“You’ll Never Walk Alone”

It’s incredibly tense in the English Premier League at the moment, with three teams fighting for the title. With Manchester United disintegrating and lucky to secure European football, the much anticipated Spurs title challenge fizzing out and Arsenal struggling to even reach their customary fourth place and access to the Champions League, it’s up to Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool FC. The latter two met last Sunday in an emotional, stressfull match which saw Liverpool win 3-2, setting a giant step forwards to winning the title. For Liverpool fans and many neutrals it would be wonderful for Liverpool to win it now, because it’s been twentyfour years since their last one, because of Steve Gerrard who, a single childhood slipup aside, has always been loyal to Liverpool and won everything but the title with them, but mostly because it’s been exactly twentyfive years since the Hillsborough Disaster and just weeks after a new inquest into the disaster and the coverup has started.

It all started as a normal FA Cup between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, but after only six minutes the game was abandoned as the Liverpool fans in the away end climbed over the crush barrier onto the fields. At first it was thought to be just another example of fans misbehaving but it soon became clear something monstrous was happening, as shown in BBC’s Match of the Day that night.

Ninetysix people died that day and the disaster hit the city of Liverpool hard, not just because of the deaths, but also because of the coverup by the police that followed the disaster, as recounted in a BBC Panorama investigation from last year. Though initial reports into the disaster had laid the blame for it on the shoulders of the South Yorkshire police for inadequacies in handling the crowd that day, much of the particulars of what exactly had happened remained unknown, while the police and the media started blaming the Liverpool supporters themselves for what happened, most notably in the Sun, still being boycotted in Liverpool to this day.

Football supporters in the late eighties were largely seen as scum, hooligans and criminals and the Heysel disaster — in which Liverpool supporters had attacked Juventus fans during the 1985 Europa Cup Final, resulting in the death of thirtynine supporters when a wall collapsed — was fresh in people’s memories. The narrative therefore that Hillsborough was another Heysel was easy to believe. Yet in Liverpool and amongst the survivors and relatives of those that had died in Hillsborough there was a need for justice that never abated, organising to both keep the memory of those who had died alive and to seek justice for their deaths.

It all came to a head at the 20th anniversary of the disaster, as the speech of the then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, MP Andy Burnham was interrupted by shouts of justice for the 96; four days later the government decided to open up police files about the disaster, leading to the setting up of the Hillsborough Independent Panel reinvestigating the disaster and its aftermath, two years ago reaching the conclusion that there was indeed a coverup.

Now, twentyfive years after the disaster a new, proper inquest has started at the same time as both of the city’s football clubs are doing the best in the League they’ve done for years, Everton in the race for fourth place, Liverpool chasing their first title in twentyfour years. Is it any wonder both fans and players, Steve Gerrard especially, who lost a cousin at Hillsborough, get a little emotional?

AC Milan takes a stand against racism

Kevin Prince Boateng walks off in a friendly match after being racially abused by some Pro Patria supporters:

Anti-racism campaigners praised Boateng’s decision to walk off. Piara Powar, the executive director of the European anti-discrimination group Fare, said: “We salute Kevin-Prince Boateng for his actions and his team-mates for their support. This is the not the first time a player has walked off in Italy – if the situation continues it may not be the last. Italy, as much as any country in Europe, has a serious problem of racism to deal with. Football infrastructure is in need of renewal and at serious odds with the changing nature of Italian society. We look forward to strong action by the FIGC [Italian FA].”

Racism in football all over Europe is still an underreported problem. In many countries it’s much less than it used to be in the seventies and eighties, but it’s still present and needs to be dealt much more firmly with.

Death of a linesman

The Guardian reports on the death of linesman Richard Nieuwenhuizen, beaten up at an amateur game in early December and what it means for Dutch football:

Yet moments after the players started shaking hands with the three volunteer officials, Nieuwenhuizen was knocked to the floor, then punched and kicked in the head by several of the Nieuw-Sloten team. Parents immediately ran on to the pitch to try to defuse the situation and get some control. Nieuwenhuizen eventually got back to his feet but he was knocked to the floor for a second time. Witnesses report that one of the Nieuw-Sloten players then took off his shirt, presumably to make it harder for him to be identified, before kicking Nieuwenhuizen while he was on the ground and then running off. Mykel, Nieuwenhuizen’s son, saw everything.

