Clarifying roles and responsibilities

I’ve been lucky in my teaching career that I have never had a complaint about the quality of my teaching.  This is not supposed to be false modesty: I know of some excellent teachers who have been the subject of complaints and some pretty lousy ones who seem to go beneath the parental radar.  I have been challenged over things I have said when discussing the academic progress of individual children (sometimes fairly, sometimes unfairly) and I have defended the teaching competence of colleagues, firstly as a Head of Department and latterly as Director of Studies (mostly because the accusations were baseless, occasionally because it was simply the professional thing to do, whilst all the time trying to solve the problem behind the scenes).  In the vast majority of cases, the expectations of parents are wholly reasonable; they understand their children, their interests and capabilities and will play the Wenger role to perfection, meaning that they will defend their offspring to all outsiders in public whilst giving them a proper going over in private when the situation demands.  I don’t respect those individuals who feel that paying a large sum of money for an education somehow guarantees enhanced grades and places at ‘top’ universities and I think that the triangle of child, parents and teacher should be close to equilateral at all times.  It certainly shouldn’t be the case that two sides of the triangle ever gang up on the other side.  I have experience of all three possibilities here, but the most common side to get a bashing used to be the child, and now seems to be the teacher.  When a parent looks to strengthen their relationship with their son or daughter by picking a fight with a teacher on their behalf with no evidence of need, it is unfortunate.

In terms of education, both parents and teachers (and many other people besides) have some responsibility.  Clearly the two mentioned above are the key people, but authors, journalists, TV presenters, documentary makers, musicians, sportsmen etc will end up playing some part in the education process, whether they like it or not.  I don’t think I have ever been explicit when it comes to defining my role as a teacher in the education of the pupils I teach.  No parent has ever asked me to define my responsibilities in their child’s educational development.  It’s as though there’s always been a tacit understanding of what was offered and expected.  I suppose that my role as a teacher of chemistry would have involved (in no particular order):

1.  Teaching the contents of the exam syllabus so that it was understood
2.  Preparing for examinations to ensure a pupil’s grade represented the best of their ability
3.  Exploring areas of interest and relevance within the subject
4.  Preparing pupils for challenges beyond School, which has usually meant university
5.  ‘Sowing seeds’

There isn’t much crossover between what I would do as a teacher of chemistry and how a parent would be involved in the education of their child and I have deliberately left out the pastoral care aspect of boarding education (where I have spent 13 of my 16 years as a teacher).  The area of commonality across all Schools is the academic side of education.  The point where I think that teachers and parents cross-over is number 5: when it comes to sowing seeds.  This is also maybe the point at which parental responsibility trumps that of a teacher.

Why do I have deep interests in Art, science, cricket, music, food, wine, travel and literature as a 37-year old man?  It is because I was exposed to them as a child, and not in a manner where they were rammed down my throat.  I was taken to Lord’s (when the day was sunny), the Science Museum (when it rained) and many places far from these shores.  I was read to and it was expected that I would read.  I used to devour books on holiday but when I wanted to watch TV at home I was never forced to pick up a book instead.  I was taken to concerts and I asked to be taken to more – I remember one time my father asking if I really wanted to come.  I didn’t think parents asked questions like this.  When I considered it, I wasn’t sure what the answer was, but I thought it was my choice and this was important to me.  I was taken to art galleries, but not dragged round art galleries, and there would usually be a nice lunch or a picnic to make the memory of the day a good one.  I was encouraged to be adventurous with food (even though I was naturally very cautious) and I was given wine which made me feel grown-up.  Each and every Welsh castle had an interesting and different story associated with it, even though they all tended to look the same.  And again, there would always be a picnic to have somewhere in the grounds.  Put simply, whereas I think that all the interests I have now are ones that I have come to myself, the reality is that the seeds were sown years ago, mostly by what happened in the holidays rather than by what happened at School.

That’s the role of parents when it comes to educating children.  Leave the syllabus, exams and subject extras to the teachers.  Don’t complain if the teacher is boring (children can still learn a lot from boring people, and they’ll have plenty of boring lecturers at university and boring bosses later in life).  If the teacher is incompetent, that’s the time to complain.  Children need exposure to books, films, walks, music, art, theatre, food and conversation.  Sow the seeds and then stand back and watch your child reap the benefit.  Some seeds will germinate immediately, some will take years and others will never see the light of day, which is inevitable.  

