History in the making – a summer to remember (one way or another!)

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The spell is broken.  England are out of the World Cup, and, for a while yesterday morning, it poured with rain – the first rain we’d had in weeks.  I’m incredibly proud of everything that our young, inexperienced group of players and our inspirational manager have achieved, and we desperately need rain to put out the fires on Winter Hill and Saddleworth Moor, but I just want to turn the clock back to Wednesday afternoon, when everything seemed possible!

The football was still the headlines of the news yesterday morning, the morning after the night before, and we were still hearing about the twelve young lads and their coach being rescued from the caves in Thailand (although it’s so sad that one man died during the rescue effort, and possibly a bit tacky that there’s already talk of making a film about it all) … but then came Donald Trump, our incompetent embarrassment of a government, and yet another year of Twelfth Day of July unrest in Northern Ireland.

For a few weeks, we were Somewhere Over The Rainbow.  Skies are blue, and the dreams that you dare to dream … .  (Incidentally, Simon Schama, the historian and TV presenter, once made a thought-provoking point about how that song could only have been written by the child of immigrants who’d fled persecution for the American Dream.)   Yesterday morning, the skies were grey, and it was sinking in that the World Cup was not coming home after all.  But, hey, what a time we’ve had!   Before the World Cup started, we didn’t dare hope for any more than getting out of the group.  Not to mention all the catastrophising about how the tournament was going to be spoilt by racism, homophobia and Russia’s troubled relations with the rest of the world.  And look what we got instead!   Talk about the feelgood factor.  It felt as if the whole country was singing Three Lions.

And we’ve still got Wimbledon!   Well, OK, this isn’t a national thing, but it will make me ecstatically happy if the French Open champion can win his third Wimbledon title on Sunday.  OK, I’m not holding my breath.  Nole looked worryingly good yesterday.  Balkan double?  Croatia win the World Cup and Serbia win Wimbledon?  How weird would that be?  And there are so many stories of the horrors of the wars of the 1990s tied up in all that.  Sport can give so much.

We hoped.  And we dreamed.  Everyone, including Princes William and Harry, was saying “It’s coming home”.  That song!   1996 was weird.  It started off being all so exciting.  I’d just been to Prague for a belated 21st birthday weekend away, and the Czech Republic were based in Manchester for Euro ’96, so the flight home was full of football fans.  There was such a buzz in the air.  Then the IRA blew up our city centre.  So we didn’t quite get the ongoing 1996 feelgood factor.  But we got the song.  Everyone gets the song!  Everyone’s been singing it.  Friends who normally have little interest in football have been posting on Facebook about how excited they are.  The day of the semi-final was even dubbed Waistcoat Wednesday, with people posting pictures of themselves wearing waistcoats in honour of Gareth Southgate!   At 7 o’clock on Wednesday evening, the streets were deserted.  Everyone was watching the match.  We were all in it together.

That hasn’t happened too much lately.  And the leadership qualities displayed by Gareth Southgate, and the sense of team spirit he’s instilled in the team, the togetherness, the unity – well, there’s been precious little of that around either.  I do appreciate that Theresa May’s in a difficult position, but, come on, two years to agree an internal position on Brexit, and then it all falls apart within three days?  How on earth are we meant to negotiate with the EU when Cabinet members can’t even agree amongst themselves?  Summoned to Chequers, told to put their mobile phones away, like a bunch of naughty schoolkids in detention – and then the whole thing falling apart anyway.  That’s not Three Lions; that’s Madness’s You’re An Embarrassment.

And the Opposition are no better.  Jeremy Corbyn’s inability to deal with anti-Semitism within the Labour Party is extremely concerning, as well as embarrassing.  And does anyone have the remotest clue what Labour’s policy on the best way of getting us out of the EU is?  No, me neither.  And all this talk about “Brexiters” and “Remoaners”.  The decision’s been made, OK?  You may as well label people as Hanoverians and Jacobites, or Roundheads and Cavaliers.  Move on.  But it’s very difficult when both main parties are making such a mess of everything.  There is not one senior politician at Westminster who inspires a scrap of confidence.  Leadership?  Togetherness?  Unity?  Hah!  Gareth Southgate for PM!   I’m telling you, he could only do better!   He and the players brought us together.

Sport does this.  London 2012.  Andy Murray winning Wimbledon.  Oh, it can go horribly wrong well, we all know that; but it can do this.  There’s something a bit different about it this time, though.  It’s not just the success – whilst it lasted.  It’s the team spirit.  This is not the so-called “Golden Generation” of Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard & co, or the 1998 squad which included the likes of David Beckham and Alan Shearer.  Most of these players weren’t even household names before the tournament began.  But they’ve connected, to use a modern-day buzzword – with each other, and with the fans.  They got it.  We got it.