As the article makes clear, the case has become a rorschach blotch for every Dutch anxiety about modern society: racial tension, lack of respect for authorities, youth gone wild, etc. The victim was a white man, a linesman from Almere, the perpetrators allegedly are Moroccan boys from one of the Amsterdam districts with a high level of Dutch-Moroccans. Mix that in with the fact that the victim was a linesman, an authority figure, when there has been a string of horrible assaults of authority figures — police officers, first aid workers, ticket inspectors — in the last few years and you got an incident that was tailor made for Geert Wilders to exploit. Which he promptly did, but which fortunately hasn’t gained much traction

A tragedy such as this of course needs to be taken seriously, though I do think it’s easy to overreact to it as a country or a sport. The vast majority of football fans and players at all levels of Dutch football are decent people and to make great moral judgments out of one incident, no matter how tragic, seems wrong.

Footballers against Israeli apartheid

The 2014 under-21 European Championships are supposed to be held in Israel, which is a bit awkward considering it just destroyed a football stadium as a novel new way of expressing its displeasure with the Palestinians. Sport, like art, is of course important to the well being of any peoples and it’s no wonder then that Israel regularly targets both.

To their considerable credit, more than sixty European professional footballers have protested against these acts and urged UEFA to withdrawn the competition from Israel:

We, as European football players, express our solidarity with the people of Gaza who are living under siege and denied basic human dignity and freedom. The latest Israeli bombardment of Gaza, resulting in the death of over a hundred civilians, was yet another stain on the world’s conscience.

We are informed that on 10 November 2012 the Israeli army bombed a sports stadium in Gaza, resulting in the death of four young people playing football, Mohamed Harara and Ahmed Harara, 16 and 17 years old; Matar Rahman and Ahmed Al Dirdissawi, 18 years old.

We are also informed that since February 2012 two footballers with the club Al Amari, Omar Rowis, 23, and Mohammed Nemer, 22, have been detained in Israel without charge or trial.

It is unacceptable that children are killed while they play football. Israel hosting the UEFA Under-21 European Championship, in these circumstances, will be seen as a reward for actions that are contrary to sporting values.

Despite the recent ceasefire, Palestinians are still forced to endure a desperate existence under occupation, they must be protected by the international community. All people have the right to a life of dignity, freedom and security. We hope that a just settlement will finally emerge.

Well done.

Murdoch buys Dutch football

Murdoch may have gotten into trouble with his “news” organisations, but the football branch of his empire going strong, as he has just plunked down a billion euros for the Dutch football rights:

Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Networks has taken a 51% controlling interest in tv channel Eredivisie Live which broadcasts premier league matches, say press reports on Wednesday.

The deal, worth €1bn over 12 years and due to begin in the 2013-2014 season, was unanimously agreed by the 18 clubs involved and the football association KNVB.

Fox is paying €960m to show the games and taking over the €60m in debt of Eredivisie Live.

Eredivisie Live was set up a few years ago by the Eredivisie clubs as a pay channel for their matches, after earlier attempts to commercialise football broadcasts all failed. It’s been doing soso over the years, not nearly making as much money for the clubs as they expected. There’s also the competition of Sport1, which shows mostly foreign football — Premiership, Bundesliga undsoweiter, which hasn’t helped. With the entry of Murdoch/Sky in the Dutch market, there are likely going to be massive changes to football broadcasting; they’re certainly much more professional in their methods to wring the most money out of it.

Whether that’s good for us football fans is another matter entirely; first reactions are mainly worried about whether the public broadcaster here can keep the traditional highlight programme on Sunday evening. More money for football is a good thing, but Holland is still a small market and not that attractive for foreign rebroadcasting, surely. It may mean, as in England that football will be further priced out of reach of the ordinary fan.

QotD: Harry Redknapp

Proof that football writers can have a poetic turn is delivered by Barney Ronay, writing for The Grauniad‘s sportsblog about the contrast between Spurs new and old managers, ‘Arry Redknapp and Andre Villas-Boas:

It is genuinely ennobling, this belief in the basic sanctity of the managerial mission. “We must build on Harry’s great work,” Villas-Boas said this week, bestowing an unexpected gravity on the legacy of a manager who has traditionally been a kind of footballing Cat in the Hat, a tousled and infectious improviser who could probably cook you the most brilliant meal you’ve ever tasted simply by hurling everything in the fridge into a massive bowl and then flambéing it over a raging fire built from every stick of furniture you own, before abruptly disappearing just as you come round, dazed and hungover, face down in the ashes of what was once your kitchen.

One for Pseuds’ Corner, eh lads?