Sunday, June 29, 2014

Half-way to paradise - the greatest World Cup ever?

Cast your mind back to the summer of 2012. July, to be precise. The British media, along with Republican American presidential hopefuls, were convinced the London Olympics were going to be a disaster.

Miserablists and professional curmudgeons (our old friend the Daily Mail, obviously) were predicting doom and gloom on a massive scale: this wouldn't work, that would be on strike, and London would be deserted by Londoners in a mass exodus to escape the chaos. Things were so bad that anti-aircraft missile batteries were installed on East End tower blocks, the SAS were on five-minute standby, and even the Queen had to arrive at the opening ceremony by parachute, accompanied by James Bond.

By the time The Who were bringing London 2012 to an ironic end with Baba O'Reilly ("teenage wasteland, it's only teenage wasteland"), it was being declared the greatest summer games in living memory and an unfettered carnival that turned the British capital - never normally the most welcoming of places - into a giant street party.

Let's bring things forward to earlier this month, and the eve of the FIFA World Cup 2014 Brasil™. Simply put, it wasn't going to happen. Donkeys were replacing striking taxis, the stadia were unfinished building sites and, well, everything would be a shambles.

So, imagine our surprise on this, the middle weekend, that this World Cup is being hailed the best of all time. Now, I imagine there have been better World Cups, but let's not dampen the ardour.  So far, we've had nothing but magic. Even Nigeria against Iran had its moments.

By the end of the group stage on Thursday there had been an average of 2.83 goals per game, the highest goal average since 1958, which had included Robin van Persie's remarkable flying 'Superman' volley in the Dutch team's unprecedented 5-1 demolition of the reigning world champions, Spain. That sentence alone says almost everything you need to know about how spectacular these tournament has been - the 2010 winners beaten - and eliminated in the group stage - by a four-goal margin that included one of the most balletic strikes I've ever seen.

But there's been so much more. Yes, Luis Suarez's brace against England, Tim Cahill's left-footed wonder against the Dutch, Lionel Messi's dying-second punt against Iran and Neymar's stunner against Croatia. We've also seen more decisive games - in the group stages a record 83% of games ended with a conclusive result, with just under half being decided by a single-goal margin.

Statto stuff aside, there has been the whole vibe: we at least hoped that Brazil 2014 would be a vibrant World Cup, but we've been rewarded handsomely, and then some. The blaze of colour from the home and visiting fans, national anthems properly sung passionately by South American footballers who seem to give more of a damn about this sort of thing than those from certain Old World countries, and even the elimination of Spain, England, Italy and Portugal - painful and grossly unexpected for some - have actually added to the fun. Simply put, none were good enough to proceed. Doesn't bother me, and I'm a proud Englishman whose second team is always Italy.

Suarez's ridiculous bite on Tuesday added some frisson. Enough has been said already - and there's probably plenty more to come - on this moment of repeat madness, but the only thing it should overshadow is Uruguay's tournament. Uruguay's national denial and the ludicrous claim of a FIFA or Anglo-Italian media conspiracy to disgrace the fanged forward has damaged the nation's reputation a hundred times over compared with what it may have done to the World Cup itself. Still, as Frank Rijkaard and Rudi Völler did in 1990 and Zinedine Zidane and Marco Materazzi in 2006, these incidents - as condemnable as they are - do have the notorious benefit of being part of the entertainment.

And then there's Team USA. The United States' traditional indifference to football - that's "football" - has often been used as an excuse to dismiss the the US team as somewhere between johnny-come-latelies and the nation that got a place at the World Cup by sending off a prize entry to a contest advertised on the back of a packet of breakfast cereal.

True, it is baffling that the world's biggest team sport has seemed to pass the United States by, along with Formula 1, while the NFL, basketball, ice hockey and baseball seem to provide a more nourishing attraction, and maybe their moments of glory this time around will still prove to be fleeting. But who hasn't enjoyed getting behind Team USA?

Who hasn't at least given some appreciation to the fact they've stepped up and taken on those football behemoths Portugal and Germany and stood up well to the challenge. Even if they do have a player - Kyle Beckerman - who'd look more at home in a Glastonbury yurt.

Who hasn't been amused by the Americans' sudden mass conversion to the sport we've loved all our lives? Even President Obama got in on the act, with a photograph of him watching the US-Germany game on Air Force One tweeted around the world in much the same way as the 'Situation Room' shot of POTUS and his entourage watching Bin Laden go down.

I shouldn't mock the US for joining the World Cup party 12 years after they actually hosted the event (without recognising that they had). But if nothing else, their continuing presence has woken up loony right-wing commentator Ann Coulter, who unleashed this week one of the greatest examples of uneducated ignorance since Dan Quayle misspelled "potatoe".

"Any growing interest in soccer can only be a sign of the nation's moral decay," Coulter opened he rant with, then clumsily trying to make McCarthyite references to football being somehow un-American: "Do they even have MVPs in soccer? Everyone just runs up and down the field and, every once in a while, a ball accidentally goes in. That's when we're supposed to go wild. I'm already asleep." Coulter even uses the World Cup as an excuse to tap a pop at Europe: "Soccer is like the metric system, which liberals also adore because it's European. Naturally, the metric system emerged from the French Revolution, during the brief intervals when they weren't committing mass murder by guillotine." Muppet.

So let's leave crass and stupendously ill-informed idiocy to one side and return to the premise that we are mid-way through the greatest World Cup. Ever. Well, the greatest if you don't include the poetic beauty of Italia '90, the visual blessing that was the aftermath of the French win in '98, and the joyous organisation by Germany of 2006. There is more to come and, at risk of re-inserting a note of negativity, at the end of it we will hear what FIFA has to say about the alleged corruption surrounding 2022. FIFA may have organised something special this time, but that will not excuse them of the shabbiness we already know has taken place in the name of world football.

But that's for later. Last night's knockout stage opener between Brazil and Chile, followed by Colombia against Uruguay, reinforced the belief that this is Latin America's World Cup, and I mean that in the sense that the Latin American teams are earning their place in the latter stages through shear entertaining endeavour. OK, I know that Germany and the Netherlands look strong, France and Switzerland are still in it, but really - is it too much to ask that at least one of the South American teams makes it to the final on July 13? Please?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Mega bite

It's one of the voicemail messages a parent least welcomes: "Hello Mrs. Suarez, it's the school here. I'm sorry to report, but your boy Luis has been involved in another 'biting incident' with a boy from another class. This time we have to take it very seriously indeed. Could you come in to school to meet with the headmaster?"

Up to a quarter of all toddlers will bite another, apparently. Child psychologists say such behaviour could be a response to being over-stressed by another child, to seek attention, or through an inability to express themselves properly through speech. Others, however, do it because they're copying other children.

So, then, Luis Suarez. What adult (of 27 summers) goes around biting another? Anywhere. Under any circumstances. And especially for a third time in your professional career.

I'm no psychologist, but there is clearly something mentally wrong with Suarez to apparently do something that impulsive for a third time when under the sort of normal duress any footballer faces in a match. "If it's happened before, it'll happen again," sports psychologist Tom Fawcett has told the BBC. The almost unfortunately-named Dr. Fawcett suggests that this is just Suarez's nature and no amount of therapy is going to get it out of his system. "The formative years of people's development do contribute to their personality," Fawcett told the BBC." If you look at his history, Suarez had a fairly hard upbringing, which would have been fighting for survival - he was streetwise."