And the skies were blue.  And the sun shone.

I think it actually started with the Royal Wedding.  We’ve watched Prince Harry grow up.  We saw that little boy walking along behind his mother’s coffin.  We’ve seen him get himself into trouble.  And then we’ve seen him as a hero, whether it’s been serving in Afghanistan or helping to organise the Invictus Games.  Very few people have got a bad word to say about him.  And we’ve seen his romances with Chelsy Davy and Cressida Bonas end in tears, and longed for him to find his happy ever after.  And now, hopefully, he has.  We’d have been delighted for him whomever that was with – but the fact that his fairytale princess is a mixed-race American divorcee actress somehow did that bit extra to bring people together.  It reminded us that it doesn’t matter who you are.  It doesn’t matter who you love.  It doesn’t matter about race, religion, sexuality, socio-economic status … any of it.  All that matters is that people are happy.  It was the stuff of fairytales, but very modern ones.  It brought everyone together.  We needed that.

The sky was a perfect cornflower blue.  Not a cloud in it.  The sun shone down.

And then, as the sky continued to be blue, and the sun continued to shine, Gareth Southgate and his band of brothers gave us hopes and dreams, and showed us what leadership and togetherness are about – something that our politicians don’t seem to have the first clue regarding.

This is history.  Twenty years from now, we’ll be looking back on the early summer of 2018, and we’ll be remembering how it was hot and sunny for days and days on end, and how we got to the semi-finals of the World Cup.  We don’t know what lies ahead – but do we ever?  In 1990, we were riding the crest of a wave of hope, with the Berlin Wall down, Nelson Mandela released from prison and Germany set for reunification.  Well, that soon went pear-shaped, didn’t it?  Croatia, where they were celebrating as we cried, could tell us all about that.  In 2018, everything’s a mass of uncertainty.  But maybe it’ll all turn out for the best?  Well, you never know.

52 years of hurt can go a long way towards stopping you from dreaming.  I mean 52 years since 1966, OK – I have not personally experienced 52 years of hurt!  The first World Cup I remember was 1982!   But we’re dreaming again.  There’s a positivity in the air.  There’s hope, and there’s pride.  And there are waistcoats!

There were things I thought I might never see.  Growing up in the 1980s, you seriously began to wonder whether United would ever win the league again.  We waited 26 years.  City fans waited longer.  We waited 77 years for a British man to win the men’s singles title at Wimbledon again.  Going back to 1990, or, rather, to 1989, I’m not sure that we thought we’d see the Berlin Wall come down in our lifetimes, or that Nelson Mandela would ever be released from prison.  We certainly never thought we’d see Prince Harry marry a lovely mixed-race American divorcee actress.

Things change.

And, yes, “We’ve seen it all before” and we know all about semi-final heartbreak.  But people are already looking ahead to Euro 2020.  And the country’s come together.  We’ve been reminded that we can do this.  We can do leadership.  We can do unity.  We can do hopes and dreams.  Thank you for that, Gareth and the boys.  We needed it from someone, and we’ve got it from you.  And we’ll never forget this summer.  We’ve been living through history in the making.

 

 

Frankie Goes To Russia – BBC 2

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This has been a strange build up to the World Cup.  Instead of the usual excitement, anticipation, and speculation as to who might win and whether or not England have got any chance, it’s been dominated by fears about racism, homophobia and hooliganism.  A Foreign Office committee issued a warning this morning about the risks which fans face.  Interviews with Gareth Southgate and the players have been more about these issues than the actual football.  This is horrible.  This isn’t how it should be.  And, whilst I do think that the media have come to demonise Russia over the last few years, to a level so ridiculous that it’s comparable with what went on in the 1870s (I’m getting a bit of “in the past stuff” in there, to try to pretend that I’m being on topic!), there is undoubtedly cause for concern.  No-one could ever call me anti-Russian, and even I’m saying that there’s cause for concern.

Only a few months ago, Paul Pogba and other black members of the French team were subjected to vile racist abuse during a match between France and Russia in St Petersburg.  Last year, during an under 17s match – under 17s, just kids – black members of Liverpool’s team were racially abused by players from Spartak Moscow, a club whose social media sites has referred to its own black players as “chocolates”.  Danny Rose said yesterday that he’s asked his family not to travel to the World Cup, because he’s so worried that they might face racist abuse.  That’s heartbreaking.  He said that his dad’s really upset.  To play in a World Cup is such a big thing, such an achievement, such an honour; and Mr Rose should be up there in the stands, bursting with pride.  Now he’s not going to get that chance.