As a final point, it is worth remembering that financial richness does not necessarily equal cultural richness and it’s a modern fallacy that art is elitist and football is the game of the people.  Last time I looked, it never cost £60 to visit an art gallery.  Some seeds take to ground that may appear stony and lacking depth; fling enough quantity and type of seed and something will come of it, be sure of that. 

The curse of the commentator

I’ve just been watching a little of the Djokovic-Stepanek match at Wimbledon.  John MacEnroe has just informed me that Djokovic “has literally fallen to his knees”.  Part of me delights at the first correct use of the word literally I’ve ever heard during sports commentary; we are normally bombarded with all sorts of erroneous literals such as “he’s literally got ice in his veins” or “he’s literally sweating blood out there”.  On further reflection I was more irritated; why do I need a commentator to inform me what is obvious from the screen.  I can see that Djokovic had fallen to his knees (literally), why did I need someone to tell me?  

I often think that a good test of a commentator is that if they were a friend sitting next to you on the sofa, would you find their input useful as a clear enhancer of the match experience or would you consider them to be an irritating statto, endlessly pointing out the bleeding obvious?  I know which category most commentators fall into nowadays, but do play the game, either by asking a friend to remain silent whilst the sound is turned up or to listen to what your friend has to say with the sound turned down.

It wasn’t always like this.  Dan Maskell was like your Grandad asleep in the sofa, awakening just in time for a quickly fired off “I say” at a winning shot before going back to his slumbers.  Whispering Ted Lowe might have spent 90% of his snooker commentary career in the pub for all we knew, so rare were his pearls of wisdom.  But pearls they were, and just like a couple that actually get on, the long silences weren’t embarrassing.  They were happy to let the play speak for itself.

Radio commentary is always going to be about making the listener feel as though they were there, but TV commentary is harder.  The pictures speak for themselves and the commentator is there to provide knowledge and atmosphere.  I’ve had to turn off Wimbledon now (or at least turn the sound down) due to the morass of utter crap that was being forced into my ears.  I now know that Stepanek divides his time between Prague and Florida, the name of the third best Serbian tennis player, the name of the girlfriend of Djokovic and the names of the most famous newscasters on American TV.  It’s just listening to two grown men talk boring pub chat.  Literally.

Football commentary is similarly afflicted, with the retirement of Barry Davies and the impending 100th birthday of John Motson.  We’re now subjected to the Danny Baker-esque Robot Wars-style commentary of Jonathan Pearce on the beeb and the Prince Phillip of the commentary world Peter Drury on ITV.

Where’s Sid Waddell when you need him?

The importance of being liked

One of the best questions to ask children (especially if you want them to talk amongst themselves and leave you alone for a while) is this: ‘if you could have one super-power for the day, what would it be?‘  These discussions can go on for hours.  Would I choose a cloak of invisibility? the ability to fly? an ability (inspired by the advert) that means that everything I touch turns into skittles (a sort of candy-based King Midas)?  All of these would no doubt prove useful, but bringing a sense of adult realism to the proceedings, I think that the ability to make people like you is probably the most important power once can possess.  I don’t mean the ability to make a small section of your friends like you because you always buy the first round, I mean a like-ability so strong that makes even people you have never met break out into a smile at the mere mention of your name. 

It’s a universal rule of sport that you like the players that play for your team and you dislike virtually everyone else involved with that sport.  When players are purchased by your team, you immediately like them and when players are sold from your team, they are disliked as soon as the pen signs the new contract.  Most of us would admit to having a soft-spot for players who aren’t currently playing for our teams, but they tend to be in no direct competition with the players we idolise.  I don’t supposed that Lionel Messi is likely to be running at the Palace back four any time soon.

