutes by a single mistimed challenge. I have never thought the combination of a penalty and dismissal for a single challenge was appropriate, partly because it is a double punishment but in fact mainly because it deprives those who have paid to watch the game of the spectacle they were paying for.

The International Board which determines the laws of the game has done many things well over the past few decades. The laws themselves have been made more consistent and more obvious, despite the challenge of designing them to apply at all levels of the game. However, I have long thought they have slightly misunderstood the problem of the so-called “professional foul”, and thus applied the wrong solution.

The origins of the “problem”, in the global public imagination, go back to this astonishing foul by Brazilian goalkeeper Carlos on French forward Bellone in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final. With an intense, tight game level at 1-1, Carlos stopped an almost certain goal with his foul, but as co-commentator Jimmy Hill explains, the French reward for this should merely have been a free-kick well away from goal and Carlos’ continued participation in the game (that they didn’t even get this was a clear refereeing error – justice was done in the end, as France progressed on penalties). This was the classic “professional foul”, so-called because it was so obviously worth committing.

Five years later, the International Board determined that a “professional foul” should be penalised by a dismissal. This certainly makes players think twice about doing it deliberately, and is an improvement on the position in 1986. It is still not quite there, however.

Firstly, there are two different types of “professional foul” – there is the type which stops a goalscoring opportunity (but no more than that), such as that committed by Manchester City’s De Michelis on Barcelona’s Messi; and then there is the type which stops a certain goal, such as Arsenal’s Szceczny on Bayern’s Robben.

Secondly, the reward for the attacking side, currently, varies depending on when in the game the foul takes place. After 35 minutes, it gives it most of the game against 10 men; however, in injury time at the end of the game, the dismissal of the opposing player is next to useless (in other words, the “professional foul” is still “worth committing”).

That is the problem. So what is the solution?

It is worth taking a quick diversion to check the offside rule. Men often suggest women do not know the offside rule, but I personally wonder how many men do! Consider the diagrams below:

Football - Offside

Here (with the attacking team in white and defending in black), the player back right on the edge of the area shoots. To the left, no player is in an offside position. To the centre, an attacking player (about eight yards out on the left) is in an offside position, but is not seeking to gain an advantage. To the right, a player is in an offside position and is seeking to gain an advantage. Upon the shot occurring, an indirect free-kick would be awarded to the defending team only in the case to the right.

To be clear, guidance is given to referees suggesting that players are “interfering with play” and thus “seeking to gain an advantage” if they fall within the triangle shaded – between the ball and each of the posts. (They may be seeking to gain an advantage otherwise, for example by staying ahead of the play and then coming back into an onside position at the last minute, but generally they are not.)

We can use the same type of diagram to explain what I would propose as a more appropriate response to a “professional foul” – both in terms of the use of the penalty applied to the attacking team, and of maintaining the game as a contest for the people who pay to watch it.

Football - Pro Foul

Here, let us a assume a foul takes place on the attacking player (in white) by the nearby defensive player (black) – back left in each of the first two examples, and more centrally in the last one.

In the first case to the left, this is not a “professional foul” as two defensive players are in the triangle – the current rules would award a penalty as the foul has taken place within the penalty area, but nothing else; and there is no reason to change that.

In the second case, to the right, based on the Manchester City-Barcelona case, the foul has taken place on the edge of the area and only one defender (presumably the goalkeeper) is in the triangle. This is clearly a professional foul, in that it deprives a goalscoring opportunity – though not a certain goal.

Here, the current laws require a free-kick or penalty kick to be awarded (depending on whether the offence occurs outside or inside the penalty area – if it continues into the area, as it did in the Manchester City-Barcelona case, the referee is correct to award a penalty kick), and the defender is dismissed.

I would change the laws of the game to award a penalty kick regardless of whether or not the foul took place inside the penalty area, but I would merely caution the defending player.

In the third case, to the left, based on the Arsenal-Bayern case, the foul has taken place centrally with no defender in the triangle. This is a professional foul, but it does more than deprive a mere goalscoring opportunity – the attacking player is actually certain to score (within reason)!

Here, the current laws are the same as with the previous case; a free-kick or penalty kick is awarded (outside or inside the area), and the defender is dismissed.

However, I would change the laws to note this is not the same as the previous case. As per a “penalty try” in rugby union, I would simply award the goal and merely caution the defending player.

