The Rise Of Jesus Navas

Think of a Spanish player? Choose another? Ok, now choose one who doesn’t play for Barcelona, Real Madrid, or an English club? The player I am looking for has already scored at Euro 2012, albeit thanks to a generous assist from Andres Iniesta. Seven years ago, Jesus Navas suffered a bout of homesickness so severe that his Father and Brother had to take him home to Sevilla from the training camp in Huelva. For those with adequate Spanish geography, Huelva is in the same region as Sevilla. This is akin to leaving a camp in Leicester because you are homesick for Coventry.

Jesus Navas is a remarkable player, and has a scarcely believable story. In the overly masculine world of football, anxiety is a taboo. Football players are supposed to be robotic clones, speaking in predictable speak. Any sign of a perceived weakness is seized upon and held against you. Sadly, this is fast becoming a mere microcosm of wider society. Despite living in a world in which one in four adults suffer from a type of mental illness, silence is encouraged, whether this is as a result of fear of expectation.

In 2010, Jesus Navas replaced Pedro Rodruguez after 60 minutes of the World Cup final, and with the subsequent Spanish defeat of Netherlands, the rise was complete. It wasn’t always this way. In 2007, Sevilla had agreed to sell him to Chelsea, but the player rejected the move as he couldn’t manage to live outside of the wonderful city of Seville. The initial homesickness manifested into a far worse condition, a chronic anxiety which compromised any hope he had of representing the national team. Spending several days in Murcia with the under-21 team brought on an attack which put Jesus Navas’ dreams on hold. Murcia is only several hours away from Sevilla.

Yet, he spent six weeks in South Africa, and is half way through a tournament in Poland. Realising that he needed to seek help for his condition, Jesus Navas received therapy. Anxiety is often scorned at by wider society. It can strike anyone, often without warning, and can be a major obstruction to everyday life. Anxiety attacks often mimic heart attack symptoms, with a vastly increased heartbeat and pulse rate, coupled with an overwhelming sense of trepidation. Sadly, two of his then Sevilla team mates, Andres Palop and Enzo Maresca, were hugely dismissive of the condition, commenting to the press that Jesus Navas should ‘man up’.

Would a footballer with a broken leg be told the same? Of course not, as it is physically impossible to compete at the highest level with a physical condition. It is exasperating, therefore, that psychological issues are not viewed with the same severity. Thankfully, the rest of the Sevilla staff was supportive. Palop, a reserve Spanish goalkeeper when Spain triumphed in Euro 2008, was left out of the World Cup squad just as Jesus Navas was being included.

Spain has a wonderful squad, and it is a squad that is greatly enriched for the presence of Jesus Navas. Whilst they have been criticised for trying to score the perfect goal through intricate passing, the Sevilla star adds a different dimension. His direct pace and skill often produces an end product, and whilst he isn’t considered for the starting line-up, he is often the first substitute made by Vicente Del Bosque. Considering that three years ago the player himself was saying that he ‘has to be calm and take slow steps’ just to be considered for the national squad, this is remarkable progress.

The most intriguing footballers are infinitely flawed. In most examples this is down to lifestyle choices, but can there truly be a defence for an athlete who wastes their career through drink, drugs and sex? John Terry certainly isn’t a flawed genius because he feels a sense of superiority over women; he is just a reprehensible character. Dennis Bergkamp was the most elegant footballer of his generation, yet this fear of flying never diminished.

Jesus Navas is in a similar mode, but he is someone who has chosen to be honest about his anxiety. This makes him more endearing, more human. There are no doubt countless other footballers who have underlying conditions that they are unwilling to admit, paralysed by a fear of being ridiculed by a culture that still struggles to fully embrace difference. The rise of Jesus Navas from homesick teenager to World Cup winner is a heart-warming story, but the real battle is the one that he is thankfully winning. Like any mental illness, it is a lifelong battle that will never fully dissipate, but for now, Spain’s hopes could well rest on the winger from Sevilla.


No Borders. No Nations. Just People.