When you’re a kid, the players are – obviously! – older than you.  Then you get to the point where they’re the same age as you.  I’m the same age as the Class of ’92.  Gary Neville, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and me – we were born within a few months of each other, and grew up within a few miles of each other, and now they’re all hugely successful, world famous, multi-zillionaires, and I’m … er, anything but!   Then the players are younger than you, and you even find yourself watching the likes of Kasper Schmeichel, Thomas Ince and Alex Bruce, whom you remember as toddlers!   And then it gets to the point where you are so ancient that you could actually be the mum or dad of the younger players.  It’s not great.  It really, really is not great!

But you do get this feeling of maternal/paternal pride when young lads you’ve watched come through the juniors make it all the way to the top, and that’s lovely.  Last night, both goals in England’s 2-0 win over Costa Rica, our final warm up match before the World Cup, were scored by Manchester lads who came through the United youth system – Marcus Rashford, just 20 years old, and Danny Welbeck.  I was so proud of them both, I can’t tell you!   And that’s how I want to feel.  I don’t want to be worrying that those lads, both black, are going to have people shouting the n word or monkey chants at them.

Ashley Young and Gareth Southgate have both said that the potential problems have been discussed at team meetings.  It’s good that the subject is being addressed, and a united front being presented, but this, and the warnings from the Foreign Office, and the concerns expressed in the media, aren’t what the build up to the World Cup should be about, in England or anywhere else.  We should be talking about who’s going to be in the England starting XI for the first match.  What are our chances?  Who’s going to win?  Which players and teams are going to light up the tournament?  Will it be the big names?  Will some young lad come from nowhere and make a name from himself?  Will an older player who’s supposed to be past his prime prove that he’s still got it?  Will an unfancied team make a fairytale run through to the later stages – remember Iceland at Euro 2016, and Cameroon at Italia ’90?  Those magical World Cup moments that you never forget, that people are still talking about years later, that get replayed on TV time after time after time – where will they come from this time?

That’s what we should be thinking about, and talking about.  Even the daft side of things.  Nigeria’s “interesting” kit.  The inevitable photos in the tabloids of players’ glamorous celebrity partners.  The quirky things that somehow grab everyone’s attention – remember the vuvuzelas at South Africa 2010?  And everyone getting obsessed with Nessun Dorma during Italia ’90?  Referees and linesmen (sorry, “referees’ assistants”), because, let’s face it, we all know that there are going to end up being controversial decisions which will make headlines.  Who’s got the best commentators, the BBC or ITV?  And why are there so few women involved?

But no.  Instead, the build up seems to have been mostly about racism, homophobia and hooliganism.  Thanks a lot, FIFA.  Oh, and where have they chosen for the next World Cup?  Qatar!   I understand the idea of taking the World Cup to different places – but, seriously, Qatar?  Hardly top of the international list when it comes to human rights, is it?  And can anyone actually name a single Qatari football club, or even a single Qatari football player?  Not to mention the problems with the heat.

Well, we all know very well that something is very rotten in the state of FIFA.   But, whatever went on with the voting process in 2010, when Russia was awarded the 2018 World Cup and Qatar the 2022 World Cup, this is where we are.  And no-one’s saying that Russia is the only country in the world where these problems exist.  There’ve been horrendous incidences of racist abuse at football matches in Italy, Croatia, Serbia, Ukraine, Germany and elsewhere in recent years.  Hooliganism … well, we can’t deny the involvement of some English fans in clashes in France in 2016, and it wasn’t just English and Russian fans either.  And there were been some nasty incidents in Spain, Italy and elsewhere during European club matches in the season just gone.  But Russia is where the World Cup’s being held, so it’s Russia (and, yes, I do know that I should really be saying “the Russian Federation”) at which we’re looking.

OK, that was a long rant!  What about the actual programme?  Well, quite honestly, it was a bit of a piss-take.  Frankie Boyle, who presented it, is very, very funny, and he made me laugh all the way through, from his deadpan comments about the weather (he went in February, in several inches of snow) and his horrible breakfast to his brilliant crack about how the Russian stadia will be used for football after the World Cup whereas the London 2012 Olympic stadium was handed over to West Ham.  I don’t like West Ham, sorry!  And watching a Cossack chop up a cabbage with his sword was certainly entertaining.  It was all entertaining.  But it all gave the impression of not taking things very seriously, and this just isn’t funny.  It’s not funny that a member of the England squad is so worried about potential abuse that he’s asked his family members not to go.  It’s not funny that black/ethnic minority fans are being warned that they may be at risk of abuse.  It’s not funny that LGBT fans are being warned not to make an obvious show of their sexuality.  It is just not funny at all.

