Thursday, June 02, 2011

England and Scotland fail to splatter Blatter

Like EastEnders or Coronation Street going on a summer break to Spain, Blackpool or Ireland, the footballing soap opera has upped sticks for the summer.

A cast of thousands, a few suitably over the top villians, a couple of unlikely characters attempting to play the hero and subplots aplenty.

It's been fun and games at Fifa's navel gazing jamboree in Zurich this week. Sepp Blatter, revelling in winning an election against no other candidates, even went out of his way to show Tom Lehrer had greatly exaggerated the death of satire.

It hadn't died when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize after all. To prove it here was Blatter anointing Kissinger as the leading player in the committee charged with ridding Fifa of the stench of corruption that has smothered its reputation of late.

Who among us did not guess that this unwieldy organisation was corrupt, corrupt to the tips of its toes? And who didn't expect that Blatter, the man who has made the governing body rich, would get the support of world football's gravy train blazerati?

As chance would have it I was flicking through a a 1958 copy of Billy Wright's World of Soccer recently.

Billy, or his uncredited ghost writer, muses quite frequently on the international game:

"Football is now the 'World Game.' After playing soccer, too, in forty countries, I also realise that it has become an international language; a language of friendship and goodwill.

"I've be lucky in going on tour with England to so many places - especially to South America... - but above all else I'm proud to have so often been a member of the Football Association Party. The FA, you see, stands for all that is good in world sport. It has set a standard which others have in every way been proud to follow..."

What would he make of the 'world game' today? Reviled, discredited and run by a collection of thieves and bandits.

No doubt the English FA are this week proud that they are upholding the tradition Billy was so keen to celebrate.

Would we have heard a whimper from them if England had actually won the right to host the 2018 World Cup?

Seems to me the FA weren't so keen to blow the lid off Fifa's rotten core when the riches of the tournament were on offer. Not only were they prepared to dance with the devil, they were naive enough to think that waltzing with David Beckham, a Prime Minister and a future king would be enough to seal the deal.

That and the promise of the odd friendly, the sprinkling of riches brought by association with England's multi-millionaires being in its own way 30 pieces of silver in return for support.

Our very own SFA have been among the few nations prepared to back England's Axis of Virtue.

Little wonder they feel the right to preach the gospel of truth, fair play and transparency in this season of delight for Scottish football.

There is, of course, a different level to the corruption allegations currently being hurled at football's top table.

But a look at our own associations - the championing of an amateur management culture in a highly professional sport, the apparently effortless move through the ranks of people unsuited to the job - suggests that this level of incompetence writ large on a world stage was always likely to end up with the sorry mess that has unfolded recently.

It seems typical, in fact, that the SFA's principled stand has been pretty much ignored by what might laughably be called Fifa's leading lights who have chosen instead to concentrate their attacks on the English FA. We're now so marginalised that our dissent need not even be tackled.

There might still be time for reprisals though.

The most likely consequence, unless - and we shouldn't discount this possibility - bridges are cravenly built on both sides, is the loss of the Home Nations' key privileges.

England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales have enjoyed their own Fifa vice-president and powerful voices on the international FA board for over sixty years. That could soon come under threat.

That exalted position is often seen as a nod to our historical role in developing the game and exporting it to the world. In fact we were awarded special status to get us on board with the international game after World War Two. There's a history of Fifa giving and accepting "favours" that we've not always been afraid to use to our advantage.

There seems less risk to the independent footballing status of the four home nations. These recent controversies will now get wrapped up with the apparently never ending discussion of a joint British Olympic team.

But it seems to me that to act against the four countries would open up another deal of trouble for Blatter. It would undoubtedly drag Fifa into some sort of confrontation with Uefa and European football's top man, Michel Platini.

Platini has been name checked as the white knight to sort out this unholy football shambles. But he's left his steed in the stable.

Perhaps because he's playing a long game. A four year game that will end in the Fifa presidency in 2015. We'll see. Purer he might be but Platini, despite his protestations, is now a politician to his soul, every inch the strategist and courter of alliances that Blatter has been.

Certainly we have to conclude that neither Platini nor Blatter want to be trapped in a controversy over the fate of the English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish right now.

And there is another compelling reason for them to avoid that.

