Archive for the ‘Football’ Category
From the new season issue of Backpass.
I thought Steve Coppell was destined for great things from the first moment I saw him.
I’d just been appointed as manager of Luton Town. My defensive options were predictably limited: a few limited journeymen, a tired veteran on his last legs and a handful of youngsters that hadn’t yet seriously competed for a regular place. The teenage Coppell had never played for the first-team but had all the attributes to succeed. Thrown in at the deep end, Coppell excelled and soon established himself as one of the best right-backs in the lower divisions. A few seasons later, our promotion push to the top-flight had fallen at the last hurdle but Sunderland offered me a crack at the big time. And who would be my first signing? Of course: Coppell. He earned a place in the starting line-up and even starred in our UEFA Cup triumph.
As you’ve probably guessed, this Steve Coppell wasn’t the fleet-footed former Manchester United winger. He was an imaginary player (as they all were at the time) in the original Championship Manager football management game which was released in 1992 for the Amiga and the Atari ST. The game was light years beyond those that had preceded it and would eventually morph into the behemoth we know as Football Manager. In the contemporary game, every facet of management is under your control. Want to send your scouts to Peru to sign a nippy teenage winger? Go ahead. Ah, he needs a work permit. No problem, send him on loan to your Belgian feeder club for a few seasons until he qualifies. Want to teach your youth team to embrace the English football tradition by learning to lump it up to the big man? That can be done.
What wasn’t immediately obvious was that Championship Manager heralded the end of the gloriously amateur early days of the genre.
The first football management game, unimaginatively titled Football Manager (which is unrelated to the current series), was released in 1982 and showed little sign of the complexity that would later emerge: the goalkeeper wasn’t even recognised as an in-game position (you merely had to pick another defender), goal scorers weren’t named and the entire game consisted of just twenty-four endlessly recycled players. You could, for example, sell a rubbish Kevin Keegan only to find a superstar version of him available to sign just a few matches later. Nonetheless, a generation were soon hooked – even Arsenal’s Charlie Nicholas described it as “completely fantastic.” Football Manager’s success saw creator Kevin Toms became a celebrity of the gaming scene, partly because he plastered his hirsute features on the game’s packaging and advertisements.
An early notable contender for the genre’s crown came from United which took a much different approach. While Football Manager featured jerky but often nail-bitingly tense match highlights, all United showed was a ball pinging around a spookily desolate pitch. What made it standout was a depth of new features. It boasted specialist ‘keepers; the option to deploy a sweeper if you were feeling suitably continental; a simplistic training programme; named scorers and five different ages of players. It demanded more of the bedroom manager too. You needed to select a balanced team (so no splashing all of your money on three Van Persies upfront if that meant you could only afford four Jenkinsons at the back) and could choose to play a cynical, aggressive game to boost your chances of winning. It countered Football Manager’s lack of players by allowing you to name the players yourself (and anyone with even a token knowledge of BASIC programming could hack into the game code to give your team a Manchester City-sized budget).
What followed was a golden age in which enterprising programmers competed to become the next Kevin Toms. With so much competition, clubs and players alike were sought for endorsements to give new titles a competitive advantage. This was especially true of arcade-style games, such as the crazily titled Peter Shilton’s Handball Maradona, and the dreaded arcade/management crossover games in which the management section was often deemed pointless as the result depended entirely on your skills with a joystick.
This resulted in all kinds of names being lent to the ponderous joy of the management game. Kenny Dalglish Soccer Manager was perhaps the most accomplished example. It tracked stats for all your squad, you could interact with other key personnel at the club such as the scout, the physio and the chairman, and above all, the game looked fantastic – even if the player on the loading screen looked more like Emlyn Hughes. Gary Lineker put his name on a variety of games but Superstar Soccer was the only one that featured a management aspect. While you could play the match itself, it worked so much better as just a coaching game. A more esoteric release was Brian Clough’s Football Fortunes, an awkward blend of computer and board game. Although both individual elements were somewhat lacking, it was great fun as a multi-player game. Or at least it was until you found out that two of your best players had been killed in a car crash. Budgets being what they are, not all companies could afford to splash their cash on a Clough, Dalglish or Lineker, which is probably how Dundee’s European Challenge came to life. This offered the less than appealing challenge of being Archie Knox’s player / assistant manager in the team’s battle for a European spot. When Knox left The Dark Blues, the game was reworked with the new manager, Jocky Scott, in his place.
