Observer Sport Monthly features from many moons ago

March 31, 2008

What if… Albert Camus had stuck to goalkeeping?

Michael Moynihan
Sunday October 8, 2000
guardian.co.uk
The recent retirement of French football supremo Albert Camus prompted a predictable outpouring from the Left Bank, but what the intellectuals such as Leboeuf and Ginola have overlooked is the great man’s contribution to thinking in the twentieth century. Football thinking, that is. Camus began as a goalkeeper for the Algerian Universities and turned his back on a promising literary career to stay with football, though he did say at one point that reading Wittgenstein, Aristotle or ‘some other German’, as he put it, had prompted his realisation that the corner flag was ‘absurd’. He first came to prominence in the 1962 World Cup when he committed the now legendary ‘Killing an Arab’ foul. When the Moroccan Al Raschid tore past his marker, the no-nonsense Parisian stopper Sartre, Camus hurtled from his goal to scythe down the swarthy striker. Sent off immediately, he shrugged (a thousand writers had to have ‘in classic Gallic fashion’ edited from their copy within the hour) and strode from the field. As the whistle had already gone and the foul was needless, it was blamed on Camus’s seething desire to prove his existence through a random and unexplained act; the great man’s deafness was conveniently overlooked in this analysis. His dismissal meant the anticipated meeting with the Italians never occurred, so we were denied a confrontation with the deep-lying Bari striker, Fellini, and his ‘calcio di surrealismo’. When Camus returned from suspension it was to face England in the third place play-off, when he held the Angry Young Men – Kingsley Amis, John Osborne and Nobby Stiles – scoreless and ensured bronze for la France. Given that the same Angry Young Men usually began brightly before descending into a three-way slanging match about beer, baldness and class, this was not quite the achievement it might have been. It had a particular air of anti-climax following the epic encounter during the group stages with the great Irish side led by gloomy Sammy Beckett, a rabid midfielder who paved the way for the likes of Norman Whiteside and Roy Keane. Beckett’s languor contrasted with the barrelling pace of Behan on the wing and shaggy-haired neophyte Seamus Heaney, the Tarantini of Derry. Beckett’s great tactical innovations were the Twin-Bin defence, wherein an unknown number of players lurked unseen in two bins outside the penalty area, and the Waiting Game, in which the No 9 engaged his marker in inconsequential banter before striking. In the final these strategies came unstuck when Fellini’s Italy countered the Irish with a fat woman, mime and a pair of circus elephants. Camus re-emerged in an unlikely setting when he was named Arsenal manager in 1970. Many respected observers thought this Gunners side on the brink of greatness, but Camus took the side to pieces and reassembled it as a contemporary dance group which wowed the crowds at the 1971 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. His tenure ended the following week when Dungby Harriers beat them 6-2 in the FA Cup. Camus left Britain with the throwaway line, ‘Hell is other people… and most of Finsbury Park.’ He returned to the wilderness, picking up international management work in such soccer backwaters as Brazil and Argentina while the Total Football of the Swiss and Lebanese dominated the Seventies. However, when his former teammate Sartre became head of the French FA, Camus returned to favour and was appointed national manager. Now came the years of greatness: the ’82 World Cup, defeating Picasso’s unpredictable Spain, with their abstract 1-3-2-2-1-2 formation; the ’84 European Championships, putting Solzhenitsyn’s Russians to the sword and the gulag; and the great ninety minutes against the United States in the World Cup final of ’86. Who can forget the angry managers confronting each other on the sideline, Camus squaring up to the pugnacious Norman Mailer? The crunch of Depardieu’s tackles, the elusive running of Spielberg, international football’s most hirsute and prodigious winger? In the dying moments Depardieu launched a hopeful ball forward which was crashed home by the gallant veteran, Sacha Distel, and France ruled once more. Camus stayed on, despite the sniping of intellectuals, such as the novelist Michel Platini, that he was reducing France to a nation of ball-kickers and was far too interested in motorbikes. When he was captured on tape by French radio saying what he would like to do to Platini with his motorbike, it was the last straw and Camus was forced to retire.   What if…

Commentators’ cliches came true?

