Sunday, April 09, 2006

Football is never just a game…

Football Against The Enemy, Simon Kuper, London, Orion, 1994,
Pages:235, GBP 7.99
Winner of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award

The title of Simon Kuper’s first book, Football against the enemy, contains two words I often associate with one another: Football and enemy. With the World Cup drawing closer, so are those endless evenings in front of the TV where your boyfriend can focus on nothing else except on a ball being chased around by twenty-two men. I never quite understood how simple games like football can bring out so many emotions in men that otherwise have problems expressing just one! What is it that makes this game so fantastic that according to a recent UK survey for Duracell, men are more likely to walk away from a marriage, than they are to abandon a struggling favourite football team?

Well, according to Simon Kuper it is because football is so much more than just a game. It represents a culture, a way of being. At the same time, it is the only game around the world that can ‘help make wars, fuel revolutions and fascinates both mafias and politicians’.

In his book, Simon Kuper goes beyond football as a sport and describes what role it really plays in the eyes of many fans around the world and the bizarre effects football can have on politics and culture. He travelled for nine months, visited twenty-two countries on a budget of £5000 and asked two questions: How does football affect the life of a country? And how does the life of a country affect its football?

For someone like me who never really understood the World’s fascination with the sport, Kuper’s book is an eye opener. One of the most fascinating chapters is the one set in the Ukraine, where he discovers that the annual turnover of the number one football club ‘Dynamo Kiev’ was more than the country’s entire GDP! They had a license to export platinum, two tons of the country’s gold a year and they were the major national supplier of nuclear weapons. People only accepted this, because they could attract all the best players. Football against the enemy is packed full of stories like this – it goes right into the world of con-men, dictatorship, tyranny, and business and shares how football is used as a vehicle to fulfil the agendas of corrupt men.

This is what makes this book so universally interesting. You don’t need to like football or even understand how the game works in order to enjoy reading this book. However, be aware that you probably end up with a lot of knowledge about this sport that most people would find quite simply unbelievable.

I mean take the Chapter on football in former East Germany as an example. It is surprising for someone like me, who grew up in Germany, to find out that the secret police of the GDR, the Stasi, saw football as a threat. They kept a file on anyone who supported western football and made their lives as difficult as possible, as Klopfleisch, an east Germaner with a passion for western football, found out. The Stasi kept a file on Klopfleisch’s football activities, and when Klopfleisch applied to emigrate to the West, the Stasi waited until his mother was on her deathbed before granting permission. He was told ‘now or never’. Klopfleisch said ‘now’, and his mother died five days later. Only a few months later, the Berlin wall fell.

While Kuper devotes a large part of the book to the politics behind football, he also describes how football has become part of the national consciousness of almost every country. In his chapter about Brazilian football, he is able to sum up how love of football can not only trigger outbursts of national joy and pride, but can become madness at the same time. “In the early days of a World Cup, while the Brazilian team are still winning, life in Brazil is a party. Cars honk on the street and everyone sings and dances. Then Brazil lose and are knocked out. The mood suddenly changes, and people who suffer most are the nation’s manic-depressives. Their ‘high’ becomes a ‘low’ and they commit suicide.” (p.202)

His style of writing resembles very much that of a sport journalist. Most of the narrative is neutral, with Kuper allowing events and people to speak for themselves, but this is not the case in the first chapter where he makes clear on which side of the Holland-Germany rivalry his loyalties lie. But this comes at no surprise, given that Simon Kuper grew up in the Netherlands.

When Simon Kuper wrote the book in 1992, he was only twenty-three and had not finished his study yet. Although he always had a keen interest in the sport, he considered himself an outsider to the world of professional football. Maybe it is partly because of this, that the book reads itself like a journey of discovery.
Although today, democracy is far more widespread and some stories concerning clubs in the former Eastern blocs would be told differently now, one statement seems to remain true. “Football is politics”. Just take the more recent calls by members of the German Parliament – hosts of the 2006 World Cup- to disqualify the Iranian national football team from this year’s finals because of its resumption of nuclear fuel research. Kupers book was ahead of its time when it was first published in 1994 as a lot of the themes he wrote about are now talked about much more.

This doesn’t make it any less interesting, however. To me, football will never just be a game again and although it hasn’t converted me into a fan of the sport, it nevertheless has given me a lot insight into the unique world of football and my boyfriend’s obsession.
As The Times quoted so well: “If you like football read it. If you don’t like football read it”

Monday, March 27, 2006

Some things are worth waiting for!

The new Wembley Stadium, still framed by construction cranes and surrounded by demolished and unfinished buildings, is not something you fall in love with at first sight. When will the metamorphosis of the ‘Church of Football’ be completed and be open for worship again?

