#7: The ‘Y-word’

On the need to target football’s real anti-Semites.

Less than three minutes in, the chants started. The words were the same as they ever were—‘Yid Army! Yid Army!’—but they were sung with a renewed vigour and in an air of obvious defiance. The crowd at White Hart Lane, ‘the world famous home of the Spurs,’ were there on Saturday to see their team take on Norwich, but first came the two fingers up at the Football Association. Their message was clear: ‘We’re Tottenham Hotspur, we’ll sing what we want.’

Tottenham have long identified as a (the?) ‘Jewish club.’ As Anthony Clavane reveals in his history of Jewish football in England, Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here?, the origins of the connection lie in London’s transport links: since travelling in cars and buses powered by combustion-engine was forbidden on the Sabbath, East End Jews, though closer to West Ham’s Boleyn Ground than White Hart Lane, would find themselves frequenting the latter due to ease of accessibility. By the 1930s, so said the Manchester Guardian, up to 11,000 Jews would file into White Hart Lane on a match day, making up a third of all Spurs supporters. That figure isn’t nearly so high today, but it remains into the thousands—and that’s without taking into account the many supporting from home and elsewhere. Against this backdrop, one might understand more fully the frustration felt at the FA’s actions this week.

That word the fans sang on Saturday, and on almost every other Saturday for decades, is to be banned across all English football grounds. More than that, in fact, it’s to be criminalised, so that those who utter it, in speech or in song, may be charged by the police. That word is the ‘Y-word,’ used by Spurs fans, Jewish or otherwise, as a badge of identity, a way to combat the racists who have attacked the club for its heritage. Chants of ‘Yid Army!’ aren’t designed to be offensive, but to show solidarity with a persecuted minority. It’s an attempt at linguistic reappropriation. Of course, how successful or suitable an attempt it is should be debated. But to simply conclude, as the FA do in their statement, that ‘Use of the term ‘yid’ is likely to be considered offensive to the reasonable observer’ is to ignore the historical context in which it’s used.

White Hart Lane has seen more than its fair share of anti-Semitism over the years. But very little of it, as far as any ‘reasonable observer’ could tell, has come from the mouths of Tottenham fans. The FA’s target—an end to religious and racial discrimination—is, of course, an admirable one. But the way they’ve gone about achieving it is misguided at best, willfully ignorant at worst. A word to the wise: one doesn’t eradicate anti-Semitic hatred by criminalising the very people, Jewish or otherwise, who have been standing up to it the longest. Spurs fans aren’t the guilty party; Spurs fans are the victims.

In November of last year, Tottenham fan Ashley Mills was stabbed in the thigh the night before a European away tie with Lazio. Nine other fans were taken to hospital. It was apparently a targeted anti-Semitic attack. During the game, as there had been in their earlier White Hart Lane match, there was sustained anti-Semitic chanting directed at Spurs: ‘Juden Tottenham!’ A similar incident took place a few months later, a group of Spurs fans attacked by a neo-fascist group in Lyon. Nazi salutes and chants of ‘Jew! Jew!’ preceded the violent storming of another bar.

Not that the problem is confined to those troublesome Europeans—far from it. Soon after the stabbing of Mills, Tottenham faced West Ham at White Hart Lane. They were met with chants of ‘Viva Lazio’, ‘Can we stab you every week?’, and ‘Adolf Hitler, he’s coming for you.’ Fans also hissed periodically, as if to imitate the sound of the Nazi gas chambers. This isn’t the exception but the norm (though, of course, it’s always a small minority). David Rosenberg, a West Ham fan and author, wrote at the time in the New Statesman: ‘I can’t actually recall a West Ham game against Spurs where I have not heard some anti-Semitic abuse, comment or chanting.’ It’s not just West Ham; the same is liable to happen in any of the team’s matches against Chelsea, Arsenal, or any number of others. It’s disgusting, but it’s hardly rare. This has been going on for decades and decades (even if, as some of the tweets directed at the Jewish Spurs owner, Daniel Levy, show, it’s now sometimes articulated in different ways and through different platforms).

What have the FA done in that time? Well, they fined Arsenal midfielder Emmanuel Frimpong £6,000 for labelling a Tottenham supporter ‘Yid Scum’ on Twitter (is anti-Semitism ‘DENCH,’ Emmanuel?), which is a start. But apart from that… bupkis, to use the Yiddish word. Nothing. The chants from West Ham fans in November were the most shocking example of anti-Semitism in English football for many a year. But despite the FA’s pronouncement that ‘there is no place for anti-Semitism or any form of discrimination in football,’ the club weren’t charged. Only two fans were arrested, seemingly for making Nazi salutes, and one given a lifetime banning order. Evidently, where the FA is concerned, words and actions rarely tally. The use of the ‘Y-word’ by Spurs, then, is a reaction; their fans have been targeted by anti-Semites and they’ve responded—on their own, as they’ve been forced to do—rather than choosing to remain silent.

Whether the attempted reclamation of ‘yid’ is appropriate is certainly a question that deserves to be asked. This is especially complicated since the word is sung by non-Jews as well as Jews: Can an offensive term be ‘reclaimed’ by a culture at whom it isn’t directed and thus doesn’t offend in the same way or to the same extent? Comparisons to the reappropriation of the ‘N-word’ by black people or ‘queer’ by the LGBTQ community are unhelpful in such a case. Ultimately, though, this is a debate to be had by Spurs fans and, above all, Jewish people.

What the FA are in fact doing with the ‘yid’ ban is to injure further an already shameful record of inaction. No wonder, then, that Spurs fans seek solace in the collective conscience of the crowd; for where has the FA’s conscience been hiding all this time? Let’s talk about anti-Semitism in football. It might just work better than sending the good guys to jail.

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On a historic first for Afghanistan.

A while back, this blog talked about the remarkable performance of Iraq in the recent U20 World Cup. The article had the subtitle ‘Not victory, but hope,’ and contained therein an account of a young and talented squad who had delivered optimism to a country still reeling from war and sectarian violence. This week, history repeated itself—but this time there was victory, too.

On the anniversary of September 11, the Afghanistan national football team celebrated its first international trophy. They managed a 2-0 victory over India in Kathmandu to win the South Asian Football Federation Championship, cheered on by millions in the coffee shops and restaurants back home. Even more turned out on the streets to celebrate the win: men and women of different ethnicities united in celebrating a common cause. It was as beautiful as it was rare.