The red banner was a symbol of togetherness, a message of solidarity with displaced individuals. Alongside it sat eight players, playing for a purpose and for a love of the game. No Borders. No Nations. Just People. The wording was clear and powerful, and FC Kolektivo Victoria began this year’s Leicester refugee tournament.

In 2010 two men had a dream. They wanted fitness, but they wanted a team. Inspired by the AntiRa tournament in Hamburg, they wanted to create a collective of players with a social conscience. After a summer of friendly kickabouts, FC Kolektivo Victoria was born. The name stems from the Esperanto word for collective, and the park where it all began.

I attended my first kickabout in August of 2010, where I was one of three individuals passing the ball around. Numbers grew sporadically. Some weeks we would be inundated with a mixture of intellectuals, punks, local kids and those with a sheer love of the game. The ethos started to manifest itself. FCKV would not tolerate racist, sexist or homophobic behaviour. If you agree to that, let the inclusivity begin.

Having played competitive football since the age of 10, FCKV was like a beautiful blast of fresh air. With my previous team, being called derogatory names was becoming the norm. On the pitch sledging is one thing, being labelled a ‘fucking faggot’ simply due to having long hair was not. Physicality quashed any form of footballing expression. If you were skilful, they’d kick you twice as hard. FCKV enabled me to love playing football again.

Last year, we entered the refugee tournament for the first time, winning friends by an enthusiastic and open approach to all teams. We were eliminated in the quarter finals, but the much coveted fair play award was awarded to us. After years of striving for medals and trophies, this unexpected one was wonderful as it meant something widely different from what I had encouraged myself to aim for. Being sporting and inclusive can outweigh unhealthy competitiveness, but not fully.

With half of last year’s team absent, including all of the goal scorers, expectations were low. A solitary point was the ambition, fresh from a league campaign on the same pitches that saw us slide from 3rd at the half way stage to bottom by its conclusion. To give a flavour of the diversity, the other five teams in our group included an Arabic team, a team from the Leicester Afghani community, a Merseyside anti-racist organisation, a group of youths who have all been in care and use football as a tool of developing positive skills, and a mixture of Portuguese/Iraqi youngsters.

As for us, the team that lined up for this tournament only contained one player who originally hails from Leicester. Whilst on a Sunday we have seen players from countries such as Afghanistan, Turkey, Nigeria, Greece, France and Somalia, the eight man squad was a more British collective. Our goalkeeper, who explained to us all that his Mother had been smuggled out of the Soviet Union aged one and had been shot at by border guards as she started crying, started commiserating with one of the club’s founders who explained that he had grown up in Leeds. The solidarity and ease of the club ensured that more friends were made.

A greater question is raised though. Our goalkeeper, who had a wonderful tournament, has his roots in two nations that no longer exist, the USSR and Czechoslovakia. Whilst in current entities the identities and heartbeat of these lands may be kept alive, it makes you wonder about a world with no nations and no borders. Would the world be free from wars and conflict? Does the very notion of a border, dividing one group of people from another, cause greater harm than good? To relate it to football championships, the jury is still out. For every street battle between Neanderthals supposedly representing their nation, there are groups of fans from across the world, side by side, united in both football and friendship.

As for FCKV, we maintained our friendly approach but lost our fair play award to the Arabic Tigers. Our on pitch expectations were vastly exceeded, as we scored 8 points. Sadly, we missed out on the quarter finals by a point, despite a 5-1 win in our last group win. My hat-trick was my very first in a competitive game. In the middle of a major international tournament, for a fleeting moment I convinced myself that I had made it as a footballer.

Yet, I am a mere cog in a wider machine. For most of the players involved in the Leicester refugee tournament, they had made it. They had escaped a war, ran from persecution, and had the chance to express themselves in a sport that unites. This tournament was borderless, and whilst communities and nations were represented, there was pure equality, and a hugely vital event in the footballing calendar.

Watching England. In The Pub.

Pubs are not my favourite places. This largely stems from spending far too many wasted days within their confines, drinking the night away. When I stopped drinking alcohol in 2008, I tried desperately to enjoy them whilst wrapped in my sober bubble, but to little avail. Pubs can only be truly appreciated whilst drunk, when the alcohol fuelled code of talking rubbish only impacts those locked in the drunk tank.

