Category Archives: World Cup

The Woes of Luka Modrić: Croatia, Nationalism and Football

Juraj Vrdoljak of Telesport was convinced.  “I think half the population didn’t show up to work on the morning after the win against England.” The victory had inspired early shop closures, a feeling of rampant escapism. “Croatia is a country with a deep economic crisis.  Every day, life is really hard.  It’s full of bad stories and tough times.  There is lot of poverty.  A lot of people are emigrating.”

Members of Croatia’s football team have become national talismans of endurance, the shock troops of resilience and hope.  Ivan Rakitić, when he takes the field against France, will be playing his 71st match of the season, the most than any top-flight player this year.  Luka Modrić remains unflinching in the midfield as the team’s general.  Domagoj Vida has been granite in defensive solidity.

Football teams can be held up as mirrors of the nations they represent. This sociological gazing can always be taken too far, a scholar’s fruitless pondering, but Croatia’s national side is instructive.  It was Dinamo Zagreb’s Zvonimir Boban who stirred matters with his heralded assault on a police officer engaged in a violent scuffle with fans in a match against Red Star Belgrade.  Croatian football was fashioned as a vehicle of protest and dissent against what was seen as a Serb-dominated federation.

In time, football kicks became shells and bullets in the murderous dissolution of Yugoslavia.  To this day, a legend stubbornly holds that the truculent Bad Blue Boys of Dinamo and the countering Deljie of Red Star precipitated the first shots of that war.

Starting with its current inspirational captain, the link between social ill and patriotic performance can be seamless.  When he finishes the tournament in Russia, Modrić will have to turn his mind back to his relationship with mentor and former Dinamo Zagreb executive Zdravko Mamić, a towering figure who finds himself facing a six-and-a-half year prison sentence for corruption and fraud.  From Bosnia and Herzegovina, he does battle with the authorities, attempting to avoid extradition after fleeing Croatia.

A bursting feature of the case mounted against Mamić involved claims of ill-gotten gains from transfers of Modrić from Dinamo Zagreb to Tottenham Hotspur in 2008 and Dejan Lovren to Lyon in 2010.  Modrić, it seemed, was implicated in signing an annex to his Dinamo contract, suggesting a 50-50 split of any future transfer fee.  What was significant was the timing – 2015 as opposed to any earlier dates.  Through his tenure, suggestions that Mamić had conducted a “silent privatisation” of the club were rampant, producing inflated transfer prices and a cult of acquisitiveness.

Modrić, having been billed as a star witness who initially supplied anti-corruption investigators with gold dust on Mamić’s penchant for cooking the accounts, notably in terms of pocketing millions of euros of the transfer fee, froze in the dock.  His memory, it seemed, had failed him; the contract annex was not signed, as he initially claimed, in 2015 but 2004.  This testimony was effectively rendered worthless.  Croatia’s captain now faces the prospect of a perjury charge that carries a possible sentence of five years in prison.

The Croatian Football association, in an official statement in March, was not having a bar of it, unsurprising given the powers that be within the country’s football hierarchy.  The body insisted upon “the principle of innocence and considers every person innocent until proven otherwise.”  It was also “deeply convinced of the correctness of Luka Modrić’s testimony before the court in Osijek, and especially because of Modrić’s behaviour since his first appearance for the Croatian U-15 team in March 2001 to date.”

While every inch the commander in the field, with his team keen to impress in their following, not all Croatian supporters are in the Modrić tent of fandom. The Bad Blue Boys have found themselves split in loyalties over the years, with some, such as Juraj Ćošić, forming a breakaway team, Futsal Dinamo. “Zdravko Mamić,” claims football sociologist Ben Perasović, “is a typical member of the new rich class.”  It is a class that continues to afflict Croatian football with their depredations, a looting tendency that is only now being reined in with mixed success.

The other team members have also shown this side to be rather prickly. Vida, and the now sacked assistant coach Ognjen Vukojević, were caught on film making comments supportive of Ukrainian nationalists in the aftermath of the side’s defeat of Russia in the quarter-finals.  FIFA’s benevolence prevailed, and the centre-back was permitted to play in the semi-final against England.

