In every Premier League season, without fail, ownership crises curtail and maim the competitive opportunities of at least one respectable, and often historic, outfit. Rarely, however, does the same error occur twice.
Mike Ashley, we are led to believe, is on the perpetual verge of floating the long-strangulated Newcastle United. Ellis Short is discussing a proposal with former club chairman Niall Quinn to place a consortium in charge while he continues to cover the running costs of an ailing Sunderland. West Bromwich Albion, like Black Country neighbours Aston Villa before them, are witnessing the fruits of funds literally amassed from Chinese labour lay spoilt in putrefying sporting environments. Even Hull City, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Blackpool and Queens Park Rangers are yet to truly be freed from the shackles imposed on them by totalitarian investors who once stated their best intentions. West Ham United, however, are a complex and inimitable beast.
They rose again – albeit fortunately, in a victorious play-off campaign – after slipping to an eminently avoidable 2010-11 season relegation under Avram Grant. Thus, David Gold and David Sullivan – alongside Vice-chairperson and long-term business loyalist Karren Brady – were seen to have emerged relatively unscathed from a feat that was both mitigated in respect of their culpability by the severity of financial instability, picked up in January 2010, from the financial crash-impacted Icelander Björgólfur Guðmundsson, and unprecedented since a last-day defeat at the then-Gold & Sullivan-owned Birmingham City in May 2003; almost universally, they were to be offered patience in reconstructing an outfit that only five years earlier had finished agonisingly outside of the Champions League qualification places. As later emerged, this was direly misplaced optimism, and a strand of which the maniacal duo has subsisted on for season upon season.
Sam Allardyce – Allardici to friends – was not the most harmonious of appointments, even if it meant bringing onside the pragmatist ranks of Hammers support; those who felt dearly dishevelled by Icelandic ownership. A managerial philosophy, though often countered by the impartial as professing fitness regimes, statistical value and economical sensibility way before its time, which recruited Kevin Nolan, Andy Carroll and James Collins as its key spinal protagonists was not one to drive fans to aesthetic clamour, certainly.
To retreat on almost of all of this stability with the appointment of rock-and-rolling Slaven Bilić, investment in global talent as diverse as Angelo Ogbonna, Manuel Lanzini and Dimitri Payet and the escalation of efforts to secure the Olympic Stadium as an unmissable relocating and rebranding prize just months after Allardyce achieved a third consecutive mid-table finish undermined the entire regionally-valuing rhetoric of Londoners Gold & Sullivan. Framing the realignment as one which would appease those calling for reform, their confidence was invested wholeheartedly in the club’s ever-increasing capacity for top-half competition, with the facilities, transfer policy and coaching repertoire intended to replicate that of their vastly gentrified London rivals.
For all of the events of what the ever-gregarious parody account @_CarltonCole9 brands the club’s ‘Banter Era’ (2006-), few compare to the ever-expanding formation of an overwhelming constitutional calamity of the past twelve months. It gives great credence to the producers of such aforementioned Twitter accounts that they appear the most valid form of media coverage of events from the Olympic Stadium and beyond, with the extremity of rational divulgence gaping vaster almost by the day. Witness the last week alone, in which David Sullivan was found guilty at a tribunal chamber of defrauding the state of £700,000 worth of tax from his £2 million transfer from family real estate business Conegate Limited to the club in 2010, in the context of the life bans reportedly sanctioned upon 20 supporters who were involved in the high-profile pitch invasions and coin-throwing exerts in the 3-0 defeat to Burnley on 10th March.
As aforementioned, integrity has long since abandoned the chambers of club administration – for traditionalists symbolically demolished with Upton Park, for others infected long before the move to the Olympic Stadium – and as such, identity, the fundamental claim of Gold and Sullivan’s stewardship, has been entirely eroded in as equal a process. Perhaps it comes with the territory, given the duo’s historical profit from industries that are, at the very least, seedy, bordering on amoral, but it is nonetheless inexcusable in the modern, whiter-than-white environment the Premier League, as the foremost of any regular global footballing product, demands, for chairmen – those with the greatest influence on each constituent club’s fortunes – to act, so recurrently also, with such scant regard for basic ethical principles.
Given Bilić’s sacking, the miscued recruitment processes that saw Joe Hart, Pablo Zabaleta, Javier Hernández, Marko Arnautović and in a total capitulation of policy the disgraced elder statesman Patrice Evra and mere Championship marksman Jordan Hugill, desperately drafted in, and even after some promise greeted their arrival a totally misfiring coaching and continuity allowance that enabled evidently stagnating talents to further descend into despondence or exile, attempts to consolidate or advance a final season at Upton Park – or the Boleyn Ground, strictly speaking – encountered a further setback. Undermined, originally, by the very fact that a mere six of the 2016-17 season’s 13 senior or under-23 side signings remain under the employment of the club – not even the result, ostensibly, of a regime change as Moyes enacted little of a chartered transfer policy, albeit with naïve results also culpable of since-sacked ‘director of player recruitment’ Tony Henry’s apparent anti-‘mayhem’ revelation – the term did not exactly begin on the brightest of notes. William Carvalho, a potential marquee signing to rejuvenate an otherwise-ageing outfit, proved a deal that stalled in its later stages, and nor did Bilic tactically adapt to early-season trends towards a three/five-man defence; remaining steadfast in loyalty to his 4-2-3-1, which by admission had encountered issues of its own while stuttering towards safety the season prior, with Carroll’s persistent injury woes a particular hindrance. And these are just the fundamental footballing errors.
Nor, indeed, has adaptation become a forte of the Hammers’ board. Observe the latter half of this Premier League season, with at least eight sides under caution of the drop at any given stage. The manner in which Swansea City chanced their arm on the affable, if unproven Portuguese Carlos Carvahal has salvaged the incompetent partnership of majority shareholders Jason Levien and Steve Kaplan – New York and Los Angeles-based, respectively – for this season at least. In contrast, the appointment of David Moyes, as with a bedraggled Alan Pardew at West Brom and the exonerated Paul Lambert at the otherwise stably-managed but increasingly marginalised Stoke City, demonstrated a certain apathy to relegation; both clubs retreating to safety, in helmsmen professing many of the same ideals as Allardyce and Tony Pulis, both of largely unquestioned authority but equally the victims of similar hierarchical ideology shifts that seized on any glimmers of slight competitive misfortune.
Bearing greater resemblance to a boardroom of the 1970s or ‘80s, what currently resides in Stratford, three-and-a-half miles west of genuine occupation on Green Street, is an ingrown and severely isolated band of an expiring elite of British business. Neither in industry nor sport do they appear to realise their rapidly diminishing status and are instead in both restating their loyalty to a dogma that few others possess belief in, let alone dedication to.
They cannot, however, be rendered resonant to this self-evident eventuality – even if relegation beckons. Even if the fracturing of an entire London borough, in demographic, economic and social respects, was not yet enough for them to prove pliable, the employment of Mark Noble and the recently retired (and genuine) Carlton Cole as mouthpieces for the establishment will not refrain what they have allowed to amount to somewhat of a revolution. Relegation may place the displaced Hammers at a long-beckoning disparity – an eventuality only heightened if Gold & Sullivan, the comedy double act they come as, remain in the heated seats reminiscent in their all-observing standing of the latter’s admiration for late Soviet leaders.
Ownership, nonetheless, requires a complex balance that the duo may once have possessed. The apparent predisposition of nationality need not necessarily detach any figure of interest from the responsibility, yet there is equally the pivotal question of the ethics and stability of their finances; not to mention their level of competition in attempting to obtain regular continental football, something Gold & Sullivan would be churlish to argue they current provide the club. Power, some argue, may be so confidently consolidated within the hands of the present establishment, and increasingly Sullivan from the marginalised Gold, however, that this transfer may never occur; Jack Sullivan, the 21-year-old of Twitter transfer news-breaking and Women’s team managing director fame, seen as the inevitable inheritor of the reins by many cynics.
One only has to observe proceedings in the West Midlands, and the contrasting fortunes of West Brom and Birmingham City against bilaterally promotion-aspiring compatriots Wolverhampton Wanderers and Villa, to denounce the flouting of nationality as such a critical feature of chairmanship. Given each Chinese conglomerate that contributed to the repatriation of the region announced embellished desires to restore Premier League status, or in the Baggies’ case – purchased with the culmination of their far above-par 2016-17 season performance – to progress beyond prior consolidation, there are few valid excuses for the destabilisation of the former duo; even in spite of the St Andrews-based outfit’s history of commercial mistreatment by the Hong Kong entrepreneur Carson Yeung, from which they were now expected to flourish. As experienced with Villa’s relegation-flirting previous term and Wolves’ similarly sub-par 2016-17 finish, a bump in performances was not immediately felt, nor perhaps expected, as it may have been at the retrospectively-deemed naïve Hawthorns-based structure and altogether desperate Blues. From here, further administrative misjudgements – Pulis’ sacking just 12 matches into the league season after the likes of Chairman John Williams, his employer Lai Guochuan and Director of Football Administration Richard Garlick had secured four of the Welshman’s desired six signings only after the season had already began, sharing sentiment with Harry Redknapp’s disposition as Birmingham boss as targets Aden Flint and Alex Song were missed before an entire nine players, five of them loanees, arrived in the final ten days of the transfer window, etc. – consigned the sides to complete competitive fatality.