It comes as little surprise to see that games without celebrity endorsements often featured much more creativity than their big budget counterparts. Again featuring on the covers of his games looking like the Pete Best of Chas ‘n’ Dave, Kevin Toms was still in business, delivering the excellent Football Manager 2 and Football Manager: World Cup Edition. Released with an Italia ’90 wall-chart, the World Cup Edition didn’t match its predecessors but foresaw the genre’s future trends by introducing team talks and media interaction. Also notable was the Football Director series. The concept was rather unusual as it blended the managerial role with various boardroom duties, such as dealing with shares, mortgages, crowd violence and the hiring of a youth coach to bring new talent through. While possessing much more depth, it looked every bit as basic as United did. What makes the game memorable is its sheer difficulty. Dealing with the retirement of star players in the middle of the season is problematic and balancing the books is even tougher. But the greatest challenge of all is the fluctuating difficulty levels – you might find yourself challenging for the title only for the difficulty level to step up a gear, which would see your championship contenders collapse in the season’s final weeks.
Arguably the two best games from the era shared a unique trait: players which were described rather than evaluated by a numerical score. In the tactically complex Tracksuit Manager, the player possessed a huge pool of real players to choose from in an attempt to lead England to international glory. Your scouts could give you detailed feedback on your opposition, such as the observation that Wales prioritised the long ball while employing an offside trap. With a defence described as “disappointing”, they were one opponent that didn’t require much analysis. In The Double, you started your career by taking a job at a random Division Three team. If you were lucky, you were given the job at perpetual promotion chasers Fulham or Gillingham. And if you weren’t, you’d be stuck with a no-hoper such as Mansfield. Tactically this was a much simpler game but its strength was in a transfer system that isn’t too far away from that used in contemporary games. You could scout any of the game’s 1000 real players (Gordon Strachan’s passing is “pure magic”) and then embark upon a bidding war to sign your fabled transfer target.
No matter how sophisticated the games of this era became, they’re naïve by the levels of today’s Football Manager offerings. The game will surely continue to evolve with a stripped down version for mobile devices proving to be a hit, while the main game becomes ever more intricate with extra layers of detail and more playable leagues added every season. However the genre develops, huge numbers of people will doubtless remain addicted enough to lose hundreds of hours to the challenge of taking Dover to Champions League glory.
The world of football possesses some dubious characters. Yet despite spoilt players, money-crazed board members and abusive fans, the referee remains the ultimate target of people’s hatred despite being the game’s lowest profile sub-community.
Originally titled Kill The Referee, one suspects that UEFA’s patronage of this documentary was instigated with the aim of establishing fresh respect for our game’s officials. If that’s true, it doesn’t seem to have been the ambition of the filmmakers who instead observe their subject with quiet neutrality.
Filmed at Euro 2008, the film follows the officiating teams of Howard Webb, Manuel Mejuto González, Peter Fröjdfeldt and Roberto Rosetti through the tournament. The match footage focuses on the movements of each referee with a soundtrack consisting almost solely of his discussions with his assistants and the players. What’s immediately striking is the intuitive sense of trust and utmost concentration each three-man team possesses; more often than not, the main man will immediately accept the advice of his colleagues. Perhaps more surprising is how little impact the protestations of the players have: for the opening third of the film, it seems like Greece midfielder Angelos Basinas is being shooed away every few minutes. Similarly the howls of derision from the supporters at the ground aren’t even given a token mention.
Despite being the most reserved of the characters on display, Webb takes centre-stage for much of the documentary. At half-time during Austria versus Poland, his team are all wracked with nerves as to whether they made the correct decision to allow Roger Guerreiro’s possibly offside opening goal for Poland. An hour later and things have changed dramatically – an injury time penalty awarded to Austria results in a bitterly controversial equaliser. When the Polish Prime Minister admits that he wants to kill you, you surely can’t help but question your ability.
Away from the pitch, the life of the referee is a bland one. They congregate for decision-making postmortems, gather together to watch Fröjdfeldt’s performance during the Netherlands versus Italy and engage in press conferences. Even when the refereeing cut is announced ahead of the knockout phase, there’s no bad will. Indeed, it’s the only time during the tournament that Webb flickers a smile.
The documentary proves that the increasingly common cliché that the ref wants to be centre of attention is almost ludicrously wide of the mark. Each team is careful to maintain their personal celebrations to the privacy of their own room (a wise move when you already have Leo Beenhakker screaming at you) and none of the individuals are particularly charismatic. Most of the personality is provided by Webb’s father who, like his son, was once a referee himself. Unlike his son, however, he possesses a full head of hair.
The weakness of the film is the lack of any narration or even any captioning to explain who the multitudes of officials, friends and family are. What’s most fascinating are the mini philosophies on display, such as technical advisor Andy Roxburgh advising a gathering of officials not to view replays on the big screen as it’ll adversely affect their mentality for the rest of the game.
Perhaps it’s almost a Luddite view, but undeniably it’s a logical statement. For refereeing is increasingly a battle between the human capabilities of four neutral men eager to do their best, and the endless stream of multi-cams and slow motion replays that damn their every move. David Elleray states: “We should educate football to accept that referees will make mistakes.” It’s a phrase with enough of an arrogant undercurrent to discredit the otherwise sensible point that he wants to make.
