England need to play without fear 

Well that did not go well (to say the least). Last night England crashed out of Euro 2016 after a humiliating 2-1 defeat to little Iceland a country with a population of just 330000 (to put this into perspective Wayne Rooney has 13.2 MILLION Twitter followers 40 TIMES the population of Iceland!) After this horrific defeat manager Roy Hodgson – like UK Prime Minister David Cameron after his defeat in the country’s EU referendum last Thursday – promptly resigned. Unlike Cameron he is going at once.

Predictably the reaction was hostile with players like Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling being crucified by fans and in the press and the number of foreign players in the Premier League and the high wages in the League. But the fact that another UK team Wales are still in the tournament should debunk the first argument – if foreign players in the Premier League were stopping England from being successful it would also stop Wales but it has not. If high wages in football was the reason England underachieved well Wales star player Gareth Bale is on high wages at Real Madrid but no one has suggested that he is not trying.

To my mind one of England’s problems is fear of failure. English fans and press expect so much of their players – god knows why as for most of their post war history they have not been good. But this expectation can cripple players with fear. If you are scared of failure you don’t take risks. But if you don’t take risks you won’t win – ever heard of the saying “fortune favours the brave?”. But England’s players are scared to take risks as risks can cause mistakes – and if they make mistakes they will get slaughtered. If I had a pound for every time someone on Twitter called an England player a “cunt” I could afford to buy Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo! Frankly if I were an England player I would not play international football. Why play extra games and get grief from the fans when you could stay with your club and be a hero? 

In contrast Wales and the two Irelands have adopted a “we’re happy to be here” attitude and have played without fear. And coincidentally – or maybe not – they have played better. Even when the Republic of Ireland were beaten 3-0 by Belgium and outclassed they were not criticised by their fans. The same also applies to Iceland. They are happy to be there, enjoying themselves and playing without fear.And they are playing well.

Another England team in another sport is an example of what I mean. Last year the England cricket team were pathetic in the World Cup. They got knocked out by Bangladesh – a less embarrassing defeat than the one the football team suffered yesterday but still humiliating. And like the football team the cricket team were safety first and scared of failure – which in a self fulfilling prophecy promptly happened.

But it is what happened after the World Cup that is significant. Since the World Cup the England one day team has been encouraged by coach Trevor Bayliss to be more aggressive and play with no fear. The result is a team playing exciting cricket, playing without fear and actually looking like they want to play international cricket. Ironically their results in one day cricket have been inconsistent – their record since last year’s World Cup is only 11 wins and nine losses which is nothing to write home about but a big improvement on what had gone before. Plus the team is a pleasure to watch and is prepared to take risks in order to win. Neither of which applies to the England football team that played in France last night.

England do have promising young players – they were the second youngest team in Euro 2016. But until England start playing without fear and start taking risks in order to win they are going nowhere. The England team are being crippled by both a fear of failure and traditional british conservatism (manager Hodgson’s selections were very safety first and it is interesting that the England player who played with least fear was the youngest member of the squad Marcus Rashford who came on too late to make a difference against Iceland).

Until England become like the cricket team and play with no fear they are going nowhere. Leicester City won the Premier League last season with the slogan “Fearless”. If you play with a fear of failure guess what? You fail. Until England change they are going nowhere. Playing without fear can lead to defeat. But guess what? England are losing already. So at worst playing without fear means they still fail. But it could very well lead to better results. Fortune favours the brave. And surely England fans must agree it can’t get worse than last night….

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Recalling a disastrous culture clash

Since 1992, when Sky Sports became a subscription service, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) has always been something that you had to pay for in the UK. That changed in 2000, when WWE gained a presence on free to air (FTA) television in the UK. It should have been a great opportunity for WWE to boost its popularity in the UK since it was now available in every home in the country. As it turned out the deal was a total disaster. WWE was dropped at the end of its contract in 2001 and dispatched back to Sky with its tail between its legs. Some say that the station decided not to renew two weeks into its two year contract. So how on earth did a great opportunity for WWE go badly wrong?