Under the Taliban, football had been driven to the very fringes of society. Stadiums were used as venues for public executions and forced amputations as well as football matches. For many Afghans, Wednesday’s win must seem to symbolise a major cultural and political shift.

The team’s coach, Yousef Kargar, said after the win: ‘You can’t imagine how big this moment is for our country, our fans, our team and me.’

He’s probably right. 

#6: Africa Talks to You

On football, pan-Africanism, and pretty much everything else.

This is a difficult article to write, such is the fetishisation and exoticisation of African culture, and, consequently, its football. It’s intended firstly, like most of the articles featured on this blog, to tell a story—in this case, the story of how football, through its popularity among the West African masses and its subsequent adoption by anti-colonial leaders, helped to build nations and unite a continent. But it’s intended also to be a sort of celebration of African football (itself a troublingly homogeneous term), and this is a much tougher task than mere storytelling.

If it’s ever suggested that African football is ‘special’ because it’s alien and somehow an ‘other,’ apologies. African football is a unique spectacle, yes, but not because of the ‘Dark Continent’ bullshit so often spouted. (Think voodoo spells, witch doctors, all that.) It’s special because it’s political. And the joy synonymous with it springs from that politicisation. In West Africa especially, football is more than a sport; football is a symbol of an oppressed peoples’ independence. And that’s where the storytelling comes in.

 *

Thirteen years ago, the tiny West African island nation of Cape Verde won its first international trophy. Fittingly, it was the Amílcar Cabral Cup, a tournament named after the man who did most to secure the country’s independence from their Portuguese colonisers. The significance wasn’t lost on the victors.

Earlier this year, Cape Verde went one step further. Under the coaching of part-time football manager, part-time air-traffic controller Lúcio Antunes, they reached their first ever African Cup of Nations (CAN). They kicked the tournament off with a creditable 0-0 draw with hosts South Africa, before a similarly gutsy display saw their match with Morocco finish 1-1. Remarkably, a win in their final group game, against a good Angola side, would see the minnows qualify for the quarter finals; and win they did, 2-1, scoring twice in the last ten minutes (including a goal in stoppage time). Giants Ghana proved too strong in the next stage of the competition, but that hardly mattered. Cape Verde had arrived.

This week, the Blue Sharks, as they’re known, stand on yet another precipice, and one doubly as spectacular. After an up-and-down World Cup qualifying campaign featuring surprise victories, unexpected losses, and the odd ineligible player, the team defeated Tunisia 0-2 (away from home!) to reach the African Play-offs. A win in their next match will ensure a World Cup debut in Brazil 2014 for a nation with no grass pitches and a population of less than 500,000. Whichever way it’s spun, that’s some story.

Nigeria and Ghana, Cape Verde’s more illustrious neighbours, have also had good weeks, even if their victories were altogether more expected. Stephen Keshi’s Nigeria breezed past 10-man Malawi to top their group and proceed to the play-offs, Emmanuel Emenike and Victor Moses with the goals. Ghana faced a much tougher task, needing a point against 2010 CAN winners Zambia to progress. In the end, it was a relatively comfortable 2-1 win, but the match was marred by a controversial build-up in which Zambia were forced (or so they claim) to train in the stadium car park, of which more later.

What all of these ties shared, though, quality of football aside, was the fans’ fervour. Almost every club and every country has at one time or another claimed for itself the unprovable, arbitrary, ridiculous title of ‘Best Fans In The World,’ but the passion for football in West Africa is rarely matched.

Why?

What gives football its meaning in England is largely its representative capacity: fans rally around a club, of their city, of their class, seeing the team and the institution as a projection, in many ways, of themselves. This is almost always a regional, not national, phenomenon. Since England was the coloniser rather than the colonised, national representation through football was largely unnecessary. Even today, very few English people identify with the national team. We’ll support them, sure, but we don’t see ourselves in them (thank God).

In West Africa, however, the cultural and historical milieu is reversed. Football is still representative, sometimes tribal, but the focus of that representation shifts. Football was brought to countries like Cape Verde and Ghana, after all, when they weren’t ‘countries,’ but were essentially fiefdoms of the Portuguese and British, respectively. It was new. But God was it popular.

That this growth coincided with the growth of national independence and anti-colonial movements changed everything. African football and African nationalism were brothers—twins, even—growing up together. The national team thus became the focal point for, firstly, ‘normal’ Africans, but also for leaders like the aforementioned Amílcar Cabral, who recognised in football a revolutionary potential. In the absence of an established league system, and in the presence of a burgeoning national identity, the African passion for international football was born. As we shall see, it was to be central to nation building and the consolidation of pan-African solidarity.

Nowhere was this more evident than the Gold Coast, now Ghana. Both before and after independence, Kwame Nkrumah, the first President, set about using football as a weapon against the colonial powers. Football in Ghana would be independent, like the nation itself; indeed, it would help build that nation. In the words of the sports sociologist Dr Paul Darby, it was seen as ‘invaluable in building a sense of Ghanainness that [the government] felt would transcend all divisions.’

During the 1957 independence celebrations, football was placed front and centre. Sir Stanley Matthews was invited to play in a number of high-profile friendly matches for Accra club Hearts of Oak and was given the title of Soccerthene, meaning ‘King of Soccer,’ by Nkrumah’s administration. (It wasn’t the first time African football had expressed its admiration for Matthews—the Sierra Leone club Socro United renamed itself Mighty Blackpool FC in his honour—nor was it the first time Matthews had reciprocated that affection: the England winger toured Africa every summer for 20 years after his retirement, and even set up an all black team in Soweto, South Africa during the apartheid years.) More important, though, were the exploits of the Ghanaian national team.

The Ghana Football Association (GAFA) had set up, with Nkrumah’s express permission, exhibition matches against some of Europe’s premier club and international sides. Between 1958 and 1962, Ghana played against, either at home or abroad, Austria Vienna, Fortuna Düsseldorf, Blackpool, Dynamo and Locomotiv Moscow, West Germany, Real Madrid, and Italy. The latter two matches, against the then European Champions and the then two-time World Cup winners, respectively, were particularly notable. Against Real Madrid, Ghana managed a draw, and against Italy (in Italy), a scarcely believable 2-5 win.

