Alan Watts on the 1970 Brazil World Cup team

If you happened to witness, in 1970, the World Cup championship of soccer, you would have seen that the winning team from Brazil played soccer in the most extraordinary way. They played it like basketball. They played it dancing. They way we learned soccer when I was at school as a boy was very, very formal and ordinary and we didn’t really enjoy it. But these fellows were bouncing balls off their shoulders, off every muscle, and they had astonishing team play, while at the same time were dancing the game

Alan Watts – Work As Play

Arsène Wenger and the Spirit of Conquest

Despite being both a fan of Arsène Wenger, and his stubborn pursuit of some mad footballing vision only he can see, and a life-long Japanophile, i’ve never really investigated his erstwhile years stewarding J-League side Grampus Eight (now Nagoya Grampus).

Today however, whilst idly browsing the wikipedia entry for the Arsenal manager I came across the fact that he had written a book exclusively for the Japanese market, with the wonderful title Shōsha no Esupuri or “The Spirit of Conquest”, which “highlights his managerial philosophy, ideals and values, as well as his thoughts on Japanese football and the game as a whole.”

A hop skip and a jump to the Amazon page for the tome, and via the magic of Google Translate, we learn more:

Farewell and playback of Nagoya Grampus. Qualities essential role to play in the leader. What really rooted professional football in Japan. Proven track record spotless, well-honed sense of supervision. Based on the analytical skills and amazing powers of observation, with a view of the Japanese sense of surprise and the most sophisticated soccer. Why Did left the Japanese, and the Japanese choose him. One (1) year from the transfer electrifying. The coach also praised the Holy Land in England, Japan recalls and Proposal for the Future.

A cheap laugh, maybe, at the expense of poor translation, but there is something magical in the description of “the analytical skills and amazing powers of observation, with a view of the Japanese sense of surprise and the most sophisticated soccer.”

The problem with Irish soccer

During the Republic of Ireland’s disastrous European Championship campaign this summer, there was no shortage of opinion on the causes of the problems in Irish international soccer. Whilst the manager Giovanni Trapatoni rightly takes a large chunk of the blame for his tactics and squad management, there is undoubtedly deeper issues involving the general quality of Irish players. Part of the problem, it is argued, is that we no longer have a robust and healthy domestic league in which to discover and blood new talent. Sure, the cream of the crop of the league and the school boy leagues get hoovered up by English clubs, but statistically only a subset of these will ‘make it’, giving us a relatively low pool of talent from which to assemble a national squad. (Again the manager has been rightly criticised for which players he is using from that pool – undoubtedly there are players worth throwing into the mix – certainly after a failed Euro2012 campaign using the ‘old’ system). The argument goes that a strong league would allow local talent to be developed and noticed on a larger scale. The problem is that we do not have a strong league – we have a terminally ill league, slowly but inevitably, lurching towards financial collapse due to lack of interest.

The league of Ireland is something of a punchline for many people now, usually by folk who don’t regularly attend games. But those of us who do go to games, however, don’t view it with rose tinted glasses either. At its height it was massive, regularly commanding tens of thousands in attending fans each week. Now, in the wake of SkySports aggressive marketing of the “Premier League” since the 1990s, it has dwindled to an average attendance of last than two thousand per game. The quality of the football has declined in response. Clubs do not make enough money to support or attract the highest calibre of players (or to discover them). And here in lies the problem at the heart of the matter.

During Katie Taylor’s successful London 2012 Olympic campaign, there was a few mutterings of “who of ye cheering her now paid in to see her last bout at the National Stadium?”, (echoing similar sentiments about Britain’s Jessica Ennis). It recalled a similar refrain heard during Euro2012, but in a kind of inverse – who of ye sneering the Irish national teams efforts pay in to see your local league of Ireland team? Many people who lambasted the FAI and the infrastructure of Irish football were greeted with “when did you last go see a league game?” In someways this became a pissing contest for sports anoraks – but there is a truth at the heart of it. A strong national team needs a strong local league, so as you deride the efforts of the national squad, you should think about how they got into such a state.

This is the paradox though: people don’t want to go to Irish league games because the quality is very low. But the quality is low because the clubs have no money – because no body goes to games. Because the quality is low…

I’ll admit now this is probably a hugely over simplified and uninformed take on all this – it is certainly more complex and nuanced – but I think there is a thread of truth running through it.

