Friday, June 30, 2006

Defeat: The Only Route To Restoring English Dignity

It’s wholly embarrassing being English during a major championship, with everyone from tabloid editors to white van men requisitioning your beliefs and allegiances before wrapping them in the cross of St George.

England’s net impact on the world is subjective (railways good; slavery bad) but not so the football team who have been entirely devoid of likeability or talent for pretty much the last four decades.

Yet despite their glaring inadequacies, the English rumble on as if only a conspiracy to dwarf the Kennedy Assassination has kept the gold trophy from taking up permanent residence on Brian Barwick’s mantelpiece.

Match Officials, mafia fixers and Lady Luck have patently been meeting in smoky back rooms throughout recent major championships: how else do you explain these tournaments being won by better motivated, more talented opponents?

The most concerning point is this: the yawning gap in defeat between the English and dignity becomes a canyon in victory.

If the furore surrounding another penalty shoot-out failure will last a week then the fall-out from victory will be far greater: The Sun will not rest until Scott Carson has at least a knighthood (and preferably a baronetcy) to fall back on.

It is well documented that the World Cup produces a nationwide feel-good factor with unprecedented boosts in consumer spending as well as a spike in the birth rate but the English quite simply do not deserve the spoils of victory.

This is not only economic (although they are already richer than any other nation left in the World Cup) but also social: the place will be uninhabitable through nine interminably smug months, at the end of which scores of Waynes and Waynettas will be born from Penzance to Penrith.

While any other nation will make success a collective carnival, England will view it as long overdue acknowledgement of their innate superiority.

Flags and bunting will be hung from every available vantage point with any reluctance to show pride in our brave, semi-literate boys decried as political correctness gone mad.

A World Cup win would unmask the English as a boorish, vainglorious nation in a way not seen since the Chinese Opium Wars.

Until midweek this has been of little concern, since as well as being the richest team left in the tournament they have also been the worst by some distance.

But in recent days the cliché “three wins from the World Cup” is resonating with a foreboding air: England need to be stopped, and as fast as possible but by whom?

Step forward Portugal.

In far greater need of the economic and social prosperity success brings and guaranteed to celebrate with something approaching humility, they also have a team defined by fire and skill rather than self-promotion and indulgence.

On Saturday you must cheer for Portugal, even more so if you are English: defeat will be for our own good.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Angola go down in an explosive game - not metaphors for some left at home.

Iran 1 - Angola 1

Mines warning sign (c) Mines Advisory GroupThis turned out to be the final appearance at Germany 06 from two teams that it is hard not to love. Angola's attraction stems mainly from their deafining travelling support, who come equipped with horns so loud one can only assume that hundreds of Luanda-based container ships are recklessly operating recklessly without their normal signalling equipment this month.

Iran, meanwhile, continue to pursue the charm offensive that so embarrssed the USA in 1998, when the American captain arrived in the centre circle to be presented with a mountain of gifts and flowers, only to have to admit that he, um, hadn't got Ali Daei anything at all. Iran's generosity has been scaled back somewhat, but a framed Persian rug and an expensive-looking silver dish still beats a cheap pennant any day of the week.

It is possible that the enthusiasm shown by these nations for the game stems in part from the horrible reality that many football careers in both Angola and Iran are cut short by events far crueller than a scout's indifference.

Iran and Angola are the world's second and third most-landmined countries, with a total of almost 30 million mines between them. Both countries - but Iran in particular - also face the threat of unexploded ordnance (UXO) - live but undetonated bombs that become landmines in all but name.

Anti-personnel mines are designed to destroy feet and legs, so it's unsurprising that sport, and football in particular, has become totemic in the anti-landmine campaign as a symbol of what mines take away, as well as of what good treatment and prosthetics can give back.

We were reminded of the first of those last April, when an unexploded bomb that was being used as a goalpost killed five children and injured 16 others during a game of football in Ilam in Iran. The bomb was dropped during the Iran-Iraq war, which ended in 1988. International law prohibits military action which does not distinguish between civilians and combatants - when landmines and UXO can't even hit the right decade, it's hard to imagine how countries like the USA, Libya and Iran themselves still haven't signed the Mine Ban Treaty. Or how cluster bombs, the British version of which leaves an average of 16 brightly-coloured unexploded bomblets per bomb on the ground to attract inquisitive children, are not included in the ban.

Angola, which suffered three decades of civil war, egged on by Cold War powers with too much time and money on their hands, is gradually producing happier stories. The country ratified the Mine Ban Treaty last year, taking on the obligation to clear all landmines in its jurisdiction by 2013. Football here provides inspiration to survivors of landmine injuries, with the national team training with amputee footballers in a gesture both trivial and powerful.

If Angola's boisterous fans are any guide, the hope and passion is there to rebuild Angola. Their generous Iranian opponents, on the other hand, retain their mines in fear of being the next victim of superpower posturing.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

How the village people benefit from Pope’s indiscipline.