Reuters/Tony Gentile
Streetwise or not, not even in the most feral urban cultures do you find people biting each other like rats. Shooting and stabbing, yes, but not sinking incisors and canines into someone else. The fact that the Uruguay and Liverpool striker has done this twice before - last year, when he bit into Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic and in 2010, while playing for Ajax, when he applied his fangs into PSV Eindhoven's Otman Bakkal - makes a third incident, even after therapy, unbelievable.

Biting can happen in any close-quarter sport: in football, Jermain Defoe was accused of biting Javier Mascherano on the arm in 2006; South African rugby player Johan le Roux was banished from a 1994 tour of New Zealand after biting the ear of opponent Sean Fitzpatrick. And, of course, Mike Tyson actually separated part of Evander Holyfield's ear during a world heavyweight title fight in 1997. 

There's no excuse for such bestial behaviour, however, even if you are Mike Tyson. In all three bites involving Suarez, it is clear that frustration has played its part. But now you have have to wonder what frustration Suarez will experience if punished retroactively for the alleged bite on Chiellini. 

The irony of all this happening on the day England began their sorrowful trudge home is that Suarez getting banned could end up being the one crumb of comfort for English fans. Suarez is a brilliant striker: his redemption last season at Liverpool manifested itself with two excellent goals against England, for which he clumsily tried to explain were inspired by his mistreatment by the British media.

Until yesterday, he had a point. Suitably rehabilitated after the Ivanovic incident, Suarez turned himself into one of the most vital players with a ball at his feet in the Premier League last season. But one moment of madness, one moment of frustrated insanity, and again the world is looking at Suarez like football's own Hannibal Lecter. Brilliant, but don't let him into your mind. Or your shoulder blade.

For all his mercurial wonder, there is clearly a very dark side to Luis Suarez, and one that doesn't appear to be tameable. If you ignore his childlike petulance - his tendency to fall down as if felled by a sniper armed with a Barrett M107 - his viperous response to being persistently hassled by defenders is one that should genuinely raise questions about his future in the game. Because in his past there is too much to show that he is just not right in the head (a popular tale well told is that as a teenager he severely headbutted a referee - that should have been a warning). When he's not biting opponents, he's racially abusing them, as he did to Patrice Evra in 2011, warranting an eight-match suspension.

This time Suarez should recognise that his entire footballing career is on the line, if the incident with Chiellini is proven (at time of writing he has been charged by FIFA). Television pictures appear to show Suarez biting into the Italian's shoulder, with the player also showing clear indentations in his shoulder blade. Suarez denies it and blames Chiellini for shoving his shoulder into him).

To add to the confusion, Suarez's teammates are rallying around him Uruguay captain Diego Lugano typifying the denial, even echoing the anti-British media belligerence that Suarez himself had been expressing last week. "What incident?" Lugano told the BBC. "The [television] pictures don't show anything. They show an approximation." And he added, "Everybody knows the British media have an issue with Suarez. It must sell newspapers in England."

That may be so, but television pictures and the circumstantial evidence of dental indentations in Chiellini's left shoulder might suggest otherwise.

The punishment for biting Ivanovic was a ten-match ban. It would be reasonable to expect FIFA to take a very dim view of Suarez being found guilty of a repeat offence, carried out on football's biggest stage. Although the referee in Uruguay's 1-0 win over Italy didn't actually see the Chiellini incident, the world's cameras did. At the very least, Suarez can expect his World Cup to be over. At the very worst, will he find himself ejected from Liverpool (which he apparently wants, anyway) and if so, who would then have him?

A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.
Dr. Hannibal Lecter, The Silence Of The Lambs

Saturday, June 21, 2014

You WERE supposed to blow the bloody doors off

Even by our usual standards of gloom, to be mourning the inevitable after just 180 minutes of major international tournament football feels like a new low for England fans.

At least in 2010 we'd had a full run of abject performances, followed by the usual death-by-a-thousand-German-cuts, before bags were being packed for the dejected journey home.

Going into last night's encounter between Italy and Costa Rica, there was still the mathematical chance of England getting through to the knockout stages (much as there remains a mathematical chance of becoming betrothed to Cameron Diaz). In the end the Italians just weren't up to the job.

Not that England really were to begin with. Even with one more game to play on Tuesday - their own encounter with Costa Rica - it feels like England have made barely a cameo at World Cup 2014.

We know it's easy to be wise after the fact: when Greg Dyke was photographed, displaying arch gallows humour at the World Cup draw, making a cut-throat gesture when England were put in Group D, commentators were undecided as to whether the English FA chairman was being typically self-depreciating or demoralising of the team's chances. But we expected something out of this tournament. After all, the English national team is comprised of players from one of the toughest football leagues in the world.

There are many ways to look at England's brief but dismal run in this year's World Cup. We can look proudly on that game in steaming Manaus which, while ending in a 2-1 defeat to a stylish Italy, gave faith in Roy Hodgson's focus on blooding in youth, especially the breakout performance by Raheem Sterling. And we can look disappointingly at the defeat to Uruguay, in which the defence were overwhelmed, the midfield had more holes than Swiss cheese, and the forwards had clearly left their shooting boots in the Amazonian rainforest.

Because if we examine England's two games so far - both losses to the same 2-1 margin - you couldn't devise a greater comparison if you tried. Against Italy, England were masterful, resourceful and determined, with teenager Raheem Sterling quite rightly being named Man of the Match for his lionhearted performance. Against Uruguay England were pitiful, lethargic, lacking creativity, flimsy on the flanks, and gaping wide open in midfield all the way through to Joe Hart's front door.

So where does that leave us for a verdict? Expectations weren't particularly high, even if failure feels just as raw as before. For a start, no one was building up the latest Golden Generation™ to succeed. So pillorying them now doesn't seem to make sense. And, ultimately, it's a tournament - some win, some go home early. Like the previous world champions, Spain.

Spain's exit, however, provides no crumb of comfort. England's own exit, this time, feels more caustic. In the past we've sort of accepted, with characteristic good humour, the quarter- and semi-final defeats to Germany on penalties. We've made light of these failings by having our unfortunate stars make pizza commercials. Yes, England really are, to quote José Mourinho, specialists in failure. Why else would the England team be accompanied to every major match by a brass band hammering out the theme from The Great Escape, regarded as a national cinematic treasure, despite it being ultimately about a catastrophic failure?

Post-tournament fault finding has become as much a national pastime around England as football itself. England haven't even left Brazil and already the car is up on a hoist with mechanics pulling it apart.

After one game we were all taking defeat on the chin while praising the performance. After Uruguay, we were dismantling the England set-up nut by nut. Yes, Steven Gerrard had a shocker and could be blamed in part for both goals; Gary Cahill, in particular, looked lost without John Terry at his side; Glen Johnson has never been a high quality right-back (one of the reasons I wasn't sad to see him leave Chelsea); and Jagielka and Baines don't seem to cut it at this level.

And, then, Roy Hodgson. I like Roy. Most people do. But opinion is clearly divided: advocates say that he was just the sort of character England needed in charge, after the expensive experiments with international glamour. Ironic, then, that England should be sponsored by Vauxhall, because that is exactly the brand you'd associate with Hodgson - a dependable but not notably exciting car (as opposed to Eriksson's Volvo and Capello's Italian luxury marque).

He is The Quiet Man of football, the urbane, Croydon-born nomad who has managed to high success in Sweden, Switzerland, Italy (Inter, no less), Denmark, Norway, Finland, and the United Arab Emirates, as well as at Liverpool, Blackburn and West Brom. Actually, an impressive CV covering almost 40 years in club management.

