Wednesday 21 March 2018

The week football looked into the gutter

Sepp Blatter speaking at the FIFA Congress
Sepp Blatter speaking at the FIFA Congress
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

It was the 30th anniversary of Heysel yesterday but football was, of course, largely pre-occupied with other things. Truth be told, it always has been whenever the story of 39 lost lives at the equivalent of a Champions League final gets recycled now.

What more is there ever to say about tragedy anyway? Fourteen Liverpool supporters were charged with manslaughter for their part in a charge at Juventus fans that evening which, fatally, led to the collapse of a concrete wall.

No end of plaques erected or cards placed on stadium seats will ever subdue the hurt felt by those who lost family and friends.

As a club, Liverpool's initial reaction to Heysel was shameful, all but washing their hands with disinfectant. As a city, complex feelings of hurt and confusion were largely subsumed by the grief decanted at Hillsborough four years later. It was never that Liverpool people forgot, more that a new horror overtook them.


Mainstream football media has, naturally, been consumed this week by each new grisly update from that convention of ghosts in Zurich. Would the FBI's exposure of rampant corruption within FIFA see Sepp Blatter replaced after 17 years as president by this nice Prince Ali? Or would Sepp's 'friends' stay true to him in the storm?

It felt a bit like wondering if Elmer Fudd might finally get one over on Bugs Bunny.

Even BBC News seemed sufficiently sidetracked yesterday to briefly ponder via Twitter if Heysel might be football's "forgotten tragedy", given "56 died in a fire 30 years ago today". Truly breath-taking forgetfulness there.

So Heysel got little enough traction, save supporter-driven media forums like 'The Anfield Wrap', whose beautifully respectful remembrance of that wretched night in Brussels quite rightly swamped any appetite this week for an exploration of Brendan Rodgers' end-of-season struggles.

When I think of Heysel, one of the faces coming instantly to mind is that of Michel Platini (right). His penalty won the game for Juventus that night after the authorities' insistence on it going ahead in order to prevent further disorder. You think about that decision now and try to imagine the concentration of players from either side, compelled to play before the dead were even cold.

In that context, Platini's celebration of the goal was stunning. He raced away in a great, theatrical arc as if the smell of death belonged in some other, far distant field. He looked utterly oblivious to the context of the evening, to that of two teams going through the motions of a palpably uncomfortable obligation. Platini seemed to see only his goal, nothing beyond it.

And, in Zurich this week, that same epic lack of self-awareness was palpable.

One of the more dispiriting deductions to draw from this week's FIFA circus was a suspicion that the breeze suddenly blowing through football was one of opportunism, not conscience. When Platini could feel empowered to paint himself as some kind of knight in shining armour, the game was truly running low on heroes.

So it became of comedy of sorts, albeit a resolutely black one.

The gargantuan sponsors of the world game issued inevitably vacuous statements about considering their positions as if news of FIFA housing a few crooks in its midst now suddenly cut them to the core.

Who could have imagined it? The organisation that gave us Jack Warner storing some dirt beneath its fingernails?

Blatter's survival, it seemed, was never in serious doubt. Politicians know their constituents and Europe's grand-standing through Platini particularly always had the stench of phoney moralism in a great cesspit of self-interest.

Here, after all, is a man who voted for a miniscule Gulf state, cursed with microwave summer temperatures and blackened with hideous human rights abuses, to stage the 2022 World Cup.

A man who, some years after that 2010 vote was passed, asked without any hint of conscious irony "How can we ask the fans and players to go to this country when it is 50 or 60 degrees in July?"

Here, after all, is someone who previously said of the unctuous Blatter that he was "no angel", but reassuringly "not corrupt, 200pc".

And here, maybe most pointedly, was the man, yes the "player at heart, not a politician" whose own son became a legal advisor last January for the European operations department of an organisation called Qatar Sports Investments.

At a fundamental level, world football is simply crooked, and Blatter, as FIFA president, hasn't overseen any unique strain of that crookedness. That, not his re-election, was the saddest thing.


Benteke the next Andy Carroll?

If Christian Benteke is Liverpool's number one transfer target, is it not tempting to ask on whose call?

The Belgian is a hugely forbidding striker who, it is true, comfortably bullied Brendan Rodgers's team in the FA Cup semi-final. But his recruitment would surely signal at least one of two things for the Anfield club. Either (a) they have chosen to abandon Rodgers's favoured high pressing game or (b) they have decided to dispense with Rodgers.

The most basic tenet of Liverpool's formations under Rodgers has been pace, mobility and the ability to transition quickly in the final third. Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge brought that model to a virtual art-form last season. In their absence, Liverpool have looked largely turgid and unthreatening.

Neither Mario Balotelli or Ricky Lambert can play that pressing game and Fabio Borini spent all year on the naughty step for not accepting a £14 million move to Sunderland.

Now Liverpool, we are told, are closing on Benteke. Why? He may be a better player than Andy Carroll, but his strengths are pretty much cut from the same template.

In a Liverpool team that doesn't cross the ball, is Benteke really the perfect prototype of what they need?

Meanwhile, they pursue their fourth recruit from Southampton in a calendar year when the previous three all flopped.

Someone making club policy up as they go along?


O'Connell aims for fairytale goodybye

Given it's pretty unthinkable that either Munster or the IRFU will deny Paul O'Connell the chance to end his career in France, Belfast should witness a pretty charged Irish captain bidding farewell this evening.

Toulon's refusal to be discouraged in their pursuit of O'Connell has, it appears, persuaded the Limerick man to postpone the retirement that - just a few short weeks ago - seemed certain to be confirmed at the end of this autumn's World Cup. After 14 seasons in Munster red, he will - thus - sign off for the province in tonight's Pro12 final.

It is a measure of O'Connell's standing in the international game that multi-millionaire Toulon owner, Mourad Boudjellal, had been so persistent in his courtship of the Irish player, up to and including the rather comical April denial that contracts had already been signed.

Two seasons of Top 14 rugby, presumably with the benefit of a squad rotation facilitated by the sheer breadth of Toulon's playing wealth, will add a valuable extra dimension to O'Connell's CV when he pursues a career in coaching.

Tonight, however, will be all about chasing that fairytale farewell. Glasgow, naturally, won't be compliant facilitators and it will be a surprise if a basic tenet of their game-plan isn't to keep the Munster number five subdued.

An old story.

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