Who I’m Supporting at Russia 2018

Later on today the Russia 2018 World Cup begins, and as Wales failed to qualify, I have to pick a foreign country to root for. Luckily, I’ve had lots of practice as Wales’ 2016 campaign is the only one I’ve really had skin in the game for, and it broke me.

So, the question is, out of the 32 nations in the running for the trophy, who do I pick?

First of all, I’ll address the England question. My Dad is English, so some may be wondering why as the metaphorical Land of my Fathers failed to qualify I’m not rooting for the literal one. Well, it’s not that complicated. While I may have got behind England in 1996 to the extent I wept as Southgate ballsed up his penalty, I’ve experienced a lot since then.

And a lot of that is that some English people are massive bellends. I know not all of my neighbours across the bridge are, but there are a lot that are. I went to a Welsh university, but Welsh students were a minority and dealing with a certain breed of Englishman soured me on the country, as does watching the predictable tournament circus unfold.

  • England qualify.
  • One player is singled out as the Great White Hope. If the player is carrying a knock this adds drama. (This year it’s Harry Kane, filling a role previously filled by Wayne Rooney, David Beckham and Paul Gasgcoine)
  • Another player in the squad is singled out as a “gamble” or “risky” inclusion. He is also criticised for some perceived flaw- laziness, being a bit flash, not being English enough. (Raheem Stirling for 2018, but in ’90 it was John Barnes. Another player who got a lot of flak was Owen Hargreaves, which is odd as in the 2006 QF he was the only player to convert his penalty, while missers Lampard, Gerrard and Carragher are held in higher regard).
  • Some pundits advise caution, and fans talk about not getting carried away.
  • England get through the group stage. Probably second in their group or having squeaked into first in solid, but hardly amazing performances.
  • The fans begin to get carried away.
  • They win their first knock out game against a smaller nation.
  • The Quarter Finals are the end of the road with the fans utterly stunned as they are either (a) outclassed or (b) screw up a shoot out.
  • The press single out one player or referee decision to blame the exit on. They invoke memories of 1966 and we are treated to someone with a St George’s cross on their face crying.
  • The manager is fired and the players are slagged off for continuing their lives and being seen smiling because they should be walking through the streets flogging themselves and lamenting for at least six years.

Seeing this play out as an outsider is rather depressing, because it’s predictable and massively unfair. A team is eleven men, it seems unfair to pin it all on one poor bastard. It’s even more unfair when it’s clearly because the tabloids have decided to enter the “tear them down” part of the cycle.

hargreaves

Also, I don’t think I could stand an England win because I would never hear the end of it. It’s been 52 years since the last time they won and I hear about Hurst, Moore, Banks et al. frequently. Hell, the final goal is probably the most played historic footage in Britain.

And before any English fans take issue, can you say hand on heart that you’d genuinely support Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland if they qualified and you didn’t? Honestly?

This isn’t “anyone but England” by the way. If the final was England vs Russia, or Switzerland, or Saudi Arabia, I would have to concede that I’d want England to win. But I’d probably regret it within weeks.

So, who’s it going to be. Well, I’ve narrowed it down to four.

Iceland

Underdogs. Minnows. Viking warriors.

One of the best things about Euro 2016 was the success of the Icelandic team. Coming from a pretty small country they arrived with little expectation and probably would have been a footnote if not for two things. Firstly, their fans, who were massively passionate and intimidating thanks to their primal “Thunder Clap” chant. Seriously, even on TV that was awesome, in the stadium it must have been immense.

iceland2016

Secondly, they more than held their own. They passed through their group undefeated, having managed a solid draw against the Portuguese, the eventual winners. In the knock out stages they dumped out England in a giant killing that warmed the heart and while they may have been thrashed by the French, they still did themselves proud and impressed.

Germany

I’m going for the Germans because when I was asked who I thought might win it, they were my pick. I also like the fact that they could match Brazil’s five wins and they boast a decent squad. Also, I’ve never fully understood the anti-German feeling a lot of British fans have. World War II was a long time ago, people, let it go.

