Wednesday, July 27, 2005

How Dolly Mixed Up Apartheid

For the second Monday night in a row BBC 2 screened a fascinating heavyweight documentary at an ungodly hour, following last week’s examination of Belgium’s hideous conquest of the Congo with Not Cricket: The Basil D’Oliveira Conspiracy.

For those unfamiliar D’Oliveira was a ‘coloured’ South African cricketer who came to maturity just as the apartheid policy was being implemented in the 1950s. Brilliant with the bat and a fine bowler too, “Dolly”’s many achievements on the field included scoring two hundred runs in two hours and captaining his country- captaining, that is, his country’s coloured players on a tour of East Africa, for his skin colour meant he could never play first class cricket (i.e. alongside whites) in South Africa, nor represent South Africa internationally in a test match.

His feats in the coloured cricket leagues were outstanding, but his bearing on the field drew as much comment from those interviewed in the documentary, referring as they did to how he would take control of games, how his presence guaranteed runs, lifted his team.

It was fitting then that when D’Oliveira moved to England to play in 1960 (a move engineered by the English cricket commentator John Arlott, who regarded it as the greatest achievement of his life in cricket), he was seen by those in his oppressed community as a potential beacon. If successful he would strike a much needed blow, on behalf of the non-whites of South Africa, across the bow of apartheid.

He was successful. He played county cricket for Worcestershire, naturalised as a British citizen, and was selected for England in 1966. He publicised his age as thirty-one. He was in fact thirty-four, yet was still an elite player.

The controversy which would etch his name in history arose in 1968. In the final Ashes test at the Oval he scored a magnificent 158 runs, an innings hallmarked by his graceful, economical style, and took a crucial wicket as England won the test in improbable circumstances to draw the series. It seemed that he was a certainty to be picked for the travelling party for England’s winter tour- to South Africa.

This was to be the fulfilment of Dolly’s life’s dream: to play in his home Cape Town ground at Newlands, on the crease on which he and his kin had been prohibited from setting foot. It would be an almighty poke in the eye for the National Party regime.

It was an embarrassment they could not conceive of allowing to happen.

The conspiracy referred to in the title of the documentary began in early 1968, with correspondence between the South African cricket board and the secretary of the M.C.C. Lords was left under no doubt of the fact that, if D’Oliveira were to be selected for the tour, the test series would not be allowed to take place.

The selection committee that convened following the Ashes tests returned a verdict which shocked the English cricketing public- D’Oliveira would not travel, the decision explained on the preposterous grounds that his style would not be suited to the ground in South Africa, the country in which he learned his craft.

The fudge had been that it was better to condone fascism than to jeopardise good relations in the cricketing world and hove the dark shadow of the real world over the leafy environs of Lords.

The shamefulness of this decision hangs over those on the selection committee, including then captain Colin Cowdrey, to this day, but events allowed the M.C.C. to achieve redress. Warwickshire's Tom Cartwright, who had been selected in D’Oliveira’s stead was injured, and the M.C.C., stung by the outcry to D’Oliveira’s initial omission, now selected him.

The South African regime were as good as their word. Prime Minster Voerster stated in no uncertain terms that this team would not be allowed to play in South Africa as now constituted. The M.C.C., to their credit, rather than dropping D’Oliveira again, cancelled the tour.

The repercussions of this controversy and the public reaction it elicited, publicising as it did the vileness of the apartheid regime, soon precipitated the international sporting boycott of South Africa, an ostracization which helped in no small part crystallise international opposition to the policy.


The Basil D’Oliveira controversy refutes for once and for all (appropriately in light of the issue of Zimbabwe which arose at the last cricket World Cup) the fallacy that “sport and politics don’t mix”, and for many reasons. For the way in which success at cricket was affirmation for those oppressed and disenfranchised. For the way in which the oppressors used, or misused, sport as an agent for their fascism. For the way in which the outrage which seeped from the sporting arena into the broader world of political activism helped bring down the regime. For the way that sport simply could not be distilled away from its societal context, because, fundamentally, it was as much of that society as the people who played it, and who lived for it.

After the D’Oliveira controversy it was clear to all, to deploy possibly the greatest understatement ever, that apartheid was simply “not cricket”.

....Read more!

Monday, July 25, 2005

Paradise Regained?

And so it begins.

For the football fan the close season is interminable; even in the modern era of Mickey Mouse FIFA competitions and late summer European qualifiers, those barren weeks are the supporter's equivalent of the forty days and forty nights: abstinence to purge the soul of too many Super Sundays and come and get me pleas, sure, but torture nonetheless.