What these examples appear to encapsulate are the only viable, or at least visible, escape routes from distorted, constricting and outdated local ownership. In order to achieved the desired results of a Wolves or Villa, the reins must be handed over compliantly or glaring administrative errors be quickly addressed if to avoid further disgrace – not seized and manipulated unsympathetically as in Bromwich, nor thrown to the first buyer in the ilk of Birmingham’s second-oldest outfit.
Concerns about a buyer need not be rife, moreover. Fiscal appeal will always define the Premier League brand, and all those associated with it, while lest we forget, West Ham are, in no uncertain terms, ranked as the 17th most profitable footballing entity in the global span of the sport (Deloitte Football Money League, 2018) and have enjoyed a steady rise in such standings since their entry to the top 30 sides in 2012. There is bountiful opportunity in every competition they enter, and each nation they court through particular signatures, tours or sponsorship ties, for the Hammers to amass further fortune, and prove the Olympic Stadium an apt host to these prestigious stages. These are not merely the semantics of an optimist, but a studied pragmatist, providing harmony is fostered between the operation of sporting efforts and excellence in commercial allure. Anyone who recognises these as reciprocal aims, and sympathises with the continued plight of hardened supporters, would prove a valuable boardroom asset.
At the very least, relegation, managerial change and ownership transfer or not, order must be restored to a club that has bled great character over recent seasons. Granted, they must adapt to the ever-evolving demands of the modern age, yet first they must admire the past – not half-heartedly, either, nor cynically. This is a club, after all, that prior to Gold & Sullivan’s approach had only ever employed twelve permanent first-team managers in a semi-professional history that at the time amount to 109 years, and had a proud heritage of promoting from within; Chatham-born Syd King, right from 1901, transitioning from a position as a player-manager to a 31-year ‘stint’ as manager before physiotherapist (at the time ‘trainer’) Charlie Paynter took over for a further 18 years, and ex-players and London natives Ted Fenton, John Lyall, Billy Bonds, Harry Redknapp and Alan Curbishley (not to mention Ronnie Boyce, Kevin Keen and Trevor Brooking as caretakers) extending this lineage for a further half century in mostly iconic tenures. Their commendation for the production of generation-defining English players – most famously the spine of the Three Lions’ 1966 World Cup-winning exploits, before providing the likes of Rio Ferdinand, Joe Cole, Michael Carrick, Frank Lampard Jr. and Senrab graduates Jermaine Defoe, Bobby Zamora, John Terry and Paul Konchesky when emerging at the turn of the millennium – forms an integral feature of their very establishment ethos, also. To bely these values appears ignorant at best, and far more than discourteous at worst.
Attempts to cultivate an ethos that returned to these values after Allardyce’s sacking may indeed be the factor that ensured the ownership monopoly remains to today. Bilić, for them, acted as a stooge from which to bolster fan rapport. Certainly, he was a highly valid candidate, and passed on achievements of experience, title-winning exploits and media handling, but the pivotal attribute in his selection was his time, albeit brief, spent at Upton Park in the late 1990s, and the immediate adaptation that would appear when stepping into the Hammers’ hot seat. Where the apparent best intentions of the move to the Olympic Stadium were placed, murals of Moore, Hurst, Peters, Brooking, Bonds et al. were designed, yet the medium was consistently artificial. Little has been done to appease or even reach out to fans of the own goodwill of those in positions of influence, and ever since deep-rooted suspicion and dissatisfaction has revelled in its freedom. Poetically, Sullivan could scarcely share more parallels with the Soviet leaders he emulates in style alone – even this statement, from January 2015 to reveal his aspirations for a first ever top-division title within five years, encapsulates the worst of his blind ambition:
"I'd like to see us win the Premier League and then the Champions League.
"Yes, I know it's unlikely but again, not impossible - look at Atletico Madrid. We can all dream.
"We are West Ham United, we're a big club, one of four big clubs in London. We have some catching up to do but we've closed the gap.
"I'm optimistic and if things go our way we could beat Real Madrid tomorrow. It's unlikely but not impossible."
Many would, however, argue that the time and opportunity for such errors is too far gone. The offer to kiss and make up, so to speak, cannot now be made without great cynicism, and is far from in Gold & Sullivan’s style, seemingly. Along with Brady, they are brazen, bullish businesspeople with negligible regard for genuine affection; their callous actions to condemn mass fan demonstrations and misconstrue their intentions as an apparent rearing of a hooligan-influenced past at the Olympic Stadium three weeks ago render this totally evident. Nobody would ever be given the impression that they court the loyalty of right-wing media institutions through personal service and past financial contributions, nor further extend this to the satirically inept labelling ‘Brexit FC’, I’m certain.
Sentiment is rarely rewarded in recent competition; exorbitant fees powering the ilk of Manchester City, Chelsea and Paris St. Germain, most pointedly, to mass gilding. Arsène Wenger draws sympathy, granted, but little grand achievement at Arsenal, and the sole such accomplishments of community-focused cohesion are found in Burnley, Huddersfield and Brighton & Hove at present; geographically isolated and inherently hardy outfits indeed. Those who live by the river incite few such blessings. They reside in an ever-remodelling conurbation that, while highly dependent on its heritage, can prove extremely ruthless when it so desires. The Hammers brand – or lack thereof – is to no short extent its present victim; nothing remains sacred, even if these blessed environs.
Fans had been neglected and lied to. Their community has lost its historic and all-encompassing centrepiece. Players inevitably become embroiled, given their position as those closest, of all within the confines of the club, to the same supporting demographics, in this discord and lose perspective. Management is under constant pressure to deliver or prove the collective victims of an institution that rather than observe its own internal frailties pins blame on those who are already positioned as the most vulnerable in the sport. In each respect, West Ham United, rather than an instrumental community haven, has become a toxic establishment in which to both work and support. Temporary stability may be instilled, and fortune graced – as in the defeat of a similarly afflicted Southampton side – if indeed they do remain in the Premier League for next season, but that cannot alter the fundamentals of this malfunctioning and arrogant association. Criminals, in both the eyes of the law and citizen decree, Gold, Sullivan, Brady and each of their many pawns are. In order to salvage an ailing entity, justice must be served.
Intrinsically fused to British manacles for the entirety of their modern history, sporting, and even wider cultural, forays on the Indian subcontinent are only further overshadowed by the remnants of colonialism with the fruitful presence of Londoner Stephen Constantine as the man at the helm of perpetually disregarded Blue Tigers; the Indian senior men’s national football team.
The purported societal adversity of the sport in appealing to a population far exceeding a strength of 1.2 billion – each schooled on nothing but the pious status of cricket, and far surpassing their English derivatives in these increasingly lucrative exploits – only further presents an aptly poetic rhetoric to the tale. If one were to accept the converse perception of the flourishing of Chinese football under the apparently soccer-advocating President Xi Jingping’s patronage through unilateral sporting alliances, the enlistment of state-fostered subsidiaries to bankroll club evolution and vast investment in grand training complexes, the trading fortunes of the seemingly alien geopolitical powerhouses could siphon handily into general cultural preconceptions.
Indeed, while the Indian Super League is limited to Robbie Keane, Miku, Wes Brown, Dimitar Berbatov, André Bikey and Ryan Taylor in its calibre of notable playing guests from the past twelve months, their counterparts on the Orient can boast at the Langfang-based Hebei China Fortune FC alone Ezequiel Lavezzi, Javier Mascherano, Hernanes and Gervinho, while Messrs Witsel, Pato, Hulk, Ramires, Oscar, Obi Mikel and most recently Ferreira Carrasco and Gaitán cultivate depth from further afield; at no short expense, either. Evidently, financial firepower construes a monumental disparity between the entities, and is further asserted in performance on the continental stage, where in the past five seasons India has sent in each term a single representative, eliminated at the First Preliminary (2014, 2015), Second Preliminary (2016, 2017) and Play-off (2018) stages of the AFC Champions League, while the Chinese have – aside from Shanghai Shenhua’s play-off defeat to Brisbane Roar in 2017 – forced four sides into each term’s group stage without fault, and even lifted the trophy through Luis Felipe Scolari’s Guangzhou Evergrande in 2015.
This is a pattern that extends far back beyond the inception of either concurrent franchise-professing league structure, however. Feeding into the rhetoric of China’s more established global political and economic presence, the aforementioned achievements represent a relatively agreeable competitive trend; as such, President Xi’s actions, in attempting to reinforce, and even extend, pre-existing superiority are entirely admirable as an ambitious geopolitical economical move typical of a rapidly progressing capitalist society.
As a Marcello Lippi-helmed Lóng zhī (龙之 or Dragon’s Team) side host Wales, the Czech Republic and Uruguay in the subtropical, environmentally-conscious southern resort of Nanning, while Constantine’s outfit host Kyrgyzstan in the final outing of an arduous qualification phase for the 2019 Asian Cup that began on the banks of mighty Brahmaputra River back in March 2015, the divide, internationally also, could not be more evident. And yet when the unassuming (bald, bespectacled and physically slight) Englishman dubbed ‘football’s most-travelled manager’ – after spells at the Nepalese, Malawian, Sudanese and Rwandan national teams and in Cyprus’ top two divisions with his young family – led the culturally unparalleled state into action against Nepal over three years ago, they were ranked 171st in the FIFA World Rankings. Today, they stand joint-99th, and surely set to rise if they overcome the Kyrgyz and seal top spot in the Third Round Group A – perhaps an eventuality never readily apparent when floundering in the Second Round, which also served as a pre-qualifier to the final Asian World Cup group battles, to finish bottom even below miniscule Guam and barren Turkmenistan, and having to defeat Laos in a play-off to even account for Third Round propagation.