As with the interpretation of offside, the diagrams mark clearly what is merely an attacking play, what is a goalscoring opportunity, and what is an otherwise certain goal.

It would thus be a relatively straightforward amendment to the laws of the game; one which would make it both fairer for those who play it and more entertaining for those who pay to see it.

Time to kick out homophobia

“That’s a bit gay” is a phrase I hear youths and even children use commonly, to mean “bad” or “weak”. This is totally unacceptable, and it is time we stamped it out.

Underlying it is an ongoing underlying social norm which is accepting of homophobia. Similar terms hinting at racism or even sectarianism would now be deemed unacceptable. Social campaigns to kick out racism and sectarianism have become widespread, and enjoyed some success (at least in some locations). I am not aware of any such campaign to “kick out homophobia”.

We have seen social changes which have seen everything from racism to drink-driving become socially unacceptable – at every age. Such a social change with regard to sexual orientation is long overdue.

World Cup Draw – Groups of Death, and Life…

The World Cup draw is highly enticing – so how about cutting through the lazy TV “punditry” and suggesting where the real dangers lie?

Group A – Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Cameroon

As ever, the host country got a favourable draw. Croatia scrambled through in the easiest European play-off; Mexico was just awful in qualifying, almost missing out even on a play-off spot from North/Central America; and Cameroon is not what it was.

The biggest problem for Brazil will come in the next round, when it will likely face any of Spain, the Netherlands or Chile.

Out of interest Mexico, absolutely bizarrely, has reached but then gone out at the last 16 stage of every single World Cup for which it has qualified (progressing further only as host, when it didn’t need to qualify). Bad news for Croatia and Cameroon, but good news for those in Group B!

Group B – Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia

This is the true “Group of Death”. Australia struggled a little in qualifying, but any Aussie sports team will cause problems.

Spain, of course, has won everything in sight since 2006; the Netherlands was the vanquished team in the most recent World Cup final; and Chile has consistently impressed globally (even if it flattered to deceive a little in qualifying).

Put simply, there are three teams in this group who could win the thing – yet one of them will be eliminated and another will face Brazil!

Group C – Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast, Japan

Yawn. How tedious. Next.

Group D – Uruguay, Costa Rica, England, Italy

The BBC “pundits” moaned long and hard about this group, yet it is nothing like as “bad” as it looks – or, at least, it wouldn’t be if England were any good!

Uruguay’s passage to the semi-final last time was a bit of a fairytale – the country is historically a serious footballing force, but in practice had not achieved anything in any tournament outside Uruguay for forty years. With a population similar to Wales, and an ageing team, it is a team which a proper England team should be confident of defeating, even in South America. A lot was made of the fact England has not beaten Uruguay in the World Cup – but the last meeting was in 1966, when Uruguay was a real force.

Also, Italy has a heritage of making hard work of the opening group phase – having crashed out in 2010 against the combined footballing might of Paraguay, Slovakia and New Zealand, none of whom has even qualified this time! So it is by no means certain that Italy will be at the level it was when it outplayed England at Euro 2012.

The further advantage for England is that it gets to face a team from the “Group of Tedium” in the next round – although admittedly the likes of Brazil and Spain await to dispose of Hodgson’s lot in the quarters if necessary.

Group E – Switzerland, Ecuador, France, Honduras

Incroyable! The French have gone from all but eliminated in the play-offs to certain quarter-finallists in just one game! Honduras got through the easy North and Central American zone, Ecuador mustered only three points away from home in the whole South American qualifying programme, and Switzerland isn’t really very good despite its ranking. Nevertheless, Switzerland outplayed eventual finallist France in 2006 and of course defeated eventual winner Spain in 2010 – so this group is still more interesting than Group C (not that much more, mind – Switzerland and Honduras played out a dire scoreless draw in the final group game in South Africa and repeat that fixture in Brazil).

Group F – Argentina, Bosnia, Iran, Nigeria

Bosnia’s qualification was my favourite of the series, as a country seriously battered by civil war united in triumph. It had been coming too, with qualification for Euro 2012 only denied by Ronaldo’s Portugal at the play-off stage. The only first-time qualifier in Brazil, I fully expect the Bosnians to progress.

