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Saturday, 28 July 2012

Guest Blogger: Steve Porter on the Rangers' Debacle and Scottish Football

Photo courtesy of John Kyle

Part One: Three’s a Crowd 

The once mighty Rangers are going to kick off the new season in Scotland’s Third Division or fourth tier – where average gates typically don’t reach the 500 mark. They are due to play their first match this weekend against Brechin City in the Ramsden’s Cup (for lower division teams). Brechin are now a league above Rangers whose first league fixture will take place further north, in Peterhead, a couple of weeks from now. The entire population of Peterhead would fit into Ibrox Stadium three times over. Brechin’s would barely fill a corner of the ground. 

I seriously doubt if any writer would have the imagination to concoct a novel as complex and bizarre as the story of how Rangers have landed in the third division. But let’s try to clear up a common misunderstanding.

Even in Scotland, where this story has been in the news every day for what seems like an eternity, it’s already being overlooked or conveniently forgotten at times that Rangers FC is in the process of being liquidated. In the words of the famous Monty Python sketch, the old club ‘has ceased to be’; no matter how much some want to insist that ‘it’s only resting’.


This is not simply a case of administration, for which, incidentally, Livingston FC were relegated from the First to the Third Division a few seasons ago. It means the new club, which is still emerging from the rubble of the old, had to reapply for membership of the Scottish Premier League (SPL), and failing that, the Scottish Football League (SFL). 

There are other recent instances of Scottish football clubs going bust. Little more than a stone’s throw from Glasgow, the old Airdrieonians FC was liquidated in 2002. They reapplied for the leagues as Airdrie United, but the bid was turned down in favour of Gretna. Airdrie’s next move was to target another hard up Scottish club (there’s a theme emerging here, isn’t there?), Clydebank. The Bankies were bought out and Airdrie United took Clydebank’s place in the Scottish Second Division. Notice they had to change their name quite significantly. This might still be an issue with the new Rangers. And Airdrieonians had finished a heady second in the First Division, narrowly missing out on promotion to Scotland’s top division, prior to their bankruptcy. So they didn’t start from where they’d left off either.

Gretna would also go bust after a spectacular rise to the SPL and a Scottish Cup Final appearance in 2006. Two years later the club was in dire straits, owing the taxman and other creditors an awful lot of money. Sound like a familiar story? Gretna struggled along to the end of the 2007-08 season, finishing bottom of the SPL and were then sent down to the Third Division for their struggles. But the borders club could not raise the cash to stay in the Scottish leagues, ended up being liquidated, and lost its membership. 

Amid all the recent talk of ‘punishments’ and ‘relegation’ and Rangers ‘taking their medicine’, it has to be remembered that this is basically a new club and company; as such, it must first be accepted by the other league members or not, just like Airdrie United and Gretna.

Given the fragmented nature of the way Scottish football is governed, this is a complicated process. There are three organisations ‘running the game’ with little apparently uniting them. Had the SPL elite not taken the decision to break away from the rest at the end of the 97-98 season, then this whole business might have been sorted out a lot quicker.

After Rangers application to rejoin the SPL this summer was turned down, they then had to apply to the SFL, who are in charge of Division One, Two and Three. Some figureheads at the SPL and the SFA (the Scottish Football Association, which supposedly oversees the general running of the game but has taken a back seat much of the time), allegedly put pressure on the SFL to accept Rangers in the First Division. But the SPL did not ultimately have the power to affect the decision of SFL clubs who voted to place the new Rangers at the bottom of their pyramid.

I prefer to avoid the word ‘punishment’ because it seems too emotive and open to different interpretations, but Rangers have received some penalties, due to serious mismanagement by the club’s former owners, David Murray and then Craig Whyte. After going into administration in February, Rangers received a standard ten-point penalty and were fined £160,000. This fine was imposed by the SFA, along with a twelve month transfer embargo for bringing the game into disrepute. Rangers then contested and overturned this embargo in the Court of Session. Yet, it looks likely they will have to accept it in order to get their SFL membership. Administration also meant that their licence to play European football was taken away by UEFA but that seems the least of their worries at the moment.

Of course, if the new club does get off the ground in the Third Division (and there are still a few matters to be ironed out), it will take up the mantle of the old Rangers FC, which ‘passed on’ in 2012. The newco will still have a potentially huge and ready-made fan base to call upon. However, the Ibrox capacity is unlikely to be seriously tested in Division 3 – at least after the original ‘show of defiance’ is over and the reality of regular visits from the likes of Montrose, Annan Athletic, and those fellow Rangers from Berwick sinks in.