For 2014, Hodgson's genuinely progressive youthful squad selection has been welcomed by many. Others, though, saw a lack of experience as an issue (love him or loathe him, England sorely missed Ashley Cole on Thursday night). But for me, one of the biggest failings was the fact that the England that emerged from half-time in São Paulo didn't look any more motivated than when they'd gone down the tunnel 15 minutes earlier. And responsibility for that ultimately has to fall to the head coach.

Hodgson shouldn't, however, resign or be sacked. Yes, it's a pisser that England have come up short so soon, but what this team needs isn't another manager that's going to fail too, but a new national football culture, prepared to develop the new talent, not just paper over the old.

On paper, you'd select - more or less - the same squad as Hodgson has done. Because on paper those are the best 23 players England can muster. But put them up against international competition, and the gulf in quality becomes embarrassingly real.

We have allowed the Premier League to make millionaires out of mediocrity, while undermining the national game by minimising opportunities for home-grown players. Of course you'd select Wayne Rooney every time - and should Gerrard stand down he would be my choice of captain, based purely (and surprisingly) on seniority. But the fact that he is deemed to be at the top of the elite demonstrates the paucity of talent at England's disposal.

It's always easiest to blame someone else, but if we were to be really honest, England's early, painful and downright embarrassing exit from this World Cup really is not going to be about the manager's failings or those of the players individually: it's that England just aren't good enough in general. And that is probably the hardest and most jagged thing to swallow of all.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Bought the T-shirt... Joy Division: Unknown Pleasures

As any music head will tell you, usually at length, the golden age of record buying was in part defined by the artwork that appeared on their covers.

Sticky Fingers, Sgt. Pepper, Warhol’s work for The Velvet Underground & Nico, Houses Of The Holy, all those Roger Dean prog covers, Barney Bubbles’ work in the New Wave, and Pennie Smith’s iconic photograph of Paul Simonon smashing up his bass on the cover of London Calling - prime examples of an era when records could be framed and hung on a wall or filed, spine-out on a shelf.

But one record stands apart, 35 years after its release on this very day in 1979, for remaining an icon for its cover as much as the music within: Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures.

It was their debut album, an appropriately gothic, nihilistic serving of profoundly Mancunian gloom, providing the raw blueprint for almost every indie and electronic album to follow in the 1980s, from OMD and Heaven 17 to Gary Numan and even U2.

Consciously or unconsciously it quite liberally evoked The Velvet Underground, The Doors’ Strange Days and Bowie's Berlin era, largely thanks to Martin Hannett’s spacious production and use of tape loops, non-sequitur sound effects and recording in basement toilets just to deliver the right degree of ambient froidure.

Hannett has quite rightly taken much of the credit for creating Unknown Pleasures' musical reputation, but as with so many impactful debuts, production had to have raw material to work with: thus, Ian Curtis, Peter Hook, Stephen Morris and Bernard Sumner were like tent pegs at each corner of a tent, maintaining a taught, nervy dynamic.

For its legend, Unknown Pleasures is far from perfect: Curtis’s vocals sound, at times, like he was making demos.

Sumner has complained that Hannett flattened the guitars so much that Joy Division's aggressive stage sound completely disappeared from the record, while Hook has compared the album's overall moody sound to Pink Floyd. And not in a good way.

Morris, on the other hand has been far more complimentary about Hannett's production, although his experimentation with the-then new syndrums (you hit a pad and a synthesiser plays a fart-like drum sound, as opposed to just hitting a drum…) is one of the album's weak points.

But, then, compared with some of the over-produced monstrosities that were to engulf pop music over the following decade, Unknown Pleasures stood out as an album that baffled, shocked and even frightened those unused to such spartan qualities.

Which is what makes its cover art so distinct. Created by Factory's in-house graphic designer Peter Saville, it was based on an image of image of radio waves from a pulsar that Stephen Morris had come across in The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Astronomy, reversing it into a monochrome white-on-black waveform resembling some sort of Middle Earth mountain range.

Much like Storm Thorgerson's Dark Side Of The Moon prism, Saville's cover art for Unknown Pleasures has remained a source of ironic hipster attire long after making its debut.

30 years ago I remember seeing Marillion's Fish wearing a capped-sleeved Pleasures shirt at The Marquee. More recently, Twilight's alabaster-skinned (and 24-year-old) Kristen Stewart was papped wearing one.

It has endured like no other album cover I can think of, appearing on just about every possible form of merchandise you can think of, from skateboards, coffee mugs and shoes, to - unbelievably - a deeply edgy Disney T-shirt that was subsequently withdrawn.

Few of those buying the Unknown Pleasures T-shirt today will have much knowledge of the original album, let alone any kinship with its angst, with the punk movement that inspired it and the Manchester at the start of the Thatcher era that shaped it. But that doesn't prevent the knowing teenager appreciating the design simplicity of that waveform on its front cover.

"The reason I got that top is because I thought it was a cool design, but also because my mum mentioned it was a famous design," says Paige, a couple of weeks shy of her 17th birthday. "She said I would look cool in it and told me they were really famous." And she does. Which makes mum quite cool too.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The only way is ethics

I should be giddy. I should be like a nine-year-old on Christmas Eve. In fact, I should be like a nine-year-old for whom all his Christmases have come at once. But, instead, I'm jaded and cranky.

Tomorrow commences the greatest sporting spectacle on the planet, staged in the country that has made football a way of life, an artform, and a thing of great beauty all rolled into one. Brazil hosting the 2014 FIFA World Cup should be considered a blessing.

Of course we have had to put up with the crushing predictability of the media invoking every Brazilian cliché imaginable: every second headline you will read between now and mid-July will contain the word "samba" or "fiesta" or both; caipirinha will be shoe-horned into every possible feature article; and it will be impossible to turn on the news without seeing some sweaty-looking bloke with a microphone glancing up a beach and, yes, making a painful reference to "tall, and tanned, and young and lovely".

Most of all, it will be mandatory to make references to a "celebration of football". But what, exactly, are we celebrating?

Yes, it's been looking a little ragged in the run-up. Public transport workers have been on strike prompting the threat of football fans having to travel to matches via hired donkey (good job Tony Adams has retired, eh?). There has also been a question mark over whether the newly-built stadia will be up to the task, or even finished (although any Brazilian will tell you that of course they will be finished by tomorrow. It's only Wednesday, after all...).

We will be worrying ourselves that teams - like England - are being billeted in sub-standard hotels close enough to the favelas that these impossibly well rewarded young men might inadvertently see something humbling. We should worry not. Before the 2012 Olympics in London opened we went through similar irrational concerns, mounting missile batteries on East End tower blocks in case of terrorist attacks, and that sort of thing. In the end, the most embarrassing damage to the games' reputation was the Mayor of London getting caught mid-air on a zip wire.

In principle, then, we are about embark upon a glorious four weeks of indulgence, heading for our summer holidays in a wretched state - bloated from all that late night beer and snack food, and in a permanent state of jet lag (prompting summons from the boss for "a chat" about our performance...) because we've insisted on staying up until two in the morning to watch each and every group stage game, including, bizarrely, Ivory Coast versus Japan (3am CET kickoff, if you're interested).

This will be a magical few weeks for sure. As Brazil's president, Dilma Rousseff wrote last Sunday in The Observer, this is a "time for us [in Brazil] to celebrate...the values of fair play and peaceful coexistence among all peoples. It is an opportunity to reinvigorate the humanistic values of Pierre de Coubertin, values of peace, harmony and tolerance."

