Monday, June 30, 2008

And finally...

Thankfully the quality and excitement of Euro 2008 didn't let up and the tournament produced worthy winners in Spain, even if it was a shame they weren't able to copper-fasten their clear superiority to Germany with a more emphatic scoreline. The Spanish laid their ghosts of past failures to rest to collect their first European title since 1964 (the front-page headline on Marca, the leading Spanish football paper, today is 'It's not a dream, it's reality - we are the champions!') Spain were the most consistent side in the tournament and played some great football with their only flaw being a lack of clinical edge at times. Their attitude was a refreshing reflection of the tournament as a whole; even in the dying seconds of the match, they went chasing a second goal when most teams would have taken the ball to the corner flag to count down time. There were also two touching tributes on the podium after the match, one was the t-shirt worn by Sergio Ramos in honour of his friend and former teammate Antonio Puerta, who died after collapsing during Seville's first game of last season. Reserve goalkeeper Andrés Palop also collected his medal wearing the shirt worn by Luis Arconada in the 1984 final, when Arconada's unfortunate error allowed Michel Platini's free kick to slip underneath his body for France's opening goal. Platini, who presented the Henri Delaunay Cup to Iker Casillas, had also invited Arconada to the final, a touching homage to a great goalkeeper who is too often remembered for two errors, the one against France and the one that allowed Gerry Armstrong to score in Valencia two years earlier in Northern Ireland's shock win.

Casillas is another fine keeper, whom I can admire in spite of my own antipathy towards Real Madrid. Sid Lowe on the Guardian podcast told a story of a young Casillas costing his father an enormous football pools win by forgetting to check in his coupon. With this win, the debt has probably been paid back. It's also easy to forget that that the star of Spanish football, Raúl, was absent from the squad, unpicked since the defeat in Belfast two years ago. The Spanish media have taken Luis Aragones' decision poorly but, given Raúl's previous track record of bottling it in vital games for Spain, more steel was surely needed for this tournament, and Aragones was probably right.

And so ends a great tournament; it has to be acknowledged that most of the great football was facilitated by terrible defending and there is no guarantee that it will be repeated in South Africa in two years' time. But with great international tournaments in both Europe and Africa this year, the future looks bright for international football. One thing I hope doesn't happen is UEFA's intended expansion of the tournament to accomodate 24 teams. We don't need a tournament that allows undeserving underperformers such as Ireland, Belgium and England an easier passage to the finals. The match of the tournament will remain Holland v Russia, as two teams who were exhilarating but ultimately not good enough, produced a dizzying show of attacking football. Hopefully both sides will be in South Africa in 2010. The prospect of returning to watch Premiership football now is a bit disheartening.

And here are some images from a joyous Madrid, captured by an Irishman abroad.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Hats off to Russia

Photograph: Alex Livesey/Getty Images

This Euro 2008 tournament is so good that it was even a pleasure to watch my favourite team (and probably the most impressive until yesterday) Holland getting turfed out by a fantastic young Russian side. The result itself was not very surprising, much less than the rather feeble and tactically limited resistance put up by the Dutch. Andrei Arshavin took the Man of the Match award for the second match running, and after being suspended for the first two matches he has now emerged as a serious contender for the player of the tournament. He was involved in all three Russian goals (scoring the third) and his deep cross from a tight angle for Dmitri Torbinski to score the second was a work of footballing genius. He ran the game, possessing a wonderful first touch and an intelligence and doggedness that add up to the consummate professional.

For the first time ever Russia look a serious force on the international scene (I disregard the Soviet years becuase the great USSR teams were built largely on a bedrock of Ukrainian, Georgian and Belarussian talent, the Russians were often a minority in the selections). The credit for this has to go to Guus Hiddink who has worked once again the magic he has previously done with his native Holland, South Korea and Australia. The talent available in Russia has been poorly marshalled for most of the past twenty years but Hiddink was always going to be the man to whip them into shape. Though they will be without the suspended Torbinski and Yuri Zhirkov for the semi-final against either Italy or Spain, you have to fancy them to cause another upset, particularly their phenomenal fitness which allowed them to pulverise the Dutch in extra time last night (it must be remembered that the Russian players, all but one of whom play at home, are in mid-season). Barry Glendinning over at the Guardian's podcast predicted a Germany-Russia final, a canny verdict that looks like it could come true. With all respect to the other teams still in the tournament (all of whom have played some excellent football), the manner of Russia's play and their sporting attitude makes them the team I want to see win. Can this tournament get even better?

