By Paul Gardner
LONDON -- One of last weekend's big soccer stories here -- or so it would seem from press coverage -- had to do with the reading out of Saturday's English soccer scores. On the radio. I was rather surprised to hear that this rigmarole still exists -- I wouldn't have thought anyone listened any more. It has the feel of something dusty and archaic that the combined forces of television and the Internet and iPhones should have swept into oblivion long since.
Certainly, back in the 1970s, reading the results was regarded as one of the most menial of broadcasting assignments. After all, how much personality could one inject into a necessarily unemotional and flat delivery of lines like Brentford 1 Hartlepool Nil? And there were at least 30 such lines, one after the other, to get through, with meticulous accuracy and with a methodical slowness that allowed gamblers to check and double-check their pool entries, game by game.
At high school we used to gleefully mock the voice intoning -- with such ponderous solemnity -- the scores of so many obscure games. Comedians have found the football results a rich source for sketches (two great examples are by Michael Bentine and Mel Smith).
So much for my awareness. The radio results reading goes on, and is now big news because it has a new reader. A genuine soccer fan, and an experienced broadcaster. Well, big deal. But it was considered such because the new reader is one Charlotte Green. Yikes! A Woman! Run for the hills ...!
Just what was behind the rash of media stories about Green and her new job is not clear to me. Surely, we’re beyond the time when it could be thought that a woman couldn’t do this? Or maybe shouldn’t do it? Of course, Green did the job effortlessly (The Observer), even brilliantly (The Sunday Telegraph).
So, while the appointment of Green to a previously male-exclusive job sort of proves that those macho soccer attitudes are fading fast, the totally unnecessary hullabaloo surrounding the appointment pretty strongly suggests that a lot of people did see something remarkable in a well-qualified woman getting the job.
And those people are not wrong. Brainless machismois alive and well at the core of British soccer. Yes, I’d say that it has got tired of mocking feminists (or maybe just seen the light) -- its targets these days are male players who don’t fully engage with the traditional Brit soccer mode of getting “stuck in.” These players are mostly, if not all, foreigners (i.e. non-Brits) and they exhibit their shameful lack of machismoby diving and/or by theatrically pretending to be injured.
Two recent stories back up this view. In fact, the first of them is so complete an example of what I’m talking about that I’m suspicious of it. But it appeared in the Daily Mail, so ...
It’s former ManU defender Phil Neville speaking about Cristiano Ronaldo’s early days at the English club: “He dived a lot. He tried to buy fouls and he came in for a lot of criticism. The boys were hard on him for his diving and it was putting us under pressure. I'd say the first 12 months there was a massive toughening up process. In training at the time you had Roy Keane, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes, and every time he got the ball they kicked him and they kicked him -- not just once, they kicked him every day, every week, all season.”
Three top players with a top club, deliberately and methodically kicking one of their own players (a foreigner, that goes without saying) for a whole season. Can that really be? Neville is in no doubt that getting stuck in on Ronaldo (but Neville doesn’t tell us, did Keane and Butt and Scholes enjoy this?) paid off because Ronaldo is now “the best player in the world.”
Ronaldo the world’s best player becausehe spent a whole season being kicked by his own players during training, and so learned to be more macho? Neville’s assumption doesn’t bear much scrutiny. First, Ronaldo was accused of diving throughout his career in England. So much for the toughening-up measures. Second, the diving accusations stopped abruptly when Ronaldo moved to Real Madrid, to the more sophisticated Spanish soccer culture which has a greater appreciation of soccer skill and is therefore much less ready to see a dive every time a player goes down.
Third -- something Neville himself brings up: “I would see him take a ball and run around the whole of the training complex, developing his skills, developing a trick to beat a defender… it's probably a mile-and-a-half around the complex, and he did it every single day.” Which might have helped.
I have no doubts at all about my second example of just how Brit machismoclouds soccer judgment, as I saw the whole thing develop on television. Glasgow Celtic vs. Barcelona in the Champions League. With Lionel Messi on the injured list, attention focused on Barcelona’s new star, the Brazilian Neymar.
Things would not be easy for Neymar -- Celtic, with its huge army of 60,000 ardent fans, is not an easy place to play, and Celtic could certainly be cited as a team that holds dear the Brit “get stuck in” credo. But Celtic can play soccer too, and this was a game it might have won (it beat Barcelona here 2-1 in a memorable game last year).
Barcelona was, for sure, the more accomplished team, the betterteam if you like, with a whopping 82 percent domination of possession time ... but the scoreline was still 0-0 at 59 minutes, when Neymar -- having a lively but not spectacular game -- set off on a dribble and was promptly -- and obviously -- tripped by Celtic captain Scott Brown. As French referee Stephane Lannoy raced up, yellow card in hand, Brown sealed his own fate by aiming a kick at Neymar, still on the ground. The yellow card disappeared, replaced by a straight red, and Brown was gone. Celtic’s 10 men held on for 15 minutes, until Cesc Fabregas clinched it for Barcelona with a neatly headed goal.
Post-game, Celtic coach Neil Lennon looked distraught at the loss and focused on the red card as the turning point. And so we got from Lennon -- whom I have always seen as one of the more level-headed guys in his profession -- a revealing glimpse of the Brit “get stuck in” mentality. The red card was not justified, he said. It was all down to Neymar’s theatrics; he had greatly exaggerated Brown’s “tap -- if you want to call it that,” said Lennon.
This is just pathetic. Brown aims a kick at Neymar who is on the ground (Brown having dumped him there). He makes contact with either Neymar’s arm, or the back of his rib cage -- a rather vulnerable area. A mere “tap” says Lennon. Possibly -- the replays are the familiar “inconclusive” ones. Lennon did not quite get around to muttering the hallowed “it’s a man’s game” line -- he made do with “it’s a physical game.” Nor did he maintain that Neymar should have got a yellow for simulation -- but he made it abundantly clear that, as he saw this incident, Brown was the hero and Neymar was the villain: “It’s a physical game, and I don’t think Neymar does himself any favors with the way he behaves at times.”
This sheds a pitiless light on the emptiness of the Brit attitude. To justify itself, it needs to sanctify the villains and to vilify the victims. Pretty well exactly one year ago I was writing in this column about another young Brazilian who was being condemned as a diver by a Brit coach, Tony Pulis. The Brazilian was the teenager Oscar, just beginning his career with Chelsea. The referee had (quite wrongly) carded Oscar for diving, and Pulis was quick to exonerate his player -- Ryan Shawcrosss -- who had “tackled” Oscar, and to applaud the referee: “this is England and we can’t watch players fall over and not talk about it.”
It is sad to see Neil Lennon lining himself up with Pulis (who got himself fired as the Stoke coach, ousted at least in part because the Stoke fans got fed up with the dreadful soccer he imposed on his team). The issue is clear enough. Do the Brits want a sport that welcomes the crudities of a Scott Brown or a Ryan Shawcross? Or one that encourages the skills of a Neymar or an Oscar?
Until the Brits get themselves on the right side of this one, until they acknowledge that “getting stuck in” is no longer an admirable quality but simply an excuse for lousy soccer, their game will continue to languish.