Friday, 21 September 2012

Homophobia and Football - Any Chance of Change?

Gareth Thomas did it for rugby, Steven Davies strolled proudly out of the closet for cricket in March offering advice to anyone else who wanted to follow suit so what about football? There isn’t a single soul singing heartily from the stadium rooftop, naked and clad in the rainbow flag. There are no gay professional footballers playing in the English or Scottish leagues. Right? A Family Fortunes-style buzzer sounds and a big fat NO lights up in neon but where there is no official evidence. Tabloid exclusives or invites to coming out parties fit for a £120,000 a week footballing king cannot be seen on the horizon and may not be for some time yet. Football has seriously missed the boat in the ‘gay is OK’ societal evolutionary stakes and homophobia has it’s own DNA strand firmly embedded in the cellular make-up of the beautiful game, some serious genetic engineering will be required to make changes.

Homophobic chants have been outlawed at football stadiums since the 2008/09 season. If found guilty, fines of up to £1000 may be imposed plus ground bans of up to 10 years. In 2010 Rugby League, Castleford were fined £40,000 for their fan’s foul-mouthed treatment of Gareth Thomas. Two sports, two very different punishments. It isn’t like the Football Association aren’t trying to make changes, they held a summit in 2005 where Dutch delegate Ben Baks proffered praise for being the first European federation to address the issue of homophobia. That same year saw the BBC commission a survey in which all 20 managers in the Premier League refused to comment. The FA have been backing the Justin campaign since 2010 and are partnered with the Gay Football Supporters Association, their efforts don’t seem like a shot of token support. The anti-homophobia video produced in conjunction with Ogilvy was 2 years in the making and stars a man bearing a striking resemblance to one of Graham-’Inn't he scrummy-Duff’s Ideal characters, Psycho Paul. The video delivers a straight-forward message to fans but received mixed reviews in the gay community. They even had the cheek to cancel the premiere screening saying ‘they needed more time to work on the project’!

On paper and in politics it looks like waves are churning when it comes to tackling homophobia, but only with the fans; Aston Villa were the first football club to setup a gay fanzone and Manchester City set their stall out in 2006 when they joined Stonewall’s Diversity Champions scheme, which supports employers in keeping sexual-orientation predjuces out of the workplace. Manchester City no longer feature on the members list, paying the £2000 a year subscription can’t be a problem, it’s not like their new owner is short of a few billion fat banks rolls in his pocket. In 2010, Jonathon Fear, award-winning editor of the Vital Villa website published an anonymous survey with a landslide 93% of replies stating there is no place for homophobia in football, around 2000 people responded in 2 weeks.

Fans, journalists and back-room staff are pushing, responding and proactively working on the football vs homophobia campaign but players and managers will rarely even bleep a word on the subject. It could be that players may fear losing endorsements but this isn’t the 1970s where Bille-Jean King was stripped of all her sponsorship deals the minute she broke her love-for-the-ladies news to the world. fear of bad reactions from fellow players is probably the biggest problem, team sports are intense enough without abuse tipping the dynamic overboard. Imagine if Frank Lampard dived out of the closet, slid across the field on his lean and well-oiled torso then leapt up with a click of the heels declaring ‘I’m gay’ at the top of his voice. Apart from breaking Christine Bleakley’s heart, it would release an industrial-sized firework display of tabloid publicity and bolster his bank balance with a string of heartfelt interviews in every media vehicle known to man.