Italy 1 - USA 1

The sight of 9 men (including one with a nasty-looking facial injury) holding Italy for a battling draw would usually be enough to bring joy to the heart of any of us, but the performance of the USA made me especially happy on Saturday. This was because they managed to hold Italy whilst simultaneously providing the foreign aid of 87 US citizens. How, you ask? By getting two men sent off of course.

Whilst some people have bemoaned the number of cards bandied around in the tournament so far, it is good to look at the positive side of the FIFA crackdown. For example, the fines for the red cards shown to Pope and Mastroeni (approximately $4,000 each) won’t be going towards the remuneration of the fifth official (a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s...) but will instead be going to the 6 villages for 2006 charity (http://www.sos-childrensvillages.org/) which aims to provide funds for constructing and maintaining a village in each of: Brazil, Mexico, Nigeria, South Africa, Ukraine and Vietnam.

The red cards earned by Pope and Mastroeni will see them donate $8000 to the charity, a sum that represents the per capita Official Development Assistance (ODA) to developing countries of 87 of our cowboy-hat-wearing, gun-toting friends across the pond (if one divides the total ODA of the US by its population, figures courtesy of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development – http://www.oecd.org/). Yes, despite finding enough money to spend $173 per capita on its military, the US government spends just $92 per person on ODA to developing countries, which represents a pathetic 0.22% of its Gross National Income (GNI).

Lest we become too self-righteous, we should remember that the UK and almost all other rich countries still are not reaching the target of giving 0.7% of GNI as ODA – a figure that was agreed in a UN Resolution of October 1970. There are no prizes for guessing which countries are fulfilling their promise (Denmark, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Norway, and our favourite supplier of flat-packed living solutions and uninspiring substitutions, Sweden).

So, whilst the USA versus Italy might have been the first time since 1998 that a World Cup match has featured 3 red cards, long may it continue. At least until developing countries start to make good on their aid promises.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Extreme close-up on workers' rights

France 1 - South Korea 1

After the trauma of watching Italy held to a draw by nine Americans (forgot how to counterattack, inevitably), it was a delight to sit down to game with plenty of excitement and colour, but which had even less potential to emotionally scar me than the eviction of Grace from the Big Brother house.

But in a match where the Korean crowd alone were worth the license fee, singing non-stop from kick-off to whistle, your grumpy correspondent's enjoyment was curtailed by endless extreme close-ups every time the ball was still long enough for a cameraman to get a bead on it. This behaviour, presuably a clause in the World Cup sponsorship deal, threatened to make the game little more than set decoration in a ninety-minute Adidas Teamgeist commercial.

Still, if it's Herren Blatter and Heiner's wish that we should focus on Adidas products, I'm happy to oblige. Adidas has refused to provide the addresses of the factories that supply the world's second-biggest sportswear brand, which makes it really very difficult to know if their good words on labour rights translate into real action. 75% of the world's footballs are made in and around Lahore in Bangladesh, where many are painfully hand-stiched by child workers. But the Teamgeist has no stitching, so it's hard even to hazard a guess at where and under what conditions it is made.

One Adidas plant we do know of is PT Panarub in Tangerang, Indonesia, where Adidas shoes, including football boots, are manufactured. Panerub was one of the factories outed by the 2002 Oxfam Australia report We Are Not Machines. At Panerub, unions were crushed by the sacking of leaders, women were forced to undergo embarrassing company examinations before they could claim statutory menstruation leave, and pregnant women suffered an increased incidence of miscarriage due to working long hours standing up.

In truth, this campaign changed a lot, so it might be a little churlish to pick on Adidas. Oxfam's follow-up report, Offside!, notes that, since 2002, Adidas have had union organiser Ngadinah Binti Abu Mawardi reinstated and co-operated with the Workers' Rights Consortium, who produced a report (PDF) that has seen almost all of its recommendations implemented. Although Adidas always denied Oxfam's findings that managers used or threatened violence on Panarub staff, Oxfam now reports the growing strength of the Perbupas union helped to halt this practice.

However, in October last year, Perbupas was effectively dismantled at Panarub by the dismissal of 33 members, including almost all of the leadership, for activities linked to a strike action. The Indonesian Human Rights Commission has decided that the factory's owners have not shown any legal basis for the dismissal, which looks very much like the latest tactic in a campaign by the owners against Perbupas and in favour of another, more biddable, union. The loss of Perbupas threatens to undermine, or even reverse, improvements at Panarub - it is with good reason that labour rights organisations stress the importance of the worker's right to join a union of their choice.

Adidas has, as yet, failed to take any action to defend the right to assembly of its workers at Panarub. My view is that this kind of relapse is inevitable when the pressure comes off. So, my blog friends, for your homework I'm asking you to keep the pressure on Adidas to continue with pro-worker reforms at Panarub.