“What we see doesn’t count,” says Roberto Rosetti, the suave Italian entrusted with the final. “What matters is what is said about what we see.” The dichotomy is that man alone can’t make consistently accurate snap decision judgements and that they can’t ever be fully replaced by technology. Referees don’t deserve our hatred, but respect for them shouldn’t prevent the game from evolving for the better.
This recently ran on the excellent Just Football website.
It’s 7pm on June 30th, precisely one month after Swansea’s play-off final triumph over Reading heralded the close of the season. Hoards of football fans flow out of Putney Bridge station, some adorned with white shirts, some carrying beers, but all looking distinctly out of season. The reason is simple: Fulham host NSI Runavik of the Faroe Islands in the first leg of the first qualifying round of the Europa League and the 2011-2012 season is officially underway.
I’m joined by my friend and fellow Gillingham supporter Alex who seems to be the only person in mid-summer wearing a scarf. The scarf, he explains, represents Just Can’t Beat That, a website and collection of non-Swiss supporters who follow FC Luzern. Perhaps Gillingham, FC Luzern and NSI Runavik are the new holy trinity of football teams to follow. Or perhaps he’s just naturally attracted to mediocre teams.
We join the away congregation in Craven Cottage’s Johnny Haynes Stand. By congregation, I mean a collective of at most a hundred Runavik fans – of which we, as curious outsiders, are very much the outsiders amidst a welcoming gathering of Faroese.
New Fulham manager Martin Jol’s team selection is clearly risk averse. Mark Schwarzer, Brede Hangeland, Danny Murphy, Damien Duff and Bobby Zamora all feature in an almost comically over-strength side. By contrast, Runavik’s most famous name is Christian Høgni Jacobsen, a player with an amazing strike rate at domestic level and barely a goal to his name internationally.
The gulf in class is evident almost from kick-off. Fulham dominate possession, while Runavik’s limited forays into the opposition half are usually halted by the industrious presence of Dickson Etuhu. The Runavik fans celebrate their few half chances with panache. As the clock ticks to the twenty minute mark and then the thirty, Jol must be growing restless. Despite the strength of his starting line-up, there’s not much flair on the bench; Jonathan Greening looks the most likely candidate should he need a substitute to unlock Runavik’s compact formation. But pretty much immediately, Duff puts the finishing touches on a team move to place a shot beyond Runavik’s Hungarian goalkeeper Andras Gango. 1-0.
At half-time we’re confronted by the surprising sight of a queue to exit the stand. On further investigation, the exit is being blocked by a fan asking a steward where she can buy a beer from. Down at the refreshments stand, I ask for a beer. Alex asks for a beer. A man who looks like a Faroese media celebrity asks for a beer. We’re all denied. UEFA, apparently open to any sponsorship that brings some cash in, doesn’t allow the sale of alcohol at Europa League games. The warm cans of Boddingtons behind the counter look appealing for the first and last time.
For the second half, we choose to join the rowdiest row of Runavik supporters. Their chants are mostly variants on what you’d hear at any English ground on any day of the season, the most prominent of which is a repeated N-S-I! The pronunciation of I as ‘Oi!’ provides an edge that’s not quite nihilistic and not quite exotic, yet welcomingly unusual all the same.
Not that there’s much to cheer on the pitch. Fulham repeatedly attempt to breach Runavik’s offside trap and come close almost each time. Gango heroically keeps the score down. His efforts are greeting with their best song: “Gango, Gango, Gango, hey!” followed by a quivering wave of the arms that resembles an octopus’s sprawling tentacles. But then Simon Davies is fouled in the box and Murphy has little trouble placing the penalty past our new favourite player. 2-0. The response is predictable: “Gango, Gango, Gango, hey!” The NSI fans tell us that they made up the song in the pub last night, being acutely aware that this evening might be a long one for the bald stopper from Győr. Soon enough, Andy Johnson completes the scoring.
From hereon in, the visiting fans opt to make the most of the night and have some fun. They have a peculiar take on goading the opposition. Johnson is mocked with “Andy… Andy…” while Hangeland gets the more creative “Too long!” When Alex yells, “Davies! Did you shag Ryan Giggs too?”, the Runaviks react like it’s the funniest thing they’ve ever heard. Davies doesn’t.
Looking livelier than he has in years, Duff runs into space on the left-wing in anticipation of a pass. Desperately calling for it, he makes an otherworldly high-pitched yelp that sounds like a pterodactyl being tortured. For the remainder of the game he’s mercilessly targeted with furious squawks and a particularly compelling impersonation of Duffman from The Simpsons. If only Duffman had been present at half-time…
“Number fifteen: insurance,” says the closest Runavik fan of their midfielder Helgi Petersen. “I’m insurance!” exclaims Alex, although the anticipated high-five doesn’t quite materialise. Given that Runavik’s population is around the 4000 mark, it’s hardly surprising that most people in attendance seem to know someone involved in the game. It is, however, something of a novelty to discover that substitute Andrias Liknargotu’s sister in our row. We give his brief cameo the most rousing reception that our small contingent can muster.