Next week, more on the chaotic state of Scottish football and what the future is likely to hold for Rangers and other clubs. 

Steven Porter is the author of Countries of the World, a football-based novel that also deals with some of the major events of the 80’s: Thatcherism, the Falklands War, World Cups, military coups, dictatorships and disappearances.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Archive Article: Bydgoszcz: Where the Bikes Roar


 
Originally published by the now-defunct WiK English Edition, part of Poland’s reputed Wprost publishing house, in May 2007

Bydgoszcz: Where the Bikes Roar

In Bydgoszcz – so I was told by a citizen of the town – even the grannies say “yo!”, or rather “jo!”. They use it as an alternative to the more common “tak”, meaning ‘yes’. With strong historical links to Germany – Bydgoszcz was until 1919 called Bromberg and was part of the German Empire – the city’s version of Polish, as with other areas nearby, has incorporated elements of the neighbour’s language, then mutated them according to local taste.

Much of the city’s architecture is also strong in German influence and is often bigger and brasher than the ‘kamenica’ style of building you find in cities such as Krakow and Warsaw. But with a name like Bydgoszcz, with all those consonants crammed together, you can tell at first glance that it is unmistakably Polish as well and at 700 years of age it is also one of the country’s oldest cities.

The Old Town may not be one of the country’s most spectacular but it does have charm with its cobbled streets and large, Old Market Square, though the statue given centre stage in that – the Monument to Struggle and Martyrdom, which was erected to pay respect to the many Bydgoszcz citizens who were executed by the Nazis during the World War II occupation – looks like a ungainly hulk from a certain angle. Up close, it improves slightly but the council should probably get someone in to clean away the bird droppings that have besmeared it with such a lack of reverence.

The weird thing when I went there was that despite the place being soaked in brilliant sunshine with a perfect blue sky up above, there was no bar or cafe with outside seating where you go to could take it all in, and a number of drinking establishments in the area are dimly-lit basement bars, so finding somewhere where you could avoid the physical and psychological shock of descending to the bowels of the earth from the glorious weather up above, only to return to it blinking and fuzzy-headed a few hours later, wasn’t easy. It seemed local government sloth was again the culprit because after asking a bar-maid, I was told that none of the drinking-holes had yet been given the green light to provide their customers with the alfresco experience that is the whole point of being in a Polish Old Town when the sun is shining. The best we could do was sit down in a bar that was situated at street level, where imagining the sunny day outside was a lot easier than it would have been if we had taken the plunge into a ‘piwnica’.

Bydgoszcz proved that it had a lot more to offer on the entertainment front later on that evening, when a group of us congregated in El-Jazz, which is smack in the centre of the Old Town, boasts a cool interior and is packed until late with a very trendy-looking crowd. Although the city does look quite provincial in many ways – particularly when you get out to the suburbs, where the blocks of flats look a bit run-down – in other respects it does seem as if it is on the way up and a few of the bars, cafes and restaurants would not look out of place in Warsaw, given their decor, ambience and quality of food and service, though the prices are a lot lower, of course. El-Jazz is certainly among one of those.

Another sign that Bydgoszcz may be about to leave its status of a ‘second-tier’ city behind it is all the cranes that are busy at work in the town. A salient example of this is the Focus Park retail centre, which is being developed by the British company Parkridge. While I am not much of a fan of the rate at which soulless shopping centres have sprouted up all over Poland, given that they all seem to encourage mindless rushing about in the pursuit of very little, when all is said and done, if they allow for some cities to pull themselves away from mass unemployment and halt the tide of emigration to some extent, then maybe they do have a limited role to play in rejuvenating local economies.

But entertainment and retail aside, if Bydgoszcz can claim to be the leader in Poland it is in the sport of ‘speedway’, or at least for now, because local team Polonia Bydgoszcz is currently top of the elite domestic division, the Ekstraliga, and when I was there they beat CKM Zlomrex Wlokniarza Czestochowa 48-42 in a match that had the 15,000 fans present in the stadium in raptures.

As a native of Birmingham in the UK, I would always come across speedway matches being shown on the regional TV stations, but although it had a fanatical following in the West Midlands – and still does – the numbers paled in comparison with those drawn to football matches. But in Bydgoszcz and neighbouring Torun, the opposite is the case. In both cities, speedway is the King. To put the sport’s popularity into perspective, a crowd of 15,000 would be considered good for a home Legia Warszawa game, that club being one of the best-supported football teams in the country.