Michael Moynihan
Sunday March 4, 2001
The Observer
It was another sad day for sport yesterday when the Arsenal goalkeeper David Seaman was seriously injured by a free-kick from Stuart Pearce of West Ham, during an FA Cup tie between the two teams. Seaman was slammed against a post and suffered serious internal injuries after being hit by a ‘piledriver of a free-kick’, as described by veteran BBC commentator John Motson. Motty was taken into custody following his remarks in accordance with the new Potent Description (Amendment) Act, which requires commentators not to employ excessive clichés. As he was bundled into the police van, Motson was heard to shout, ‘You’re lucky I didn’t say it was an exocet.’  The Act has been rushed through Parliament in response to the serious consequences of a bizarre series of events in recent months. Indeed this isn’t Motson’s first clash with authority, according to Scotland Yard’s recently formed Linguistic Rectitude Section, the branch charged with pursuing loose and lazy sporting descriptions. A few weeks ago Motson described Alan Shearer as being ‘sick as a parrot’ after missing a penalty, and the Newcastle player had to call on an array of veterinary experts and gastric specialists to effect a recovery. The Toon Army were aghast at the sight of their talismanic captain reeling around the opposition box, flapping his arms and babbling about wanting a cracker, while Bobby Robson angrily maintains Shearer’s abdominal delicacy has robbed his star of a vital yard of pace, even if his ability to perch on opponents’ crossbars is now a vital, if unpredictable, attacking asset. Aston Villa’s David Ginola has been another whose game has suffered following a casual remark from a Match Of The Day stalwart. This time the culprit was Motson’s colleague Barry Davies, who made passing reference to the Frenchman’s ‘wizardry on the wing’. The next time Ginola received the ball he continually tripped over his flowing, star-spangled gown, while his heading, never emphatic, deteriorated totally because of his pointy warlock’s hat. ITV have their own problems, with Clive Tyldesley’s thoughtless reference to Thierry Henry’s ‘lightning pace’ in the recent FA Cup clash the subject of a million-pound writ from Ken Bates. Marcel Desailly is making a good recovery from the electric shock he suffered, but Frank Leboeuf’s bald pate means that he’s not expected to play again this season. He joins Ed de Goey in the treatment room. The Dutchman is being treated by toxicologists following what Tyldesley described as a ‘venomous drive’ from Dennis Bergkamp in the same match. Tyldesley is also one of a number of commentators helping police with their enquiries with perhaps the most common and most embarrassing cliché: ‘handbags at 10 paces’. The FAare particularly keen to eradicate this one, as it views the proliferation of feminine accessories during off-the ball flare-ups as bad for the game’s macho image – though it has added to the list of possible new Premiership sponsors, with Prada known to be interested. Tyldesley’s partner in crime, Ron Atkinson, is another to have been taken into custody, after typical comments such as ‘What’s happened there Clive, is early doors there’s been a nasty crowd scene in the box but the Latvian lad’s leapt like a salmon to nod it down at the back stick’ resulted in some remarkable incidents on the pitch. However, his lawyers are confident that they can get their man off on a technicality: strictly speaking these are ‘Big Ron-isms’ and not clichés, and therefore not covered under the Act. But, prosecution lawyers maintain, surely this is just another case of Big Ron playing his oft-used ‘get out of jail’ card?* Worryingly, these developments are now beginning to spread into other sports. Veteran rugby union commentator Bill McLaren described Scottish front-row forward Tom Smith as ’17 stones of prime Scottish beef on the hoof’ – England then refused to play the Calcutta Cup game after two Welsh players were trampled to death after an Aberdeen Angus bullock packed down at prop for Scotland. For once, there was no dancing in the streets of Kelso, Jedburgh and Hawick. Tragic though these occurences certainly are, they tend to obscure the central question: how is this happening? What has occurred in the last couple of years to render the cliché real? Perhaps the answer can be found with John Motson, widely regarded as the ringleader of these dangerous commentators. When taken into custody recently a Harry Potter novel fell out of the BBC man’s sheepskin-jacket pocket. Questioned about the significance of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire , Motson said he was simply trying to bring a bit of magic back to the cup. * As in: ‘The big German keeper’s used his get out of jail card there Clive.How to… write a footballer’s autobiography