Some of it was serious, admittedly.  And some of the points, whilst made in a jokey way, were very valid.  What the hell was Boris Johnson thinking of, comparing the 2018 World Cup to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, “Hitler’s Games”?  Has the man never heard of the Siege of Leningrad, or the Siege of Stalingrad?  Does he have any idea how many people the Soviet Union lost in the fight against the Nazis?  As Frankie said, remarks like that, from a senior member of the British government, are offensive to put it mildly.

That was at the end of the programme.  It began with a visit to the Luzhniki Stadium.  Now, as we all know, the Luzhniki Stadium was the scene of one of the greatest events in the history of the universe – United winning the 2008 European Cup/Champions League.  Against Chelsea.  Now, thinking back, I cannot remember any particular warnings or concerns at the time about the final being played in Moscow.  OK, it was a one-off match, but even so.  And that says a lot about how much has changed in the last few years … oh dear, was it really ten years ago?!  And, to be fair to FIFA, in the eight years since the decision to stage the 2018 World Cup in Russia was made.  The war in Ukraine and the Russian annexation of Crimea.  The worrying and highly discriminatory “homosexual propaganda” law.  All the failed drugs tests.  Syria.  The allegations over interference in the US presidential election.  And, most recently, the Salisbury poisonings.   That’s quite a mixture of things, but it’s all served to worsen Russia’s image in the media … and, of course, the nature of the media has changed a lot in that time, as well.

So how much of the genuine fear about racism and homophobia is well grounded?  Well, strangely, the programme barely mentioned racism.  And Frankie seemed to be setting out to look for trouble.  He spoke to was some kind of obsessive Putin fan, who was clearly rather weird and presumably not at all representative of Russian opinion.  Frankie tried to get him to talk about the issue of homophobia.  The guy insisted that there were no gay people in Russia.  Frankie, serious for once, tried to talk about the need for equality and human rights, but he just couldn’t get any sense out of the guy.  That was clearly worrying, but surely it would have been better to have spoken to the man/woman on the street, in order to get some sort of accurate gauge of public opinion?

And he went to some rather odd organisation which was training people in how to greet visiting fans – and, as he said, it was a bit like a Swiss finishing school.  All social etiquette stuff.  But, again, hardly representative of any sort of general public opinion.  And then on to the hairdresser’s.  That bit was actually better, because the woman in the hairdresser’s made some interesting comments about Russian views on women, and how society there’s still quite patriarchal.  But it was all interspersed with stuff about beards and male grooming, which I don’t really think is anyone’s main concern ahead of the World Cup!

Then on to Rostov-on-Don. Glasgow’s twin city.  Supposedly infamous for hooliganism.  I thought that was Spartak Moscow!  United played Rostov not so long ago, and there was no trouble.  And Frankie didn’t find any trouble either – there were lots of families at the match, and it was all very nice.  He then spent a lot of time hanging around with Cossacks.  I was rather disappointed that none of the Rostov fans at Old Trafford turned up in Cossack dress, I have to say!  The idea of Cossacks policing football matches – which apparently is going to happen – sounds  a bit bonkers, and we were shown videos of the worrying scenes at the Sochi Winter Olympics in which Pussy Riot (thank you, Google – the programme didn’t mention the group’s name, and I couldn’t remember it and kept thinking “Pussycat Dolls”!), the protest punk group, were whipped by Cossacks.  But, instead of talking about that, we then got scenes of a Cossack chopping up a cabbage with his sword.  Yes, it made for good TV, but I doubt that worried fans and players are going to be very reassured by seeing someone chop up a cabbage.

Frankie did seem to be concluding that there wasn’t that much to worry about, politicians were making things worse and the media were creating a bit of a fuss about nothing.  I hope he’s right.  But I’m not sure that making a comedy programme about people’s very real fears, over such serious issues as racism and homophobia, is really very appropriate.  Frankie was clearly taking the issues seriously, especially in the discussion with the very strange man who just wouldn’t acknowledge that people could be gay, but the tone of the programme just didn’t really work for me.  These aren’t laughing matters.  I love Russia, but no-one can deny that there have been some horrible racist incidents at football matches there, very recently, and the anti-gay “propaganda” law of 2013 has no place in any decent society.  No offence to Frankie Boyle, who is a comedian and was being a comedian, but, BBC, don’t say that you’re going to show a programme about something so serious and so horrible and then show a bloke chopping up a cabbage with a sword.  It just isn’t appropriate.

Here’s to a wonderful World Cup.  May it be full of wonderful football, and free from any sort of unpleasantness.  We can but hope.