I had always thought speedway a weird sport, mainly because each individual race lasts around a minute, but as is often the case it is easy to be won over when you watch it in the flesh.

What’s clear is that it is the high intensity of the action that is central to its appeal. Waiting for the riders to line up just adds to the excitement, with the spectators’ voices growing louder as the racers rev up their bikes to their own crescendo, which comes when they unleash themselves onto the track. Then, with the wheels turning themselves inside out as they negotiate bends and spurt up a storm of dust, the noise of the engines – sounding like a gang of bumble bees after a testosterone fix - blends in with that of the crowd’s collective larynx to create a deafening and exhilarating cacophony. That it lasts only 60 seconds, or thereabouts, is a relief, but once it is over you want to hear it all over again.

I would also reckon that Bydgoszcz as a whole has the potential to grow on those who give it a chance. Your first impressions after you step off the train and walk toward the Old Town may not bowl you over, but when the place is lit up by sunshine, the bar-owners manage to put up a few parasols outside on the cobblestones and you get to see the raw passion that speedway induces in the population, then as a break from the bustle of Warsaw, you could do worse than choose Bydgoszcz.

Archive Article: Osjan: World Music Polish Style



Originally published by the now-defunct WiK English Edition, part of Poland’s reputed Wprost publishing house, in March 2007

Osjan: World Music Polish Style

Spontaneity and age are rarely seen as natural bedfellows. With each passing year, so convention goes, we are meant to exercise evermore caution in our lives, exert more control, leave less and less to chance. Opening up yourself to the range of infinite possibility is commonly thought to be reckless, immature and recipe for disaster.

The group Osjan, however, go determinedly against that particular grain. Formed almost 30 years ago in Krakow and claiming themselves to be “the oldest band in Poland”, Osjan’s output is almost completely improvised, with the band members insisting that their approach is considerably more radical than others – such as jazz or folk musicians - who routinely embark on their own versions of an aural mystery tour when on stage.

“A special energy comes from the fact that the act of creation happens there and then,” said percussionist Radoslaw Nowakowski, who joined the band in 1978, to WiK: English Edition. “The biggest difference between Osjan’s music and folk or World Music is that people who play those tend to study a particular genre - such as Jewish or African music - and its harmonies and rhythm patterns and so on. The background for them is very clear.

“But we look for the most fundamental bricks. The bricks are then used to build a rhythm pattern, a harmony, melody or scales. It is as if we go on stage with a pile of bricks and stones and try to build perhaps a beautiful or even ugly edifice. It can be a palace or a railway station or a block of flats.”

Listening to Osjan it is indeed difficult to come up with an easy category within which you might place them, though the sounds that waft from the speakers don’t hint at too many contemporary influences, such as soul, hip-hop or punk, for instance. It is also very hard to discern much that might be called ‘Polish’ either, with the elaborate assemblage of instruments they clearly have at their disposal more often evoking the lazy humidity of the tropics, than the cold urgency of northern Europe. Devotees of the three-minute pop song may find little they can relate to in Osjan’s music, unless of course they loosen up a little.

“We are open to everyone but not everyone wants to be open to our music,” said Nowakowski. “It is not a question of  people’s intellectual level, but a special kind of sensitivity. Osjan’s style is different to what you usually find.  Some people call it World Music or  New Age but we call it “the music of flying fish”.”

Despite the apparent intangibility of their output and its distance from the harsher rhythms of rock and pop, Osjan have managed survive three whole decades and are well into their fourth – though there have been the inevitable line-up changes along the way. They would seem to have pulled off the age-old trick of rising above the historical fray - and all its attendant revolutions in fashion and taste - and sticking to their guns come what may, which has typically involved the band members taking long sabbaticals to immerse themselves in other projects before gravitating back toward one another when the impulse takes them. Planning almost nothing and trusting their instincts have helped make Osjan among the more respected veterans of the Polish music scene.

“It very good to maintain a state of mind when you don’t know what is coming,” said Jacek Ostaszewski, the group’s founder and its wind-instrumentalist. “Because in this way you can realise more firmly what really does need to be done. It is when we don’t know who we are, that we can truly express ourselves.”

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

On a Lighter Note...

Not everything I write is earnest and angry. See this and this. If I wasn't writing articles on the shipping, tobacco, real estate industries, as well as other  fairly mundane stuff, I would delight in knocking out more stories of this type. Goes without saying, really, but alas...

