Expert analysis?

I know I said that the football world is getting smaller and less mysterious, but if you gain all your knowledge from TV pundits, you’d probably disagree. Judging by the pre- and post-match studio discussions, you’d think we were still in the days of grainy monochrome footage from lands we’d barely heard of.

With the exception of World’s Nicest Man (and one of its best football managers to boot) Roy Hodgson, the quality of punditry on both BBC and ITV has been piss poor. As Tom English points out in an excellent article in the Scotsman (thanks to Anton Vowl for the link), there’s no longer any excuse for such ignorance. Wikipedia can provide career statistics and essential facts about every player in this tournament; in all honesty, they’d do better even if they’d only read the football pages in the tabloids that morning.

What makes it worse is that they then try to make up for the lack of knowledge with lazy pseudo-facts. Adrian Chiles seems to respond to every surprising scoreline by comparing the populations of the two countries involved… “the 5 million people of Slovakia are beating the 60 million of Italy”. We’re not talking about Vanuatu or Grenada here. While the size of a country must have a partial bearing on its sporting prowess, it’s stupidly simplistic to use this to explain results in one sport. How, in Chiles’s system, are India, China and Indonesia doing in this World Cup?

If you’ve had the volume turned down on your TV, you might not have heard for the 371st time that Lionel Messi hasn’t scored yet in this tournament. Again, a cursory glance at easily available data would reveal that his scoring record for Argentina is nothing like his tally for Barcelona. It’s a goal every three games at best. So why have the supposed experts completely failed to understand his different style of play in international football? Similarly, they’re harping on about the SHOCK lack of goals in today’s Portugal-Brazil match. “We expected a goalfest,” says commentator Jonathan Pearce. Really? I was expecting a niggly, spiteful scrap. Brazil’s 6:2 rout in 2008 was not at all representative of past meetings between these two countries. This is bitter “auld enemy” stuff, after all.

I dunno, what’s the answer? I’d hit the “mute” button, but I hate watching football with the sound off. Can we have a Vuvuzela-only soundtrack on the red button, please?

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World Cup 2010 gets even weirder

Yes, it’s official. This is the weirdest World Cup ever.

It was always going to be a little different… first one hosted in Africa, the massed Vuvuzela orchestra, the return of Maradona as cheerfully optimistic misfit manager with some odd ideas about defensive tactics, the mystery of the North Koreans. But then it turns out that the actual results aren’t following the usual script either.

As I write this, Italy are 3-2 down against Slovakia, about to finish bottom in arguably the easiest group of the tournament (especially given their high FIFA ranking and status as current champions). France are already out, having continued the boom-bust cycle they started in 1998. Germany have looked drab and uninspired, to match their forthcoming second round opponents… yep, that’s us!

We’ve also seen Spain made to look ordinary by a super-organized Switzerland, the usually strong Nigeria look like being the joint worst African performers, and we’ve had some surprise results from New Zealand, Serbia and North Korea. Press reports have focused on the supposed downfall of various top-eight teams (including England who haven’t done markedly worse than their first-round average) with the usual theories about excessive pay, over-long seasons, media over-expectation and so on.

There’s certainly something drastically wrong in France, Italy are learning the drawback of having a “lame duck president” so to speak, and it’s looking likely that Germany will be changing their head coach pretty soon. But I think there’s more to it than that. I think we’re seeing something a bit like what happened in men’s tennis about 10 years ago. The struggling lower-ranked teams are no longer there to enjoy their time on global TV and make up the numbers. There are no longer any easy games in international football, as the cliché goes.

The globalisation of the game and the rapacious behaviour of top clubs on the international transfer market have led to a more tightly-knit network of football activity reaching ever more countries. As a result, it’s actually unusual to find ourselves in the position of not knowing much about one of the minnows (North Korea) while, at the other end of the spectrum, the top teams have lost some of their mystique in the eyes of those minnows. An Algeria defender plays his club football with the England goalkeeper and a Ghana striker, and faces regular matches against hotshot strikers from Brazil, Spain, Holland and Germany. The football world is getting smaller.

