Sunday, 27 May 2012

Football, David Beckham and the rise of tattoos

The biggest question raised by Manchester City’s Premier League success is not whether the balance of power in English football has swung decisively from Salford to Manchester itself, nor whether throwing money at a team is the only way of guaranteeing success these days.

No, the key issue is whether or not Roberto Mancini is going to get another tattoo.  In 1991 the then-Sampdoria player got the Italian club’s crest tattooed just above his left ankle to celebrate their Scudetto and when recently asked whether he would repeat that if City won the Premier league Mancini replied insightfully “I have another leg”. (Foreigners, eh? Never give you a straight answer.)

These days tattoos are de rigueur for footballers whether it’s, their own name like Fernando Torres (in case he forgets?) or half or full-sleeves which look intricate and beautiful close up or like a large bluey-green splodge if you’re sat in row Z.  Several players from both Atlético and Real Madrid have artwork featuring Tengwar the Elvish language invented by JRR Tolkien and I believe Sir Alex Ferguson has just had “Rock of Gibraltar” covered over by an image of an Orc.  Ok, I made that bit up but you get the point.

The man with two legs
The growth in popularity of tattoos among modern footballers mirrors the rise in their acceptability in society in general demonstrating once again that the sport plays a key role in understanding any society’s culture.  Similarly, the history of tattoos in many ways mirrors the history of football.  Both have a disparate pre-history before gaining social acceptability among the country’s upper class in the late 19th Century.  Then in the early 1900s a shift occurred and both became the preserve of the working class and both were to an extent demonised before, in the latter years of the 20th Century gaining widespread acceptance in the middle class.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Class, culture, sport and Melvyn Bragg

The Duke of Wellington never actually said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, but he could have done, for if you want a real insight into any culture you only have to look at its sport.

Whether it’s academics claiming sport plays a key part in identity formation, John Major invoking images of long shadows on cricket grounds to define Britain or the tabloids using the England football team as a metaphor for a lost golden age, sport is a central part of our culture.

Not so for Melvyn Bragg, however.  Earlier this year he broadcast a series called Class and Culture, and sport was conspicuous by its almost total absence.  Now, I have no axe to grind with the man himself, so it’s only fair to point out that he opened by saying his was a personal account, implicitly suggesting it’s not definitive.  However, he never adequately articulated his definition of culture, although he went part of the way in the second programme by acknowledging he was “sticking broadly to the arts” (implicitly suggesting there are other things which might be considered part of our culture, but which he was choosing to overlook).

Preparing for battle.
Another problem was that Lord Bragg's argument was very loose extending basically to the idea that due to increased access to free education and 'the arts' the middle class has grown and become culturally emancipated. Lord Bragg himself is evidence of this.  A working class lad who benefited from access to a high-quality education courtesy of the state before going on to become an establishment figure making programmes telling the rest of what class and culture are.

But hang on! Sport (well football) plays a prominent part in the title sequence (there’s some black and white footage of someone scoring a goal and some other footage of Lord Bragg at Old Trafford) so clearly he’s going to consider sport, right?

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Goals on Film: Bend It Like Beckham

It’s 10 years since Bend It Like Beckham hit the cinemas like a well-taken free kick nestling in the opposition net.  However what's striking, given the place it has in our collective consciousness, is how bad it is.

That the film has such an elevated cultural status is due to the convergence of a number of factors.  Firstly, its snappy title links it with the most famous English footballer of the last decade and at the time of its release there was considerable concern that Beckham wouldn’t be bending anything at the forthcoming World Cup as he’s just broken a bone none of us knew existed.

Secondly it came at a time when Asian culture had achieved considerable mainstream success.  The comedy show Goodness Gracious Me led in turn to The Kummars at No 42 which won its first International Emmy in the year Bend It was released.  There was even a Bollywood/football crossover in and advert for Walkers Crisps’ Great British Takeaway range when Gary Lineker ‘married’ The Kummars’ Granny Sushila (Meera Syal).

Up for the cup
Finally, the film rode on the wave of success generated by Billy Elliott two years earlier.  Like Bend It, the (remarkably similar) Billy Elliot is a film in which a youngster finds themselves by illicitly engaging in an activity frowned upon by their community (because it subverts deep-rooted gender stereotypes) before eventually winning acceptance and being allowed to leave the community to pursue their dream.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Is Twitter anarchy in action?