While the defeat of minnows Macau, a politically splintered Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan cannot be rationally brandished as a resounding moral victory for the stature of domestic divisional reforms, India will with this last-chance qualification ensure representation at only their fourth Asian Cup. A stage where they have secured only two victories before – both at the 1964 tournament, where representing the Western Zone in a limited field of just four nations after all three qualifying opponents Ceylon, Afghanistan and Iran withdrew to leave an open path, they finished second to hosts Israel – it has proven unforgiving ground even during what is generally referred to as the ‘Golden Era’ in the 1950s and ‘60s, when 1964 represented the sole appearance of a side that were ousted from a bronze in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics’ third-fourth play-off by Bulgaria and been crowned champions at both the 1951 and 1962 Asian Games. All this, after in 1950 they would have competed at the Brazilian World Cup were it not for the extortionate travel costs that were insurmountable for a nation only recently emerging from colonial rule, and not, as urban myth states, due to the fact players would refuse on cultural grounds to play with boots, as opposed to barefooted.
Syed Abdul Rahim, a Hyderabad native, had masterminded this flurry of as-yet unrivalled national prowess, but tragically succumbed to cancer at the age of just 53 – his work uncompleted – in June 1963, leaving Englishman Harry Wright, who after a goalkeeping career spent in close proximity to his London birthplace either side of WW2 had been coaching the nation’s youth sides, to pick up the reins, but never to equal the feats of a figure so revered his techniques were allegedly employed in Brazilian youth coaching of the 1960s. With Wright moving on after the 1964 finals, an era was felled; internal stability never recovering while neighbours atoned for prior defeats and consolidated their positions. Even the instalment of P.K. Banerjee could not salvage the outfit, with the 82-time-capped veteran of each successful Rahim campaign reinstating many principles of two decades prior when taking charge in 1972 and earning an eventual nine years to fulfil his ambitions but failing to even reproduce the bronze medal-winning result of a Communist-boycotted 1970 Asian Games.
While the Iranian Revolution handed democratic power back to the general population, Mao Zedong’s regime culminated in China and the increasingly technologically-innovative and American-sponsored Japanese, South Koreans, Taiwanese, Malaysians and Singaporeans began to flourish economically, India was left behind in a volatile 1970s; never truly trusted for its highly independent streak, and untameable for its vast geographical and demographic mass. Nonetheless, seven further managerial tenures would follow in the 1980s for the Blue Tigers, including Banerjee returning on a temporary deal in 1985 and a quartet of European stewards in Joe Kinnear, Geordie Bob Bootland – who by a peculiar twist of fate had arrived in the nation five years before his appointment merely to meet his future wife’s parents but been enticed by the Goa side Dempo S.C. – gilded Yugoslav journeyman Milovan Ćirić and ex-Hungarian international goalkeeper József Gelei, with none significantly restoring stability.
Inevitably retreating to indigenous candidates after the similarly barren tenures of former Czechoslovak international and North Yemen boss Jiří Pešek and the controversial Uzbek Rustam Akramov, the All Indian Football Federation (AIFF) had also evidently exasperated its means of ingenuity; of the next five tenures from 1997 to 2006, the repeated turns of former national team captain Syed Nayeemuddin and Sukhwinder Singh were interspersed only by what would later become just Constantine’s first tenure. As the latter duo completed the longest residence of the post since Banerjee’s era by each staying for three years, all three managers saw merited success, at least, in the newly-established South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Cup, with victories in 1997, ’99 and 2005. Nonetheless, this was a stage on which they would have been wholly demoralised had they not produced the goods; Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the widely overachieving Maldives the only realistic competition to their demographic and economic overhang in this largely football-averse geographical subdivision. Similar, indeed, was the case in the 2003 Afro-Asian Games as Constantine’s squad won silver behind the Uzbekistan under-21s, and so would the 2006-formed AFC Challenge Cup prove, with what the AFC define as ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ nations supposedly exempt to foster the development of ‘emerging associations’ with little footballing history, but in fact often granted access as the hosting Indians were in a victorious 2008 campaign.
As the tale of muted accomplishment persists to this very day, the institutional rhetoric has seldom deviated. With regime change in the early 2000s, for example, there also came the influx of formative inspirations – chief among them diminutive Secunderabad-born marksman Sunil Chhetri, who has since led the nation’s cause for 13 years with the same joyful innocence etched across his expression each time he adds to his hefty goalscoring tally. His is a career with the Blue Tigers that has experienced the tenures of seven different management teams – added to in the past decade by the leading I-League helmsman in the Portuguese-Indian Armando Colaco, English journeyman Bob Houghton, Dutchman Wim Koevermans and Goa-derived former national assistant manager Savio Medeira – in doing so transcended the sport and, while retreating from short-lived spells in both America and Portugal to consistently undermine the state of competition with his emphatic scoring records, provided an encapsulating message about the state of modern Indian society.
The subsidiary fleet of the nation’s domestic programme – the I-League, or former National League – is, perhaps enfeebling the monied elite, still where seven of Constantine’s last 48 representatives (capped or not) currently stem; all but one, pointedly, from the Kolkata-based East Bengal. To maintain a coherent national framework, a decision presumably must be settled upon, with Constantine the chief present jury, as to what priority the divisions must receive, given they are officially on an equal pedestal in the Indian pyramid, and are set to gradually merge in coming terms. While the I-League is, at this stage, the more constitutionally correct – subject to relegation and promotion – the Super League behemoth, seemingly with the sole intention to protect the finances of their valued Bollywood, cricketing and more reclusively multinational enterprise managing gentry, operates a system annulled of such perils. Such, understandably, are the inevitable challenges of appeasing a society so intrinsically tied to celebrity status in order to potentially reform the nation’s footballing hopes.
In order to muscle in on the hegemony of cricket, and even subsequent spectator sports such as kabaddi and wrestling, the popular participation forms of hockey and badminton and gentrified travails of tennis, golf and snooker, football must indeed appeal to the masses as an infallible commercial product. No route is more influential in forcing this than televisual exposure, yet it is also an approach that has found repeated hitches in the nation, where technology and law is in its infancy as to the ability of private enterprises to broadcast from less developed venues through state broadcasting agency Prasar Bharati.
It is not merely the exposure alone that will guarantee the continuing progression of the sport, though. Those in positions of commercial influence must work closely with coaching and administrative powers to cultivate personalities competing both for Constantine, or his successor, and in either the I-League or Super League. Here is the land where Virat Kohli, MS Dhoni, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Sunil Gavaskar and so forth before them, have been hailed as relative divine apparitions gracing patriots with their mercurial talents, and risen above the predominating class system that remains – remorsefully, from a Western perspective – perpetuated across working society.
Achieving the popularity now perhaps regarded as inconceivable is, just as this conclusion would suggest – not easy – however. Appeal must be first extended, geographically, beyond what currently appears dominated by the northeast states, both in West Bengal and east of the Bangladeshi border. In terms of I-League action, this region is fertile ground; midway through a 15-year sponsorship agreement with the joint venture of India’s most profitable private enterprise Reliance Industries and the U.S sports management company International Management Group (IMG), two of the seven sides since crowned champions have hailed from the traditionally less developed region in Kolkata’s 128-year-old, and formerly independence-aspiring, outfit Mohun Bagan and the Mizoram state’s Aizawl FC. Far more, in all truthfulness, was however expected of the IMG-Reliance partnership – signed by the AIFF with the ambition of promoting both the I-League and Super League, and potentially to bring forth domestic unification – since its 2010 inception. The formation of the Indian Professional Football Club Association (IPFCA) in March 2012 only condemned this unrest, with administrative promises seemingly unfulfilled as all but two constituent clubs – one of being those the AIFF representative outfit Pailan Arrows – distanced themselves from the ruinous establishment and threatened total resignation from the league before being conspicuously sanctioned and disbanded (under the 1960 Societies Act) only two meetings unattended by the ambivalent AIFF and three months later.
Securing a stable following in the increasingly gentrified New Delhi, Chennai, Hyderabad, Goa and Mumbai remains a challenging task on many fronts. Each being sprawling cities with increasingly lucrative construction and trading markets, the ability to even invest in the development of training facilities, and sites of sufficient quality to rival the state-funded elite-level complexes of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Doha and perhaps even Riyadh, becomes an increasingly distant possibility. Quite simply, beyond the imperfect Super League concept, the AIFF must convince those in positions of influence in these major conurbations that this is first a financially worthwhile, and secondly a repute-bolstering, cause in which to see long-term fruition. Struggles to progress the I-League, and the high hopes as yet unrecognised by the Super League, do little to convince such pivotal individuals, however.
