Confessions of an accidental travel agent


The Barclays Premier League. Listen to any obedient top-flight manager being interviewed these days and you’ll hear those four words repeated far more often than “sick as a parrot”, “game of two halves”, “set our stall out”, or “over the moon, Brian”. Not even a minor speech impediment could prevent Roy Hodgson from using the phrase at least 8 times in every interview given as manager of West Brom. Indeed his loyalty to the league’s sponsors presumably made him a shoe-in for his current role at the FA. Harry didn’t stand a chance. Since Barclays are yet to allow pets to set up current accounts, their name was never at the forefront of simple honest Mr Redknapp’s thoughts.

The Barclays Premier League. How just and true that the first division of my childhood is now sponsored by an institution that seeks to rob from the poor to reward the rich. Any bank’s…

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When the net ripples


It has become clichéd for footballers to talk about whether or not scoring a goal is better than making love; Paul Ince even claimed that tackling was better than sex, which raises more questions than it answers, not least in relation to the importance of wearing shin pads. No doubt in the modern game scoring off the field is becoming easier than on it, thanks to a combination of enlightened defensive tactics introduced by foreign managers and Chinawhite’s door policy, but — with apologies to the cliché police — certain similarities remain hard to ignore. The glorious anticipation. The rising excitement. A moment of ecstasy that subsides into mere joy, accompanied by a soundtrack of thrilled exclamations and stifled screams of delight. And the analogy doesn’t end there. Note the guilt and self-loathing that attacked Shaun Wright-Philips within seconds of his sneaky “solo-effort” against Chelsea. And in 1998 I’m sure I saw Fabien De Freitas roll…

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God Save the Queen. We mean it man

Eurovision 2014 has been won by a bearded lady. I repeat, Eurovision 2014 has been won by a bearded lady. The entertainment bar has been set pretty high this year, and the World Cup in Brazil now has to deliver an enormous amount of excitement if it’s ever going to eclipse the image of the bristles on Austrian diva Conchita Wurst’s beautiful scary face. Austria haven’t qualified for Brazil, which is a shame, because if they had they would have been forced by FIFA directive 873c to play Conchita’s “Rise Like A Phoenix” (ironically only narrowly beating Hungary’s “Dive Like a Uruguayan for Eurovision glory) instead of their regular national anthem “God Save Paul Scharner” before all three of their fixtures. Now, the closest we’ll get to some Conchita time is if Christiano Ronaldo has his Gillette Mach 3 confiscated at Lisbon airport and goes all Peter Withe in the knockout stages. Lovers of international music need not despair, however, as the pre-match national anthems have the potential to salvage any world cup. Here are 7 elements of national anthems to celebrate in Brazil:

  1. Pure unadulterated pride

There’s nothing like a good stirring national anthem delivered with pomp and force to get the blood pumping before a match. Statisticians have uncovered a direct correlation between the neutral’s attachment to any nation and the intensity with which players clutch or beat their chests while singing their national anthem. It is for precisely this reason that the Chile squad of 1998 managed to convert more neutrals to their cause than any other football team in history; indeed, the Chilean national anthem was bellowed out so passionately by Zamorano et al before the Italy game that three Azzurri midfielders spent the first half playing for Chile.


Some countries take themselves too seriously and insist upon having solemn, austere and grand national anthems, but this has been scientifically proven to damage their chances of winning a world cup. How many world cups have the solemn-anthemed Japan, Russia, and South Korea won between them? None at all, the miserable trophiless bastards. Thanks to the adorable philanthropist Vladimir Putin, however, Russia have now adopted YMCA as their new anthem and will proudly wave rainbow flags to it before all of their matches in Brazil, thus making them this year’s dark horses. But there’s stiff opposition, because 2014 will be the World Cup of jaunty national anthems. The hosts lead the way with a tune so twirly and swirly that that listening to it is the musical equivalent of eating a Curly Wurly on a really fun rollercoaster. Indeed it’s so catchy that Brazil supporters have a tendency to keep singing their jaunty anthem even after the brass band are out of puff, a phenomenon that ITV are already calling a samba carnival of a cappella madness. Italy, Brazil, and Uruguay have the three jauntiest national anthems in the world and share 11 World Cups; Greg Dyke has made enquires with Buckingham Palace to see if he might be able to change the English national anthem to the theme tune to Captain Pugwash before Roy’s boys fly to South America.

