Archive for March, 2011

Only the Lonely.

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

At some of its edges, the countryside of England gives away meekly to the sea, without dramatic cliffs, or sandy beaches, the land just rolls away. The line between land and sea is obscured, but the sea is winning. It is estimated that since roman times, the boundary has retreated inland by some three miles, with no less than 23 villages disappearing into the gray waters of the North Sea.

The advice therefore is not to buy a holiday cottage here. If you like the area, take out a lease – but keep it short!

I arrived in Easington after driving for some thirty minutes on smaller roads, after the finish of the dual carriageway that cuts a swathe between Hull and the Humber. There was no sign of activity at the football ground, but this was not surprising, over two hours before kick-off. And so I drove on to Spurn point. This is a narrow spit of land that reaches down to enclose nearly half of the mouth of the Humber. Generally it is sand dunes, bound together by rough grasses, with a narrow paved road on the inland side. In places this is only a few yards wide, and the effects of wind and wave mean that it can move over the years. As well as the roadway, there were a few signs of ancient tram lines (first laid down during the first World War, and used somewhat unusually, by bogies with sails). The routing shows the changes over the years, as the rail line, used until around 1950 disappears under the dunes, and may in places be lost to the sea. Certainly the terminus at Kilnsea (the land end) has been lost to the waters.

Spurn Point, Beach and Lighthouse.

The projection into the river mouth, which is formed from some of the materials worn away from further north along the Holderness coast, goes on for around three miles. At the end, there is a more substantial hill, which is used as a base for lifeboats and harbour pilots. The whole area is a nature reserve, and the beaches are free for walkers. From the car park at the end of the road, I walked around the point from the Humber side, and then clambered over the sand dunes to return to my car. A walk that consumed a little under an hour of my time. The contrast between the two sides of the peninsular is impressive. On the Humber side, one is sheltered from the winds, and being a low tide, there is a stillness about the place, and long, low mudflats. As one rounds the point, you are walking into the storm, (and this was a relatively nice day). The wind cuts into you and the waves of the North sea angrily proclaim that they will soon consume the beach, and possibly the whole of the headland. Apart from the natural splendours, and the now ruined wooden breakwaters, that display a vain effort to work, Canute like against the forces of the sea, it is remarkable how much human debris is to be found washed up on this side. Plastics, old fishing nets and even a calor gas cylinder litter the area.

For a football team in this area, it is always going to be about the journey – even in the local, Humber Premier League, a team out near the cost will have to travel over 20 miles to play most of their opponents, grouped around the city of Hull. When it was formed back in 2000, merging the best of local leagues, there may have been a dream that the Humber Premier League could take a position as a Step 7 league, and promote to the Northern Counties (East). It quickly became clear that this was not going to be the case – the lack of facilities in this league meant there were few candidates, even when the teams felt they could make the step.

Hence, the Humber Premier League has had to accept that its status is actually at Step 9, but there is a shortage of suitable Step 7 and 8 leagues in this area. The West Riding of Yorkshire has two competing leagues, and Sheffield has another, but for clubs both to the North and South of the Humber, the only solution appears to be the geographically unsuitable Central Midlands League, which has its indistinct centre around Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. Still, two clubs made the step in 2008, and Easington United joined them a year later. Westella and Willerby have now been promoted to the oddly named Supreme Division, (the Step 7 division of the CML), while Easington United and Hutton Cranswick United are in the Premier Division (Step 8). It is 44 miles between the two for the “derby” clash, and for Easington’s second shortest trip, to Thorne, they have to travel 58 miles. All the rest are more than 70 miles away, with three over 100 miles.

I returned to the football ground around 45 minutes before the start, and I was immediately worried by how quiet the place was – only a few cars in the car park and no one on the pitch. Still, on wandering in, I found the tea bar open, and willing to sell me a cuppa (50p) and a programme (£2). The referee was also enjoying his tea, but it would be at least 15 minutes before the away side appeared. The fields are enclosed (just), but no admission charge is made, except by programme. Something obviously has to be said about the programme. It is labelled as the league’s programme of the year for 2009/10, and it is hard to imagine that it is not in competition to hold the title. It is both interesting and informative, with surprisingly few of its 24 pages given over to advertising. Sadly, for all the efforts that go into the production, I counted only around 30 people in the crowd to read it.

I asked about how a club like this operates. The players are all amateurs, (I was told that not even expenses are paid), and come from Easington, other local villages and some from Hull itself. A minibus carries them to away matches, and costs £150 each time. There are only 15 teams in the league, but that is partly due to two withdrawals during the season. It is possible that Easington has made one or two wasted trips, for matches now expunged from the table. I also wanted to know if they felt there was a real benefit to playing in the Central Midlands, as opposed to the Humberside League. The reply was that while the best clubs in the Humberside are as good as those they play in the CML, the lesser clubs are far weaker, and by playing in the CML, they are promised a competitive match every week.