Efficiency must also be imposed on each league, not to mention some common sense. While clubs in the I-League are still competing to virtually meaningless ends, with the AIFF forcibly impounding the running profits of the division to invest in what appears a series of intangible causes as of this stage, and those in the Super-League are yet to feel the fruition of promises to recreate the ever-progressing action of the MLS in America, fans have very few reasons to be truly satisfied with ongoing events. Bureaucracy, a concern falsely typical of the acute capitalism of Western Europe, has fatally afflicted the Indian system, with few tangible alternatives yet in the realms of possibility. Indeed, much hinges on the ability of the bondage of masses to challenge the established social order of a perpetually reputation-reliant nation; a vicious circle that features an aspirational footballing industry as its dissenting victim. Such, however, are the perils of attempting to tame a commercial product relinquished from its colonial, and later independence-revelling, past.
This phase of professionalisation, though ridding the sport of its formative values, has proven paramount to this societal self-promotion, with all it entails still yet to be fully realised. While the early 2010s delivered promise through a first Asian Cup appearance in 27 years, the transfer of Chhetri to MLS outfit Kansas City Wizards and the trials of fellow talents in forward Jeje Lalpekhula and goalkeepers Subrata Pal and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu at Rangers, RB Leipzig and Wigan (then managed by Roberto Martinez) respectively – after which the latter duo moved to the Danish outfit Vestsjælland (only a year later unfortunately dissolved) and the Norwegians Stabæk – the protraction of promise on European shores was merely temporary. Each has since returned, and to the Super League, where their expectations of a professional sporting outfit have been indulged by foreign climes, but their experience hardly fostered from temporary excursions. Following only the prior overseas employment of 1930s winger Mohammed Salim – a notoriously reclusive figure, highly praised in his mere two appearances for Celtic, who sailed back after experiencing homesickness – and former talisman Bhaichung Bhutia, who in a spell with Bury at the turn of the millennium was hindered both by injury and the Manchester club’s financial implosion, it is evident that these exports were naïve in their expectations, and focused more on commercial profit of a debate-generating niche than bilateral and mutually beneficial footballing evolution.
Perhaps cynicism, to a degree, has to be removed from the detailing of these events. This is, after all, an industry, as aforementioned, still in its commercial infancy and one that has found a distinct imbalance in the distribution of finances, the eternally pivotal factor to any functioning establishment. See these endorsements expire, as Mumbai’s Mahindra United and the northern state of Punjab’s Jagatjit Cotton & Textile Football Club (JCTFC) found out to their own cost as tangible I-League constituents, and existence is a commodity quickly rendered impossible. Stability has since been aided since their joint 2010 dissolutions – the latter even reforming three years later – but for most clubs, even amidst sold-out league fixtures at the 85,000-capacity Salt Lake, or Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan, Stadium and the construction of sites such as the ‘New Bangalore Football Stadium’ (where, perhaps embarrassingly, construction was scheduled to be completed in time for the 2017 Under-17 World Cup, but remains today unfinished), profitability is far from guaranteed. Inefficiency is a luxury they certainly cannot yet afford.
Aside from the security of clubs, ensuring player development first professes the values of continuity and stability and later provides a generation that can indeed compete on equal terms with the rapidly diminishing abilities of Berbatov et al., is a task at the forefront of AIFF philosophy. So much so, in fact, that at the time of the aforementioned Under-17 World Cup, two-thirds of the Indian squad consisted of players from the under-18 AIFF Elite Academy squad, and all members of the 21-man contingent – aside from the Toronto-based Sunny Dhaliwal, U.S Soccer Development Academy inductee Namit Deshpande, the steadfast Minerva Punjab-bound Mohammad Shahjahan and, most pointedly, ATK, and thus Super League-revelling 17-year-old Komal Thatal – have since gone on to be promoted to the specially reformed Indian (previously Pailan, during its 2010-13 inception) Arrows I-League outfit, where their coach at the tournament – the Lisbon-born 64-year-old Luís Norton de Matos – also resides. There are few questions of the viability of this approach – fostering talent, that is, on the highest stage of reasonable domestic competition – and certainly being seen to counter the lack of patriotic Super League representation, yet the youth frameworks must surely not rely solely on AIFF action alone. Regardless, there is no shirking the fact that youth is a convenient afterthought, devoid of immediately profit, for the vast majority of investors as yet convinced to enter the sport; most with a limited prior exposure to its trials and tribulations.
Only from this form of stability can the Indian establishment fathom relevant progression on either the continental or international landscape. The past decade has undoubtedly seen the national structure evolve like never before in the era of Asian professionalism, and the AIFF, though embattled, has learned to strike while the iron is hot; while seizing on its outstanding hosting credentials to encourage the formative interactions of a population almost unrivalled in its potential ability with the sport, establishing ambition from what was previously perceived as a stagnant base. Though the import, chiefly of Europeans – a dual-pronged attack, given their pre-existing skills far above that of the native foundation, and also their news-worthy appeal back in regions of origin, which may potentially act as an invaluable tool in provoking the participation of a notoriously stubborn diaspora – has been relied upon to stimulate this growth, at such a desperate stage it has not necessarily proven a hindrance to indigenous qualities, and may in fact prove a pivotal long-term benefit. Theirs is an ever-changing, and ever-evolving tale that can never again repeat the missteps of their past; prudent administration, to an extent, has seen them this far at least. Prolonging, and indeed exceeding, this encouraging present circumstance is the next task positioned to those in the relevant seats of power – whether they can manipulate the volatile inevitabilities of domestic competition, bring onside the financiers, players and fans alike and form a cohesive total structure will define any distinction from events that have preceded and repeatedly befallen their cause. This is a task where no easy route is tenable, and one that cannot be shirked if an incomparable nation is to forge an incomparable path to incomparable global glory. In the eternal words of José Mourinho, this is football heritage.
As Gareth Southgate’s England squad appears to take shape with concluding pre-June friendlies – selected prudently against an enfeebled Dutch and Italian duo – and the World Cup countdown ticks ominously under 90 days in the diplomatically strained streets of Moscow, the endurance of journalistic analysis heightens to yet greater poignance. Opening Group G opponents for the Three Lions, Tunisia, serve as an aptly resurgent North African foil at this late, yet publicly insecure, stage of proceedings; at least for the perpetually self-afflicting modern-day Angles an ever-susceptible period of unforeseen tumult and doubt. The opponents construed so complacently as a mere footnote in history to a Belgian procession and English self-salvage, however, will harbour perfectly rational ambitions of a first knockout stage qualification – of acute importance after four prior entries defined by mediocrity – against those reasonably depicted amongst UEFA’s contingent as far administratively superior.
Formulating a stern preparation against the culturally akin Iranians and Turkish, climactically alike Portuguese and Spanish and prior English conquerors in the highly pragmatic Costa Ricans, Les Aigles de Carthage (نسور قرطاج, or the Eagles of Carthage), spearheaded by as-yet unbeaten senior helmsman Nabil Maâloul and Fédération Tunisienne de Football (FTF) President Wadii Jarii, have certainly taken no liberties with a nation’s footballing aspirations.
Unfortunately, it has taken until the past two years’ successful qualification attempts for the nation to return to an eminent international pedigree. Made evident by their past experience of the World Cup cycle – cast to the wayside, unsurprisingly, as the vaulted elite protected their own concerns, and in three consecutive finals appearances between 1998 and 2006 warming up against destitute post-Soviet Georgian, Slovenian, Serb-Montenegrin and Belorussian outfits, sub-par Austrian, Chilean, Danish and Uruguayan squads and the long-barren Wales and Norway – the scene’s structure was set defiantly to repress those harbouring ambitions beyond their means. Fortunately, amongst a landscape more competitive, and critically cohesive, than ever before, the modern bargaining power of those still derided as ‘lesser’ mechanisms in vast regions of jaundiced fellowship boasts the ability to schedule fixtures not only against some of the globe’s preceding administrations, but also in favourable conditions; their 27 March fixture against Costa Rica presumably, from an English cynic’s perception, hosted at Nice’s Allianz Riviera stadium to evoke memories of an infamous Icelandic defeat two summers ago, while their Spanish meeting, in which they, as every opponent, expect to be worked unscrupulously by the insatiable interplay of Julen Lopetegui’s side, will be based in a non-World Cup venue in Krasnodar, only nine days prior to their opening fixture.
Such luxuries do not come without their obvious hindrances, however. For all of the acclimatisation of June fixtures in Switzerland (vs Turkey) and the North Caucasus region, there comes the concern that these efforts will in fact prove fruitless, not least given the apparent environmental advantage that the aforementioned Northern European bloc hold inherently over any Tunisian – other than winger Wahbi Khazri, the innocent victim of an icy previous tenure on Wearside in all senses of the term, of course.
What little they can do at this late stage, Maâloul and Jarii – characters we will soon unveil – will feel justified in the proclamation that they have attempted. The socio-economic disparity between their administration – that of a nation compromising only roughly a fifth of England’s population, and boasting a nominal GDP comparable, according to United Nations and International Monetary Fund statistics, to that of Turkmenistan, Jordan or the Democratic Republic of Congo – and those of the gilded UEFA constituents would surely dictate, tempering these efforts, that the gap is too far bridge in the extent of just six friendlies.