The same reason that the FA will stay exactly where they are, anguished, humiliated and beaten. But still part of Blatter's "football family."

Expulsions or breakaways would destabilise world football. That would create a power vacuum.

It's likely that certain club sides would move quickly to fill that vacuum, grab it eagerly while Platini, author of financial fair play regulations, and Blatter, holder of the key to global riches, are distracted. Whatever else Blatter might be, we have to surmise that he did not haul himself from PR supremo of a minor Swiss tourist resort to the dictator of world football by being a complete fool.

In his last stretch as president, in his mid seventies, his thoughts must surely turn to salvaging a legacy. The idea of being the man who killed international football will not appeal.

Will anything change in the next four years? Probably very little.

But this current crisis has been years, decades, in the making. The recent outrage, the scrabbling to screech from the moral highground, has been badly timed, ill prepared and poorly executed.

However honourable the intention it seems to have only entrenched the current regime and will now almost certainly lead to Fifa's own investigation being an act of Blatter-ist cosmetics.

Cackhanded and ineffectual. It wouldn't require much of a TV scriptwriter to work out exactly this story arc the moment the English and Scottish assocations got together as an inglorious crime fighting duo.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Salmond, Scotland and Sectarianism

I always get slightly concerned when politicians start promising they will fast track or speed through new legislation.

Making a law - and I mean making it, drafting it, ensuring it is an informed and workable piece of legislation - should not be a process that can be easily bypassed.

The kneejerk, easy fix solution is beloved of politicians because the only real dialogue it involves is the media soundbite that is now their sole means of communication.

But it rarely leads to long-term solutions.

So I'm cynical about the Scottish Government's latest proposals for new sectarian laws.

Here's a snippet of Alex Salmond this week:

"In the age of Twitter and texts, the dreams of a free-speaking world are contaminated by strains of bitterness. 
"Technology has given fresh energy to old hatreds and viral sectarianism again seeps across our land." 
"It will be stopped. I will not have people living in fear of some idiotic 17th-century rivalry in the 21st century. 
"Sectarianism travels at least in part hand in hand with another scourge of our safety and happiness — the booze culture. 
"Thus the first legislation this parliament will see in this term shall address bigotry and booze."

Booze and bigotry. Twin blights on modern Scotland.

Salmond has been consistent on the problems of our "booze culture" and his new parliamentary majority now gives him the latitude to enact laws that oppositions politicians stymied before the election.

On bigotry he's been less sure footed. The SNP actually seem quite muted in their defence against claims that they have stalled progress on Scotland's sectarian problem by failing to back initiatives started by Jack McConnell when he was First Minister.

That's important here not for political point scoring but because the actions McConnell's government were taking to look into sectarianism would have undoubtedly left the SNP's new found evangelicalism for legislation better informed and better prepared.

Here's Salmond explaining the new legislation:

"I am determined that the authorities have the powers they need to clamp down effectively on bigotry peddled online. The Internet is a force for good in so many ways – but it can also be abused by those who seek to spread hatred. That’s why the Scottish Government will bring forward legislation as soon as we can to make such online behaviour, including posts on sites like Facebook and Twitter, an indictable offence with a maximum punishment of five years in jail. 
"In addition, threatening and abusive behaviour inside a football ground would similarly become an indictable offence, again with prison sentences of up to five years available to the courts for anyone found guilty."

As the recent case of a footballer and a former Big Brother contestant shows, the law's relationship with the internet is somewhat cloudy. It seems unclear how that easily that piece of legislation will be enforced.

And, as Alex Massie points out, "threatening and abusive behaviour inside a football ground" covers such a manner of ills that players and managers might also be worried about the consequences.

If, of course, the laws are actually enforced. We have laws at the moment. Laws covering behaviour at and around football games. Laws that can quite easily be used to cover online crimes. Laws that cover hate crimes:

As of 1st April 2010, the Offences (Aggravation by Prejudice) Scotland Act 2009 class the following as Hate Crimes, with aggravators added to crime reports accordingly. The aggravators are:
  • Race
  • Sexual orientation
  • Religion or belief (replacing Faith)
  • Gender
  • Transgender identity
  • Disability
  • Age

A new law is as worthless as an old law if it is ignored, if people can break it knowing that the police will not stand in their way. It may be that there are gaps are in those laws that need addressed. But is haste the best way to move forward?