Their performances in competitive cup competitions were even more impressive, and owed much to Nkrumah’s influence. The President personally appointed Charles Gyamfi, the first African footballer to play in Germany, as national coach. That the coach was Ghanaian was crucial; in colonial times, and even at the time of Gyamfi’s appointment, football coaches were always white, never African. This was a political move, a nod to Ghanaian independence. And under him, the team went on to dominate the continent. In 1963, Ghana hosted and won the CAN. They won it again two years later, the players starring, Gyamfi excelling in his new role, and Nkrumah always somewhere in the not too distant background. In fact, the players had direct access to the President. Centre forward Wilberforce Mfum recalled how ‘I could always go to him without even making an appointment,’ and houses were given to the squad for winning in 1965. Football was being politicised by Nkrumah, and not without good reason: besides the economic prosperity enjoyed by Ghana post-independence, the sport was about as potent a symbol of national achievement as could be found.

More than narrow nationalism, though, Nkrumah’s political philosophy was ultimately one of pan-Africanism and African solidarity. Independence from the colonisers would have to come first, naturally, but thereafter, continental unity was to be sought. As he outlined in one famous speech, ‘Independence now, tomorrow the United States of Africa.’ And, in another, ‘The independence of Ghana is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of the whole continent of Africa!’ The national team was again Nkrumah’s chosen outlet for the expression of his pan-African ideology. He chose to nickname them the Black Stars, both in homage to the great pan-African pioneer Marcus Garvey and to symbolise their role in fostering black, i.e. African, pride. Benjamin Koufie, a former player and manager with the Black Stars, told of how ‘Nkrumah was telling the whole world that there is a continent called Africa which could compete with any other continent in the game of football.’

If African football was to compete, thought Nkrumah, it must however act in concord. One tournament summed that belief up more than any other: the aptly named Kwame Nkrumah Gold Cup. It was a competition between West African national teams, but ‘competition’itself was perhaps the least important thing about it. Rather, it was an enterprise to strengthen the ties between West African nations. One Ghanaian football administrator told fans that they should ditch their petty prejudices and support ‘all the visiting teams as brothers.’ Nkrumah himself, in the aftermath of the 1960 final (a 6-2 win for Ghana against Sierra Leone in the Independence Stadium (again, note the name), Accra), said that the tournament was special ‘not for its intrinsic value, but rather because it is symbolic of the sound foundation upon which we can build the unity of West Africa and of the great value I attach to the success of this movement.’

And there were successes. Take the African boycott of the 1966 World Cup, a pan-African response to the overwhelmingly Eurocentric FIFA, which led to the guaranteed inclusion of at least one African team in World Cups starting from 1970. Victories were hard fought, and, as we shall see later, by no means total, but Nkrumah’s pan-African politicisation of the game was tangible and it was good for the continent. Like his heroes, Garvey and the Trinidadian Marxist intellectual C.L.R. James (another who saw sport—in his case cricket—and politics as indivisible), Kwame Nkrumah was a true pioneer.

As the successful boycott shows, however, Nkrumah wasn’t the only African leader who thought in these terms. Which brings us, after a major diversion, back to the West African nations we spoke of earlier, who this week won their final World Cup qualifying group games: the Blue Sharks of Cape Verde and the Super Eagles of Nigeria. For these countries, too, were guided towards independence by anti-imperial, pan-African leaders who recognised football as a means of strengthening their nation and continent. In the case of the former, this was Amílcar Cabral; in the latter, it was Nnamdi Azikiwe, or ‘Zik.’

Azikiwe had long been a proponent of government intervention in sport. As early as 1938, he formed Zik’s Athletic Club (ZAC), a Lagos-based sports club that, like Nkrumah’s sporting ventures, sought to demonstrate that Africans had the ability to manage and organise their own affairs. Such actions continued into wartime, with Zik conducting two football tours, in 1941 and 1943, to mobilise support for Nigerian independence. Almost 20 years later, when he became the country’s first president, it was a theme to which he would return. Just as there was an Nkrumah Cup, so too would there be an Azikiwe Cup, consisting of annual matches between Nigeria and Ghana. Like his comrade, he saw football as being able to play a part in the reclamation of African sovereignty from the imperialists. That the home of Nigerian football team Enugu Rangers was renovated in 1986 and renamed the Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium in his honour was an appropriate, if tiny, gesture.

Amílcar Cabral was different. Whereas Nkrumah and Zik went on to become their nation’s first President, Cabral was assassinated before the liberation of Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau could be achieved. He was a leader and a pan-Africanist theorist, yes, but he was also a guerrilla: the driving force behind a decade-long liberation struggle. With regards football, Cabral was different, too. Nkrumah and Zik, as we have seen, co-opted football once in positions of power to further their nationalist and pan-African agenda, and they did it with great success. Cabral, however, was a genuine football fan. As a young agronomy student in Lisbon, he excelled at football. Upon graduation, he was even offered the chance to play for Portuguese titans Boavista and Benfica. Manuel Alegre, the Portuguese poet and politician and then a member of the anti-imperialist Portuguese Communist Party, recalled recently that Cabral’s ‘greatest wish’ was at one time to take up Benfica’s offer, but that the necessity of armed struggle had led him to refuse. The world should be grateful that he did.

Nevertheless, Cabral did leave his mark on West African football. In our introduction we recalled Cape Verde’s first ever competitive tournament victory: they were the 2000 Amílcar Cabral Cup winners. The competition, again an all-West African affair, serves as a reminder of those liberation struggles fought by Nkrumah, Azikiwe, Cabral, and others; that football on the continent owes as much to these men as it does to any player. For without independence, what would football in Africa look like? 

This is not to say that all ran smooth after the chains of colonialism were broken. Just as there were benefits to come from the period’s politicisation of the sport, so too were there drawbacks and failures. In Ghana, particularly, Nkrumah’s interference couldn’t ultimately curb the inevitable tribalism that comes with competition. Pan-African sentiments were expressed, and strengthened, through football, but Ghanaian supporters remained hostile to rival teams. This was hardly Nkrumah’s vision for an independent Ghana. In a study of the rivalry between Ghanaian football clubs Hearts of Oak and Kotoko, Kevin Fridy and Victor Brobbey found that fans of each club were divided along ethnic and political lines that remained even in the post-colonial nation state: Hearts of Oak fans tended to be for one political party, the centre-left National Democratic Congress, and Kotoko fans another, the centre-right New Patriotic Party.