Theirs was, after all, a relatively nervy qualification phase. Even run close by similarly arid North African rivals Mauritania in the Second Round play-off – running out 2-1 winners in either leg, but only establishing unassailable leads after the 68th and 84th minutes, respectively – their Third Round group exploits, when drawn as first seeds against the DR Congo, Guinea and Libya, encountered pervasive threats; particularly from the DRC, constructed on the foundations of the naturalised offensive firepower of Cédric Bakambu, Neeskens Kebano, Gaël Kakuta, Benik Afobe and Yannick Bolasie. Never exactly individually prolific – their 11 goals shared between eight players – their mental stature regardless defied all questions to assert defensive solidity; only four goals conceded, one to Guinea’s sole genuinely elite figurehead Naby Keïta and the remainder to the DRC in highly competitive tussles just edged, particularly dramatically when 2-0 down in Kinshasa with 15 minutes remaining before firing a two-minute double salvo capped by a wondrous piece of ingenuity from stellar midfielder Youssef Msakni to set up Anice Badri, and top spot with it. Under the Pole Henryk Kasperczak, formerly noted here for his role in the revival of Polish fortunes, interspersed by tenures with the Ivory Coast, Morocco, Senegal and Mali on two occasions, the squad forged a reputation on rearguard action, with a ten-match unbeaten run, dominated by World Cup and Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers, between November 2015 and January 2017 seeing only three goals conceded, or if discounting the Mauritania play-off just a single goal in eight matches. His regime, however, was just as quickly deposed following a disappointing quarter-final exit, in a fairly passive 2-0 defeat to historic minnows Burkina Faso, at the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, as it appeared to be reaching its crowning glory. Ultimately, fears of both his longevity and attitude for the upcoming Congolese summits forced him out in favour of long-term national team servant Maâloul – a player, assistant, caretaker and 2004 Olympics manager before undertaking the final frontier – to embrace the burden of Les Aigles’ most tangible grasp of World Cup football for over a decade.
Perhaps the profiteers of regional instability, considering their competitive consistency over a great many years regardless of World Cup qualification or not, the Tunisians’ return to premier international competition is by no means consequential. Take DR Congo, for example, and you may arrive at an intriguing conclusion which states that a nation of far greater geographical and demographic expanse, and arguably possessing superior footballing fervour from the slums of Kinshasa than could ever be harboured in the comparatively gentrified Tunis, may have seen a role reversal in qualification results had they either not invested so heavily on second-generation European Union migrants, or not stalled when the policy reached paramount importance (Arthur Masuaku, Giannelli Imbula and Elias Kachunga, born in France, Belgium and Germany respectively, possessing only one cumulative cap to date). Equally, however, one cannot accuse the Congolese administration of apathy; targeting a first World Cup finals appearance in the post-totalitarian Zaire era, they perhaps never had a more tangible route to such achievement. Never as starkly reliant on this cynical interpretation of citizenship rulings to explore their burgeoning global diaspora, the Tunisians have worked closely and been aided favourably by a continued relationship with their prior French colonists; not least from the trade, and increasingly migratory, routes that run roughly 500 miles from Tunis to Marseille, and so forth.
This tendency towards modesty, seldom greeting the mass commercial stages of Europe until the 21st century and yet to truly establish themselves here, is typical of long-held Tunisian autonomous desires.
Elsewhere, the common stereotype of Africa’s footballing, and wider sporting, enterprises – perpetually embattled with allegations of corruption, cronyism and incurable removal from the reality of their constituent public – shares very few similarities with that of the today’s FTF; itself headed by a forming footballer, as opposed to yet another corporate puppet or political chancer. Jarii, the retired ex-semi-professional in question, plied his playing trade, alongside employment as a local doctor, at Sports Union Ben Guerdane (USBG) in the arid southeast of the nation and was later elevated to the club’s presidency at the turn of the millennium. Perhaps also poignant, given both his playing and administrative career was dominated by time in Ben Gardane – the nation’s most distant city from capital Tunis, and otherwise notable for its proximity to the politically volatile Libyan border while embroiled in World War Two’s Tunisian Campaign and more recently alarming figures related to Islamic State radicalisation – Jarii’s promotion to the internal hierarchy of the entire Tunisian establishment asserted a break from cultural tradition; Tunis’ rule over proceedings personified by the domestic stranglehold of 27-time (soon to be 28) Ligue Professionnelle 1 champions and 2011 CAF Champions League victors Espérance Sportive (ES) de Tunis, alongside 13-time victors Club Africain, where rival cities including Sfax and Sousse have experienced a considerable 21st century decline.
For all the hailing of Les Aigles’ recent accomplishments, there is nonetheless a long-held distrust directed towards Jarii. Accused of establishing what effectively stands as a dictatorship in his position through streamlining the democratic processes of the FTF and actively seeking the consultation of a highly selective flank of supporters perceived as themselves unsuitable, Jarii’s divisive approach to stewardship even led to ES Tunis and Etoile Sportive du Sahel’s pointed threat of withdrawal from FTF constitutions in 2015, before a three-day strike from Club Africain players late last year. Further extended in the past fortnight to a “communiqué-petition” undersigned by five federal members of the 12-man FTF executive committee demanding recompense for the contempt Jarii showed to the constitution – accusing him, in a report published by national news agency Tunis Afrique Presse, of deliberately side-lining them while disbanding an emergency meeting on March 3, in the first formal contact since a meeting on December 9 2017 – his position has rarely appeared a happy one in his six years, to date, of service.
The saving grace of any apparent despot, however, may be his ambition. Displaying overriding pragmatism in his press releases, his tone has entirely conflicted that of the nation’s bankrollers, but attempted to temper expectations, perceivably, to the hope of just a single win in Russia this summer;
“Tunisians will be happy if we win a match, as [the history of] our only World Cup victory goes back a very long time.”
“Some call for the passage to the second round as an objective, I want to tell them that we are in the same group as England and Belgium, and that to my knowledge these two teams are above Tunisia. If we pass it would be a surprise.”
Not exactly replicative of the aspiration of lauded Africans preceding him; Roger Milla spirit, while answering the call of Cameroonian President Paul Biya prior to the 1990 World Cup to make a triumphant reprisal of his prolific exploits at the age of 38, et al., Jarii may be right to downplay his nation’s opportunity at unprecedented glory, but to utter these sentiments so publicly, in the midst of widespread angst, you have to question his wisdom. As aforementioned, he is certainly no diplomat.
Perhaps Jarii’s self-sacrificing tenure is the defining factor that has delivered Les Aigles to the zenith of continental rankings, and 24th within official present FIFA algorithms. Granted, in the opposing Elo Ratings, argued by some as more representative of reality – questionable, given England are presently riding high at seventh – they are below Senegal, Nigeria, Morocco, Egypt and Cameroon, with the latter not even attending Russia this summer, but the recent achievements of the North African outfit are seldom dogged by an equal examination to which these counterparts are subjected. In all, they have – albeit without greatly overt joy – manipulated the system in such a manner that they can be seen to even appropriate the ‘underdog’ category when amassing results to qualify for a tangible World Cup tournament. Their competitive consistency, owed to relative administrative and managerial continuity – from Kasperczak’s first tenure in the late 1990s to today, employing 13 different managers over 15 sackings, resignations or caretaker reversals, a figure only bettered by Senegal’s ten and Egypt’s 12 where the Super Eagles (18 over 27 regime changes), Atlas Lions (17 over 18) and Indomitable Lions (20, and set for a twenty-first) far exceed such a turnover – stands, reasonably, as one of the continent’s most fearsome, and has rightfully seen them to every one of the 13 Africa Cup of Nations editions and four, now, of the six World Cups since.
Unspectacular, if temporarily expressive, for the vast majority of this era – achieving, in the Cup of Nations, runners-up and fourth place finishes in 1996 and 2000, respectively, before being crowned victors in 2004, while their ten cumulative tournament victories in these appearances almost outstrip the eleven elsewhere achieved in 23 years – the Tunisians perhaps have seldom exceeded perceived limitations. Their victory in 2004 even features caveats; enjoying home advantage on the decade’s anniversary of the nation’s second accommodation of the event, and in a depleted field after Côte D’Ivoire and Ghana’s qualification failures, never setting the tournament alight en route to a first, and to date only, major international honour, with only a single victory coming by more than one goal, and only a sole other greeted with a clean sheet. Perhaps this platitude is innate of the Tunisian, quite conceivably even North African, philosophy – Algeria, and prior to the catalytic eruption of Mohamed Salah’s sudden stardom, Egypt, never exactly achieving the cult status of Milla’s Cameroon, the Nigerians of the 1990s, Senegalese of 2002 or Ghanaians of 2010 – in which defensive fortitude has prospered as the personifying characteristic, and tactically astute football has led them to measured triumph.
Under Maâloul, and most certainly under Jarii, there is little assumption rank will be definitively broken, but perhaps adapted to a global status quo. As Majed Achek of Tunisie-Foot references, within Maâloul’s favoured 4-2-3-1 philosophy;
“The full-backs are encouraged to attack and on the left Ali Maâloul of Al Ahly is key because of how much he contributes going forward. The midfield [is] dominated by two hard-working ball-winners in Ferjani Sassi and Mohamed Amine Ben Amor, with the ‘MKN’ trio of Youssef Msakni, Wahbi Khazri and Naïm Sliti adding flair. Msakni, who plays in Qatar, is a tremendous talent and often carries the team.”