Woah there! What was that? "...the values of fair play"? Here, then, is where you find the source of my unease. Here's where my jadedness can be explained. Because as we're all getting tarted up for football's party of parties, there is a smell wafting our way which makes any reek coming from Brazil's slums seem positively perfumed.

Not since the Cold War tit-for-tat nonsense that besmirched the 1980 and 1984 Olympics have we entered a major international sporting occasion with so much sewage blocking our view.

The seemingly bottomless pit of revelations by The Sunday Times, providing increasingly irrefutable evidence of financial bungs to secure votes for FIFA's awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, is making a mockery of anything related to fair play.

Right now there is a hardly an angle by which you can look at FIFA and say, with hand on heart, that here is a virtuous organisation. Its moral bankruptcy is typified by its pious president, Sepp Blatter, who despite the very septic air of suspicion hanging over the ethics of the organisation he runs, he is still merrily trotting out plans to stand for a fifth term of office. Interestingly, he stands level with Robert Mugabe in four wins out of four.

Ironic, really, as President Rousseff also wrote in The Observer: "We are also now a vibrant democracy, despite living under a dictatorship a few decades ago. "We enjoy complete freedom and coexist harmoniously with popular demonstrations and demands, which help us improve and perfect our democratic institutions."

The comparison between Blatter and Mugabe extends even so far as the 78-year-old FIFA president claiming victimhood, saying that the media effort to expose wrongdoing was racially motivated. This has, thankfully, prompted Greg Dyke, the chairman of the English FA chairman (which lost out to Qatar in the 2022 bid) to write to Blatter telling him get his house in order, and cease taking a defensive line on the Qatar allegations.

"The allegations being made are nothing to do with racism; they are allegations about corruption," Dyke told Blatter. "These allegations need to be properly investigated and properly answered," adding "many of us are deeply troubled by your reaction to these allegations. It's time for FIFA to stop attacking the messenger, and consider and understand the message."

Dutch FA president Michael van Praag has gone a stage further, bluntly - as only the Dutch can - telling Blatter not to stand for a fifth term in next year's FIFA presidential election. "Few people still take FIFA seriously and, however you look at it, Blatter is mainly responsible," said van Praag. "People link FIFA to corruption and bribery and all kinds of old boy's networks. You are not making things easy for yourself and I do not think you are the man for the job any longer." Add to that, $180 million worth of corporate sponsors like Sony rattling their cheque books at FIFA, and this is a low in terms of reputation, even for a body that has been mired in suspicion before.

In spite of the wealth of "thousands" of documents that the Sunday Times has laid its hands on, supporting allegations that former FIFA vice-president Mohamed bin Hammam arranged meetings between key FIFA voters and representatives of Qatar before the country was awarded the 2022 tournament (on top of claims that bin Hammam made use of a $5 million slush fund to secure votes), FIFA, for its part, says it is doing things by the book.

"Never ignoring media reports on ethics allegations in football," Blatter tweeted on Saturday, just as FIFA's Executive Committee sat down for a pre-tournament meeting. "But let the Ethics Committee work!", he demanded in the same tweet.

In its press release summarising Saturday's meeting, FIFA said: "Regarding media allegations of unethical behaviour related to the vote for the 2022 FIFA World Cup™ host country, the executive reaffirmed its position of letting the Ethics Committee complete its work before making any comment."

That completion date for Michael Garcia, FIFA's chief ethics investigator was Monday, but don't expect to see anything until long after the World Cup Final on July 13. "After months of interviewing witnesses and gathering materials," said a statement, "we intend to complete that phase of our investigation by June 9, 2014, and to submit a report to the Adjudicatory Chamber approximately six weeks thereafter. The report will consider all evidence potentially related to the bidding process, including evidence collected from prior investigations." Blather from Blatter, but fair enough.

So we head into the 2014 championship - one which should be bedecked throughout with celebratory garlands as it unfolds in, arguably, the true home of football - with an unpleasant odour lingering over it. And that has nothing to do with poor plumbing in the new stadia.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Dangerous to the end: Rik Mayall, 1958- 2014

"Comedy is truly great when it comes out of nothing, and the greatest of comedians, like Rik, have that rare ability to conjure laugh after laugh not from endless words but from a single look or one absurd gesture."

So said Alexei Sayle, paying tribute to Rik Mayall yesterday following the news of the comedian's ridiculously premature death at the age of 56.

I can only concur completely with Sayle's assessment. I once went on a school trip to see Mayall in The Government Inspector at London's National Theatre. To be honest, there wasn't a student amongst us with much interest in spending an evening at the theatre, let alone watching Nikolai Gogol's dreary Russian satire. But this was 1985 and Mayall's star couldn't have been any higher.

As if to prove the point, at a certain moment Mayall broke character to deliver the mocking line "Hah! Lawyer!", but not as the corrupt civil servant Khlestakov. It was Rick, the spotty, Cliff Richard-obsessed socialist oik in The Young Ones. Naturally, the mostly adolescent audience in the Olivier Theatre went nuts.

My parents grew up with radio comedy like ITMA, The Goons and Round The Horne, gentle and somewhat innocent shows that sustained Britain during the post-war gloom. The generation that followed had the Pythons, but for my contemporaries, we had The Young Ones. Where our elder brothers and sisters were able to hold court in sixth form common rooms with excerpts from The Dead Parrot Sketch or The Spanish Inquisition, we could - from just two six-episode series - regale each other with examples of The Young Ones' Ben Elton-penned pontificating, such as Rick's toilet rant: "We NEVER clean the toilet, Neil. That's what being a student is all about. No way, Harpic! No way, Dot! All that Blue Loo scene is for squares. One thing's for sure, Neil. When Cliff Richard wrote Wired For Sound, no way was he sitting on a clean lavatory."

Being still school age, we may not have got all the student humour, but we understood the anarchy. And with Margaret Thatcher's Tory government making itself extremely popular since 1979, we were totally at home with the sentiment (e.g. RICK: "Neil, the bathroom's free!" [stares straight into the camera] "Unlike the country under the Thatcherite junta!").

The Young Ones was our thing, amusing anyone between the age of 12 and 30 (except for William Hague, of course), while also hilariously parodying the sort of gait-prop headcases running around British campuses, purporting to being hardcore lefties while being profoundly middle class at the same time.

Mayall and Ade Edmondson were the standout stars of The Young Ones. Meeting at Manchester University on a drama degree course (along with Ben Elton, two years below them), they formed the prototype of their later double-act, The Dangerous Brothers, largely an excuse to hit each other over the head with frying pans, or blow torch each others' genital districts.

This, however, wasn't what 'alternative comedy' was about, being more like a human form of Tom & Jerry slapstick than politically correct diatribes about "Mrs. Thatch". But Rik and Ade were part of a loose confederation of comedians who coalesced around the dingy Comedy Store in London, building a reputation for comedy that patently wasn't based on blokish gags about black people and how obviously amusing womens' breasts were, and didn't involve hanging around on golf courses in pastel-coloured knitwear.

All of them soon came to the attention of TV producers like the BBC's John Lloyd and Paul Jackson, who recognised that in the Comedy Store mob they had a new generation to draw on, just as their predecessors had been able to draw on with the Oxbridge comics of Monty Python's Flying Circus and Beyond The Fringe.

Mayall found his first outlet in the BBC's A Kick Up The Eighties, playing the socially awkward investigator Kevin Turvey who, despite his Birmingham accent, provided the blueprint for The Young Ones' Rick's more anal characteristics.