This morning as I was checking last night’s scores, I thought about the Belgian national squad. It features (and I’m taking an unashamedly English Premier League-centric view) players liked Manchester City’s Vincent Company, Arsenal’s Thomas Vermaelen, Tottenham’s Jan Vertonghen and Moussa Dembélé, Chelsea’s Eden Hazard, and Everton’s Marouane Fellaini (amongst others); all of which have received praise recently for their skill and ability. Belgium is a country of 11 million people, and the domestic Jupiler Pro League last year had an average of 11,731, and clubs like Standard Liége and RSC Anderlecht regularly compete at the highest level of European football. This season, the Airtricity League in Ireland has had an average attendance of 1,683. And any one who might counter with the fact that our population is roughly a third of Belgium’s, consider that in recent years the average attendance at the GAA All-Ireland Championships has been 16,032, and that figures of this kind were not unheard of in Irish soccer in the past.

Last night as the national team miraculously managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat following a woeful performance against Kazakhstan, the debate struck up again, people want a strong national Irish team to compete at the highest level. But to do that you need players, and to get the best players you need to support their development. A strong, healthy, competitive domestic league can help with this. But this can only happen with bums on seats. But people don’t want to go. The cycle will continue until the league has eroded itself down to a completely amateur oddity. Then we’ll really see the health of the national team and we’ll hear from the arm chair critics.

I don’t want to come across as some kind of holier-than-thou zealot who thinks you can’t have an opinion unless you’ve been in the trenches of domestic soccer support, but last night after the Ireland game I went into Oriel Park and saw a half empty stadium cheer on their team and the connection became vivid in my mind. And the thing is, it wasn’t that bad. The result was awful for the town, but the game had its share of spills and thrills and some wonderful moments of skill. It wasn’t great, by any stretch of the imagination, but it will never be great (again) unless people support it.

On Buddhism, reincarnation, and Dundalk F.C.

Various strands of thought are floating around in me at the moment, chiefly Dundalk F.C. and Buddhist philosophy, and they wove together last night as I drifted off to sleep. Bare with me.

It’s commonly thought that in Buddhism there is a denial of a self. Whilst this isn’t strictly true, what is true is that Buddhism says that what we think is the self, is not.
As Walpola Rahula explains in “What The Buddha Taught”

“What we call a ‘being’, or an ‘individual’, or ‘I’, according to Buddhist philosophy, is only a combination of ever-changing physical and mental forces or energies.”

These can be grouped into what are known as ‘the five aggregates’ – Matter, Sensations, Perceptions, Mental Formations and Consciousness. In Buddhism there is no “permanent, unchanging spirit which can be considered ‘Self’, or ‘Soul’, or ‘Ego’, as opposed to matter, and that consciousness should not be taken as ‘spirit’ in opposition to matter.” You are a temporary collection of various factors, there is nothing permanent in you. Yet, you seem to continue on as a solid entitiy from year to year.

I thought about this the other day when I was reading the excellent Arsenal anthology “So Paddy Got Up”, collected by Arseblog. In an essay entitled “What Is Arsenal?”, Julian Harris ponders:

“What is the club? What is Arsenal?” Around two thousand years ago – even before Spurs last won the league – a Greek historian, philosophy, and all-round intellectual type named Plutarch posed this conundrum: If a ship is repaired over a period of time, having each of its bits of timber replaced one by one, is it still the same ship? The ship may look similar, and perform the same function, but all the timbers are different.

In terms of its logistical, material, make-up, Arsenal Football Club is at least 99 per cent different to when it was founded in 1886. The stadium is different, the training ground is different and players are different. Indeed, every fan is different. All the pieces have been replaces, several times over, during the club’s long and varied history. Yet it is still the same club, right?”

As well as Buddhist philosophy, I thought of this quote, by Steve Grand

“Consider yourself. I want you to imagine a scene from your childhood. Pick something evocative… Something you can remember clearly, something you can see, feel, maybe even smell, as if you were really there. After all, you really were there at the time, weren’t you? How else would you remember it? But here is the bombshell: you WEREN’T there. Not a single atom that is in your body today was there when that event took place. Every bit of you has been replaced many times over… The point is that you are like a cloud: something that persists over long periods, whilse simultaneously being in flux. Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you. Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made.”

Football clubs, like people, are temporary collections of various aggregates, but appear to continue as a solid form. In a being, these aggregates are constantly changing – both mental and physical, to such an extent that you are (physically at least) a different person over time. But, something remains, or appears to remain constant or present. The same with a football club, as Harris pointed out.

But what happens when a football club or a person, dies?

Buddhism is also well known for its doctrine of reincarnation, or more accurately ‘rebirth’. But here lies a problem: The Buddha denied a permanent entity like a Self or Soul, so what could possibly be reborn or reexist after death? If a being is a temporary collection of physical and mental forces or energies, ‘death’ is the total non-functioning of the physical body. But the forces and energies, according to Buddhism, do not stop.

(At this stage we will cheekily point to the Laws of Thermodynamics “Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another.”, but move on swiftly)

As Rahula says:

“When this physical body is no more capable of functioning, energies do not die with it, but continue to take some other shape or form, which we call another life”.