Anarchists, eh?  If they’re not burning down carpet shops or spray-painting “GIDEON IS A WANKER” on the side of the Treasury, then they’re being kettled when they should be at lectures. 

Well, that’s the stereotype, the misrepresentation born of years of lazy (or maybe deliberately misleading) journalism which has seen the true meaning of anarchy replaced by a colloquial definition inextricably bound up with hooded thugs hell-bent on riotous disorder.  However, in reality the word anarchy literally, as Jamie Redknapp might say, means “without ruler or government”.

Anarchists are anti-state believing that it is not just desirable but possible for society to organise itself without government and it was this that led to the split between Karl Marx and leading anarchist Mikhail Bakunin at the Hague Congress of the First International in 1872.

The Marxists believed the working classes should take control of the state and that to facilitate this the First International should become a political party while the anarchists, on the other hand, believed that the state was the problem arguing that the First International should remain a decentralized collective of workers’ groups.  Bakunin was expelled with a prophetic warning that if the Marxists came to power they would be end up being just as bad as the ruling class they were fighting and anarchism was cast into the political wilderness.

He's not an anarchist, he's a very naughty boy
Fast forward a hundred years and the British political theorist Colin Ward published his seminal work Anarchy in Action arguing that far from being a “speculative vision of the future” anarchy is a mode of human organisation that is and always has been in existence.  It is not, he argued, about a lack of organisation but about an absence of authority.  He wrote, however, that because anarchist philosophy is so at odds with society’s received view of political thinking, most people simply can’t see this.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Taking the Press to task over Hodgson

So, unlike the Mounties the Press have failed to get their man.  Despite his coronation by the media in February (and on the front of the last edition of FourFourTwo), Harry Redknapp wasn’t, as it turns out, the choice of the FA.

Having overcome their collective shock some hacks seem to have taken offence at the suggestion they were only ever supporting the Spurs boss because he was their mate.  Darren Lewis wrote on the Mirror website that while he wants Hodgson to succeed “we don’t live in a dictatorship […] and I’m not going to be bullied into cooing over Hodgson because Twitter says so”.  Spot on, Darren, and I’m not going to be bullied into cooing over Redknapp because the Press says so.

The Independent’s James Lawton joined in the fun writing that the Press is “entitled to question the wisdom of a decision that was handed down so imperiously it might have been written on a piece of stone”.  Absolutely, James, and I am entitled to question the wisdom of your support for Redknapp, articulated so imperiously it might have been written on a piece of stone.

The last few years have been uncomfortable ones for football journalists as blogging and social media has meant that anyone can publish shit about the game, not just well-paid hacks.  It’s also meant that, more so than ever before, the opinions of those well-paid hacks have been explicitly called into question (ironically it’s almost like the end of a dictatorship) hence the slightly too defensive ‘it’s-not-cos-Harry’s-my-mate’ opinion pieces.

Lawton continued that “the nub of the matter, despite what you may have heard, is not that a bunch of sports hacks – including yours truly – unsuccessfully picked, or even tried to impose, the wrong horse.”  Frankly, I’m extremely grateful to people like James for helping me to process information and telling me what to think.  Anyway, what is the nub of the matter I wonder?

Thankfully, Lawton’s on hand to tell us that the big issue (and it’s worth quoting at length) is “which Englishman in English football over the last few years has produced the most exhilarating football and suggested most strongly that he has the wit and the imagination and, maybe most vitally of all, the understanding of players, how they think, how they operate, how they work, how they play, to get something of a response from the most chronically underachieving nation in the world game.”

I wonder what the Press make of Roy.  Shame I can't read...
Obviously, Lawton believes it’s Redknapp but there’s more than a few problems with his articulation of “the big issue”.  Firstly, exhilarating football doesn’t guarantee trophies, in fact it’s very rare for the most exciting team to win a tournament.  Just ask Brazil in 1982, or Argentina in 2006 or Greece in 2004.  So why is the ability to produce exhilarating football (with, let’s not forget, a squad which contains more foreigners that English players) considered a key plus point in the search for England’s new manger?  Perhaps, instead, the FA should be looking for a manager with a vast knowledge of the international game.