Argentina-Nigeria is a fixture with heritage – Maradona’s last World Cup game was against Nigeria (before the team without him suffered a thrashing at the hands of Bulgaria), and the teams will now have faced each other four times in the last six tournaments (the Argentines scrambled 1-0 wins in both subsequent games, so are 100% thus far and may expect to remain so).

Group G – Germany, Portugal, Ghana, United States

From an objective point of view, this was my favourite group.

Germany and Ghana met last time, with a Boateng brother on each side; both sides qualified for the next round, where Ghana defeated the United States 2-1. The United States also lost to Germany in a knock-out game in 2002 (very unluckily in fact), but has happier memories of a group game against Portugal earlier in that tournament (leading 3-0 before winning 3-2). Portugal and Germany have also met each other frequently in major tournaments – Portugal became the first team to beat West Germany at all in a World Cup qualifier in 1985 and also sent the Germans crashing embarrassingly from Euro 2000 – but the Germans have evened up the score somewhat since, not least in an epic Euro 2008 quarter-final.

And then there’s the small matter that a certain Herr Klinsmann now manages the United States. This could be fun…

Group H – Belgium, Algeria, Russia, South Korea

This looks like a boring group, not least because it has the word “Belgium” in it. But there is nothing boring about Belgium these days – good political wrangles, good chocolate, and a bloody good football team. Russia also qualified well, having also impressed early in Euro 2012 before being bored out of the tournament partly by Greece and partly by a dodgy means of separating teams who had finished even on points. The Koreans have never really capitalised on its remarkable run as host in 2012; and the Algerians are lucky to be here at all having scrambled past Burkina Faso on away goals in the qualifying play-off thanks to the scrappiest goal ever scored.


It would be laughable to call it this early – but if I were forced, I’d suggest Brazil, Spain, England, Italy, France, Argentina, Germany and Belgium are the likeliest quarter-finallists. That said, there are other good teams in there, and there is nearly always a shock team in the last eight (and even the last four). Don’t be surprised if it’s someone like Bosnia.

Anti-racism cause harmed by faux outrage re Hodgson

No one has been specific about what Roy Hodgson said at half-time in the England-Poland game, but I think we can safely say this: it quite simply wasn’t racist.

Clearly, what Mr Hodgson said was a reference to a film which involves, literally, an astronaut and a monkey. In the film, the monkey is the one with all the intelligence and all the ability. Comparing a player to the monkey, therefore, is a compliment – as the player himself has said. It has absolutely nothing to do with race.

The fact that it is a story at all in fact shows that we are not tackling racism, but rather pretending it doesn’t exist. It is alarming because, far from being civilised enough to kick racism out of football (and, more importantly, society), we haven’t even developed far enough to understand it. If we cannot distinguish between comments which are racist and comments which aren’t, how can we tackle it?

Worse still, the “faux outrage” around Hodgson merely means that real incidents of racism will be missed. People will begin to be cynical about the whole thing, and it will all become “The Girl Who Cried Wolf”.

Racism remains a serious problem in football (in fact, in society – football merely reflects that). We will only tackle it and kick it out once we actually understand what is racist and what isn’t. What Roy Hodgson said wasn’t.

Northern Ireland will follow Iceland’s lead out of football wastelands

The refrain that there should be an “all-Ireland” team every time Northern Ireland lose is familiar and yet, like so many familiar refrains, nonsense. Northern Ireland is in fact the smallest team to have advanced at a World Cup, and has done so not once but twice (in entirely separate generations). 1.8 million people isn’t many to choose from, but the evidence clearly shows it has been enough in the past to reach the knock-out stages of the World Cup, and so obviously it could be so again.

In fact, it is the usual thing of taking a problem and applying a completely ludicrous simplistic solution, and then repeating ad nauseum (a bit like the way England’s misfortunes are always blamed, completely contrary to the evidence, on foreigners in the Premier League). This may make us feel good, but it doesn’t actually get us anywhere!

Proof comes from our near neighbours to the north, Iceland, who with a population of 328,000 (roughly the same as Belfast City Council alone), has reached the European Play-offs to qualify for Brazil 2014. Getting to within a single tie of a World Cup for such a small country is unheard of, and yet few who saw its team perform during the group would deny the team thoroughly deserved its second place. This should beg an obvious question to the IFA and to Northern Ireland fans – how?

Positive Mental Attitude, that’s one thing. A foreign coach with a record of past qualification (Swede Lars Lagerback) is another (what was that about foreigners?!)