Mexico

I don’t know what it is about Mexico, but I’ve long had a soft spot for them. They’ve never won it before, or even come close.

Belgium

My go to international team on FIFA, and boasting some world class players like Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard. Plus, they need something other than waffles to brag about.

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Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO

 

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Book Review: The Binman Chronicles by Neville Southall

Everton and Wales goalkeeping legend Neville Southall’s career was winding down when I started watching football. I can remember him doing a decent job for an uninspiring Everton side and playing for Wales quite a few times. But it would only be later that I came to appreciate how successful his career between the posts had been.

Southall is Wales’ most capped player and won several trophies at Everton, becoming their most decorated player. This book charts his career and life after football, and is a decent read throughout.

He’s quite direct and open in his analysis of his career, acknowledging that the discipline and dedication which made him so successful also contributed to problems in his personal life, due to his selfish focus.

Southall talks about the players, managers and coaches he worked with, at times with unflinching honesty. He lifts the lid on behind the scenes politics and changing room rifts, as well as the unprofessional chaos of the Wales set up.

He’s also not shy in offering his opinions on problems in the sport. When discussing the banning of English clubs from European competition in the ’80s there is an anger which remains fresh, anger at the impact this had on the careers of a generation. And it’s hard to dismiss that UEFA’s frustration at English dominance may have had a part in the decision.

Throughout this book Southall is a down to earth narrator and seems a decent bloke, if a bit curmudgeonly. And it provides an insight into the drive needed to be a top athlete and the challenges faced, particularly with regards injury and navigating a world of big characters and egos.

And it shows the cutthroat world of football as various players and managers are cast aside unsentimentally. In fact reading about the end of Big Nev’s time at Everton after 17 years provides a sad example of how, despite a player’s contributions and history, clubs are quick to move on and replace players.

A good read for football fans, and Southall had a good life after football, using his experience to teach and help disadvantaged youths.

Verdict: An honest and direct read from a man who opens up about his career and peers. Southall is a likeable writer and provides a detailed look into what was going on in the teams he played for. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: The Beautiful Dream by Ralf Haley

I found myself identifying a lot with Ralf Haley. Like him I was a kid who loved football and who dreamed of being a professional. And like him, I was nowhere near good enough.

It’s a dream billions of kids have across the world, with only a relatively small number of them achieving it. I knew I was crap even as a kid, and realised that my few skills – okay in the air, hoofed clearances and hacking tackles, weren’t going to be enough. And so, my dream faded away aside from bus stop daydreams where I envision myself leading Swansea to Champions League glory.

Haley, however, reignites his dream and despite hating exercise and not having played a proper match in years decides to give it one last go. He just wants to get paid to play once. One euro, one minute, it doesn’t matter. He’ll still be able to say “I was a professional footballer”.

Haley sends requests for trials all over the world. He joins the gym, which he hates and tries to play more football. He also starts saving money from the job he hates to fund his trip to various countries.

He chooses smaller, less successful footballing nations and sets out with his brother in tow. Malta, Andorra, Latvia and Lithuania are among his destinations as he tries to get a game.

It’s a frankly crazy idea but one that is admirable in it’s ambition, naivety and optimism. Haley wants it badly, and throws himself into his trials.

The problem is that while the quest is noble, it feels half baked and left me wanting more. Haley gives himself a few months to train and save cash, leaving him a relatively small budget. I found myself wondering why he didn’t save for longer which would have helped him go to more places and got his fitness to a higher level too.

This not only would have made the book more interesting and given Haley more countries to write about, but would have helped his chances, as his low key build up leaves his mission looking pretty likely.

The writing is good, if nothing special and could do with a bit more of a polish. And the tone shifts quite a lot, with lots of moaning slightly souring the optimism of his journey. Haley is likeable enough and fairly humorous, but the banter between him and his brother grated on me, completely failing to win me over. It’s like an inside joke, with me being the outsider who views it as stupid.

