ONE LAST THING…

VWOne strange tradition that never fails to deliver is that of a year entering its final days and the Grim Reaper embarking upon a frenzied period of visiting famous names; for Death, the climax of the twelve-month calendar usually consists of breakneck house-to-house calls as though he’s required to fulfil a specific celebrity quota before 31 December and always leaves it till the last minute. Indeed, he left it so late this year that he ended up calling on two exemplary figures in their chosen fields on the same day, fashion designer Vivienne Westwood and Brazilian football legend Pelé. The latter’s battle with cancer had been publicised and his hospitalisation routinely referenced during the recent World Cup, when Lionel Messi became the latest player to wear the crown that the man born Edson Arantes do Nacimento had copyrighted from the age of 17; in contrast with an anticipated passing that had felt inevitable for several weeks, news that Vivienne Westwood has also died came as more of a surprise, with few beyond her inner circle aware she was fatally ill. Born within six months of each other, one was a king and one was a dame, and both left an indelible mark on 20th century pop culture that will long outlast their mortal remains.

At a time when access to football played beyond Europe was minimal to say the least, the World Cup was the only real window to the global game available to football followers in the UK and on the Continent – and even then it could be something of a logistical challenge for it to reach British and European screens. If the tournament was staged in South America – such as Chile in 1962 – the fact that broadcasting’s satellite age was still a twinkle in Telstar’s eye meant games would be shot on film and then rushed to a waiting plane; in 1962, TV viewers over here had to wait an unimaginable two days after the Final itself was played before they actually got to see the match transmitted on the BBC. Four years earlier, at the least the contest was a little closer to home, staged in Sweden. This was just the sixth World Cup tournament, and up to that point the Jules Rimet trophy had only been held aloft by three countries – Uruguay, Italy and West Germany. Brazil had reached the Final on one solitary occasion – 1950 – and had suffered an inconceivable loss on home soil to Uruguay; they felt it was their destiny to win, but despite their dazzling flair, Brazil never seemed able to leap that final hurdle to immortality. And then, in 1958, they unveiled a prodigy.

In 1958, the 17-year-old Vivienne Swire had relocated from her birthplace in working-class Derbyshire to begin student life on a jewellery course at Harrow Art School; on the other side of the world, Edson Arantes do Nacimento – who had emerged from a poverty-stricken corner of Sao Paulo – was the great discovery of Brazilian club Santos and was a year into his international career when the World Cup in Sweden came calling. Rapidly on his way to becoming a household name in his own country, Pelé (having adopted the time-honoured Brazilian tactic of going by a nickname) was Brazil’s secret weapon in 1958. Although he didn’t make his debut until the third and final group game, by the time the team entered the knock-out stage – which in those more manageable days of just 16 teams was the Quarter-Final – he scored the only goal against Wales; in the Semi-Final Vs France he netted a hat-trick and the rest of the world sat up and took notice. In the Final, he scored twice as Brazil hammered the host nation 5-2 and finally fulfilled their destiny by getting their hands on the most coveted prize in football. Overnight, the teenager had become a global superstar.

Four years later, Pelé’s reputation had grown to the point where Santos had received numerous tempting offers for their greatest asset from a string of eager English and European big guns – including Manchester United and Real Madrid – but had held firm, with the Brazilian Government declaring him an official national treasure in order to prevent his export. He kick-started Brazil’s defence of the World Cup in Chile with the expectations of a nation weighing heavily on his shoulders, but suffered an injury early in the tournament and played no further part in the contest; despite Brazil retaining the trophy without him in Chile, Pelé fared even worse in England in 1966, exposed to the worst ‘professional tackles’ of the era as he was kicked out of the competition by Bulgarian and Portuguese defenders; the holders exited at the group stage and Pelé vowed to never grace the global stage again. Whilst all this was happening, Vivienne Westwood had walked out on her first marriage (from which she took her surname) and had set up home with Malcolm McLaren, a partnership that would prove fruitful for both. Although earning a wage as a primary school teacher, Westwood was already designing her own clothes, and by the early 1970s she and McLaren had opened a boutique called Let It Rock on Chelsea’s King’s Road, one that specialised in vintage Teddy Boy gear from the 50s.

As Westwood and McLaren were establishing themselves on the King’s Road, Pelé had relented from his decision of 1966 and was back in the Brazil line-up for the Mexico World Cup in 1970. Like Maradona in 1986 and Messi in 2022, this was Pelé’s chance to justify his reputation before a global audience, and he – and his team – didn’t disappoint. Even now, over half-a-century later, that Brazil side is still acknowledged as arguably the finest team ever to win the competition; indeed, so overwhelmed were FIFA by Brazil’s performance that they allowed them to keep the Jules Rimet trophy forever as they became the first country to capture it for a third time. Yes, Pelé was the star man, but he was ably supported by players whose names evoked Renaissance artists – Jairzinho, Rivelino, Carlos Alberto – and who played with an artistic flair unparalleled in the history of the game. Prior to the Final, the game of the tournament came between Brazil and defending champions England; Brazil won 1-0, but the match is chiefly remembered for Gordon Banks’ miraculous save against Pelé – as memorable a moment as Pelé’s attempted goal from the halfway line against Czechoslovakia. Brazil defeated Italy 4-1 in the Final, with the opening goal coming from the man himself; it was Pele’s last game in the World Cup, retiring from international football a year later and resisting efforts to coax him out of international retirement in 1974.

By the mid-70s, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren had renamed their boutique ‘Sex’ and had begun selling the kind of fetish gear normally unseen outside of Soho backrooms; Westwood was certainly ahead of her time, considering such gear is now commonplace with gimps on dog-leads entertaining toddlers on Pride parades. They then tapped into a craze amongst impoverished London art students (including a certain Johnny Rotten) for wearing ripped clothes held together by safety pins; the two strands combined and created the Punk look, which – when stitched to the music produced by the band McLaren managed, The Sex Pistols – ended up selling a lifestyle. It was the springboard for Westwood to become Britain’s most renowned and radical young designer, and she never really looked back. As Punk was bubbling on the King’s Road, Pelé had done the unthinkable and relocated from Santos to the US, helping to launch the North American Soccer League in the colours of the New York Cosmos. Hip Americans who were finding football a hard sell instantly warmed to the fact a black man was considered the planet’s finest footballer, and even though Pelé was arguably past his best at 35, he still outshone most of the competition on the stateside field of play and didn’t finally retire for good until 1977.

Whether an elder statesman still selling his sport around the world or an established fashion designer attaching her profitable name to whichever cause she sought to promote, both Pelé and Vivienne Westwood had become global brands by the time they simultaneously bowed-out of the spotlight and both are pretty much irreplaceable, however many pretenders to their respective crowns they survived in their lifetimes and will continue to withstand in death.

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MESSI PLAYED QATAR

MessiConsidering the nature of events over the past two or three years, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to find ourselves in a time when the World Cup Final is staged seven days before Christmas Day; the topsy-turvy, upside-down nature of where we are now expects nothing less – ditto the fact that (against all odds) a tournament rightly mired in controversy from the off climaxes with a match that ends up being one of the most edge-of-the-seat contests anyone can ever remember, one that also confirms a 35-year-old is officially acknowledged as the planet’s finest footballer. After all, the natural order was shown the door when this dismal decade was no more than a couple of months old, and ever since then we appear to have been living through a strange age when anything that had previously been logically written-off as fringe lunacy now goes – an era in which double-speak, thought-crime and 2+2=5 are the new normal; and questioning this trend is verboten in polite society. Not that Lionel Messi will be complaining; he’s finally got his hands on the one trophy that has always eluded him in a professional career that began as far back as his league debut for Barcelona in 2004. A lot of the talk over the past month has been focused on ending that career on a high, but there are a small handful of precedents should he care to dip into the history books.

