Wearing football shirts – why?

A FEW years ago, my wife and I were at a game in Prague, at the very atmospheric Bohemians stadium, with the famous Mr Panenka sitting high in the stand. The opposition fans were in full voice but most were as naked from the waist upwards as Vladimir Putin on his horse. You could almost smell the testosterone as the bald, stout gang of ultras demonstrated their masculinity in the autumn wind. “Why?”, I asked, shivering away as the trams whirred past the ground. “Perhaps their football shirts don’t fit, so they just strip off?”, replied my wife, tongue-in-cheek.

It was a good point, because at virtually every football ground around Europe, beer-bellies and bald heads squeeze into football shirts, testing the resistance of the fabric and making thin-stripes instantly into broad stripes.

One might say the replica shirt is a garment that makes us all equal, that it introduces a form of democracy to the football experience, but nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is, football shirts are for the young, they are the costumes in a costume drama. But somehow, the act of putting on a football shirt creates a form of sporting “Dad’s Army” out of most of us.

It is understandable that fans want to show their allegiance, but wearing a football shirt is, if you think about it, vaguely comical. You are basically wearing the uniform of the footballer, a fit, nimble picture of vitality. We all want to turn back time and defy the ageing process, but dressing like a 22 year-old is not necessarily the best way to show that you’re still relevant.

Indeed, when you look at the ways in which designers are decimating club colours, from what resembles blood-splattered away kits to the hideous new kits that include the name of the club and no crest, why would you want to give credibility to some truly awful creations? And then, of course, there’s the unflattering fabrics, showing every hill and vale of the body. Still want to wear that Liverpool third kit?

There’s a moral issue aswell, notably the source of the shirts themselves. Are they created in small sweat-shops in places like Cambodia, Indonesia or China? Are they products of cheap, explotive labour? Most people don’t want to know, but in this era of visible displays of social responsibility by football, shouldn’t we want to be aware of how these products are put together?

Maybe it is time for a kit manufacturer to come up with something very innovative and sensible – the plain blue or red shirt. With more and more people trying to adopt a more simplistic lifestyle, embracing minimalism and basic principles, how wonderful would the plain shirt look in the TV interference that is shirt design? The most iconic strips of all time have included the all-white Real Madrid kit, the Arsenal red with white sleeves, Inter Milan’s blue and black stripes and Brazil’s yellow, among others. I would certainly applaud any kit company that pushes aside the nonsense and says, “here we are, our new look – blue and white (red and white)”. Forget the graffiti, the splashes and the delicate shades, let’s really bring back club identity.

It is quite possible kit producers deliberately make their latest offerings as complex as possible, firstly to justify marketing another shirt for each club and secondly to make counterfeits more difficult to make. The latter is understandable and we have to accept that for clubs, shirt sales are an important part of their commercial activities.

The fans complain about “another shirt for Manchester United”, but they still buy them and queue up to get the latest abomination. In other words, they continue to feed the beast, laying out large sums of money to ensure they remain on trend.

But is it really important? If you want to show allegiance, buy a scarf or a badge. Not convinced? Next time you put on a replica shirt, take a look at yourself in a full-length mirror. Ask yourself which part of your torso looks big in this and I would wager you will be tempted to put that shirt back in the drawer. I know, I’ve tried it.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of Football Weekends.

Grand design stadiums are fine, but what about the neighbours?

THE INFORMATION emerging from the Champions League final debacle becomes more revealing and disturbing by the day. As well as images of extraordinarily bad behaviour from the French police, there are stories of local gangs attacking both Liverpool and Real Madrid fans. So distressed were some Liverpool fans they have vowed never to follow their side abroad, and let’s not forget this is a club of passionate followers. The Stade de France may be a landmark stadium, but its location and surrounding infrastructure surely has to be questioned after such a shambolic evening.

Former Arsenal and France striker Thierry Henry did actually warn people about Saint-Denis, saying “you don’t want to go there” to a US journalist. It’s not the first time people have remarked on the perils of the neighbourhood, indeed, if you wanted further evidence, in the aftermath of the game, reporters were hassled by groups of young boys live on TV.

But more importantly, and more worrying, was the antics of large groups of youths assaulting Liverpool fans, despite the presence of thousands of people and a large police presence, who seemed unwilling to help.

The ramifications of this disastrous night for UEFA, for France and for the concept of pan-European club competition could be very significant. It also destroyed Emmanuel Macron’s aim of showcasing France’s ability to organise major sports events ahead of the 2024 Olympics.