Salmond also comes no closer to giving us a definition of sectarianism.

Here's the Oxford Concise Dictionary definition:

adj. denoting,concerning or deriving from a sect or sects > carried out on the grounds of membership of a sect, denomination or other group: sectarian killings (it). n. a member or follower of a sect. (OCD)

And the entry in the third edition of Fowler's Modern English Usage:

Now almost inevitably followed by the word violence, or other noun suggestive of killing or destruction, in Northern Ireland, the former Yugoslavia or elsewhere in the world.

Quoting a dictionary definition seems a dismal step towards pedantry in a blog post. But rarely are the semantics of a word so devoured as they are with "sectarianism" in Scotland.

As Tom Devine recently wrote in the Scotland on Sunday:

"No consensus exists, for instance, on the definition of the term 'sectarianism', a word which platitudinously slips off the tongue of politicians and commentators with little clear understanding."

You might think that a government that has given a minister the specific brief of dealing with sectarianism would see defining sectarianism as a priority. It seems awkward and unworkable to get the laws in place before we have that discussion.

Thus when Rob McLean broke the news of Celtic fans singing "sectarian" songs at Hampden on Saturday most of us knew the sort of thing he meant. But Celtic fans were quick - and a legal precedent exists here - to say the songs in question were not sectarian.

Here's Tom Devine again on why that's the case:

"To understand which followed next it is important to be aware of the specifics of the Act. It states that an offence is aggravated by religious prejudice if: (a) “the offender evinces towards the victim (if any) of the offence malice and ill-will based on the victim’s membership or presumed membership of a religious group, or of a social or cultural group with a perceived religious affiliation; or (b) the offence is motivated (wholly or partly) by malice and ill-will towards members of a religious group, or of a social or cultural group with a perceived religious affiliation, based on their membership of that group.” 
"The key issue therefore was: Could vocal approval of the IRA in a public place be considered not simply a potential breach of the peace but one aggravated by religious prejudice? The sheriff listened to the evidence, including my own statement, and the various submissions on this question both by defence lawyers and the Crown. He concluded that doubtless some members of the public might take offence at songs being sung in support of an organisation which the UK Government considered to be a terrorist movement. 
"Nonetheless, he ruled that the IRA was a republican military organisation, was not sectarian in intent and that those who showed support for it, real or rhetorical, were not showing “malice or ill will towards members of a religious group’’. The charge could not therefore be sustained under the 2003 legislation and the accusation of a religiously aggravated breach was dismissed."
Note the judge isn't saying it's OK. He's not saying it's nice. He's saying it's not a crime under the legislation.

Will the new laws accept that precedent? Will there be lists of prohibited songs? Will the new legislation criminalise certain songs but deem others acceptable.

Is that even a route down which our modern society would be comfortable travelling?

Here's the Scoland on Sunday's Kenny Farquharson on why we might feel some discomfort at what Justice Minister Kenny MacCaskill is planning:

"To say the very least, this is undue haste. MacAskill is about to step into one of the world's most contentious and morally nuanced areas of law - a perfect philosophical storm of internet freedom, religious freedom and freedom of speech. And he intends to have it done and dusted in the few weeks of parliament that remain before MSPs start packing the Ambre Solaire and picking up a Jackie Collins to read by the pool? So the law can be in force by the time the Wee Red Book of fixtures is published for the new football season?

This is not an issue for bish-bash-bosh government. When it strays into thought crime it's debatable whether it should be an issue for government at all. Surely MacAskill has learnt a lesson from the anti-sectarianism summit a few weeks ago, which came up with the unworkable idea of adding football stadium exclusions to the sentencing options for perpetrators of domestic violence on Old Firm match days."

Salmond mentions "bigotry" and these discussions are taking place because of the Old Firm rivalry and its traditional religious element.

But will religion be the only focus of the laws?