In fact, Nkrumah might be said to have worsened the problem of club tribalism during his time in office, with the football club he established, the Real Republikans, being seen as the party of the establishment rather than the people. As Darby notes, ‘What appears to be forgotten from Nkrumah’s experiences with football… is the capacity of the game to generate unpredictable emotional attachments and counter-hegemonic currents that can breed disunity and threaten those in power.’ Furthermore, because of the personal investment Nkrumah made in football, there was left a vacuum upon his deposition by military coup. Ghanaian football, so dominant in the first part of the 1960s, was to fall into disarray.

Thus we see the dangers of politicisation. So long as those carrying out the process are of moral integrity and are pursuing a ‘noble cause,’ the pros outweigh the cons. Nkrumah, however, showed how much could be achieved by co-opting one of Africa’s premier cultural expressions; others took that lesson, but applied it in an altogether more sinister manner. The chief culprit here was Mobutu Sese Seko, the Congolese dictator and kleptocrat. 

Contrary to his predecessors, Mobutu invested heavily in the Zaire national team solely for his own benefit, capitalising on the Leopards’ success to shore up his own position and to nurture his nascent cult of personality. (The Leopards, incidentally, was a nickname chosen by Mobutu to correspond with his trademark leopard skin hat, in sharp contrast to Nkrumah’s symbolic Black Stars.) When Zaire failed so miserably in the 1974 World Cup, it must partly have been down to the threats made to the players before and after games. One infamous moment saw defender Mwepu Ilunga break from the wall to boot the ball downfield before a Brazilian free kick could be taken. The borderline racist ‘hilarity’ that came afterwards—‘Look at that African! Doesn’t he know the rules of our game?—obscured the real explanation: that is, Ilunga and the rest of the Zaire squad were terrified.

Nor can we say that African football has freed itself from all colonial remnants. How could it? African nations still lose players to their former colonisers. Danny Welbeck and Gabriel Agbonlahor (the latter in the news this week, bizarrely, for injuring a member of the boyband One Direction during a charity match and subsequently making him vomit in front of thousands of his adoring fans) were eligible to play for Ghana and Nigeria, respectively. Both opted for England. Bruma, one of the most promising names in world football, will play for Portugal, despite his being born in Amílcar Cabral’s country, Guinea-Bissau. Belgium’s golden generation is built largely on Congolese talent: Vincent Kompany, Christian Benteke, Romelu Lukaku—to name but a few. And imagine if Zizou had turned out for Algeria, or Vieira for Senegal! (Again, one could name many, many more.) European clubs, meanwhile, still treat African clubs as if they own them, dodgy agents and representatives hoovering up premium talent at bargain basement prices.

Now firmly back in the present day, let’s return to a tie we mentioned long ago: last week’s World Cup qualifier between Ghana and Zambia. Here was tribalism personified: the Zambian government offered a $10,000 bonus to each and every player should they defeat Ghana; players trash-talked one another right up until kick off; and Zambia trained in a stadium car park on the eve of the match having been locked out of the premises. On the face of it, this was Nkrumah’s worst nightmare. Where had the pan-African spirit gone?

Ultimately, of course, the relationship between competitive sport and pan-Africanism was bound to be somewhat paradoxical; one is predicated on superiority, the other on unity. This doesn’t mean that the two are incompatible, however. Difficulties are had, as with the game between Ghana and Zambia, when sport trumps solidarity. But when the two work in tandem, as with the Nkrumah Gold Cup, or with the 1966 World Cup Boycott, football can serve justice in a way that few other cultural forms can. And though much has been made here of the role of leaders (if not elites), that’s essentially because football is still the sport of the masses.

Football is political. African football, doubly so. And the passion that springs from that added politicisation is what makes spectacles like Ghana vs Zambia so precious. Nothing contradictory about that. 

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2010, and the World Cup has come to Africa. South Africa are the hosts, Ghana the continent’s great hope. The Black Stars reach the quarter finals, where they face Uruguay, twice tournament winners, and are cheated out of a semi final place. Luis Suárez handballs on the line to deny Dominic Adiyiah a last minute winner. Ghana are eliminated. The posters supporting the team, however, decorated with slogans like ‘Bravo Black Stars, Heroes of Africa’ and ‘Ghana, Africa, One Love,’ remain in place. All of Africa mourns their exit, and South Africans even take to calling the team ‘BaGhana BaGhana,’ after their own nickname, Bafana Bafana.

February, 2013, and Nigeria win their third CAN title after a Sunday Mba goal powers them past surprise package Burkina Faso. A young team, unfancied before the tournament kicks off, their victory is a source of delight to their compatriots. Manager Stephen Keshi becomes the first black coach to win the title in 21 years, and says afterwards that ‘Winning this is mainly for my nation. When I came on board a year and a half ago my dream was to make all Nigerians happy, and to construct a great Nigerian team.’ But he also singles out the up and coming Confederations Cup, at which his team will play for the continent. ‘To represent Africa in Brazil,’ he says, ‘is an honour for Nigeria.’

Seven months later, and the joy is all Cape Verde’s. After their stunning win away at Tunisia sends them to within 180 minutes of World Cup qualification, the Blue Sharks coach, the air-traffic controller, rightly heaps praise upon his group of players. Tellingly, he points to their extraordinary ‘humility,’ and pays tribute to the ‘respect’ with which they viewed their North African opponents.

The giants of West African liberation are now long gone, but what they fought for lives on. For proof, well, just look to football.

*

I cannot imagine a better means of preparing the way for unity than by Africans from all parts of the continent joining hands in an atmosphere of brotherhood in the arena of sports. Kwame Nkrumah

My stiffest earthly assignment is ended and my major life’s work is done. My country is now free and I have been honoured to be its first indigenous head of state. What more could one desire in life? Nnamdi ‘Zik’ Azikiwe

If, as would seem from all the evidence, imperialism exists and is trying simultaneously to dominate the working class in all the advanced countries and smother the national liberation movements in all the underdeveloped countries, then there is only one enemy against whom we are fighting. If we are fighting together, then I think the main aspect of our solidarity is extremely simple: it is to fight. Amílcar Cabral

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On foreigners, coming over here, taking our jobs.

Would write something a wee bit more substantial, but, really, what’s there to say apart from:

'STOP THE XENOPHOBIA, GREG,'

'England were shite long before Newcastle brought in a dozen French players,'

and,

'Your dog-whistle football politics will get us nowhere'?

#5: ‘The heart of a heartless world’: football, capitalism, and Marx

On football’s place on the ideological spectrum.