Certainly, the game I saw bore this out, but then the visitors, Yorkshire Main are one of the better sides with only one league defeat all season. They are fourth in the league, but a combination of cup successes and worse luck than some with the weather means ‘Main’ have nine games in hand over the league leaders. The ground is very exposed, with two buildings on the south side, providing the dressing rooms and tea bar, and a little shelter part supported from the dressing room building that provides the back wall. A concrete path only extends to the half way line on this side, while permanent railings surround most of the pitch. A sharp East Wind was blowing off the coast, and down the pitch from end to end. Easington attacked into the wind in the first half and took the lead after just 13 minutes when Chris Frost dove to meet a cross from the left wing.

After this, it was end to end stuff, and quite surprising that no more goals were scored. Despite having the league’s leading scorer, Curtis Walker playing behind the front pair at the top of a diamond midfield, Main did not make the most of their midfield domination, while Easington were quick to use the extra width given by the opposition formation with Frost continually catching the eye, and Gavin Thurkettle also impressing.

Chris Frost (7) dives to score the only goal of the game.

Next season, the Central Midlands League will reformat itself into two parallel divisions. This is a move that will give some help to Easington, in so far as a boundary line between North and South divisions will be drawn. Still, all the Yorkshire clubs will be in the Northern section, including those around Sheffield, and possibly some of those in North Derbyshire. There is at least one more Humberside club applying, (AFC Hull), and the changes will also mean that Easington will again play Westella and Willerby, currently in the higher division.

I have heard that Tideswell United have also applied, but at least Easington should be spare travelling high into the peak district to play current members of the Hope Valley League. Most of the other names I have heard as possible new members are in either the Notts Senior, or Midland Regional Alliance, strictly in the south. The question for further ahead is how the FA treats the other leagues in Yorkshire. The FA appears to have promised Step 7 status to both Central Midlands Divisions for next season, with promotion available from the North to the Northern Counties (East), and from the South to the East Midlands League. If the FA gives the same status to the West Riding, West Yorkshire and Sheffield leagues, then the Humberside teams will still need to pass through other leagues areas for some matches, while if the FA tells these leagues that they are to be Step 8, and encourages clubs to step up, the CML’s northern section could be more of a Yorkshire League, strung out along the M62 motorway

All Things to All Men?

Friday, March 18th, 2011

And so it is official at last. There will be an election for FIFA president this June, and Mohamed bin Hammam will oppose Sepp Blatter. At his press conference in Kuala Lumpur, bin Hammam announced his candidacy, and outlined his manifesto for the job.

  1. The FIFA Executive Committee to be replaced by a FIFA board consisting of 41 members, (17 more than the current ExCo). The new members to be four each from UEFA, CAF and the AFC, three from CONCACAF and one each from of CONMEBOL and the OFC.
  2. An executive committee, consisting of the President of FIFA, and the presidents of the six Confederations charged with implementing the decisions of the board.
  3. A transparency committee – supposedly to make sure that the operations of FIFA are open and clear to the public before they happen, rather than referring to the ethics committee to look into accusations after they have been made.
  4. A doubling of the grant given to each FIFA member annually, from US$250,000 to US$500,000
  5. An increase in the maximum grant available through the GOAL projects, so as the FIFA grant can now run up to US$1 million.

It is an agenda that should appeal to all tastes. In Europe and the USA, FIFA has been accused of being corrupt, and focussing power in too few hands – the new board and committees will not only address this, but if the transparency committee actually does its job, then some of the spectre of conspiracy may be rooted out. But this comes at a cost – currently nine of the 24 ExCo members (including Sepp Blatter himself) are European, while the new Board will be 12/41 UEFA. Meanwhile the Africans and Asians will double their influence from four to eight members each, and the president himself will be an Asian. If the power structure is then devolved from the centre to the Confederations, as bin Hammam appears to be promising, then one suspects there will be less of a central organisation to scrutinise how the handouts are spent, and we can be sure that the Europeans will not be welcome, when it comes to checking on expenditure on other continents.

So what is on offer is more power to those looking for more power, more money for those looking for more money, and more democracy for those looking for more democracy.

And now a thought, bin Hammam has been president of the AFC since 2002, and has just been re-elected in that role. So what has he achieved in that time. I had difficulty with that one, so I turned in desperation to the man’s own web pages, at www.afcpresident.com

To quote: “Under his leadership, AFC has grown in strength and stature, turning into a lean and modern organisation, playing its role as protector of Asian football’s interests. Further, the value of its competitions has now increased to a billion dollars, guaranteeing its financial future”.