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Guest Blogger: Peter Sampson: When the Heat Beats Down on Beijing



When the Heat Beats Down on Beijing

The rising temperatures combined with the humidity and  pollution don’t so much as envelop as throttle China’s capital at this time of year.

In Beijing, winter is cold and dry and long. Spring comes and goes in the blink of an eye, and summer returns with a glorious vengeance. Temperatures rise towards 40 degrees as the weeks pass.  Expats gather in beer gardens, to bask in the long awaited sun. Chinese ‘beauties’step out gingerly into the day, umbrellas clutched to protect them from the dread of tanned skin. 

Migrant workers work hard, and long, constructing the new China, in all its strange and often ugly beauty. 

This summer, the foreign – ‘alien’, in the language of government officials   – community is feeling a little unwelcome.  An official ‘one hundred days’ of check-ups began a few weeks ago, specifically in relation to visas, housing registration and work regulations.  

All foreigners in Beijing need to have the correct visa and have to register their address with the local Public Security Bureau upon arrival in the city. Officials have declared that they will be stopping  foreigners in the street to enforce these laws - in bars, in hotels, in shopping malls, or wherever they may spend their time -  and have advised that passports and housing registration paperwork should be carried at all times.

No-one really knows how rigorously this campaign will be pursued over the hundred days. Smoking bans and anti-prostitution campaigns are two examples of government-led campaigns that have been routinely announced and apparently then abandoned. Smoking and prostitution continue to be as integral to Beijing life as roast duck and dumplings.

Neither does anyone really know why the campaign was announced. The dispute with the Philippines, perhaps? The publicity surrounding the death of a British businessman and alleged links with power struggles going on within the Communist Party? The much publicised recent incident in Beijing, in which a British man was filmed assaulting a young Chinese woman and then being beaten by a group of Chinese? The fall-out from the blind Chinese activist’s escape from detention, and eventual flight to America? Like the recent campaign to put Beijing’s public toilets to a two-flies maximum test – which sounds both difficult to manage and a little unfair on flies – no one quite knows why.

The visa campaign may be simply a symptom of China’s ongoing attitude towards the wider world and foreigners on its turf – one that’s been described by commentators as a strange mix of a superiority and inferiority complex. It’s a love-hate relationship, some say, within which both the Chinese and foreigners, to varying degrees, play out their roles. 

If news of an anti-foreigner campaign, including home visits and hotlines by which local Chinese are encouraged to inform officials about ‘suspect’ foreigners, gives the impression that foreigners live oppressed lives under the iron fist of Chairman Mao’s legacy, then it is a false one.

In Beijing, almost anything is acceptable, as long as it is done ‘quietly’, and the right price is offered - or the right relationship cemented. The Great Firewall of China, as the internet censorship is known here, can be overcome by purchasing a VPN to throw an IP address out of China. So the daily Facebook fix, should it be required, is still available at a small cost.

Most of the pressures under which Chinese people live – fear of the future, including retirement and health costs, the complex set of relationships in China that often determine life chances, rising property prices, low incomes, distrust of the political and legal framework, the pace of development and its impact on families and communities – are not factors which impact directly on ‘aliens’ living here.

The living remains relatively easy for many expats in China and the huge pool of migrant labour in Beijing means that what might be perceived as indulgence elsewhere can be part of everyday life. Want someone to clean cook and wash for you? A foot massage by a pretty girl from Sichuan? Fancy having someone to drive you around, perhaps, or walk your dog while you feast on a rare dish from Yunnan in a local restaurant? The number of migrant workers, combined with no safety net and the apparently value-free pragmatism of many Chinese, means that many foreigners can, in effect, create their own menu of weekly services to get them through the day. As, indeed, can, and do, the newly rich Chinese. 

Through the eyes of China’s poor and disconnected - or even the new middle class, which is able to buy as many iphones as it likes, but not to choose it’s leaders - how does contemporary China present itself, and if blame is to be apportioned for any shortcomings, at whose door? The absence of any real means by which blame or protest may be focused internally, means that the foreign community can become a target, especially when encouraged by the state-controlled media.

Where does all this leave foreigners in Beijing, and China more generally?  Wiser men, and women, than I may speculate, but barring another Boxer Rebellion or Cultural Revolution, and assuming continued economic growth, foreigners will no doubt continue to arrive on Chinese shores in search of opportunity, adventure, and indulgence. The messy business of how those ‘aliens’ interact with and are received by China  may continue to tie up observers and government officials in the most complex of  knots  for some time to come.