That being said it was a decent read and Haley’s conclusion is strong. And I had to admire him for just going for it, despite the odds.

Verdict: Flawed but fun, Haley’s dreams surpass his abilities as a writer. A decent attempt at the dream but at times a frustrating one as you wish he had done more. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Football’s Strangest Matches by Andrew Ward

Cliche tells us that football is a “funny old game” and there are plenty of odd occurences, strange coincidences and memorable moments throughout it’s history. This book decides to collect several of these oddities.

While the book is diverting enough and there are some interesting tales it fell far short of my expectations. The problem is Ward’s rather dry writing style, which just offers a rather bland retelling of events when a punchier style might have worked.

Similarly some incidents don’t deserve a full entry and might have been better servrd by being dotted throughout as bullet points. There are far too many games that share a theme- ridiculous scores, bizarre reasons for cancellations and extensive replays, which robs this book of being truly involving.

It passes the time but it is nowhere near as entertaining or strange as a reader might hope. 

Verdict: Disappointing. Although there are interesting stories the book on a whole is repetitive and let down by lacklustre writing which seems to get bogged down in stats and facts. 5/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: The Football Neutral: Season 2014/15 by Jim Smallman

One of my favourite books that I read last year was Jim Smallman’s first Football Neutral. This is the second season as Smallman continues his travels to various clubs. A stand up comic, Smallman decided that attending football matches on Saturdays instead of wasting time in cafes, and blogged about them, the results being collected here.

Like the first one this made me miss the experience of going to matches regularly and I’ve made a nee resolution to try and go to at least five matches in the 2017/18 season. I would especially love to go see Clapton FC, who, based on the entry here, have a great following that creates a fun, entertaining atmosphere.

The Clapton players marking their anti-homophobia match

Smallman writes with natural charm and enthusiasm. His analysis of the games is fair and unpretentious, but where he excels is capturing the atmosphere and characters of the matches. An astute people watcher and seemingly a lover of humanity, these are usually warm and funny.

Throughout the book, Smallman is enthusiastic and passionate about football and it’s infection. 

He also seems like a top bloke, and is great company here.

Hopefully, there will be more collections to come.

Verdict: A charming, fun read that gives readers a great tour around British football, with a likeable and engaging guide in Smallman. It’s fuelled by a simple, honest love of the game and its fans and gives more background to clubs I only knew from the classifieds. A nice, easy read full of charm. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Commitment by Didier Drogba

Cards on the table time, I’m not a massive Didier Drogba fan. This is probably because despite being a skilled footballer I felt he was too prone to diving and he played for Chelsea during an era when I severely disliked the team (mainly because of the tag team of tools that was Ashley Cole and John Terry).

But I received this book as a Christmas present from my big sis, who likes Drogba a lot because of his Christian beliefs and charity work. To be fair to the guy, he does seem to do a lot of good work and has donated a lot of his sponsorship cash to worthy causes. 

This book details some of this work, and the reasons behind his charitable work as well as his personal life. Born in Ivory Coast he moved to France as a young boy where he moved frequently as he lived with his journeyman footballer uncle. A lover of the beautiful game from a young age he wished to follow in his uncle’s footsteps.

Missing out on academy football he was late in making it compared to his peers, but soon made up for this with a knack for scoring goals. This is what most of the book is devoted to, with the story divided by specific sections of his career.

For non football fans it might be a bit of a struggle as it’s mainly about how he did every year, the goals, injuries, triumphs and failures along the way. The sections about family and charity are separate, and feel tacked on.

Drogba comes across well enough and it does give a little bit of background to the dressing room atmosphere and his explosions on the field. But the insights are rather limited and the writing is thoroughly pedestrian. 

Maybe it’s because of the language barrier, but there’s a genuine lack of humour or depth. It’s an easy read, but uninspiring. But as I used it to help pass time on night shifts this actually turned out to be a positive- just about interesting to keep you going and easy enough for a sleep deprived mind.