Such a background adds more than a touch of complexity, with all its discomforts, to the World Cup final against France.  Croatia’s team will not merely be facing their opponents on the field in a battle of wits and tenacity. Off it, pens and knives are being readied and sharpened, with prosecutions being prepared.

Even now, the team is being written off by the smug pundits of football orthodoxy, though with less disdain than before.  Three matches on the trot into extra-time suggest imminent exhaustion, a possible overrunning by a more refreshed French team. But desperation, in meeting talent, can be the most potent of elixirs.  This Croatian team has pushed the sceptics to the edge, and threatens to leave them there.  And with players like Modrić, adversity remains their closest companion.

Giant Killing: Heroes and Teams at the 2018 World Cup

They have been falling like ninepins at one of the most unpredictable World Cups in generations.  Even before the kick-off in the tournament, Italy’s absence was conspicuous.  By the time the first phase of matches had been concluded, Germany, whose teams have made it to the elimination phase for eighty years, found itself in exit mode, a victim of exhaustion, desperation and South Korean determination.  Die Welt deemed the performance an embarrassment of perfection, the team’s performance “harmless, unimaginative, listless”.

Spain, who won the 2010 World Cup, found its adventure prematurely aborted in the round-of-sixteen, falling to the inspired Russian team on penalties.  Portugal, in their defeat before the hard set Uruguayans, went the same way in that round.  (Christian Ronaldo was distinctly off the boil.)  Not enough credit, however, was given in shocked observations to the other side of the show, the performances of those giant killing teams which have added to the fogginess of any crystal ball.

One colossus did seem dangerously predictable in advancing.  Brazil threatened at points to overcome a furiously talented Belgian team, but failed to transform possession into goals.  The Belgians made their chances count and duly dispatched another giant from the competition.

A sense prevailed that Brazil were their own worst enemy.  This was not the team of jogo bonito, jaunty, ruthless representatives of the beautiful game.  Neymar was both talismanic and deficient, an asset rolled into a liability.  His drama strewn efforts, which involved diving and rolling as much as it involved natural ability, did not provide the ballast his team required.  Such attitude, it has been surmised, might have been born from past serious injuries, be it the broken back he sustained in 2014, and a broken foot in February this year.

“I can say,” wrote Neymar in an Instagram post, “that this is the saddest moment of my career, it is incredibly painful because we knew we could get there, we knew we had conditions to go further, to make history.”  It proved “hard to find the strength to play soccer again, but I’m sure God will give me strength enough to face anything”.

The shocks have been marked and frequent, with the ground left for exhilarating performances.  Giants Argentina did not vanquish Iceland, the match concluding with a goal a piece. In an absorbing match, it was that other footballer of genius Lionel Messi, who took the penalty after a collision between Sergio Agüro and Hördur Björgvin Magnússon.  He botched it, and Hannes Thór Halldórsson made the save.  Another team of minnows had done their country exhilaratingly proud.

Croatia, with its own smattering of talented players, subsequently rumbled Messi’s side with three answered goals, despite both sides going into the second half without having scored.  France, in a thrilling bout involving seven goals and the incessant efforts of the 19-year-old Kylian Mbappé, issued the coup de grace.

The host team Russia was a thrill with Croatia, also going down to penalties.  England, albeit with a soft line of the draw, found themselves in their first semi-final in major international competition since 1996.  An exorcism of sorts has been taking place with this team, with manager Gareth Southgate, waistcoat and all, becoming very much a figure of veneration in a nation bruised and battered by the trauma of Brexit negotiations.  Both dedicated Leavers and grieving Remainers have at last found something they can agree about.

As the BBC noted with a smattering of affection, this “affable man” had done what a host of experienced highly credentialed predecessors hadn’t.  Sven-Goran Eriksson, Fabio Capello, Steve McClaren and Roy Hodgson had failed “despite more than 80 [matches] between them.”  While the football nation has historical pedigree, and not short of its stellar complement, team efforts have tended to founder when it mattered most, notably during the psychological wear-and-tear of the penalty shootout.  Southgate’s skill has been to temper expectations and the hysterical overconfidence that has accompanied previous World Cups.