Javi Poves, once of Sporting Gijón, wasn’t what one would call a great footballer. In fact, he wasn’t even a very good one. But he was a decent enough player, one that if he so wished could have made a career out of playing the game—perhaps not at the highest level, but, again, somewhere decent, at a club that would provide him with the means to enjoy the comfortable lifestyle to which soccer pros are nowadays accustomed.

Two years ago, though, in the August of 2011, Poves threw that lifestyle away—and he did so by choice. For him, football wasn’t ‘The Beautiful Game,’ that hackneyed nickname favoured by so many ‘footy’ fans. Rather, it was a ‘rotten’ game, scarred by iniquity, greed, corruption. For Poves, football was ‘capitalism,’ and, it followed, capitalism was ‘death.’

He retired immediately, aged 24, telling the Spanish daily ABC: ‘The more you know about football, the more you realise it is all about money, that it is rotten. What point is there in earning 800 or 1000 euros if you know that you are obtaining it through the suffering of many people?’ In an age when football politics tends to be mere gesture politics—Shankly and Clough’s staunch labourism has long been replaced by an army of Premier League, ‘Cameroonish,’ Tory wets (hello, ‘Frankie Lamps’)—Poves’s decision was rare indeed.

But, leaving aside the admirable display of principle, this begs the question: was he right? Are football and capitalism to some degree bedfellows, the former acting as the twenty-first century’s very own ‘opiate of the masses’?

As much as we’d all love to deny it, it’s impossible. Football, or at least modern football (AMF and all that), is a capitalist behemoth, its mouth stuffed with dubiously acquired gold and its boots trampling on all those who dare oppose its inexcusable excess. But everyone knows this already, and it would be boring (not to mention impossible) to list the million and one things wrong with the sport and its governance here. So far, erm, so capitalist.

Even if football is the ‘opiate of the masses,’ however, who’s to say that’s necessarily a bad (i.e. capitalist) thing? That phrase, of course, originates with Marx’s writings on religion, and has since been taken, not without reason, as an atheist rallying cry. However, Marx also recognised religion’s immense pull, its capacity to compel and intrigue as well as to numb. A fuller quotation reads: ‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.’

Consider that: ‘the heart of a heartless world.’ Continuing with our footballing bastardisation of Marx, now: Javi Poves contended that it was football that was heartless, and in the way that the game is run, that’s entirely true; but when Saturday comes and workers all over the world cram into their local stadiums to watch their respective clubs represent them? Well, football might be escapism—‘the heart of a heartless world’—but it isn’t capitalism, nor, certainly, is it death.

* * *

On the super-duper, really, really, really exciting, edge-of-your-seat Luis Suárez transfer saga. Yay!

Another day, another twist in the soap opera that is Suárez-gate. What is interesting, though, is that…

Nah, sorry. There’s nothing interesting about any of this. Either the bitey racist stays, or the bitey racist goes: that’s it. Now let’s all shut up until the transfer window closes.

Thanks. Ta-ra.

#4: Iraq at the World Cup: not victory, but hope

On a special squad of teenagers.

Farhan Shakor was seven years old when the invasion came. Ali Adnan was nine. Children of war, they’ve grown up seeing death as an everyday part of the landscape. They’ve seen their country brutalised by tanks, guns, bombs. They’ve seen friends and family members die, along with over 100,000 of their compatriots. They’ve seen more than most see in a lifetime. But Shakor and Adnan are also footballers, and talented ones at that. They’re part of the Iraq U20 squad, defeated semi-finalists at this year’s FIFA U20 World Cup, held in Turkey. And through their performances over the last few weeks, they’ve lifted an entire nation’s spirits: unlikely heroes, but heroes nonetheless.

In a strange twist of fate, the Iraqi team was placed in Group E of the competition, alongside England. (Alas, the United States was drawn in Group A.) 2-0 down to England after 52 minutes, Iraq staged a spirited comeback, the sort of which would epitomise their run to the latter stages. Ali Fayez pulled one back with a penalty kick on ’75, before that man Adnan popped up to score in the third minute of stoppage time. It finished 2-2. Three days later and Iraq were again behind to Egypt; another turnaround meant it finished 2-1 in the Iraqis’ favour. Chile lay in wait in the final group game: same score, same three points, and Iraq finished top of their group. (Delicious Irony, Pt. II: England came rock bottom, as did the US in Group A.)

Into the latter stages, then. After Chile came their South American neighbours, Paraguay, in the last 16. 90 minutes, it turned out, hadn’t been long enough to separate the two teams, and so into extra-time they went. Now, it was Shakor’s turn to be the hero. His 94th minute goal sealed a 1-0 victory. The fairytale continued—although it should be made clear here that this wasn’t simply a (p)lucky cup run, but one brought about by an extremely gifted squad of players. As if to demonstrate the point, Iraq then overcame South Korea in an extraordinary match: it was 1-0 Iraq, 1-1, 2-1 Iraq, 2-2, 3-2 Iraq, and then, in the last minute of extra-time, 3-3. It went to penalties, with Adnan and Shakor scoring the final spot-kicks in a 5-4 win.

The semi-final with Uruguay proved a step too far. 1-0 up through an outrageous Ali Adnan free kick, all was going to plan; that is, until the late Uruguayan equaliser and subsequent penalty shootout defeat. For Iraq in the World Cup, it was the end of the road. But the way that they’d played, the joy that they’d brought to so many: that’s their real legacy. 

More than a little context is needed if we’re to fully recognise the magnitude of this team’s achievements. On the day the U20 national team were taking on England, back in Baghdad a footballing tragedy was unfolding. Then, Karbala FC, a team playing in the Iraqi Premier League, lost 4-2 at home to Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya: a match in which several of the Iraqi squad would have played were it not for the World Cup. What happened afterwards put the draw with England, tremendous though it was, fully into perspective. For reasons that are still not entirely clear, a ‘counter-terrorism’ SWAT team affiliated with the Iraqi government attacked Karbala’s players and coaches. Seven players were injured and their manager, Mohammed Abbas al-Jabouri, sunk into a coma. The morning after Iraq defeated Chile to top their group and progress to the knockout stages of the World Cup, al-Jabouri died. He was 48. 