First the deal. In December 1999 WWE signed a two year deal with Channel 4 (C4) to show Sunday Heat (a mix of highlights from RAW and Smackdown plus original matches). More importantly the deal also included four of WWE’s monthly pay- per-views(PPV) – those being held in January, April, July and December. While the Royal Rumble in January was the only elite event among them by luck rather than judgement C4 got two other big events in 2001 – July’s Invasion PPV which was the first one to feature WWE wrestlers against WCW/ECW wrestlers and December’s Vengeance PPV where Chris Jericho became the first ever Undisputed Champion. It should have been a great chance for the WWE to boost its UK audience and for C4 to get a high rating – the WWE was at peak popularity at the time. For fans without Sky – like me – it should have been a dream come true.

It wasn’t. Basically the alliance ran into trouble in two weeks. On 23rd January 2000 C4 broadcast its first PPV – the Royal Rumble. While delighted to see a WWE PPV live on FTA television I – and most UK wrestling fans – were not very pleased when C4 cut to commercials whenever they felt like it – one of the commercial breaks interrupted a promo by the biggest star in the WWE at the time the Rock. But if fans were unhappy about that C4 were totally shocked at what they saw.

There was a lot about the 2000 Royal Rumble that C4 did not like. They were shocked by the violence in the tag team tables match and the Triple H v Cactus Jack street fight. They were shocked at Chyna a woman fighting not one but two men as well as being in the Royal Rumble match itself. And above all they were shocked by the Miss Rumble swimsuit competition. Oh dear where do you start with this rubbish? With the fact that it was won by 76 year old Mae Young and she flashed her breasts! Now they were prosthetic breasts but how would C4 have known that they were not real?

It is important to understand that C4 were – and still are – the most politically correct channel in the UK. When C4 started back in 1982 their whole raison d’être was to provide programming for minority groups and women.So a woman flashing (even prosthetic) breasts was hardly going to go down well. It was a totally unnecessary stunt by the WWE but C4 cannot be absolved of blame themselves. Ever heard of the saying “buyer beware”? C4 obviously thought that the WWE was the same kind of wrestling that had been popular as part of ITV’s World Of Sport from 1965-85. That had been shown at 4pm on a Saturday so C4 showed their weekly Sunday Heat at 4pm. Now if C4 had watched WWE programming for more than no seconds before signing the contract they would have known it had little or nothing in common with the UK wrestling of the 1960s/70s/80s. The WWE was in the middle of the Attitude Era the most politically incorrect era in its history. It was a dreadful culture clash.

Some say (though this would never be proved) that C4 had decided after that Royal Rumble not to renew the deal. But be that as it may they still had seven PPVs to show the next one being Backlash in April. C4 decided to show it on a 50 minute delay so they could edit out anything they did not like that appeared on the show. There was. After a tag team match between T&A and the Dudley Boyz T&A’s manager Trish Stratus was put through a table by Bubba Ray Dudley. Another totally unnecessary stunt by the WWE. But this time C4 got the backlash from wrestling fans for censoring the show. As a compromise C4 showed the rest of the PPVs in their contract uncut.

Sunday Heat was also a problem. Since the programme featured highlights from RAW and Smackdown some of the programme was unsuitable for its 4pm time slot. So again C4 censored it and again the fans complained. Ironically WWE had suggested Heat be shown at 10 pm and eventually once C4 grew disillusioned with WWE Heat was moved to 11pm but of course its ratings then fell.

To no one’s surprise C4 announced in July 2001 it was not renewing it’s contract. The rights were eventually sold back to Sky….for half of what C4 had paid for them! UK fans – like me – were sad to see it go but it had been a total disaster for both sides.

Could it have been any different? Not really It was a dreadful culture clash. If either side had known what the other was like I doubt that the deal happens. When C4 dropped the deal it mentioned WWE’s propensity for showing violence against women. True the violence and sexism in WWE at the time was awful but if they had watched WWE before hand C4 would have known this. On the other hand had WWE known how politically correct C4 was they would either have not signed a contract with C4 at all or toned down their product accordingly. In my opinion the bigger the potential audience the more risky controversial content is. Ironically today’s PG WWE would be more suitable for C4 than the 2000-01 version but it doesn’t get the ratings.

The moral of the story? When two organisations who have nothing in common get together because one wants money and the other wants ratings it is always going to be a train wreck. And that is what the WWE-C4 alliance was. A complete disaster that should never have happened. UK wrestling fans were the real losers. We were given a great present – free WWE – and had it taken away because of a culture clash that was never going to work anyway. This was always destined for an unhappy ending.