Icelandic journalist Vidir Sigurdson really lets us in on the secret, however: he talks in The Guardian of the overhauling of Iceland’s infrastructure from 2000, which saw a range of artificial pitches built across Iceland and an emphasis put on small-sided games to improve the technique of young players. Alongside this, there was also a drive to increase the number of homegrown Uefa-qualified coaches, which has also borne fruit.

So there you go, Crusaders was closest!

In all seriousness, over at Social Club NI they give us the good news is that the IFA has recognised this, even if only recently. Artificial pitches are the way forward and it is quite possible the professional game will be played entirely on them by the middle of the century. As for youth football, it should all be 5-a-side or 7-a-side (which does mean overhauling facilities to enable this) – there is simply no point in an 11-a-side match where one team just barges the other out of the way and there is no skill remotely involved. Good coaching is also essential.

It can be done, and the evidence is it will take 12 years. So we’ll just miss Qatar, which may not be such a bad thing…

All-Ireland football team a fake argument

There are few things more predictable than a failure of both Irish international football teams being met with a chorus of suggestions that an all-Ireland team would do a lot better. This is a fake, misleading and erroneous argument which, like so many, fails to define the problem and thus offers a nonsensical solution. After all, faced with a complex problem, it is much easier to deny it is complex than to come up with the necessary complex solution…

It is worth going through why the argument is fake, misleading and erroneous.

1. We should have an all-Ireland team because the two are too small to have their own team…

A) Iceland (pop 300,000) and Montenegro (pop 600,000, having just broken away from Serbia) are still in with a chance of qualifying for the World Cup from a UEFA group. So, plainly, small countries can and do qualify (Slovenia frequently did so at the turn of the century; Latvia did in 2004; Estonia reached the playoffs last time around; all with similar populations to Northern Ireland’s and much larger than Iceland’s or Montenegro’s). So the problem is NOT size!

B) A team drawn from a unit of 6.3 million people will not be noticeably superior to one drawn from 4.5 million people (as the Republic of Ireland is). So that doesn’t solve the problem anyway.

2. We should have one team because rugby does…

A) The all-Ireland rugby team has the worst record of all the “Home Unions”; it has a losing record against all the others, and the worst record (except Italy’s) in the Home/Five/Six Nations Championship. All-Ireland teams are quite often pretty hopeless too!

B) Rugby also has a “British Isles” team, which really does give you a lot to choose from (approaching 70 million). Why does no one suggest this?!

3. We should have one team to be better…

A) This assumes that being “better” is the only thing which matters. It isn’t! On the same basis, lots of countries should merge teams – perhaps a single Scandinavian team, a single Baltic team, dare I say a single Belgium-Luxembourg team (they had a single currency for long enough)? Even at club level, try suggesting to Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United fans that there should be a single Sheffield team, or indeed to Crusaders and Cliftonville fans that there should be a single North Belfast side? Football teams, at international and even club level, are to do with identity, not just “being good”.

B) The real devious side to the argument is again the notion that the “one team” would be “one Ireland”. Why not “one UK” or “one British Isles”? Actually, the argument for a united Ireland team is essentially the same as for a united Ireland state – just admit it!

Here is the biggest problem with all of this: it completely ignores the problem!

The problem is that Ireland (both jurisdictions), and indeed the British Isles as a whole, are not producing enough good players to compete – even with smaller countries like Croatia (v Republic of Ireland) or Estonia (Northern Ireland). Across the British Isles, a ludicrous premium is put on player size, eleven-a-side competition and gaining ground from an early age, where more successful countries focus on player technique, small-team games (encouraging creativity and not worrying too much about results) and tactics/teamwork. This requires big changes across the board – re-training coaches, adapting youth competitions, renovating pitches/leisure facilities and so on.

Frankly, an all-British Isles team – selecting from a population similar to Germany’s and nearly double Spain’s – would still fail to compete for major honours because British and Irish players are not good enough (i.e. not skilled enough and not knowledgeable enough). You can come up with all the excuses you like about too many foreigners in the Premier League or selecting from too small a pool, but until you can say that an all-British Isles team could compete, the rest of it is all noise and no signal.


NI is not “under British rule”

A conversation about the Irish name for “Belfast” degenerated recently into the comment “It’s the English name that counts, we’re under English [sic] rule”. Isn’t it telling that people still phrase it like that – “we’re under British rule“? Who, with an iota of self-worth, would phrase it like that?