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World Cup 2010

Anyone in close proximity to me (in either a physical or online sense) will probably have been flattened in a tidal wave of schoolboy excitement by now. Yes, the World Cup is underway, and I’m finding it hard not to burble continuously about it. That old lady in the checkout queue? Of COURSE she’s interested in how the Italians’ ability to pass the ball out of defence will be affected by the absence of Grosso and Pirlo.

A decent chunk of posts on this blog are from my match-by-match accounts of Euro 2008 and World Cup 2006, but I’m not one for routines, so I’ll be giving that a miss this time. Instead, let’s all play a game of WORLD CUP I-SPY!

Here are some well-worn football clich├ęs. See how many you can spot during the tournament…

1. Graceful Mexico ultimately lacking firepower
2. 10-man Uruguay
3. “One of football’s gentlemen, it seems somehow worse to see this behaviour from Thierry Henry.”
4. Plucky England
5. Hapless England
6. “As he steps up to the spot, the hopes of England rest on this young man’s shoulders”
7. Brilliant Dutch team falls apart by being too intellectual and having own opinions
8. Italy wins every game 1-0
9. USA win over England in 1950 interpreted to mean anything. At all.
10. North Korea win over Italy in 1966 interpreted to mean anything. At all.
11. Stodgy Switzerland
12. African teams described as “playing with such unbridled joy”.
13. Commentators assuming Brazil is EVERYONE’S default 2nd team.
14. Pundits confusing Slovakia and Slovenia.
15. Cristiano Ronaldo diving.
16. Cristiano Ronaldo crying.
17. Cristiano Ronaldo telling tales to the referee.
18. “You can never write off the Germans…”
19. Commentators sounding surprised that Brazil have a fantastic defence nowadays.
20. Commentators sounding surprised that Argentina don’t have a fantastic defence nowadays.

Any more?

Of course, as I’m writing this after the first day’s play, we can already tick off the first three. Mexico were stunning on the ball, but a 1-1 draw with South Africa is really not impressive. Uruguay are helping me in my prediction that they’ll have the worst disciplinary record in the group stage, and Henry nearly exploded in a ball of pure irony when he screamed indignantly at a supposed handball and then tried to take a (possibly unjustified) free kick from the wrong place.

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No, THIS is England!

If you’re on Facebook, you can’t have failed to notice the groups with names like “ENGLAND SHIRTS BANNED IN ENGLISH PUBS!”, “ENGLAND FLAGS BANNED BECAUSE THEY OFFEND ISLAMS”, “LICKLE KIDDIES CALLED RACISTS FOR SUPPORTING ENGLAND”, and so on, ad nauseam.

And of course it’s all gibberish. A legitimate complaint is misunderstood, a comment is taken out of context, a person wearing an England shirt is chastised for something entirely unrelated, and the tabloids do the rest. It just takes a bit of selective reporting and enough misinformation to fire up all the old knee-jerk prejudices and we’re done. Facebook groups with over 150,000 members frothing at the collective mouth over an ill-conceived rumour.

You’ll find plenty of good sense about this on Anton Vowl’s blog, which is where I also found this video. In aid of the Carers UK charity, the song “We’re England” has been put together ahead of the World Cup to celebrate our jolly interesting multi-ethnic heritage.

I love the use of one of the themes from Holst’s “Jupiter” as the intro riff. A pop song featuring a classical theme written by an Englishman of Swedish and Latvian extraction. If you don’t understand the significance of that, you really don’t know much about England (or the whole of Britain, for that matter).

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Weird Youtube behaviour

Youtube has been doing weird things to my web browser for a while now. Anyone else getting anything like this?

