Tuesday, June 26, 2012

For once, it's OK

Another Monday, another round of recrimination, another sad, dejected journey home from some far-flung land, tails between legs, fresh scars from another humiliating defeat.

Yeah, yeah, and all that. It is starting to become depressingly familiar even writing such an intro, given that the origin of this very blog lay in England's miserable, wretched performance in the 2010 World Cup.

"Let the wailing and gnashing of teeth begin," were my somewhat uninspired opening words, admittedly bashed out in pique on a 7am Monday morning commuter train. England's ejection from South Africa, at the clinical feet of an organised, effective and impressive Germany (and a disorganised, ineffective and unimpressive FIFA) was just reward for the dismal way they'd limped through the group stages, weighed by their own egos, inflated expectation and by an uncommunicative manager who seemed to have turned up to run a different football team entirely.

Well not this time. Let the flags of St. George continue to fly, and may the white and red face paint remain unwashed for a few more days at least. It's OK, it really is.

England made a good fist of Euro 2012. They weren't fancied to begin with, they were never likely to win the thing anyway, but, like a progressive junior school maintaining that taking part is just as good as winning, they got involved, they looked like a team, finally, and they made their way through Group D and into another ill-fainted quarter-final. 

Had England beaten Italy - and, just like Chelsea in Munich on May 19, penalties could have ended differently - they'd have faced a Germany who are, this year, even more organised, effective and impressive. Sound familiar? Ask Roberto Di Matteo.

The press have and will continue to make remarks about penalties, "cruelty" (it's not cruel, it's just 10 men kicking a ball from a dead position and two men trying to stop it) and that England weren't 'all that' at Euro 2012. Well, that's as maybe, but at least this time they acknowledged their deficiencies from the outset, recognised their weaknesses, and got on with doing their best, and nothing more.

Moreover, national expectations were suitably recalibrated. There was no talk of a "golden generation" in the press, none of that "If we can't win with this side, then we'll never win" reverse psychology cobblers. Even invocation of 1966 was refreshingly stricken from the national conversation as it finally dawned on people that 46 years of hurt is starting to be symptomatic rather than a repetitive conspiracy. Mention of Italia'90 and Euro'96 were kept to a minimum, lest they raise hubris too high, though no-one seems to care that neither tournaments ended any better for England, with more misery at the hand of you-know-whats to the you-know-who in the you-know-when.

In 2012 there was no mention of internal rancor, splits, divisions and card schools. Even John Terry behaved himself impeccably off the field. The WAGs, too kept a respectful distance, though I'm not linking these two statements.

While the outcome of the Poland & Ukraine adventure for England may have been the same as previous expeditions, it was a different England taking part. Credit, for their composure, their "normality", their workmanlike, sleeves-rolled-up approach must go to Roy Hodgson, a manager who exudes all three of those virtues. 
For all the misgivings about the somewhat suburban manager taking over a team of uptown personalities, Hodgson's quiet, down-to-earth manner was the right one. 

"How come?" you may contest, seeing as he didn't produce any sort of material improvement on previous England results in tournaments at this level. He produced a team. From back to front, England looked and played like a unit, a "group", as Jose Mourinho would call them. 

They behaved like a team, even one that largely fell together in the weeks leading up to Euro 2012, with a manager appointed little more than a month before the competition began. All this followed a vacuum in which all sorts of devilish behaviour went on surrounding race relations and other matters. Despite it things turned out, well, OK.

Coming from a country which regards The Great Escape as a icon of national success (it ends mostly in disaster, by the way), I am putting a brave face on England's performance in and ejection from Euro 2012. Things weren't perfect, and Sunday's encounter with Italy threw a vicious spotlight on a gap (but not a "gulf" - © all newspapers) - in class with England. True, Andrea Pirlo ran a masterclass in midfield ownership, something even the most die-hard, Cross of St. George body-tattooed England fan would have to recognise.

On top of this, England did look tired at times: I know England fielded a squad of multi-millionaires, but even these pampered souls, with their Louis Vuitton toilet paper and his'n'hers matching Range Rovers, have been run into the ground by a long Premier League season. The Chelsea boys had to deal with an extra 240 minutes of Champions League football over their teammates, while the Manchester United and City players, not to mention Spurs' Scott Parker, were required to give their all right up until the final whistle of the domestic season. These may be supreme athletes, but they're also human, and it was starting to show.