Eight years ago this week the England football team visited Northern Ireland for a World Cup qualifier. The papers were full of the questions English players were asking about Belfast lough, what room David Beckham was staying in at the Culloden, and what sandwiches Wayne Rooney was eating. These great English invaders were lauded as superstars and latter-day colonial masters. Before they lost 1-0…

To be clear, I am half-English, I was largely educated there, I am genuinely fond of England above and beyond that, I support all its sports teams they play anyone except Ireland/Northern Ireland (or occasionally South Africa). But I do not for one second believe as a resident of Northern Ireland I am “under their rule”. What a ridiculous notion! It is quite obvious to anyone who views it objectively that we are every bit as good as they are, as David Healy proved that night.

Of course, there are people who do believe we are “under English/British rule” on both sides of the divide, and who do innately carry an inferiority complex – this is surely a colonial overhang. After all, Ireland was under English Rule (i.e. Parliament in London was able to legislate for it without any Irish representation). This goes well beyond the inner cities too. Indeed, one excited new NI21 member wrote over on Slugger that our (NI) politicians “shouldn’t bother with the difficult stuff like welfare and tax” (in other words, that they should leave it to those superior beings over in England – you know, like the obviously incredibly competent David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg…)

It is true that Northern Ireland was not fully included within the UK in 1921, but rather cast asunder from it – uniquely attaining Home Rule when it didn’t want it and when Scotland and Wales were still 80 years away from having it. It is true that most people in Great Britain are aware of Great Britain’s own boundaries but often unsure of Northern Ireland’s or Ireland’s relationship with it, treating people from either jurisdiction much the same. It is true that, unlike Wales and particularly Scotland, Northern Ireland politicians rarely play a significant role at the heart of UK-wide politics. And of course there’s the “not available in Northern Ireland” syndrome.

But Northern Ireland is not “under British rule”, as this would imply something involuntary about it and/or that it has no say over that rule – so it is particularly odd to hear Unionists using the term. The 1998 Agreement makes it absolutely clear that Northern Ireland is in a Union with Great Britain (post-devolution, perhaps best seen as a Union with England, Scotland and Wales) which it may remain within or depart from entirely of its own accord. Furthermore, the 1998 Agreement makes it clear that Northern Ireland has its own rule for domestic matters, co-operating with Great Britain on excepted and reserved matters through Parliament in which it is perfectly fairly represented proportionately; indeed, it also cooperates on certain agreed matters with the rest of Ireland through bodies with Boards with equal numbers from each jurisdiction reporting to each legislature – so there’s no “under anybody’s rule” there!

What the phrase really gives away is an ongoing inferiority complex – as if we somehow should be under someone else’s rule because we’re too stupid to govern ourselves. That then becomes somewhat self-fulfilling when, in the certitude that someone in Great Britain will bail us out if we do anything too ludicrous, we overwhelmingly elect to Stormont a load of “community representatives” with a narrow, one-sided view of everything in preference to competent legislators who can think and feel for everyone in NI.

Yes, we have our foibles, but taken as a whole they are no worse than any other country’s. It is about time we in Northern Ireland gained some self-respect, with or without David Healy banging in hat tricks or Rory McIlroy banging in birdies. We are actually worth it.

Panic buying will not save Arsenal

Arsenal’s season opener was typical of its summer – filled with early promise, touched by controversy, but in the end pointless and embarrassing.

This is still, in fact, a good Arsenal team which will ultimately still contend for the top four come the Spring. It is in fact a team which had beforehand accumulated more points in 2013 than any other Premier League side. Yet the horrendous lack of strength-in-depth was demonstrated by the fact I myself am considering putting myself forward for the bench on Wednesday…

Arsene Wenger’s defence of his failure to sign was like the man, not entirely unreasonable but somewhat lacking in adventure – namely that he will only buy players who demonstrably improve the team. However, it is becoming thinner. Two of Villa’s goals were scored by Christian Bentheke – should he not be at Arsenal improving things? Higuain? Gustavo? Mignolet? Fact is, each and every one of those would have improved matters.

It was Gary Neville on Sky Sports, fast maturing into the best pundit out there, who said in May that Arsenal had to move fast. You cannot afford – in any sense – to be left scrabbling for players come August. The ones going are gone. Frankly the appeal of Arsenal – as a Champions’ League team on the fringes of title contention given form in 2013 – has already been shattered in one game; it could be destroyed altogether by Thursday morning.