The one player who seems to buck the trend is Mario Balotelli, the Manchester City striker.  This man seems to inspire love and admiration from everyone.  There are numerous (mostly apocryphal) stories about him all over the internet, and most seem to exist only to promote him as a sort of cross between black-and-white slapstick comedian Norman Wisdom and philanthropic walnut Mother Theresa.  He seems to spend his time paying library fines for all and sundry, buying petrol for strangers or going mental in Argos, purchasing an scaletrix set when he should have been buying an ironing board for his Mum.  People are keen to believe these stories too; Balotelli is held up as the anti-footballer; he’s what we would be like if we played in the Premiership.  Not for us the tedium of rhetorial interviews hung heavy with the dissemination of carefully media-trained non-information.  Not for us the cliched footballer’s night out on Cristal champagne in celebrity-studded London clubs.  We understand far more the wish to set off fireworks with our mates in the kitchen, or late-night visits to the flesh-clubs of the North East, or late-night curries the day before a big game.  We understand the passion of the fans and the need for a passionate player to inspire them.

But isn’t Balotelli also the epitome of everything we hate about modern day footballers?  He’s over-paid, brattish, surly, under-performing, involved in continual training-ground bust-ups and is totally un-apologetic for his actions.  Joey Barton must be wondering why he ends up the vilified hate-figure, and yet Balotelli is clutched to the breast of the Nation like a favorite comfort blanket.  

Part of the country’s love for Balotelli is because we feel sorry for him, which is all rather patronising and I doubt he could care less.  He is Ghanain by birth and was raised from a young age by his adopted parents in Italy.  He speaks lovingly about his Italian mother and father, with an endearing child-like innocence.  He has been the victim of racist abuse and chanting in his adopted country and perhaps we need to show Balotelli the love that the Italians have been unwilling to.  Part of the country’s love is linked to the fact that he is genuinely entertaining on the pitch; he is super-talented, but is as likely to be subbed at half-time having shown little interest or effort as he is to score the goal that wins the game.

But perhaps the main reason that we love Balotelli is that we can relate to him.  We have a national aversion to perfect sportsmen like Michael Schumacher or Pete Sampras.  These people are born winners, racking up trophies with a single-mindedness that we cannot comprehend.  When we accuse them of being devoid of personality, it is simply because there is nothing in their life that is anything like our own.  We accuse them of being automatons, with their drive for excellence being mistaken for a lack of humour, grace and above all, fallibility.  This is why our sporting heroes always tend to be the most fallible (think George Best or Shane Warne).  We can’t connect with Best or Warne’s genius on the pitch, but we can with their drinking bouts or saucy texting.  Balotelli is the link between us and the perfect sportsmen and women; he allows us to connect with these higher forms of athletic life. He’s not so very different from us, and therefore we’re not so very different from Mike and Pete after all.  

We may have no idea what it feels like to play on Centre Court at Wimbledon, but we’d all rather play with toy cars than do the ironing, wouldn’t we?

Football’s dark secret

I’ve just been listening to a bit of football on the radio.  Quite an exciting bit of football as it happens: Arsenal football club have just scored 3 times in 15 minutes at the start of the second half and now lead Aston Villa 3-2 in a highly entertaining cup tie.  This is just one of many football stories this week, though as ever with the beautiful game, what happens on the pitch only makes up a fraction of what ends up written in the papers and discussed in pubs across the land.

This week we have Luis Suarez’s continued ban for racially abusing Patrice Evra, John Terry’s court ‘appearance’ for racially abusing Anton Ferdinand.  Ferdinand himself received a spent shotgun cartridge in the post this week, which seems rather more than harsh; whether he was racially abused or not, he has surely done nothing to deserve this threat of death?

Football has been blighted by accusations of racism for many years, though thankfully we seem destined never to return to the peak of the 1970s and 80s when it was common for black players to receive monkey chants and have bananas thrown onto the pitch.  The ‘Kick Racism Out’ campaign appears to have been successful, though it’s probably more a case simply that times have changed, along with the notion of what is acceptable and the values of a more enlightened population in general have been reflected in the behaviour of the average football supporter.