While also proving capable of reverting to a more defensive 4-3-2-1 when posed with opponents demanding the respect Jarii appears so willing to bow to, Maâloul generally appeared inclined to free his side from the shackles of defensive solidity in the high-intensity demands of the qualification process, but whether he will deem such an approach worthwhile against the striking prowess of Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Harry Kane, Dries Mertens and Raheem Sterling, et al., would be cast in doubt – if not for an post-World Cup draw assertion in Moscow that “we will try to win our games by playing in our own way and control the match”. By no means aspiring to be shrinking violets, then.
Unused 1978 World Cup squad member Mokhtar Hasni at momentarily first division Belgian club R.A.A. Louviéroise aside, becoming one of the first Tunisians – alongside Liège-bound striker Jameleddine Limam – to break the threshold of European football after their appearances at the 1988 Olympics, former Hannover 96 defector Maâloul may be depicted as another first in the FTF establishment; setting the precedent, potentially, for an increasing contingent of exports to return bound to a reformist philosophy. Albeit in only a two-season stay in reunification-revelling Lower Saxony, the now-balding, bloated 55-year-old would defy preconceptions and become exposed to a sport almost incomparable to that to which he was so acclimatised, and perhaps deeply entrenched as a physically abrasive 27-year-old midfielder – arguably tempering his otherwise extensive career at ES Tunis to offer more depth to future coaching credentials.
If impressing as genial, and seldom far from a Cheshire Cat-esque grin, off the pitch and reverting between all-observing and acutely impassioned upon it, Maâloul’s innate managerial dynamism has reflected kindly on Les Aigles. His close relationship with a trusted squad, alongside this presence, differs markedly from predecessor Kasperczak, whose emotional reservation, perhaps instilled by the inherent approach of a Communist regime to those of his playing generation, was almost permanently etched on his wearied expression, and could not be reasonably argued as anything other than a revitalising feature in the current crop of Carthage representatives, who for matches against Iran and Costa Rica are largely those who ensured qualification with a stalemate against Libya last November; Kasperczak favourites Hamza Lahmar, Ahmed Akaïchi and long-term servant Aymen Abdennour seemingly each exiled as part of a commendable selection policy that values playing time ahead of experience.
Though certainly idealistic, sheer meritocracy has seldom proven a faultless philosophy, particularly on the global stage. Especially posed with a talent pool as shallow as the North Africans’ – not solely in terms of population size or socio-economic development, but also hindered by the adjoining popularity of handball and basketball in the nation – consistency can often be misconstrued and inevitably, given an injury crisis, one may have to undermine authority by surrendering to those previously cast aside. For all of his talent – made unquestionable in the qualification campaign – Msakni, for example, could so easily find himself on the end of an unyielding refinement if he were failing to procure game time at an elite-level European club like Abdennour at Marseille, as opposed to setting alight the Qatari Super League (21 goals in 19 league matches for Doha-based Al-Duhail SC). Nor, indeed, does the policy seem indiscriminate; Yohan Benalouane, who in the past has seen a conflict of interest between his birthplace France and Tunisian lineage confuse his position, perhaps fortunate to receive his first senior international call-up, at the age of 30, for upcoming friendlies after playing only four times this season for Leicester City. Generally, however, those in power will point to the rising crop of Ligue 1, Ligue 2 and Belgian Pro League talents bursting through, at the very last opening prior to Russia’s beckoning, in Nice goalkeeper Mouez Hassan, Gent centre-back Dylan Bronn and the midfield trio of Marseille’s creative livewire Saîf-Eddine Khaoui, Montpellier’s robust anchor Ellyes Skhiri and Nice’s versatile Bassem Srarfi, who with just one cumulative cap to their names at this juncture, will attempt to seize the coming months under Maâloul’s tutelage.
Their obvious philosophical discrepancies aside, Jarii and Maâloul have acted as revitalising features of a nation that, on the surface, appears still unsure of its position both on its own continental and the wider global platform. The perpetual tendencies that undermine their relationship, however, are perhaps ubiquitously inevitable of the egotism of ex-professionals in such pivotal positions. Jarii’s influence has unquestionably been felt far more obtrusively that is necessary, and for his unflinching intentions he has been made – eventually – accountable to the extent that, upon the sacking of a formerly trusted figure in Kasperczak, he had little option but to revert to the option who most encapsulated regional sentiments.
Fundamentally, neither as a player nor indeed as a man did Kasperczak ever command the respect of the national populous as Maâloul does, and as the latter’s early coaching prowess showed, this fed through to the most vital aspect of the position’s holy trinity in the perception of their management. Inevitably, the latter faces a much-liberated task compared to that of his predecessor, and from a half-assured qualification could scarcely have faltered; this summer, instead, will prove his stature forevermore. Whether this can be construed as fair on any working individual is questionable, but such are the merciless caveats of the industry upon which he entered knowingly an entire 37 years ago, and still revels in today.
Allegiance, as evident, remains fundamental here, and keen not to let tumult conspire into feudalism, Jarii has been wise to instil a known quantity. As proven by a visibly insecure reaction to the live-broadcast Tunisian television phone-in of foremost national ex-footballing icon, not to mention former Minister of Youth and Sports, Tarak Dhiab last year, he remains the effective opponent of those within the sport, and if plans go awry in Russia, it is doubtless who will be found primarily culpable.
Jarii, however, is not solely responsible for his low approval ratings, it must be stressed. Hostility has defined the perception of almost all establishments, and their constituent figures, in the entire post-Arab Spring national era. Having deposed totalitarian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and ripped up the constitution in the 2011 Tunisian Revolution – hailed by Western press as a major accomplishment of civil resistance while forcing Ben Ali to extradition to Saudi Arabia under numerous counts of mass corruption and drug trafficking – intended democratisation and liberalisation has fallen on the swords, most recently, of austerity measures under Prime Minister Youssef Chahed to counter economic stagnation. Public frustrations, most pointedly at the January 1 Finance Act, have spilled over for the entirety of this year, to date, to continued and widespread protests defying the wholly uncompromising demands made of the working population, who are yet to realise the true benefits of a purportedly egalitarian society. Dogged by democratic disillusion to such an extent that this series of protests acts as little more than an expectation, Tunisian politics, through its democratisation, has unchained both the right for opponents to chastise the present regime, but also for many features of old to find sympathy within the confines of parliament.
"[elements of the old regime have] managed to reconsolidate power in the interests of the native ruling elites and international capital" - World Socialist Web Site, 2018
Though not universal, this upheaval has been societally overwhelming and provoked inevitable condemnation from Chahed, who has reiterated sentiments that “2018 will be the last difficult year for Tunisians” – ironic, considering the clamour that would otherwise erupt in honour of presence at the world’s foremost sporting summit at any stage of relative political stability.
One, resultantly, may be tempted to brandish Tunisia as the most insecure and ill-prepared of establishments entering Russian borders this summer – the hosts, perhaps, aside. For a state, and sporting administration, that has been liberated from colonial rule for, as officially ratified, an entire 61 years, structural progression has been tenuous, and has, in truth, overshadowed all sporting exploits hence. Their retraction from the innumerable deliverances of imperialism has been unfortunate, and comparable to few others across the vast and heavily mistreated continent. As with the diverse decoration of pre, post or part socialist nations historically throughout the World Cup’s longevity, alongside the aforementioned unlikely feats of several West African squads and perhaps even the perpetual suspicions of power abuses across South America – not least in 1978 – politics has rarely proven the distraction some may wish to condemn it, often conversely featuring as a poetic undertone to the defiance of adversity. Jarii, resultantly, can hardly be condemned for attempted to protect the FTF from this maelstrom ploughing forth around him, though with questionable actions to achieve this, and I’m sure would be relieved solely to emerge from the tournament without major national discredit. No martyr for revolution himself, his will not be a message of revolutionary inspiration in the potential event of – dare I say it – a result against the English, per se, yet Maâloul is more of a liability in this respect. Whether he will face a conspired muzzling is yet to be seen, but for the sake of free speech and the spirit thread through the fabric of the tournament and sport itself, and always welcome to further weaving, I dearly wish not.
Quite ironically, seeing their way through equally as many Prime Ministers as national team managers post-2011 has only inspired the Tunisian populous to further defy their means, while also testifying that the stability military dictatorships across West Africa appear to profess is indeed hollow. This being their first democratic-era World Cup appearance, the allegory will be that, effectively, of the emergence of a new nation – albeit one featuring many cultural relapses from the 2000s – onto such a grand stage, of course further intensifying the intrinsic sentiment of Group G alongside Panama’s first ever successful qualification. Although democracy from Tunis, and especially externally, is an imperfect beast with which to grapple, the sporting administration where the public’s influence is presently restrained has not yet belied them. If the upcoming tournament can serve, by any means, as a temporary popular relief from seemingly irredeemable social discord, and potentially as a beacon of future sporting aspiration, then this summer could indeed by a turning point in Tunisian football. Regardless of patriotic allegiances come mid-June, theirs should be a plight unilaterally set aside and a shared passion celebrated on an unrivalled stage; for all of the misfortune that afflicts each participating entity, I have little doubt that the World Cup, as ever, will achieve such optimistic prophecies. For the sake of a nation vulnerable in its reintroduction to the global fraternity, we can, indeed, but hope.