A wave of violence, as happens all too often in modern Iraq, has followed. Last month, more than 60 people have been killed in more than 10 bombings. These have been at pitches, where youths seek to emulate Shakor and Adnan, and at cafes, where so many Iraqis gather to watch them play. During the Chile game, a bomb exploded in one such cafe, killing four young men. Days later, two stadiums were targeted, killing eight players in multiple bombings; eight more were killed watching another match in another cafe. These weren’t indiscriminate or random acts of violence, but rather a series of explosions targeted specifically at footballers and football fans. In one of the most harrowing of these attacks, 12 people, the majority children younger than 16, were killed in a blast at a local football pitch in Baghdad. 25 more were wounded. One thing to come from the horror is a FIFA ban on Iraq hosting international friendlies. Another is more than half a dozen Iraqi clubs refusing to play in the country’s premier domestic competition. But no matter how widespread the violence, people in Iraq haven’t given up—will never give up—on football. 

This is largely down to the efforts of the U20 team. Their defeat of Paraguay galvanised a football-obsessed nation; men and women still flocked to the cafes, 250 defying the fear that they must surely have felt to fill one favourite Baghdad haunt in time for their quarter-final with South Korea. After winning that thriller, the squad made clear just how grateful they were to these fans. As Farhan Shakor told reporters: ‘We want to dedicate this victory to the Iraqi people, because we owe them so much. If it wasn’t for them, we’d never have come this far.’ For all their talent, he was probably right: Iraq’s World Cup fairytale was one in which the team and the nation came together as one.

Iraq didn’t deliver World Cup victory, but, then, no one expected them to. Instead, Shakor, Adnan, the whole squad—they delivered hope. And in a country where people are murdered simply for choosing to watch or play a game of football, hope is perhaps the most important commodity of all.

* * *

Some more on Iraq, in the words of their coach, Hakeem Shakir.

‘My gut is telling me my players have done great things for the folks back home. We’ve sent out a very positive signal. But we want to round it off by coming third, sending another important message to our people.

'We built this team to be like a family. When that family succeeds, everyone in it is happy. Underneath it all, there are rules and discipline like in all good families. But we like to enjoy ourselves and we’re spontaneous people. That’s why our joy is so obvious out on the pitch. It all comes naturally.

'This generation is gearing up for the World Cup in 2018, because we want to give back even more to the people at home.'

#3: A Tale Of Two Mundials

On the relationship between South American World Cups, past and future; or, more particularly, on dictatorships, demonstrations, and the murky role of FIFA.     

One might be forgiven for assuming (if one were to live in a bubble, that is) that it was only suspense that filled the Maracanã air last Sunday. It wasn’t. It was tear gas. It wasn’t the football, remarkable though it was, that made tens of thousands inside that great stadium rub their eyes in unison; not Fred’s predatory brace nor the prodigious Neymar’s 18-yard screamer. Again, tear gas. For this was another night of protests, the forthcoming World Cup being the prime target. Signs of ‘FIFA, go home’ are now a commonplace, as peaceful demonstrations are met with heavy-handedness from local police forces. Where these protests will lead isn’t for us to predict just yet, with a year still to go until the World Cup kicks off. But the show will go on. For if Argentina ’78 could go ahead in spite of everything, any World Cup can.

Jorge Videla was Argentina’s dictator-in-chief 35 years ago. Seizing power from Isabel Perón by way of military coup d’état, Videla’s instinct to repress became immediately clear. Torture was rife. Kidnappings and rapes, too. Socialists, activists and other political opponents were murdered. Entire families were thrown into concentration camps—‘disappeared’—never to be reunited with their friends and loved ones. Between 1976-1983 an estimated 30,000 dissidents were murdered. And yet Videla’s Argentina was due to host the 1978 World Cup: a decision made by FIFA long before the coup, but one that they failed to reverse afterwards.

The World Cup was a gift to Videla’s regime. It was the perfect propaganda tool, both within and without. Inside Argentina, it could be used to reinforce the ultra-nationalistic ideal of the one united nation. And outside? Put simply, it could be used to legitimise what was in reality an evil government. Cities were thus ‘cleansed’ of their slum-dwellers, their homes bulldozed at the behest of the ruling clique. Generals even hired a New York public relations firm so as to charm the imminent visitors. Videla told onlookers that in the new Argentina, ‘[poverty] no longer exists.’ Meanwhile, the torture, the rape, the murder: all were swept beneath a very large carpet. And some were fooled. David Miller from The Times wrote in one edition: ‘[Argentinians are] transparently neither unhappy, nor, any longer, oppressed.’ Berti Vogts, the West German captain, was also taken in: ‘Argentina is a country where order reigns, and I did not see a single political prisoner.’

US$700 million, or 10% of the national budget, was spent on the 1978 World Cup. It was projected to have cost 10x less than that. Instead, what amounted to 40% of Argentina’s annual spending on education was splurged on the tournament. It was a crude attempt to impress, but, with debts already spiralling out of control and a population many of whom had suffered at the junta’s hands, their plan ‘to wipe the country clean of disturbing elements before the first tourist steps foot in it’ had failed.

Assassinations continued, the head of the World Cup’s organising committee, a General Omar Actis, murdered after planning to speak out against the Mundial’s cost. And popular protest became widespread. This could be covert: Argentines would manipulate government slogans, for instance, so that ‘25 million Argentinians will play in the World Cup’ became ‘25 million Argentinians will pay for the World Cup.’ Or, especially during the tournament itself, it could be something altogether more tangible.

This was seen most notably through the Madres de Plaza de Mayo movement. These were the mothers of the ‘disappeared,’ who every day in May 1978 would congregate to protest. When the tournament got under way at the beginning of June, the Madres staged what was their biggest demonstration to date, deflecting attention away from the football and towards their imprisoned (or murdered) offspring. Journalists sat up and took notice; they made extraordinary copy, after all. Indeed, writers, commentators and presenters throughout the world were relaying news of these protests—and their root causes—to their people back home. Another slogan, this time popularised by leftist guerilla group Los Montoneros, reflected the failure of 1978 as a piece of political propaganda: ‘Every spectator at the World Cup / A witness of the real Argentina.’

But if the ‘Dirty War’ and its victims were new to European sports journalists in June 1978, it was only because they hadn’t been listening beforehand—or at least they’d all been living religiously by the mantra ‘seeing is believing.’ For there had been a movement to boycott Argentina ’78 for a year prior to the tournament kicking off; led by Amnesty International, and comprising numerous European intellectuals and left wing activists, COBA took for its home Paris, and for its symbol, a football made up of barbed wire.

