12/14/13

An Anglo-Italian Perspective

 England v Italy - UEFA EURO 2012 Quarter Final

It has been a week since the World Cup draw and the dust has settled on what was a fascinating event. Last week I discussed the social and political implications of the World Cup in Brazil however the prospect of Italy – England has forced my hand to write something a little more light hearted and certainly closer to home.

When Sir Geoff Hurst picked up that little plastic ball on Friday the 6th of December at Costa do Sauipe a wry smile came to my face. It just had to be, Italy versus England.

It is a tie which should provide me with the ultimate internal conflict, something akin to your alter egos, sitting on each shoulder, whispering sweet nothings in your ear. “Italia, tifa Italia – Italy support Italy, no its got to be England you should support England” (the conversation would go something like that). Hailing from England with an Italian father who like many on the peninsula has a vehement passion for football I should be experiencing an International schism. Not the case. For reasons little known to my self, apart from the fact my mother isn’t the biggest of football fans, I have always had a stalwart attachment to the Azzurri. Call me unpatriotic, question my ‘love for my country’, apparently something politicians do these days to besmirch a journalists reputation, however it does not make an iota of difference to me.

That said the point of this article is not to discuss the mundane topic of my own allegiances but to compare and contrast two nations whose footballing history makes them behemoths of the World Cup arena.

Whether its Forza Italia or Come on England I will be juxtaposing the media reaction surrounding these two European heavyweights of Brazil’s World Cup Group D.

Press Reaction 

England

It is safe to say the English media quaked at what was undoubtedly a cruel draw. Not only were England condemned to face  Italy and Uruguay (two nations in the top 10 of the FIFA rankings) but they would also have to play their opener in the sweltering heat of the Brazilian Jungle.

Greg Dyke's reaction to the bad news (Photo from The Guardian)

Greg Dyke’s – Chairman of the FA reacts to the draw (Photo from The Guardian)

For much of the press, Greg Dyke’s reaction to the draw said it all. He was caught on Camera pulling his finger across his throat. In typically English fashion this already signaled doom. For Matt Dickinson of The Times the gesture “perfectly captured the story of England’s anguish” while The Guardian described the group as “probably as treacherous as anything Hodgson could have dared imagined”.

It was not just the quality of the group, which also included a potential banana skin in Costa Rica, but also the location of England’s first game – Manaus. The stadium lies in the heart of the Amazon Jungle where temperatures can soar above 30c and humidity can be as high as 80%. The Sun duly published a double spread headed “Amazon Pain Forrest”. The only consolation if you can call it that is that England will be playing Italy, another side who will be unaccustomed to the perilous conditions.

Generally the media reaction in England epitomised the country’s tendency to veer towards cynicism and pessimism regarding their prospects in major events. Events which are frequently anticipated with a catalogue of woe and a sheepish expectation of failure.  It is in stark contrast to the jingoistic, conquer all attitude of the English during the height of the British Empire, although that said there were some who tried their best to rally this type of sentiment. Steve McManaman appeared positively buoyant after the draw speaking on ESPN “I think we’ll be very happy with that. We know how the Italians play. I don’t think there is any problem there”.

No doubt as the World Cup draws closer and closer, whether it be the fans or the press, there will be some sort of wave of enthusiasm that sweeps England and suddenly you may start hearing “well why not, why can’t England go all the way, at least the Semi’s”.

Italy

In Italy the press reaction to the draw was at times just as sceptical but manifested in a totally different manner. La Gazzetta dello Sport ran the head line “Italy Pays the Price” with the overview reading “After Blatter, Zidane gave us another ‘headbutt’ by picking us Uruguay, England and Costa Rica”.

Apart from the fact that the analogy in this headline could be construed as slightly inappropriate and disrespectful to one of the games biggest names, its real agenda lies in one of the Italian media’s favourite tough luck stories. Corruption and scandal. Anyone who knows Italy well will be familiar with the peninsula’s love for a conspiracy theory. So when it was announced that one of the European teams from pot 4 was going to be moved into pot 2 and face the possibility of being drawn with another of the strong European sides, everybody in Italy ‘knew’ the Azzurri were going to be that team.