Michael Moynihan
Sunday August 5, 2001
The Observer
Obviously the photos are the most important part of the biography. Always start with yourself and the school team (‘First time a winner! I’m in the middle of the back row’) before moving on to apprentice (‘First team hopeful – don’t think much of that hairdo!’) and thence to first cap (‘A proud day’). Phase out the exclamation marks after the first few snaps. Try to think of a minor celebrity you met in the offseason at Snifters’ nightclub and include a photo of her (‘It’s not all hard work being a footballer’) but always close with a happy families snap (‘Becki, me and little Kim’). I start with the photos because that’s what people look at first. After that everything falls into place, really. Sure, you’ve got to organise a couple of hundred pages, but the pictures are the key. The early chapters should mix burning determination with bashful acknowledgement. The best way to combine the two is with a chapter on Youthful Rejection: if you were let go as an apprentice by the club you followed, invent a scene where you stood outside their stand and shook your fist (‘I vowed the next time I went there it’d be wearing a Premiership club’s shirt’); you don’t have to mention the fact that you got shown the door for snorting cocaine out of the thigh-high leather boots of the director’s underage daughter. Don’t leap straight into first-team regular: some stock characters have to be overcome – the Embittered Pro (‘Maybe he thought I was after his place’) and the Sceptical Manager (‘The injury crisis was for me the silver lining on other players’ clouds’). The former usually becomes a friend and adviser (‘Funny, Frank and I became great mates afterwards’) while the latter never warms to you: the important thing is to end your character assassination of the manager with some magnanimity (‘I’ve never forgotten that he gave me my first break’). So what if he lost his job because you broke curfew the night before the crucial cup replay? When you get to mid-career it’s as well to throw in one of two options: the Career Threatener or the Great Controversy. I prefer the Career Threatener as it gets sympathy immediately (‘I feared the worst when the doctor could barely look me in the eye’) and prepares the reader for the obligatory Triumphant Return, a mandatory chapter finish (‘I didn’t score on my comeback, but it didn’t matter. I was back’). There’s always the possibility the book may sag with the Painful Rehabilitation but a minor crisis with the wife can always pep things up here – just don’t go into detail about the three stone you put on after six months gorging on Kung Po chicken takeaways. The Great Controversy is more difficult to pull off, but if it works you’ve got two chapters ready-made, lovely. There’s a standard opener (‘I’ve never told anyone my side of this story’), a touch of disbelief at the ruckus (‘It happens every Sunday all over the country but you never hear anything’) before the icing on the cake – the Loss of Proportion (‘Someone told me the Prime Minister was asking about it!’). This allows you to wind up with Support of the Common Folk (‘The fans never abandoned me. I’ve never forgotten that’). You’re almost there now: the penultimate chapter should detail a World XI, Club XI or toughest opponents XI. I prefer the Club XI – it gives you a chance for revenge on dressing-room enemies when swatting away their chances for inclusion, but you have to be subtle. ‘Stan was deceptive – he wasn’t the quickest – but he got away with it by reading the game’, for example, is understood to mean that your teasing Stan about his waist size led to physical confrontations in which his weight advantage was used to some effect. The last chapter is usually ‘The Future For’ section. Get in a free plug for media work (‘I’ve always admired Alan Hansen’s fairness’), it doesn’t matter if your flattery’s at odds with private, forcefully expressed views, and mention any bars you’ve bought into. I always leave the decision on an index to the players, much as I do with the title. You get the odd smart alec looking for something different, a pun, but I prefer ‘My Story’. Timeless, adaptable: you can’t beat class.  

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