Demands for a boycott were particularly loud in Western and Central Europe: in the Netherlands, West Germany, and Italy. But there were also solidarity organisations in Scandinavia, in North America, and in Israel. From the outside, the movement appeared to be gaining in momentum. Even some of the players seemed to be joining in: Johan Cruijff infamously sat out the tournament (not, it transpires, for political reasons—though that was long assumed), and Sepp Maier, despite opting to travel, even tried to involve himself in one of the Madres’ protests until he was threatened with expulsion by FIFA (in sharp contrast to the aforementioned Vogts).

But like the Generals’ attempts to exploit the Mundial, the opposition’s attempt to derail it obviously failed. No teams withdrew from the tournament, and very few left wing groups actually wanted them to. The European communist parties, still in thrall to a Soviet Union who enjoyed warm relations even with the junta, encouraged their countrymen to play in the World Cup. Indeed, even Argentinian leftists opposed COBA’s plan: Los Montoneros declared a temporary truce with Videla, one of their leaders, Rodolfo Galimberti, telling a French newspaper: ‘They can go [to Argentina]. The Montoneros will not take any action during the World Cup that might endanger athletes or journalists.’ Videla had his Mundial. And after the alleged bribing of Peru, and some refereeing shenanigans in the final against the Netherlands (with a little bit of magic from Passarella, Ardiles and Kempes, admittedly, along the way), Argentina had theirs.

One can’t, of course, compare Argentina then to Brazil now. Jorge Rafael Videla died earlier this year in prison; a murderous, far-right dictator, he is missed by no one. Dilma Roussef, on the other hand, is a broadly progressive, social democratic President in the tradition of her predecessor, Lula. Whereas the former spearheaded a reprehensible regime engendered by military coup, the latter has continued to preside over the emergence of a vibrant, if incomplete, democracy. In this sense, one might compare the Brazilian protests to those in South Africa a few years earlier, though on a vastly larger scale. Then, thousands chanted ‘Get out, FIFA mafia!’ on the streets of Durban, holding up handmade signs lamenting the country’s inequality and the ANC’s spending priorities. But these were minor: there was no movement for a boycott, or at least not one that transcended borders as COBA did in 1977/78.

No, the real point of comparison concerns FIFA.

Then, it ignored calls for a boycott. It stayed silent on human rights violations. It even threatened to ban players should they show solidarity with the mothers of those ‘disappeared’ by the ruling military junta.

Now, it supports the police in its violent crackdown on peaceful protests. It sips champagne while Rio burns. And, when it finally garners the courage to announce the ticket prices for next year’s World Cup, it’ll no doubt price out ordinary Brazilians—those who ‘love soccer, hate FIFA’—from watching the sport that they so love.

When the Madres de Plaza de Mayo chanted, as one, in the direction of the Generals, ‘When you took them, they were alive. We want them back alive,’ everyone heard. More than that, everyone knew—knew that this was wrong, that the World Cup should never have been there. If even they could be ignored so ignominiously 35 years ago, then God knows, so can those on the streets in Rio today.

Thankfully, South America has moved on. Predictably, FIFA hasn’t.

* * *

On JFK’s return.

You’ve just had 1,500 words on military juntas, political protests, all that lot, so I’ll keep this short and sweet. On behalf of all Newcastle fans:

Wi divvent want ye, Joe. Gan hyem. Please.

#2: LOSERS

On lower league heartbreak and the English footballing psyche.

Toumani Diagouraga has the best name in football. He just does.

He of the five-syllabled surname, Diagouraga is Brentford’s midfield lynchpin; with the gait, if not the ability, of a Yaya Toure or Patrick Vieira, the former Peterborough man’s nevertheless a fine player—especially for a club slogging away in League One. The same may be said of Clayton Donaldson, for if Diagouraga has the best name, it’s Brentford’s centre forward who has the best nickname: all hail the prolific ‘Donaldinho.’ Their manager, meanwhile, needs no such introduction. Uwe Rösler’s career, a journey from East Germany to West London, via, most famously, Manchester City, in many ways speaks for itself. Ditto his recovery from the cancer he was told might kill him in 2003. There is, then, a lot to love about the Bees.

But it’s not the presence of these characters that has endeared the club to so many football fans of late. It’s not Diagouraga’s lung-busting performances in the middle, nor Donaldson’s goals up top. It’s not even Rösler’s spirited Griffin Park stewardship. 

No: it’s Brentford’s heartbreak. It’s the last-minute penalty miss from a player called Trotta, a young Fulham loanee who in that moment seemed more Derek than Marcello. And it’s Doncaster’s subsequent counter attack, James Coppinger scoring with the game’s last kick to seal the League One title and push Brentford out of the automatic promotion places. Tellingly, no one congratulates Doncaster for this, the most dramatic of title wins (‘You just couldn’t write it,’ Steve Claridge probably droned on the BBC’s Football League Show), but instead praise ‘poor, plucky Brentford’ on an admittedly heroic effort. 

This is a curiously English trait. It’s for this reason that Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle side—‘The Entertainers’—were so lionised in the mid-90s and ultimate Premier League winners Manchester United largely forgotten (though the presence of David May in that latter side surely helped). Take, too, the England teams of 1986, 1990, 1996. Look at their vaunted position in English footballing folklore. It’s not their fault, their tournament defeats, but rather, ‘That cheating fucking Argie cost us the World Cup.’ (Admittedly, some take a more nuanced stance: ‘Peter Reid should’ve snapped the little shit in half when he had the chance.’) And, just to be a little less insular (please, forgive my ‘un-Englishness’), what of Hungary 1954, Holland 1974, Brazil 1982? Oh, how we love that title, ‘The Greatest Team Never To Win A World Cup.’ It’s not so much a love of the underdog that’s so engrained in the English football fans’ psyche as a respect for the gallant loser.

In one sense, this has always existed: a sort of bygone, Corinthian relic of English footballing amateurism. With the advent of the Premier League, though, the cult of the gallant loser—the sadistic joy that springs forth from glorious defeat—diminishes. For the unequal distribution of resources prolongs a two-tier competition in which fans know in advance final outcomes: Manchester United will always finish in the top four, Wigan will invariably struggle in and around the relegation places. Romance? No chance.

Not so with Brentford. Not so with League One. Not so, even, with the Championship. Last weekend saw another final day frenzy in the lower leagues, Steve Bruce guiding his Hull City side into the top flight at the expense of Gianfranco Zola’s Watford. Hull, needing only to better Watford’s result, looked certain to go up 90 minutes into their game against Cardiff City. Already 2-1 up, they were awarded a penalty to seal it, but substitute Nick Proschwitz, after a premature pitch invasion, saw his spot-kick well saved. ‘Oh, well,’ he might have thought. But then Cardiff, already crowned Championship winners, miraculously channeled the spirit of Donny, booting the ball clear and scoring a last-minute leveller through a penalty of their own. Cue final whistle. Cue another confused pitch invasion.