3. Violence and intolerance of others

Let’s kick racism out of football. Yes. And let’s kick violence and intimidation out of football while we’re at it too. Of course. Although we do encourage teams to line up and sing songs about their own national and racial superiority, threatening wherever possible those of other races and nationalities. The fifth most commonly occurring noun in the anthems of the 32 qualifying nations (translated into English where necessary) is blood, and the fourth most common verb is die. The French anthem contains the ominous oath “may impure blood water our fields” and the Mexican anthem contains a very thinly veiled threat of death to any non-Mexican who sets foot upon “our soil”. If fans were this threatening during a match, they might face a stadium ban. With pre-match brass band accompaniment, however, it’s all fine.

4. No connection whatsoever to football

National anthems have very little to do with football. The most common nouns in the lyrics to be heard this summer are God, land, glory, and homeland, and the most common verbs are love, live, and witness. All these words are notably far more at home in the titles of American TV series than in the build-up to a football match. The most common adjective is “free”, though sadly it’s never found alongside “kick”. Foot references are few and very far between: Ecuador mentions “victory’s heel” and Mexico is watchful of its enemy’s “sole”, and sadly snail-paced Diego Lugano’s request to have the Uruguayan national anthem changed to “These boots were made for walkin’” is a lame rumour that I’ve just made up.

5. School assembly

National anthems before football matches satisfy our mad lust for school assembly nostalgia. As in school assemblies, any live performance of a song before a football match must involve the following features, as stipulated by FIFA Ruling 468b:

i. the melody should be played at a random speed

ii. nobody present must know when to start singing

FIFA also demand (in Ruling 914d) that each participating squad should have at least one player who does one of the following during the playing of their own anthem:

i. Mumbles into his own chest

ii. Closes his eyes

iii. Pretends to sing but clearly doesn’t know the words

iv. Loudly shuts random snatches of lyrics

v. Looks bewildered by the very concept of music being played by a musical instrument

Again, the similarities with school assembly hymn-singing are conspicuous. And this is not the only connection between school assembly and the singing of national anthems. After World War One, the Treaty of Versailles stipulated that Germany had to take its national anthem from a hymn selected randomly from English Primary School assemblies. It is a matter of speculation whether, had Germany won World War Two, English children would now have to sing the Scorpions’ “Wind of Change” in school assemblies.

6. The utter shitness of “God Save the Queen”

Just as one day every Englishman must accept the fact that the only thing golden about the golden generation were their Rolexes and their Grahams, so too must he accept that “God Save the Queen” is the shittest of all National Anthems. It’s a national embarrassment. It begins with just one note played about 70 times, but not in a cool knowing electronica style or even a fun Harlem Shake style, it’s just slow monotonous dross. We should have known that Gary Neville was going to be a good TV pundit because he was always the one too smart to engage in the shit anthem in any way. God Save the Queen, my red arse, he was probably thinking. No, the taxpayers are saving the Queen, and for what? To be charged £15 to walk around three rooms of Buckingham Palace only to find that her choice of carpets and wallpaper is even worse than Steven Gerrard’s choice of when to slip over.

By the way, you odd people that attend England games instead of staying at home and signing a cyber-petition against the existence of Tom Cleverly, your recent attempts to sing “God Save the Queen” DURING matches has been frankly embarrassing and you are urged to learn the words to “Abide with me” instead.

7. Booing

A lot of people believe that England fans drown out opposition anthems with booing because they are disrespectful xenophobic hooligans, but this is not the case at all. It is simply too traumatic to hear how good other national anthems are when you’re stuck with “God Save the Queen” (see point 6). The French national anthem is so rousing and cool that it even managed to steal a scene from the peerless Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. England fans simply do not need to be reminded.

Of course it’s not just the English who see fit to boo other countries’ anthems. Still bitter about that whole Treaty of Versailles business, German fans have been known to boo a little, most notably in alliance with their Italian cousins (there’s something unnerving about that combination of words) before the 1990 World Cup Final. The Argentinian national anthem is played and the boos reverberate around the Stadio Olimpico so loudly that it’s possible that the brass band are joining in. Look it up on Youtube. The camera pans along the Argentina eleven and not one of them manages to sing a word of the anthem. Then we see Maradonna and he’s furious, fists-clenched, as enraged as Zamorano is proud, and shouting the word “whores” at everyone and anyone.

No doubt in the near future, the World Cup will follow the inglorious paths of the Champions League and the Premier League have its own anthem. At the time of writing, rumours that this anthem will be the Flying Lizards’ cover of “Money” are yet to be confirmed; other options include the yet-to-be-written “All hail Blatter, whose palms are truly greased” and the far catchier “Ode to <insert sponsors name here>”. If a World Cup can be hosted by Qatar, then the England Football Team can be ordered to sing “I feel like chicken tonight” before getting knocked out on penalties by Bosnia and I’m Lovin’ It Herzegovina. 2014 might well be, then, our last chance to enjoy the audio-visual treat of the pre-match National Anthem. Don’t be like Stevie G. Don’t let it slip.

