Time for some objective reporting and punditry

ANYONE who saw the post-match bun-fight that went on after Manchester City had just beaten neighbours United at Old Trafford witnessed a group of experienced former players desperately trying to say it how it is without saying how it is.

Roy Keane, fidgeting a little uncomfortably, shaking his head and biting his tongue, finally let slip by suggesting somebody was an idiot. At the same time, the others were looking at the record of United and, if it had been anyone other than Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, would have been suggesting the manager’s time was up. There were hints that they all knew it was 11.59pm for the Norwegian, but nobody wanted to say it was really close to midnight.

Football, for all its globalisation, is still a small country, hence the pundit community bumps into each other all the time. How would Gary Neville, for example, feel about coming face-to-face with Solskjaer when the former “baby-faced assassin” is finally sacked? It is going to happen, it may happen very soon, for everyone is singing the same song – “this just isn’t good enough for Manchester United”. And by the way, the singers include a fat lady strolling the streets of Salford.

Legions

This is the problem when TV broadcasters insist on hiring a legion of former Liverpool and Manchester United pundits to discuss the games. There cannot possibly be objective commentary when a player has played 500 games for Liverpool and is watching the club that undoubtedly still welcomes him with open arms, possibly giving him an ambassadorial role and access to the key figures behind the scenes.

Rarely do these people offer constructive criticism, unless they are Graeme Souness or the highly entertaining Keane. Solskjaer is a classic case, he has been under scrutiny since day one, usually by people who were once lining-up alongside him. Management is a poison challis, but the Manchester United job, if not executed correctly, can be at best a hindranxce and at worst, the destroyer of careers.

Managers that have become part of a club’s story as players, achieving that overused and inappropriate tag, “legend”, should perhaps be avoided as suitable candidates. It simply doesn’t always work, if only because when the time comes to sack that legendary name, nobody wants to do it.  

For example, Frank Lampard at Chelsea was a rude awakening for a much-loved player who was given a job really made for a more experienced head. There’s no way Lampard and Chelsea won’t be friends going forward, but some managers can become very bitter about the end of a relationship. One former manager who had won England caps but failed miserably as a manager, told me: “One thing is certain, we all get the sack. We can all be the greatest people on earth, all enjoy each other’s company, but when it comes down to it, results determine whether the relationship goes on. The last thing a manager should do is interpret getting the sack as a personal thing.”

When Glenn Hoddle took the Spurs job, many felt it was a marriage made in heaven, but it was something a let-down. Andrea Pirlo of Juventus was another disappointing appointment. Others, such as Howard Kendall (Everton), Kenny Dalglish (Liverpool), Zinedine Zidane (Real Madrid) and Pep Guardiola (Barcelona) were all almost instant successes. 

Valuable

The TV companies, and you could extend this to match reporting, need to think twice about engaging committed former players or fans to report on a team. They don’t want to upset their pals and they don’t want to look bad with their old fans. Likewise, regular reporters of local clubs are almost obliged to be sympathetic and frequently use terms like “unlucky”, “brave” and “committed” to describe a setback, whereas straight to the point descriptions such as “poor”, “ineffective”, “effortless” or “lacking” are avoided for fear of offending. They know they won’t get access to club insights if they tell the truth and today, a football writer can get come face-to-face with a lynch-mob on social media if the fans are upset. Yet the most incisive and valuable reporting is often made by the neutral observer, not the die-hard fan that has the club in his or her DNA.

There are still some very partisan reporters out there, many of whom are more interested in building their personal brands via social media rather than producing captivating copy. Punters do not want to know about a reporter’s back story, personal experience or education, they want them to be wordsmiths telling a compelling story about the game.

Perhaps it is time for media companies to adopt some aspect of neutrality when it comes to assigning pundits and reporters to games. There’s enough of them around to provide more objective coverage rather than former pros of the clubs involved in a specific game. Will it happen? Of course not!

Tinker, tailor, soldier, footballer – the Russia house has no smiley people

Photo: PA

HOW the US must be kicking themselves. They cannot boycott the World Cup because they didn’t qualify, but surely Donald Trump would just love to tell the world, “we’re not going” as the diplomatic arguments become more and more intense.

This World Cup is up to its neck in problems, but this could be the new normal for FIFA’s flagship competition. We’ve got Qatar 2022 around the corner and then the new, super-improved 2026, which will undoubtedly be awarded to the US, if only to prevent more US-led investigations into the inner-workings of FIFA.

But could 2018 be the beginning of the end for the World Cup? If there is a boycott, it will surely create a precedent that rolls on to 2022 and then 2026, Russia may decide to play “tit for tat” and not go to “United 2026” – if they qualify of course. It could be Olympics 1980 and 1984 all over again. And maybe goodbye World Cup?

Russia have wasted no time in declaring the whole debate as a “propagandist narrative” but in truth they have made it easy for the rest of the world to make a stand. It is likely, nevertheless, that this will be all about playground posturing, for Russia and the rest of Europe are too interconnected.