March 2006 was supposed to be a month of completion and celebration, but instead it is another month were costs are spiralling out of control while Wembley remains unfinished. The entire Wembley stadium project was supposed to have cost £ 757m (€1,1bn), but rumour has it that the final figure is likely to exceed £1bn. Part of the bill, £120m (€ 174 m), was footed by Sport England through national lottery funds, while the remainder of the finance has been provided by the government and various sponsors, such as Microsoft. However, since the project has run years and months beyond schedule and hundreds of millions of pounds over budget, the Australian construction company Multiplex is forced to pay any overdue costs. Already these costs are at a staggering
£180m (€ 262m) and are set to continue to rise. The company’s financial damages will however not limit themselves to construction costs. The huge cost and delay have already led to a dramatic fall of 16 per cent in their share price.

Furthermore the stadium is already loosing out on vital revenue by not hosting major events such as the FA Cup Final as planned. While this is now taking place in the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, officials still refuse to pin down any completion date with a 100 per cent certainty. “It is still too early to say exactly when the stadium will open”, Michael Cunnah, chief executive of Wembley National Stadium (WSNL) told the Telegraph. We will announce a definitive date once we have more certainty on when the stadium will be fully ready and finished to world – class specifications”.

Residents meanwhile are getting tired of the constant construction site. Mike, 51, who has been living in the area for most of his life, is one of them. His nostalgia becomes apparent when he says. “I preferred it if they would have kept the old structure. It just seems like part of our national pride has gone missing.”

However, WSNL and stadium architect Norman Foster both believe that the new stadium will be worth all the money and time. “It is a new generation of sports stadium that will set new standards in comfort and convenience for fans”, Foster explains. “The arch is a more powerful symbol of the future than the old Wembley Twin Towers were of the past”.

Thanks to the futuristic roof structure with its 133m high arch, there will be no pillars obstructing the views from any of the 90,000 seats. In addition fans will remain close to the action, as the prefabricated athletic track will only be built over the lower seating area when needed.

Although the stadium can be used for a variety of sports and events, its primary focus will remain football. Since Britain has always been proud of the quality of its pitches, it comes as no surprise that Wembley’s sliding roof has been mainly designed to allow the grass to enjoy the all important direct sunlight to grow effectively. Furthermore it will use the acoustics of the previous Wembley as a benchmark, which will bring even more atmosphere to any game. On top of all this Norman Foster’s lit up arch, similar to Munich’s Allianz stadium, will be seen right across London.

With all the sophistication, comfort and attention to detail it looks as if Wembley can easily outshine the Allianz Stadium, which until now was Europe’s finest. Isn’t it therefore fair to say that ‘some things are just worth waiting for’?

Targeted at the english online version of the German magazine Spiegel

Where horses reign and tweed is a must

A day out at the races

Why and what kind of people actually go to horse races is a question I asked myself last week while watching the Grand Military Gold cup at Sandown Park. For someone who has never been to a horse race before the image I had was of something glamorous and elitist, like Royal Ascot, with its colourful parade of hats and strict dress code. But in the military cup I expected to see elderly people dressed in tweed or uniform.

Instead I found myself attending an event full of young people, celebrating everything form Birthdays to stag do’s. Of course there was also the occasional Lady in tweed and the old guy in uniform falling asleep at the bar before the race had even started but they were in the minority. But these are exactly the people that give this event its authenticity.

“These days a day at the races is more about being seen rather than seeing the action on the track”, Stephen 32, dressed from head to toe in tweed, tells me while sipping on a glass of champagne. “At Sandown this is not the case. People come here for the horses, the fun and the gambling. It is less pretentious and more fun”, he continues.
He and his friends are camped out in the Vine Bar on the ground floor of the Primary Enclosure at the Sandown Military Gold Cup. They are one group of many young people celebrating a stag do by watching the races. The fact that none of them are actually able to see any horses from their position doesn’t seem to bother them. Every now and then they look up at the television screen to see who has won and whether their bets worked out. But it seems that their primary aim is to soak up the atmosphere and drink champagne.

“Today’s stag and hen dos are all about originality and style”, a spokesperson for stagweb tells me. “Horse races offer both, plus the excitement of gambling.”
Long gone are the days of just a night at the local pub or club followed by chicken tikka and a visit by an amateur stripper. Instead people now put on their fathers tweed, order a bottle of champagne and watch what used to be one of the most brutal races in the industry.

“Grand Military races used to be criticised for the numbers of horses that died each year but ever since they have lowered the hurdles there have been fewer accidents and the whole race has become more clubbable,” a spokesperson for Sandown Park explains to me.