The legendary Stanley Matthews played his last game for England at the age of 42 in 1957 – 23 years after his international debut; the fact he didn’t retire from football altogether until the age of 50 in 1965 is all the more amazing when one remembers he belonged to a generation of players whose careers were interrupted by six years of World War; moreover, he was unfortunate to be playing at a time when England’s performances at the World Cup never matched up to pre-tournament expectations. Lionel Messi has himself experienced many occasions during his five World Cups when the hopes of a nation have rested on his shoulders, shoulders weighed down by the burden of carrying average talents unworthy of his boots; but soldiering on eventually paid off. Due to his quiet, unassuming manner, Messi’s fame within the game has never really transcended football in the way of his flamboyant contemporary Cristiano Renaldo – nor indeed the ghost who haunts Argentina’s international side, Diego Maradona. But perhaps the additional crowning glory to Messi’s career has been to finally achieve global pop cultural status.

On Sunday’s field of play, Messi’s reputation was up against a young contender in the shape of his Paris Saint-Germain teammate, Kylian Mbappé of France. The other 20+ men on display almost seemed superfluous next to the God-like genius present in the feet of these two, certainly if pre-match hype was to be believed; but it was Messi who lived up to that hype in the first half, scoring the opening goal from the penalty spot and inspiring his side to a 2-0 lead that appeared unassailable to the lacklustre defending champions. France’s unexpected comeback towards the end of the game, levelling things at 2-2 and coming close to a shock victory in the dying light of normal time, revived a match that looked to be smoothly careering towards a preordained conclusion. But, as with the late West Germany equaliser that enabled 1966 to loom so large in the collective memory of all Englishmen, extra-time proved to be the making of the 2022 Final; and a game that seemed to contain everything had other echoes of 1966 too. There was Messi’s second goal (making the score 3-2) momentarily disputed at having crossed the line, and there was Geoff Hurst’s 56-year-old record finally being equalled as Mbappé scored a hat-trick, with a late penalty bringing the score to 3-3.

Okay, so it was eventually decided on penalties; but this wasn’t the contrived climax to one of those drab, fun-free Finals of recent years (1994 and 2006 spring to mind) – instead, it served as the only fitting icing to a nail-biting drama unparalleled in the footballing memories of most watching. And, whilst there may have been an interminable wait between the winning penalty and Messi being handed the trophy by a FIFA President who clearly didn’t want to let go of it (not to mention the player of the tournament being inexplicably draped in what resembled a see-through negligee from a 70s sex comedy), in the end the script penned by celestial hands was upheld and Argentina were recognised as world champions for a third time. A month ago, such an outcome had seemed pretty unimaginable, not least due to the fact Argentina had begun their campaign humiliated by the first of many upsets the contest produced, losing 2-1 to Saudi Arabia. Gianni Infantino, the same FIFA President who evidently wanted to bask in Messi’s magic glow on the podium, had opened proceedings with a bizarre press conference in which he responded to justifiable criticisms of the Qatar setting by declaring, ‘Today I feel Qatari; today I feel Arab; today I feel African; today I feel gay; today I feel disabled; today I feel a migrant worker.’ He didn’t add, ‘Today I feel President of an institutionally corrupt organisation that will bend over for any country with enough cash to roger it senseless and drag the sport through the mud.’ But you can’t have everything.

Opening in a key so low only Paul Robeson had previously been there, the 2022 World Cup prompted a generous amount of somewhat belated questions on the part of mainstream TV presenters and pundits from their executive boxes in stadiums built by slave labour prior to a ball being kicked; once the football actually began, anticipation over which players would choose to stage a protest was as widely discussed as any proposed performance on the pitch. As has been said before, however, there was always the 1978 example of the great Johan Cruyff, who opted out of that year’s World Cup in Argentina on account of refusing to condone the country’s ruling military junta – though none of today’s soccer superstars decided to follow suit. Despite rumours that the England team would honour their manager’s Woke credentials once again by running on the field bedecked in rainbow armbands, they restricted themselves to the jaded knee-taking ritual; that this virtue-signalling ceremony is well past its sell-by date was highlighted in an amusingly ludicrous manner when England played the USA, and the American players – who had started the whole thing in the first place – remained standing whilst the England team knelt before them; one could almost see it as a metaphor for the ‘Special Relationship’.

Sure, the German players added to the checklist of virtuous signals by indulging in a spot of pre-match mouth-covering before another embarrassing exit at the group stage, but the one visual statement made by a team that represented genuine bravery rather than the superficial ‘stunning and brave’ accolade routinely awarded to millionaires making a token gesture to ensure they remain on the Right Side of History was made by the Iran team. Their incredibly courageous decision to remain mute during the playing of the Iranian national anthem took balls, especially when one considers their families back home risked reprisals from the powers-that-be, let alone what might await the players themselves upon their return. In some respects, this memorable moment couldn’t be topped, and the focus more or less settled on the sport itself thereafter. And there were various surprises along the way, none more so than Morocco’s remarkable progress to the Semi-final, disposing of favourites such as Belgium, Spain and Portugal en route.

But, of course, whatever sour taste so much of this World Cup leaves in the mouth, at least it enabled Lionel Messi to fulfil his destiny; and I suspect that incredible Final will be the lingering memory of a tournament that should never have happened yet eventually served as a novel distraction from all the other cheery issues of the moment that are bringing so much joy into our lives. And all will recommence again three-and-a-half years from now in North Korea…er…sorry, North America. Well, you never know with FIFA…

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BACKSIDE OF THE NET

World CupAlas poor Mick – the former Southampton centre forward named Channon was one of the few permanent fixtures of the unstable era in English international football that constituted the sad decline and fall of Sir Alf Ramsey as well as the inconsistent tenure of Don Revie. Mick Channon made his England debut in 1972 and played his final game for his country in 1977. At a time when England were incapable of finding a settled side and rarely played the same line-up two games running, Channon’s name was one of the few automatic choices on the team-sheet, and he collected a total of 46 caps, scoring 21 goals over five years. Yet he remains the most-capped Englishman never to have played in a World Cup or European Championships tournament, for he was prominent amongst a generation of great English footballers that also included the likes of Tony Currie, Gerry Francis, Roy McFarland and Malcolm Macdonald – men who unfortunately missed out on the kind of international competition today’s players take for granted because they were playing at the wrong time.

The 1970s was a curious period, almost reminiscent of that pre-war era of international football, when the England team effectively opted-out of the World Cup, regarding the newfangled tournament as being somehow beneath them; at least the team tried to qualify during the 70s rather than declining to participate, but they still failed to do so. The blow to national morale that came with the fatal draw against Poland at Wembley in October 1973 meant that, for the first time since their inaugural entry in 1950, England wouldn’t be going to the World Cup Finals. To add insult to injury, Scotland had qualified, and the tournament would be held in the backyard of another old enemy, West Germany; oh, and the Germans ended up winning it as well. 1974 could have been written off as an unpleasant blip for English football, but it happened again four years later.

After having to pretend to support Scotland at the 1978 World Cup (something that didn’t stretch much beyond the lacklustre draw with Iran), it was a relief that England finally qualified for the 1982 tournament; for my generation, it was the first time we’d been able to cheer on our own country in the contest, and the excitement in the build-up – along with familiar, misplaced optimism – was something that has become mandatory ever since; well, until this year. Indeed, given the uniquely low-key overture to the 2022 World Cup, you’d be forgiven for not knowing it kicks-off this coming Sunday. I’ve never previously experienced such muted hyperbole preceding the World Cup before, especially with England participating; and, for once, England go into a tournament having performed exceptionally well at the previous two – semi-finalists in the 2018 World Cup and runners-up at Euro 2020. However, there are reasons for this noticeable dearth of enthusiasm, and it says a great deal about the multi-million dollar business the beautiful game has become in recent years.

Qatar is a country that has never qualified for the World Cup and has no footballing pedigree whatsoever. It had no notable stadia when winning the right to host the tournament, so embarked upon an intensive building programme thereafter, undertaken by cheap migrant labour; many of the exploited labourers died during the construction of this stadia, though estimates vary as to the numbers. Mind you, considering summer temperatures in the country can reach up to 113º Fahrenheit, it’s probably fair to say hard labour in such conditions isn’t recommended. The searing heat is utterly unsuitable for running around a football pitch for 90 minutes, which is why a sacred tradition has been broken to accommodate the fact and this World Cup has been put back to the end of the year. Of course, this has meant the suspension of domestic league programmes, smack bang in the middle of the season; league football is the weekly bread-and-butter of the football fan, and the majority would rather see their own club win the title or the cup than have their international team do well instead. World Cups and Euros have increasingly become a summer side-dish to the main course of club football – the snack between meals you can eat without ruining your appetite; the prospect of a season being interrupted just so the World Cup can be held in an appalling autocracy where being gay means a prison sentence and women are second-class citizens frankly stinks. Sure, countries with dubious human rights records have held global sporting events before – the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the 1978 Argentina World Cup, the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and indeed the very last World Cup, which was held in bloody Russia. But this feels even worse.