From a football perspective, Russian money is bankrolling a number of clubs and projects. Outside of Russia, Schalke 04 of Germany and Serbia’s Red Star Belgrade are both sponsored by Gazprom, the all-consuming energy giant. Gazprom is also a sponsor of the UEFA Champions League and an official partner of FIFA.  For a long time, the Disneyesque advertisements that used to bookend UEFA Champions League TV coverage gave the impression Gazprom was steeped in benevolence and smiling control room executives, yet it also seemed to imply a message of “piss us off and we’ll switch off the lights all over Europe”.  Gazprom is 50%-owned by the Russian government and accounted for around a third of Europe’s gas supply in 2016. Withdrawal of services could be catastrophic.

The economic stakes are higher than any football issues, and both are dwarfed by the cynical attack on Sergei Skripal. Indeed, the Guardian’s Barney Ronay makes a good point: “Sporting boycotts have had an effect but the world has changed. We are inextricably linked in so many ways. How absurd to boycott the World Cup when Russian money and influence is still utterly bound up in our economy, legal system and politics….Russian wealth, legitimate and occasionally questionable, is hungrily consumed by the great sluicing global laundry that is the London property market.”

Despite sanctions that have been in place, Russian trade with the UK has a healthy trajectory. In 2017, it was up by more than 28% the first half of the year.

Marriages of convenience should not get in the way of doing what is right, though. There is little doubt the Russian World Cup, something they’ve longed for, will be used as a huge PR exercise aimed at showing the planet that Putin and his acolytes are happy, song of joy-singing good guys waiting to welcome the world. It is debatable if it will get to that point should the current game of diplomatic table tennis continue. For example, Moscow has been threatening a blanket ban on every British news outlet if the UK revokes the license of RT, a channel that has been used regularly by certain British politicans. The BBC’s John Sweeney warned that, in an era of clever use of the media by Putin, “taking on the Kremlin” is a risky business, describing it as “a dark triangle”.

The British media has also reverted to Cold War rules in condemnation of all things Russian, painting the sort of imagery that was once a feature of the post-atomic world. The Daily Mirror’s suggestion that “if we don’t boycott the World Cup, England fans will almost certainly die in Russia” seems over-alarmist, although the appetite for a World Cup summer is lower than any previous competition since 1990. The first phase of ticket sales saw just 24,000 from the UK, around a quarter of the 2014 World Cup take-up at this stage. Compare that to 338,000 from Germany, 186,000 from Argentina and 154,000 from Mexico – the events of Euro 2016 and growing tension between the UK and Russia would seem to have discouraged a lot of people.

A recent poll seeking views on whether England should stay at home revealed that a third were in favour of pulling out, a very significant portion given the official line has always been to keep politics out of sport.

Still, the Russians believe there is a conspiracy in play. The Russian foreign ministry said the British have been “unable to forgive” Russia for winning the right to host the competition. The Moscow press warned some time ago that the West would launch an all-out campaign with the intention of discrediting Russia and undermining trust. They obviously hadn’t factored in the sort of incident we saw in Salisbury.

But it is not just England that is considering drastic action. Iceland, Denmark, Australia, Japan and Poland have all suggested that they would consider a boycott if England should pull out. Germany has rejected any involvement in a show of action – at the moment.

In the German media, the editor of Germany’s Bild newspaper, Joachim Reichelt, has stated his publication would support England should they go through with it. The former MD at Chelsea, in other words an ex-employee of Roman Abramovich, has called on France, Germany and Spain to join England in refusing to go to the World Cup. He claims this would hurt Putin’s popularity more than any economic or diplomatic sanctions. Labour MP, Chris Bryant was a very vocal advocate and claimed Putin would use the World Cup like Adolf Hitler exploited the 1936 Berlin Olympics. “Putin loves using these moments to glorify Russia,” he said.

But Rob Hughes, the former Times journalist now writing for the Straits Times, said “no British World Cup boycott can derail Putin’s dance with FIFA”. That may well be true, as Russia has so much tied-up in FIFA and world football.

Putin may well use the almost universal condemnation of Russia to create a siege mentality that unites the country against the west and builds-up the passion for a home team that will rank among the weakest in World Cup 2018. A partisan home crowd, such as those seen in Argentina 1978, can add goals to a team and help on that journey through a tournament.

What will actually happen? England will surely go to Russia and there will probably be no absentees, apart from those obvious non-qualifiers. But will it be the right thing to do? Pragmatism will surely win the day and the only way to come to terms with that is by removing the notion that this is Russia’s World Cup. The competition, whose lustre has undoubtedly been dulled by greed, over-expansion and media moguls, does not belong to Russia, it belongs to the whole football community. That shouldn’t stop gestures of contempt, displeasure and morality, but here’s one way to retain the dignity of the competition but still show Russia that we’re not happy. Once it is over, the world’s leading football nations should make their stand with FIFA. “We’ve kept your competition intact, now do something positive.” The fact is, if 2018 disintegrates, the World Cup will definitely be in its death throes, a spiral that will continue with the new-found trend of boycotting the party.