So far so good, but as Alan Hansen said recently on Match of the Day whilst talking about the issue of racism in football: ‘there’s still a long way to go’.   He’s right of course, and until racism is ‘kicked out’ completely, we must continue to campaign and to educate.  Unfortunately, in talking about racism, he also used the term ‘coloured people’, which meant that his sane message was lost in a tumult of calls to the BBC demanding his resignation for using such a derogatory term.  OK, so the word coloured isn’t exactly fashionable these days; it’s a term more closely linked to 70s sitcom ‘Mind your Language’ and it does tend to imply that there are only two races in the world: ‘Whites’ and ‘Coloureds’.  But we all knew what Hansen was trying to say, and if his terminology was perhaps less than sound, at least his logic was fine.  In any case, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) surely couldn’t have had a problem, given that the word coloured makes up a pretty key part of their message to the world.

Maybe Hansen should have used the word ‘Black’?  I was under the impression that this was more offensive than ‘coloured’, but I have been informed by several of my friends that this is not so, and actually this term is far less controversial and far less likely to offend.  However, returning to John Terry’s court appearance, we find that he has been investigated and subsequently charged with the offence of calling Anton Ferdinand a ‘black c*nt’ during a recent West London Derby.  Thank God he didn’t call Ferdinand a ‘coloured c*nt’, then the shit would really have hit the fan.  Actually, now I reflect further, isn’t the word c*nt actually rather more offensive than either ‘black’ or ‘coloured’?  Admittedly it has no racial connotations, but I reckon it’s about the most offensive individual word than one can utter in conversation.  

Racial abuse is simply a sub-section of abuse, but due to the behaviour of past generations, it’s a sub-section that lies far higher up the ‘likely to cause public outrage’ scale.  There are undeniably some ignorant cromagnon football supporters that genuinely do believe that black people are genetically inferior to whites, but these are few and far between and are loathed unanimously within the football community.  Most racist abuse is not indicative of an ideology that is unsound; it is simply a clutching at straws way of insulting another member of the human race.  If John Terry called Anton Ferdinand a ‘black c*nt’, it shows him up to be an unpleasant man, not necessarily to be an institutional racist.  Much of the debate around Luis Suarez’s ban concerned the question of whether using a racist term necessarily meant that he himself was a racist.  Surely this is just a case of labeling and semantics?  If I laugh at a sexist joke am I necessarily displaying a serious tendency towards misogynism?  Probably not, though it doesn’t rule it out either.  I would in either case not like to think that my entire belief system and ideological ‘soundness’ could be summarised by one outburst or reaction to a joke.

The problem with football, and more precisely with the fans that follow the sport, is that their own beliefs seem to take a back seat whenever it comes to issues regarding their club, the manager and the players.  Do all Liverpool fans believe that Suarez is not a racist?  Do all Manchester United fans believe that he is?  Do all Chelsea fans really believe that John Terry is not a racist?  Do they even have enough evidence?  Loyalty to a club is one thing, but these issues go far beyond mere support from the terraces.  It is perfectly possible for me to hope that my team will win, whilst also being disappointed in the behaviour of an individual that happens to play for the side I follow.  Football supporters tend to lose their ability to think for themselves on issues involving their club, instead choosing to agree with any sentiments uttered by their players and manager.  It’s so much better to be told what to think by people that you admire rather then actually taking the time to have an opinion yourself.

But maybe they are the sensible ones, bearing in mind how difficult it is to engage anyone on the subject of racism without either being labelled as a woolly liberal or as a racist oneself.  After all, several of my best friends are coloured, or should that be black?

The social pariah

It’s generally accepted that men and women are good at different things. Their skill sets are different. Maybe it’s easier to say that certain skills are emphatically more masculine and others more feminine, bearing in mind that we all have a degree of each. Men claim spatial awareness as their own, and I think they’re probably right. It’s certainly easier to drive a car with the A to Z open on your knees than it is to get a woman to try to navigate. They’ll spend much of the time rotating the page as they try to decide which is left and which is right, before you find out that the blue wavy line wasn’t the motorway, but a nearby river. When the roles are reversed, things usually progress more smoothly, though never assume that a woman will be able to understand a satnav. The instruction to ‘turn right in 400 yards’ will be met with ‘how am I supposed to know what 400 yards is?’ before the inevitable turn of the wheel about 25 yards from where the instruction was mentioned. Multi-tasking is almost exclusively the domain of women. They can generally manage to cook, feed a baby, push around a hoover, tune the radio, order ocado online and read a book at the same time, whereas men will accomplish only one of those tasks, usually with the tongue hanging out of one side of the mouth, and with a furrowed brow that lets everyone know just how tricky the task is.