Friday, June 20, 2008

Well at Least He Has His Health...

The superlative and very funny French football magazine So Foot dubbed Group B of this European Championship (the one containing co-hosts Austria, Germany, Poland and Croatia) the 'anschluss group', a delightfully insensitive quip, but which has been proven to be pertinent in the light of events in the past week. While Croatia have been rock solid in defence so far, conceding only a late goal to Germany's Lukas Podolski, one of their countrymen, former Ustashe chief of police Milivoj Ašner let his guard slip by being out and about to enjoy the football in his town of domicile Klagenfurt, where Croatia played their games against Germany and Poland. Ašner, 95, who cunningly goes by the name of Georg Aschner in Austria, escaped extradition to his native land two years ago to be tried for war crimes, as the Austrian government claimed he was in too poor health to stand trial. The Simon Wiesenthal Centre has again called on the Austrians to extradite him and that renowned organ of Nazi-hunting, The Sun, has snapped a hale and hearty Ašner with his wife among revelling football fans. Croatia has been criticised for its team's links to far-right groups but the country is surely doing more to atone for a shameful chapter of its past than Austria is by protecting this criminal. I wonder does it have anything to do with Klagenfurt being the home and fief of that pin-up boy of the far-right, Jörg Haider? And I wonder what Mister Ašner's secret for a long and healthy life is?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Ah No, Domenech...

France exited stage right last night in a pitiful display which saw them outplayed by the Italians in a soporific match (I was awoken from a first-half doze by Thierry Roland announcing the expulsion of Éric Abidal for the foul on Luca Toni that led to the first Italian goal). It has been sad to watch the collapse of the French team in this tournament, mainly because you know what talent there is there in the country's football set-up, probably more than in any other country in Europe. It was also sad to see one of my favourite footballers Lilian Thuram be humiliated by the Dutch on Friday night - however undeniably thrilling it was to watch the Dutch do their magic. When Thuram came out of retirement three years ago along with Claude Makelele and Zinedine Zidane to sort an ineffectual team out and qualify them for the 2006 World Cup, it was him that dashed Irish hopes at Lansdowne Road with a magisterial second-half display that cut off all the danger that Ireland had mustered in the first half of that match. He was equally imposing in France's march to the final the following summer but now it is clear that he is a year or two past his best and about five yards off most the strikers he would have easily snuffed off not so long ago.

Thuram, whether he decides to retire now or not, will have a career that extends far beyond football, and given the man's intelligence and political activism, I wouldn't be surprised if he becomes a glittering star on the French left, which sorely needs a man of his stature and conviction. When Abidal got sent off last night, Thuram stood up on the bench and prepared to strip to run on, rightly assuming that the most-capped player and captain until his dropping, would be the obvious replacement for a missing centre-half. French manager Raymond Domenech had other ideas however and in his wisdom, he sent on the underwhelming Lyon full-back Jean-Alain Boumsong instead, presumably the same wisdom that allowed him to select Boumsong ahead of players such as Gaël Clichy and Philippe Méxès in the first place.