Time to say goodbye

So a week to go before the UK votes on whether or not to stay in the European Union (EU). In a previous post (“If Lucha Underground Wants to Grow it Must Get Rid of Intergender Matches”) you might remember I mentioned I was against the UK staying in the EU and said I would explain why in a future post. Well the time is now….

First of all I would say it is NOT because of anti immigration feelings. I was against the UK being in the EU long before immigration became an issue in the UK. The reason I am against the EU is simple and it came during a TV interview in the BBC’s 1992 General Election coverage.

On the day after this election – the first one I took an interest in though I was too young to vote – the BBC were interviewing a couple of Labour supporting trade unionists. Now by this time it was clear that the Conservative Party had won and the interviewer asked the trade unionists if they would use European law to try and thwart the Conservative Government’s policies. The trade unionists said yes. That annoyed me. I felt that the trade unionists were not accepting the vote of the British people and if Europe could stop the UK Government from implementing its policies what was the point in voting (I should stress that if it had been Conservative politicians trying to thwart a Labour Government via Europe I would have felt the same way).

Two examples of the EU meddling in UK affairs. In 1973 when we joined what is now the EU the UK Government imposed 17.5% Value Added Tax (VAT) on tampons since they were “luxury items”. In effect it was a tax on women since only women used tampons and they had no choice – it was an essential part of their lives. It seems a ridiculous tax but it was the 1970s and that was a very sexist decade in the UK. Quite rightly Prime Minister David Cameron thought that the “tampon tax” was a ridiculous sexist tax that should not exist in 2016 and it has been abolished. But Cameron could not abolish the tax without the backing of all the other 27 EU countries. He got their backing but should he have had to grovel to the EU anyway? No. It was none of the EU’s business and they should have had nothing to do with it. It should have been the UK Parliament that decided to get rid of the “tampon tax”.

Same with another abominable tax that is still with us because of the EU. In 1993 the Conservative Government imposed VAT on domestic fuel at 8% (a bid in 1994 to raise the rate to 17.5% was defeated).The Labour opposition was against VAT on fuel so when Tony Blair was swept to power in the 1997 landslide you would think it would be bye bye VAT on fuel. But no. Blair only cut the rate to 5%. He did not abolish it. Why not? He could not. Once the Conservative Government had imposed VAT on fuel it could only be reduced to 5% it could not be abolished… because of EU rules. Again it is ridiculous. It should be up to the UK Parliament to decide tax – not the EU. EU law needs to be secondary to UK law but while we are in the EU that cannot happen.

While my main reason is sovereignty another problem is that the EU is totally contemptuous of democracy. Countries including Denmark, France and Ireland have voted against EU treaties in the past. Did the EU accept the verdict of these countries voters? No. The countries were asked to vote again and voted in favour the second time they were asked. But what if they had voted against the treaties again? Would they have been forced to vote again and again until the EU got the result they wanted?

I also think we should never have joined the EU in the first place. The Prime Minister when we joined – Edward Heath – was an egomaniac and us joining the EU was his personal vanity project. When we joined in 1973 he celebrated with the “Fanfare For Europe” which was a waste of £350000 of taxpayers money spent on concerts, art exhibitions and even a football game at Wembley which attracted only 36,000 fans. Seventy five per cent of people thought the Fanfare should not take place (“Dominic Sandbrook, “State of Emergency, The Way We Were : Britain 1970-74, pages 171-72). It should be said that Heath’s Conservative Party had been pro Europe since the 1950s but French President Charles de Gaulle had vetoed Britain joining. I suspect with the British Empire breaking up Conservative politicians were deluding themselves that Britain could rule Europe which was tripe. I also suspect that if Heath had allowed us a referendum in say 1972 (as Ireland, Denmark and Norway had) we would have rejected membership as Norway did. Norway have still not joined the EU and seem to have survived! When Heath lost power in February 1974 the new Labour Government gave us a referendum (1975) which I still think only went in favour of Europe because the UK economy was a mess at the time with inflation reaching 26 per cent!  Since the UK people have never embraced the EU it would be in Europe’s best interest to lose at best an apathetic and at worst a hostile member.