Among the Italian media there was a continuation of this theme. The Corriere dello Sport  went with the headline “Scandolo”  – “Shameful World Cup draw gives us England and Uruguay, while France get an extremely easy group despite being a long way back in the FIFA rankings”. The headline tells you all you need to know. While it reveals a similar candid level of uncertainty among the press surrounding Italy’s chances of success, it is above all because the world and its wife are ‘against’ them.

soccer_g_ftotti1_576

Totti given his second yellow vs South Korea by referee Byron Moreno in controversial circumstances (Photo from espnfc.com

This however should not come as shock. In 2002 after Italy were dumped out of the World Cup by hosts South Korea (in what must be said were controversial circumstances) Pietro Calabrese editor of La Gazzetta and a doyen of the Calcio journalist world wrote “We were knocked out in order to level out some problems between us and the bosses of FIFA and UEFA…Italy has no weight…Shame on them…Shame on the World Cup”. Having read this episode in John Foot’s book: Calcio the author goes onto describe other incidents in which the press became embroiled with such stories. So while the media focused on the cruel draw dealt to Italy, much of the comment was centred around conspiracy.

Tutto Sport opened with a rather less controversial headline – “Italy scare Cavani and Rooney”. This was one of the more positive press reactions to the draw yet the paper were quick to highlight Prandelli’s comments regarding Costa Rica. “Prandelli surprised everyone ‘I fear Costa Rica and the climate'”. This is the last team you might expect the Italian coach to highlight but given Italy’s past failure to get out of a group full of minnows (1966 & 2010 immediately spring to mind) the media were picking up on what  is sometimes Italy’s Achilles heel – complacency against the ‘smaller’ teams.

There is a saying the country gets the press it deserves and in this case the media speaks volumes for Italy and England. While the English press wallowed in the nation’s misfortune the Italian press were quick to apportion some of the blame on FIFA and the system. In one case its bad luck and in the other– its wilful conspiracy.

12/8/13

Brazil, Stadiums and Protests…Where do FIFA’s Responsibilities Lie?

What a draw! In the coastal town of Costa do Sauipe a plethora of former World cup stars including Sir Geoff Hurst, Zinedine Zidane, Cafu and Fabio Cannavaro didn’t disappoint, serving up some mouth-watering ties. Accompanying Italy-England (a game which will split my own household), there will be a re-run of the 2010 World Cup final between Spain and Holland, another clash of the European titans between Germany and Portugal as well as a number of other intriguing ties.

With the groups now drawn, the World Cup is edging ever closer and the reality of football’s most prestigious tournament returning to Brazil brings an excitement to many a football fan matched only by a toddler on Christmas Eve. However behind every reality  there are often unpalatable truths.

FIFA have not covered themselves in glory recently but that is hardly surprising anymore. The Guardian’s revelations about Qatar, where dozens of Nepalese workers have died this summer in conditions akin to “modern slavery” have led to diatribes being launched at FIFA from all quarters. As delighted as we were to see the case of Zahir Belounis resolved, his battle is just a fraction of the overall story. Sepp Blatter has claimed the world cannot “turn a blind eye” to the deaths of  construction workers yet thousands who migrate to the Arab state for work are brutally exploited and are trapped by the country’s oppressive Kafala employment system. Brazil however is a different beast.

Much of the talk has been centred on Brazil’s struggle to meet construction deadlines, an issue compounded by the tragic death of two Brazilian workers when a crane fell and destroyed parts of Sao Paulo’s Arena Corinthians Stadium (the third accident involving fatalities). But while it is likely Brazil’s organisers will stumble over the line in terms of preparation, there is a more pressing issue which must not be glazed over by yesterday’s glitzy draw. FIFA’s insouciant disregard for the expenses of the World Cup has seen Brazil plunged into social and political turmoil.

For the romantic, Brazil is a worthy venue for the World Cup. The country whose history is synonymous with footballing success appeared the ideal candidate. Brazil has one of the fastest growing economies in the world and it was thought a mega sporting event could accelerate social and economic development as well modernise its image in global society. So surely the people of this football mad nation are delighted to have the World Cup. Not quite.

Confederations Cup Protests (Photo from ukzambians.co.uk

Confederations Cup Protests (Photo from ukzambians.co.uk

Fundamentally this is due to the tournaments expenses. It is estimated that the Brazilian government will spend over £2 billion on stadiums alone and the overall costs could exceed £9 billion. A vast majority of this money is said to be coming from public expenditure. So while Brazil’s education and health services are deplorable and millions struggle to get by, the government are accused of being more concerned with preparing for the World Cup. In truth there still remains gross inequalities within Brazil and this melting pot of social problems came to a head during this year’s Confederations Cup in June. Hundreds of thousands of Brazilians took to the streets in protest rallies which were sparked by a rise in bus fares. This malcontent soon grew to include a number of social issues and these concerns were mirrored by the former Brazilian striker Romario.