As the game ebbs away, Fulham almost net a fourth but debutant Lauri Dalla Valle fires over from just a few yards out. “Miss of the season!” hollers a still energetic Runavik fan. It might well be, but the unwanted accolade has ten full months in which to be beaten.
I have no idea what motivated me to volunteer to write about North Korea’s 2010 World Cup campaign, but I did for the excellent Just Football which has earned praise from the Football Association. Here’s the first of my four contributions to the site.
Just west of London’s Hyde Park lies Kensington Palace Gardens. In keeping with its status as one of the most expensive residential streets in the world, it also provides a grand setting to numerous embassies and ambassadorial homes. A stroll along one of the quietest streets in central London offers a small glimpse of unimaginable wealth amidst an unusual international community.
North Korea, or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in full, takes a different approach to its official London embassy, just as it does to so many other things. Football fans approaching Wembley from the south of England to visit Wembley may well have passed it but almost definitely wouldn’t have noticed in amidst the bland suburbia of Gunnersbury Avenue (the A406). The building’s only concession to ceremonial nationalism is a token plaque; its letters carved on a brown backdrop making it virtually unrecognisable even from the other side of the road.
And that barely even hints at the surreal existence of North Korea.
Korea spent almost thirty-five years under Japanese rule when it was divided after World War II. The United States and the Soviet Union’s temporary occupation of the country was intended to lead to self-government, but with each power backing different leaders, two states – each claiming sovereignty – were formed. Triggered by a series of conflicts on the border, the Korean War claimed millions of lives and was ended with an armistice that created the Korean Demilitarized Zone, a restricted area four kilometres deep that splits the two nation’s borders. Inside the zone is the Joint Security Area, the only spot in which forces from the North and South directly face each other. The relationship between the two countries has remained tense ever since.
Implicated by Bush as part of the supposed axis of evil, contemporary North Korea is often described as one of the most secretive nations in the world. North Korea’s Supreme Leader is Kim Jong-Il, son of former leader Kim Il-Sung and inadvertent start of Team America. The two Kims created a state in which abuses of human rights are routine and in which their combined cult of personality remains integral. It could all bizarrely amusing – Jong-Il being credited for his contribution to the national team’s tactics, a bronze statue of him is met with floods of tears by visitors, his official biography is comically overstated (“Extraordinary perspicacity with regards to things and phenomena… he had a faculty for creative thinking, regarding every problem with an innovative eye… he had a strong and daring character… possessed of warm human love and broadmindedness”) – if it wasn’t for the suffering that remains. Amnesty International’s 2009 report expressed numerous concerns including access to food, hard labour carried out by prisoners and the government’s control over the media.
Contrary to some expectations, North Korea allows tourists access strictly on their own terms. Travellers are required to tour as a part of a group with no independent travel allowed. Maintaining respect for the Kims is vital; the punishment for the tour guide is said to be far more draconian than it is for the traveller. Whether such travel is ethical is a different prospect, but events such as the Mass Games are an obvious attraction as well as the chance to visit a country quite like any other. As Tony Wheeler concludes in his book Bad Lands, “The unfortunate citizens of North Korea have no choice about their government and absolutely no right to say anything about it… I really hope we can all one day enjoy the Dear Leader / Great Leader Statue & Billboard Amusement Park.”
As for the average North Korean experience of watching their team at this year’s World Cup, it’s going to be far removed from the traditional / stereotypical English plan of getting tanked up in a chain pub. For starters only a minority of people have televisions, but more problematic is that the only footage likely to be broadcast is in the event of a famous 1966 echoing victory. How this will be dealt with is unclear, presumably the tournament will be completely ignored if the team fail miserably. Even if they beat the odds and escape the group, it’s likely that their eventual elimination won’t even be mentioned.
Of course, almost no domestic fans will be attending the tournament itself.. Stranger still, with no real support of their own, North Korea have enlisted a thousand Chinese supporters to back them at the tournament.
While the team’s 1966 vintage earned the admiration of the local Middlesbrough crowd when they eliminated Italy in the group stages, support for their 2010 equivalent is likely to emerge strictly from their sporting endeavours due to the regime from which they emerge. A proposed pre-tournament training camp in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, has been already objected to due to North Korea’s participation in training an army that killed thousands of Zimbabweans in the Eighties.
The luck of the draw has at least meant that North and South Korea are extremely unlikely to meet in the tournament, as the chances of each side progressing to the semi-finals are close to non-existent. What other surprises this near unknown of world football can spring remain to be seen.