So, what next? World Cup 2014. And we get to go through it all over again. 
"If nothing else works, a total pig-headed unwillingness to look facts in the face will see us through." - General Anthony Cecil Hogmanay Melchett, Blackadder Goes Forth

Thursday, June 21, 2012

London Calling

When Britpop was in its prime, midway through the final decade of the last millennium, a thrusting young buck called Tony Blair came bounding down from the north-east of England to become Prime Minister of This Sceptred Isle™. Britain was, at the time, undergoing a purple patch of creative endeavour not seen since the 60s.

Indeed, such was the success of the 60s that Britain decided to recreate them in the 90s. For the Swinging Sixites, read the Loaded generation. There were artists pickling marine life (for David Bailey, read Damien Hirst) and London's Primrose Hill was fit to bursting with the cream of young British celebrity (for Caine, Stamp and Christie, read Law, Frost and Moss). Elsewhere, the country was draped, somewhat ironically, in red, white and blue. Britannia was Cool.

For a nation of natural cynics, which cherishes its heritage and loves the royals but regards all that America The Beautiful nonsense of our cousins over there a little bit, well, OTT, Britain was enjoying itself. To be seen wearing the Union Flag across your bosom (Geri Spice) or beneath the strings of your electric guitar (Gallagher, Noel) was not a misplaced and ever-so slightly gauche act of nationalism, but semi-ironic recognition that this little island of ours isn't that bad and, when you think about it, has contributed more good things to the world than the bad of its imperial past.

Today you can't go anywhere without seeing Union Flag-emblazoned sofas in furniture shops and the wartime legend KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON plastered on any printable surface. And I'm not just talking about London or anywhere else in the British Isles: Brit-chic is everywhere - even in Paris - where soft furnishings featuring the Jack are in vogue in the trendiest of home decoration boutiques.

Britannia is cool - again - or so it would appear. It has a charming new royal couple, a cheeky scamp of a prince who dates blondes, flies attack helicopters and hangs out in nightclubs, while the collective "Firm" of the House of Windsor has reanimated the world's love affair with it by celebrating Her Majesty's 60-years of majesty. And, as a neat coda to all that pomp, ceremony and ice cream, even the England football team is obliging us with a run in Euro 2012. For now.

If the world hasn't had enough of London flypasts and flagwaving for one year, 36 days from now the Olympic torch will arrive in the capital for what has been promised - by Boris Johnson, largely, so blame him if it doesn't work out -  to be the greatest celebration of Britain in living memory: the 2012 Summer Olympic Games - the Games of the XXX Olympiad. 

Such is the excitement about London 2012 that the BBC has moved to Salford, which is near Manchester and therefore not in London, and London cab drivers will universally - and gladly - tell you that they'll be spending the entire games on a beach - Canvey Island, Magaluf, Margate, doesn't matter, just anywhere that doesn't involve driving through a choked city. If you're coming to London, bring walking shoes or curb your claustrophobia by using the Underground. 

Snarkiness aside, the world has been promised a party, and a party they will get. Again, blame Boris - the cunning politician masquerading as a blond buffoon - if that doesn't work out, but it was he who, amid Jimmy Page, David Beckham and a Routemaster bus in Beijing, vowed a celebration.

As with any decent party, someone has made a mix tape. And like any playlist it will delight, divide, baffle and broach conflict in equal measure. Earlier this week, someone "leaked" this planned soundtrack for the opening ceremony of the Games, which is being compiled by the ceremony's co-musical directors, Underworld's Karl Hyde and Rick Smith.

On first inspection the playlist looks like a combination of the obvious and the in-joke, but that would be a harsh assessment of a program designed to last three hours and offer something for everyone - visitor and incumbent.

So what will we get, as we watch fireworks and garishly-clad athletes parading around the half-a-billion-pound stadium?

If the leaked playlist is correct, Hyde and Smith's sense of irony is certainly intact, kicking off the shindig with Drummond's Eton Boating Song, followed by the always rousing Land Of Hope And Glory, before letting The Jam loose with Going Underground, as bold a tribute to kitchen sink Britain as anything to come out of the post-punk era.

Later on, the Sex Pistols' God Save The Queen and Pretty Vacant (yes, we get it - and Lydon's now advertising butter...) and, perhaps, the most obvious inclusion of all - London Calling.

From the themes to EastEnders and Coronation Street to the chimes of Big Ben, the opening of London 2012 will leave no musical reference to the dear old lady of London untouched.

Prog rock - Floyd's Eclipse ("All that you...touch/see/taste/feel/love/hate/distrust/save/give/deal/buy/steal/create/destroy/do/say/eat") and two tracks from Muse (Map Of The Problematique and Uprising) - lies alongside with Elgar, Handel, Jerusalem and the always-spine tingling Cup Final anthem, Abide With Me.