Once a World cup winner and now a Socialist Party politician, Romario has launched a stinging attack on government expenditure. In an interview with the Mail on Sunday he stated:

“Our hospitals and schools are underfunded and there are huge social divisions, yet we are wasting billions of pounds of public money on mega-events starting with the World Cup”

Romario also lambasted his government’s relationship with FIFA:

“Our government should have recognised that the country should have given priority to health and education. The government should not have complied with the diktats of FIFA on stadiums, for example”. 

With teachers striking and thousands protesting the Brazilian police have resorted to the use of brutal tactics to quell unrest. When Brazil faced Spain in the final of the Confederations Cup on the 30th June, the streets outside the Maracana witnessed a face off between irate crowds and an uncompromising police force equipped with riot gear and the air choked with tear gas. Brazilian journalist and campaigner Afonso Morais has stated he expects demonstrations like this to flare up again during the World Cup next summer. Morais also claims much of the population’s anger is down to ex-president Lula da Silva and former head of the Brazilian FA Ricardo Teixeira, a man now disgraced and in the midst of tax and bribery scandals. Both had promised that the majority of the expenses would come from private funders. In reality this was a lie.

FIFA stands to make a staggering $4 Billion from the World Cup yet with the very real possibility of the event being marred by political protests there have been whisperings of regret. Speaking at the start of a two-day conference on sports, media and economy in Austria, Sepp Blatter commented on the political protests in the Confederations Cup:

“If this happens again we have to question whether we made the wrong decision awarding the hosting rights,”.

However he was quick to shirk responsibility and relinquish any blame that might be placed on FIFA.

“It’s not we who have to learn lessons from the protests in Brazil – politics in Brazil have to do that, FIFA cannot be held responsible.”

Romario former World Cup winner turned Brazilian politician (Photo from www.footballsmash.com

Romario former World Cup winner turned Brazilian politician (Photo from www.footballsmash.com

Furthermore FIFA have tried to assuage public discontent by stating that according to official Brazilian government data, public expenditure on both the World Cup and the Olympics amass to only 0.15 percent of Brazilian GDP from 2007 to 2016. Nonetheless the sceptics still remain. Romario’s final comments in his interview were to the point “The World Cup will not leave the legacy it should”. But again, apparently this is not FIFA’s problem. In an ESPN article by Tim Vickery (BBC’s South American correspondent) I read comments made by FIFA’s general secretary Jérôme Valcke. “One thing is the World Cup and another thing is the legacy, which is not the responsibility of FIFA”. So if the political protests which have arisen as a result of expenditure on the World Cup aren’t their responsibility, and the legacy (a key reason for nations hosting a World Cup) is also not their responsibility, then what is?

Unfortunately the World Cup in Brazil has, thus far, proved to be a poisoned chalice exemplified by a conflict of interest. FIFA’s primary concern obviously lies in ensuring Brazil host a successful World Cup , generates revenue and takes place without incident. The Brazilian government is keen to showcase their development and create a legacy which will guarantee a prosperous future (although with the ongoing stadium saga they may be content with, quite simply, not cocking it up). And the Brazilian people, well of course they would love to enjoy this footballing fiesta but not at the expense of their quality of life.

On the one hand I am behind FIFA’s attempt to distribute hosting rights among developing countries. However with this in mind, once FIFA have awarded the World Cup they cannot simply wash their hands of any social or political fallout. I am no expert and at this point in time cannot offer any concrete solutions. But let’s not make this mistake again and again. Indeed Qatar is evidence that FIFA have just done that, not least because they seem to have forgotten a Qatari summer is…. HOT!

There aren’t may who are privy to FIFA’s deliberations but it seems that football’s international body must be more meticulous when exploring the ramifications for a nation’s bid. That said out of this maelstrom comes a glimmer of hope. Mega sporting events such as the World Cup bring global attention to social inequities about which we are often profoundly naïve.  One can only hope they will not be suffocated by FIFA’s bland utterances.

12/1/13

Abuse, Heysel, Hillsborough….Where do we draw the line?