Though the French players (the injured Franck Ribéry excepted) must bear their own responsibility for their spineless performance, they were hampered as ever by the cluelessness of the baffy charlatan in charge of them. Domenech's predilections for astrology have long been ridiculed by many (and even suspected for some of his team selections) but there is a deeply unpleasant side to the man that deserves more comment. Ireland saw it in the run-up to the game in Lansdowne three years ago when he dismissed Brian Kerr's side as a bunch of hoofers (say what you like about Kerr but his teams were never of the kick-and-rush variety) and his ungraciousness in two defeats against a plucky but limited Scottish team indicates his general lack of class. The Swiss media and people alike have deplored the arrogance and commitment to secrecy of Domenech's entourage since before this championship began, comparing them, unfavourably, and not to mention ominously, to Marco van Basten's Dutch squad. Many people are of the opinion that his sidelining of Méxès, consistently one of the best centre-halfs in Serie A in recent years, is due to petty animus. And then last night Domenech criticised the sending-off of Abidal, claiming that there was not a clear goalscoring chance denied. The man's cowardice and complete lack of responsibility was finally cemented when, questioned by his common-law partner Estelle Denis, on his future after the game, he proposed marriage to her. While being knocked out of the European Championship is not, in the wider scheme of things, a terribly serious occurrence, one might expect of Domenech at this point a greater degree of professionalism and seriousness than this. L'Équipe was moved to call it in an editorial, 'more than a managerial error, a lapse of taste.' Right they are, and Mlle. Denis' tolerance of this nonsense may prove to be the first of many such examples in her future life. The French Football Federation will surely elect to remove this craven, unprepossessing buffoon next month, following a tournament in which there were not enough of the old guard to rebel against his foolishness and play as they wished, as they did in Germany two years ago. He will not be missed in the world of football.

All of this is not to take away from Italy's performace, which showed a great deal of character and adventurousness. Even in the defeat by Holland they have been playing some good football in this tournament and I expect them to burst the Spanish bubble come the quarter-finals to set up a rematch with the Dutch in the semi-finals. But, then again, having seen, Guus Hiddink's Russia outplay Sweden tonight without even being impressive, the Dutch may find one being put over them by their former manager...

Monday, June 16, 2008

Iran v Israel (but not in the football)

My movie-going has been suffering because the football's been so good I'm afraid to miss any of it, but I have managed to live off my memories to pen an article over on Irish Left Review comparing Iranian and Israeli cinema (well, somebody had to do it). Having just seen Mario Gomez try to lob the Austrian keeper from three feet to provide surely the most comical miss in a major championship since the heyday of Stéphane Guivarc'h (he won a World Cup medal, you know), I'm going back to the football. Even the Teutons are providing high drama.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Isn't it Only Great?

I don't know what has got into the managers or teams at this Euro 2008 tournament but the abandon with which teams have been attacking (and counter-attacking) has ensured that it will be remembered as a classic, and we're not even out of the group stages yet. The Dutch have been the most glorious of the sides so far, but credit also to Spain, Portugal, Italy and Romania and Croatia after their shaky starts. Much as I would love to see Holland add to their 1988 title, I think they will come unstuck, as their dodgy defence gets found out against sides more clinical than France were the other night. Edwin van der Sar can only save them for so klong. The more likely winners are a side such as Croatia, who showed in their match against Germany a combination of flair and pragmatism, and mental toughness that will allow them to go all the way. Germany cannot be ruled out either despite the alarming way they imploded in Klagenfurt. I do feel, however that, Austria could give them a real fright in Vienna tomorrow night. A week ago I would have laughed at such a suggestion but the Austrians have been punching above their weight so far and they will be up for a chance to put one over the Germans, just as they did in Cordoba in 1978, when they knocked out the reigning World Champions 3-2. Austria's lack of edge in front of goal will ultimately be their undoing but they'll take the game to Germany at the very least. Tonight's game between Turkey and the Czech Republic could go to penalties, which would be a first in the group stages, and the same thing could also happen in Tuesday's potential decider between France and Italy. All very exciting.

A couple of fascinating stories from the glorious past of Austrian football (and prior to the 1938 Anschluss it was indeed glorious): the early death of Matthias Sindelaar, considered by many to be the greatest Austrian player ever, and the fate of the Jewish Viennese club Hakoah, who were disbanded on the coming to power of the Nazis and who are now being revived.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Johnny Chadda RIP

A bad week for Sligo Rovers (they were knocked out of the FAI Cup by old rivals Shamrock Rovers) turned into a sad week when Johnny Chadda, one of the pillars of the club for over fifty years, passed away. On my regular trips to the Showgrounds when I was a kid, Johnny would be everywhere, selling raffle-tickets, manning the turnstiles and marshalling the ground. One time he had noticed that a group of us had scaled the wall to get in free to a vital promotion decider against Kilkenny City and he chased us round the ground until the terraces filled up and he gave up. That anyone would devote his life so selflessly to as unfashionable (and for most of its history, unsuccessful) team as Rovers is remarkable enough. That Johnny Chadda was an immigrant from India in the bleak 1950s, and I imagine the only one in Sligo other than his wife, makes his work even more touchingly generous.