One would hope UEFA will not use Stade de France for any future major finals and would deem the venue, in its current form, unsuitable for large groups of visiting fans. Why? Because spectator safety goes beyond what happens in the stadium and as hosts, French authorities have a responsibility to ensure visitors are safe. It’s surely a public order issue? The stadium itself may be fine, but clearly Saint-Denis is a place to be avoided.

Before anyone protests that what happens outside the location is not necessarily connected to the event, then think again. If this was a political summit, attended by VIPs, you would assume the police and emergency services would be on red alert. The hordes of “undesirables” would be kept well away from the venue, with an overbearing police presence and surveillance of potential flashpoints. Saint-Denis is renowned for its crime rate – among the highest in Europe, certainly in France – so surely the police were aware that football fans with money, mobile phones and other valuables would be a target of roaming and organised thieves? It is also an area with a high degree of poverty.

UEFA has to be more discerning about the choice of final venues. In the past 20 years, we have seen problems in Moscow where English fans were exploited by hotels and other businesses at the Champions League final and also the ludicrous situation where Arsenal and Chelsea played the Europa League final in, of all places, Baku. UEFA has to realise big cities with big stadiums are not necessarily the optimal sites for every cup final for a number of reasons – ranging from personal safety to logistics and economics.

We have to get away from the tactic of treating fans like cattle because, quite simply, it is dangerous, anti-social and downright insulting. Have we not moved on?

The problem and the questions should go far deeper about the suitability of certain neighbourhoods for big occasion sport. When new stadiums are being planned, how often do the companies involved, be they architects, town planners, accountants and financiers, consider the suitability of the local environment from the perspective of people?

It’s great placing a shining new structure in an available plot, but does anyone calculate how 30,000 – 40,000 people arriving in the vicinity will affect local people and how will an area of high crime and social problems impact on a mass crowd? There’s a similar comparison in London in the form of Tottenham’s magnificent new ground, which sits in one of London’s poorest boroughs with a crime rate among the 10 highest in the city.

It is a truly remarkable construct, but it is surrounded by poverty, shabby retail outlets and down-trodden estates. It is not difficult to imagine some resentment stirring, although the club and those responsible for the building of the 60,000 stadium hoped its arrival would be the catalyst for regeneration.

There is another aspect to consider. Ever since UEFA (and FIFA) introduced their “fan parks”, the movement of supporters may have increased substantially. According to some reports, there were 150,000 Liverpool fans in Paris for the final, the majority of which has absolutely no chance of getting a ticket. Perhaps the idea of attracting greater numbers to be part of the occasion has created an unintended consequence? UEFA has to dispense with the idea of exploiting the occasion in favour of what is realistically achievable.

Inner city stadiums became very passé in the 1990s and the logical thing for football clubs to do was sell their grounds for a handsome profit to developers and move to an out-of-town or less expensive site. In the UK, this has proven to be quite successful, even though supporters are often dragged out of the ancestral home kicking and screaming. But while transport links are uppermost in the developer’s mind, there surely has to be a discussion around security. Saint-Denis may not be typical of many major stadiums in continental Europe, but it would appear to be unwelcoming for vast crowds of visiting fans. Furthermore, we have to get away from the tactic of treating fans like cattle because, quite simply, it is dangerous, anti-social and downright insulting. Have we not moved on from the days when supporters were treated with disdain by police?

UEFA has apologised to Liverpool and Real Madrid fans, but the French authorities remain stubbornly in denial, about what happened and also about their own rising crime rate. UEFA’s response should be a [temporary] ban on French football grounds staging finals as a neutral host. The Champions League final has shown they are reluctant to be accountable for what goes on under their jurisdiction. As for stadium builders, there must be some lessons to be learned from May 28 2022.

UEFA Champions League: A Real mess for Liverpool

REAL MADRID attract major trophies just as Liverpool seem to court drama and controversy. There’s no denying the French police handled the event abysmally, clumsily responding to an incident that was partly their own making and treating Liverpool’s fans with disdain and strong-arm aggression. In the circumstances, it’s no surprise that these events overshadowed the triumph of the Spanish champions.

Likewise, if the problem was also caused by fake tickets, and there were allegedly ticket touts roaming around London St. Pancras, then greater control has to be exerted. I spoke to Liverpool fans at the station who were going to Paris without a ticket just to be there. Who can blame them?