The tournament has also thrown up a dilemma for managers: How best to incorporate the hero of the side, the glorious figure who shines in a team of lesser mortals who await for the powder to be lit, the flames to be stoked?  Teams studded with Neymar, Messi and Ronaldo may be Olympian on the field, but team value and effect is something else, material drawn from the machinery of collective spirit and mutual encouragement.

Truism as it is, teams, well functioning, telepathically linked and good of understanding, win matches.  Caesars deft of foot and brimming with talent are less significant, even if they are capable of landing killer blows.  “When you have somebody who can turn the game in a flash,” asks Kris Voakes, “do you select them at all costs regardless of their fitness in the hope that they supply that moment of genius?”  France, the sole giant and finalist in this competition, has no such dilemma, a team bristling with talent but compact in purpose.

Enlightened Corners: The Russia 2018 World Cup

Senior Guardian sports writer Barney Ronay indicated the basic tone of early corporate coverage of the Russia 2018 World Cup:

Moscow is like a giant scale version of Lewisham

Journalist Peter Oborne responded:

I know Moscow. It is one of the great cities of the world. Barney Ronay should stick to sports reporting. He diminishes himself by trying to join in Guardian anti-Russian sneering.

In fact, Ronay had already joined the Guardian‘s sneering with his review of the World Cup’s opening ceremony and first match. He commented:

There was the required grimly magisterial speech from your host for the night, Mr Vladimir Putin.

The intended irony being, of course, that the grim ‘Mr Vladimir Putin’ – think Vlad the Impaler – was hosting a joyous sporting occasion. And we do not mean to suggest that there is not much that is grim about Putin’s Russia (as Oborne also made clear in an excellent article he tweeted to people who responded to his criticism of Ronay); that is not our point.

For Ronay, the grimness was inescapable, as he noted in describing the opening match between Russia and Saudi Arabia:

This match had been dubbed El Gasico by some, a reference to the fact these two nations host between them a quarter of the world’s crude oil reserves. Perhaps something a bit darker – El Kalashniko? – might have been more apt given the distressingly tangled relations between these two energy caliphates, who are currently the best of frenemies, convivial sponsors of opposing sides in the Syrian war.

Although Ronay is a sports writer, realpolitik was a running theme throughout his review of the opening ceremony:

Here the power-play was on show for all to see, the stadium TV cameras cutting away mid-game to show shots of Putin and Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman leaning in to swap gobbets of power gossip in the VIP cockpit. Lodged between them sat the slightly jarring figure of Gianni Infantino, the mouse who roared, an administrator who really must blink now and then and wonder what exactly he’s doing here. Football does get itself into the strangest of places.

Ronay added:

A few weeks ago Fifa produced a film showing Putin and Infantino doing keep-ups together inside the Kremlin. Even here the dark hand of the Putin alternative reality machine was felt, with talk that the president’s performance had been doctored by technicians to make his skills sicker, more convincing, less the usual middle-aged mess of toe‑pokes and shinners.

Driven by an army of ‘Russian bots’, the ‘Putin alternative reality machine’ is supposed to be distorting everything from Brexit to Trump’s presidency, to Corbyn’s rise to prominence, but is mostly an excuse for the West’s alternative reality machine to attack internet freedom that has left the establishment shaken, not stirred.

Finally, Ronay added:

To squeals and roars Putin appeared at last to deliver a speech about the joys of football, not to mention peace, love and understanding, all of which are great. It was perhaps a little rambling and terse, less opening day Santa Claus, more notoriously frightening local vicar called away from his books to open the village fete.