The awarding of the World Cup to Qatar back in 2010 embodies everything that is ugly, obscene and unedifying about football today. 11 of the 22 members of FIFA’s Executive Committee who gave the vote to Qatar twelve years ago have subsequently been suspended, indicted, banned or fined; two were excluded from the decision-making process even before it took place due to allegations they’d offered to sell their votes; a year after the right to host was won by Qatar, the Sunday Times alleged two other committee members had each been paid one and-a-half million dollars to vote the right way. The stench of bribery, corruption and brown paper bags has not cleared since the disgraced voting of 2010; anybody with half-a-brain knows the sole reason the World Cup went to a footballing backwater like Qatar was that Qatar bought the tournament. And this blatant truism has definitely filtered through to the TV stations, presenters and pundits, who are conspicuously quieter than usual. One gets the feeling that even the overenthusiastic cheerleaders for the competition are ashamed, toning down their normal giddiness at the prospect of the World Cup being just days away.

Unsurprisingly, some in the game have echoed FIFA’a scruples by taking the money and running with it, struggling to uphold their routine Woke posturing in the face of hilarious hypocrisy. Just a couple of months on from winning plaudits after choosing to queue-up to see Her Majesty’s coffin at Westminster Hall rather than using his celebrity status to jump that queue, David Beckham’s reputation is in the gutter following revelations of a handsome gratuity from his Qatari paymasters; similarly, infuriatingly right-on pundit Gary Neville – the arch-advocate of taking the knee – has decided not to boycott the World Cup and will instead be covering the contest on site, for a mouth-watering fee. It was almost a throwback to the glory days of ‘Have I Got News for You’ when Ian Hislop ripped into Neville a couple of weeks back, and he was as deserving of it as Matt Hancock is of being showered in koala crap on his own primetime reality show. But the hypocrisy doesn’t end there. After two years of bombarding football fans with nothing but political issues and slogans, the football authorities are now claiming politics has no place in the sport and supporters should concentrate on the games instead of questioning the ethics of holding the World Cup in a country like Qatar. You couldn’t make it up.

When the MSM has cautiously touched upon those ethics, the focus has predictably been the threat to travelling members of the ‘LGBTXYZ Community’, something a Qatari World Cup Ambassador provided ammunition for by stating, ‘Homosexuality is damage in the mind’. But as football isn’t primarily regarded as a particularly ‘gay’ sport, the impact of such prejudice is probably more minimal than some of the other unsavoury elements surrounding the whole atrocious circus. Like most, I’ll no doubt tune in to see how England fare, but I won’t be especially annoyed if they fail to make it out of the group stages this time round. The sooner the team are jetting home to prepare for the recommencement of the domestic season, the better. Qatar bought the tournament, so Qatar may as well buy the bloody trophy; let them have it. Any other winner would only be tainted by association.

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THE COLOUR OF MONEY

Pointing 2Like a stubborn dad repeatedly making a pig’s ear of repairing something in the house, determined not to lose face by calling in a professional tradesman, the knee-taking footballers cannot countenance entirely dropping the habit. Even though the virtue-signalling futility of it has seen the ritual reduced to specific showcase matches rather than a pre-match ceremony before every game, its presence remains. Then again, the FA are too full of their own noble narcissism to accept such a vacuous gesture is a safe pose compared to making a real stand against genuine injustices by, say, refusing to participate in the upcoming World Cup in the human rights haven that is Qatar. Similarly, rentagob Woke football pundit Gary Neville, notoriously swift to seize upon any imagined discrimination within the game, clearly sees no contradiction in accepting lucrative offers from the totalitarian Middle Eastern autocracy that has built stadia via slave labour – which pretty much tells you all you need to know about the hypocritical morality of a sport too eager to maintain the affluence to which it has become accustomed to put conscience before avarice.

Football authorities capitalised on the absence of uncouth fans and their dissenting voices when resuming play behind closed doors during the pandemic; the national game was quicker than any other sport to bombard viewers at home with divisive dogma and political sloganeering because it – as with every other institution that profits from a weaponised cause – knew any objections could be instantly dismissed as bigotry. And the moment supporters were allowed back into the newly-consecrated temples of ‘tolerance’, the inevitable objections to being preached at were predictably (and unjustly) branded as bigoted nostalgia for the bad old days of bananas being thrown at black players. The supporters’ beef wasn’t with Footballers of Colour, but with being lectured by wankers who view them as inconvenient scum; not that they’re given a break from it, mind. Watching ‘Football Focus’ these days is akin to being battered about the head with a copy of the Guardian, so relentless is the pushing of ‘the message’ with endless features on mental health issues or homophobia or misogyny or racism. Not that the programme is unique when it comes to BBC1, however.

Having been reluctantly forced to sit through a sample of Saturday evening BBC1 a few weeks ago, I discerned the latest box being ticked on the BBC inclusivity/diversity checklist appeared to be dwarves. There was one on ‘Strictly Come Dancing’, one on a trailer for a sitcom, and then one as a contestant on ‘Blankety Blank’. It goes without saying that there’s no reason whatsoever why dwarves should be excluded from such shows, but the fact three in a row featured within the space of fifteen minutes was obviously yet another example of the cynical – not to say condescending – BBC approach to a minority within society. You overload every programme with the minority-of-the-week to compensate for past omissions and then present a lopsided picture of that society, all the while patting yourself on the back for being such a Good Person. Many years ago, a friend of mine saw a thalidomide comedian at a small venue and told me how the audience was crammed with smug, self-satisfied middle-class punters laughing hysterically at every joke, demonstrably pleased at how they were in possession of so little prejudice that they’d treat a thalidomide comedian the same as any able-bodied comedian; only, they weren’t treating him the same; they were effectively patting him on the head.

This trend is never more apparent than when these types – and a fair few of them work for the BBC, let’s be honest – speak to any non-white guest on TV or the radio. One can almost count down the minutes until the ‘racism question’ gatecrashes the interview. Anyone white who has a black or Asian friend or neighbour would find such a line of questioning rightly ridiculous in ordinary conversation, yet the MSM presenter has to insert it in there as soon as possible. ‘Oh, you’re black, therefore you must experience racism all the time’. Yes, I’m sure the minute the interviewee steps out of the door he or she feels as though they’re in 1950s Alabama. Of course someone black or Asian will probably have experienced some form of racism in their lives, just as many women will have experienced some form of misogyny, many gay people will have experienced some form of homophobia and so on. But chances are other things far more interesting will have happened to them in their lives – or even merely ordinary, relatively dull things that everybody experiences. Not that the MSM want to know that, though; they need their precious victim narrative reinforcing, even if organisations that exploited it have belatedly been exposed as charlatans.

Suddenly, celebrities who could’ve been relied upon to ‘do the right thing’ a couple of years ago are openly questioning BLM. Fancy that – everyone from Kanye West to Sharon Osbourne. Ozzy’s missus wants her money back – good luck with that. They’ve just realised this unashamedly Marxist mafia that deliberately stoked division, were sponsored by everyone from ice cream manufacturers to the Mayor of London, and scammed a fortune from well-meaning individuals motivated by good intentions, using the cash not to improve the lives of the impoverished communities they purported to speak on behalf of but to feather their own multi-million dollar nests, aren’t saints after all. Well, some of us were pointing that out at the time, whilst Seattle neighbourhoods were burning and lockdown-breaking marches were laying waste to our city centres. The online reaction to famous names expressing their feelings of being conned has ranged from deafening silence to obstinate denial to confused claims these former fellow suckers have turned ‘right wing’ overnight.