Denis, Denis…

If UEFA had any teeth, they would not consider the Stade de France for future finals, even though Paris is the spiritual home of the European Cup. Saint-Denis is not an ideal place to welcome 75,000 people, if only because the crime rate is far higher than the national average in France. Perhaps that’s why the local police were quick to introduce a chemical response.

The truth will emerge in the weeks ahead, but it was obvious that, given the easy accessibility of Paris, there was always going to be a mass movement of Liverpool fans for this game. Some people believe we are still in the 1980s, that all British football fans are violent. Unfortunately, the anarchy at the European Championship final undid a lot of the fine work over the previous two decades and once more, continental Europe perceived the English as feral hooligans. How much of that sentiment drove the behaviour of the French authorities?

There have been attempts to simply blame Liverpool fans for the debacle, but at St. Pancras the lengthy queues included the very old and very young, expectant, hopeful supporters waiting to board their train. Given the huge numbers, it was inevitable that some would be unruly, no matter which club they followed. I was in Stockholm in 2017 for the Europa Final and I witnessed some bad behaviour from Manchester United fans and in Paris a few years ago, Chelsea fans were filmed abusing locals. Big crowds have a higher percentage of those willing to step over the line.

Criticism of Liverpool fans invariably gets interpreted as criticism of Liverpool the city. Football is so vital to the city for its escapism and source of local pride, but the rest of the country doesn’t really understand so this intensity is often used as a stick to beat Liverpool on the head.

Skysportsism

Did Liverpool really think the quadruple was on? Did they truly target four trophies? It would seem unlikely anyone was seriously contemplating winning the lot, mostly because to win everything, you have to beat teams who are similarly focused on those prizes, namely, Manchester City and Real Madrid. Jürgen Klopp is too professional to do anything but adopt the age-old cliché: “We take each game as it comes”. The pursuit of four cups made for a good “skysportsism” and helped the bookies cash-in on the run-in to the end of the campaign, and that was it.

Liverpool had a great season, but their margin of success was as narrow as any margin of defeat. Their two cup victories were achieved on penalties, that most unsatisfactory method of success. Two 0-0 draws against Chelsea that could so easily have gone the other way. They lost the league by one point and the Champions League by a single goal. Liverpool played with a flamboyance that has, arguably, exhausted them, but City still topped the table. Real Madrid, a team nobody really considered as potential champions, managed by a coach that was supposed to be past his best, controlled Liverpool like no other opponent in 2021-22. For all their pressure and possession, it never looked as though Klopp’s men would ever equalise.

Twin peaks?

Klopp was understandably distraught, the peak of his trademark cap pulled down to shield his eyes, but predicted Liverpool would be back, joking that fans should book their hotels for Istanbul in 2023. But was this season the peak of this Liverpool, indeed both teams? For Real this is more understandable as they have a host of key players at the veteran stage of their careers. For Liverpool, they have pushed Manchester City for four years, closing the gap between the two clubs, but with City already reinforcing their squad, the task will arguably get even harder. Between them, they have won over 70% of their league games over five years. They have scored over 900 league goals in that time.

Liverpool’s dynamic forward line of Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané has arguably played its last game for the club. This trio have scored 58% of Liverpool’s Premier League goals over five years, although the ratio dropped significantly in 2021-22.

Salah has said he’s staying at Anfield for next season, but his contract expires in June 2023. In other words, unless he signs a new deal, Salah will be running-off his contract and Liverpool will not get a handsome fee. Firmino is also looking to leave and Mané seems bound for Bayern Munich. All three players are either 30 or a fortnight off that landmark. Admittedly, Liverpool have options in Diogo Jota and Luis Diaz, but can they cope with losing Salah?

Real have been putting off their rebuilding, although there have been changes in recent years. But surely, this time, the team has achieved all that it can? Real have won five Champions Leagues since 2014 with teams that were not exactly trendsetters or great innovators. Some of their five victories, such as 2022 and 2016, were not especially convincing and generally, sceptics consider Real have come through the competition because of their wealth and size. It’s hard to be critical, because five is five after all, and Champions League winners come in different shapes and sizes and not always representative of the current hierarchy. It is, in its final stages, a knockout tournament.

You only need look at their path to glory and the opponents they have beaten: PSG, Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool. If a team beats rivals of these quality, they are deserved winners. Ultimately, the reason there has been a collective shrug of the shoulder is because it feels like the same old song. Real Madrid, champions of Europe. It has happened 14 times.