The atmosphere will be one of juvenile enthusiasm in the Juventus Stadium on Sunday night with 12,100 children expected to attend the game against Udinese. They will fill the void left by the Ultras after the Italian football association (FIGC) closed both Curva to Juventus fans who were found guilty of discriminatory chanting in their 3-0 win against Napoli last month. This prompted the club to launch the initiative “Gioca Con Me…Tifa Con Me” – “Play with me…Support with me” which has seen the stands opened to children aged 6-13 across the Piedmont region.

Having already written about the issue of territorial discrimination I was interested in Juventus coach Antonio Conte’s comments in his press conference ahead of tonight’s clash.

“There are equally serious incidents that should bring to equally strong sanctions, for example when opposition fans insult the dead at Heysel or Superga,”  

While acknowledging discrimination must be dealt with Conte was keen to point out that other abusive chants often go unpunished.

“These chants (of discrimination) are ugly and should be condemned, but so should insults towards the dead or fans who demolish the inside of stadiums.”

superga air disaster (Photo from deicinginnovations.com)

Superga air disaster which wiped out the Torino team of 1949 (Photo from deicinginnovations.com)

Conte has a point. Where do we draw the line when it comes to the nuances of abusive and discriminatory chants? While the FIGC has become embroiled in their attempts to clamp down on territorial discrimination, chants that abuse or mock football related disasters have slipped under the radar. So if its not Napoli Cholera its Torino Superga. The two Turin clubs have often been on the wrong end of chants which mock both the Superga air crash and the Heysel disaster. In fact Juventus and Torino fans can sometimes be the prime culprits!

The same can be said in England. In recent months we have seen the FA try and clarify some of the ambiguity surrounding the use of the term ‘Yid’. This has seen Tottenham fans defy both the FA and the police. Similar to the stance taken by Italian Ultras on territorial discrimination, many Spurs fans feel it is their right to chant a word which they have coined as a form of identity and defiance against those who taunt them for the clubs links with the Jewish community. It is a complex and emotive issue. Yet this does not mean other abusive chants should be ‘swept under the carpet’.

Liverpool vs. Manchester United is one of England’s most celebrated rivalries. It is a volatile fixture which has at times brought out the demon in rival fans.

Who’s that lying on the ruuunway?Who’s that lying in the snow?It’s Matt Busby and the boys, making all the fucking noise,cause they couldn’t get the aeroplane to go! 

(Liverpool fans vs Manchester United, Munich air disaster)

Ohh, I wish it could be Hillsborough everydaaaaay, where the fans start swinging and the fence begins to swaaaaaay! 
Ohh, I wish it could be hillsborough everydaaaaay,where they rob dead bodies and the fans refuse to paaaaaaay!

(Manchester United fans vs Liverpool, Hillsborough disaster)

Liverpool fans display about Hillsborough (Photo from talkchill.blogspot.com

Liverpool fans choreograph display about Hillsborough (Photo from talkchill.blogspot.com

Two such examples have been chanted in the past by what must be said, is only a minority of Liverpool and Manchester United fans. Nevertheless these are  inhumane chants which, like discrimination, have no place in the game. While we are all in accordance that football’s governing bodies must do their utmost to eradicate racism and discrimination it is important for them not to become blinkered.

When looking at the definition of discrimination these chants do not strictly fall under the blanket of unjust prejudicial treatment of people based on their race, age, sex, gender or faith. However they border on inciting irrational hatred and show a worrying lack of empathy to both the victims and families involved.

This is what Antonio Conte was touching on. While chants in Italy such as “Vesuvio Facci Sognare” – “Vesuvio make us dream” (a reference to Vesuvio volcano erupting and destroying Naples) are labelled discrimination, abusive chants about Superga and Heysel go largely unpunished.

But is there really a difference between the two? If the FIGC are going to enforce draconian punishment on territorial discrimination then they should surely consider similar measures for abusive chants regarding football related disasters. In fact given that territorial discrimination is an issue rooted in Italian history and culture, I’d argue that the FIGC would find it easier to tackle the latter.

This begs a similar question in England. Why have the FA not done more to clamp down on chants regarding Hillsborough and Munich? It is not about prioritising one issue over another, it is about preserving the integrity of the game. There is a fine line when it comes to the raucous voice of the football stadium however taunts aimed at such tragedies overstep this line.

I am by no means suggesting punishment for all abusive chants. It would not only be absurd but it would also detract from the rivalries and sprezzatura which make football atmospheres unique. But is it so ludicrous to suggest that distasteful chants about Heysel, Munich and the like should be given equal scrutiny by footballs governing bodies?