Mayall and Edmondson would go on together in Filthy, Rich & Catflap, the 'difficult second album' to their Young Ones debut, with both making various guest turns in the inspired Comic Strip Presents... spoofs for the nascent Channel 4. And there were appearances in Blackadder, most memorably the relatively brief explosions of Mayall as the recurring alpha Lord Flashheart ("Woof-woof!!"), in both Elizabethan mode and as World War I flying ace (though we shouldn't forget Edmondson's mad turn as The Red Baron). Somewhere along the line Mayall found time to appear in four series of The New Statesman as Alan B'Stard, the brilliantly grotesque caricature of a braying, machiavellian Tory MP in the early 1990s.

Bottom, however, brought Mayall and Edmondson together in perhaps their best roles as a double act. Inspired by Samuel Beckett's tragi-comic Waiting For Godot, in which they were both appearing in the West End, Bottom was a grown-up version of The Young Ones - Mayall playing a still painfully socially inept virgin, Edmondson, a toned down and altogether more sedate version of Vyvian, and set in an equally shabby abode as their student characters had been. The Dangerous Brothers' cartoon violence prevailed with increasingly hilarious vigor, as frying pan fights became elevated to gas oven explosions.

Bottom didn't just consolidate Mayall and Edmondson's professional relationship, but also the characters that had sustained their careers since university. The unemployed, sexually inadequate Richie Rich and Edward Hitler, combined the suburban desperation of Tony Hancock and Sid James in Hancock's Half Hour with the junkyard philosophy of Steptoe & Son (which was set just up the road from Bottom's Hammersmith in Acton), plus an added touch of surrealism, to produce a broad comedy that, with the slapstick removed, could have been quite bleak.

"There were times when Rik and I were writing together when we almost died laughing," Edmondson said last night in reaction to news of his longtime collaborator's death. "They were some of the most carefree stupid days I ever had, and I feel privileged to have shared them with him. And now he's died for real. Without me. Selfish bastard."

Saturday, June 07, 2014

War 1 - Peace 0

A funny thing occurred on the way to yesterday's moving 70th anniversary of D-Day. In the Wikipedia entry for Gold Beach, one of the five main landing points for the Allied invasion of Europe, a sidebar reads:

While clearly not the intention, "Result: Allied victory" makes the assault on Gold Beach at Arromanches look like a football match. D-Day was anything but.

A couple of years ago I drove out to Normandy to visit some of the D-Day sites, and the first thing that struck me about some of the beaches was just what an expanse of sand they offered the invading force.

It's hard enough running across a beach in flip-flops and a pair of board shorts, let alone wading ashore under heavy machine gun fire while carrying anything up to 40kg of equipment, and then - if you survive that - having to cover the distance of three football pitches on some of the Normandy landing's bigger beaches.

The assault on the D-Day beaches was brilliantly captured by Reuters correspondent Doon Campbell who, aged 24, was the youngest British war correspondent covering the invasion and also the first reporter to come ashore on June 6, 1944 itself.

In his book, Magic Mistress – A 30 Year Affair with Reuters, he describes the British assault on Sword Beach, near Caen:

"A smudge, brown on black in the far distance, marked our landing-area. The craft zigzagged the last mile or two, dodging the shells now coming out to meet us. There were ships everywhere, one or two smoking or even sinking, some fouling uncleared obstacles, but most of them swinging massively towards the hazy coastline that was Normandy.

For the final lap, the skipper opened the throttle, and at 09.06 we rammed Sword Beach. The ramp thrown down from the landing-craft was steep and slippery, and I fell chest-deep into the sea lapping the mined beaches. The commandos, their faces smeared with camouflage grease, charged ahead. I struggled. My pack, sodden and waterlogged, strapped tight round my shoulders, seemed made for easy drowning. But a lunge forward, helped by a heave from a large corporal already in the water, gave me a first toehold.

Ahead lay the beach. It was a sandy cemetery of the unburied dead. Bodies, some only half-dead, lay scattered about, with arms or legs severed, their blood clotting the sand. Behind me, through fountains of water raised by exploding shells from the coastal batteries, little ships were nudging into the shallows, and behind them a vast armada of battleships, cruisers, destroyers and close support vessels put down a paralysing bombardment.

It would be no good trying to bolt up the beach with the commandos, though many of them were also carrying collapsible bicycles. For me, every step was an effort under the backbreaking load of my pack. Dripping wet, like my trousers, it felt as if I weighed a ton. While the commandos surged ahead until swallowed up in the brooding woods, I edged along the protective shelter of a garden wall, crossed the pot-holed road into a field and stumbled into a ditch about 200 yards (180m) from the beach. There I stayed with the wounded.

We fought to stay alive in that shallow furrow, clawing at the soggy soil for depth that at least made us feel a little less exposed to the withering mortar and shellfire. Whether falling short or whistling overhead, it never let up. Earth spurted in with every near miss and more water seeped through our clothes. But we thanked God for that damp dirty ditch.

With every pause in fire, I was wrestling to ease myself out of the commando pack harness. When it was finally detached, I opened it almost furtively, and found my portable typewriter undamaged. I got a sheet of paper in and started pecking at the keyboard, but it was hopeless; every time I tried to type, a mortar exploded a few yards away or hit the lip of the ditch and a shower of dirt clogged the keys. So I tore a page from a school exercise book and scribbled a few lines from ‘A ditch 200 yards inside Normandy’. It never reached Reuters."

The distance of time mutes our ability to comprehend true horror. The entertainment industry has, over the years, tried to capture the scale, the challenge and the impact of D-Day, whether Darryl F. Zanuck's epic The Longest Day, Saving Private Ryan or its television cousin Band Of Brothers. But seeing the faces of D-Day veterans yesterday at events in Arromanches, Oouistreham and at the Pegasus Bridge site, the memories and the bloodshed all around them etched in, the raw reality of the day, 70 years previously, was there to be seen.

Operation Overlord, the invasion and recapture of occupied Europe, may be, today, positioned as a  gung-ho Allied football victory, but that belies the terror of those first soldiers who went ashore, some killed before they'd even left the landing craft, others drowned by the equipment that weighed them down, others sliced apart by the Germans' much feared MG42 machine gun - as efficient a piece of mass killing technology as humankind has ever devised. And for those who poured ashore, having to wade through blood-red waters full of the bodies of floating comrades, whose D-Day had lasted only a matter of seconds.

Like any military operation, D-Day was an event of incredible odds, and the Allies went to extraordinary lengths of ingenuity to lengthen them. Inflatable replica Spitfire planes, trucks, tanks and troop gliders were assembled all along the British coast to trick German reconnaissance flights into thinking an invasion would take place elsewhere, such as Calais, the closest point between Britain and France. Winston Churchill, in particular, had been reluctant to commit to any invasion for fear of recreating the wholesale slaughter in the fields of France 30 years previously. As it turned out, more than 4,000 Allied lives were lost that day, more than had been expected.

But even though those odds had included the certainty that men would be cut down before they'd even had the chance to get off the beach, and a certain percentage of forces surviving would be enough to break out. But they did, and by the end of August, Paris had been liberated.

Like any war site, visiting the D-Day beaches in Normandy is a humbling experience. Looking out on these pretty stretches of sand in an equally beguiling part of the French coastline, watching joggers jog and dog walkers walk, it is almost impossible to imagine the horror of those first hours on D-Day. Like any beach, there is a placidity to the noise of seagulls and waves crashing. And yet on June 6, 1944, those beaches became the tiniest chink in the armour of the Nazi occupation and tyranny in Europe.