Indeed, its seems like horse racing is on the way of putting its negative image of the past behind after the permanent attack of animal rights groups have left their marks on the sport. The fact that military races now have fewer fatalities, due to stricter rules governing the selection of horses, has certainly helped to draw in a younger and more diverse audience.

Although a horse did have a fatal accident that day and was presumably shot, it was done hidden from public view behind a green screen and nobody seemed to be too bothered by it.

While more people see horse racing as a new and exciting events venue it still draws large part of its audience because it is a major venue for gambling
“It’s the buzz and excitement of picking my horses out and watching the race I love,” John E. 35, tells me while placing another bet. “After all, if you remove the gambling, where is the fun in watching a bunch of horses being whipped by midgets”, he continues.

But how do you pick the right horse, if you like me know little about horse racing? “Go by the name you like best”, I was told by one men who just won on a horse named ‘Nice Try’. Well, I did and promptly lost ten pounds on a horse named Inca Trail. Nice try I said to myself.
While there is no fool proof way on betting and one has to be prepared to loose it’s the whole experience of a day at the horse races that makes the event so special. Gambling is only a part of it.

A day out at the races is something everybody should experience at least once. It is a great venue for most events and I bet it won’t be long before tourist will start to discover it as well.

Just remember what Don Faulkner told me when you are there: “It is every men (or women) for themselves at the races”. So don’t expect too much help when gambling your money on a horse.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Does everybody really hate the Germans?

According to AA Gill, deep down we all do. At least this is what he wrote in his book “AA Gill is away.” While I am reluctant to agree with him, I am German after all, I do have to admit he has a point. While Germany is praised in some aspects, such as innovation and efficiency, friendliness is one not often mentioned. This is why Germany has started a campaign to make the country a little friendlier with the advent of the World Cup. Essentially they mean that anyone involved in the tourism industry will be given training in some form or another with regards to how to behave in a more friendly manner during the World Cup. While I do agree that it wouldn’t harm Germany to acquire better customer skills, I don’t believe that teaching Bavarians Japanese will make them friendlier.I do believe, however, that every country has its strengths and weaknesses. Friendliness or customer service might not be Germany’s forte but this is made up for in other areas. After all, nobody really expects Germany to change into a country fit to compete with America on a hospitality basis in a few months. Every region has a certain way of doing things and through that a certain a charm. Instead of trying to change Germans into something they are not, perhaps they should concentrate on promoting their positive character traits . Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Germany is unfriendly as such but I don’t believe hospitality is their strongest point. What most people do expect to find is something unique and authentic and that is what Germany has to offer. After all what better place can there be to enjoy football while drinking some of the best beer in the world and enjoying some of the finest sausages….So tell me how can anybody still hate a country that offers all that?

Victory to whom victory is due?

In international sports competitions most people tend to always support their national team. It makes sense, considering that sport events are the best source for a strong feeling of nationl identity. But who can claim victory in Formula One, where teams are often made up of two or more different nationalities?

Let’s take Fisichella’s recent win with Renault at the Malaysian Grand Prix as an example. With Fisichella being Italian and Renault a French company, to whom does the victory actually belong? French or Italy, or even both? If Schumacher and Ferrari had won, there story would have been a different one. Italians would have celebrated Ferraris success while ignoring the fact that Schumacher is actually German. The whole notion of national identification seems to be rather fluid in Formula One. For some countries it appears to be a case of ‘who is driving’ while others identify themselves more with the nationality of the constructor.
So, while you can see a German celebrating the win of Ferrari, purely because of Schumacher, the same person couldn’t care less about the performance of Mercedes McLaren or BMW Sauber.
The concoction of national identities in Formula One makes it possible for anyone to identify themselves somehow with almost any team. ‘Pick and mix’ as much as you please.
What, except for the tyres (Bridgestone), is actually Japanese about Toyota. The biggest spender in Formula One has their car developed in Germany, their construction team bought together among international engineers and their pilots, Ralf Schumacher and Jarno Trulli, are German and Italian… Come to think of it, Germans should be supporting Toyota at least as much as Ferrari…
The only team with a truly national identity seems to be Super Auguri. But then again it has been developed purposely by Honda to capture a dwindling Japanese audience.
So where will this leave the fan base of Formula One in the future? How will we decide which team to support, during a time when brand identity comes before national identity?
Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Maktoum al Maktoum’s idea will provide us with an alternative. He has just developed the new A1-GP, also known as the ‘World cup of Motor sport’ which will take place between September and April. His idea is simple: instead of driver and construction team taking centre stage, nations will compete against each other in uniform cars.
Maybe this will bring the spirit back into the race and make the whole national anthem question a lot simpler.