1. I start off following a link to a video. Here’s an example… Video 1

2. I’m then interested in one of the related videos in the right-hand panel, so I click to watch… Video 2

3. Fine so far. But then I decide to watch the first video again, and click the “back” button in my browser, only to end up here… Video 1, but without the interface

Even if I try to access the first video via my browser’s history list (instead of hitting the back button) I get the same result. And here’s another oddity… I opened a new tab, manually typed “” and got the same strange result.

This seems to happen intermittently, but fairly regularly. I’m using Safari 4 on OSX Leopard, and I’m using the non-HTML5 version of Youtube. I’m starting to wonder whether it’s something to do with my Flash-blocker.

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The end of cheap booze?

I can’t claim to have any revolutionary suggestions for combatting our supposed descent into alcoholic oblivion, but I’m not sure that minimum unit pricing is the answer. Using price controls to affect people’s behaviour is going to be unpredictable when the perception of the product differs so radically from person to person, social group to social group.

Least affected by a minimum unit price would be the new subject of alcohol scare stories… those crazy middle-aged middle-class middle Englanders, who think nothing of downing a couple of bottles of red (along with the inevitable G&T and brandy) every evening. Somehow, I just can’t see them being particularly worried that their local Asda no longer has a single bottle of wine under a fiver.

If the measures are only aimed at reducing consumption among young (and underage) drinkers, I’d argue that even they are partially immune to price fixing. Didn’t we all save up for a Friday night out back in our teens? If alcohol prices had all increased by 5% or 10%, would we have reduced our consumption? I seriously doubt it. At that stage in your life, drinking is intertwined with too many other things… getting off with girls, peer pressure, freedom from parents, freedom from school or work. And above all, there’s the lack of competing financial constraints, especially boring adult responsibilities.

And what about those of us who fall outside of those groups? Most of my drinking involves a fair amount of real ale geekery, where prices are already far above the 40p unit rate. Even the cheapish wine I drink will most likely be above the threshold. This is where I almost, sort of, just might be tempted to see what would happen, because the minimum unit price would form a threshold not only in cost, but also in quality. The message would be “If you’re expecting to get wine or beer THAT cheaply, maybe you should think about what you’re drinking.” But who are we to legislate for people’s tastes? And what of the well-behaved people on lower incomes, who just wouldn’t be able to make that migration in quality?

Like I said before, I don’t have any constructive suggestions. I can’t see attempts to control demand being universally successful; the only non-damaging solution would be to address the overall lifestyles of the problem groups, and that’s not going to happen.

It also concerns me that minimum unit prices, while aimed at cheap, mass-produced products and supermarket loss-leading offers, could damage the whole industry, especially the fragile world of small breweries and wine producers. A determination to continue buying big-name alcohol brands, despite the price rises, could result in a move away from more specialist product areas. I suspect we won’t be seeing any reductions in tax and duty to minimise this damage.

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This blog’s accompanying Posterous

While I’m treading water, dealing with a sudden workload and thinking of more stuff to write about, I’ll draw your attention to my Posterous site…

I like Posterous… it’s such a simple, flawless blog platform, and the simplicity of design (not to mention its seamless integration with other social media) makes it arguably better than these full-fat blogs where we maybe spend too much time thinking about the presentation rather than the content.

My Posterous has a couple of specific uses. It’s for interesting little bits of music, film or whatever that I find online… partly to tell you that I like them, and partly to remind myself that I’ve found them, without adding a lot of short-term stuff to delicious. It’s also there to collect together little bits and bobs that I’ve made, when there isn’t enough of note for a full blog post. Except I’m somewhat creatively challenged at the moment. Ahem.

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So yeah, our electoral system is shite, isn’t it?

Well, we told you so, didn’t we? It’s been screamingly obvious for years, but no one really worried about it because we were all so wound up in the constant tit-for-tat battle to get rid of YOUR LOT and vote in OUR LOT. And then we saw the futility of that and thought we’d like a change. No problem, we’ll just vote for another party entirely, and then… ah, right. Bugger.