An okay read if you’re a huge Chelsea or Drogba fan, but for others might be a bore.

Verdict: It passes the time, but is rather dull and lacks the humour, scandal or insight to make it a great autobiography. 5/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Six Nations 2017: No complaints

I worked the first week of the championship and so missed Wales get off to a winning start against Italy. And for our second game against England I was actually across the border and attending a marriage preparation day (more on that at a later date). So I missed the Irish thumping the Italians and only caught the Wales match from just before half time.

Just in time to see Liam Williams go over and Wales to lead 13-8 at the break after Leigh Halfpenny converted. 

The second half was a cracker with the action swinging both ways, each side attacking well but meeting stiff resistance. While I wouldn’t have complained had Wales romped home with a massive gap in scores, there’s something a lot more entertaining about an evenly matched affair. 

The teams traded penalties with Owen Farrell bagging two for the visitors and Leigh Halfpenny responding with one. Into the final ten Wales held a slim 16-14 lead, and every missed chance and silly error replayed in my head. Wales had been sloppy in places and could have had more points on the board, and were soon on the back foot.

Halfpenny kicked straight to a white shirt and England surged. As the Welsh defence scrambled across the park winger Elliot Daly got past Alex Cuthbert, who did himself no favours with his many critics.

The conversion was tight, but Owen Farrell doesn’t miss many and added the two, leaving Wales needing a try to get a result. With the clock quickly ticking down, Wales’ attempts grew more desperate in the face of a solid English defence.

The final whistle was no doubt a relief for the visitors, who for the second week in a row had left it late. And despondence for the hosts.

It was a tough loss but England just about deserved it, Wales had too many slip ups and can’t complain that England seized their chance when it appeared. 

There are three games left and if Wales can tighten their game and get rid of the sloppier aspects (and maybe Cuthbert?) we could do alright. The championship might be a stretch and depend on other matches going our way, but it’s not off the table completely.

I think part of the reason I took this defeat so well is because the current England team is decidedly villain free, with only Joe Marler and Farrell being players I genuinely dislike. Also, I haven’t seen the obnoxious Saeson I know, which means their arrogant posturing hasn’t riled me up.

The only real reason to actively hope it all falls apart for the English (other than not wanting more gloating and self congratulating nonsense) this year is their coach, Eddie Jones, who is nothing short of an utter bellend. Prone to being gobby at interviews and following last year’s comments about the Joe Marler racism incident, he’s claimed a special place on my hate list.

In a way he’s necessary to the tournament, as every story needs a villain and he’s embraced the role with gusto.

In the final match of the round Scotland, carrying the momentum from their victory over Ireland came back to earth with a bump. Camille Lopez knocked over two penalties in the last ten movies to hand the French a 22-16 victory. Scotland are definitely improving but appeared to take their foot of the gas.

It didn’t help that Finn Russell took the worst conversion appempt I’ve ever seen, managing to knock it under the bar from the easiest angle you’ll get. Their tournament isn’t over, but it means their Grand Slam drought extends to 26 years.

Round 3 predictions: 

Scotland vs Wales

Ireland vs France

England vs Italy

Current score: 4/6.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Superbowl LI: Meh.

I’ve not long woken up and am feeling incredibly bleurgh, so forgive me if I ramble. This is because I stayed up far too late watching the Superbowl last night. And it wasn’t worth it.

Don’t worry I’m not going to trot out the usual stupid British criticisms of “Rugby players don’t need those pads” or “why is it called football when they use their hands so much”.

No, the reason I fear it wasn’t worth it was because I didn’t really care that much about the outcome. I decided to watch because I like the sport, and because of the occasion. 

Even non football fans have to admit that the Superbowl is one hell of a spectacle. It’s like the mutant baby of the the FA Cup final (or at least what it used to be) and Wrestlemania, with enough fireworks to open and close an Olympics.