If you ever find yourself in northern France, or crossing the English Channel, make a detour to visit Normandy. There are plenty of monuments to war throughout Europe, but to visit those beaches and feel humbled by the sense of ultimate sacrifice that took place on that early summer's day in 1944 provides the most fitting reminder of the freedom we should all be grateful for, a freedom enabled by the events of that incredible day, 70 years ago.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Remasters of the Universe: Led Zeppelin revived

Hear that whooshing noise? Can you feel that breeze? Tell-tale signs that the eyebrows of wives, girlfriends and significant others everywhere are currently shooting skyward en masse as menfolk return from the shops, sweatily clutching the newly remastered copies of the first three Led Zeppelin albums.

To a man - and I swear this is not cheap misogyny - 'conversations' are currently taking place throughout the developed world that will employ, at some point, the words "...but don't you have these already?".

Face facts, we are still, at heart, hunter-gatherers. Should George Lucas (inevitably) release another Star Wars collection on some as-yet invented new format, we will buy it, even for the umpteenth occasion (this, I should stress, is a different arrangement to owning two CD copies of the Heat soundtrack, which I did through being of an age where I am likely to forget, when acquiring the second, that I already own the first).

Putting gender stereotypification, borderline sexism and self-deprecating ageism to one side, let's consider the Led Zeppelin releases themselves. Why should you want to buy again albums that should already be sitting in any record collection that is good and proper, and in one of the multitude of formats that record companies and the consumer electronics industry have foisted on us over the last 50 years?

Don't expect a logical answer: because if logic had anything to do with it, households populated by at least one adult male would not be bursting at the seams with entertainment ephemera.

The actual answer - which I know won't sustain a domestic argument - is "love". Yes, soppy old love. This is the music that inspires unrequited passion about music itself. Led Zeppelin's is the music that will reach down inside your soul, forcing any one of a number of reactions from gently tapping feet to a full-on, whiplash-inducing frug.

Before providing practical explanation of this, however, let me, first, get the commercial out of the way. Led ZeppelinLed Zeppelin II, and Led Zeppelin III have been re-released following an extensive remastering project carried out personally by the band's founder, Jimmy Page.

Page has applied a genuine labour of love, to use that word again, a personal investment of several years, not only working like a master art restorer on the original albums, but also tirelessly tracking down unreleased material for the bonus discs available in the deluxe (and priced accordingly...) boxed packages offered alongside CD and standalone vinyl versions of the albums.

Later this year, Zeppelin will re-release their other six studio albums, again in different packages, and again with Page lovingly remastering them. "It's just so important to remind people what a fucking good band Led Zeppelin was," Page recently told the NME. "I hope young musicians find it a source of inspiration. "That's how I learned, and that's what's so seductive about doing this nerdish thing. Led Zeppelin have real serious musical mastery, and this is passing it on. It's a cool thing to do."

Led Zeppelin, an album of nine songs recorded in the autumn of 1968 at the legendary Olympic Studios in London's sleepy suburb of Barnes, launched a band that consolidated the talents of the former teenage guitar prodigy Page, his fellow session star-about-town and musical polymath John Paul Jones, and the Midlands duo of an alpha-bloke drummer John Bonham and the prototype leonine rock god Robert Plant.

Led Zeppelin, the band, arrived fully formed. Led Zeppelin, the album, was and still is a totally visceral experience, perfectly mixed with Page's inventive, cyclical guitar riffs, Jones' pulsing bass lines, Bonham's pounding drums, and Plant's half-screamed, high-register white soul vocals.

Listening to the new remaster, however, it's hard to understand how critics, at first, gave the album a lukewarm reception (most notably a "poisonous" review in Rolling Stone, according to Page). Some called it derivative and lacking distinction from other hard rock outfits out there, including Cream, who'd broken up just two months before it came out.

True, like Cream and other contemporaries like Jimi Hendrix and Humble Pie, Zeppelin took the electric blues as their mould, and that is more apparent than anything with Led Zeppelin: not just because of the two Willie Dixon covers, You Shook Me and I Can't Quit You Baby, either, but also with the frantic boogie of Communication Breakdown, Stax-influenced How Many More Times, and the Page opus Dazed And Confused, which presented the guitarist as both authentic bluesman and a guitarist with the unique ability to create something very dark indeed with his riffs, especially the decidedly demonic moan on this track.

There's an immediacy about Led Zeppelin that reflects the live feel of an album recorded in just 36 hours. Consequently, it's as exciting and as vibrant as any of the great debut albums, from Are You Experienced? to Never Mind The Bollocks, and from My Generation to Definitely Maybe. With Page's remastering work it has been made even more enjoyable to soak up. The new work provides something tangibly different, like a great work of classic cinema, cleaned up and relaunched for the big screen.

Led Zeppelin doesn't just represent a snapshot of the emergence of heavy rock in 1969, but is the source code, the genome, for just about every guitar-based rock album to have come out in the intervening 45 years. You can certainly hear where Jack White and Kings of Leon got their ideas from.

The Led Zeppelin Deluxe Edition
To accompany the remastered Led Zeppelin, amongst the myriad formats and packages, the 'Deluxe Edition' deluxe box set (which includes a sumptuous book, the original launch press kit, the album on CD and a high resolution audio download) contains a restored live recording of the band playing the Olympia in Paris in October 1969. Originally recorded for a French radio broadcast in the November, the tape had lain undiscovered in the basement of the Europe 1 station until being uncovered seven years ago.

I'm a sucker for a live album, and this one interestingly captures an outfit at the very beginning, especially as it is in lieu of the 'companion discs' accompanying the remastered second and third albums (36 hours' studio time didn't generate enough spare material).

There's a reassuring nervousness about Good Times Bad Times, but already the confidence, the swagger and the sheer braggadocio of Led Zeppelin is there to be heard on Heartbreaker, Dazed and Confused, Moby Dick (the Bonham-indulgence...) and a blues medley built on How Many More Times with Lemon Song and Boogie Chillen'. Above all it announced that Led Zeppelin were and would be a live act of simply peerless authority.

Led Zeppelin II was written in between and during tours for the first album, and recorded during the first half of 1969. In retrospect, Page hints that they were doing a 'just so' job of coming up with new material, grabbing studio time at Olympic, in LA, New York, Memphis - wherever they found themselves and had the time. Normally that might suggest and sound like a rush job, but the compressed schedule may have helped to produce an album of even greater urgency than the first.

II brought about Page's conversion to the iconic 1959 Gibson Les Paul Gold Top. This might seem like a guitar nerd detail, but his use of it on II, and subsequent synonymity the instrument, was as much an influence on the evolution of heavy rock as the songs it contributed to. Fender had Clapton, but Gibson had Page. Old Yardbirds and their weapons of choice....

II delivers an even louder, harder barrage of rifftastic classics, including Whole Lotta Love, Ramble On and Heartbreaker, once described by Rick Rubin as possessing "the greatest riff in rock". It's unlikely anyone will have cause to argue, although clearly trying to select one of Page's iconic riffs over others is like trying to choose a favourite child. I mean, how do you pick between Black Dog, or Kashmir or Ten Years Gone?

While II evolves Zeppelin's version of the blues further, it doesn't abandon the humidity of the Mississippi Delta entirely. On The Lemon Song, Robert Plant takes off into the Deep South with one of those songs that only old original bluesmen could get away, metaphorically extending the sexual imagery of Whole Lotta Love with the semi-screamed declaration of arrival: "Shake me 'til the juice runs down my leg". Quite.