You can do that by sending an email to Frank Henke, Global Director of Social and Environmental Affairs, at frank.henke@adidas.de. The key point is to ask that Adidas insists that Panarub management immediately reinstates all employees sacked in connection with union activity to their former positions and that all wages lost during the time of suspension are paid in full. You can find a sample letter on the Clean Clothes Campaign site, but it does have slightly too many exclamation marks for my taste.

You might also like to add that you prefer close-ups of dancing fans to stationary footballs, thanks all the same.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Shed no tears over Saudis' bonus

Saudi Arabia 2 - Tunisia 2

Both Arab, both oil producers, and both scoring late in the Cup's first score draw. So why is Tunisia flying high at 2nd in the whoshouldicheerfor.com supportability rankings, while Saudi are one place off dead last?

A cursory glance at the only Arab countries at the World Cup reveales that they are actually very different. Although the average Saudi is probably poorer than most Westerners might think, at £7,010 per year they still make nearly twice the average Tunisian wage.

The United Nations Development Programme doesn't hold data in income inequalities in Saudi, but it's no great secret that with a handful of petrocrats with their hands on the loot, most Saudis would be grateful for that 'average wage'. Workers in the country's oil fields can console themselves with the knowledge that the profits withheld from their pay packets are going to a worthy cause, though - more than one dollar in 12 produced by the whole Saudi economy ends up in the military - 8.7%. S.A. leaves its World Cup competitors for dead on this score - even just out of civil wars, Serbia and Montenegro and Angola only shell out 4.8% and 4.7% respectively on shells. Tunisia, by comparison, spends 1.6% of its economy on the military - less than the European average.

But the single thing that made Radhi Jaidi's injury-time equaliser so sweet for those of us picking sides on the relative objectionability of the nations concerned, was Saudi Arabia's human rights rapsheet, a record that makes any right-thinking person's blood boil. That this consummate state terrorist is our ally in the 'war on terror' just rubs salt in the lash wounds.

While the Saudi players were making their Germany '06 debut, their country's masters were breathing a sigh of ill-deserved relief as the House of Lords ruled four British men would not be allowed to sue the Kingdom or its officials in a British court, as the country and its agents enjoy state immunity from civil actions.

The four, Bill Sampson, Les Walker, Ron Jones and Scottish doctor Sandy Mitchell, were arrested on suspicion of planting bombs in an alcohol-supply turf war among ex-pats. Jones, himself a victim of one of the bombs, was tortured and held for over two months. The other three men spent two years in prison, during which time they made televised show-confessions, which they report were beaten out of them. In a decision that paints Saudi Arabia, possibly quite rightly, as a caricature of an evil empire, Sampson and Walker were sentenced to death by 'partial beheading and crucifixion'. The three were released to Britian without explanation in 2003.

The Saudi team are, of course, not to be blamed for their masters' actions. But it was hard to have sympathy with a team whose reported £86,000 per player bonus fund represents the conspicuous wealth derived from cruelty, exploitation and tyranny. The only drawback is that you can bet that the £14,000 each of the players lost out on in the 93rd minute last night isn't going to end up in hospitals or schools - it's more likely to find its way into the wallets of Western arms dealers.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Why you should support Ghana...

Italy 2 - Ghana 0

Those of you who already obsessively consult whoshouldicheerfor.com like some kind of fair-trade delphic oracle before every game, as well you should, will be aware that last night saw the World Cup debut of WDM's Most Supportable Team 2006. And I don't mean the USA.

The Herald's Joan McAlpine dedicated her column yesterday to urging Scots to back the sub-Saharan players who have overcome so much to compete in Germany. I'd love to link to the article, but the Herald only put stories online for 48 hours, so I'll just give you this quote instead:

But there are also positive reasons for flying one of those African flags this month. Ghana, for example, has earned the break – which probably explains its place atop the WDM rankings. It has established itself as a beacon of democracy in the continent since 1992.

Its human-rights record has been transformed and it plays a leading role in the African Union, providing peace-keepers for more troubled regions. Determined to root out corruption, it has allowed a "peer review", whereby other African countries scrutinise its governmental institutions and suggest improvements.

It implements nine years of compulsory free education to all children, despite almost half its population existing on less than a dollar a day.

When Ghana plays the US, it will be taking on a country whose average income per head is 25% higher than its own. Who wouldn't wish them well?

I couldn't agree more. Except that the average Ghanaian actually earns just one sixteenth what the average American makes.


...and why I'm not.


Despite all this, I've broken ranks and, as with many Scotland-free tournaments before, backed my (other) ancestral homeland, Italy. It's a matter of some amusement to those that know me that I demonstrate loyalty to a country I've never visited and which is, let's face it, a bit dodgy (27th most supportable nation out of 30, let's not forget). This does get on my nerves, but I'm lucky - if my great-granddad had been called, say, Asamoah Gyan rather than Giovanni Francisco Bertolini, I would still be visibly black - and I'd be more likely to face doubts about my Scottishness than my Ghanaianness.