Take a seat

Here is soemthing for all those who can only dream about owning a pair of tickets to the World Cup.

Take a seat and enjoy the view...

Germans struggle in Football Countdown

Germany is miserable; the country is experiencing a serious identity crisis! You might think that this is nothing new but their embarrassing loss of 4:1 against Italy eighty days before the start of the World Cup, has further catapulted the mood of the nation into a downwards spiral.

Germany has always identified themselves by the quality of their football but unfortunately ‘quality’ is not a word people use nowadays when describing the German team.

The Germans lucky victory against weak opponents in the World Cup in Japan only covered the poor condition of the players for a period of time. But it seems now the cat is out of the bag, Germany fears for their national pride in the light of the upcoming World Cup.

Never has a coach of a national team been so openly criticized by the media as Jürgen Klinsmann after Germany’s defeat by Italy. To make matters worst his subsequent trip to his home in L.A. was interpreted as a means to escape the media attention.

A trainer leaving his team behind would not have gone down well in any country but in Germany this borders onto career suicide. Even the German Football Kaiser Franz Beckenbauer, who has been accredited with bringing the World Cup to Germany couldn’t hide his disappointments with Klinsmann’s behaviour in front of the media.

Beckenbauer has benefited greatly from his role as a host and organizer of the World Cup and is seen as the secret Foreign Minister after travelling around the globe no less than three times on a promotional tour. Klinsmann’s national reputation, on the other hand has suffered dearly. His obvious support for a paradigm change of the teams playing tactics and methods has not yet convinced the critics. After all, one cannot just turn the German team into Brazilian’s overnight.

Carlos Pereira, the coach of Brazil’s national team spoke out in regards to influencing the teams playing tactics so soon before the game: “You can compare the job of a trainer with that of a guy at a car wash. The players come in like dirty cars and we have to wash and polish them.

This might be true for Brazilian players who have been playing in the best international clubs all year long, but in Klinsmann’s case it’s more like building a brand new car.

So with a team mentally weak, tactically unfinished and technically limited as well as a trainer who regularly disappears, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel felt obliged to call in an emergency football summit meeting. There Mrs Merkel reminded Klinsmann of her own experience and advised him not to go of the beaten track. It all seems a bit unusual that the country’s leader needs to buoy up the national team trainer before the match has even begun.
Just imagine Blair calling in Eriksson and Sir Bobby Charlton to give them a motivational prep talk just before the World Championships.

At least the recent triumph over America has given Klinsmann some breathing space. Still, it doesn’t distract form the fact that Germany is nowhere near as good as it used to be.

But as we all know in football everything is possible. After all one only needs seven victories to win the World Cup.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

F1 2006 - Toyota's big test

For a country where harmony and balance are key values, Toyota’s car seemed decisively unbalanced during the last two races.

After announcing that 2006 would be a year of victory for them, Toyota is having difficulties in explaining what happened at the Grand Prix in Bahrain and Malaysia. While Toyota spends more on testing than any other team in the off season ($ 77.5 mil.) it seemed to have made little difference on its performance. A year ago, Jarno Trulli drove his Toyota to second place in the races in Bahrain and Malaysia. In Bahrain this year, he came in to 16th place while Ralf Schumacher finished an undistinguished 14th. If one believes the famous Japanese saying that success is 99 per cent failure than Toyota seems to be on the right path this year...

With money to burn and a budget now bigger than Ferrari’s, I wonder why the team is running around the back of the pack this year. Especially now, when they need a victory more than ever before.

Toyota allocates more than any other team on improving their engines and testing their cars and still does not have a single victory to justify their spending. In comparison Renault spends significantly less and just scored a double victory in the Malaysian Grand Prix with Fisichella coming first and Alonso second. Their engine budget is considerably more moderate at $115 million compared to Toyota’s hefty sum of $ 180 million a year.
So maybe it has nothing to do with the car but more to do with those who drive it?
Ralf Schumacher and Jarno Trulli are both able drivers but personally I don’t believe Schumacher is worth his salary cheque of $ 25 million per year. O.K he had some good races with Williams, but where has that all gone? Trulli on other hand has the potential to do well with Toyota which he already proved last year as well as this by putting in some fantastic qualifying performances. If anyone is going to win any races for Toyota this year I suspect it to be Trulli.

If it’s not the car or the drivers, what is keeping Toyota from going to the top? I can only hope that the first two races were used as a testing ground for their new tyres and that they will be back on form in Melbourne next week. If not, it could have all been a waste of money for Toyota and even worst a huge damage to its brand image and reputation.
It seems that in the fast-paced world of Formula One, Toyota’s corporate philosophy of kaizen, or continuous improvement, still has to come through.