There are hundreds of thousands of people the world round that will identify with the work that goes into keeping sports clubs of little or no means alive, and the fact that Sligo Rovers still exist after eighty years is in large part due to Johnny Chadda and others who worked alongside him down the years. The club went from being almost wound up in the late 1980s to being run as a successful co-operative while enjoying some domestic success in the 1990s. There are few people that can claim to have been associated with a club for so much of its history and Johnny Chadda's devotion to Sligo Rovers, in a league that was about as unglamorous as football can get and for practically no renumeration, is proof that football is about a lot more than just Galacticos, Golden Generations and big-money franchises. May he rest in peace.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

More Football

Classic Dunphy: after hearing Ronnie Whelan and Graeme Souness lay into Russia for the supine way in which they surrendered the game to Spain this evening, and then listening to Souness wonder why the Russians should always be like that, as they were 'in his playing days too', Dunphy threw in the observation that 'well, there is a melancholy streak in the Russian character, a bit like the Welsh really'. The generalisations were flying and Eamon couldn't resist a bit of one-upmanship. He was a bit mean to Souness too.

After my previous criticism of the flaccid nature of French television's football coverage I am reminded that M6's 100% Foot programme during this tournament is presented by Estelle Denis, partner of French manager Raymond Domenech. Though it's hardly an unethical conflict of interests, how in God's name are you supposed to mount an interesting, objective television show if it's presented by the French gaffer's missus? That nobody in France seems to think it strange underlines what a joke the football coverage is in this country.

Though the Swedes were not exactly a perfectly-functioning outfit it was nice to see the Greeks run out of ideas when delivered a sucker punch in the form of that bullet from Ibrahimovic, his first goal for Sweden in almost three years.

Grope of Death

My usual tournament team (in the absence of Ireland, of course) the Netherlands started their campaign last night in impressive style, dispatching the world champions Italy 3-0 in Berne. Their slick counter-attacking football and their constant willingness to push forward was a joy to watch, particularly as many of us had suspected that the pragmatism that Marco van Basten has instilled over the past couple of years might stifle the creativity. The four touches that led from a Giovanni van Bronckhorst clearance off the line to a deep cross by the Barça player himself to Dirk Kuyt to be finished spectacularly by Wesley Sneijder contributed to the best goal of the tournament so far. The Italians had reason to be aggrieved by the opener however; like many people I imagined Ruud van Nistelrooy to be clearly offside when he toepoked Sneijder's skewed shot home, and so did van Nistelrooy himself. However a look at the laws of the game tells us that the referee applied the offside rule correctly - if harshly -. Law 11.11 states that

If a defending player steps behind his own goal line in order to place
an opponent in an offside position, the referee shall allow play to
continue and caution the defender for deliberately leaving the field
of play without the referee’s permission when the ball is next out of

It is not an offence in itself for a player who is in an offside position to
step off the field of play to show the referee that he is not involved in
active play. However, if the referee considers that he has left the field
of play for tactical reasons and has gained an unfair advantage by re-
entering the field of play, the player shall be cautioned for unsporting
behaviour. The player needs to ask for the referee’s permission to re-
enter the field of play.

A more sympathetic referee might have decreed that Christian Panucci went down genuinely injured but then you never know with these Italians. All in all, the Dutch fully deserved their victory though their longer term prospects are not assured, especially as few teams that start so gloriously last the pace. They are also suspect at the back and may be found out by a team less out of sorts as the Italians were last night.

In the other match in the group of death Romania and France played out a stinker, though I was fortunate enough to see only the first half. Though Romania will be happier with the point, they were depressing to watch; I can understand their approach in trying to thwart the French but their level of skill and their initiative was sadly lacking the finesse of their attractive teams of the 1990s.

