The Grey Neutral: Knees, Qatar and jobs

THERE’S no doubt the scenes witnessed in Budapest at the Hungary v England game were unacceptable and the outrage was warranted. But let’s think about this, can England look itself in the eye and claim racism isn’t a problem in the UK? No, absolutely not, which is why English footballers are taking the knee at every available opportunity – notably week-by-week in the domestic football. Not everyone agrees with the action, though. Rod Liddle, writing in the Times, said if England want to take an anti-racist stand, they should not go to the World Cup in Qatar. Liddle refers to the knee gesture as corporate virtue gesturing, and adds:  “The notion – advanced by some – that if you don’t take the knee, you’re a racist, is as obnoxious as it is inaccurate”. Interestingly, it is noticeable the TV and media seems to play down the amount of jeering that takes place at some grounds. Liddle goes further by claiming that if “England players really do mean something by that gesture, then how on earth are they going to take part in the World Cup finals?.” He points out there is perhaps no country on earth where people of colour get a rougher deal than in Qatar. The proper response is to refuse to attend, he says. We know that will not happen as football has a habit of shelving its morals when it is convenient to do so.

The sportswashing World Cup

They say that the world has enough oil for 50 years, so the future of oil rich states will be under threat at some point. The World Cup is part of a project that aims to reduce Qatar’s dependence on oil and diversify its economy. The cynics might suggest that Qatar are merely “sportswashing”, which effectively cleanses the country’s reputation and covers-up a whole catalogue of sins, such as human and LGBTG rights. This practice has been going on for decades – you can go back to the 1936 Olympics for an early example of how a regime uses sport to try and improve its image. Although lots of undesirable things were covered up in the Berlin games, nobody was completely fooled. And then there was the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, which was going to be played against a very bleak background. Moscow 2018 was supposed to be similar but somehow, Russia pulled it off. We know too much about Qatar, and we don’t know enough, but the fact remains, this is an unsuitable venue.

Ban them – it’s simple

Returning to the subject of racism and those Hungarian fans. While punishments from UEFA and FIFA seem to be quite toothless, perhaps it is time for countries to boycott or introduce sanctions against countries that are unwelcoming to their teams and fans. Banning countries from the World Cup and European Championship, as well as club competitions, would surely be far more effective. It is time to get tough rather than showing disapproval through very benign gestures. Conversely, Refusing to play an opponent that harbours racists, bigots and right-wing thugs would send a very strong message.

Jobs for the boys

Being a Premier League manager is a perilous job. Expectations are high and mostly unrealistic. How many Premier League managers have won silverware of any kind when managing an English club? The answer is just six: Mikel Arteta, Rafa Benitez, Thomas Tuchel, Brendan Rodgers, Jürgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola. Who has the best win rate among Premier managers? Guardiola with 73.13% before the season started. The longest serving manager in the top flight is Sean Dyche (36.8% win rate), who took over Burnley in 2012. On the subject of win rates, Mikel Arteta, the current holder of the “one defeat and he’s out” trophy, has won 51.1% of games since he took on the Arsenal job. The Gunners face Norwich at home next, the latest vital game in Arteta’s short managerial career.

Other games to watch this week: Leipzig v Bayern; Napoli v Juve; Sporting v Porto, Leeds v Liverpool; Hearts v Hibs, Marseille v Saint-Etienne.

Photo: Doha Stadium Plus Qatar, via Flickr CC-BY-2.0

Cambridge Utd’s authenticity is a world away from Messi & Ronaldo

OLD SCHOOL ground it may be, but Cambridge United’s Abbey Stadium evokes the spirit of BBC Sports Report, rattles and swaying terraces. It can also be a raucous place at times, but the atmosphere is everything you’d want from a football match, far more compelling than many supressed venues you find in the modern game.

Although it is not, in any way, a football hotbed, the city has played its part in the history of the game – the first rules were formulated in 1848 in Cambridge and on Parker’s Piece, a statue created by two artists, Neville Gabie and Alan Ward, was unveiled a few years ago to mark the achievement.

You might think the club should benefit from the presence of two universities in the city and 22,000 students. But having so many young people in your population doesn’t guarantee instant support, as many clubs around seats of learning have discovered. There are many distractions in Cambridge, not least the many bars and restaurants that proliferate the city. They’ve even got them right outside the railway station now, a pleasing recent development that provides a warmer welcome for people arriving in Cambridge.