"Led Zep II was very virile," Plant has since said. "That was the album that was going to dictate whether or not we had the staying power and the capacity to stimulate. It was still blues-based but it was a much more carnal approach to the music and quite flamboyant."

More to the point, it was an album of supremely gathering self-confidence. Plant himself had more to say in the writing of II, while the appearance of Moby Dick - essentially an extended drum solo by Bonham with a bit of band boogie at either end - shows remarkable chutzpah. Drum solos, along with bass solos, are not everyone's cup of tea...

The quality of Page's remastering work pays off handsomely with Led Zeppelin II, not just on his own solos and riffs, but on the overall soundscape. This is the hallmark of all three remastered albums, each producing new fidelity never previously heard, to the extent they almost sound like new albums. Whole Lotta Love is a perfect example: one of the most familiar of Zeppelin's entire library - made more so for us Brits who grew up with CCS's version as the Top Of The Pops theme tune - Page's studio sorcery has breathed new life into the old dog.

On its own, the remastered II is a new experience to be revered. But its companion disc' - the first of two compiled from Page's exhaustive process to find rare and forgotten material - contains more compelling listening, including fascinating alternative mixes of Whole Lotta Love,  What It Is And What Should Never Be, Ramble On and the previously unreleased La La, the kind of outtake that bands put in this packages just to give you the "what were they thinking...?" moment. In this case, a quirky snatch of psychedelic pop as incongruous in the Led Zeppelin repertoire as the reggae-influenced D'yer Mak'er on Houses Of The Holy.

Throughout the process of listening to Led Zeppelin II, the conscious knowledge that it is 45 years old is undermined by the sub-conscious sense of listening to something for the first time.

If that's what all that nonsense about dabbling with the occult was all about, then whatever pact Page made with figures of the underworld has clearly been to our benefit. The song - or rather, the story - remains the same with Led Zeppelin III. Recorded between January and August 1970, Led Zeppelin were, by now hitting their stride.

With the new decade came the turnover of the 60s beat boom. The Beatles were over, the Stones heading for exile, and things were getting heavy. Black Sabbath were emerging from the same part of England as Plant and Bonham, and exerting a decidedly industrial approach to rock that Liverpool and London's beat-based art school crowd had not exposed themselves to.

And so, Led Zeppelin III pounds to life with John Paul Jones' thudding bass on Immigrant Song, giving the Sabs' Paranoid a run for its money, with Plant belting out one of rock's most demonic wails, not to mention of its most bonkers opening couplet: "We come from the land of ice and snow, from the midnight sun where the hot springs flow - the hammer of the gods will drive our ships to new lands".

Until that point, the limit of Norse references in popular music had extended only so far as Norwegian Wood. Now, Viking references were being used to kick off the third album from a group of hairy rockers who would go on to develop a reputation as the most colossal Viking marauders of the British Invasion.

Despite its feral start ("That's the way to open an album", Page recently told The Guardian's Michael Hann), III was the album that set the tradition of bands "getting their heads together in the country". After two years of relentless touring to increasingly larger audiences, Page and Plant decamped to the cottage Bron-Y-Aur in Snowdonia, a move that injected acoustic guitars into the writing process, not to mention inspiring the track Bron-Y-Aur Stomp, which lead to a more textured album than the previous two, with the mellower That's The Way and the traditional Gallows Pole competing with the minor-key blues of Since I've Been Loving You, which builds to a Page crescendo of still breathtaking gusto.

Led Zeppelin III's companion disc is another curate's egg of outtakes, rarities and the previously unreleased, with the outstanding highlight being a joyful Page and Plant studio jam of the blues standards Keys To The Highway and Trouble in Mind, a demonstration of the fact that Led Zeppelin weren't just an earnestly good band, but they could enjoy themselves too.

That's not to say the other companion tracks aren't worth the investment. An earlier take of Since I've Been Loving You finds Plant's vocals in a more plaintive form, adding a different emotion to the definitive track committed to the album.

"I think we produced something really good: a courageous album," Page told Michael Hann, adding that this was "a band standing up for its convictions, doing what felt natural without being at the beck and call of record labels or A&R men. We were able, without any hindrance, to keep pushing the boundaries."

To return to that earlier question, there is a point to Led Zeppelin re-releasing these albums now. Like their contemporaries, they are part of a vital heritage. There is no logical argument that allows their comparison with more up to date artists. But that's not the point. Indulging in these three packages is to indulge in music that not only was of its moment, but continues to resonate today. Listening to the three albums, plus copping an ear to the works-in-progress of the companion discs, lets you enter a world where the music industry properly gave a damn about music.

Led Zeppelin weren't formed by a TV talent show. Like the apparent random accident that was the formation of the universe, fate brought four disparate individuals together to form the greatest rock and roll band in history. Natural - or unnatural - forces were at work, and still are. That's why Page - as Zeppelin's curator-in-chief has invested himself so enthusiastically in seeking out additional proofpoints of just how good his band were.

He doesn't need the money, any more than Led Zeppelin need to reform and do another tour (which won't happen in any case). And that's what makes these packages so richly enjoyable. It's knowing that the person who put them together is having just as much fun from doing so as you are from listening to them. That's what I mean by "love". And there's a whole lottta that going on here right now.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Ten years after: still special?

“Please don’t call me arrogant, but I’m European champion and I think I’m a special one.” - José Mourinho, June 2, 2004

Yes, you read that right. Not the quote, but the date. Ten years ago tomorrow José Mourinho plonked himself down in front of the media and, to all intents and purposes, came as close as anyone in football will ever get to making as pants-ahoy an entrance as Blackadder's drinking pal, Lord Flashheart. 

Instantly, "a special one" (a phrase normally used by the unapologetic mothers of ASBO-wielding sons - "ooh, he's a special one, that one...") became adapted to newspaper headlines by the conversion of "a" to the definite article, and The Special One was made flesh and blood. As if it needed further qualification, Mourinho helped out the attendant scribes adding: "We have top players and, sorry if I’m arrogant, we have a top manager.” Well, that told them.

With that modest declaration, English football commenced what can only be described as a new era of football manager media relations. Indeed a decade made the more copy-friendly by conspiracy theories against referees, ghost goals, spats with other managers, bans, suspensions, sackings and laundry baskets.

Whatever you think of him - and he's certainly taken polarising to new extremes of distance - José Mário dos Santos Mourinho Félix reintroduced to the blandified realms of English football a degree of colour not seen since the era of Brian Clough (or, you could also say, the mahogany tan of Ron Atkinson).

In the days, weeks and months to come, "The Special One" - already a corruption of the quote that spawned it - became the definitive source of headline writing: "The Scowling One", "The Argumentative One", "The Banned One" and, inevitably, "The Sacked One".

From his very first moments in front of the press, Mourinho had sports hacks routing around in their tattered OEDs for adjectives and superlatives with which to describe the manager who, thanks to his meteoric rise from assistant coach to Bobby Robson at Barcelona (having begged and cajoled to get the job) to boss of the European Champions, had displaced Claudio Ranieri as head coach of the newly-minted Londoners.

Introductory press conferences are rarely so brazen. Normally, the object of the occasion sits down and grins incessantly while gently batting away impertinent questions with well mannered calm. Unless they are Roy Keene, of course. Then there is the obligatory photo call, with the new arrival holding up a club shirt or scarf, and then onto the serious business of preparing for the new season. 