As for entertainment, I was tickled by an anecdote told by Barney Ronay on the very enjoyable Guardian Football Daily podcast, where he told us about Steve McClaren being mistaken for the former Republic of Ireland manager by an Austrian accreditation official. My gripe the other day about being deprived of Giles, Dunphy and Brady has been answered by the wonders of the World Wide Web, it being possible to watch the pre- and post-match analysis, if not the coverage itself. Yesterday's post-match natter wasn't vintage stuff but it'll get better.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

The Football So Far

Two days into the European Championship and though there hasn't been a game of absolutely excrutiating boredom (Austria v Croatia threatened to become that at times, mind), the tournament has yet to really catch fire. Both the hosts deserved better than the 1-0 defeats they suffered in their opening matches. Austria in particular will find it difficult to pull back the deficit. The pick of the games so far was tonight's between Germany and Poland. The Poles brought the game to Germany, playing some attractive attacking football but unfortunately they were lacking any real edge up front, where former Celtic reserve Maciej Zurawski struggled to carve out openings. The Germans, obviously having developed a strong understanding over the past couple of years, are playing a more expansive game than they did on their own turf in the World Cup of two years ago and on tonight's evidence they are worth their favourite's tag. Their defence (and Jens Lehman) look suspect and they may suffer against a side possessed of more incisiveness than the Poles. It looks unlikely they will be tested however until a potential semi-final against Portugal, and given the dreariness of Croatia's performance today, they shouldn't have to break a sweat to even reach the quarter-finals.

Once again I am restricted to watching the matches on French TV, whose coverage is appalling as ever. TF1's commentary is saved only by the presence of Arsène Wenger in the gantry, who is the only person who knows what he's talking about. Over on M6, Thierry Roland (the French John Motson) and Frank Leboeuf dispense inane patter, devoid of any insight or knowledge of any players not associated with either the French national team or Ligue 1, and littered with enthusiastic 'magnifiques', 'superbes' and 'belles actions' to describe the most workaday efforts by highly-paid professional footballers. The tone of deadening banality and politesse makes you feel like watching the damn thing with the sound turned down, listening to the radio, à la Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh. On top of this there is nothing in the way of pre-match, half-time or post-match analysis and commentators for both channels make the most pathetic attempts at pronouncing the names of players e.g. Peter Cech is Peter Sèche, which presumably means he hails from 'La République Sèche'. It makes you pine for Motson, Clive Tyldsley and Andy Gray, never mind the unrivalled trio of Giles, Dunphy and Brady.

As preparation for the tournament I went to see Emir Kusturica's documentary on Diego Maradona, which proved irritating and enjoyable in equal measures. A few short months ago i walked out of Kusturica's infinitely tiresome comedy Promise Me This and I was a little suspicious about this. Actually, my suspicions were mostly confirmed, it being a massaging of El Píbe's ego while making Kusturica look good too (interspersed with the interviews with Diego and the stock footage of the man in his prime are outtakes from most of Kusturica's films). Diego spouts shite about politics, most of which involves taking potshots at the Yanks and the Brits and lauding Chávez and Castro, in a typically populist Latin American way. But his gleeful remark about feeling he'd pickpocketed an Englishman when he rose above Peter Shilton to score the infamous 'hand of God' goal is a refreshing alternative to the insufferable piety of the English who complain incessantly about it (as if they didn't win the World Cup due to a non-existent goal or Gary Lineker didn't dive to win a decisive penalty against a superior Cameroon team in the 1990 World Cup quarter-finals). Kusturica throws in a couple of interesting asides about residues of aristocratic dignity amongst the poor and the birth of the Tango, that I suspect he has filched from Borges or García Marquez, and he must surely be one of the few film directors that could go for a kick-around with Maradona and emerge with credit. The film is most remarkable though for its YouTube-esque montages of Maradona goals, which of course look all the better on the big screen.

The tournament starts in earnest tomorrow with two intriguing matches in the group of death. Romania v France and Holland v Italy. As ever I am supporting the Dutch though I think they may struggle to make it out of this group. France look the best equipped to give the Germans a run for the title but they can't afford to slip up early on. More later in the week.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Excluded Youth of France's Angelique Guardian

Dear me, the Guardian, like a dear but cantankerous old friend, continues to exasperate much as one loves it. It remains, along with the FT, the best of the English newspapers (my relative unfamiliarity with Scottish and Welsh papers prevents me from saying 'British') but it can also madden with its one-note, one-dimensional coverage of certain things, France in particular. The latest shoddy missive from Paris comes today from the paper's Paris correspondent Angelique Chrisafis in an interview with the young French novelist Faïza Guène, which rails with savage indignation against the Parisian literary scene's shunting out of a reportedly talented young novelist from an immigrant background - I say 'reportedly' because I haven't read Ms Guène's work, though I look forward to doing so.

