Thursday, 21 August 2014

How El Tel tamed the Orwellian beast of Barcelona and won La Liga

First published on FourFourTwo

Picture the city of Barcelona in the summer of 1984. The place is getting a facelift, with cranes dotting the skyline and new parks and plazas springing up across the city. The streets and boulevards buzz with an optimism brought on by a regeneration that began late in the previous decade.

It’s a sun-drenched scene, tourists gawping enviously as locals amble down tight alleys and broad avenues, lounge in cafés shaded by parasols and generally exalt in the underlying feeling of renaissance. There’s a colourful, glamorous vibe about this city; Barcelona is on the up.

Now insert Terry Venables into that scene.

For 1984 was the year that the man later styled by journalist Mihir Bose as the “False Messiah” walked into the Nou Camp as coach of FC Barcelona for the first time, a club as much in need of revival as the city itself. Venables was an unlikely saviour; the previous 24 years of his professional life had revolved around a quadrangle of locations all within a 30-mile radius of his birthplace in Dagenham. Yet here he was managing one of the world’s biggest and most iconic clubs, a cockney in charge of Catalonia's most powerful symbol.

Venables took over during a period of turbulence at Barça. Diego Maradona was on his way out, his constant feuding with club president Josep Lluís Núñez having made the act of football a mere sideshow to the El Diego soap opera. Núñez himself ran the club as if it were the Airstrip One of George Orwell’s 1984, a grand institution moulded into a personal fiefdom through inane propaganda, ruthless politicking and outright intimidation.

“We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it,” wrote Orwell, words that were oddly reflective of Núñez’s reign as Barça president, during which time he had ruthlessly seen off all would-be challengers to his domination of the club. If Barça was Airstrip One then Núñez was Big Brother and, fittingly, 1984 was to prove one of the most pivotal years of his regime.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Acceptance of mortality and the Shoaib Akhtar run-up

Coming off a run-up that wouldn’t look out of place at a Jamaican sprinter’s convention, Shoaib Akhtar’s approach to the crease was equally as terrifying as the deliveries that followed it. 

As he lobs the ball casually to the bowler, it seems almost as if the mid-off fielder is unaware of both the emotional carnage currently paralysing the batsman’s brain or the impending physical threat that promises to wreak an equally devastating, yet more external, havoc on the thin layer of bone that protects it. Cursing the callousness of a player who would willingly put a varnished leather rock masquerading as an instrument of sporting contest into the hands of a man planning to hurl it at a be-padded bundle of nerves such as himself, the batsman pretends to count the men behind square-leg for the fortieth time. Anything for a stay of execution.

Though he knew this moment would come, and ought to have been prepared for it, the batsman nevertheless experiences a moment of spatiotemporal uncertainty. His is a dead-brain-walking, an entity trapped inside a skull trapped inside a piece of titanium soon to be crushed by a covered piece of cork. For an instant he equates his lid with the infernal box belonging to that strange Austrian doctor who kept on talking about killing cats, before he realises that fear is pushing his mind towards the abyss of mental instability and a future largely comprised of the frenzied scribbling of Urdu script on cold, white, padded walls. The batsman casts such thoughts out of his mind and tries to focus on the task at hand, namely, surviving that most utterly sadistic of cricketing occurrences: a Shoaib Akhtar delivery.

Shot by Both Sides: The Oriundi and Italian football

First Published in Pickles Magazine

Perennially under-appreciated, the oriundi are as much a part of Italy’s social history as its footballing tradition
Much has been written about nationality, and almost nothing agreed. The concept of belonging to a nation, whether de jure or de facto, is so personal, so circumstantial, so arbitrary as to be almost indefinable, or at the very least ambiguous. Yet there are those who wish to see things merely in black and white, who would deny others the right to a greyer version of nationality. Throughout the long history of the oriundi, this has been very much in evidence. In the 1930s, they were “traitors” to Italy who fled conscription, while in 1962, a poor showing at the World Cup was attributed to “foreigners” within the Nazionale – Gianni Brera dismissed the oriundi as “lazy”. In modern times dissenting voices have mainly originated from the ranks of organisations like the Lega Nord, an unfailingly delusional right-wing political group. Lega members have even gone so far as to declare their support exclusively for Azzurri born north of the Po Valley.

But to scorn the oriundi is to ignore both the history of Italian football and the country itself.  In the late nineteenth-century, fed up of economic hardship, agricultural stagnation and disease, thousands of Italians departed Italy for what was at the time one of the world’s most prosperous regions: the La Plata basin. It was the beginning of a long relationship between Italy and the nations of the region, whose cultures resultantly overlapped in terms of cuisine, fashion, language and, of course, football. Over time the descendants of these emigrants began returning to Europe, a number of them as professional footballers who were “repatriated” as part of a drive to ensure the success of the Nazionale. The cult of the oriundo was born.

Institutions in Decline

AC Milan, Serie A and Silvio Berlusconi are all in decline. Remember the better times.

In 1992, Gianluigi Lentini was signed by AC Milan for a world record transfer fee of £13m. The press carped on about it in scandalised terms: murmurs about Vatican outrage here, griping about moral decadence there. A world away from Milan, in a tidy but dull Dublin suburb, hearing mention not of millions but billions of lire in relation to the transfer was a shock to the system for a young Irishman to whom £1 meant a week’s worth of Maxi Twists. More so since the club had splashed out on the sly, lethal Papin that very same summer. Didn’t they realise they already had Van Basten, Gullit, Donadoni? Why did they need any more? A short, greasy man the papers kept calling a “mogul” appeared to be losing his mind, spending most of his cash on football players. It all seemed so impossibly glamorous.

From the moment the news of Lentini’s signing broke, an obsession with all things AC Milan and Serie A took root in the mind of that once-innocent Irish lad. It turned out to be a fascination that inexplicably failed to dwindle in the face of relentless corruption, falling standards and apathetic crowds, not to mention the rise of less alluring competitions – such as the admirable but overly wholesome Bundesliga. Though both the club and the league may have lost the lustre of their 1990s peak, they retain the glorious pomp that separates Italian football from the rest through the projection of a uniquely Italian bravura: a bizarre magnetism derived from the country’s chaos, drama and style. “If there’s one club that sums up everything good, bad and ugly about Italian football, it’s AC Milan,” was the perfect summation of The Rough Guide to Cult Football. “Their history covers glory and shame, brilliance and bluster, technical genius and boardroom chicanery.”

Even in decline, it’s a combination that’s hard to resist.