Another reason to leave the EU is that I think eventually the EU will collapse. It is not only the UK that is hostile to the EU other members are becoming more hostile. Hardly surprising when you think what austerity forced on Greece, Portugal, Italy and Spain to keep the fantasy currency the Euro alive has done to those countries with horrific poverty and youth unemployment the result. Plus history has shown that all artificial unions collapse – the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, our own British Empire and the Soviet Union being examples. The EU will collapse. It might take 20, 30, 40 years but it will. Smart people get off the ship before it sinks! We have a chance to do it!

Another problem with the EU is that it is just too big. It expanded into Eastern Europe when the ex members of the Soviet bloc joined it which means the countries in it have less and less in common and it became less effective. The EU should have stuck to the founding clique of six and added just Spain and Portugal when those two countries got democratised. Groups are more effective when they are small. A bizarre but apt analogy is with the New World Order (NWO) in wrestling which started with a small clique of members ballooned out of control by having far too many members and eventually collapsed in a heap. Just like in my opinion the EU will.

If we vote “Leave” on June 23rd we will take control of our country. The UK people will decide immigration policy. If we vote for a pro immigration Labour Party and it goes wrong it will be our fault not the immigrants. It will shut UKIP up as they will have no foreigners to blame for our problems.  Also there is a big wide world outside Europe that is becoming more important (China, Japan, India to name but three countries) and we can build relationships  with them outside the EU. Add to that the fact that the EU is like FIFA arrogant corrupt and unreformable and that we should never have joined in the first place and it becomes clear the best choice is to leave.

Finally I would stress that I am not stupid enough to say everything will be perfect if we leave but I think we must take control of – and responsibility for – our country. Being out of the EU might actually get rid of some of the racism/xenophobia in  the UK since we could not blame the EU for our problems like we do now. To quote the 1997 hit by Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman it is “Time to Say Goodbye” to the EU.  

Who will rule Europe?

June is “Europe month” with the UK’s EU referendum dominating the political news (I’ll get to that in a future post) while in sport the main event is Euro 2016 the European Men’s football championship which starts in Paris on Friday.

The first thing I’ll say is that the tournament is far too big now with 24 teams in it. From 1996 to 2012 the Euros had a perfect format. Sixteen countries playing in four groups of four teams with the top two in each group going through to the last eight and the tournament then being played in a knockout format. Sixteen teams meant most of the big teams qualified but minnows still had a chance (Slovenia in 2000 and Latvia in 2004 being the best examples). No one – except disgraced former UEFA President Michel Plattini – thought the Euros needed expansion but there you go. In the ideal world now that Plattini has been banned from football UEFA should do with him what WWE did with Chris Benoit and wipe him out from history.

But they won’t so we are stuck with 24 teams which means four third place teams will qualify and that it takes 36 games to knock out 8 teams. With that all said what might happen in France during June and July? Let’s take a look at the groups.

Group A – France, Romania, Albania, Switzerland. It is a joke that host nations get easy groups at major tournaments and on paper this group is weak. Not that France need the help. France unlike most countries do well at home. They are the only country since 1978 to win the World Cup or Euros at home. In fact they have won them both – the Euros in 1984 and the World Cup in 1998. Plus their current team is loaded with talent – Paul Pogba, Kingsley Coman, N’Golo Kante the unsung hero of Leicester’s title win, Olivier Giroud, Antoine Griezmann and Anthony Martial among others. Add one of the best keepers in the world in Hugo Lloris and you have a formidable side. Add to that the fact that coach Didier Deschamps had the good sense to leave underachieving trouble maker Karim Benzema out of the squad and France have a great chance of going all the way.

They have little to fear from the rest of Group A. Romania might have been unbeaten in qualifying but drew half their games and finished behind Northern Ireland in a poor group, Switzerland lost twice to England in qualifying and Albania are finals debutants. Second place will be between Romania and Switzerland and if they both beat Albania and draw with each other they will both likely go through.