Chief Guardian sports writer Martha Kelner, formerly of the Daily Mail and niece of the former Independent editor Simon Kelner who was at one time deputy sports editor at the Independent, also focused on the ominous undertones:

Just 15 minutes before kick-off the Russian president was driven in a convoy of cars with blacked out windows into an underground space beneath the 81,000-seat stadium. Large swaths of the crowd burst into a spontaneous chant of “Vladimir, Vladimir”. When Russia won the right to host the World Cup eight years ago the Russian president possibly expected it to be an opportunity to ingratiate himself with the international community. The aims have changed drastically since then, with Russia’s involvement in wars in Ukraine and Syria, allegations of meddling in foreign elections and one of the biggest doping scandals in sporting history.

Perhaps in 2012, some free-thinking Guardian journalist reviewed the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, noting that David Cameron ‘possibly expected’ the Games ‘to be an opportunity to ingratiate himself with the international community’, having destroyed Libya in 2011, and having voted for the war that destroyed Iraq in 2003. In reality, of course, there was no need for Cameron to ingratiate himself – it was precisely the ‘international community’ that had committed these crimes.

Like all Bond villains, Putin was joined by other leaders of a lesser God:

Putin was joined in the VIP box by a host of lesser known world leaders including Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the president of Uzbekistan, Sooronbay Jeenbekov, the president of Kyrgyzstan, and Juan Carlos Varela, the president of Panama.

But Kelner glimpsed light in the darkness:

There was evidence, too, of progress being made through football in the less enlightened corners of the world. Yasser, an IT engineer from Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, attended the game with his wife and two primary school age daughters. They were surprise visitors, especially as women were not even allowed into football stadiums in Saudi Arabia until January this year.

It would never occur to a Daily Mail/Guardian journalist that Britain and its leading allies might be considered ‘less enlightened corners of the world’, given their staggering record of selecting, installing, arming and otherwise supporting dictators in ‘less enlightened corners’, including Saudi Arabia as it devastates famine-stricken Yemen.

A Guardian TV guide commented:

Expect a fearsomely drilled opening ceremony live from Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, followed by a human rights activist’s dream of an opening fixture as Russia take on Saudi Arabia.1

We can be sure that the England team has never featured in ‘a human rights activist’s dream’.

The Guardian sneers were very much extended to singer Robbie Williams who performed at the opening ceremony. A piece by Mattha Busby reported:

Robbie Williams has been accused of selling his soul to the “dictator” Vladimir Putin after it emerged he will be performing in Russia for the football World Cup.

Busby cited Labour MP Stephen Doughty, who voted for war on Iraq and Syria:

It is surprising and disappointing to hear that such a great British artist as Robbie Williams, who has been an ally of human rights campaigns and the LGBT+ community, has apparently agreed to be paid by Russia and Fifa to sing at the World Cup opener.

At a time when Russian jets are bombing civilians in Syria, the Russian state is poisoning people on the streets of Britain, as well as persecuting LGBT+ people in Chechnya and elsewhere – let alone attempting to undermine our democracies – I can only assume Robbie will be speaking out on these issues alongside his performance?

The Guardian clearly felt the point needed underlining. It also cited John Woodcock MP, who voted for war on Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and Iraq:

We all want to support the England team but Robbie Williams is handing Vladimir Putin a PR coup by performing at the thuggish pariah’s opening ceremony just months after Russia carried out a chemical weapons attack on English soil.

Nobody criticised Paul McCartney, Mike Oldfield or indeed The Queen for participating in the London 2012 opening ceremony. But then nobody could think of any reasons for considering David Cameron a ‘thuggish pariah’.

Former Guardian music editor, Michael Hann, observed dismissively:

Williams’s stardom has been largely confined to Europe and isn’t of the wattage it once was. Still, nothing hung around long enough to get dull…

As for the event:

It was short, it was mostly painless. And it was completely pointless.

Kelner’s piece included a tweeted video clip from England footballer Kyle Walker showing Williams giving the middle finger to his critics, with Walker commenting sarcastically:

So nice of Robbie to say hello.

In The Times, under the title, ‘Fans give Moscow shiny, happy feel to help Putin create image of harmony,’ chief football correspondent Oliver Kay scratched his head in bewilderment, asking:

What does Russia want from this tournament?