Here are some figures regarding hate crimes in Scotland:

A report on Hate Crime in Scotland, 2010-11 was published today. This brings together in one publication figures previously published separately on race crime and religiously motivated crime. It also included figures on the three recently introduced categories of hate crime (disability, sexual orientation and transgender identity), legislation for which came into force on 24 March 2010. 
The main findings are 
In total 4,165 charges of race crime were reported to the Procurator Fiscal in 2010-11, 3.6% fewer than in 2009-10. Court proceedings were commenced in respect of 83% of these charges. In total, 92% of charges led to court proceedings (including those not separately prosecuted but where other charges for the same accused within the same case were) 
There were 693 charges with a religious aggravation reported to the Procurator Fiscal in 2010-11, 9.7% more than in 2009-10 and the highest number since 2006-07. Court proceedings were commenced in respect of 85% of charges. In total, 94% of charges led to court proceedings (including those not separately prosecuted) 
In the first full year of implementation of the new legislation, 448 charges were reported with an aggravation of sexual orientation, 50 with an aggravation of disability, and 14 with an aggravation of transgender identity 
Court proceedings were commenced in all 14 transgender identity charges. Court proceedings were commenced in 79% of the sexual orientation charges (86% including charges not separately prosecuted), and 70% of the disability charges (74% including charges not separately prosecuted)

My own anecdotal experience outside the Old Firm bubble is that there is more widespread racism and homophobia - however casual that might be - among supporters in Scotland than there is religious, certainly anti-Catholic or anti-Protestant, bigotry.

Will these new laws also be targeting that unacceptable face of football?

We also have the continual debate about whether football offers a platform for Donald Findlay's "90 minute bigots" or if the bigots arrive fully rounded from a general sectarian lifestyle to pollute football's innocence.

To what extent can these problems be traced back to the experiences of our industrial past? How has the destruction of those industries affected the problem? How far has the problem of sectarianism seeped through society from what might be considered its traditional strongholds? If, indeed, there are traditional geographical strongholds.

The government hasn't shown any movement towards actually getting to the bottom of those issues.

Laws aimed at shutting up the peddler of hate without looking at why he is so filled with hatred are not the way to build a modern Scotland.

Amazingly, there has never even been any public study or analysis of the crime figures I quoted above to discover the nature and patterns of Scotland's "religion or belief" motivated hate crimes. (A sample made available to the Catholic Church some years ago is reported to have suggested that crimes against Catholics made up the majority.)

We know that figure has recently gone up to as high a level as 2006/07. We don’t why. We don’t know why race crimes have fallen. We don't know how many of these crime of hate were influenced, however indirectly, by the tribalism of some football supporters. These are important things to understand.

Some of that data will soon be made available. But not until after the June deadline given for pushing the new laws through parliament.

A football manager in Scotland should be able to do his job without being targeted by lunatics with an agenda that most of struggle to understand.

That much is clear.

And the government are not only entitled to act but, given football's inability to deal with the problem, are perhaps duty bound to act.

The idea that politics and politicians should stay out football is laughable. Many of the songs that feature in these discussions are, after all, political.

On a more hope filled note what is the move towards improved governance, supporters’ trusts, fans co-operatives, if not political?

Politics and politicians have a role to play. But these are big issues, issues that have long festered in our game.

We need solutions and we need answers to a lot of questions. If, as I suspect, the government has simply come up with an impotent solution that answers the wrong questions, then football - and the majority of football fans in Scotland – will be let down.

And so will Scotland.


Alex Massie Blog
Tom Devine, Herald
Tom Devine, Scotland on Sunday
Alex Salmond via SNP website
Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Services website
Lothian and Borders Police response to FOI request
Lallands Peat Worrier on the new legislation

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Scotland: Trophy Tilt

"Scotland win trophy."

You don't hear that often.

There is a chance you will tonight though.

And perhaps we could even keep the Carling Nations Cup in perpetuity.

Friday night's attendance for the Wales v Northern Ireland game was 529. That leaves the total attendance for the tournament's five games so far hovering around the 60,000 mark. Or some 5500 fewer people than could cram into the same stadium for a Jedward concert.

It remains to be seen if the Tartan Army have decided to fling a deafie to Craig Levein's plea for a 10,000 strong invasion this evening.

Whatever the attendance tonight it seems that this tournament requires some major modifications if it is to be held again.

For now though we can concentrate on the game. The title play off between Scotland and their hosts, the Republic of Ireland.