Glasgow Rangers F.C. technically recently ceased to exist as a football club. However the fan base is still there, the name is still there, the assets are still there. And they have, for all intents and purposes, been reborn via Sevco Scotland Limited, trading as The Rangers Football Club. They will reenter the league and continue. Rangers F.C. continues.

As well as Arsenal, my other love in football is Dundalk F.C. Dundalk, like Rangers before, are a club in a perilous financial situation. They are in real danger of going out of business, and this has motivated fans to try and save the club, and hopefully we will.

But some of the talk refers to Dundalk F.C. ‘going out of existence’ – but I reject this. The current incarnation might die, but the energies and forces will continue on. This is not to say we should not battle to save our club, but it should also serve to allay any hopelessness.

Buddhists believe that when the conditions are right, a being is born. It is the same for a football club – when the conditions are right, the club appears. The energy and forces of the fans of Dundalk F.C. remain. The conditions will be there.

“It is like a flame that burns through the night: it is not the same flame nor is it another”

How things can be between men on this Earth

I was reading this morning about the relationship between Jesse Owens, the African-American who famously ran to victory at the 1936 Olympics under the nose of Adolf Hitler and his Aryan ideals, and his rival, the German Luz Long. Whilst parts of their relationship is disputed, what struck me was this part of the story:

Luz Long died in 1943 while fighting for Germany in World War II. A final letter he wrote to Jesse Owens reads, in part, “Someday find my son … tell him about how things can be between men on this Earth.”

I don’t know why, but that stopped me dead in my tracks when I read it.

Scorched Earth as Football Tactic.

If there’s two things I love its the Guardian Live Football Blog, and over-the-top historical football metaphors, and tonight’s Barcelona demolition of Bayer Leverkusen was a great example of both:

“In fairness Mourinho hasn’t really managed to beat this Barca team,” says Alex Hanton. “He’s just found a way of winning anyway. He’s like the Roman general who worked out he couldn’t beat Hannibal so just decided to burn everything within a 50-mile radius instead.”

Barcelona 7 – 1 Bayer Leverkusen (Guardian Live Blog)

Dundalk F.C. 5 – 1 Shamrock Rovers

A master of the art of war has said, ‘I do not dare to be the
host (to commence the war); I prefer to be the guest (to act on the
defensive). I do not dare to advance an inch; I prefer to retire a
foot.’ This is called marshalling the ranks where there are no ranks;
baring the arms (to fight) where there are no arms to bare; grasping
the weapon where there is no weapon to grasp; advancing against the
enemy where there is no enemy.

There is no calamity greater than lightly engaging in war. To do
that is near losing (the gentleness) which is so precious. Thus it is
that when opposing weapons are (actually) crossed, he who deplores
(the situation) conquers.

Tao Te Ching – Chapter 69

Picture credit: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE

(via DundalkFc.com)

Pronunciation: TYAIR-ree ahn-REE

Ireland’s greatest foe since Cromwell, comedy sports panto villain, Best Player Ever To Have Played In The Premiership(tm) and All-Round Arsenal Legend, Thierry Henry, has signed a contract with US Major League Soccer side New York Red Bulls. Henry becomes one of their Designated Players, which I think means he either gets to get paid crazy money outside of their League-imposed wage structure, or he gets to drive the team bus when they’ve all had a few too many Red Bull & Vodkas.

To help fans with his arrival, the club helpfully supply a pronunciation guide on their website. It’s TYAIR-ree ahn-REE. I wish Arsenal had of done this years ago to help the ITV pundits, who seem hell bent on mispronouncing foreign players names as if its an affront to their Englishness.

Delightfully his first game for the Red Bulls is against the old enemy, Tottenham Hotspur. Here’s hoping he scores 9 goals. With his hands. etc. etc.

(Photo swiped from the New York Times. I had to make sure Red Bulls were an actual football squad and not a cycling team based on that jersey)

Dundalk F.C. vs C.S. Grevenmacher

It was a gala occasion in Dundalk this week as competitive European football returned to the town after more than 20 years with Dundalk F.C. playing CS Grevenmacher of Luxembourg in the Europa League. Going into the game with a scoreline of 3 goals apiece from the away fixture, Dundalk never looked in danger, but would have liked to have chalked up a more comfortable score line than the final 2-1 on the night.

Still, a fun night was had by all, and the town march ever onward, towards the more formidable PFC Levski Sofia of Bulgaria in the next round. It was a treat to hear the UEFA Anthem (or “The Champions League music”) reverberate out across the Carrick Road, to see a lone vuvuzela, and to see Oriel Park converted into an all-seater UEFA licensed venue.

Final score: Dundalk FC 2 – 1 CS Grevenmacher (Dundalk win 5-4 on aggregate)

The picture shows Dundalk’s own mascot Lily the Panda, stirring the crowds of the main stand, as captured by my brother.