On the eve of a socially divisive General Election, one nation’s infatuation continued without hindrance. Football, as ever, would entertain and capture the masses; the Derby della Madonnina, pitting Internazionale against eternal rivals and flatmates AC Milan, would be the pick of the matches. The mid-table clash between Tuscany’s Fiorentina and Friuli-Venezia Giulia’s Udinese would feature elsewhere in the array of pivotal late-season ties. Yet the death of the former’s captain, decorated with international recognition while serving an extensive and loyal previous tenure at Sardinia’s Cagliari, brought an avid footballing population to a halt, and overshadowed a political vote that ultimately returned the lowest official turnout in the post-Fascist national era.
Davide Astori’s death, at the age of just 31 and at perhaps the peak of his playing powers, induced a sharp and sudden gasp from fans across the globe; not just those in Florence, or teammates from previous tenures at Cagliari, Roma, Lombardy’s Cremonese and Pizzighettone, or Milan. A figure so pivotal to each dressing room he entered, and to each fanbase he so dutifully served, would be ripped from the sport he loved. Tributes poured in from far and wide, and from those who had never before met him to those whose lives have been irreversible altered, and the images of his funeral, as the glittering cast of Italian football gathered and tens of thousands lined the ancient streets of the Tuscan capital, forming a sorrowful purple swarm over the city square in honour of his local poignance in not even three years of service to the club, cemented his position in the framework of the modern state of the sport.
The sentimental value of Astori’s memory, currently under investigation by Udine police due to the sheer implausibility involved in such a physically commanding individual’s reportedly peaceful passing, only renders the acute tremor of Italian football’s recent tribulations further metaphorical, not to mention grieving. In a rare, culturally individual nation where football is once and only truly akin to religion, and religion is mirrored across the entirety of existence, this disaster only strengthens the ties of indigenous dwellers. Although the ordeal may run deep, Italy will heal from this.
A testament to his dependability and professionalism, three separate Azzurri helmsmen – Cesare Prandelli, Antonio Conte and Gian Piero Ventura – selected Astori for international honours as a supporting feature of the nation’s post-2010 reinvention. Both those who were members of the established guard and newly-introduced generation of Italian representatives have publicly revealed their need to console, chief among them elder, and increasingly diplomatic, statesman Gianluigi Buffon; returning, alongside Giorgio Chiellini and manager Massimiliano Allegri, from an evocative victory at Wembley on Wednesday night to represent the national team’s mourning – conspicuously in Allegri’s case, while linked to inheriting the squad’s reins come the end of the domestic season.
Alongside the failure of the fallen Ventura’s regime to reach this summer’s World Cup – in calamitous circumstance through what will surely become an infamous play-off against Sweden, no less – the past twelve months may, upon retrospect, prove the most unexpectedly challenging in recent Azzurri history, and the rhetorically aligning career of Buffon. Adversity, certainly this provocatively, has rarely touched either establishment; the 2006 corruption scandal perhaps the only era of instability that truly compares, or arguably surpasses, this present emotional upheaval. As the long-overdue revelations of sporting consultancy agency GEA World and the furore of Italian media issued an irrevocable cultural shift in the national footballing structure and administrative hierarchy, and diverted the financial focus of the constituent institutions – as far as we are aware – into ethical competition after a turbulent five-year hangover from the original reports, an establishment would no longer be founded on distrust and suspicion, but on integrity and merit.
While it may have been unfortunate for those in positions of influence, and the consumer, that La Vecchia Signora – the Old Lady – of Juventus and earlier Internazionale and in one case Milan, by virtue of the Turin side’s legal impudence, have held aloft each Serie A title since, not to mention the former a further three most recent Coppa Italia trophies, one cannot deny that, the now near-invincible outfit’s financial dominance under the long-gilded modern Medici’s – the Agnelli family – aside, they have earned each piece of silverware by encapsulating the aforementioned principles. An uninterrupted figurehead of the cause both prior to and post-Calciopoli, Buffon personified this more than most, and only transferred this moral stature when flying il Tricolore both far and wide on the international scene in each of his 175 caps.
Although they can – often justifiably – be derided as the enemies of a financially polarised modern society, footballers largely and recurrently prove that public empathy does extend beyond this cynical hegemony, no less so than in Italy, where they are, at least in general opinion, more often lauded as disciples than denounced as heathens. While, also, domestically notable of course – offered exalted respect for advancing their mastery of the sport to the professional ranks and to the prestige of a specific local community’s club, particularly if prolific in delivering success – no player becomes truly exonerated of prior fault until they grace the international scene for the cumulative, conjoined audience of over 60 million frothing individuals; a population birthed on the sport.
Depleted, in the fallout of their Swedish degradation, by the retirements of former World Cup victors Buffon and Daniele De Rossi, and their fellow prior European Championship runners-up Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli, the loss of Astori does little to aid the cause of the future Italian helmsman, presumed at this stage to be the successor of caretaker Luigi Di Biagio. Far more so in an emotional wound to the wider squad than what, in relativity, is such a trivial factor as his place in the starting XI or not, Astori’s passing sees a sentimental value cloak the events of the side for many future years, and hopefully decades, now, given his status amongst former teammates and staff.
Inevitably, whatever loss is the Azzurri’s is, in practicality, more widely that of the domestic stage; the presence of the international side far less noticeable, in terms of present employees and players, at the public mourning of Astori in Florence than that of what are usually referred to as Serie A rivals, united in such an inconceivable and irreconcilable event. Although this rhetoric fails to align with the tribulations of the squad linked, albeit dubiously, to the return of Conte or instalment of Roberto Mancini as manager, it is where the sentiment of Astori’s passing is most likely to prove pertinent in the long term; just as Kazimierz Deyna, as aforementioned in last week’s blog, remains more evidently interwoven with the heritage of Legia Warsaw than with his unsurpassed achievements for the Polish national team, and even more so the victims of Chapecoense’s disastrous plane crash en route to the Copa Sudamericana final in November 2016 rallied Brazilian, and even South American or world football, around the Santa Catarina side after the loss of 19 players and all 23 staff members among the flight’s 71 fatalities.
The mourning process, fortunately, is never belittled by events that precede the instant shock induced. As much as each individual case is an example from which public services study and reassess their safeguarding processes, it is a brief moment in which football, and all sport, must learn to put aside its petty strife and prioritise its values, both in administrative and playing respects. Such events can obviously never be fully prevented, but as they do unfortunately occur, the sport must indeed take time to consider its societal prominence. No more so, perhaps, than in the very region where this week’s endless misfortune has unfolded.
Undoubtedly, the event will act as inspiration for whomever opts to recover the fallen gauntlet of the Azzurri’s top job. An apt diplomat they may have to be, but far more pivotal in the position will be an honesty seldom evident if not for such events in the sport and an innate reverence across the highly sentimental nation’s vast and polarised expanse; qualities few potential candidates overtly possess. From Astori’s death and the post-San Siro Swedish defeat’s deficiency of international experience, the chosen individual must cultivate more than just spirit; unwavering ability formulated from the utmost and incomparable depths of emotional despair.
There is, as ever, great natural quality at the disposal of this as-yet undecided helmsman, and currently with Di Biagio in preparation for upcoming friendly meetings with Argentina and England. In Manchester and London, respectively, they will find sympathetic crowds consisting of both locals and opposing fans in the former’s case, and will make the formative few attempts at regaining a nation’s collective metaphorical footing. An arduous process, both within the confines of the dressing room and on the pitch itself, perhaps, but not a test that they will enter, nor persist through, alone; the globe’s moral support will, I’m certain, empower their every act. From the first resumption of domestic action with Roma’s meeting with Torino last Friday (9th March) night, also, competition will be pursued with a spirit that, if temporarily inconsequential earlier, exemplifies the truest values of the sport; players, staff, officials and fans each linking arms and sharing the burden of the shock – evident in each uncontrollably tensed facial expression – on one another’s sunken shoulders.
How, we must imagine, Milan Badelj can even begin to console and mentor the Fiorentina dressing room while inheriting the squad’s captaincy, or manager Stefano Pioli can – aside from employing the wisdom of an extensive, yet consistently interrupted, playing career chiefly at La Viola but otherwise encountering the early peaks of Parma and Juventus alongside the depths of Serie C and a sixth-tier reprisal – return his side realistically to competition, obviously poses questions of the moral framework of the sport. At the club where Astori finally appeared to have found a dependable and cherished home he was struck down, leaving not only an idyllic life with partner Francesca Fioretti and two-year-old daughter Vittoria, but also an entire mourning local and equally widespread sporting community.
Stability unknown, despite having only three permanent employers in his CV at the age of 31, after a transition from AC Milan to Cagliari dogged by questions of a re-purchase given the co-ownership deal that existed between the two from 2008 until 2011, and the inescapable attention of loftier clubs later persisting on the Sardinian coast, in his career, Astori may have finally gained permanent recognition for his talents in the centre of Italian Renaissance culture. Not only that, but Florence represents what was the pinnacle of free-flowing football that would have graced the future centre-back’s childhood; Claudio Ranieri, and later Giovanni Trapattoni’s, squads epitomising the shirking of Catenaccio with Gabriel Batistuta and Rui Costa at the fore, albeit in a manner that, under the romanticised ownership of film producer father-and-son duo Mario and Vittorio Cecchi Gori, bankrupted the outfit by 2002. Even the club’s recovery from this destabilising influence epitomised their reluctant attitude to the established procedures of the industry; under what persists to today as hereditary international leather magnate Diego Della Valle’s chairmanship, returning after a title-winning season in Serie D, in a quirk caused by the Caso Catania, to Serie B and the Fiorentina moniker, having briefly been required to rechristen as Florentia Viola, and by 2004 even Serie A to complete the momentous reprise.