Watching football in pubs is tolerable, unless England are playing. I have only ever watched England in a pub twice. The first of which was a Euro 2004 qualifying match against Turkey, and the second was the hilarious 0-0 draw with Algeria in the 2010 World Cup. For the latter match, a buffoon even through his empty pint glass at the projector during the match, and so it was with much trepidation that I entered The Horseshoes in Nuneaton at 4.30pm on a Friday afternoon.

Nuneaton is an unremarkable North Warwickshire town, famous for Ken Loach, Larry Grayson, George Eliot and a rate of teenage pregnancy only bettered by its rival town in mediocrity, Bedworth. I went to school and college in Nuneaton, and it was in this town that I met up with two good friends who I first met at the local Catholic school.

Another root of the trepidation was the reaction I had witnessed in the aftermath of the Champions League final. The pond life in the pub in Leicester where I viewed the game turned the latter stages into a pathetic, nationalistic battle. Despite Chelsea’s heroes hailing from the Czech Republic and the Ivory Coast, for the simplistic fools it was a straightforward England v Germany encounter. The subsequent Chelsea victory even resulted in a man in a West Ham shirt jumping on the table in sheer ecstasy. I also remember my first pint.

With an hour until the England game began, my fears were unfolding in front of my eyes. A group of six people, all clad in England shirts, were downing shots of vodka like water, whilst ignoring the rain fuelled spectacle that was unfolding. Maybe it’s my rampant football geekiness, but how can a supporter of a nation ignore a match that has a direct impact upon your chances of progression? It seemed as if they were only there to join in with the jingoistic fervour that accompanies national tournaments. At this stage, very few people in the bar were watching the Ukraine v France encounter.

Suddenly, it all changed. The rowdy group left, obviously to search for a more raucous environment where songs about German bombers can pollute the toxic air. In their place sat three men, and their football knowledge was impressive. On hearing my friend Liam’s Scottish accent, there was no ill-feeling, just an analysis of the decline of the Scottish game. As both Liam and I were there to ensure Greg was amongst fellow England fans, we had to bite our tongues when both teams scored.

There was no glass throwing, no xenophobic comments, and very little ignorance. There was cheering, shouting and dancing. We were lucky that The Horseshoes is a quaint wee pub that is marketed towards Real Ale drinkers. It holds folk music nights, and had customers in there happily snubbing the match that was unfolding. This surprised me, but did this highlight an underlying bigotry within? Or was it a rarity in amongst a regularity of loutish and laddish behaviour that was existing across the land? Either way, it was pleasing to be able to talk about an England game free from the prejudiced nationalism that can paint England supporters in a dark light.

Football Is Not War

The Dutch felt a sense of liberation in 1988. “It feels as we have won the war at last”, a former Dutch resistance fighter told Simon Kuper in his book Football against the Enemy. A university professor went even further, arguing that a Germany versus Netherlands match will always carry the connotations of World War II.

Tonight’s game is the biggest game of the tournament, even including the highly charged Poland v Russia encounter. A nation that, in 1993, thanks to the Institute of international Relations rated Germany as the most hated nation, against a country bemused by the constant hatred, and yet acutely aware of the elephant in the room. Football is not war, but somehow Germany v Netherlands can only be war.

The 1988 European Championships, held in the dying embers of West Germany, also served to right a footballing wrong, that of the 1974 World Cup. Heavily fancied, the Dutch imploded in a sea of arrogance and calmness. The German team, led by Beckenbauer and Muller, ruthlessly claimed the title. Total football was destroyed by single mindedness.

Despite this, there was a free-spirited nature about both teams in 1974. Rep and Breitner were anti-establishment, and Cruyff and Beckenbauer were great friends. The sole animosity came from Willem van Hanegem, who reasoned that his hatred for Germans was due to their ancestors. In 1974, he was a sole voice amidst the freshness of 29 year old wounds. In 1988, the mind-set had altered.