He nods appreciatively as Tiger Woods chips to three feet, gasps admiringly as Roger Federer whips another winner, waxes lyrical about the grace and thrills of a Munster Hurling Final- all the while wishing there was as much as a measly Conference promotion six-pointer to really get his teeth into. When his team's pre-season friendlies arrive, they are consequentially greeted with a slightly inappropriate level of interest: "What team did he pick for the tour game against FC Kleinedorf- I have to know!!!"

For we Celtic supporters the natural anticipation of the season's opening (this week sees the second round Champions League qualifier against Artmedia Bratislava and the opening SPL fixture at the benighted Fir Park) is married to the trepidation of a brave new era.

Unlike almost all of Celtic's managers since Jock Stein, Gordon Strachan takes over not from a publicly flogged sackee, but rather from a manager whose beatified status saw him ascend with metaphorical accompaniment of Cherubim and Seraphim to well, Paradise.

Martin O'Neill's place in the Celtic pantheon is rightly guaranteed, and his dignified exit was fitting for a man who brought such honour to the club in his five years in charge. The angle on Strachan's accession would appear to be easily interpreted: hard act to follow Gordie.

However, even a cursory audit of the club O'Neill bequeathed the man swapping pundit's sofa for dugout casts a taint on the Irishman's legacy, and should in the mind of any reasonable Celtic supporter (believe me, they are far from all best described thus) afford the new man considerable leeway in his attempts to deliver the success to which we have become accustomed.

The number of close season departures of players who have been popularly categorised as "deadwood", and the fact that last season's collapse was precipitated by the over-reliance on an aging and slowing old guard demonstrates at the very least questionable housekeeping in the latter years of the O'Neill reign.

It is customary for the anti-board militants within the Celtic support to blame the club's post-Seville slowdown on the custodians' parsimoniousness rather than any negligence on the parts of the management team. A glance at the club's accounts shows, however, six seasons of consecutive loss making as a business, and no evidence of bags marked "Swag" being siphoned off to luxury golf resorts in the Bahamas rather than to fund big money transfer deals.

The playing roster illustrates the recurring policy of the O'Neill regime to re-sign old favourites on extended contracts despite those players evidently approaching their expiry date. Understandable of course, given the loyal service O'Neill's main lieutenants gave him, but the achingly pedestrian Celtic that followed Henrik Larsson's departure suggests regeneration should have accompanied rewards in the Parkhead squad-building policy.

A supplemental concern with regard to the end of the O'Neill era concerns the suggestions that Gordon Strachan has a initiated a gruelling training regime during this pre-season that is quite novel to those who served under the previous administration, and one which, it is whispered, has been not entirely greeted with open arms by the old guard.

Anyone who watched Celtic fold in the closing stages of so many matches last season can well believe that here was a squad for whom basic fitness and stamina evidently were not anywhere near adequate- a grossly unacceptable feature for a supposedly top-class football club.

But I come not to bury Caesar (not you Big Billy, its a classical reference) but to praise him.

What is missing around Parkhead is not simply a little intense man with glassess, but an aura. The phrase "Our Blessed Martin" was used by one Celtic fansite regularly, and while overly fawning, suggests an important element of what the man brought to the club.

There was an alchemy at play at Parkhead over the last five years, a magic spell which was at its most powerful on big European nights and Old Firm games; a mystic force that beamed from dug-out to stand to pitch and made the impossible happen. Who watched the 6-2 game and didn't feel the breath of the supernatural on their neck? Who followed the Seville campaign and did not feel elevated by the powerful forces that struck down the Beast, incapacitated Liverpool, formed a forcefield before the goalmouth in Vigo? It is what the reviled James Traynor of the Daily Record (though he could not possibly really understand) meant when he said there was "something special" about European nights at Parkhead.

The sorcerer is gone, his spellbook in shreds. Now we wait. For the white smoke of new signings, of course, for the signs of tactical progression, pleasing football, beautiful goals.

But mostly for the magic to come back.....

p.s. What's that new Polish striker's first name again.......?

....Read more!

Thursday, July 07, 2005

All my bags are packed, I'm ready to go....

Dearest reader, it brings me no pleasure to inform you that TSA will be embarking on a ten day pre-season tour of the Baltic regions, during which time I will ruminate on the weighty matters which dominate our sporting universe: do you get your money back on a charred Stevie Gerrard Liverpool shirt?; will the referee bother bringing the ball at all for Sunday's Ulster Final?; will Clive Woodward enjoy making the tea at Southhampton?...

Anyway, this weekend will be a bad one to miss in GAA as I believe the All-Ireland champions will be playing in one of the three provincial finals on Sunday. Now, I'm not tipping Mayo to win the thing- please!- but I like the look of the westerners this year. Last year they played their best football in July, leaving the tank dry in September. This year it's all much quieter, there's been a bit of regeneration squad-wise and they might just time the whole thing better.