"I am not worried about pressure,"Mourinho replied to one question. "If I wanted an easy job, working with the big protection of what I have already done before, I would have stayed at Porto – beautiful blue chair, the UEFA Champions League trophy, God, and after God, me."

Yer...what? Did he just say...? Yep, he did. Not quite John Lennon, but in football's arid conditions, Mourinho had already planted his flag in an oasis of quotability. Journalists gurgled with delight. Whether they would brand Mourinho arrogance personified, or hail him the new Messiah, their editors would be wrapped up in reams of quotes between then and Kingdom come.

We shouldn't have been surprised, quite frankly. The previous season, in the second leg of a Champions League tie between Manchester United and Porto, the Portuguese side were close to elimination on the away goals rule when Costinha scored, barely seconds shy of the full 90 minutes (or injury time according to Sir Alex Ferguson's watch). It was enough for Porto to win. Mourinho didn't celebrate arms-aloft, Fergie-style, or with the ever-so-slightly repressed fist pump employed by Wenger. No, he sprinted the full length of the pitch in a brazen, unreserved and decidedly unmanagerial display of swaggering delight.

When, one Champions League title and a Champions League winner's medal tossed eccentrically into the crowd later, Mourinho turned up at Chelsea with a £4.2 million-per-year contract in his pocket - it was clear the man Roman Abramovich had dipped into his deep pockets for was not going to be a shrinking violet.

So, what happened next? The potted version is this: by Christmas 2004 Chelsea were on top of the Premier League, a distinctly unfamiliar situation for the perennial underachievers, but no doubt helped by the £70 million-plus that had been spent on the likes of Didier Drogba, Michael Essien, Porto defenders Ricardo "Percy" Carvalho and Paulo Ferreira, the forgettable Mateja Kežman, and Tiago (reportedly coming back this summer). Chelsea had been accused of buying titles ever since Abramovich had taken over the previous year, but this outlay and subsequent trajectory hinted ominously for the rest of the league.

On February 27, 2005, Mourinho landed his first trophy as Chelsea manager, beating Liverpool 3-2 and winding up their fans in the process by 'shushing' them. It was the start of a new phase of contre-temps between the two clubs that would later intensify when Liverpool controversially knocked Chelsea out of the Champions League with a dubious semi-final goal (and would continue with the ill-advised appointment of Rafa Benitez as Chelsea manager in 2012).

Whatever disappointment was generated by the European exit was soon forgotten on April 30 when Chelsea beat Bolton 2-0 to win the Premier League at the first time of asking by Mourinho. 50 years of league title-less hurt was ended in a single season under new management. In the process Chelsea achieved Premier League records for the most points (95) and the most economic defence (just 15 goals conceded all season). 

In Mourinho's second season in charge, with his services already secured by a new and improved five-year contract, Chelsea led the Premier League from the opening match until their final game, in which they beat Manchester United 2-0 to win a consecutive Premier League title.

You would think, then, that with two league titles in two seasons - after a dearth of 50 years - the Chelsea hierarchy would have started making plans for erecting statues and naming stands in Mourinho's honour. Rumours, however, we're already circulating of behind the scenes friction between the Portugeuse and the pirate ship of associates and lick-spittles Abramovich had around him, including director of football Frank Arnesen, who'd been brought in from Spurs to deliver a Manchester United-like funnel of youth talent.

The rumours intensified in the close-season of 2006, when Abramovich appeared to personally bring in Andrei Schevchenko, by then European football's faded Hollywood star, whose knees were more knackered than those of a Bangkok brothel worker. Add to that the German national captain Michael Ballack, another once gifted individual but now far from his best, and the fuse on Mourinho's departure had already been lit.

In the 2006-7 season Manchester United reasserted themselves as Premier League champions. While Chelsea didn't end the season completely potless - Mourinho earned his first winners' medal from the venerable FA Cup - it didn't exactly net the Champions League trophy Abramovich so desperately craved.

And so, on September 19, 2007, following the shock 1-1 Champions League draw at Stamford Bridge to Rosenborg, and while yours truly was wheezing himself up a small Sicilianmountain where he learned the news via a flurry of text messages going "Ha-hah!” like The Simpsons' Nelson Buntz, it was announced that "Chelsea Football Club and José Mourinho have agreed to part company today by mutual consent." The only thing that appeared to make it mutual was Mourinho having the remaining three years of his contract paid up in full. I believe the modern parlance is "conscious uncoupling".

So that was then, this is now. Mourinho's return to Chelsea last summer had the ring of the self-fulfilling prophecy about it. Passed over for the Manchester United job, demonstrably heading for the exit at Real Madrid, and a combination of love letters to London and professionally romantic overtures pointing towards a thaw in his relationship with Abramovich, Mourinho seemed to be heading back to the Bridge. Plus Pep Guardiola had quite patently blanked Abramovich and moved to Munich.

It's what the fans wanted, after all. Appointing the hated Benitez had left the Chelsea faithful seething at a gesture of treachery on a par with Tottenham signing Arsène Wenger. Mourinho Mk II's appearance at Chelsea last summer was, however, a very different arrival to his first. 

He was at pains to stress that not only he but Chelsea itself was going to be a different beast to the 2004-2007 version. He acknowledged that his legendary team spine had collapsed with Drogba's absence, but clearly wanted to stress the presence of youth, with Oscar identified as his 'number 10' (-although he wears No.11), and the incoming Schürrle and loanees Lukaku and De Bruyne figuring in his plans.

A full season later, and Oscar has dropped in form before our very eyes, De Bruyne has been offloaded, Lukaku probably likewise, and "Don't call me" Schürrle hasn't established himself as a starter under Mourinho. The pledge on youth, though, has shone through, with Eden Hazard and the impressive Willian, amongst others, showing that Chelsea has a youth-a-plenty at its creative heart.

But what about Mourinho's future? Already the vultures of rumourdom are circling. Chelsea's trophy-free season, an anaemic exit of the Champions League to Atlético Madrid, a third place finish in the Premier League (of which they were top at various points), and prosaically pragmatic performances that challenged Stagecoach for bus parking excellence, have raised questions about whether the Richard Burton and Liz Taylor of football are heading for a second divorce.

The English tabloids have convinced themselves so. "Chelsea linked with SHOCK move to SACK Jose Mourinho and bring in Diego Simeone" shrilled the Daily Express recently, while the ever-reliable Daily Mail foretold that Roman Abramovich had grown tired of Chelsea's toothless displays.

What to make of this? There's no doubt that last season Chelsea displayed none of the attacking flair and creative midfield choreography Abramovich lusts after. And that in part reflects Mourinho's "I'd rather defend boringly than lose entertaingly" philosophy. But then there are genuine excuses, Fernando Torres, Demba Ba and Samuel Eto'o being collectively one of them, an increasingly young side still gelling being another.

André Villas-Boas and Roberto Di Matteo (and even Benitez) all had the same challenge of bringing a more youthful profile to the visibly ageing squad that Mourinho had put together in the first place. And all paid the ultimate price when it didn't work. Mourinho has clearly given been more time to make this process happen, even if he's rewarded John Terry with a one-year contract extension. 

But with Ashley Cole as good as going, Frank Lampard seemingly going the same way, and Petr Čech possibly being cashed in to accommodate Thibaut Courtois, the nucleus of the sides with which Mourinho won those titles in his first stint in charge is shrinking fast. Which means that he doesn't have a great deal of time in which create a new one before his boss's notorious impatience shows itself once again.