There will be cinematic pomp - The Dambusters March (which I'm sure will go down well with Germany), 80s synth pop - OMD's Enola Gay (which I'm sure will go down well with the Japanese squad, especially as it will apparently precede the Sugababes' Push The Button...), West End musicals (Food, Glorious Food from Oliver!) and saucy English seaside postcard smut (The Stripper).

The more you look at the list, the more you come to think that Hyde and Smith have been handed the gig of the year in compiling it. Forget Danny Boyle with his Bond-themed opening film, the real fun,  I suspect, was in drawing up the usual suspects, and then augmenting them with a ribald twist. 

The obvious - a liberal sprinkling of The Beatles (She Loves YouThe End and Hey Jude), the Rolling Stones (Satisfaction, inevitably), The Kinks (All Day And All Of The Night), The 'Oo (My Generationand Bowie's Heroes - mix with the less obvious: Trampled Under Foot by Led Zeppelin (Stairway To Heaven would probably have been just a little too, you-know..., but why not Whole Lotta Love as Jimmy Page played in Beijing?).

As proud as we Brits should be for our classic rock heritage, the playlist denotes generous time to more contemporary London fare, such as Tinie Tempah's Pass Out and Random Antics by Kano & Mikey J. British dance culture is also properly represented by The Chemical Brothers (Galvanise), Prodigy's Firestarter (just to please Health & Safety...) and, of course, Underworld with their own Born Slippy, which will hopefully not turn up during the aquatic events.

Thematically, there will be Chariots Of Fire by Vangelis, who is Greek and will probably welcome the royalties, while Queen and the Dame's Under Pressure reflects the reputation of London's organisational skills as much as the demands about to be placed on the atheletes. 

The decades that British music has given to the global soundtrack are equally reflected, though strange to see nothing before 1962. Surely Peter Sellers' Any Old Iron or Lonnie Donegan's Rock Island Line - the skiffle song that launched the careers of most British rock stars born in the '50s, could have been found a place amongst the TV theme tunes and other ecoterica?

But that's the fun of a playlist: it's a provocation to good-natured argument, as Nick Hornby captured so well in High Fidelity (the book...). It is why athletes who have spent the last four - even eight - gruelling years preparing for these games, will be swooned by a lovey-dovey tune about a bloke who's had a few too many and is asking his better half to drive him home. Yep, I'm not entirely sure what you're supposed to do to Eric Clapton's Wonderful Tonight while walking around a running track either. Eric is a national hero, one of the greatest guitarists of all time, and I'm proud to be from (sort of) his neck of the woods, but is WT the best representation of his canon and the British blues boom he helped fuel? Surely Cream's Crossroads would have been better - a distinctly British interpretation of a song foundered in the heat of Mississippi.

And then there is Billie Jean by Michael Jackson. Why? On one hand, a good party song, but unless it is some obscure reference to the famously saphic, six-times Wimbledon Ladies Champion, I can't understand its inclusion, thematically or otherwise. I do have a theory, however: Jacko was, once, bizarrely paraded at Fulham FC's Craven Cottage ground during half time of a fixture with West Ham, whose fans sing I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles (also on the list). It is said that the entire crowd welcomed Jacko by singing this song...only with a markedly different purpose altogether...

So, progressing through the 1970s, Mud's Tiger Feet (an absolutely fantastic inclusion) and more Bowie (Starman) remind us of how much music injected colour to the otherwise drab British landscape of the decade, which was spent mostly on strike. For the 1980s - the decade that began with Thatcher, recession and war in the Falklands before erupting in a many-hued puffball skirt of  party exuberence - we'll have Duran Duran, The Eurythmics, New Order, Frankie Goes To Hollywood (Relax - my, how we've moved on as a nation...) and Soul II Soul.

And then we reach the 1990s. The circle of the 60s is turned fully with Wonderwall, an acknowledgement of Noel Gallagher's songwriting simplicity, a feature shared with Paul McCartney. Strange, though not to see one or two of the Oasis crowdpleasers - say Cigarettes And Alcohol, for a laugh, or Roll With It. Instead, The Hindu Times is on the list - a hit, but hardly a signature hit. 

Blur, on the other hand, are represented by Song 2 - a no brainer, some might say, even if it's overuse by American "sports" broadcasters has started to render it a tad annoying. Radiohead feature with Creep, presumably a reference to the speed with which London's traffic will progress for the Games' duration. Strangely, though, there's no room for Pulp, despite Lord Jarvis of Cocker hawking the Eurostar service on television adverts encouraging France to come and see what London took away from Paris. Ouch.