While I fear the only thing that'll beat Kerry is attrition, as Limerick valiantly showed, and perhaps therefore the Ulstermen are better suited to that task, like all neutrals it would be wonderful to see Mayo finally win the big one- and in Ciaran McDonald they have one of the few aesthetes in a modern game in which artistry is thin on the ground.

Slan go foill as they probably don't say in Estonia...

....Read more!

Monday, July 04, 2005

TWTWTW: Mumbo-Jumbo in the Old Jokes Home

And so, with two matches, including one test, remaining, it appears there will only be ignominy and infamy as laurels for the 2005 British and Irish Lions. There is no shame in the losing, at least on Saturday in Wellington, for this All Black side appear dappled with greatness, albeit in a perilous no man’s land two years from a World Cup. This tour was tarnished off the field.

The awesome truth of Saturday absolved the best of the four nations players from the sin of being anything other than inadequate in the face of a vastly superior foe. There has been much hypothesising in recent weeks on how the All Blacks were evolving a new brand of rugby, with its speed, skill and power, which made the World Cup winning English style seem anachronistic. While Clive Woodward was of course wrong to believe that he could triumph with his rusty old artillery against the stealth bombers of New Zealand, this was a mere forgivable error of sporting judgement.

The real pall on this tour was in its conceit, and in the depressing mountain of bullshit of which it stank.

Far worse than Woodward’s already antiquated gameplan, was his resurrection from public purgatory of Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair’s sinister stooge, whose grim dancing on the grave of the BBC following the Hutton report failed to distract from the blood on his hands, from the “sexed up” weapons dossier which sold the war in Iraq to Labour’s meek backbenchers, and from his department’s role in the exposing of David Kelly.

Campbell was mandated by Blair to create a political environment where truth was akin to quicksand. The embodiment of this era was the infamous memo leaked by government aide Jo Moore in the hours following 9/11, advising that this might be a good time to release any bad news which would be nicely hidden by the fallout from the atrocity.

But Campbell’s approach to truth spun a web of mistrust which trapped him, and ruined much of New Labour’s credibility in the eyes of a public mollified only by a successful economy and a feeble opposition. The British public grew wise to spin, and its legacy makes Blair’s every move subject to suspicion today.

Yet here was Alistair Campbell, perched by Clive Woodward’s shoulder after Christchurch, picking up the O’Driscoll-Umaga ball and running with it, in the vain hope that we, like the dumb backbenchers he used to bamboozle, would be too stupid to notice the stinker his boss had just served up on the field.

But haven’t you been paying attention Alistair? We know what you’re up to! And because it was you, you actually managed to give the All Blacks an excuse not to entertain the very genuine sense of outrage at the way O’Driscoll’s tour was ended, and its inglorious immediate aftermath.

No doubt Campbell was behind Woodward’s quote on Saturday that he felt it “had been quite a successful trip” actually. This is a classic example of the modern phenomenon documented by Francis Wheen in his book How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World, a section of which documents how deconstructionist thinkers like Jacques Derrida believed language could be made to mean whatever the reader wished it to mean, simply by dismantling and reinterpreting the text using different “values”. This was the raw material for spin: you can say whatever you want about something, and it can be true! So, therefore, the Lions 2005 tour becomes a “successful trip”! Saddam Hussein will kill you in forty-five minutes!

Woodward was exposed as something less than the Churchillian figure he had become in the eyes of some of the English media by the failure to recognise that his masterplan was out of date, and by the inability to blend anything much better as a plan B. By hiring Campbell however he seemed to believe an even shabbier and more discredited tactic would still work, when for most of us, the tired philosophy of spin is about as fresh as Jimmy Tarbuck’s joke book.

....Read more!

Saturday, July 02, 2005

The Glazers: A tale of regular venture capitalist folk

After all the protests, campaigns and prophecies of doom, Manchester United supporters yesterday caught their first glimpse of the new evil empire- and saw Joel Glazer attempt to redraw the appalling vista which they for so long feared since his father’s bid to take over the club became public, into a rosier landscape.

Appearing on MUTV in an interview which would have made Pravda blush, Glazer attempted to allay seemingly all of the concerns and fears which had been held by the United supporters organisations as to the plans of his family, led by his father Malcolm, for the club.

While it has long been known that Joel Glazer would be the public face of the Glazer family in the running of the new Old Trafford regime, it was still a wise public relations move to present a different face as the personification of the Glazer junta. Malcolm Glazer, in part through his reclusiveness, in part through his silence since his intentions became known, has become demonised to the level of caricature by those opposed to him, to the extent that he has almost become a pantomime villain, a corporate bogeyman to frighten the kids with.

In the absence of fine detail until now from the Glazer family, the real crux of the objections to them has come from one question: how are they going to repay the staggering debt undertaken to fund the takeover?