I really wouldn’t want to be Nick Clegg right now. For a start, all that pre-election promise been scuppered by a mixture of the electoral system and, well… what exactly did go wrong?. And then he’s expected to form a coalition with the Tories, who oppose his plans for electoral reform anyway. Unless he can write some pretty impressive conditions into the deal, he risks losing the support of his own voters or, worse, his own MPs.

Ah well, there were some positives last night. The total removal of the BNP from Barking and Dagenham council suggests that, even as a means of uninformed, enraged protest, the party can be defeated with community campaigning and rational discussion. Fears that the BNP could even win a parliamentary constituency this time were unfounded; on the contrary, the non-mainstream surprise of the night was provided by Caroline Lucas of the Green Party. It’s still not clear how good they are on science issues, but still… they’re the closest we’ve got to a truly liberal left-wing party in Westminster.

And if you’re worried about apathy and disaffection among the next generation of voters, at least young Alfie McKenzie is more than making up for his peers. As schoolboy pranks go, that comfortably beats anything I ever did.

Particularly gratifying for me was the result in Sutton & Cheam, my home constituency until last year. Despite initial fears, general Lib Dem good egg Paul Burstow fought off the challenge of CSJ head Philippa Stroud. Unfortunately, the burgeoning Christian right had better luck in Oxford West… Dr Evan Harris, one of the most knowledgeable and capable MPs on science issues, lost his seat to Nicola Blackwood, member of the fundamentalist CCFON organisation, which has also funded Nadine Dorries, MP for Mid Bedfordshire.

Even if Nick Clegg can somehow compromise with the Tories on electoral reform, how will his atheism go down with a party funded by a collection of creationists, fundamentalists and religious thinktanks? If only we’d fixed the system years ago…

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But despite all that…

… I hope, as the very first (always Sunderland!) result comes in, that you voted. I don’t even care who you voted for, or whether you voted tactically or laid your ideologies bare upon the ballot paper. In this election, more than any other in recent memory, the point is that you voted.

I voted Lib Dem. Despite the importance of the front-page issues, you have to pay some heed to your personal circumstances, and as an independent musician and person who works mostly online, any major party opposing the ludicrous Digital Economy Bill was in with a chance of my vote. Add to that their better understanding of the importance of science funding, and it was a no-brainer. I’m basically a disillusioned Labour supporter who is genetically incapable of voting Conservative.

It’ll be interesting to see how the polls turn out, because the run-up to this election reminded me of 1992, but in reverse. The country needed a change, the economy was in a mess, Kinnock was in the ascendancy and the Tories were a spent force… or so the pundits told us. The polls pointed to a hung parliament at the very least, if not a Labour majority. And what happened next? The new generation of Labour voters lost its collective nerve, and we ended up with five years of utter incompetence at the hands of John Major.

I’m not crazy enough to try to predict anything like that this year, as the circumstances are so much more complex, but who knows…

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Tip of the suburban iceberg?

The Philippa Stroud story has received a fair bit of attention on the social networks, despite barely being touched by the mainstream media. It grabbed my attention particularly because she’s standing in Sutton & Cheam. A town where I lived until recently (and still make regular use of) could gain a constituency MP with some allegedly “interesting” former activities in the name of Christianity.

But that’s not the real issue. The local constituency crank is an inevitable component of the avalanche of news stories during the build-up to a general election. A couple of pages later in the Observer’s print edition (and the link below on their website) is this…

Religious right tightens grip on Tories

So having imported obesity and presidential politics from the US, we could be about to get our very own Religious Right. Hallelujah! One financial backer named in the print version but not the online version is Sir Peter Vardy of creationist academy fame. And this in a country where the Accelerated Christian Education scheme already has a small foothold. This election of apathy and ennui has been painted as a choice between several shades of grey spending cuts, but I’d prefer any type of blandness to government-approved homophobia, pro-life and anti-science gibberish.

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