Looking back over the last 50 years of music represented by this list, it does warm the cockles to see just how good British music has been, and continues to be. The Arctic Monkeys' I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor is a fitting tribute to Alex Turner's gnarled pop senisibility, not to mention his prolific endeavour, while the good times will roll with the Kaisers' I Predict A Riot (ha-ha, ho-ho, he-he...) and Franz Ferdinand's Take Me Out.

For a contrast in fortunes, Amy Winehouse's zoot-suited version of Valerie will be heard in quick succession with Coldplay's Viva La Vida (not Clocks?) and then Adele's Rolling In The Deep. The Tottenham Tenor couldn't or shouldn't be ignored for an event like this, especially as she is single-handedly maintaining the UK's GDP with sales of 19 and 21, which between them now represent Britain's biggest export industry, ahead of Japanese cars made in Sunderland and Swindon, and the port wing of Airbus airliners made in Wales (don't you just love European collaboration?). 

Can we derive any Britishness from all this? Will this three-hour mix tape have us reaching for the Union Jack boxer shorts? Hard to say: Olympic ceremonies are hardly my cup of tea, but if this leaked list is the real deal, it would be fair to say that Karl Hyde and Rick Smith will pull off one of the more remarkable feats of London 2012 - drawing up a playlist that represents the good, the bad and the ugly of Britain and British music, from the serious to the silly, and - such as Ron Grainer's Doctor Who theme and Monty Python's The Liberty Bell - the humour that defines us Brits, and which probably only we will get.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Shhhh.... Don't tell anyone, but the football's on

Incredibly, it is now Day 12 of Euro 2012, and things are hotting up nicely. I mean the football, of course, as clearly summer has decided to stay home and send autumn in its place.

Here in Paris you'd be hard pressed to know the football was even taking place. It is remarkably quiet.

At Trocadéro, down the road from where I live, there is an official UEFA 'fan zone'. This blue-tented big screen affair has generated some noise, mostly from Portuguese, Spanish and Italian expats exuberantly driving home and honking their car horns in celebration of their respective group stage victories.

The lack of local French interest is baffling, however. If this was America, it would be understandable: when the Pasadena Rosebowl near Los Angeles hosted the 1994 World Cup Final locals interviewed outside it had absolutely no idea what was going on inside it. France, though, should patently know better: they won the World Cup on home turf just four years later, a result that carried them through to winning Euro 2000 in Rotterdam two years after that.

Perhaps, then, the reason for the muted French interest in Euro 2012 lies in the fact the years since Rotterdam have been somewhat turbulent for Les BleusA group stage exit from Euro 2008 preceeded the abject misery of their performance in the World Cup two years ago (matched only in its depth of despair by England's dreadful run in South Africa), managing just a solitary point from their group draw with Uruguay. To compound the rancoer nationale, a nuclear mushroom cloud hung over the team following Nicolas Anelka being sent home for "comments directed against the national coach", Raymond Domenach (he of the Thunderbirds-themed visage). 

It was a split as divisive as any imaginable, like the shells of a clam prised apart by boiling water, and resulted in players indulging in the national industrial pastime for going on strike. Zut and, indeed, alors. However, there was more 
turbulence to come last year when it was alleged that the FFF, la Fédération Football Française, and new coach, Laurent Blanc, had discussed "informal" quotas for limiting the involvement of players from African and Middle Eastern backgrounds in the French national team.

It's not entirely clear what effect this has had on the French team, this morning sitting on top of Group D, a single goal ahead of England, but it doesn't seem to have done much to shift the
indifference. Whereas suburban English homes are currently draped in Union Flags and German cars race through Berlin, Hamburg and Munich trailing pennants of black, gold and red, France appears to be hoisting one giant Gallic shrug to the whole affair.

Should France progress tonight, some of the spirit that memorably spilled out onto the streets of Paris in 1998 will return, but it is unlikely to dislodge the current national preoccupation in the country's tabacsthe oh-so-French bust-up between the women in newly installed president Francois Hollande's life (his current partner, the agreeable Paris Match hackette Valérie Trierweiler, and Ségolène Royal, the mother of his children and a defeated candidate in this weekend's senatorial elections).

Anyway, back to the footy. Tonight's matches between England and Ukraine and Sweden and France will bring Euro 2012's group stage to a close. Sweden, Russia, Croatia, Ireland and the Netherlands are already heading home. Poland are already home, which is handy. 

Of the early departees, the Dutch have been by far the greatest disappointment. Runners-up to World Champions Spain in South Africa, much was expected this time. Instead we saw their fractious spirit raise its implosive self yet again, with blame, egos and genetic impatience rearing up in the wake of defeat to Denmark, and then again defeat to that always contentious opponent Germany.