But when you have a world in which medical students – such as those at Minnesota University – are forced to take an oath to ‘fight white supremacy, colonialism and the gender binary’, don’t be surprised that opportunists will spring up to build careers and generate immense wealth on the back of it. Not that spinning this shit is exclusive to seats of learning in the US, however. Only the other week, the Students Union at the University of Westminster announced it was getting into the colour bar business by declaring white students would be barred from its ‘Black History Month’ events, which will be ‘reserved for black students to encourage a safe space for discussions and honest conversation’. Dr Neil Thin, a lecturer at Edinburgh University, said in response, ‘It is bitterly ironic to see the rhetoric of “safe spaces” abused to justify racial segregation. Nothing is more likely to make social spaces unsafe than this kind of wilful sowing of interethnic suspicion and division.’ Indeed. Isn’t this…er…institutionalised racism?

Ditto the NHS. Amy Gallagher, a nurse in the final stages of a two-year course in forensic psychology, is suing London’s Portman Clinic following claims she had no choice but to participate in a compulsory 2020 online lecture titled ‘Whiteness – a problem of our time’. When she raised objections, Gallagher says she was threatened with suspension from her course. ‘They are forcing Critical Race Theory onto people,’ she says. ‘You’re not allowed to disagree with it or they will bully you for two years. The NHS is forcing someone to adopt a racist ideology and it needs to be stopped…what they describe as anti-racism is racism. What they describe as tolerance is an intolerance of anyone who thinks differently to them. Left unchallenged, such institutional bullying will only be emboldened.’ As with the long-overdue questioning of the ethics of child transgender clinics and the disturbing theories of their affiliated organisations such as Stonewall and Mermaid, it was only a matter of time before people began standing up to the toxic ideology that has infiltrated our institutions. There may be a long way to go, and many battles to be fought, but at least it’s a start.

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FINAL SCORE

Football RadioSure, it’s not the end of the world; but it’s the end of something. The BBC’s decision to drop the classified football results from the long-running ‘Sports Report’ sounds like one of those crass decisions made by a new controller of the station in question (5 Live) who’s keen to make his mark and shake things up a bit. It’s a familiar pattern on BBC radio, like when the Radio 4 UK Theme was axed back in 2006. Commissioned in 1978 to open the station every morning after the handover from the World Service, the medley of traditional English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish melodies heralded the dawn of the day’s broadcasting and quickly became as much of a wireless institution as the theme tune to ‘The Archers’ or the sound of ‘Sailing By’ announcing the arrival of the Shipping Forecast. The man who wielded the axe for the UK Theme was the then-controller of Radio 4, Mark Damazer; many were suspicious this was an action motivated by embarrassment within the ivory corridors of Broadcasting House that such a popular piece of music didn’t reflect the way the BBC likes to think of the nation, though Damazer claimed what he described as ‘a pacy news briefing’ was what listeners wanted first thing on a morning. Well, perhaps it was what the BBC overlords felt they ought to want first thing on a morning. After all, they know what’s best for us.

At a time when theme tunes introduced virtually all radio shows, the debut of ‘Sports Report’ in January 1948 naturally came with its own sonic calling card. ‘Out of the Blue’ was in the same vein as other jaunty themes to be found on the BBC Light Programme during this era, such as ‘Music While You Work’ or ‘Top of the Form’; it fitted perfectly into its times, yet along with the aforementioned theme from ‘The Archers’ and ‘Sailing By’ – as well as the theme to ‘Desert Island Discs’ – it’s one of the few to survive into the 21st century. ‘Out of the Blue’ has long since passed the stage of being regarded as old-fashioned, and its anachronistic sound is now recognised as the aural equivalent of a vintage item of clothing, cherished precisely because it is so antiquated and out of step with the here and now. In a sense, such a tune becomes timeless if it sticks around long enough; had it been replaced in the 80s or 90s, those replacement tunes would now sound more dated and old-fashioned than ‘Out of the Blue’ ever will.

The theme to ‘Sports Report’ is one of those pieces of music so bound up with the time and day of its transmission that it becomes inseparable from it, so utterly woven is it into the fabric of the Saturday teatime experience. Indeed, it’s as impossible to imagine hearing it on any other day as it would be to listen to a Christmas song in the middle of July. But it’s not simply ‘Out of the Blue’ itself that has been regarded as a time signal for millions of listeners for more than 70 years; what have always traditionally followed it are the classified football results. Remarkably, this weekly roll-call of winners and losers has only ever been recited by three different voices for the entire run of ‘Sports Report’. John Webster held the post from 1948 to 1974; James Alexander Gordon was the reader from 1974 to 2013; and Charlotte Green succeeded him, occupying the hot seat until the decision to drop the results was suddenly announced. The man in the middle of this trio with golden vocal chords is the one most of us grew up with. James Alexander Gordon’s famous delivery, in which his intonation would rise and fall to indicate whether the home team had won, drawn or lost before revealing how many goals they’d scored or conceded, was a hallmark of listening to the classifieds for almost 40 years, and one that left the listener eager to hear every result, not just the one involving their own team.

Even with the advent of ‘Grandstand’ on TV and its super-fast ‘tele-printer’ bringing the results to the viewer in the comfort of their living room, the classified football results on the radio were still a vital source of information for the supporters, especially those on the long journey home from an away game. If one were lucky enough to be making that journey home by car after a cold, wet fixture in some drab provincial town, the sound of the afternoon’s results being read by James Alexander Gordon would be as soothing to the occupants of the vehicle as a roaring fire would be to the fair-weather fan who stayed at home. I suppose it is this warm association that has given the results on the radio such an affectionate place in their hearts of football followers for decades, and why their abrupt removal has been met with the same kind of anger that the axing of the Radio 4 UK Theme provoked in 2006. A couple of years ago, a book I wrote about the 1970 FA Cup Final – ‘No Place for Boys’ – contained a passage on the subject of how significant the reading of the classified results on ‘Sports Report’ has continued to be, and I reproduce it here to spell it out…

For generations of football fans, even those who can now access every result via their Smartphones seconds after the final whistles have been blown, tuning in is still key to the experience of following the sport in Britain. If football is a religion, then the ritual of catching ‘Sports Report’ late on a Saturday afternoon is one of its holiest ceremonies. In a curious way, hearing all those score-lines coming in from across the country is one of the rare moments when that country actually feels like the otherwise-mythical One Nation, with millions of its citizens sharing the same sensations at the same time – all the way from Elgin City FC down to Plymouth Argyle. And whichever end of the country you’re at, all you need is a radio and you’re part of it.

The reason the BBC has given for dropping the classified football results from ‘Sports Report’ is that live commentary on the Premier League fixture at 5.30pm means the programme has been shortened and there’s no room for the results in the mix anymore. Sounds a bit like ‘the pacy news briefing’ excuse Mark Damazer used. This particular excuse was also expanded upon in a rather predictable way, citing the availability of other, faster means of accessing the day’s results than the traditional practice of waiting to hear them at 5.00. This misses the point entirely. Just as far more landlubbers tune into the Shipping Forecast than fishermen – who could access all the shipping news they need in a superior form to ye olde Long Wave via satellite tracking systems – the fanatical Sky Sports subscriber who rarely takes his eyes from the screen as scores are flooding in throughout the afternoon is not the target; many listeners who couldn’t care less about the sport switch on simply to hear the names being recited. In the flesh, Crewe Alexandra or Queen of the South are no more exotic locations on the map than Cromarty or German Bight, but when their names are joined together for the recital, they acquire a uniquely poetic resonance that renders them almost romantic. And there’s not a lot of romance about in 2022.

Expecting anyone at the BBC today to remotely understand their listeners is a tall order; dropping the classified football results is merely another example of not only how out-of-touch the Beeb is with its audience, but how it continues to view it with condescending contempt. When the ground beneath the feet is as insecure and unstable as it is at uncertain and often unnerving times like these, people tend to be naturally drawn to the few remaining signposts they feel they can rely on to reassure them all is not lost. During that first bewildering lockdown, millions retreated into the safe womb of nostalgic telly, music and pastimes, desperately seeking something that could take their minds off the horrors of the present day. We may be through the worst now, but the scars of that unsettling time run deep and variations on the Project Fear formula are keeping many in a state of emergency. The yearning for the kind of security that is connected to less stressful and more innocent times remains potent. The classified football results were a fixed point at a fixed time on a fixed day, and had been since most of our parents were in short pants. Taking them away now is not a great idea.