Unfortunately, Arsene Wenger himself cannot be entirely devoid of blame for this. Yet you cannot but feel there is something deeper wrong with the club. Two things stand out.

Firstly, since David Dein left the club has never been at the centre of things, transfer-wise. The commonality in the signings of Bergkamp, Platt, Vieira, Henry and even Wenger himself is David Dein. It is hard to think of a really exciting new signing since. It is not just that the scouting system (admittedly Wenger’s responsibility) turns out duds like Squillaci, but that the club simply doesn’t seem to be at the stock market when the shares are being allocated. There is something very wrong there.

Secondly, the club is run by people who want to make money out of it – in other words, as a business not a football club. In business, this would be a good thing. In football, it isn’t. Clubs which win things have owners who are quite prepared to lose millions in return for the kudos and glory of owning a club which wins things. For all the chat about Arsenal having 70 million to spend this summer, Manchester City has lost (not just spent) that much on average each and every season for the past seven seasons – and even that has delivered a relatively meagre return of one Premier League and one FA Cup. On the other hand, the best way to turn a profit (as Arsenal has, uniquely in the Premier League, over that period) is to qualify consistently for the Champions’ League group phases – going much beyond that on a consistent basis requires spending huge money but in fact does not generate much of a return; qualifying for the Champions’ League consistently is the happy middle between having to spend huge amounts, and not; and between getting a good return in terms of advertising, and not. In other words, trophies get you glory, Champions’ League qualification gets you profit – Arsenal’s owners want the latter; most – such as Manchester United’s, Manchester City’s, Chelsea’s and even Wigan Athletic’s – want the former (almost regardless of the price they have to pay for it).

Ultimately, therefore, it doesn’t much matter whether Arsene Wenger stays or goes. For as long as Arsenal is owned by people who put profit above glory, trophies will only arrive by happy coincidence. Perhaps getting trounced on Wednesday wouldn’t be such a bad thing…

Furore over Russia as host too late; what about Qatar?

Russia is an astonishing country with a remarkable history, but it is fundamentally less civilised than Western Europe.

Let us just clarify that. When was Russia ever a free, liberal democracy? When did Russia go through the Enlightenment?

So when the 2014 Winter Olympics and 2018 World Cup were awarded to Russia, anyone with any sense realised they were being awarded to a country which is fundamentally less civilised than the previous hosts.

Hosting rights were awarded in the full knowledge that Russians (with the exception of a small, largely Western-educated minority) are not suddenly going to wake up tomorrow morning demanding Western-style gay rights, proper multi-party democracy or independent oversight over their forces of Law and Order. Their culture and heritage is not drawn from the culture and heritage which delivered those things to Western Europe and to the countries Western Europeans subsequently influenced and established.

Minority rights in general are not something which have been typical in human history; they are in fact a product of cultural advances. When England won the World Cup in 1966, homosexuality was outright illegal in the UK; racial segregation was still the norm in the United States; women were still denied the vote in parts of Switzerland; Aborigines were not even recognised as people in Australia. It took hard campaigning over two generations to get to where we are now; and even that was with the benefit of a largely free press and the ability to campaign democratically without violence in a broadly liberal political set-up. Even those in Russia enlightened enough to want that socially liberal cultural advance lack the free press and democratic settlement through which they may reasonably feel they could achieve it.

In other words, the furore over Russia’s hosting of international sporting events is somewhat too late. After all, we have to make a decision: should international sporting events be hosted only in socially liberally advanced (or even merely enlightened) countries? Indeed, is there not an opportunity, by awarding sporting events to countries like Russia, to help those who do want socially liberal cultural advances in that country to achieve them? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I am sure it is a more constructive question than the narrow one we are currently asking about the Winter Olympics.

Of course, it is not too late to stop Qatar hosting the 2022 World Cup. Let us be clear, no one seriously believes those hosting rights were allocated on merit; Qatar remains a fundamentally uncivilised and socially backward country; and in any case it is a ludicrous place to hold a sporting event scheduled for June and July. Those concerned about minority rights in general and gay rights in particular should long since have begun campaigning against Qatar’s hosting of the event, and against FIFA’s outrageous decision to pursue it. Let’s get on with it!


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