It is a question the answer for which is no more clear than before Joel Glazer spoke yesterday.

1. Ticket Prices

On the allegation that the price of entry into Old Trafford would be raised astronomically, thereby alienating the traditional supporter Glazer was dismissive in the extreme: “This club’s ticket prices will always be competitive with other prices in the Premier League….[when you outprice supporters] you lose the lifeblood of the club”.

A little wriggle room here: the London clubs’ ticket prices tend to be higher than any provincial club, and at the very least steady price rises are inevitable, but the romantic tones of Glazer’s language were intended to quash the suspicion that they would be happy for Old Trafford’s seats to be filled any 67,000 bums, and whether those posteriors were from Salford or Singapore was irrelevant.

2. Sale and Leaseback of Old Trafford

An unequivocally “absolutely ridiculous” notion according to Glazer, despite many observers feeling that this was a formality given the cripplingly high interest on much of their borrowing, which it was felt would necessitate quick cash flow to alleviate some of the repayment burden.

3. Withdrawal from Premiership Collective Television Rights Bargaining

This is key concern for most football supporters in England outwith Manchester United. Would the new United regime, in attempting to maximise potential revenue cut loose from the Premiership’s traditional collective bargaining arrangement for television rights, which distributes the money received from Sky television more equitably than if the clubs negotiated individual rights, thereby meaning that the biggest and most popular clubs would receive vastly greater sums than smaller clubs?

Glazer toed the Premier League’s line on this issue to the letter. “[Sharing of money is] the foundation of a strong league. Without a strong league you don’t have a strong competition and we feel very strongly about that”.

4. Tradition/Identity/History

On all the intangible issues which arose fear in the supporters’ organisations Glazer was effusive. They are firmly behind Alex Ferguson, will back him financially to achieve success (Ferguson is reported to be “excited” about the new regime), think that David Gill is a great guy and have won over Bobby Charlton as well. Glazer repeatedly cast his family has “restorers” of the club, stated that the fans were the club’s true owners and that they (the Glazers) were in thrall to the passion of the supporters and the club’s heritage.

So what was all that fuss about? Of course the oft-repeated irony of the supporters anti-Glazer campaign, and its “Not for Sale” mantra, is that the club has simply moved from the hands of a number of varied capitalists, to a smaller number, namely the Glazer family. What did “not for sale” even mean? How was the ownership of the club to be defined?

As I have mentioned, the key concern of any savvy Manchester United supporter was not the fact that some big bad American monster was going to come and turn Old Trafford into a shopping mall, replacing the Stretford End with a Taco Bell and bringing you the Budweiser Munich Air Disaster Memorial. When one strips away the large tranches of xenophobia in the discussion, the question of how they are going to repay the debt is all that matters.

So if not by the methods denied by Glazer yesterday, then how? Glazer was vague on this, saying “our family has personally invested £270 million” and “debt means different things to different people”. The only fragment of insight about increasing United’s revenues came when Glazer said that “maybe there are some things we can do overseas to grow Manchester United which will benefit the community at large”.

The phrasing of this sentence suggests that they haven’t really thought much about it and that, well, they would run a few ideas up the flagpole and see what fluttered, but sure in the meantime we’ll plod along as we are! Nonsense of course. No financial institution would have loaned the sums the Glazer’s have borrowed, and the Glazer’s would not have taken out the debt, without concrete, detailed and (because of the degree that United’s revenues will have to increase to repay the debt) revolutionary plans.

So what is the “something we can do overseas”? Will United, while playing ball with the Premier League on collective bargaining domestically, go it alone internationally, and maximise their worldwide appeal by negotiating individually for international rights? It would make sense- after all there are sixty million people in the United Kingdom, six billion in the rest of the world.

But a product saleable worldwide surely will not benefit from the inclusion of the more prosaic outposts of English football. A trip to Wigan may not help much in easing the Glazers’ repayment schedule. The Glazers will be asking why Manchester United cannot play Real Madrid or Barcelona twice a season as standard, rather than if the serendipity of the Champions League draw permits it.

Will the “something overseas” be an attempt to restructure the game to ensure that Manchester United are part of a product whose global appeal will make the Sky domestic television contract look like a petty cash box?

Due to the Glazers’ reluctance to detail their plans, we must continue to speculate a little longer on how they will increase United’s revenues. Yesterday’s interview with Joel Glazer was a wet dishcloth on the chip-pan fire of supporters’ protests, and a belated charm offensive on the parts of the new owners. When the real action begins, it is difficult for one to conceive how the Glazers will make a success of their new venture without some fundamental manoeuvres which will go way beyond something as trivial as raising ticket prices.

Whether this will mean an attempt to create the fabled European Super League we do not yet know, but one imagines the committee rooms of the G14 clubs will be interesting places to be over the coming months.

....Read more!