Craig Levein has announced him team:

McGregor, Whittaker, Hanley, Berra, Bardsley, Naismith, Robson, Brown, Adam, Forrest, Miller

Gary Caldwell, Stephen Crainey, James Morrison and Ross McCormack drop out of the team that so underwhelmed in the first half against Wales before recovering to post a reasonably comfortable 3-1 win.

A big night this evening for Grant Hanley. Caldwell's injury gives him a start in a central defence that has often caused concern. A first international start after only ten or so appearances for Blackburn.

Circumstance given him his opportunity, we can only hope he grabs it.

A breakthrough night in store for James Forrest as well. A first start and a first cap on the back of his successful season with Celtic.

Together Forrest and Hanley offer an injection of youth that Levein shied from against Wales. That might have been forced on him. But surely the only test of the manager's apparent optimism in the future is if players like Hanley and Forrest can be brought into the team and not look out of the place.

Elsewhere the team has a reasonably familiar look. The reappearance of the reliably resilient Barry Robson shows that Levein is far from ready to sacrifice Scotland's work ethic.

It's another new look midfield that will be charged with giving Charlie Adam the platform to dictate the game and giving Kenny Miller the service and support he needs in attack.

We've not actually played the Republic of Ireland since 2003. That game resulted in a 2-0 defeat as the Irish joined the long list of countries that proved too strong for a Berti Vogts Scotland squad.

It would be nice to think that we could despatch this season with a win. And a trophy.

Certainly tonight matches the two best teams on show.

We have to concede that we're not measuring ourselves against top quality opposition. But it means there will be less room for the periods of poor play that pockmarked the win against of Wales.

Meaningless and pointless. Perhaps. But bigger tests lie ahead and the benefits of having the squad together and in harmony might be important further down the line. The boost of having the squad together and winning might be even greater.

Certainly on a purely footballing level the tournament wouldn't seem to be doing us any great harm.

If we could win the blooming thing it might actually do us some good.

Scottish Junior Cup: Musselburgh Hope Honest Toil Prevails

Scottish Junior Cup final day.

A chance for the lesser lights of our great game to shine.

I'm no expert on the Junior game (I'm not an expert on much) but geographical reasons make the chance to bandwagon jump on this one too hard to resist.

Today Musselburgh Athletic play Auchinleck Talbot. Musselburgh lies pretty much in the middle of where I live now and where I grew up.

My own geographic loyalties would probably lie with Preston Athletic - another venerable non league side from the area - but its been hard to ignore the cup fever.

The East Lothian Courier has billed it as the "the biggest football match involving an East Lothian team for a generation" and it has the classic elements of the underdog planning a coup, the David marching into battle with Goliath.

Auchinleck might be a small place but its football team are Junior cup giants. They've done more than puch above their weight in this tournament. They are the most successful side in its history. Craig Anderson does an excellent job of profiling the reasons for this on the STV Sport website.

So Musselburgh - who were battling East Superleague relegation as Auchinleck missed out to Irvine Meadow for the West Superleague title - will not be highly fancied today.

You've got to go back 50 years for an East Lothian winner of the cup. Before that victory by Dunbar Lothian there was a win back in 1923 for Musselburgh Bruntonians, predecessors of today's Athletic.

They've got the backing of the town - the Honest Toun - and the local press, Courier, East Lothian News and Edinburgh Evening News et al, are cheering on their every step.

At least one interested observer believes they've got a chance. John McGlynn, manager of Raith Rovers, is brother of Athletic's chairman Charlie and uncle of manager Davie. McGlynn himself played for the club:

"Reaching the cup final must have been a pipe dream at the start of the season but with each victory the belief starts to kick in that you're going to win. I think Musselburgh is going to be a ghost town because so many fans are travelling." (Courier)

Estimates of that support stretch between 2000 and 5000 fans making the trip to Rugby Park.

The game seems to caught imaginations, created the feel good factor that football - at every level - is so uniquely well placed to build.

Can they do it?

It's going to be tough. On their road to the final they scored over 20 goals and conceded only three. That breeds confidence.

Auchinleck Talbot remain a mighty obstacle to overcome though.

It will be a hell of a party on the banks of the Esk if they can pull it off.