Seven things you can learn about football from movies

At 19, Michael Owen had won the Premier League Golden boot twice and was one year away from winning the Ballon D’Or. And he’d never read a book. He revealed this, ironically enough, while being interviewed at the launch of what some might call his premature autobiography, Michael Owen In Person. Not only this, he’d only ever seen the whole of ONE film, and that, bizarrely enough, was the Jamaican bobsled comedy Cool Runnings. Michael, you should have managed a couple of football films at least. You like the number 7, so here are 7 things you could have learned:

1. Nobody wants you to become a professional footballer. You and all your potato-faced mates have supported Sheffield United since forever, and you’ve got a once-in-a-lifetime make-or-break trial first thing in the morning, but what’s more important? Playing football for your beloved Blades and becoming a wildly successful millionaire footballer, or drinking some more pints right now. It’s a no-brainer. Neck it Sean. When Saturday Comes, we want you hungover like the rest of us. Oh, and watch out football-playing girls if your furious family are all racial stereotypes. You can forget about Bending it like Beckham; get to your room and wait for an arranged marriage, or whatever we like to imagine they do in your fictional minority culture.

2. It’s all about dribbling. Good footballers dribble. They dribble from one end of the pitch to the other and then side-foot the ball into the net. Close control has no role to play in the dribbling. Watch Dorothy in Gregory’s Girl weave her way through a typically sprawling Scottish defence, the ball never more than, say, a metre away from her toes. And she’s a girl! In America, not only girls, but weedy boys (Kicking and Screaming) and Soccer Dogs can achieve similar glorious success with lame dribbling montage after lame dribbling montage, believed to be known in the industry as “the Wanchope sequence”.

3. Substitutes take penalties. Your debut will be as a substitute, quite possibly only days after your trial (which for some reason took place in an allotment). If you get on the pitch and the ref points to the spot, it doesn’t matter that nobody in the ground knows who you are. You’re taking it. (To see this work really well in a movie, hunt out the Brazilian film Linha de Passe. You’ll end up forgiving the implausibility and possibly wanting to watch The Italian Job again…erm…spoiler alert, kind of).

4. Sometimes you’ve got to take one for the team. The team needs Sylvester Stallone to go in goal so that he can help us all escape at half time. All you need to do is rest your arm between two planks while Michael Caine stamps on it. Your response? “Try to make it a clean break”. That’s the spirit.

5. Nazis are evil. Look at the way they cheat in Escape to Victory. The constant fouling, the bribing (or something similar, probably) of the ref. Pele’s broken ribs. There’s something strangely sinister about those Nazis. I can’t put my finger on it, but it might be the swastika and lace-up collar combination on their shirts.

6. Stoke City are worse than the Nazis. OK, so this is inference, but if we’re ever going to get anywhere in life, we all have to agree that what Stoke City want to do to our beautiful game is just as bad as what Hitler wanted to do to Europe. At least the Germans don’t try to throw the ball into the Allies’ net. At least the Nazi major stands up and applauds the beauty of Pele’s bicycle kick. Not even the Nazis would boo a player for having the audacity to get his leg broken by Ryan “not-that-kind-of-lad” Shawcross.

7. Football is joyful. The games lesson scene in Kes captures it perfectly. Even in bitterly cold weather with a ball that stings and a sadistic bully of a teacher, in spite of all the inherent injustice, a game of football is a joyful event. See the magical scene in the Swedish film Tilsammans, when the entire hippy commune is out playing football in the garden. Everyone can join in, no matter how hairy, sad-faced, or confused about their sexual orientation they are. It’s truly joyful. Compare this with any orgy scene in any film and you’ll see that yes, football is better than sex, and unlike sex it actually improves once children become involved.

And this is what you should have learned from movies Michael Owen. It’s not about your huge salaries and your helicopters, properties, racehorses, and your embarrassing prospectus. It’s definitely not about ending your career in the reserves at worse-than-the-Nazis Stoke City. It’s all about the joy.

• Michael Owen in Person is available from £0.01 used on Amazon, where readers have awarded it 4 ½ stars. You might also be interested in the similarly inspiring titles Gerrard: My Autobiography and, err, Carra : My Autobiography. Who says Liverpool are no longer a great club?