There’s a whole host of other things one could go into, but they’re all pretty lazy stereotypes, and are almost bound to offend someone. However, one thing that I find women far better at is conversation. If one ends up talking to a woman at a social gathering, you generally have no idea what topic the conversation will turn to. Whether it’s an old friend, a semi-known partner of a friend or someone you’ve just met, you’ll be chatting through books, food, Art, travel, films etc, with scarcely an pause for breath. With men it’s all so very different, although I should put a disclaimer in here that I have a small number of excellent male friends, most of whom I’ve known for a long time that do not fall into this category. The category I’m talking about is the men that you know, but not all that well. Maybe they are ‘work friends’ rather than real friends, or boyfriends of good friends that you spend little time talking to unless you have to.

I get a sensation that approaches dread when I end up stuck at a party (not that I go to many) talking to a male that I don’t know all that well. I consider myself to be a reasonable conversationalist, but somehow I know that the chat we are about to have is going to be the most awkward thing that’s ever happened to either of us. Why should this be the case? It’s not like I’m trying to pull. Maybe I’m subconsciously worried that he’s about to jump me? This would certainly explain the opening line I tend to use to dampen any homosexual advances: ‘so how did you get here tonight?’. Why do I care? Why does anyone care? The options generally tend to be via public transport, or via some form of owned vehicle. Either way, it’s not much of a conversation starter. And yet I always feel the need to kick things off with this gem. This will generally be followed up with a ‘what do you do?’. I don’t care what he does either, and until the day someone says astronaut or premiership footballer, neither will I care. This is bad enough, but it always provokes him to ask me the same question. I always say ‘teacher’, though by now some kind of latent, desperate alpha-male switch has been flicked, and I’ll somehow try and crowbar in that I teach at a very successful School, and I’m part of SMT. What a tool I must sound like. He doesn’t care, and I don’t even know why I’ve mentioned it. Maybe I should just challenge him to down a pint, compare size of car engines, or just flip it out there and then. I genuinely have no idea why I behave this way, other than some kind of inner desire to appear a person of quality to a total stranger.

The worst is yet to come. As if I haven’t appeared enough of a conversational dunce, I’ll then always turn around the chat to football, with a jolly ‘so who’s your team then?’. I hate myself for doing this. I have so much more to talk about, and yet I can’t go 5 minutes with a stranger without mentioning football. If the chap likes football, it’s then turn in to a kind of fencing stat-off, and if he doesn’t, what then? Rugby? The conversation always tends to improve after a while, but it’ll still be one of those conversations that both of us are just waiting for a chance to move away from. And when Victoria comes back with the G+Ts, that’s exactly what I’ll do.

Maybe I just need to try harder. Maybe my brain just takes over, and I click onto a sort of crap chat autopilot. I think this must be it; I had a really good idea about time and perception to write about when I sat down, and now I’ve wasted 15 minutes on this drivel.

Taste, don’t eat

There’s really very little in the world that doesn’t interest me. I like Art, food, wine, books, TV and film, travel, sport, History, science (my job), philosophy, ‘take me out’ and much more besides. I don’t think this makes me a polymath, an expert on anything or even especially cultured, and perhaps reflects my low boredom threshold more than anything else. The thought of having a season ticket for sport is anathema to me; to know where you are going to be sitting for 20 saturdays every year takes a lot out of the fun of saturdays. I like everything to be something of a treat, like the cinema, a G+T or dropping into a gallery. I consider myself very much a ‘dipper in to’ rather than a ‘fully paid up member of’ where my interests are concerned. That’s also true for my friends. All of my friends are more interesting when I haven’t seen them for a while, and other than people with whom I work, I doubt I see any other friends more than once every few months. Stephen Fry said ‘I like to taste my friends, not eat them’. Assuming that he wasn’t talking literally, I like his sentiments.