What bothers me about the piece is not Guène's bitterness about her marginalisation in both literature and society - the former of which is believable and the latter the reality for many Africans and Arabs in France - nor her analysis of Sarkozy's appointing the ethnic minority trio of women Rachida Dati, Fadela Rama and Rama Yade as tokenism, which I agree with. No, what riles me is the plain stupidity of the piece, which, being the cover feature in the G2 section and of a good length, can hardly be explained away as a piece of serviceable hackwork conceived to beat a deadline. Chrisafis invokes injustice after injustice while all the time compounding those very injustices for an English-speaking audience; there is also her recourse to lazy journalese to propel her story forward, not to mention a dubiously close identification with the opinions of the interviewee.

First up, in the opening paragraph, Chrisafis treats of the publication of Guène's first novel Kiffe kiffe demain, which came out when she was only 19:

When the book came out in 2004, Guène was hailed as the "Françoise Sagan of the high-rises", the antidote to the navel-gazing French novel in crisis.

One doesn't have to wonder too hard where a lazy journalist found the epithet "Françoise Sagan of the high-rises" nor the standard-issue Anglo-Saxon anti-intellectual "navel-gazing French novel" though you do wonder how many of those Chrisafis has read. I imagine that, writing for the Grauniad from Paris she has at least a smattering of French. As for the French novel being 'in crisis', well it must be if word has trickled all the way down to the G2 section of the Guardian.

Then we are told:

One thing Guène notices as she tours the world, attends book fairs in Britain and lectures on the evolution of slang in the US, is that back in France, she tends to take up more space on the "society" rather than the "literary" pages of the papers.

Well where does she appear in the papers in the far more receptive English-speaking world? Certainly not in the literary Review section on Saturday, where the interview would most likely have been conducted by somebody with literary expertise. Indeed a previous interview with Guène in the Guardian was covered in, guess what, the Society pages. There is no assessment of either Guène's work or its reception in France; surely Chrisafis has at least read her books and surely she could have phoned around for someone to say something, positive or negative, about them? Instead Chrisafis blindly accepts Guène's grievances and endorses them by implying that she is on the writer's side:

But in France, despite her huge readership, the élite still see fiction set in the suburbs as something exotic and alien. Society is so polarised that the world Guène writes about is not something the establishment has ever seen close up; they are not streets they might ever have walked down, even by accident. She is still asked with wide-eyed fascination about the forbidden lands. "I feel ridiculous explaining things like people there love each other too, that they decide to have babies out of love and not just to claim benefits."

Again, I am not gainsaying Guène's experience, but is Angelique Chrisafis herself spending that much more time than the French literary élite seeing how the other half live in the Paris banlieues?

Of course, the real, implicit theme of the article is finally laid bare in the next paragraph:

She says every time she lands in London she finds herself marvelling at women going about their lives in headscarves, without the state deciding where they can or can't wear them. She meets people in London from the estates of "93", Seine-Saint-Denis, hoping to find a job without their race, name or postcode putting a brake on them. She thinks nothing has improved on French estates since the riots. "If that hasn't changed things, what will? Apart from civil war or revolution?"

If only those Frenchies were like us English! A typically fatuous example of the smugness of many British and American commentators on the social problems of France (and yes, I know that the French media can often be as infuriating when analysing the US and the UK). France and Britain both have their problems with the integration and marginalisation of immigrant communities and I don't deny that Britain is largely better in this respect but to claim that Britain is a world of unlimited opportunity for immigrants is downright silly.