Kay rejected out of hand the notion that it was ‘about trying to convince the rest of the world that Russia is open to embracing what the West would regard as a modern, progressive approach to life’.2

Fellow Times journalists and other Westerners taking a ‘modern, progressive approach to life’ will have nodded sagely from their more ‘enlightened corners of the world’.

Broadcast media were happy to join in this New Cold War fun. The Telegraph noted of ITV’s senior football commentator Clive Tyldesley:

One man who is definitely not going mushy on us is Clive Tyldesley. The great man was in fine form on commentary, getting a reducer in early doors with an anecdote about the Russian manager, Stanislav Cherchesov, having a nationally-celebrated moustache and observing that “Stalin had a proper ‘tache”. Somewhere, [football commentator] Andy Townsend murmured, half to himself, “a cult of personality dictator who slaughtered millions of his own citizens? Not for me, Clive.”3

And:

The camera dutifully sought out President Putin after the opening, mildly controversial goal; the top man was shaking hands with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. Clive: “They are doing an oil deal, nothing to do with the match.”

Discussions of ugly realpolitik do have a place in sports analysis. But did UK and US realpolitik in plundering Iraq and Libya’s oil, in propping up dictators in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Turkey, Kuwait, Uzbekistan, in supporting Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, in obstructing action on catastrophic climate change, in subordinating Third World people to power and profit over hundreds of years, make it into sports reviews of the London Olympics, or any other UK or US sporting event?

The Sun reported of broadcaster Gabby Roslin:

Despite her excitement, Gabby, 45, does have some reservations about being in Russia.

“I’d be lying if I said I was completely free and easy and it will be just like a weekend Marbella, because it won’t,” she admits. “But you have to be open to cultural differences and not try to change it and make it fit for you. Russia are not going to do that.”4

And then there was ‘Putin’s Russia with David Dimbleby’, a BBC One special. A TV guide in the Telegraph commented:

“In a democracy if you fail to deliver on economic promises, if you surround yourself with cronies and use the law to suppress opposition, you would rightly be thrown out on your ear. But this is Russia, they do things differently here…” So begins David Dimbleby’s thoughtful film in which – as the eyes of the world turn towards Moscow for the 2018 World Cup football tournament – he takes the opportunity to cast an eye over Vladimir Putin’s 18 years as leader and assess the state of Russia today, especially in regard to the West.’5

They also do things differently at the BBC. On January 18, 1991 – one day after the US-UK’s Operation Desert Storm had begun devastating Iraq with 88,500 tons of bombs, the equivalent of seven Hiroshimas, just 7 per cent of them ‘smart bombs’ – Dimbleby asked the US ambassador to Britain:

Isn’t it in fact true that America is… by dint of the very accuracy of the weapons we’ve seen, the only potential world policeman? You may have to operate under the United Nations, but it’s beginning to look as though you’re going to have to be in the Middle East, just as in the previous part of this century, we and the French were in the Middle East.6

Dimbeleby retained his job as an impartial, objective public broadcaster. In fact, nobody noticed anything controversial at all.

London 2012 – A ‘Festival of Light’

By contrast, the London 2012 Olympic Games’ opening ceremony was widely hailed as ‘a masterpiece’. For The Daily Telegraph it was ‘brilliant, breathtaking, bonkers and utterly British’. The BBC’s chief sports writer Tom Fordyce commented: ‘no-one expected… it would be quite so gloriously daft, so cynicism-squashingly charming and, well, so much pinch-yourself fun’.

‘Cynicism’, which certainly had been ‘squashed’, was off the agenda. In an article titled, ‘Festival of Light’, The Times preached from a patriotic pulpit:

From London these next few weeks will come joy in a time of trouble, will come spectacular feats and great human dramas, will come triumph and will come tears. The great dream of the Olympic founders, that the Games would eliminate war, was naive. But they can at least unite us in common endeavour. Mankind has many moments of great darkness, but this will be a festival of light.