I’m not sure that many people would agree with me. Most people I know like to have a close-knit group of friends, or at least a small circle they can class as their bezzies. These are the people you know on more than just a superficial level; they are the people to whom you can divulge anything. I wonder why we feel that we can’t discuss (almost) anything with (almost) anyone. People you don’t know so well are likely to give you more impartial advice on important matters, and the viewpoint of someone new must be of greater interest than someone whose thoughts you know before they open their mouth. New people are often no less fun than old friends, and when you like someone new, you know that you like them in the here and now, not that you liked them several years ago, and therefore have a bond that has become more to do with time than actually having anything in common.

I’m not sure that the same theory can be applied to people’s interests. I think that most people like to be expert in a few areas rather than being mildly interested in quite a lot. If you’re really into films, you’ve no chance of being caught out at a dinner party when you’re unable to quote whole sections of the Coen brothers. If you’re really into football, you can chat knowledgably in the pub for a couple of hours before the game of seasons gone by. I was out to dinner on saturday, and when David Mitchell was mentioned, I launched into a tirade about how ubiquitous he is on our screens, before then realising it was a different David Mitchell, who writes books, or makes films, or plays on the wing maybe. There’s a class thing at work here too. Our interests almost seem to be pre-determined by the environment in which we exist. There were howls of horror at my posh boarding School when I professed my enthusiasm for American football recently (this is a classic example of something I love, but know very little about the rules). You’re a snob if you’re interested in wine, one of the uneducated masses if you prefer football to rugby, a nerd if you like science, thick if you watch ‘take me out’ and elitist if you like classical music. Bummer. I’m not sure why we seem so keen to pigeon hole ourselves into roles that are defined by others. I’ve just been watching the artist Simon Starling on the culture show, and was quite interested in his work. I’d probably go and see it if I was in St Ives. He’s a Turner Prize-winning artist, and hence is in the elitist and snobbish bracket. But his concept was slightly interesting, quite simple, and probably quite interesting to far more people than will ever see it. His photo of a platinum mine in South Africa was nice enough to look at, and the fact that platinum had been used in the development of the photo was nicely cyclical. But this isn’t an example of high Art, far removed from the comprehension and interest of the masses. It’s just being presented as such. Because some Arty-types want to keep themselves clear of the social strata they feel is a notch beneath them, which is why Starling had a carefully chosen shabby-chic look about him, and talked as though he were uncovering the secrets of the universe when he showed his photos of the gallery’s basement.

I’m pretty sure that Simon could do with a pint and a pie at the football, and I’m sure the fat bloke I sit next to at Palace could benefit from doing a bit of beard stroking down at St Ives. Or maybe no-one thinks like me, and that’s the way I like it, because I’m desperate to be different. Isn’t it all complicated?

Much ado about nothing-nothing

I listened to a piece by Tim Franks on radio 4 the other day about the ‘language of sport’. I say I listened; actually I heard the title, then the first 30 seconds or so, and thought it sounded interesting. But then the real rigours of the morning took over, and the main thrust of the piece was lost in the need to make tea, to attempt to make the bathroom wall-mounted radio tune in to anything other than Moyles and Evans and to ponder the question of whether shaving in the bath really does save time.

I wonder if anyone defended the use of language in sport in this piece, for surely nothing produces as much inane conversation and commentary than sport, and football in particular. Much of the inanity is centred in the pub, both before and after games, and during if the match happens to be on live TV. However, as any man will know, your oldest friends are often those people that you can’t really remember having a proper convrsation with, and therefore when you do get together, a solid moan about your respective football teams always helps to pass the time. It’s also easy to make friends in the pub when the football is on the TV too; you simply walk up to the bar when you’ve just arrived, and catch the eye of the nearest chap:

Me: ‘What’s the score’
Them: ‘One all’

…long pause…

Me: ‘Good goals?’

And so you’ve made a new friend. It’s actually almost a ritual, akin to getting in to a taxi and asking him if he’s been busy that night. The ritual is obeyed, the conversation may flow…

The less defensible inanity comes in live commentary, and the pinnacle of inanity in the post-match interview. This is where the real language of sport descends into cliche. It also serves the public’s insatiable appetite for all things round-ball related. If a shark stops swimming, it dies, and it’s as if we feel the same fate awaits us unless we keep talking about football.