The 2-1 victory for the Netherlands in Hamburg signified a seismic shirt in Dutch attitudes. Winning the game on German soil felt like a sense of revenge for the five years of occupation on Dutch soil. Whereas the 1974 Dutch team were dignified in defeat, the 1988 team reflected the fans, with Ronald Koeman famously wiping his backside on Olaf Thon’s shirt. The popular opinion seemed to be that this German team ticked all the stereotypes. They were wildly ruthless, betraying little emotion or flair.

The truth is that, in 1988, the Dutch played with the same dogged determination, turning a footballing spectacle into its own mini battle. They deservedly won the tournament, and yet this was the catalyst for the rivalry to elevate. War rhetoric was rearing its ugly head, with the Dutch displaying a banner saying ‘we have come for our bicycles’, a reference to the confiscation of their favourite mode of transport during the war.

World War II’s horrors shame Germany, and rightly so. The atrocities by the Nazis are incomprehensible, and the suffering beyond the realms of humanity. But, what place does it have within football? The Dutch aren’t the only ones to fall into the trap. In 1996, the Daily Mirror showed themselves up with its own war references, badly misjudging the mood of the nation. To label all Germans as relics from a time that generations have tried to distance themselves from is to always live in a world without progress.

It’s also far too simplistic, but a convenient smokescreen to use. In 1988, the Dutch all believed that they came from familes who resisted the Nazi occupations. Films and plays about Dutch freedom fighters were commonplace, with the message abundantly clear: During the war, the Dutch were fout (good). Simon Kuper argued against this notion in a further book, suggesting that, in actual fact, very little resistance was offered by an exasperatingly compliant nation. He goes on to further discuss that the only nations to be relatively guilt free with their own record at helping Jews are Denmark and Bulgaria. The post-1988 rivalry may have its origins in the realisation that the Dutch were not the resistance fighters that was previously conveyed to the masses.

Tonight’s match sees a further shift. The Germany of 2012 are poles apart, excuse the pun, from previous generations. Players with historical roots in Spain, Poland, Turkey and Tunisia are playing an exciting, counter-attacking football, in comparison to a Dutch side that has moved to further relegate the beauty of total football to an historical footnote. The German attitude towards the Dutch remains one of jovial patronising, underpinned by the unspeakable guilt caused by a past generation. Football is not war, but Germany v Netherlands is always a footballing battle.

An Unspeakable Truth

In any society, at any point in history, measuring the prevalence of homosexuality has prevented difficulties, and with good reason. After all, why should somebody identify themselves purely by their sexuality? To classify someone based upon the gender they choose the sleep with is as ludicrous a notion as only defining someone has having black skin.

Nevertheless, studies have attempted to highlight the issue. A 2008 poll revealed that 6% of Britons described their sexual orientation as gay, whereas 13% had taken part in a sexual act with someone of the same gender. In a wider context, researchers concur that between 4-10% of any population are homosexual. In Italy, for example, this would equate to potentially 5.8 million gay people living in the country. Despite this, at Euro 2012, an Italian footballer has decided to raise the biggest taboo subject in football.

Antonio Cassano shouldn’t be at Euro 2012. In November, he underwent minor heart surgery that threatened his career. His comments today threaten to undermine him as a human being. When asked about media reports that there were two metrosexual players and two homosexual players in the Italy squad, the Milan forward said: “What’s a metrosexual?” before adding: “Queers in the national team? That’s their business. But I hope not.”

Why is Cassano so frightened? As a man who has recently eulogised that he feels blessed to be alive thanks to his health issues, to be so derogatory and bigoted exasperates. Despite Cassano’s immediate retraction, his use of the word queers pointedly highlights as to why there is currently one openly gay professional footballer, Tobias Hysen. Whilst Hysen plays in the Swedish third division, his brother Anton is in the Sweden squad for Euro 2012. Tobias Hysen was labelled a ‘global one off’ by the BBC. He follows a tragic case.

Much has been written about Justin Fashanu’s tragic life and subsequent death. The rejection by the footballing community that should have accepted him for who he was and not who he slept with. Alas, football, 22 years after Fashanu first came out as being gay, remains insular and unwilling to accept this unspeakable truth.

Nevertheless, hope prevails. My football team, FC Kolektivo Victoria, had the honour of playing in the Justin Campaign Tournament that took place in Nottingham last July. We were up against mainly gay footballers, but did it truly matter? The main aspect is that we were playing against human beings who were playing under the umbrella of a wonderful organisation, dedicated to ensure that Anton Hysen and the plethora of homosexual footballers that aren’t open about their sexuality do not fall victim to depression like Justin Fashanu. The Justin Campaign’s work across schools and clubs can only serve to educate those who think nothing of using slurs like Cassano.

Sadly, being openly gay in amateur football does carry a large stigma. In the UK there exists the Gay Football Supporters Network (GFSN) for whole teams of openly gay players, who have suffered homophobic abuse elsewhere. One of the teams that FC Kolektivo Victoria has links to do have straight players, an issue which has caused division across the network. However, this is a positive move to creating a more tolerant and inclusive environment. Gay footballers would rather be completely integrated into mainstream football rather than be forced into footballing apartheid, yet this is a challenge that prevails, even in 2012.

In a sport perceived as the epicentre of competitive masculinity, football, for all its beauty, can show its ugly side effects with its perception of homosexuality. Playing in the Justin Campaign tournament would challenge all pre-conceived views of what constitutes a gay person. There isn’t a one size fits all stereotype of genders or nationalities, so to attach this to homosexuals seems archaic and inappropriate. By reducing a person to a ‘queer’, Cassano has sadly achieved more for the silently homosexual player than all the wonderful work of groups like the Justin Campaign. Whilst attitudes like this stand, barriers to full integration seem a long and lonely way off.

Tactical Issues

After on the first round of games at Euro 2012, two teams that stand out as being technically inferior to the rest are England and Ireland. Whilst the argument is there that, due to their thrashing by Russia, the Czech Republic are the weakest side, they were simply overawed by an opposition who were deadly on the counter attack. They also had a creative midfielder in Rosicky, a type of player absent in the English and Irish sides. But why?

4-2-3-1 may be the popular formation in international football at present, but this doesn’t necessarily equate to being the most dynamic. However, whilst even the previously defensive Italians rejected their tactical stereotype, both England and Ireland played a rigid 4-4-1-1 formation, with a complete lack of creativity so depressing that questions need to be asked.

First of all, a slight disclaimer. England and Ireland are not even part of the same British entity. In football terms, conversely, they are strikingly similar. Whether this is due to the prodigious Irish talent being taken on by English clubs is a future debate, but the notion exists that coaching in the UK and Ireland is woeful in comparison to continental Europe.

At grass roots level, where I coach, I encounter a wide range of problems. Firstly, by the time I inherit a group of youngsters at the age of 11 their ideas are pretty set. They would have had a year of playing competitive, eleven-a-side football on a full size pitch. Thanks to this, they are encouraged to exploit the space by launching the ball forwards, where invariable a small, rapid striker is racing through to score.

Whilst there are obvious discrepancies across grass roots football, school teams are predominantly encouraged to play a long ball game. During a game last season, I was frustrated at the opposition tactics, and called out that we needed to defend deeper because all the opposition are doing is playing long ball. A disparaging response from an opposition parent was that this tactic was working, as they were 3-1 up at the time. They lost 5-3, unable to cultivate an alternative tactic. Nevertheless, the juicy fruit of success is always something that a competitive football player wants a bite of. For some, school football will be the nadir of their footballing career, but it all relates to the longer term objectives.

One aspect of play that is evident in both England and Ireland’s play is the inability at maintaining possession. This is a cultural notion, deep rooted within years of simplistic coaching. Qualities such as passion, determination and physicality are only truly effective when complimented by ball retention, calmness, short passing and interchanging.

Ireland in particular were abysmal, having two holding midfielders who lacked the full discipline to hold, and a false nine in Robbie Keane who was ill-equipped to play the role. England looked brighter, but were once again hindered by Steven Gerrard, a man whose reckless enthusiasm disguises his one trick long pass. By chasing players across the park, he leaves a large space to be exploited. If France had a player in the mould of Arshavin, England would have been soundly beaten.