Cambridge United are on the up at the moment in terms of their playing fortunes, having won promotion to League One in 2020-21 by finishing runners-up to Cheltenham Town in League Two. The 2021-22 season is their first at this level in 19 years and has continued the club’s upward trajectory after they fell out of the Football League in 2005 and spent nine years in non-league football.

On the financial front, the club, like so many others, has been badly hit by the cost of the pandemic. In fact, additional investment from the owners was needed to ensure the sustainability of Cambridge United, around £ 1 million being injected into the club. 

Cambridge were hosting unbeaten Bolton Wanderers on the last Saturday in August – autumn was beckoning. Bolton brought with them a healthy travelling continent, but then they are a relatively sizeable club at League One level. This made for a good atmosphere inside the stadium and a healthy crowd of over 6,000.

It was a lively game and Cambridge scored what proved to be the winner in the 16th minute, a well-taken effort from winger Shilow Tracey, who netted his first goal since joining the club permanently from Tottenham in the summer. Bolton had three quarters of the possession, but their shooting was appalling and they could only manage one on-target effort. “It’s a long way to travel home after a defeat,” moaned the Bolton fans as they queued to get out of the stadium down the narrow pathway between ground and neighbouring houses.

What’s not to like about a trip to Cambridge? But those that have never been should do so now – you never know when a ground like the Abbey Stadium will disappear, and the club has said the long-term survival of the U’s does depend on a new ground. GOTP is returning in a couple of weeks.

Messi – emotional rescue

Lionel Messi’s arrival in Paris has captured the imagination of the French capital’s football fans, but even for a club used to short-termism, the expensive capture of a 34 year-old is an example of instant gratification. PSG want that Champions League trophy and they clearly don’t care how they do it. But is Paris the right place for a character like Messi? He has been in the somewhat rarified world of Barcelona since he was a child, it has been his home, his employer, his emotional crutch and his extended family. Messi is different than the travelling show that Cristiano Ronaldo has become. You rarely hear Messi speak, he’s very private, always looks like he’s in something of a daydream until he gets the ball at his feet. Now he’s in a city where he’s a stranger and he’s surely dying to get a few games and goals under his belt. It is by no means a certainty that Messi and PSG will be a successful fit. Footballing-wise, it will be fine, more than fine, in fact. But will Messi be happy?

Ronaldo – waiting on a friend

And so, we move on to CR7 or the playing formerly known as CR7. Manchester United feel they have pulled off a coup in signing him. Is that how they should be feeling? First of all, Ronaldo’s bucket list of possible new employers was always going to be quite small – quite simply, there are only a handful of clubs who could afford him. He’s 36 and an investment in a player of that age, regardless of his superstar status, is a risk. Injuries at that age take a long time to clear up and can have a longer-term impact. From a publicity perspective, the club will benefit hugely from his return to Old Trafford, but it is likely that the move will do more for Ronaldo than it will United. Why is a club of United’s standing positioning the second coming of Ronaldo as a gift from God? This is the sort of move that a lower level club makes when a former hero returns home at the end of his career. OK, it’s Ronaldo, and he’s still got dynamite in his boots, but will the Premier League prove too much for him? With the greatest respect to Italy, where he scored 101 goals in 134 games, he’s moving into a more demanding environment. If nothing else, it is going to be fun and who knows, maybe Ronaldo is about to write another stunning chapter?

Arteta – it’s all over now

Arsenal bottom of the league and still without a goal. The decline of the club continues but most people are aware of the solutions. But here’s the rub; the transfer window is ending and they’ve already spent big, the season has started and the Gunners are already nine points behind Spurs, who are top. Only three games have gone, but Mikel Arteta will be judged over 20 months and frankly, Arsenal’s fall from Champions League contenders to European exiles (with began before Arteta was hired) is startling for a club of their size. Actually, it isn’t all Arteta’s fault – Arsenal went bold in bringing in Unai Emery. but that didn’t appear to work (in hindsight, did they sack him too soon?), so they went even bolder by installing an untried protégé of Pep Guardiola. Their transfer market activity has been poor, the real villains could be those that identify players, and the owner fails to connect with the fans. Arsenal will recover, but they need vision, genuine courage and top-class hirings.