Chrisafis, continuing in her amateur-litterateur vein, notes approvingly that immigrant fiction in Britain is long established and accepted, citing Hanif Kureishi, Zadie Smith and Monica Ali as examples. But literary marginalisation is alive and well in Britain, one need only return to the horrors experienced by the London literary establishment when the great James Kelman won the Booker Prize in 1994 for How Late it Was, How Late. Kelman is a writer whose one-page short story 'Acid' alone outweighs the entire careers of literary blowhards such as Ian McEwan, Martin Amis and John Banville but this didn't prevent bluenose cretins such as Julia Neuberger and Simon Jenkins calling his work 'a disgrace' and 'the rambling thoughts of a blind Glaswegian drunk' respectively. He is also considerably chippy, understandable given the savage reception of his work, but sometimes exaggeratedly so as this interview with Theo Tait illustrates. It's also quite possible that Faïza Guène's bitterness at her literary exclusion is an over-reaction and maybe her work is not actually that good. I don't know but the fact that the literary establishment is not falling over itself for the novels of a 22-year-old does not necessarily mean she is being wilfully excluded.

To be sure, the French resistance to linguistic innovation such as Verlan is as absurd as it is exquisitely vulgar and François Bégaudeau's novel Entre les murs, which I wrote on last week, makes much of this absurdity. But I would like to see the issue treated with more intelligence and more expertise than Angelique Chrisafis is capable of bringing to it; not knowing anything about literature or film has in the past not been a barrier to the Guardian's Paris correspondent writing, as the French say, n'importe quoi on the subjects. It is sad to see that, once again, even left-wing Europhile British newspapers only seem to interested in reinforcing lazy preconceptions about France. Compare this approach with this excellent review of Elfriede Jelinek's novel Greed in the London Review of Books; Jelinek is another writer who has been ill treated by the literary establishment in both Austria and Germany and Nicholas Spice's piece is a brilliant, learned defence of her life and work. I plan to read Faïza Guène's novels soon and I sincerely hope that the Guardian will afford her work more respect than the French literarati has, or it itself has on this occasion.
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Sunday, June 01, 2008

Ghosts of Glasgow Football

I wrote last year about visiting the Estadio Nacional Jamor, just outside Lisbon, where Celtic defeated Inter Milan in May 1967 to lift the European Cup for the first, and only time. The stadium is a beautiful old arena in a charming woodland setting, and though it's rarely used for anything other than the Portuguese Cup final or national team training sessions these days, it still imparts the same breezy meridional exoticism that so marked the colour television images of the final that memorable day. The same week their cross-town rivals Rangers were being defeated 1-0 by Bayern Munich in their second Cup-Winners' Cup final; but back in Glasgow another club, Third Lanark, was being wound up only five years after finishing third in the old Scottish first division. The club was the victim of mismanagement though many supporters claim that the board of directors deliberately ran it into the ground.

I remember first seeing references to the club in an old News of the World football annual that my uncle had retained from his schooldays, and the ghostliness of their history would even colour my reading, years later, of Alasdair Gray's mighty apocalyptic novel Lanark. I used to think that the club got their name from being Glasgow's third club (though Partick Thistle or even Clyde might dispute that classification) but it was actually from the Third Lanarkshire Rifle Volunteers, out of which the club originally sprang. The club's old ground Cathkin Park, which was itself formerly the second of the three Hampden Parks, still stands as a municipal park, and a new incarnation of the club plays junior football there. Two of the terraces also stand, going back to nature as trees and vegetation grow on them; this collection of photographs of the ground illustrates this and, if the sight of the ruined terraces were not haunting enough, they are also strikingly reminiscent of the sylvan setting of the Lisbon stadium where Celtic were making Scottish football history just as another chapter of that history was coming to a sad end.

Though Thirds disappeared from Scottish football while the country was still a force in European football - and would continue to be for another twenty-five years, their fate sadly mirrors the decline in Scotland's own footballing prestige. Though the national team have made great strides in the last couple of years, despite limited resources, and Celtic and Rangers have made decent dents in European football after years of underachieving, beyond the Old Firm there are few clubs capable of competing consistently, a far cry from the 1980s when Dundee United and Aberdeen were teams feared by some of the giants of European football. Meanwhile, Gretna, a club with a far lesser pedigree than Third Lanark, may also go the same way having gone into administration.

For more on Thirds - or the Hi-Hi, as their fans knew them - here is a clip from a Channel 4 documentary commemorating the 40th anniversary of their folding: