Sunday 30 December 2012

Voodoo, graveyards and impotency: Is witchcraft rife in African football?

Voodoo, graveyards and impotency. Alex Lawson delves into the strange world of witchcraft in football

Ghanaian goalkeeper Richard Kingson's wife
claimed to have used 'evil powers'
When Ghanaian goalkeeper Richard Kingson was released by Blackpool last year he probably believed he had reached the nadir of his patchy career in English football. However, claims by his wife earlier this year that she had used witchcraft to affect his loss of form towards the end of his time at the Tangerines, as well as his alleged loss of form in the bedroom, which left the veteran of two World Cups more embarrassed than a secret cross-dresser outed at a team building away day. 

Kingson's wife Adelaide Tawiah, who had originally claimed on Nigerian TV to have used "evil powers" to affect his form, has since retracted the statement, claiming she was possessed in the broadcast from the Synagogue Church of All Nations at the time. The incident has raised an oft occurring question - how rife is witchcraft in African football?

In several African nations, most notably Ghana and Kenya, witchdoctors are not an uncommon sight at a football match while teams have been known to spend the night before a big match in a graveyard to channel what is termed 'Juju magic'. 

Former Ghana coach Goran Stevanovic blasted his players for using black magic in a leaked document following the African Cup of Nations earlier this year. The Serbian said that some players had used "black power to destroy themselves" which had created deep divisions in the squad and caused the Black Stars to be sent crashing out of the competition in a shock defeat to Zambia at the semi-final stage. 

Ghanian Football Association president Kwesi Nyantakyi claimed the team was deeply fractured. "During the competition we observed that some players played to achieve personal fame, prominence and excellence to the detriment of the team," he said.  
Former Ghana midfielder Laryea Kingston, who had been accused of using black magic by fans, claimed that his teammates often "put sin in their shoes" to appease Juju forces but he was not involved in the practice. Mohammed Abu, who won the 1978 Africa Cup of Nations on home soil with Ghana said he had seen players deliberately miss penalties for fear that if they scores their family will die. "Everyone is asking for help but this evil, this devil is deceiving you," he said, adding that a witchdoctor once made him drink a 'lucky' drink which was in fact Schnapps and he was forced to play drunk.

But the phenomenon is not just confined to Ghana. Earlier this year, Kenyan side Shikaadabu blamed their 6-0 drubbing by the fantastically-named Hippo Youngsters on their archrivals Vimwanga who they claimed had bewitched their goalkeeper. Moreover, Kingstone FC threatened to abandon a match with Mombasa region side Super Eagles after claiming they found their opponents "smearing themselves in ndumba (voodoo) before the match", according to manager Said Mwinyi. The claims were not entertained by league officials and the debate continues to rage in the coastal region of the East African country. 

The issue of witchcraft in football will ultimately only escalate if it becomes increasingly evident players are altering the outcome of matches deliberately to satisfy evil spirits they believe will do them harm. Those who do express these beliefs are likely to incur the wrath of their managers, league officials and fans and are likely to suppress their activities. 

In a game that has the fine margins of luck, pressure and scrutiny that football has, players are striving to influence the game through whatever means possible. Richard Kingson, meanwhile, may have to set up a meeting with Pelé about a shipment of those little blue pills he recommended.

English clubs need to downsize stadiums for the sake of fans

Alex Lawson suggests that some English clubs could follow Italian clubs' lead and reduce the capacity of their stadium.

Market forces are against football clubs looking to increase their fan base. Sure, Manchester City and Chelsea are increasingly finding a bigger and bigger global fan base but the likes of Wigan, Blackburn and Bolton in the North West where competition for support is rife as well as clubs like Coventry and Middlesborough suffer from swathes of empty seats on a weekly basis.
The Old Lady's new home, The Juventus Stadium
Greed in the English game forcing up ticket prices, combined with competition from other sports and activities for kids, have combined to drive fans away from British grounds. Even some of the most ardent supporters have said no to choosing between buying a season ticket and having a holiday at an equivalent cost. As such a number of clubs have found themselves in large, newly-built modern grounds missing missing the crucial final piece: fans.
But over in Italy several clubs are taking action. The Old Lady Juventus last season moved into their new surroundings - the imaginatively named Juventus Stadium - after years of empty seats at the much disliked Stadio delle Alpi which was built for the 1990 World Cup. The reasons behind the stadium’s average attendance being a pitiful third of its 67,000 capacity are plentiful but centre upon bad sight lines due to the running track, a poor atmosphere and a dearth of transport links. But fundamentally Juventus were a team ill-matched to their ground. While claiming to be Italy’s ‘best supported’ club with around 11 million fans, the residents of Turin chose to watch Torino while Juventus sold out grounds in Milan, Parma, Palermo and Bologna when they played a number of ‘home’ matches elsewhere in 1994-95 to try to the alleviate the problem. The new ground, built on the same site, is relatively compact - seating 41,000 fans - and has a tight rectangular shape beneath an oval roof in a more British style. In short, it suits The Old Lady like a pile of knitting on a winter’s afternoon.
But it is not just Juventus that have come to terms with the failings of their long-term home. The San Siro, one of Europe’s most majestic and iconic grounds, will no longer house the blue side of Milan’s famous duelling rivals. Inter Milan last month revealed China Railway Construction Corp will invest in its new stadium, moving out of the 80,065 capacity San Siro after ground sharing with Milan since 1946. The new Internazionale stadium will have a capacity of 60,000 and construction would start next year, due for completion in 2017, although a location has not been confirmed. Meanwhile, arch rivals AC Milan will be hoping the team can improve gates and atmosphere after recording their lowest ever season ticket sales of 23,000, some of which were returned after the sale of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Similarly, Udinese are also planning to redevelop and modernise their Stadio Friuli, revising its capacity down from 42,000 to 25,000.
For British clubs keen on expansion, these Italian decisions could sound a note of caution. A number of traditionally big clubs including Nottingham Forest and Sheffield Wednesday have proposed expansions on top of older but atmospheric grounds. West Ham, too, could think twice before trading up to the larger Olympic Stadium in favour of the cauldron of Upton Park, if a deal is ever done. The East Londoners are also known to heavily discount ticket prices at midweek matches suggesting the better fortunes of other London clubs is beginning to hurt attendances.
Ultimately, clubs need to ensure that their stadiums reflect both the size of their fanbase at present and allow a proportion of extra capacity if the team hits good times. A winning combination of an impassioned fanbase and modern facilities remains both an achievable and common aspiration.
Article originally appeared on

Monday 3 December 2012

Could St Pauli become the next Ebbsfleet United?

St Pauli are an altogether very unique club. Founded on left wing principles, resurrected from obscurity by an openly gay former chairman and fiercely feminist despite being situated in a district where objectifying women is commonplace. 
The Millerntor stadium
Hamburg's second team and drifting in mid-table in Germany's second division, many could be forgiven for being surprised at St Pauli's position as one of the most ardently followed clubs in world football. However, the team's transformation in the 1980s from lower league also-rans to a punkish, anti-facist movement fronted by the Totenkopf - the skull and crossbones flag - has perked interest worldwide. 

Approaching the Millerntor stadium on Saturday during an annual trip to Germany to reap the delights of the Christmas markets, the difference from the average trip to the Ricoh Arena are obvious. Fans can openly drink outside the ground, stopping only to recycle their empty bottles, there are as many mohawks, piercings and band hoodies as there are oversized guts and Alan Partridge jackets. 

The game itself is a Sting-like tantric affair, always threatening to kickstart into life as opponent Kaiserslautern boss the early exchanges before St Pauli play through the middle to get the battle their way back into the game. The much-lauded atmosphere itself doesn't disappoint, Pauli's bouncing and flag waving is matched by their rivals loud support, orchestrated amusingly by a bloke sat atop a fence not watching the game in a Bez-like role. Kaiserslautern hit the post no less than three times in the first half but it's St Pauli who edge it in a game with plenty of quality and not befitting its division. Daniel Ginczcek, on load from Borussia Dortmund, knocks in a scrappy finish, almost fluffing an open goal before the ball bounces back off the post and into his shins. The goal is followed, as ever, by Blur's Song 2 booming out over the PA and the bloke next to me - an Eintracht Braunschwieg fan - is pleased his side's rivals have been denied and he rolls off towards the dubious Reeperbahm red light district. 
I meet one of St Pauli's most ardent fans
The experience has been a unique one from the busker screaming hardcore tunes in a rasping husk outside to the carefully crafted graffiti in the ground's underbelly, this is a match day like no other. 

But a key concern has been hanging over St Pauli in recent years. Since the club dug itself out of €1.95m of debt through initiatives like a 'drink for St Pauli' day where local landlords donated 50 cents a beer, their fortunes on and off the pitch have been largely positive. Flamboyant ex-chairman Corny Littmann left the club after its promotion to the Bundesleiga in their centenary year in 2010 but not before building a global brand centred on the Totenkopf. 
The Kaiserslautern faithful and a pretzel seller

The club's shop generates £7m a year and a quick whip round it revels why. Official shirts sold at €70 are snapped up, as are St Pauli mugs, stickers and even a sandwich toaster. For a club so leftie it played in Cuba to support president Fidel Castro and hosted the FIFA Wild Cup in 2006 to support smaller unrecognised nations like Tibet and Zanzibar, this ruthless capitalism does not sit comfortably. Moreover, while I snaffle up admittedly one of the very last seats in the ground, the €42 price tag (doubtless not representative of the entire ground) does not fit with German football's cheap tickets/large crowd principles. 

The brand that has been built - club shop staff are even given 'crew' hoodies to look like punk roadies - has not gone unnoticed. St Pauli's values have attracted a global following (supporters groups meet in Edinburgh and London to watch matches every Saturday) however it is this popularity which is undermining their unassuming, localised principles. 

A St Pauli sandwich toaster
So what can the club do? If they shut down the shop and discourage fans in spreading the word it will undermine the camaraderie built up. Modern football is big business and financial stability is vital If they continue to exploit the brand further, it may turn off some key fan groups. Fan pressure group Social Romantiker is already fighting excessive advertising and corporate seating in the stadium. It may be interesting, therefore, to see whether St Pauli could exploit their fan-owned spirit to allow supporters to take on an Ebbsfleet Untied or Venezia model where fans vote on transfers or elsewhere where it's been taken further and supporters go online to vote on substitutions. 

St Pauli fans already own 51% of the club under German football association rules so it may not be a huge step. Fan power has proved a controversial topic, those on the terraces always believe they know best but often harbour idiotic thoughts. However, if St Pauli are to drag their ethics into the 21st century then it has to be considered. 
Alex Lawson

Sunday 4 November 2012

The Tumultuous Life of a Caretaker Manager

From Attilio Lombardo and Tomas Brolin at Crystal Palace to the man who guided Aston Villa to European Cup glory, caretaker management throws up some interesting oddities. 
Perennial caretaker manager Howard Wilkinson
As gruelling probation periods in jobs go, caretaker management in football is among the most arduous. From thankless tasks filling others’ shoes before someone more famous and erudite takes the position to being a genuine contender for a permanent position, having the pressure of hoards of fans watching your every move is a baptism of fire.
Two caretakers who have rolled up their sleeves and taken up the challenge are ex-AFC Wimbledon boss Simon Bassey and Tommy Wright, who was Chesterfield caretaker until the appointment of former Accrington Stanley boss Paul Cook this week. The pair shored up their sides after difficult starts to the season. Bassey took over from previous manager Terry Brown last month after a poor run of form from a club which had threatened back-to-back promotions the previous season. Bassey took AFC Wimbledon clear of the relegation zone before handing over the reins to Neil Ardley last month.
Wright recorded just one defeat in his 11 games but this was not enough to see him given the job permanently. For chairmen, a manager who knows the club and the players well can often prove both the simplest but the most effective option and Bassey looks likely to get the nod. Caretakers are often assistant manners, coaches and in the case of Southampton boss Nigel Adkins, the physio when he was in temporary charge of Scunthorpe (fans used to sing ‘Who needs Mourinho? We’ve got our physio!” during his tenure). However, being a caretaker can be a lonely game. Ignored by the press as names are thrown in the ring for your job and often overlooked in the annals of history despite the position being the proudest of many managers’ careers.
For example, four caretakers have stewarded the England national side through difficult days - Joe Mercer, who managed seven games in 1974, Howard Wilkinson is the only man to have managed them twice a year apart and Peter Taylor and Stuart Pearce who have a solitary appearance in the dugout against their names. In charge for a brief period and then cast away when the man with the cigar and the ego appear, it’s far from an easy gig.
The players, too, are unlikely to enjoy the situation. Former Northern Ireland manager Sammy McIlroy said recently: “Players love certainty, they hate reading speculation in the media and they thrive on continuity. There’s nothing wrong with a club showing a bit of patience when looking for a new manager but there’s also a danger of leaving it too late as well.”
But there remains plenty of glory in temporary management and, for some, there’s little pressure if they’re not in the frame for a permanent job. Among the most notable names in caretaker management is former Arsenal assistant manager Stewart Houston who guided the Gunners to the 1995 European Cup Winners Cup Final after George Graham was abruptly sacked. In recent years, Chelsea have provided an interesting caretaker narrative as Roman Ambrovich wends his way through the managerial merry-go-round. First Guus Hiddink led them to the semi-final of the UEFA Champions League in 2009 before Roberto Di Matteo brought home the jug-eared trophy this summer. Having proven himself on the biggest club stage at all, Di Matteo was deemed to have earned his stripes and got the permanent gig.
Not every stint is so brief or unique. There are several notable serial caretakers including Blackburn’s Tony Parkes and Spurs’ David Pleat. Parkes actually had six periods as caretaker manager at Ewood Park between 1986 and 2004, with the longest coming during the 1996-97 season when he was in charge for seven months after Sven-Goran Eriksson was appointed then pulled out and then Roy Hodgson worked out his contract at Inter Milan.
However, Parkes fell short of the record British caretaker spell held by Pleat. The last of his four stints as Spurs boss in the 2003-04 season lasted eight months and two weeks as the beige-suited bouncer warmed the White Hart Lane hot seat for Jacques Santini after the departure of Glenn Hoddle.
Ultimately caretakers do not get the respect that many permanent bosses are afforded despite steadying the ship in many cases. However, for a few men in football, these short stints can be their proudest achievements bringing silverware and fan adoration. Not bad for a temp job.
Article originally appeared on

Sunday 16 September 2012

Could football special trains make a serious comeback?

Supporters organisations and the British Transport Police have been looking carefully at bringing back Football Specials for some time. The balance between offering a comfortable and unthreatening environment for regular passengers and convenient transport for fans is creating tension and, frequently, arrests. 

In the 1970s and 1980s the dedicated matchday services were a commonplace method used to ferry fans to away games while attempting to contain hooliganism in a relatively controlled environment. 

At the height of hooliganism, spare carriages and redundant stocks of trains were used to transport huge numbers of fans to games. With firms such as the West Ham Inter City Firm and the Leeds Service Crew inciting violence on public trains, the more heavily policed football specials services evened out the balance of power between fans and authorities. But the specials became a hothouse for problems and were largely scrapped in the early 1990s as privatisation made organisation of services across the network harder. 

It came as a surprise then when then deputy chief constable Andy Trotter called for the regular re-introduction of chartered services in 2007. Trotter argued with the introduction of all ticket games, hooliganism is no longer the issue it once was for away travel. Afterall, why travel when you know you won’t be allowed in?

Intermittent meetings between BTP and representatives of Passenger Focus, Virgin Trains, the Association of Provincial Football Supporters Clubs, Network Rail, the Premier League and the Football Supporters’ Federation - collectively the Rail Football Forum (RFF) - since have resolved a partnership approach was needed to tackle the minority of disruptive fans. However, the round table discussions concluded that clubs needed to be involved in the services and agree to ban any fans misbehaving, a viewpoint which clubs appear reluctant to adopt.

There are some clubs who currently run irregular football specials including Arsenal, Chelsea, Bolton, Manchester United and Blackpool while the practice is commonplace on the public railway service in Germany. 
Passenger Focus’s rail director Ashwin Kumar the RFF is looking at group reservation systems and discouraging anti-social behaviour. “The difficulty in addressing some of the problems is the different perceptions of what is considered acceptable behaviour,” Kumar adds, saying even singing and chanting can be intimidating. 

RFF also looks to exchange information on problem gangs, highlight potential flashpoint fixtures and offer incentives such as special rail football tickets. 

Virgin Trains’ Train Chartering brochure reveals an upmarket option in football transport, complete with a “fillet of sea bass served on a provencale hash” for the peckish. Virgin has been working on a number of packages, including one with Chelsea offered via Thomas Cook Sport. Teams too are increasingly travelling via train to avoid onerous airport security.

Halfway measures, such as heavily policed services to the recent Johnstone's Paint Trophy final between Swindon and Chesterfield have also been welcomed by the Football Supporters' Federation. 
But, while there may be some enthusiasm from those in power, fans are more sceptical. Numerous anecdotes about being bombarded with abuse from home fans at stations and travelling on dilapidated rains are recounted in online forums.

Alcohol has become a critical issue in the debate. The Football Supporters Federation have lobbied train operators to clearly advertise when booze bans are in place well ahead of the fixture. If limited stocks of alcohol were introduced on board then specials may appeal.

Equally frustrating for fans is the fact that the cheapest, usually advance purchase, tickets have refund restrictions if the fixture is postponed. Increasing the flexibility of such tickets in exchange for individual fans signing up to a code of conduct is being considered by the RFF but train operators have shown little interest. 

Moreover, the idea that fans simply want to turn up to a game and be shepherded straight to the ground and back to the train is outdated. 

But there are bonuses, a good atmosphere can extend the experience beyond the ground and dedicated services offer a quick way to get home after the last regular train has left after night games. Moreover, opportunities to avoid the heavy traffic that dogs official coaches would be welcomed by fans.

The Rail Safety and Standards Board believes the network is under severe capacity constraints and big games such as cup finals offer the main avenue for specials. RSSB spokesman Matthew Clements says there are trains to hire from specialist operators but warns "this is an expensive business and the hirer, usually a football club or supporters body, has to carry the risk of a financial loss."

However the slow process of normalising specials again develops it is clear that it will take co-operation from rail operators, the police and football fans – something traditionally tough and complex to achieve.

Article originally appeared in Issue 303 of When Saturday Comes 

Hillsborough: An Owl's Eye View

The families of those Liverpool fans who lost their lives in the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 finally received some form of justice with the release of papers which show that South Yorkshire Police covered their tracks and shifted blame for the tragedy on to fans this week. I thought I'd re-publish the short piece I wrote on the home of my beloved Owls in ShadowPlay #22.

Hillsborough, Sheffield Wednesday
A spiritual home of sorts some of the best afternoons of my life have been spent in the blue plastic seats of S6. All those names, few of quality calibre, to pass before my eyes on the programme – some heroes Carbone, Di Canio, Hirsty, Pressman, Brunt, McGovern, MacLean and some error-ridden but loveable – Bullen, Peaks, Di Piedi. 

A few times I’ve looked at the Leppings Lane end from the Kop and thought about all those people gasping for air down there and I’m appalled at myself for coming to this place for something so futile. But it’s an age gone by and soon I’m up and complaining about a foul throw or a bad pass and I realise it’s just a place of passion. 
It can be difficult sometimes when 99% of the population associates a place you cherish with something so horrific that the over-played images of that day remain unbearable. 
Offhand comment you may think but really, as with many disasters, some bad decisions, some indecisive ones, and the passion, which allows football to be the great game it is, prove some of the causes. Rest in peace to those who lost their lives.

Euro 2012 Final: An Italian View

It’s 10.40pm local time, a group of sublimely talented Spaniards are hugging and celebrating on an unsteady television set,  a group of all-too-sober Italians have disappeared into what has become just another Sunday night and the bar owner - dressed in a headache-inducing lime green t-shirt - surveys the debris of scattered chairs outside his empty establishment. It wasn’t supposed to end like this.
Or rather it was, but the Italians, as with the raucous Irish fans who saw their team soundly beaten by the same scoreline, dared to believe.
There was a nervous tension as soon as the television set was switched on at Bar Maguttiana, just 200 yards from the sea front in Forte Dei Marmi in Tuscany. It’s a small but rich town littered with designer shops and bejewelled pensioners on bicycles. Roman Abramovich is known to bring his yacht here from time to time, but tonight is all about carefully nurtured footballing talent, rather than the lavish spending that finally got him his Champions League dream win for Chelsea in May.
A small, overly tiled, badly lit affair, Bar Marguttiana stands on the corner of the street and boasts a TV precariously balanced on two wine boxes in front of several rows of tables in a sectioned-off part of the street. As kick-off looms, punters nab chairs from wherever they can and bait Mr Lime Shirt who looks nervous as his bar doubles in size to block the road. Not ones to dampen my hopes of fulfilled stereotypes, two lads in identical baby blue t-shirts with gelled hair ‘banter’ with some passing girls in dubious white jeans. A woman at the front in Italian colours is taking photos of her unimpressed looking husband, who looks not unlike Pat Butcher. No-one’s saying much, everyone is staring intently at Rai1’s build-up.
And my, what build-up - after healthy sponsors Nutella and McDonald’s have introduced the TV coverage, an anchor so rigid he makes Des Lynam look like Lee Evans introduces pictures from around the country. We get a voluptuous blonde (equivalent to their Cat Deeley) fronting a packed piazza in Rome, a baffled looking brunette (Claire Sweeney) trying to ignore rowdy fans in Milan and a lonely looking bloke (Claire Balding) sat at a desk with a small child.
In the bar, Buffon gets a round of applause for belting out the national anthem with his eyes shut Aled Jones-style, and back in the bar, one of the gel-heads and a bloke in a Fillipo Inzaghi shirt sing along. Directly before the match, there’s a montage which includes shots of the World Cup win in 1982, the Pope and bizarrely, an Olympic fencing win in the 1990s. It almost makes you proud of Eddie the Eagle.
And we’re off, and everyone leans forward intently. A guy with a Sideshow Bob haircut attempts a joke with Mr Lime Shirt only to get a stoney-faced response. The early exchanges look promising for Italy. De Rossi looks lively, Balotelli up for it and the passing is fluid. Hope in the bar begins to rise palpably, eyes widen and even the cameramen are too focussed on a tense encounter to pick out ladies in the crowd. The pundits bemoan Chiellini’s early exit through injury and their Lawrenson proclaims it a big loss, but unlike Lawrenson, he manages to disguise his contempt for the game. Cassano is implored by the fans to make more of an impact. Beside me, my girlfriend, enduring every second, makes friends with an artist from Florence - she’s here for the opening of an open air exhibition including her work on the same street.
Then Silva scores. A neat, powerful header meets the roof of the net with the air of a seagull arriving with familiarity at a chip shop. The bar collectively groans but one man, dressed in white like some evil messiah, shoots up to celebrate. The celebration lasts no longer than a snap of the fingers but the exposed Spaniard turns, apologises like a teacher who’s stubbed his toe and sworn to those behind him and shakes the hand of Inzaghi. 
What follows feels predictable. The Spaniards up the pressure but the Italians briefly stand firm, Pirlo executes a superb Moore-esque tackle that turns gasps of despair into delight. The second goal goes in, the Spaniard jumps up, this time exiting the street bar, instantly on the phone, presumably to his betting agent. The barmaid tries to cheer up some old timers near the back of the bar with a little song and a shimmy. She raises a smile from a bloke in tortoise shell glasses but nothing more.
With half time comes a rush of bum bags to the bar. A girl in sparkly hot pants with a giant alsatian has turned up and is attracting attention, while the dog chews on a bike tyre. Rai1 offers up two pundits - one of which looks like Gregg Wallace, though Torode has been replaced by Mike Bassett. Bassett focuses on Balotelli’s liveliness, Wallace mutters something, presumably echoing Bassett’s views or intimating a buttery biscuit base is in order. Several fans have already left to go home. The artist from Florence goes to meet a collector who has commissioned a piece of art with no remit - she’s as nervous as the football fans.
The atmosphere lifts with the second half, and the Italians begin to come into it more. The gel-heads in the bar gesticulate wildly at the Azzurri and the ‘ooooh’ that goes up when Balotelli clean misses the ball in the air could’ve been heard in the Vatican. Pirlo begins to take some control, duelling with Iniesta and Fabregas but to no avail. The hope begins to sap from the bar; Sideshow Bob has lost interest and skipped off elsewhere, Mr Lime Shirt is cleaning down the counter and even Inzaghi looks a beaten man. A few glimpses of hope are not enough as the third and fourth go in in quick succession, Fernando Torres bookending a torrid two years which began with a World Cup win with a goal few could begrudge him. The fourth is enough for the bar to deplete completely and when Sergio Ramos runs away from the goal smiling after a cheeky attempt to nip it in past Buffon, it’s a marker that the game is over. Tortoise shell takes a long slug of warm Becks, the ghost of the tumultous defeat to the French in Euro 2000 cannot yet be eradicated.
Italy put their all into an engaging encounter but there was never a way back after the first 45 minutes. The people of Forte Dei Maimi, muted, with flags painted on their faces smudged in the heat, trudged home through the town, dreading a Monday morning with added venom.
History is told by the winners, but tonight the losers offered at least glimpses of glory.
Article originally appeared on

Combating Nigeria’s Militia through Football, not Firearms

Let’s be honest, Taribo West’s hair was daft. The stern face and died plats never mixed convincingly, but he may just have saved lives in providing an inspiration for young Nigerian footballers throughout the last two decades (well, maybe not while at Plymouth Argyle).
Global charitable giant World in Need (WIN), a Christian organisation set up in the 1990s to help alleviate poverty, has been working closely with the Universal Centre for Child Care Health and Youth Development (UCCCHYD) in Nigeria to ensure it is icons like Taribo West, and not firearms, that inspires young men in the country.
The two bodies have been working together for some time, with WIN supporting work with the marginalised Hausa River people in Lagos providing food. It has also been operating a school in Port Harcourt as well as running HIV AIDS awareness courses for street children in Lagos and operating a community book shop.
Southern Nigeria has hit the headlines frequently of late after a spate of kidnapping which saw demands for huge ransoms put upon government, companies and domestic or foreign families. It is thought that the practice has directly adversely affected the economy in the region creating a rising number of unemployed, unemployable and frustrated youths.
“Many youths are no longer interested in education, more of them are now taking to a life of crime in order to live the ‘big life’ they desire,” says World in Need’s operations manager Mark Aldrich.
“To arrest the situation, our organisation has developed a project that is aimed at reducing restiveness, militancy and related crimes among the youths in the area. The project is using football training as means for mentorship in positive competitiveness and discipline.”
The partnership between WIN and UCCCHYD is centred around the village of Rumuosi within a wider Ikwere community near the Port Harcourt City area.
Following a proposal by WIN, a parcel of land measuring 200m square was loaned to WIN by the community leaders of the village. The first bushes were uprooted by local youths and before long they were divided into two teams and convivially arguing over who got to be Kanu. The project has given a sense of purpose, camaraderie and, perhaps most importantly, an activity to vent pent up boredom and aggression in a productive manner for those involved.
However, it has been far from easy, as Aldrich explains. “The difficulties have occurred in teaching the ethos of teamwork and discipline needed to be a successful team, and curbing the natural enthusiasm the participants have for football,” he says.
“But, while gun culture is a very real problem, at least kidnapping is less of one as the coaches are from the area and so not associated with Western Oil Companies.”
And the partnership is now on a small but straightforward mission – attaining a steamroller. The lack of suitable land has lead to some frustration among players, coaches, and fans alike. It also increased the risk of injury although no-one expects an Emirates-like playing surface.
“Our training field does not have a smooth surface and is usually waterlogged whenever it rains,” says Aldrich. “Because this happens quite often, it leaves us without a venue to train on for several days a week especially during the rainy season which runs between April and September – this often proves a source of discouragement to the teams.” 
Aldrich and Nigerian WIN country director Tope Ajanaku are targeting £4,700 to landscape the ground to prevent waterlogging and a gold course mower to keep the playing surface in check.
Ultimately, it is hoped that the project can help prevent wider social issues around the use of guns, the rise in violent crime and unemployment long term. In the short-term, it may just be the kick around that saves a life.
Article originally appeared on