Looking back,   www.chinasmack.com has some wonderful but achingly sad images – of illustrations created in the aftermath of 1949. They looked to the future – to now - and anticipated a wholly different China to the one which both locals and foreigners now experience. 

Peter Sampson has lived in China since 2009. He first visited Beijing in 1992, and really didn’t know what to make of the city.  
   
His first published article, in 1993, was for The Guardian G2 – ‘My Time’ – about his experiences as a Prison Officer in the UK.

Peter was published in The Birmingham Post print edition in 2011: ‘Letter From Beijing’.

He has also written occasional pieces for The Stirrer and The Birmingham Press online, including: ‘When I Think of England’, ‘Chinese Crackers’ and ‘If I Don’t Know You, You Are Like Air’.


His photographs taken around Beijing can be viewed at http://ptsimages.crevado.com/#56172 and   www.ptsimageseast.crevado.com

Monday, 2 July 2012

EURO 2012: Apologise to Poland and Ukraine



EURO 2012: Apologise to Poland and Ukraine

You’d have thought Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat film had informed most Western commentators’ views of Eastern Europe before Euro 2012 had been able to gather momentum.  The talk of rampant racism, of English fans returning in coffins, the slurs on the local cuisine, as if it amounted only to pork fat, and the big-baby moans about the logistics, as if working as a football reporter was somehow a travail no one should have to endure, made Poland and Ukraine seem like dystopian quagmires. Pundits wondered whether granting the competition to the two nations had been a massive error, whether either was capable of managing anything so prestigious, whether UEFA would have been better off organising the tournament elsewhere. 

It turned out the event was a success and all the fears misplaced, yet few have held their hands up to admit their guilt at sniping so unjustifiably at Poland and Ukraine.

In making remarks that have been prejudiced at best and racist at worst, many British journalists have exposed the shoddiness of much of their work. With the Leveson Inquiry in progress, you would have thought they could have upped their game, but no, the complacency of the average hack has been on full view. Barely-veiled complaints that the locals don’t speak English, that they are intent on ripping you off and that they might batter you to death, have largely gone uncorrected.

The Borat film represented a milestone in highlighting many westerners’ nasty sentiments towards Eastern Europeans, though the joke was ultimately on the Americans who took Baron Cohen’s character at face value. Newspaper articles followed depicting Polish and other people from the former Iron Curtain as barely civilized beings who failed to accept the supposedly uber-tolerant values that are cherished in the West.

The hypocrisy was and is revolting. I am old enough to recall actor Charlton Heston in 1992 hosting a television programme entitled ‘Let Poland be Poland’, which was broadcast all over the world in support of the Polish people and their Solidarity trade union. Then, when they were embroiled in a fight against the Communists they were deemed heroic. Since they have thrown off their shackles they are more often regarded as interlopers into space that the West jealously guards as its own. Even Ed Miliband, the son of Polish immigrants, has expressed his reservations over letting so many Poles into the UK. When the British economy was on the up, such arguments would never have passed the lips of a Labour leader. Neither would they have been entertained by millions of other British people, happy that the country’s dirty work was being carried out so cheaply and efficiently by the new arrivals from the East.

The irony is that many Poles have gone back home precisely because their own economy has weathered the global crisis more effectively than the UK. Some of Poland’s ability to elude recession has indeed lain in the fact that it was chosen to co-host Euro 2012, with all the infrastructure development that was integral to holding the tournament creating plenty of jobs.

As has been pointed out, rather too willingly by some commentators, Ukraine is a different proposition to Poland, in that it has much further to go before it can claim to belong to the wider European family. Yet it too was at one time held up as a shining example of a people’s desire to rid themselves of the authoritarianism and corruption associated with the Communist period, when it engaged in its ‘Orange Revolution’ in 2004. There was plenty of sentimental pap exuded on the nation’s behalf when that was dominating our TV screens. Then, on the eve of Euro 2012, Panorama and others felt totally at ease in depicting the country as a barbaric backwater.

What underpinned so much of the xenophobic nonsense spouted before, during but notably not after Euro 2012 was a simple fear of the ‘other’. The scare-mongering was groundless and should be apologised for. It was also entirely bigoted. Many of the guilty were the self-righteously politically correct, those who see racism, sexism and other frailties as being rampant in others while failing to recognise that they themselves are suffused in blinkered attitudes. Put simply, they were wrong, and shame on them.