Adversity had underlined Ranieri’s achievements after seeing the side imperiously promoted from Serie B in his first season – 1993-94 – and was scarcely surprising in the Calciopoli revelations when hit first with single-tier relegation, on appeal a 19-point 2006-07 Serie A season deduction and later a court-decreed 15-point imposition and Champions League injunction. At the time of Astori’s release from a Milan academy where he had shared dorms with the likes of fellow non-Milanese natives Ignazio Abate, Alessandro Matri and Luca Antonelli, and would have regularly encountered their prodigious understudies Matteo Darmian and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, few players could have had ambitions, if released from such an eminent schooling institution, higher than ideals of running out in the iconic Viola, and for the anti-establishment cause that regularly pined after rivalries with Juventus, the Milanese twins and Roman vanguard. Certainly not if born and raised in such a picture-postcard Bergamo Province village as Astori’s San Giovanni Bianco; nestled between the Taleggio and Brembana Valleys, with the river Brembo gushing through where several Romanesque bridges adjoin the classic scene of squat, shutter and balcony-bedecked concrete houses in the shadow of the local church and the Bergamasque Alps beyond. From such humble origins, Astori’s was an unlikely tale, and it was only with prodigious ability showcased at local outfit Pontisola (usefully abbreviated from its extended title Associazione Calcio Ponte San Pietro Isola Società Sportiva Dilettantistica) that he was recruited by Lombardy’s dominant outfit; Antonelli, as the Monza-born son of ex-Milan striker Roberto, the urban Sant'Angelo Lodigiano-raised Matri enlisted aged just 12 from Fanfulla and the Aubameyang brothers – the elder Willy in Astori’s year – favoured as the sons of long-term Gabonese international and Ligue 1 journeyman “Yaya” Aubameyang, in comparison granted undemanding paths.
As would be evident as he far exceeded expectations at Cagliari and Fiorentina, asserting his international pedigree with his consistent performances, the inevitable mentality instilled by a modest upbringing, albeit as ever in a sporting environment, aided his senior exploits. The extent of captaincy at any level represents a significant honour, of course, and it was the statement of these leadership qualities that perhaps distinguished him for an eventual revival of international honours – one long overdue, arguably, given he had been cast aside from Azzurri development programme after four appearances at under-18 level while a Milan representative in 2004-05. Under ex-Fiorentina boss Prandelli this recall finally arrived, and although beginning ominously with a second yellow card in the 75th minute of his debut against Ukraine, an elevation to the hostile environment of an international tournament in 2013’s Confederations Cup signified extensive trust from the pragmatic, perhaps overly loyal manager. Only reopening the wounds of roughly twelve months earlier in Spain’s 4-0 Kyiv mauling, the Brazilian-hosted competition saw an Italian defence – notably without the periphery figure of Astori until the third-place play-off, in which the then-Cagliari defender achieved his sole international goal – again creaking until, ironically, they reached the semi-final against their Spanish adversaries; downed in a dramatic penalty shoot-out before repealing these errors by sealing third place ahead of Uruguay.
The presence of only a singular Italian figure in the eventual FIFA ‘Dream Team’ of the traditional pre-World Cup summit, and this individual proving as internationally well-accommodated as Andrea Pirlo, if not for their unconvincing performances in what should have been regulation meetings with Japan and Mexico and aforementioned Kyiv submission, should have alerted the national authorities to forthcoming and further Brazilian trauma. Eliminated at the hands of Costa Rica and Uruguay, in a group where European media would have indeed tipped their talents. and England’s, to escape, although without Astori, in fact only aided the defender who had in the prior season encountered the extremities of Cagliari’s lowest league finish since 2006-07, achieving only 39 points yet still avoiding the drop by seven points.
Reinventing the Azzurri from the defining retirement of Pirlo, Conte fixated on translating club dominance, by both tactical and psychological influences, onto the international scene. As such, cast aside were the robust, arguably unjustly tainted as unfashionable, ilk of Riccardo Montolivo, Alberto Aquilani and Mario Balotelli, while ushered in or recuperated were the dynamic wing-backs Mattia De Sciglio and Alessandro Florenzi, in addition to stylish forwards Simone Zaza, Federico Bernadeschi and Lorenzo Insigne. Centre-back, such a position of strength while remaining equipped with Messrs Chiellini, Barzagli, Bonucci and even Ogbonna in the vaulted Juventus bloc, was not a particular area of concern for the ever-meticulous Conte, yet Astori provided whenever called upon, and only reasserted his importance under the foremost Serie A authority, and unapologetic champion of the undervalued, Ventura.
Tragically, at the same time as the death, those formerly presumed to act as present counterweights for the buoyance of further youth graduates are struggling to stay afloat. The competitive continental outfits of Juventus, Napoli, Roma and Inter are now constructed on imported foundations, while prodigious mid-table risers in Atalanta and the resurgent Lazio fail to yet provide stability. Exportation is hardly a profitable modern industry, either; Darmian and Davide Zappacosta hardly first-choice Premier League defenders, while Zaza and Manolo Gabbiadini have had a large degree of their ruthless striking intent eroded from their character during respective travails at West Ham and Southampton – Marco Verratti, resultantly, the only eminent patron for this cause.
In the clichéd ‘pressure situations’, tellingly, Gli Azzurri have all too often proven hindered after the deep-cutting chastisement of 2010, and Marcello Lippi’s departure. Even more so under Ventura than the perhaps unlikely, if perpetually trophyless, achievements of Prandelli and Conte, this psychological instability defined each entering unto the breach; the lack of an emphatic victory in the early stages of the 68-year-old’s stewardship, aside from routine reverse thrashings of Liechtenstein, condemned this fragility to permeate across a fated regime. Where Gianluigi Donnarumma will have the burden of Buffon’s fame eternally placed upon him, Alessio Romagnoli and Daniele Rugani may be compelled to replicate Chiellini and Barzagli’s services and very few candidates arise to even consider emulating De Rossi’s infamous effervescing vehemence, to reinstall stability to the national side will be a task only aided if instilling the importance of moral dedication, as from personal experience the regular mourning of former bowler Matt Hobden’s sudden death with an entire Sussex Cricket Club career of him has redirected focus at the Hove-based outfit, and across the county’s sporting breadth.
Nor, indeed, have Fiorentina fared much better in the acute atmosphere of modern competition. A club for whom innovation and integration is ingrained within their ethos – 11 of their first 20 managers born overseas, including seven Hungarians, two Austrians and an Argentine before culminating with much-vaulted Aranycsapat talisman (or Mighty Magyar) Nándor Hidegkuti and the club’s eternal victory in the 1961 European Cup Winners’ Cup final – their ability to fully defy the traditional estates of power has been questionable, especially as Juventus reinforced their dominance post-Calciopoli. A widely inexperienced outfit aside from Astori and Badelj’s cumulative international pedigree following their summer transfer exodus and extensive recruitment of prodigious talents from across Europe, La Viola blatantly required a stabilising force and psychological anchor in coming seasons, and to be robbed of that now renders a recovery, at least at this stricken stage, unfathomable.
Had it not been for Astori’s death, certainly, these institutions – club and country – may have threatened to revert to poetic reminiscence. This is a national trend ominously replicated in the evident clamour, or sentimental yearning, for a return to former glories – for others deemed dishonours – in the political maelstrom posed by Silvio Berlusconi’s reprise while administrating the centre-right coalition, and also by the mounting Five Star Movement. Alongside the significant growth of Lega Nord within the aforementioned coalition, populism, in the spirit of regionalism and anti-immigration policy, evidently appealed successfully. Internalisation – cowering away from a globalised world and their responsibilities within it – is not what the national team, in comparison, can afford to attempt in this period of mourning and repair; they must re-enter the international stage, as must domestic clubs through interaction on both the casual fan and professional continental scenes, with a humble optimism, and reach out for moral support. They must not shy away from the landscape around them, and in which they play such a distinguished role of moral seniority – that much is imperative.
As far as we can outline the alignment of these various societal factors, however, human nature dictates that journalistic poeticism sees little sympathy with the subjects of the travesty. Any competitive recovery, primarily for La Viola and Gli Azzurri, but also for the indissoluble fraternity of Italian and hopefully global football, will be a gradual and trying process in which immense maturity will be tested. Perhaps sentimental misfortune is accentuated by the circumstance of Italy’s absence from this summer’s World Cup, and another momentous edition of the generation-defining tournament, yet equally it may have been the catalyst critically required to reassess, and subsequently reinvigorate, the entire structure of the sport in the fertile land of the 2006 World Cup victors. Tradition also runs deep here, and to encounter such an event as this challenges an established order to adapt unlike ever before to the contorting demands of the sport; all while possessing stern morals. The only possible solace of Astori’s tragic death is that the system, through the Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio (FIGC) and club structure alike, will grow closer to its basic values, and reform effectively. When viewing this grief in retrospect, it is of paramount importance that it is harnessed, and that it repairs the divides of a nation. If there is a population anyone in football should trust, however, it sits here, in the land of incomparability; dear Italia.
Davide Astori – 7.1.1987-4.3.2018
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!