Lost causes: Football charities

Flash forward ten years and amateur football is entirely removed from its working class routes – watched and played exclusively by middle class, privileged players and its use as a salvation from lives of boredom, low self-worth and violent crime is shredded. This is a very real threat to the game. 
The drastic reduction of cash from Government outside the very top of the game is strangling the life from all we can boast about it to its doubters. 
The third sector is feeling the strain after the huge deficit created by the global economic downturn triggered drastic action from Government. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations estimates that by 2015-16 the voluntary sector will lose £911m in public funding.
The UK sporting charity sector is remarkably fragmented with the likes of The Football Foundation and Football Aid representing the larger players in a wonky pyramid featuring professional club’s charitable arms, corporate philanthropic projects, small-scale grassroots organisations and long-standing local government initiatives. 
This diverse area of the game stretches from the Liverpool Homeless League’s work to improve the lives and health of local youth hostel inhabitants to Woking Minders FC’s help with mental health issues and substance abuse. Moreover, cash is needed to create pitches, erect goals and build changing facilities for young players. 
On the surface, funding options are plentiful. Cash from The Big Lottery Fund, The Premier League, The FA, local councils and multinational charities is all available to football charities but, in reality, the funds are drying up quickly as sports minister Hugh Robertson, who is reportedly directing all his time and resources towards this summer’s London Olympics, chops finance to all areas of community football initiatives. 
The Football Foundation, which funds of over 1,500 community schemes from a pot of £40m a year and has received over 7,500 grants worth £420m in its 11-year history, benefits from matched-funding from The FA and the Premier League for every pound it spends and is having its finances dragged down as a result of the cuts.
London Tigers, a 25-year-old charity that provides health and educational support primarily to the Bangladeshi community in the capital and boasts mayor Boris Johnson as its patron, is facing extinction. 
The organisation received £762,370 of funding last financial year but has seen that plummet and forced founder Mesba Ahmed to slash his 40-strong full- and part-time staff to the point where he is forced to run the charity alone. “I do not know what the government think they are doing, do they just think they are going to blink and community issues will disappear?” says Ahmed. “Some of the people that we work with are the most disadvantaged from low income families and deprived local neighbourhoods.
“We could have David Beckham come down here and take lots of nice photos with him; that’s all great but to run a community football club you need money.”
Ahmed’s story is a familiar one. Cuts website reports that Aston FC, the East Hampshire Sports Council and Macclesfield Town’s community initiative were among many to have funding slashed to zero last year. The Federation of Stadium Communities, a body based in the Midlands that uses well-attended events and matchday marches to raise issues over crime rates, unemployment and disability, recorded a £27,598 deficit between income and expenditure in its last financial year. Chief executive Judy Crabb believes planning for the future is almost impossible at a time of great uncertainty. 
National Children’s Football Alliance director believes Ernie Brennan believes the cuts could actually benefit a sector misdirecting its efforts in competing too hard for a small pot of cash. “The most frustrating aspect of cutbacks is that the empire charities continue to ignore the fantastic work that the smaller charities do. We live in a third sector of divide and rule and this proves very effective in terms of culling the frontline in the current economic climate,” says Brennan who lambasted “immature” national organizations who “stack their boundary walls high” to prevent drip-down funding.
Of course, the public purse is not the only strained coffer. The general public are struggling to find the extra cash to give to charity while the number philanthropic donations from private corporations has deteriorated as the City feels the heat. 
Charities are having to be savvy – pushing resources online and studying consumer psychology carefully to latch on to social media trends. 
The effects of reduced resources are widespread. Poor health, increasing crime rates, rising unemployment, a further kicking for any sense of community spirit and ultimately skills on the pitch are all likely consequences for the country’s most deprived, not least the 13 million of the population who live in poverty and for whom even buying a kit is a stretch. Options appear scarce and, for some, the crunch point of closure may come all too soon.

Article originally appeared in Issue 302 of When Saturday Comes