Group B – England, Russia, Wales, Slovakia. England are the team with the youngest average age in the tournament.Young stars like Harry Kane, Ross Barkley and Deli Ali could shine. Two problems for England are do they play record scorer Wayne Rooney and can the defence which has looked dodgy cope? Quarter Finals at best.The group is not easy. 2018 World Cup hosts Russia have improved since sacking Fabio Capello (which probably won’t surprise England fans) and Slovakia beat Spain in qualifying, Germany in a friendly last week and put holders Italy out of the 2010 World Cup so could be dangerous. The big danger could be Wales. Wales are a team of journeymen who depend too much on Real Madrid superstar Gareth Bale and could be out of their depth. But the game against England on June 16th will be a British style Cup tie which will be a classic banana skin for England. If they get through that they should top the group with Russia and Slovakia following them.

Group C – Germany, Ukraine, Poland, Northern Ireland. As World Cup holders Germany should be favourites but struggled – by their standards – to qualify losing in Poland and not beating the Republic of Ireland home or away. In friendlies they have lost in France, at home to England and at home to Slovakia. But its Germany we are talking about, most of the 2014 team are still there and anything short of a semi final is unthinkable. Poland whose star player Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandovski is well known in Germany are the main threat. Ukraine and Northern Ireland – who like Wales did well to qualify but could be out of their depth – look below the quality of Germany and Poland and the third placed team in this group could miss out.

Group D – Spain, Czech Republic, Turkey, Croatia. Spain are two time defending European Champions still have Sergio Ramos, Iniesta, David Silva and Cesc Fabregas in their squad plus David de Gea the best goalkeeper in the world. However I think they peaked in 2012 when they thrashed Italy 4-0 in the final to win Euro 2012. They will do better their pathetic defence of the World Cup in 2014 but won’t win the tournament. The rest of the group is unpredictable.  Croatia are always dark horses, the Czechs always overachieve in the Euros and Turkey had a sensational run to the Semi Finals in 2008. Croatia would be my favourites for second place but there are no no hopers in this group.

Group E – Belgium, Italy, Republic of Ireland, Sweden. This group could contain teams that will underachieve. Belgium on paper are scary  but some big names had poor Premier League seasons – Eden Hazard did not score a League goal until April, Christian Benteke was 32 million down the drain at Liverpool and keeper Thibaut Courtois got sent off twice. On paper they are formidable but they are less than the sum of their parts and I don’t think they go past the last eight. Italy could be another big name to underachieve. They are short of goals and got hammered 4-1 in a friendly in Germany. But they still have Gigi Buffon one of the best keepers in the world and usually do better in tournaments than their talent suggests they should (though this did not apply in the last two World Cups). And nothing is guaranteed with Sweden and the mercurial Zlatan Ibrahimovic and a Republic of Ireland team who played Germany twice in qualifying without losing both capable of causing upsets in the tournament ‘s toughest group.

Group F – Portugal, Iceland, Austria, Hungary. This group is unlikely to produce the winner but it is the stage for Europe’s best player Cristiano Ronaldo. However great players do not best great teams. Ronaldo has helped Portugal to semi finals in the 2006 World Cup and Euro 2012 but they went no further and that will be the case again. Austria could be a surprise team. They won nine out of ten in qualifying – in a group that included Russia and Sweden. They have a star player in David Alaba plus another Leicester hero in Christian Fuchs and if they maintain their qualifying form they could emulate teams like Turkey (2008) and Czech Republic (1996, 2004) who have overachieved at Euros. Of all the debutants Iceland (population 300,000) are the most unlikely (because of the size of the country). But in another sense they are not surprising qualifiers. The book “Soccernomics” by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski (pages 238-260) claimed that Iceland is the most fanatical football country in Europe. A higher percentage of Icelandic people watched the 2010 World Cup on TV than any other country in Europe even though they had no team in the tournament. I suspect that with their own team in the event the audience will be even bigger. I think they will get to  the last 16 in third place ahead of Hungary which would be a remarkable achievement.

If I were to predict the tournament I would say France, Germany and Spain are a class above with Portugal, England and perhaps Italy as Semi Final candidates. Poland, Sweden and Austria could cause surprises but Belgium could be surprise underachievers. And if I were to predict a winner I would say France.

What I sincerely hope for is that the tournament passes without incident. France suffered two terrorist attacks last year – one of them at a France v Germany friendly. Just keep your fingers crossed that there is no terrorism and that Euro 2016 can rise above its ridiculous format to give us a memorable month of football.