I had to read that one more than once, and I still do not know what it means. It is true that since 2002, football has improved immeasurably in at least 3 of its 46 members. In particular, Japan has a powerful league, built up internally by generally ignoring Asian competition, (the Japanese still won the Asian Champions League title in 2007 and 2008). The South Koreans have dominated the competition in recent years, while the Chinese league appears to be strengthening, bolstered only by the AFC in ignoring its own rules, and not suspending the league for past corruption. The true strength of Japan is shown at National level, where the country has won four of the last six Asian Cups.

While UEFA at least maintains a shadow of hope in its Champions League, by allowing the Champions of all its countries to enter the qualifying rounds, before reaching group stages at which only the best countries are represented, Asia is far less democratic. At the behest only of AFC committees, Asian football is divided into ‘Mature Nations’ permitted to play in the Champions League, ‘Developing Nations’ which have a similar competition, the AFC Cup but with less publicity, less money and just the small carrot of a couple of qualifying matches where teams can be selected for either competition. These two together give places to not many more than half the countries in the region, with the rest choosing (or not) to enter a club into the Presidents Cup – which is for ‘Emerging Nations’, or as the AFC does not put it, crap footballing countries where there is no political or financial argument for inclusion.

These emerging nations are also excluded from the Asian Cup, and the Asian World Cup qualifying games are arranged to ensure that they play just one or two rounds of knock out competition, and the big guns never have to bother to play these minnows.

The record of the AFC in defending little countries or little clubs is stunning.

Brunei is not known as a hot spot for World Football, but by entering a club first into Malaysian competitions and more recently into Singaporean competition, they were doing more than OK. Quite frequently for home matches, DPMM could get 7,000 spectators, and sometimes as many as 10,000 – that is between 2% and 3% of the whole population of the country. That means one club in Brunei can be supported by a greater portion of the population than all the professional sports clubs in Britain put together! (The only country that competes with this is probably Monaco, where crowd figures can frequently be around 50% of the state’s population – but of course the majority of these have crossed the borders from France rather than living in the principality).

However, in 2008, Brunei’s football federation did not file its papers correctly with the national government. The Malaysian FA decided that as the BAFA was no longer a legal organisation in its home country, no Brunei team could play in Malaysia. In Singapore, they thought differently, and armed with an assurance that the team would be allowed to play a whole season, whatever happened, they accepted the team into their S-League. DPMM won the Singapore League Cup. Meanwhile, the BAFA was replaced by a new organisation, the Brunei Football Federation (BFF). FIFA ruled this as unacceptable political interference and suspended Brunei. The S-League threw DPMM out of their league with five games to play.

Over a year later, there has been little progress, and Brunei will remain suspended and not be permitted to enter the World Cup. The AFC’s part in all this is practically zero. The AFC should have been trying to negotiate a resolution to the problem, but there is little to be gained in Brunei, so let’s ignore the problem. The AFC also appear to be silent over the chaos at the heart of Indonesian football. Here again FIFA are taking the lead and their latest pronouncement shows something of a change of heart.

Earlier this year, when opposition was growing in Indonesia to the corrupt Football Association, the PSSI and the breakaway LPI (League Professional Indonesia) started, it appeared that FIFA was backing the current PSSI administration and the threat was to suspend the association if a probe into corruption went ahead. Now Blatter is speaking differently, stating that FIFA statutes must be adhered to and that it “is impossible to have a breakaway league in a well organised federation”. For greater clarification, another FIFA official, Thierry Regeness has said “As far as we are concerned the PSSI statutes as approved by FIFA are pretty clear and they mean clearly that someone who has been convicted of a criminal offence should not be able to [stand]” – a clear indication that PSSI chairman Nurdin Halid (whose Wikipedia entry refers to as an “Indonesian Criminal, Businessman and Politician”), cannot stand for re-election.

Also in Indonesia this week, a club called Persipura played an AFC Cup game in front of 700 people in the National Stadium in Jakarta. Indonesian football actually can generate good crowds and Persipura’s last home match as watched by over 18,000 – a typical figure. Persipura come from Jayapura, in Papua province – the most easterly point in Indonesia and quite simply rather difficult to get to. Asian cup football is not for everyone, so the AFC are far happier to send the home club on a journey almost a distant as that travelled by the away club to play in front of a handful of disinterested people in a massive stadium, than to play the match in front of a big crowd. The equivalent in Europe had been if Manchester City had switched their game against Kiev to play in Stockholm – and only Kiev had been allowed the benefit of a non stop flight!

One does not have to be a supporter of Blatter to be seriously concerned over this rival bid for the presidency. After all, we know that if Bin Hamman gets in, then he will be trying to stay in power until the 2012 World Cup is played out in his homeland. Would the world of football be better off holding on to the devil it knows for another four years, and then hope someone better comes along?