I’m certainly as irritable as the next person, and here are my four gear-grinding commentary irritations:

  • ‘1-0 down inside 5 minutes; it’s the worst possible start’. No. It. Isn’t.
  • ‘A goal just before half time; what a great time to score’. No. It. Isn’t.
  • Any time a challenge is referred to as a ‘potential leg-breaker’
  • Anything with an inappropriate use of the word literally: ‘he’s literally dead on his feet’, ‘he’s literally covered every blade of grass’…

And as for post-match interviews, if you ever hear a question that isn’t rhetorical, and basically just an introduction for the huge headphone-wearing, large knot in tie-adorned footballer to finish the rest of the sentence, I’d like to hear about it.

‘So, an 8-0 win, and you scored a double hat-trick’, you must be pleased?’. Hmmmm, let me guess, but I bet the answer will start with ‘obviously’.

If you fancy a chortle on the gloomiest day of the year, have a listen to the first 15 seconds of this:

Out of Africa

All of my previous blog entries have been written with a sense of calm. I’ve tapped lightly on the keyboard, whilst transferring my rambling thoughts from brain to screen. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’ve been impassioned to write this latest entry, but maybe I’m tapping just a little harder.

Here’s the facts that have brought about this feverish state of mind: tonight, Ghana played Uruguay in the 1/4 finals of the World Cup. It’s a 1/4 final that not many would have predicted, though it has a sense of importance: Uruguay won the first two World Cups, and Ghana are Africa’s last representative at the first African World Cup. To put you out of your misery, in case you haven’t seen: Uruguay won. On penalties. A harsh way to go for Ghana, certainly, but a ‘fair’ lottery. But maybe it shouldn’t have gone to that lottery, because right at the end of the game, Ghana were awarded a penalty, which would have taken them through, had they converted it. Not just any penalty mind, but one awarded for deliberate cheating, when an outfield player for Uruguay (subsequently sent off) handled the ball deliberately on the line. Anyway, Ghana missed it, cue much gnashing of teeth and cries of unfair play.

Yes, it is unfair, but so was England’s goal that was ruled not to have crossed the line, and so is any goal that is chalked off for an incorrect linesman’s flag. But that’s the beauty of sport. So much rests on key decisions, and often they are called wrong. It’s human error, only this time it’s from the officials, not from those on the pitch. Are the officials expected to be infallible? Of course not, they are only human, like the players. They make mistakes, but their impartiality is never called into question, and surely that’s the most important thing. Sport is great because it throws up upsets, because the best don’t always come first, because the story doesn’t always have a happy ending. It’s unpredictable, and that’s often the best thing about it.

The script said that Ghana should have gone through tonight. That much is obvious. The African people were behind them, and the World outside of South America were behind them. But to pity them is to patronise them, and this is something that Africa has endured more of than most. If the situation was reversed, and a Ghanain player had handled on the line, Uruguay would have had the chance to win the game. The Ghanain player would have been lauded, and the World would have accepted it far more readily. There’s no great sportmanship in football any more, because it’s only partly a game, and the money and National expectation have placed it on such a pedestal that we have lost the sense of football as entertainment, and see it only as winning or losing, as justice being done or not. I’ve seen the Ghana players holding up mock yellow cards in an attempt to get the referee to book the players of other teams. They’re no worse than the Uruguayans, or any others, but it’s a sad indictment of what football has become.

Anyway, here’s the solution: man handles deliberately on line, goal is awarded, man stays on pitch. Fair.

Just one further observation, and a pet hate of mine: the sense of ‘deserving’ in football. By this I mean the situation where a team dominates play, squanders chances, and ends up losing 1-0 to the opposition’s only meaningful attempt on goal. You did not ‘deserve’ to win. Football is about putting the ball in the back of the net, and no more. If they score more than you, you deserve to lose, not win, because possession, shots on target etc mean nothing, apart from to Andy Gray and other football analysts. It’s an odd concept, and seemingly unique to football. We love the sense of justice being done, and are up in arms when the perception is that this isn’t the case. It’s not solely a British thing, but it’s most definitely ‘not cricket’…