© The Editor

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RUSSIAN ROULETTE

ElenaMedia types who weren’t even there have spent several months now banging on about how Britain is going ‘back to the 70s’ simply because they assume today’s perilous economic climate is somehow comparable to that of a decade they only know through endlessly recycled clichés of candlelit households, picket lines, and pavements piled high with rubbish. Ironically, however, whilst the hysterical heads on our news channels were promoting the cost-of-living crisis as the embodiment of this narrative, the summer’s premier sporting contest came close to experiencing a moment genuinely reminiscent of a 70s incident that almost caused its cancellation 49 years ago. Like Wimbledon 2022, Wimbledon 1973 saw a British man reach the semi-final of the singles’ tournament, yet the achievements of both Cameron Norrie and Roger Taylor were overshadowed by events off-court.

In 1973, the Open Era was still a relatively new innovation and the leading tennis players of the period were feeling liberated by the sudden change in their circumstances – especially financially. Take a player like Rod Laver, still the only man in the history of the sport to twice hold all four Grand Slam titles in a calendar year; the fact he achieved this in 1962 but then not again until 1969 highlights how from 1963 to 1968 Laver was unable to compete in such tournaments, as their Olympian ideal stated one had to be an amateur to take part; once you turned pro and tried to make a living from your talent, you were effectively exiled from the competitive game thereafter. A long-overdue change to the rules in the late 60s restored the world’s greatest tennis players to the Grand Slam stage, including Laver; but who knows how many more titles he could have added to his 198 (which remains a record) had he not lost five years in the middle of his career. By 1972, buoyed by the lucrative Open Era, the formation of the Association of Tennis Professionals had given players some independent clout and this was something they demonstrated the following year when they flexed their muscles against the International Lawn Tennis Federation, the global governing body of the game.

The first opportunity for players to take a stance came when Nikola Pilić, Yugoslavia’s No.1, was suspended by his own national lawn tennis association on the grounds he had bowed out of a Davis Cup tie played by his nation; the suspension spanned nine months and was supported by the ILTF; it was eventually reduced to a month, but that month encompassed the Wimbledon fortnight. The ATP responded to the ban by stating that if it wasn’t lifted they’d pull their players out of the tournament in support; what followed next were weeks of legal wrangling which eventually ended in an ATP boycott of the men’s singles at Wimbledon. 13 of the intended 16 seeds pulled out, with only the likes of the 1972 Wimbledon runner-up Ilie Năstase and Britain’s Roger Taylor defying the boycott amongst the more established players; up-and-coming youngsters such as Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors took advantage to progress in the absence of the bigger names (including defending champ Stan Smith), and the title was won by Czech Jan Kodeš, whose presence representing an Eastern Bloc country probably meant he had no option but to compete.

49 years later, the Russian invasion of Ukraine provoked several measures by the world of sport; the ATP – not quite as anti-establishment as in its original incarnation half-a-century earlier – responded with the token gesture of relocating the St Petersburg Open to Kazakhstan at the beginning of the conflict, but didn’t enforce a ban of Russian or Belarusian players from tournaments, unlike other sporting bodies, such as FIFA, UEFA and the IOC. When Wimbledon came around, however, a ban was imposed. The ATP’s rather petulant reaction, one that perhaps emphasised how far it had come since its formation 50 years before, was to remove world ranking points from Wimbledon. Prestigious competitions such as the Davis Cup and Billie Jean King Cup upheld the same ban of players from Russia and Belarus, yet both the French and US Open declined to follow suit; in the case of the former, it decided to go with the unsatisfactory compromise of having players from the guilty countries participate as ‘neutral players without national flags’. The decision of the All England Club was applauded by several Ukrainian players, though the ATP sided with the now-ITF this time round. Defending Wimbledon men’s champion (and a man who retained his crown yet again yesterday) Novak Djokovic criticised the ban, though as someone who has already suffered at the hands of a political incursion into sport via his experience at the Australian Open at the beginning of the year, perhaps it’s understandable he wants to keep politics out of tennis. At one point, it seemed as though the tournament was threatened with a rerun of 1973, though in the end it didn’t quite work out as planned for the All England Club.

One might say Wimbledon’s ban has backfired – and the moral conundrum of holding sportsmen and women responsible for the actions of the nations whose flags they perform under is a contentious one; it denied the competition the men’s world No.1 Daniil Medvedev, for one thing; but if the non-appearance of Russia’s former Wimbledon champ Maria Sharapova (who sensationally defeated Serena Williams as a 17-year-old in 2004) at the past champions’ parade was a notable casualty of the ban, it was perhaps viewed as less of an awkward absentee than usual BBC pundit Boris Becker, who no doubt tried to catch what he could of the tournament whilst sewing mailbags on D Wing. No, the implications of the ban became more embarrassing for the All England Club as a girl born and raised in Moscow progressed through the tournament and ended up making it all the way to the ladies’ final; up against Ons Jabeur, the Tunisian No.1 and the first North African woman to make the final, Elena Rybakina was not exactly the winner the burghers of Wimbledon were hoping for. Jabeur winning the opening set of the final eased a few furrowed brows; but Rybakina dug deep and struck back for a 3-6, 6-2, 6-2 victory.

There was no doubt Ons Jabeur was the woman the All England Club and the BBC were keeping their fingers crossed for, but Rybakina spoilt the party and maintained the impressive trail she’d blazed throughout the tournament, none more so than when crushing in-form 2019 champ Simona Halep in the semi-final, 6-3, 6-3. After the pre-tournament headlines had been so focused on the enforced absence of Russian and Belarusian players – a decision that was entirely in line with the UK’s support of Ukraine, lest we forget – perhaps the ultimate embarrassment for Wimbledon came when the Duchess of Cambridge in her capacity as patron of the All England Club had little choice but to present the Venus Rosewater Dish to a player destined to be used as a propaganda weapon by Moscow, regardless of how much distance Rybakina has attempted to place between herself and her homeland’s government. At the same time, she remains rather evasive on whether Moscow is still where she lives.

To be fair to Rybakina, her defection to Kazakhstan dates back to 2018 rather than being a convenient switching of flags to evade an international boycott; she’s not guilty of the kind of canny relocation that South African cricketers routinely engaged in during that nation’s lengthy stint as a sporting pariah during Apartheid. She only really represented the country of her birth at junior level; when she turned pro and embarked upon the women’s circuit full-time aged 19, it was the Kazakhstan Tennis Federation that offered her financial support and far superior coaching facilities than that which were being provided back home. She changed her nationality and has therefore competed under the Kazakhstan flag for the past five years; the fact remains, however, that the women’s winner of Wimbledon in a year when Russian players were exiled from the competition was a born-and-bred Muscovite. Maybe there’s a point to be made somewhere in there – a match-point, perhaps.

© The Editor

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IT’S DIFFERENT FOR GIRLS

Katie TaylorViewing a recent documentary series on Muhammad Ali via the BBC iPlayer, I was reminded how boxing bouts were once central to the lives of even those for whom a sporting event is usually a TV schedule-disrupting irritant. Ali’s appeal transcended the hardcore pugilistic following, as the huge ratings his fights attracted proved; his trilogy of battles with Joe Frazier between 1971 and 1975 and the 1974 ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ with George Foreman were grandstand occasions that the majority of the globe tuned in to watch; Ali’s irresistible force of personality undoubtedly did more than any other boxer to make boxing one of the world’s most popular spectator sports, and arguably saved it from extinction when many American States were contemplating banning it from their borders on the grounds of the brutality that his balletic grace helped redefine. Since his heyday, however, the sport has largely retreated back from the frontline of terrestrial television prime-time, kidnapped by the pay-per-view marketplace and removed from the free-to-air arena; the average person today would probably struggle to name a current world champion, let alone whichever woman holds the equivalent female titles.