Installing Rafael van der Vaart and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar for the final Group B game against Portugal appeared to be a brave attempt by Bert van Marwijk at restoring dynamism to a limp side, whose hopes had rested on Robin van Persie's otherwise good season with Arsenal. The change came at the cost of dropping van Marwijk's son-in-law, the red card waiting to happen that is Marc van Bommel, whose family connection was never going to be a pacifying ingredient in the boiling soup of orange-clad egos.

Van Marwijk's decision to play van der Vaart looked to have worked when the Tottenham midfielder  latched on to Arjen Robben's pass in the 11th minute and looped in one of the best goals of the tournament so far. But the Oranje had forgotten about the preening, narcissist that is Cristiano Ronaldo.

Real Madrid's most prodigious proponent of hair product may well be one of the most annoying ponces to have ever graced the beautiful game, but you can never fault his ability on the ball. And with the Dutch defence looking like they were still enjoying a Sunday morning lie-in at nine in the evening, Ronaldo went through them like a comb through over-gelled hair. Or a monster ego through a sea of them.

After the match van der Vaart commented: "We all have to take a good, long look in the mirror," something Ronaldo presumably wouldn't have any difficulty with. Arjen Robben reflected equally painfully: "Of course there were some internal issues, but we'll keep them indoors." Well, partly: "The hunger in the team is there, but we failed together" he added through gritted teeth before heading home to a dejected nation packing its orange T-shirts, face paint and flagons of Heineken and chilled rosé away until the next time this nation gets behind its national football team in such vibrant enthusiasm.

Media wags have noted that the teams from countries floundering economically in Europe - Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal - are enjoying Euro 2012 the most. I'm not quite sure what that says about England. Expectations have been lowered this time around. English hubris has been shattered too many times in the past; too often we've been informed of a "golden generation" of players, a media invention that has served to hype things up to unsustainable levels.

This time around there has been a more muted build up to England's appearance. Perhaps its just a sign of these austere times, maybe it's just me being on the other side of the English Channel and surrounded by local disinterest, or maybe it's that the jury is refusing to deliberate on Roy Hodgson - but there is a distinct lack of fervour surrounding the English.

As with France, the spectre of South Africa hangs around England like a foul odour. Even now, mention of Algeria in any English pub will launch a tirade. The English have politely given Hodgson benefit of the doubt, and without the white heat of attention that usually piles up on hapless England managers, Hodgson has been quietly getting on with his job. One of his undoubted strengths.

Handicapped by pre-tournament injuries to Lampard and Cahill, batting them away over the suggestion that excluding Rio Ferdinand had more to do with non-footballing matters than footballing matters, Hodgson has demonstrated great tactical nous in England's two games so far.

While the amazing win over Sweden could have gone horribly the other way, Hodgson got the best out of a side that has had the confidence it lacked (or lost) in South Africa restored. For now, there seems to be a restfulness about England, a welcome absence of silos, of factions, of fissures of the kind that split the Netherlands apart. Against Sweden, England looked like a team, played like a team and won like a team.

Let's hope it lasts. Of course, in a tournament like this, getting into the knockout stages means you're always 90 minutes away from the next plane home. England, tonight in the Donbass Arena in Donetsk will want to win and win well to avoid meeting Spain in a quarter-final. They only need a point, but three is what we want.

Wayne Rooney's return from suspension comes with mixed feelings. Andy Carroll did such a good job against Sweden - with one of the finest headed goals I've ever seen - you almost feel compelled to give him a shot at starting tonight. Rooney's availability, however, changes everything. He may be potty mouthed, he may have anger management issues, he may have an unnaturally full head of hair again, but he is, from the first whistle, a handful for defenders. Carroll will probably score, but Rooney is more likely to, especially after being caged up, metaphorically speaking, over England's opening two games.

Either way, it will be no easy game tonight. That is, I know, a footballing cliché of the most heinous kind, but what else can you say about England taking on the one remaining co-host, Ukraine, who have much to fire them up, and not just the fact the tournament is partly taking place on their home soil. There is, according to the Ukraine team doctor, a "50-50 chance" that Andrei Shevchenko might not play - no bad thing, you may have said during his Chelsea years - but with the national captain back to outrageously good form, his absence may prove telling. Unless the cheeky Ukraine scamps are pulling a fast one...

The real mystery for me, however, is what happens if, as expected, France go through. Paris has hardly made a peep yet about Euro 2012 - will progress tonight uncork the noise?