But I had no strong feelings for either side. The Atlanta Falcons were a nonentity to me and while I have picked the New England Patriots to back in the past (I forget why) I’m hardly a fan. And it’s not the kind of sport where you can develop a feel for a team midway. In other games it’s easy to pick a team- you can be won over by skill, character or an individual player or turn against a team because of cheating, attitude or a specific player.

It’s for this reason that this season just gone my only real cares concerned three teams- the New York Jets, San Francisco’s 49rs and the Oakland Raiders. 

The Raiders are probably as close to having a team as I get, and this is built on shaky foundations. They have the coolest logo and colour scheme and were the favourite of nineties rappers.

The Jets are the team supported by a friend, so I like when they do well as he seems chuffed for them. 

And the 49rs? Well that’s because of one man Colin Kaepernick. I admired his quiet protest against the violence and oppression of minorities in America and felt he carried himself with dignity amongst the backlash. For that reason, I wanted him and his teammates to do well.

Beyond that I find it hard to really get behind US sports teams because I don’t have connections with any particular state or city, and many don’t have an identity that shines through to an outsider. 

Take football here in the UK. I’m a Swansea fan, but over the years have built up a whole heap of feelings for other teams. I have teams I have soft spots for (Bristol Rovers, Wimbledon, West Ham, Middlesborough, Crystal Palace) and teams I dislike to various degrees (Cardiff, Leeds, Arsenal, Chelsea). There are managers and players I like and dislike, and years of following the sport has built up these biases.

Maybe US sports fans have the same, but as a distant and infrequent observer, I’m oblivious to these quirks and the history of the teams. 

But I watched the whole first half with no real connection to either. Some were pulling for Atlanta as part of a heavy handed resistance versus Trump angle, but I wasn’t feeling it. It’s not the Patriot players fault Trump is on friendly terms with Tom Brady and the higher ups. And there are probably lots of Pats fans who hate Cheeto Mussolini. 
So, who should I pick. I could have been a glory boy and start pulling for the Falcons as they took a dominating lead in the second quarter, but I remained kind of neutral.

In fact I was more excited about the approaching half time show featuring Lady Gaga, as there was plenty of build up. Would there be guest stars? Would it be an attack on the new President? 

It turned out to be a belter, with Gaga starting off atop the stadium with an obvious dig at Trump and a call for unity. She then leapt down and descended by wire to the centre where she blazed through a series of her hits. As for guest appearances? Nope, she didn’t need any.

In the second half I continued to not care.

The Patriots closed the gap, but it still looked like the trophy was heading to Georgia. I could have gone to bed then as with Gaga done, I didn’t care.

And then in the last quarter the Patriots staged a massive comeback. They added nineteen points without any response from Arizona, leaving scores tied at 28-28. 

Still, I didn’t care. Part of me was hoping Atlanta could score as it would be a cruel twist for their fans to lose so late in the day. But on the flip side you couldn’t help but admire the Patriots for getting back into it, and does a team that throws away such a big lead deserve the win.

As it was the Patriots got the overtime winner and claimed the title. It was a dramatic finish but by this stage I was watching because I’d gone too far and it seemed silly to leave before seeing it through.

So, yeah, next year I might give the Superbowl a miss and just enjoy a good night’s sleep, and just watch the halftime show online the next day.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: The Football Neutral: Season 2013/14 by Jim Smallman

I adored this book, and found myself really wanting to go out and take in a football match (it has been far too long). The book is a collection of blogs that comedian Jim Smallman wrote after deciding that while he was on the rode he may as well enjoy his Saturday afternoon away from home and decided to watch a match every chance he got.

A Leicester City fan, Smallman decides that he can’t just go and watch his own team, and that he will avoid premiership matches, instead embracing lower league matches and a new team every match day.

This is what makes the book such a joy as Smallman writes with warmth and affection for the teams and fans he meets along the way. From Championship all the way down to non-league he slots games into his free time and sees glamour ties like Aldershot vs Wrexham. He appears to enjoy most of the matches, describing the action with some good football knowledge and a keen eye for people watching.