The excitement in the build-up to this World Cup was marred a little by media reports that non-white fans were being advised by both neo-nazis and anti-fascists to stay away from some towns, particularly in the Brandenburg area near Berlin. They "might not come out alive," warned one German anti-racist activist. Sadly, his fears were shared by well-meaning friends of mine in Berlin and Potsdam.

Government policies and posturing that treat immigration as a social problem to be cured, and migrants and asylum seekers as the perpetrators, little better than criminals, has done little to help combat this xenophobia.

I might have difficulty persuading acquaintances of my Latin credentials today, but not so long ago Scottish Italians faced just the kind of xenophobia and persecution faced by some immigrant communities today. When Mussolini joined the war in 1940, my great-granddad was interned without trial in a British prison - an enemy citizen, he was not to be trusted on the streets of Alloa. His son, on the other hand, was evidently good enough to be shot by a sniper while serving King and country in the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders at the battle of Singapore.

Italians struggled to find work, and 'Help wanted - no Italians' signs were not uncommon in shop windows across west and central Scotland. Racist rioting broke out, notably around Edinburgh's Leith Walk, where the Valvona and Crolla delicatessen still sports the hardboard hoarding put up to protect it from the spate of window-smashing, arson and violence that was visited on the Italian community by 'patriotic' Scots.

In my grandmother's school, girls were called by their christian names and never belted for misbehaviour. As a 'Tally', though, she was addressed as 'Bertolini', and enjoyed no such amnesty of the tawse.

Giovanni Francisco, or Gaga, did everything he could to help his family negotiate anti-Italian Scotland, even refusing to teach them Italian - he saw what trouble speaking a foreign language could lead to. That's why I can't speak Italian.

My family came to Scotland as economic migrants. That convenient group of immigrants that it's okay to hate - they're just coming over here to steal our jobs. As far as I can tell, the only reason why this has not been used as an excuse by some 'reasonable person', who is only thinking of Scotland's welfare, to invite me to get on the first spaghetti boat back to Livorno, is because I have the good fortune to be white.

So don't fall for the spin - the immigration detention centres, the quotas, the dawn raids, are not about whether someone is an 'economic migrant', or an asylum seeker 'genuine' or 'bogus' - they are about racism, and government pandering to gutter-press xenophobia. And if you still believe we should send them home, fine - but you have to kick me out first.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Italy vs Ghana

The World Cup is a great opportunity to think about the global issues; and it's easier to get into the issues and remember what's going on and remember facts about countries if you can hang it off the matches. That's just good education strategy.

Take the Italy vs Ghana game: the WDM website reminds us just how AWFUL it is that Berlusconi has been in charge there. He's done an incredible thing: made his utterly corrupt behavious seem totally normal by using media tactics. It's a great example of how the actual punishment for a crime can outweighed by the benefits you get from carrying it out. He's had all sorts of fines on his companies for lies and corruptions, but it doesn't matter to him since he benefits more from the media coverage he got from making the lies in the first place. So cheer for Ghana. That's justice. Sorry, Italian friends. ON the other hand, maybe we should cheer for the Italy that has just ousted Berlusconi. Hmmm- tricky one.

The kick off

I've supported some obscure teams for some obscure reasons in my time. There was the 1998/99 season, when I followed Real Mallorca because their goalkeeper had announced that he was retiring at the end of the year in order to spend more time with his family before judgement day, and I wanted to see if he would be lifted bodily into heaven as the rapture took him just as a Villareal corner curled towards the six-yard box (he wasn't). Then there was USA '94, when I supported Ireland because my great-granddad was Irish and I naively thought that the players in Big Jack's team also traced their lineage back to Eire (they didn't). And I was a season ticket holder at Morecambe for the 2000/01 season (don't ask).

But, this World Cup, you need not fret about where to lay your affections, as the boffins at WDM UK in London have invented the inestimable Who should I cheer for? team chooser. Whether you want to back the underpaid underdogs, the forward-thinking nation that shells out for healthcare, or, perhaps out of nostalgia for Roger Milla, the nation that lives longest, you can pit any two teams against each other on their economic, ethical and environmental stats. Go to www.whoshouldicheerfor.com.

Up here in the frozen north, which isn't really frozen at all this week, we've decided to honour Der Weltmeisterschaft with this blog, where we'll attempt to bring you the global justice campaigner's take on the Greatest (Football) Show on Earth (tm). Oh, and inevitably at some point Italy will get knocked out and I'll treat you all to an apopleptic rant about how it was because they never have any width and have forgotten how to counterattack. I'll bet you can't wait.