If boxing itself has diminished in importance for those members of the public that would once settle down to watch Ali in the same way they’d nowadays tune in to some vacuous TV talent show, the women’s version of the sport seems to only be of interest to the already-converted – though this is fairly routine where television audiences are concerned. The BBC’s insistence on referring to the world’s oldest club football contest as the men’s FA Cup Final emphasises the investment the Corporation has made in the women’s game, yet the latter remains a minority interest, regardless of the disproportionate coverage it receives from our national broadcaster. Women’s boxing, on the other hand, is exclusively in the hands of the subscription services that half-inched boxing around 20 years ago, and as a consequence its stars are heroines to the devoted and largely unknown to the masses.

Listening to ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ for the first time in quite some time this morning, I was introduced to Katie Taylor, an Irish female boxer I learnt is the current undisputed world lightweight champion; a sportswoman evidently well-schooled in sports still regarded as the prime domain of men – she used to be a footballer – Taylor solidified her status a couple of weeks ago by defeating Puerto Rican-born Amanda Serrano at the ancestral home of boxing, New York’s Madison Square Garden. Just as staging the Ireland Vs Italy fixture of the 1994 World Cup in NYC was a guaranteed stadium-filler considering the potential audience of Irish and Italian-Americans the Big Apple could call upon, Katie Taylor sealing her reputation as one of the greatest female pugilists on the planet in the same city was a masterstroke in ensuring pre-fight interest in a sport few beyond the dedicated pay much attention to.

You might not know it due to the factors already mentioned, but history was made at Madison Square Garden when Taylor fought Serrano, for it was the first time the prestigious venue had made a women’s bout the main event. The BBC’s Steve Bunce was a ringside witness to this watershed moment in women’s boxing and reviewed the spectacle with unbridled verve on ‘From Our Own Correspondent’, enthusing the event was the first time two women had earned a million bucks each for a fight. Taylor was defending her lightweight crown she owns – as of 2019 she is one of only eight boxers (male or female) to be the simultaneous holder of all four major world titles – and her opponent was perhaps the sole fighter capable of offering her a serious challenge. From everything I could gather, this is a sporting rivalry on a par with many others that have pulled in the punters over the years – indeed, 19,187 spectators packed the staidum on the night, underlining the fact that this occasion captured unprecedented attention, as did the 1.5 million watching online at the same time. Thousands of Katie Taylor’s countrymen and women had flown in from the Emerald Isle to be present at the fight and no doubt all the Irish-American communities embedded in the USA’s urban enclaves sent plenty representatives to cheer ‘their girl’ on. Similarly, the fact Amanda Serrano was raised in Brooklyn meant she could regard Madison Square Garden as a home venue; it seems no more apt location could have been chosen.

Such was the level of hype surrounding the fight, even the Empire State Building was illuminated by the colours of the Irish and Puerto Rican flags respectively on the night; and it’s perhaps telling that a sport starved of the characters it could call upon in Ali’s heyday has been revitalised by two women when the men have summarily failed to prompt the same kind of reaction in recent years. By all accounts, the fight itself was worthy of the hyperbole, with Taylor retaining her titles via a split decision points verdict at the end of ten titanic rounds; Steve Bunce on ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ described the tenth and final round as possibly being ‘one of the greatest rounds ever to be fought in the Garden…I have never, in 35 years at ringside, seen such scenes – emotion and chaos. It was breathless stuff. At the final bell, they fell into each other’s arms, bloody and exhausted, cut and bruised and smiling.’ Bunce calls Katie Taylor the greatest female boxer of all time, and listening to his enthusiastic description of the fight and of the two fighters made me wish I’d seen it – or even been aware of it before it actually happened.

Watching the aforementioned Ali series evoked the excitement his fights used to embody back in the day – great television events enjoyed by the whole viewing population rather than merely those prepared to pay extra for the privilege of tuning in. Making any sport available to the causal viewer as well as the one devoted enough to fork out for a subscription fee is essential in transforming its practitioners into household names, and maybe I’d have already have heard of Katie Taylor had her fight been in the hands of terrestrial broadcasters, or even if terrestrial broadcasters had never lost the rights to screen big fights in the first place. As it is, the decision of the boxing authorities – as with the cricket authorities – to throw their lot in with the satellite money-men a couple of decades ago removed the sport from my eye-line and my interest in it evaporated. To be honest, I wouldn’t even know if ITV or the BBC had shown the Taylor-Serrano fight, so detached am I now from boxing. The fact I was drawn to watch a series on a boxer unlike any other is more a testament to Ali’s enduring position as a pop cultural giant as opposed to a mere participant in a sport I’d long since drifted away from.

I suppose one significant factor in the publicity afforded the Taylor-Serrano rivalry is that two natural-born women have put one overlooked women’s sport on the map for all the right reasons. These days, when women’s sports usually grab the headlines it tends to be for all the wrong reasons. The farcical situation whereby underachieving male cyclists, weightlifters and swimmers proclaim themselves to be women and are then given a free pass into the female arena – only to utilise their physical advantage and suddenly reinvent themselves as world champions – has reduced many women’s sports to a laughing stock. And whenever genuine sportswomen raise voices to protest against the unfairness – even an unarguably supreme female athlete such as Martina Navratilova – they are shouted down by the fanatical trans-harpies and subjected to levels of abuse and harassment that bear more than a passing resemblance to the old-school misogyny their endeavours had helped eradicate. For now, however, at least the ring is free from the insidious virus of Identity Politics – only for now, though.

© The Editor

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THE WRONG BORIS

Boris BeckerIn many respects, a fall from grace is a good career move for the contemporary celebrity. Depending on the nature of the fall, it can often provide the recipient with a lucrative second career as a ‘survivor’, hiring a ghost-writer to pen the requisite misery memoir and enjoying a string of redemptive, Diana-like television and press interviews to elicit public sympathy and plug said volume in the process. Going off the rails with an intoxicating cocktail of drink and drugs is always a nice little earner once rehab has been endured and the begging for forgiveness begins in earnest; a short prison sentence ala Jeffrey Archer or Jonathan Aitken also helps. Eventually, there’s always the possibility all will be forgotten and the previous career can be tentatively revived as long as the celebrity in question exudes a degree of humility and a willingness to atone for their former sins.

However, if the fall had a sexual element to it that is deemed beyond the pale, there’s less of a possibility that the public’s affection can be regained. It’s hard to imagine, say, either Gary Glitter or Bill Cosby ever returning to the prominent positions they once enjoyed in the pop cultural firmament; and it’s only because Johnny Depp’s ex has been exposed as a manipulative, psychopathic domestic abuser bent on ruining his career that one of the most consistently successful movie stars of the last 30 years will probably avoid the terminal exile of the Hollywood blacklist. Depp is perhaps one of the few current male celebrities to have fallen foul of an especially vindictive playing of the sexist card whose future redemption is, in all likelihood, secure.

There’s always a build ‘em up/knock ‘em down factor present in this country when it comes to the fall from grace of a former hero, particularly a sporting one; we first saw it with George Best half-a-century ago, and a little later with Paul ‘Gazza’ Gascoigne – and whilst Best’s fall became intrinsic to his compelling life story, providing it with colourful off-the-field anecdotes that considerably enhanced the narrative, the jury remains out on whether Gazza will eventually find a posthumous resurrection. What of the sporting celebrity whose crimes are financial ones, though? What indeed of a three-time Wimbledon champion who became an overnight household name as a 17-year-old way back in 1985 and subsequently found himself making more money than he knew what to do with? Despite his apparent crimes being hard to distinguish from those of numerous City wheelers and dealers – and politicians, come to that – who have been rewarded with knighthoods, no one gave a flying f*** about them; they did about Boris Becker.

I well remember following Boris Becker’s astonishing run at Wimbledon in 1985. With all eyes focused on the usual anticipated finalists of the time such as defending champ John McEnroe, long-time battler Jimmy Connors, and world No.1 Ivan Lendl, the un-seeded adolescent steadily worked his way through each round and gradually began to attract attention as the favourites fell by the wayside, opening up the possibility the teenage sensation could make it further than anyone dared to imagine. He powered his way into a Semi-Final showdown with the No.5 seed, Anders Järryd and beat the Swede in four sets. Suddenly, a tournament in which the usual suspects were, for once, nowhere to be seen had sprung into life and Becker found himself facing No.8 seed Kevin Curren in the Final, a player ten years his senior. Nobody had seen anything quite like this in SW19 before. Becker won it, sealing his place in history as the youngest-ever Wimbledon champ and the first un-seeded player ever to triumph on Centre Court. It remains one of the great sporting moments, and it gifted Becker with an enduring popularity amongst those who follow tennis that seemed destined to last.

However, Becker, who enjoyed a good decade at the top of the tennis tree, is now facing the prospect of two-and-a-half years behind bars after being found guilty of hiding assets in the wake of his bankruptcy in 2017. Past Wimbledon champs such as McEnroe may have aroused the ire of the staid All England Club due to their behaviour on court, but Becker was the consummate pro whenever he strolled out to play and his unprecedented success as a teenage prodigy earned him the ongoing affection of the premier tennis tournament’s annual audience.

Even after hanging up his racquet for good, his post-playing career as commentator, pundit and occasional coach kept him in the public eye as a likeable character on the circuit and he never gave the club whose distinctive purple and green colours he wore for his final court appearance cause for concern in associating himself with the august institution. That Boris Becker should have swapped one kind of court for another has been a fall from grace that exposed him as guilty of either – depending on how one looks at it – financial naivety or a cynical evasion of a legal obligation.

54-year-old Boris Becker was declared bankrupt five years ago, in the wake of an unpaid loan exceeding £3 million on a property he owned in Spain. Having claimed the bulk of the fortune earned during his playing career – totalling around £38 million – disappeared into the black hole of an expensive divorce from his first wife as well as child maintenance payments to his four kids, Becker was suspected of concealing assets that should have been surrendered when bankruptcy beckoned. Found guilty of shifting hundreds of thousands of pounds around that he failed to own up to, Becker evidently had pretty bad financial advice or imagined he was cleverer than the team investigating his clumsy concealment.

Becker’s ‘crimes’ were valued at £2.5 million by the prosecution, and the facts that emerged were as follows: He didn’t declare a property he owned in Germany nor a £1.053 million house his mother resides in; he hid a euro bank loan of somewhere in the region of £700,000 (plus the interest) as well shares amounting to £75,000 in a tech company, and relocated upwards of £390,000 into the accounts of others.

Failure to disclose property and concealing debt under the Insolvency Act is treated as a serious crime with a potential prison sentence of seven years, though when Becker arrived at Southwark Crown Court to be sentenced last Friday, he was additionally ticked-off by Judge Deborah Taylor, who admonished Becker for his absence of humility. ‘I take into account what has been described as your fall from grace,’ she said. ‘You have lost your career and reputation and all of your property as a result of your bankruptcy.’ This acknowledgment of Becker’s embarrassing downfall was then followed by a less sympathetic summary of his behaviour. ‘You have not shown remorse, acceptance of your guilt and have sought to distance yourself from your offending and your bankruptcy,’ the Judge said. ‘I accept the humiliation you’ve felt, but you’ve shown no humility.’

Although it’s expected that Boris Becker will probably only serve around half his sentence in the clink, he’ll still have to serve it; as Mick Jagger once recalled when looking back at his own (admittedly brief) prison sentence back in 1967, he may have only spent the solitary night in Brixton, but the swift conditional discharge he received was unknown to him when the cell door slammed in his face and the grim reality of his situation hit him as the lights went out. Becker will have more than one opportunity to ruminate on the grim reality of his own situation over the next year or so. He might not be looking forward to decades of incarceration stretching out before him, but for someone who has lived the life of a jet-setting international celebrity ever since he was a teenager, perhaps the one item his appetite may belatedly acquire a taste for on the inside could be humble pie.

© The Editor

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OPEN DOOR

Old WomanIt wasn’t so long ago – barely a year – that the British people were barred from allowing more than six people into their abodes. They couldn’t visit ailing family members in hospitals or care homes; they could only attend funerals in small, specified numbers – and heavy-handed Jobsworths were on hand to gleefully ensure there was no physical contact between the grievers; they couldn’t gather in the open to mark Remembrance Sunday; they couldn’t celebrate Christmas together; they couldn’t hold a vigil for a murdered woman in an outdoor environment without the police treating them like violent protestors; they couldn’t stage a demonstration unless their cause was one approved by the authorities – climate change or BLM, yes/anti-lockdown or anti-vax, no; they couldn’t even worship in churches whose doors were bolted. Small businesses went to the wall, crippled by both enforced closure and then uneconomic restrictions when tentatively reopening (if they’d managed to survive).

The damaging legacy of the past couple of years remains blatantly evident in the rising unemployment figures and the breathtaking level of national debt, not to mention the amount of folk continuing to wear masks in safe environments such as on the street or in the privacy of their own bloody cars, their brains fried by the pandemic propaganda of Project Fear. One wonders if they mask-up on the loo, in the bath or in bed. Probably. Yet, while it would be natural to imagine the unsurprising and hypocritical revelations of what those lying bastards who imposed such rules on the populace were getting up to behind closed doors at the height of the pandemic had served as a wake-up call on how conned the people were, so deep is the psychological damage done by lockdown and its affiliated curbs on civil liberties that the illogical neurosis of millions remains something that will probably take years to heal.

So, how strange that the same people who had to conduct conversations with family and friends from ridiculous distances – and out of doors, at that – are now being battered anew with fresh emotional blackmail that encourages them to open their previously hermetically-sealed homes to complete strangers, as though 2020 and ’21 never happened. Memories of the Syrian ‘children’ with their remarkably advanced examples of male grooming have been smoothly erased as the request for impromptu landlords goes out again. Of course, the awful humanitarian crisis unfolding in Ukraine naturally stirs deep feelings in anyone who has a heart; for some, this provokes a desire to tackle the forces of oppression head-on by signing-up for an International Brigades-like foreign legion of fighters to repel the Russian invasion; for others, it’s marked via a boycott of Russian goods or cultural exports; and for others again, it manifests itself as a craving to offer a safe roof over the heads of those faced with no option but to flee their own homes thousands of miles away. Yesterday, the British Government announced it would offer UK homeowners £350 a month to take in Ukrainian refugees, with Housing Secretary Michael Gove unveiling the Homes for Ukraine scheme.

After so many recent exposés of precisely how untrustworthy and slippery our elected leaders are, people can be forgiven for greeting this announcement with cynicism and discerning something more than motives emanating from the goodness of politicians’ hearts; one now finds it difficult to take any such move at face value and not detect an ulterior motive. In the case of the current administration – and, it has to be said, its predecessors over the last couple of decades – this kind of response to an appalling situation cannot entirely eradicate the lax attitude towards the dirty money fuelling the Russian war machine which has been a hallmark of British governments for a long time. The amount of desirable British properties in the hands of offshore shell companies engaged in money laundering both in the UK and its more luxurious overseas territories has been mirrored in the close ties forged between British politicians and institutions and those Russians who have taken advantage of the so-called ‘golden visa’ scheme. Perish the thought, but could certain members of the Government and the Conservative Party be covering their own corrupt backs by utilising the same emotional blackmail tactics employed during Covid to persuade the people to open hearts and doors to Ukrainian refugees as they themselves gloss over their cosiness with representatives of the regime responsible for the crisis?

Just how deeply governing bodies with pound signs for pupils have allowed countries with dubious reputations to become embedded in the fabric of British life was highlighted when Chelsea played Newcastle Utd at Stamford Bridge on Sunday; the home fans chanted the name of the now-toxic Putin bitch Roman Abramovich, whereas the away fans cheered their own suddenly-wealthy club’s Saudi owners, emanating as they do from a regime that executed a staggering 81 individuals the day before the match in a ruthless display of despotic inhumanity. What a glorious advert for the beautiful game, one that no token knee-taking will ease the grubby stain of. Football fans desperate for success will seemingly overlook the source of the financial fuel filling their trophy cabinets, though they’ve hardly been set a good example by their social ‘betters’. The filthy lucre floating around the national sport at the highest level is one more noticeable consequence of the golden visa rule introduced by a Labour Government in the wake of Peter Mandelson quaffing champers on the yacht of Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, one that has allowed Russia to get its feet under the establishment table with very little in the way of opposition.

According to stats in the most recent issue of Private Eye, since the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014, 406 wealthy Russians have bought their way into Britain via the required £2 million, with a mere 20 refusals; following the 2018 poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, 92 golden visas have been issued, with just six refusals; eight were even issued at the back end of last year, a time when Vlad’s intentions re Ukraine were well-known. At times, the Russian infiltration of British politics and all its interconnected entrails are reminiscent of the way in which Nigel Kneale’s 1950s TV series ‘Quatermass’ featured collaborators with the alien invaders in the upper echelons of British society as a knowing nod to the pre-war ruling class’s flirtation with fascism. The abrupt about-turn on oligarchs by this government as everyone with Russian skeletons in their closet seeks to distance themselves from Uncle Vlad’s activities is something that understandably provokes cynicism, though being offered cash incentives to house those who have suffered most from these activities seems another cynical move by an administration that inspires little else but cynicism.

Local councils who have spent the past two years pleading poverty, cutting public services to the bone and yet simultaneously feathering their own personal nests are also having a tempting carrot dangled in their direction re refugees. One cannot help but wonder if they will spend the money wisely. Considering how well GPs’ surgeries have managed to avoid doing their jobs and yet have continued to bleat about being overwhelmed during the coronavirus, how will a sudden influx of immigrants with obvious ailments affect the dereliction of duties the medical profession has achieved since Lockdown Mk I? It goes without saying that those whose needs are attended to on Harley Street won’t be affected, though the calamitous disappearance of the cheap household labour that Brexit brought about may at least be solved.

Materially comfortable individuals with the spare rooms to welcome refugees should be in a position to carry out their intentions without their kindness necessitating a financial reward, and those whose sadness with the situation in Ukraine doesn’t stretch that far shouldn’t be made to feel guilty for choosing not to do so, despite the lure of being paid in a scheme that will undoubtedly be open to abuse. One can’t blame many for being reluctant to invite strangers into their homes when they were faced with heavy fines and possible prison sentences for extending a similar invitation to people they actually know not so long ago. Funny old world innit.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

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OUT IN THE COLD

VladWhen a long (ish) life means you find yourself with feet on either side of a divide that separates one era from another, it can be interesting to realise how a personal living memory is little more than a Wikipedia entry to those who emerge in the years and decades after the world map is redrawn. Unencumbered by any remembrance of how things used to be, those for whom the Iron Curtain or Apartheid are as irrelevant to the here and now as Ancient Egypt or the Incas invariably see the past in a completely different light. I guess for anyone of a certain age – i.e. over 40 – the demolition of the Berlin Wall and the release of Nelson Mandela had an immense significance that is difficult to articulate to someone born after 1990; and, to be honest, it can sometimes be easy to forget the way things were even if you were there. I remember once watching a documentary about Live Aid in which a member of Paul Weller’s Style Council recalled how the band had a testing journey to reach Wembley Stadium on the day, flying from an overseas tour that required taking the long way round on account of not being able to venture into Soviet airspace. The recollection served as a reminder of just how different the global situation was then.

A couple of decades earlier, when television satellite technology was in its infancy, an attempt to link up the four corners of the globe for the first time in the groundbreaking ‘Our World’ broadcast was confronted by an effective no-fly zone when Eastern Europe declined to participate; the programme may best be remembered for the unveiling of ‘All You Need is Love’, but the ambitious aim of the enterprise was squandered by the opting out of Iron Curtain countries. Back then, the Eurovision Song Contest was the optimistic TV showcase for post-war European harmony, though no East European countries ever took part bar Yugoslavia. At the same time, however, Eastern Bloc sportsmen and athletes competed in events such as European club football tournaments and the Olympic Games, and there was also the cerebral Cold War clash on the chessboard that came with the infamous battle between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky in 1972; so at least the East had a degree of visibility denied South Africa during the 70s and 80s.

Often it was sport that provided the most high profile example of South Africa’s international isolation, notably cricket and rugby union, when regular tours by South African teams were scrubbed off the sporting schedule from the early 70s onwards – a situation it had actually taken a surprisingly long time for the rest of the world to agree on. Once agreed, however, the boycott was enforced with a heavy dose of moral and emotional pressure imposed on those who wavered from it. Hard to remember the uproar now when so-called ‘rebel tours’ of South Africa by cricketers took place in the 80s or when the likes of Elton John, Rod Stewart, Queen, Status Quo, Sinatra and even Shirley Bassey played profitable gigs in Sun City. Anyone named and shamed for participating in breaking the boycott was severely criticised thereafter; Freddie Mercury and the lads were added to the UN’s blacklist of sanctions-breakers following their ill-timed 1984 concert at the luxury resort, which took place at a point when serious civil unrest in South Africa had highlighted the injustices of the regime for the world to see once again.

The cultural Apartheid could also extend into some bizarre areas. Clout were a relatively inoffensive all-female rock band – itself something of a novelty in the 70s – who enjoyed the dubious status of one-hit wonders via their 1978 smash by the name of ‘Substitute’; the record stalled at the No.2 spot behind the immovable ‘You’re The One That I Want’ for several weeks that summer, yet ‘Top of the Pops’ had to settle for airing a clip of the band on a foreign TV show as the blanket ban on all things South African meant Clout were prevented by the Musicians’ Union from appearing in-person on the nation’s most-watched music show. The anti-Apartheid crusade was a particular passion for the Left in the 80s, and then – as now – the Left tended to monopolise the creative industries, meaning the boycott was the leading cause of the day in a way Palestine has become in the 21st century. Artists were expected to fall into line and most of those with any sort of conscience did so. The white South African was a cultural bogeyman during this period, so much so that a South African-born actor like the recently-deceased Anthony Sher was in denial of his origins when trying to make it as a thespian in the UK, conscious that he’d be confronted by a degree of prejudice that could jeopardise his ambitions.

Perhaps more than any other form of sanctions, a cultural boycott tends to be effective. A country’s art, along with its sport, can often be the way it successfully sells itself on the world stage. For example, what do most people immediately think of when they think of a country like Brazil? The Bossa Nova might spring to mind, but chances are the Brazilian football team will get there first every time. Likewise, during the era of the Soviet Union it was Russian composers and musicians sharing the international spotlight with athletes like Olga Korbut that offered a far more positive image than Leonid Brezhnev observing the parade of nuclear missiles on May Day. The USSR may be defunct as a nation now, but Russia has continued this tradition to project a less-toxic brand to the world; the coup of hosting what turned out to be a highly enjoyable World Cup in 2018 was a great leap forward that even managed to edge the country’s appalling record of using performance-enhancing drugs at the Olympics off the back pages. Recent events have put the brakes on this progress.

In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the universal cultural condemnation has been swift and fairly unprecedented – nowhere more than on the football pitch. After announcing that the prestigious Champions League Final, scheduled to be staged in St Petersburg, has been moved to Paris, UEFA then linked arms with FIFA and barred all Russian clubs and the national side from competing in domestic and international competitions as well as the former dropping its sponsorship deal with Russian energy giant Gazprom. The close ties many oligarchs and Russian corporations have developed with numerous Premier League clubs in this country has been uncomfortably underlined this past week, resulting in Manchester United and Everton cancelling sponsorship deals with Russian companies; but perhaps Roman Abramovich deciding to put Chelsea up for sale is the most notable rat looking for the lifeboats.

Elsewhere in the world of sport, the Formula 1 Russian Grand Prix has been cancelled whilst Russia and its warmongering sidekick Belarus have both been banned from rugby union competitions by the sport’s governing body. The International Olympic Committee may have taken away the rights of Russia and Belarus to host sporting events, but initially allowing the nations to compete in Olympic tournaments under a ‘neutral’ flag received such severe criticism that the IOC has now announced the two countries will not be participating in the upcoming Winter Paralympics. In the arts, a prominent scalp came in the sacking of Valery Gergiev as conductor of the Munich Philharmonic; Gergiev, known to be favourable towards Putin, failed to condemn the invasion of Ukraine and after the orchestra was confronted by a string of cancellations, the Mayor of Munich fired him from his position.

Unlike the usual suspects of ill-informed Hollywood halfwits queuing-up to signal their virtue, the cultural boycott when applied across the board has a habit of hitting the target where it hurts. It can’t stop a war, but it can rob those in whose name the war is being fought of all the things that can truly enhance life. It’s worth a try.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/user?fan_landing=true&u=56665294