If one high-profile footballer came out with the same dignity and style of Gareth Thomas and Steven Davies surely the floodgates would open. Only then could the the real work of changing people’s attitudes begin because homosexuality would be a reality in the beautiful game. At the moment, the only connection men’s football has with gayness is with the vitriol spouted by the minority of ignorants on the sidelines, apart from that, the issue is sub-terranean. Ashley Cole has a team of lawyers ready, willing and able to sue anyone who even dares mutter a slur on his precious heterosexuality, Max Clifford advised two well-known stars who he ‘looks after’ to keep their sexuality under wraps because football “is in the dark ages, steeped in homophobia”, to come out after retirement is far more likely. The dynamic of bi-sexuality and the homophobes is one to be considered too, with some, sexuality is fluid and it is quite likely there is a good handful of sportsmen and women who slide up and down the scale of sexual preference. How the critics react to these revelations remain to be seen. Not a player or manager was in sight when the FA launched their video campaign, Elton John donated high-profile support but that isn’t exactly going to encourage professional sports stars to come out, only young peers will do. If a huge brand launched a ‘coming out’ advert where several high profile footballers, along with other gay sports stars emerged in Guinness-style splendour that could be a stroke of corporate genius; deflecting the ignorant fallout and opening up the valuable pink pound market.

We no longer live in a society full to the brim of Brian Clough-types but football does. The general public are ready for change and even if some are not (and some will never be), the attitudes to homosexuality in cricket, rubgy and individual sports very much follows the yellow brick road to breaking down predjuces and from this, everyone can learn. England and Lancashire swing bowler James Anderson, straight and married, (sorry), posed for Attitude magazine saying he didn’t believe there was any homophobia in cricket and invited anyone who wanted to castigate his comments to “take their best shot”. Hear that football? That is real mans talk. If the stars who appear in the magazines publicly support their would-be outed gay and bi-sexual colleagues more little steps will be made in the uphill marathon towards equality. Validation and solidarity is so important when facing head-on the ever-morphing wall that is homophobia.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Paul Lambert - Stay Where You Are!

These days I have little time on my hands so my blog posts tend to last no more than 400 words, if that. One day I'll set aside some time to write something exploratory, detailed and very interesting, but now it's all commentary. 

Paul Lambert to Villa? What has changed over the past year that makes this particular post more desirable? Mark Hughes truly mugged himself off by dumping Fulham then not getting the job, Roberto Martinez point blank knocked them back, so they settled for Alex McLeish, a solid, predictably-styled practitioner of the clumpy game. Paul Lambert has some fine skills indeed and brought a team to the premier league who are universally respected and admired by the neutral fan. It is hard for promoted teams to 'fit in', premier league snobs expect a certain type of football these days and it really is a lion's den of judgement and speculation. Fortunately, Swansea brought some haute couture footballing fashion up with them last season, enough to leave Barcelona lovers drooling at the mouth. 

As every discerning football fan knows, it really is 'all about the money' so should Paul Lambert choose to migrate westward one could assume the renumeration is a major driving force. When Chelsea disposed of Villas-Boas, the Swan's Brendan Rogers uttered something to the effect of 'I wouldn't touch your fickle bastard club and its politics with a 10 foot barge pole, I want a career, not a prison sentence'. Maybe, just maybe we are entering an era where building a club with a footballing style and identity might be more important than a glory job, that's how I hope things pan out for Lambert and the Norwich City fans anyway. Norwich have a kind of understated cool status anyway these days, with Delia and Stephen Fry in the box, all they need now is a more Brazilian-styled kit, (the only way to do yellow) and a decent cup-run next season. 

Hot Score's verdict, should Paul Lambert stay or go?

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Those Italians, They Know How To Defend! Barcelona v Chelsea

I'll leave all the technical analysis to the top chalkboard bods but Chelsea's miraculous result at the Nou Camp was one that really did simulate computer gameplay. Tonight you could see the Barcelona attack repetitively broken down into its component parts, over and over again, similar patterns of thought and play were repeated and Chelsea stood firm and efficient. They didn't worry about having to maintain possession, they just had to focus on repeatedly stopping Messi, Sanchez and co, working their way through. Ashley Cole was magnificent in holding the left hand side of the field together, his coverage and anticipation made it very difficult for Messi to make his trademark twisting runs through. It must've felt like one of those games where an adult is stopping a bouncy child from passing for Barcelona, and it can't have been fun for Chelsea!

The danger spot for drawing out all of the Chelsea rear guard was when that fast and direct ball was played to the top of the 'triangle' from just wide of the box, it naturally draws even the most steadfast lines out, a great method that any team with superior attacking players can use against a deep line.