Things will never improve for the ‘home’ nations, and Scotland and Wales are even worse. Being unable to be comfortable on the ball is a huge limitation in modern football. Barcelona have exacerbated matters by playing beautifully, but the Spanish national side, it could be suggested on the basis of the Italy game, are in danger of becoming a parody of themselves.

In spite of this, coaching in the UK and Ireland needs to improve. Is it realistic to create small, six or seven a side pitches so that young footballers can be taught the art of the game, rather than learn the physicality? Playing without fear is vital, as the creative, free-spirited geniuses need an environment where they will not be castigated for their mistakes. Euro 2012 has seen most nations with an artist in the team, but England and Ireland are being exposed on an international stage.

Bavarian Beerhouse

Just along the road from Old Street tube station in London, past the Moorlands eye hospital, lies a hidden gem. Sitting there, unassuming and yet welcoming, is the Bavarian Beerhouse. The first of its kind in the UK, the Old Street branch first opened its doors in 2005. On Saturday afternoon, I sampled its charms.

To purpose, of course, was to watch the evening game between Germany and Portugal. The twist to the tale was my friend Liam. Like me, a frustrated Scotsman, Liam picked out the Netherlands as his team to follow during Euro 2012. I then bet him that he wouldn’t wear a Dutch shirt in a German bar. Alas, at 2.30 in the afternoon Bavarian Beerhouse in Old Street had three customers and one was a Scotsman wearing the Dutch away shirt.

Saturday’s first encounter was Liam’s adopted nation taking on the unfancied Danes. When I am with a group of friends I always like to have a small bet on the first goal scorer. I really fancied the much derided Nicklas Bendtner, based largely on the fact he was excellent in the Championship in season 2006/07, even sadly scoring against the Sky Blues. However, Alex beat me to it, so my vote went to Michael Krohn-Delhi. On twenty-four minutes, his neat finish sealed me three pounds. After ninety minutes, Denmark secured an unlikely and somewhat undeserved three points, and we encountered a hazy world.

Liam, so convinced that the Dutch would win, and bravado rising by being very popular in a German bar, stated that, if Denmark somehow beat the Dutch, he would treat us all to a Jaeger Train, the combination of Jaegermeister and Red Bull, lined up as a train. Pushing the Jaegermeister like a bunch of dominoes, it creates a pleasing aesthetic.

As I have already stated, I love Germany. I have driven around the country, been captivated by two very different cities in berlin and Munich, and camped in the Black Forest and at a very odd and intense Mini Golf academy in Bavaria. The team is exciting and the fans are engaging. But there is one aspect of Germany that will never win me over: the food.

During the 2006 World Cup it was easier. At precisely the same time each day, Alex and myself would eat chicken noodles (noon) and then Bratwurst (6pm). However, later that year I became vegetarian, and Germany sure loves its meat. Alas, I ate a vegetarian schnitzel which made me feel sick for days. Before that though, came the main event.

Impartiality is a huge hindrance. Whilst engulfed within a partisan crowd, be it at the stadium, at the Berlin fan-mile or in an underground German beerhouse in the capital of England, the game takes on a far different view when compared to neutrality. Watching the game back, Germany were a shadow of themselves that graced South Africa in 2010. The expectation paralysed the more positive parts of their play, and the attack were out of sync. Crucially, unlike the Dutch, a victory was snatched. Watching the game at the time, however, was a sea of celebration.

With the placed packed to capacity (there is a £10 per person entry for Germany games) the atmosphere was never full of animosity. Liam was viewed with pity for Holland losing, but also with warmth and affection. He had his picture taken with a variety of obliging Germans, and the conversations were intelligent and intriguing. A man in a Portugal shirt walked in before the game, and he was treated with the same warmth. Of course, it helped that Germany won, but even when the game was locked at 0-0 the fans were friendly. I wonder whether this would be replicated in many other partisan bars around Europe?

Group B is certainly fascinating, if far more cagey than the other groups we have seen thus far. It could be the first group that is fully settled, because if Germany and Denmark repeat their victories on Wednesday, they will qualify after two games, leaving the Danes and the Portuguese heading for the exit. This is a huge incentive for Germany, and I wonder what the reaction would be to any fake Dutch who enter the Bavarian Beerhouse before that crucial encounter.