Watford, up against Leeds at Vicarage Road, had 20 minutes to respond; their match, delayed because of a nasty injury to second-choice goalie Jonathan Bond (Manuel Almunia having been hurt in the warm up), was then standing at 1-1. They needed just one goal. A raucous last quarter followed, and then another last-gasp strike. Unfortunately for Watford, though, it belonged to Leeds, Ross McCormack chipping debutant Jack Bonham with a weak effort that, in truth, should have been saved. Cue more heartbreak. Cue more English sympathy. 

Both Watford and Brentford still have the play-offs, of course. Indeed, the latter have already beaten Swindon to book their place at Wembley. Another commanding performance from Diagouraga, another brace for Donaldson, and a nerve-shredding penalty shootout overseen by Rösler (‘typical German’) has delivered redemption after the previous week’s agony. Watford will meet Leicester City to decide the first Championship play-off semi-final. 

My inner Englishman wishes them well, but not too well. In fact, another glorious defeat would be perfect. That way we can celebrate both teams properly. That way we can keep the cult alive. 

* * *

On the retiring Sir Alex Ferguson, by way of some fictional police detectives.

If Brentford are the newfangled representatives of an ancient English footballing tradition (namely, losing), Sir Alex Ferguson is their exact opposite. Imagine, for a moment, an English Jacques Clouseau, providing untold joy for his audience but ultimately failing, again, in the most absurd of manners. That’s Brentford. Now imagine Taggart: tough, Glaswegian, and known for getting results, he embodies those twin pillars of Scottish football management: ‘old-school’ values and a ‘no nonsense’ approach. Yep, that’s Fergie. Fergie, the antithesis of said perverted cult. Fergie, the WINNER.

Except, well, we all hate him. And it’s not because he’s a prick. He is, of course, but that’s not why we hate him. Not really. Rather, it gives us a justification for hating him; much easier to express righteous anger at Ferguson’s bullying of officials than to admit to feeling those inevitable pangs of envy, of jealousy. Arsène Wenger has our sympathy because he’s one of those gallant losers, playing beautiful football but never actually winning anything (at least recently). But Ferguson is a winner. And we hate that. We hate it as much as we love the losers.

This week, the winner retired, 26 years and 38 trophies after taking over at Old Trafford. Manchester United fans will hope his replacement, David Moyes, is another Taggart. Everyone else wants a Clouseau. That’s how we’re built, we English.

#1: ‘Taboo’-culosis

On why, in football as in society, there is no such thing as a ‘last taboo.’

'Football's last taboo' is a phrase obligatorily reserved for homophobia. When Robbie Rodgers, the ex-USMNT winger formerly of Columbus Crew and Leeds United, bravely came out as gay earlier this year, those two words—'LAST TABOO'—became almost impossible to escape or ignore.

This is worrying, for it seems almost congratulatory. It’s as if those in football are rushing to commend themselves for ridding the game of all those other ‘taboos’ (whatever they may be). ‘Look at us!’ they’re saying. ‘We’ve only one ‘taboo’ left. And we’re ‘tackling’ it!’

Homophobia, though, isn’t football’s ‘last taboo’ at all, especially with racism (its ‘first taboo’?) continuing to rear its ugly head. Let me sound the moral relativist klaxon for a moment: how can it be right that a toothy nibble into Branislav Ivanović's arm is judged worse than a proven case of racial abuse? Great 'taboo tackling' from the FA, there.

And what of the other ‘phobias,’ ‘isms,’ ‘taboos’?

Has football successfully challenged transphobia? It would be fascinating to see how players and fans would react to a figure like Jaiyah Saelua, the first transgender player to feature in a men’s World Cup qualifier, should she ever play in a major European league. (Granted, this doesn’t look too likely, her country being American Samoa.)

Has football successfully challenged sexism? Chants that normalise, even mock, rape (‘She said no, Robin/Titus’) would suggest not, as would the reprehensible reaction of some to the arrest of Ched Evans, found guilty of rape this time last year. For future reference, folks: rape isn’t #banter, and rapists aren’t #LADS.

Has football successfully challenged anti-Semitism? Why not ask Spurs fans, who are routinely met with songs about Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust? (Or why not search ‘Jew goal’ on Twitter?) And what of Islamophobia? The English Defence League’s links with football hooliganism are well established, and chants directed at Muslim players hardly unheard of.

Of course, this is not to belittle the efforts of those who really do seek to challenge football’s prejudices, nor to demonise football and its fans, the vast majority of whom abhor such mindlessness. Sport, after all, is but a mirror reflecting wider societal norms; the latter example of Ched Evans is more to do with our rape culture than it is the shared attitude of football fans.

Nevertheless, this particular lexical problem remains, in that the language of ‘last taboos’ isolates one issue at the expense of all others. Even worse than that, in fact, it suggests that other ‘taboos’ either don’t exist at all or have already been eradicated. This is nonsense: there will never be a ‘last taboo’ so long as people like John Terry are still playing football.

Homophobia is alive. The retirement of Robbie Rogers at only 25 is proof enough of that, the former winger calling football ‘an amazing sport. But… also a brutal sport that picks people up and slams them on their heads.’

But other prejudices, other bigoted beliefs—they’re alive, too. Football should keep that in mind when the time comes to write the next headline.

* * *

On el Tractor’s breakdown, and the folly of theism.

18 years and 847 games after his Nerazzurri debut, Javier Zanetti might well have played his last game for Inter.

Wearing a special captain’s armband handed to him by the new Pope Francis, Zanetti collapsed in a heap halfway through the first half in last Sunday’s 1-0 defeat away at Palermo. It was a ruptured Achilles tendon: the first major injury setback of his career and, given the armband, the most conclusive evidence yet against the existence of God. Il Capitano has stressed that he ‘will overcome’—and only a fool would bet against a glorious comeback—but at 39 years old, well, it doesn’t look good.  

Palermo played The Smiths’ ‘Ask Me’ over the PA at halftime on Sunday. In light of Zanetti’s potentially career-ending injury, ‘I Know It’s Over’ might, sadly, have been more apt.

Good luck, Javier. And if this is the end, thanks for the memories.