The result is quite unbelievable, Chelsea scoring two goals with only 27% possession. We all hear the pundits and analysts saying "possession doesn't always equal goals" and that is often the case but not usually when the stats read 73:27! There is no way to keep hold of the ball when you have committed in such a focused way to stopping a team like Barcelona who have an incredible proclivity for scoring goals. Roberto Di Matteo set out with the intention of containing and frustrating Barcelona in a way that only Italian managers know how to. To maintain that level of focus is incredible, Chelsea looked like they were hypnotised by Barcelona's passing groove and were programmed to react so simply to stopping it from advancing, it worked.

Every substitution worked for Di Matteo too, each serving to re-enforce and tighten the hard work established by the makeshift back four. Ivanovic served very well in central defence, holding the line like a general and utilising all of his interception skills in nullifying Messi's splurges towards goal.

We all know feel it week after week with our own teams but these huge games really do highlight just what an amazing game our football is, completely addictive, fascinating and all-consuming at times.

The bookies will be quids in for sure!

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Hot Scores Ep 23 - Football Violence, Swansea, Chelsea and Arsenal

This week's Hot Scores talks about Arsenal's troubles, football violence, the decline of Chelsea and has a special feature on Swansea City.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Square Pegs and Round Holes - Andre Villas-Boas and Chelsea

Today is a day for being slightly cantankerous, I'm uncharacteristically ill and laid up in bed which gives me the perfect impetus to blog. Pretty football is somewhat of a pre-occupation for fans, owners and coaches these days. There's nothing wrong with wanting your team to play like Barcelona or Swansea City but the desire and the reality are oceans apart. Chelsea are a perfect example of how you can't coach a completely new style and expect it to work quickly. It may work (for a minute or two) but it won't score goals. It takes a certain group of players to make the high-line/Barca way work, the manager can try and implement his style all he likes but if the micro-combinations of players aren't up to the job, it will never work.

With Chelsea, the ageing core of players inherited by the sprightly AVB have never been trained to play in the style he is lavishing upon them. To be expert and brilliant at anything takes many hours of training from a young age, the same applies with systems in football. Arsene Wenger is living proof that no matter how much theory and substance you apply to your coaching methods, they will only deliver the goods when all the components match (Les Invincbles). Football reflects life in many ways; you can walk into a room full of people where the dynamics are strained and awkward then go next door to another party and everything is hunky dory. Some things in life just work, the inexplicable laws of human connectivity, football really is no different.

Andre Villas-Boas seemed like a breath of fresh air when he rolled up at Stamford Bridge in the summer but now, more-so than ever, Chelsea fans are on the edge of their seats, not knowing what big bad Roman will do next. Having a merry-go-round of managerial staff isn't exactly the sort of thrills the average football fan seeks. Having an owner like Abramovich will mean Chelsea always have a 'temporary' air about them as a club, there is no sense of the fans really feeling like they are an important part of their club. Chelsea are a toy for Mr Abramovich and anyone who chooses to manage them might as well have Duracell tatooed across their forehead.

One thing Villas-Boas might be wise to do in order to halt the mudslide is to adopt a pragmatic, Italian-like principle of coaching, get the players to do what they understand best. Over time, his methods may or may not work, according to the players bought and how they react to the style of the premier league. It isn't so much about how your team plays as what your opponent brings to the table. Just look at how Manchester City respond to teams who congest their playground by setting up a defensive stance like an infectious disease control unit!

As I write, Chelsea's prospect of qualifying for the Champion's League in 2012/13 is pasted with uncertainty. There are no more options for rejuvenating the squad, what AVB has is what AVB must make work for the rest of the season. Who would have thought with all the riches and the foundations Jose laid, Chelsea would be where they are now? I don't think there is one soul out there who would disagree that the owner is the problem, you don't see as many kids wearing Chelsea shirts these days, this is one club who are in desperate need of a polish.