Archive for June, 2010

When England lose

29 June 2010

After England’s World Cup débacle it seems a good moment to be reading Why England Lose, by the journalist Simon Kuper and economist Stefan Szymanski. It turns out that there are only three factors which explain international footballing success:

  • Size of population
  • National income
  • Experience of playing internationals

In general, England have outperformed those factors, a bit; but in terms of overall results there’s no quick way of changing the odds. (Population and national income changes slowly; international experience increases, but so does that of other countries). Well, almost no quick way; it seems it is possible to amplify experience by hiring in know-how, which is why there is a thriving international market in coaches with experience of managing sides in the Champions’ League.

That at least, was the theory of England’s hiring foreign coaches in the last decade. The book – which seems to have been updated for its recent paperback publiction – is  enthusiastic about Capello’s record, but at least offers the caveat that his England defeats have come against ‘big teams’; England has always managed to do well against the ‘minnows’.

So perhaps ‘know-how’ needs to be understood more broadly, and here the wider differences in expertise between England and its bigger competitors was noted this week by Paul Hayward:

Spain, the European champions, have 750 Grade A Uefa-trained coaches, compared to under 150 in England. All those English tutors instruct fully-grown men while in Spain 640 of the 750 teach five-year-olds and up. A Spanish cultural revolution 15 years ago has transformed the national team.

Can England win it again? It turns out that home advantage is worth ⅔ of goal per game, which is why South Korea reached the semi-finals in 2002, Sweden reached the final of the World Cup in 1958 and and six countries – Uruguay, Italy, England, West Germany and Argentina and France – have won the competition at home, in eighteen World Cups.

I took the picture at the top of the post. It’s is published here under a Creative Commons licence.


Watching the door

13 June 2010

I was in Belfast and Derry last year on holiday, and while I was there read Kevin Myers’ fairly recent memoir of reporting the Troubles in the north of Ireland 35 years ago, first for RTE and later as a freelance. You realise, some way in, that you are watching a man coming to terms with post-traumatic stress. He never says it, of course, and my saying it here is not intended to diminish a well-written and compelling book. But about half way through Watching the Door,  he admits us to a dream he had, every night for several years, even after he has left the city.

The men appeared out of nowhere. They were masked and armed and said not a word. Both raised their guns, but only one fired at me, hitting me neatly in the neck, and down I went, on my back. I knew I was doomed, that the wound was fatal. My spine was severed, and my trachea torn open. The two men walked over to finish me off … As I began to speak, the air merely bubbled through the bullet hole in my trachea, splattering boiling hot blood over the ice-cold rain on my face. Then they fired.

The catalogue of killings is relentless – he acknowledges his debt here to David McKittrick – the violence remorseless, his own part in it all captured on the page. In the introduction, he describes his role as being that of ‘a maggot’; at the end, working now as a freelance, the final straw is the La Mon tragedy in which 12 people were burnt alive:

Each penny earned in this way now depended on someone’s death. No killing, no money. The relationship was immutable and unavoidable. A fireman watching television in the base earns the same as a fireman fighting an inferno. Not me. I needed bodies. After my initial report about Le Mon I told NBC to look elsewhere.

The psychology of the violence is well captured, as is his increasing distaste for it. A story about a powder-blue Mercedes, owned by one of the two drivers who ferry him around for the Irish broadcaster RTE when he first joins the station’s Belfast bureau seems to stand for it all. The driver is shot by a soldier while changing a battery within sight of an army barracks. The Catholic car dealer who buys it from his widow, and his business partner, are both killed by the UDF when they drive it on business to the Protestant Shankill Road area. The hooded body of one is left on the back seat. The car, now unsaleable in Belfast, is sold cheaply through a Dublin newspaper: the new owner died in the vehicle on the way back south after losing control on a bend.

Belfast was [in 1972] now like that Mercedes: cursed from on high, and violent and terrible death awaited the unwary at every turn and every hour. … Every morning brought a harvest of bodies of the stupid, the unlucky and the gullible who had died terribly.  Protestants and Catholics were equally likely to fall victim to this lethal mood.

The life of a journalist in such circumstances inevitably becomes complicit, to the point of becoming a target. One of the UDA hard men tries to kill him (he’s saved by a tip-off from a companion); he flees from a planned beating by the IRA; a pistol is cocked to his head by a member of the Paras; he stumbles out of the debris of a pub bombing only because he happens to be in the urinals when it explodes.

It’s an honest story, well told. I think he may be too hard on himself, looking back at 60 on his 20-something self, for I am not sure that others would have fared better. Buried in the story are several occasions when he did the right thing, either as a journalist or as a person, sometimes at some risk to himself. And he’s sharp on the British government and the British Army’s place in the conflict, and their blindness to the role played in the conflict by the UDA and UVF loyalists.

In a memorable passage, he observes that Belfast in the 1970s had, as a city, become clinically insane. He starts by believing that he understands its madness, but realises that the longer he stays the less true this is. He’s walked into a world, and a time, which is impossible for an outsider fully to grasp; he’s tolerated for a while by those who live there while he suits their purposes, but he’ll never learn their codes and private meanings.

Moments of redemption

2 June 2010

Film is mostly a narrative medium, and quite a manipulative one. And what that means is that it tells redemption stories better than any other medium. By ‘redemption’ stories, I mean those stories where private virtue is – at the last – made public or visible. The classic redemption story, of course, is It’s A Wonderful Life; I’ve seen it a dozen times or more, and still find the tears welling up as (spoiler alert!) George Bailey runs home through to the snow to find that the people of Bedford Falls have paid off the deficit of the Savings & Loan, as George’s younger brother Harry – who’s flown through a blizzard to be there – toasts “the richest man in Bedford Falls”.

I found another fine example this week in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film The Lives of Others (link opens review) about life under the gaze of Stasi, the East German security police. The film won an Oscar for best foreign film in 2007, and although this isn’t always an indicator of quality, in this case it was well-deserved. The Lives of Others captures well the grim combination of intimidation, thoroughness, graft and complicity which enabled Stasi to maintain its control on East German life.

I’m not going to give away too much (spoiler non-alert), but for reasons of professional propriety a well-regarded agent – Wiesler – chooses not to do his job monitoring a well known writer as diligently as his superiors would like, eventually obstructing the investigation, and wrecks his career as a result. When the files are opened, after the Wall falls, the writer discovers the full story, and finds a way to acknowledge his debt. And there go the tears again.

The film hinges on Wiesler’s realisation that his surveillance job on the writer has been authorised only to put the writer in jail so that a member of the East German politburo can pursue an affair with his girlfriend, and the scene where he realises this is wonderfully well-written. Of course, it doesn’t all end well. As John Le Carré once said, love is whatever you can still betray. But sometimes we can also redeem our debts: even if it takes years.