Yesterday’s opening ceremony was a triumph. Adventurous, self-confident, playful, entertaining and all with a sense of history. It was suffused, in other words, with the spirit of the Games to come… Festival of Light: Great feats of athletic ability; great unscripted stories of triumph and disaster; a great sense of national spirit. Britain will rise to a shining occasion… For our country, as well as the athletes from around the world, this is a time to shine.

This was a time to exalt in Britain’s greatness, ‘a time to shine’. It was not a time to sneer at ‘our’ great wars of aggression.

In an article titled, ‘Let’s build on the triumph and hope of Danny Boyle’s night’, the Observer’s editors also waxed lyrical on the opening ceremony:

Sport has a special hold on the imagination. This is sport of the most special kind. We didn’t drop the torch. We didn’t foul up or shrink from the daring option. We put creativity first. Now, why on earth should all that go hang when it’s all over?

The Observer sought out any remaining readers not yet reduced to tears of patriotic joy:

It sought to sum up a country – a very multicultural land manifestly – which had played a full part in world literature, world construction, world invention (even if very few of those feats are taught in our core curriculum these days). It was anxious to show us, in short, that we’d mattered – and hint that we could perhaps matter again.7

Jonathan Freedland wrote in the Guardian:

Here too the opening ceremony set the tone, suggesting that we should love the country we have become – informal, mixed, quirky – rather than the one we used to be.

Freedland soared on a reverie of poetic possibility. The Olympics had offered hope of a place ‘where patriotism is heartfelt, but of the soft and civic rather than naked and aggressive variety; a place that welcomes visitors from abroad and cheers louder for the Turkish woman who came last in a 3,000m steeplechase heat than it did for the winner.

This is the Britain we let ourselves see these past two weeks. It will slip from view as time passes, but we are not condemned to forget it. We don’t have to be like the long-ago poet who once wrote: “Did you exist? Or did I dream a dream?”

The sublime, lovely and inspirational were everywhere in reviews of the London 2012 opening ceremony and Games.

Three weeks before the ceremony, Amnesty International published a report, ‘Libya: Rule of law or rule of militias?’, based on the findings of an Amnesty visit to Libya in May and June 2012.

The militias, Amnesty reported, were now ‘threatening the very future of Libya and casting a shadow over landmark national elections… They are killing people, making arbitrary arrests, torturing detainees and forcibly displacing and terrorizing entire communities… They are also recklessly using machine guns, mortars and other weaponry during tribal and territorial battles, killing and maiming bystanders. They act above the law, committing their crimes without fear of punishment.]

Amnesty added:

The entire population of the city of Tawargha, estimated at 30,000, was driven out by Misratah militias and remains scattered across Libya, including in poorly resourced camps in Tripoli and Benghazi.

None of this was up for discussion by Britain’s sports writers and broadcasters, nor even by its political commentators. It would have been deemed as outrageous for journalists to mention UK realpolitik then as it would for them to not make at least some passing reference to brutal Russian realpolitik now.

  1. Catterall, Ali; Harrison, Phil; Howlett, Paul; Mueller, Andrew; Seale, Jack; et al, ‘Thursday’s best TV: The Trouble with Women; Fifa World Cup,’ The Guardian, 14 June 2018.
  2. Oliver Kay, The Times, 13 June 2018.
  3. Clive Tyldesley takes on Vladimir Putin as ITV kicks off World Cup with brilliant opening broadcast,’ Telegraph, 14 June 2018.
  4. ‘World in motion: Your TV schedule is about to be taken over by football as 2018 World Cup kicks off in Russia,’ The Sun, 9 June 2018.
  5. ‘What’s on TV tonight: Putin’s Russia, The Fight for Women’s Bodies and Beetlejuice,’ Telegraph, 13 June 2018.
  6. Quoted, John Eldridge, ‘Getting The Message: News, Truth and Power,’ Routledge, 2003, p.14.
  7. Leading article, ‘London 2012: Let’s build on the triumph and hope of Danny Boyle’s night,’ The Observer, 29 July 2012.