He’s a charming and funny companion in the stands and captures the atmosphere and appeal of going to live games. Every entry is well written and entertaining, with even the more dire matches written about with energy and wit. Throughout he is engaging and excited about football, interested in the clubs and their fans and stories. It’s also nice to see someone open about their oathing of certain clubs (for Smallman it’s Coventry and MK Dons, although he shows Coventry sympathy I would struggle to muster for Cardiff).

As well as being about football it’s also an interesting look into the life of a working comedian. There’s a second book available collecting the next season’s matches and it has gone right into my “to read” list. It also makes me want to go see a live match again, and so in the new year I might wander over and take in a Barry match.

Verdict: A warm and amusing read which will appeal to any football fan and captures life in the stands, and gives a snapshot of life in the lower leagues. Smallman is a funny and charming writer and his enthusiasm is infectious. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Playing the Enemy by John Carlin

In 1995 less than half a decade after it’s first democratic election and the end of apartheid South Africa hosted the Rugby World Cup. The nation’s triumph at the tournament was viewed as an optimistic sign for the country and helped to heal the wounds on the nation’s people. This magnificent book details the story of South Africa leading up to the tournament, the challenges it faced and the driving force behind South Africa’s rebirth, Nelson Mandela.

Carlin’s writing is masterful and the research that has gone into it is evident in the wealth of back story and the interviews with numerous figures from all corners of the political landscape and the players involved in the historic tournament.

With obvious and unapologetic admiration Carlin discusses how Mandela emerged from prison a smart and savvy politician, a man who had used his time to understand what made the Afrikaners tick and who used this insight in a remarkable charm offensive that would win over life long enemies. Mandela is portrayed as being intelligent and shrewd, and Carlin acknowledges that he played the game of politics brilliantly, but it is hard to criticise a man who used politics to promote unity and peace. A man who could easily have sought vengeance and retribution but understood that understanding and unity were better for his people.
The book details the secret negotiations Mandela began in prison and his work upon release to lead the ANC to victory. But it also shows that he understood the need to involve all peoples in the new country he wanted to make.

And rugby forms a key part of this. Mandela understood what it meant to the Afrikaner population, how the years of boycott and isolation had hurt them and how to use the return of the Springboks to the international stage as a carrot to spur them to peaceful reconciliation. But he was not bound to how the green jersey was linked to the former violent regime in the eyes of the black population and the struggle it would be to win them over to cheer for a team they had long despised.

Carlin goes to great lengths to capture this, talking to both sides and capturing the rabid, near religious fanaticism of one side and the deep rooted loathing of the other.

The rugby itself takes up a small section of the book, with the politics, and more importantly people being the main focus. The interviews with Mandela, Desmond Tutu and others reveal the emotional tumult that led up to the tournament. It is the players who are most moving, athletes who had been indifferent or ignorant of politics coming to understand that they were key players in uniting their country. Mandela awoke in them an understanding and compassion, overturning the deep seated beliefs they had been raised in. That these players became true believers, who played for more than glory, more than pride is a moving story, and the response of a tense, conflicted nation is inspiring and heartwarming. 

Several times reading I was choked up, marvelling at the story and the strength of men like Mandela and Tutu who show none of the resentment one could easily understand in men who suffered under the apartheid system. It’s no wonder Hollywood took to this story (Invictus) as it marries the themes of redemption, forgiveness and triumph so well it could almost be too good to be true.

Of course, Carlin knows that South Africa didn’t become a peaceful, perfect Utopia, but this story shows that it emerged stronger and more united than any would have believed in the early 90s as it teetered on the brink of civil war.

Verdict: Sensationally written this is a moving, involving and inspiring work which shows how sport can be a unifying factor and the skill and success of one of modern history’s greatest figures, Nelson Mandela. A great read even for non rugby fans. 9/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.