Sunday 21 December 2014

Sony's backdown sets a worrying precedent.

You couldn't make it up. A satirical movie about a plot to assassinate the Leader of North Korea Kim Jong Un, leads to a cyber attack on Sony Pictures and generates a wider debate on freedom of speech.

What started off as a bit of a joke story has now become serious with America vowing to hit back at North Korea who are believed to be behind the cyber attack.

I agree with President Obama when he said Sony had made a mistake by cancelling the release of The Interview. He said:

"We can't have a society in which some dictator some place can start imposing censorship here in the United States." Exactly! Thank you!

If Sony are prepared to back down over threats about the film being shown where could this lead us?

Film makers could potentially avoid making films on sensitive and controversial subjects in case political leaders in other countries take offence.

We'd be allowing all sorts of weak states around the world to dictate to free and democratic countries what can and cannot be discussed in public. This is wrong!

North Korea really is a ridiculous country. We have state that can spend time, money and resources to cyber hack a major media company - yet at the same time allows millions of its own citizens to live in poverty and die from starvation every year.

Sony should do the right thing and allow the release of the film immediately.

North Korea is like the annoying little kid you remember from school that would irritate and annoy the big boys. I'm not suggesting that international relations is similar to school but North Korea needs to be put in its place.

However, I write this fully aware like a lot of commmentators that it's difficult to agree or know what should be done to North Korea that hasn't already been done!

If you have any ideas please let us know.

Tuesday 25 November 2014

Is this the end of the two party system?

No surprises from the Rochester By-Election last week with Ukip winning its second seat in the House of Commons.

Normally speaking you'd expect the Tory Party to be the ones with the biggest questions to answer - thankfully for them Labour stole the headlines following Emily Thornberry's tweet of a house with a White Van outside and a flag of St George flying. It was patronising and despite refusing to apologise she was eventually sacked by Ed Miliband from the Shadow Cabinet. As for the Lib Dems the least said for them the better.

This week's result makes me think we truly have arrived in a new era of British politics. Is this really the end of the traditional two party system?

In next year's General Election I can't see any party winning an outright majority. Labour could and should win the election but Ed Miliband is holding them back and the Labour Party simply don't have the history or the stomach to get rid of him.

The Tories aren't in a much better state - Despite there best attempts they just can't shake off their 'toxic' image that they still have. It's amazing the amount of people I meet who on no circumstances would ever vote Tory.

There's a crisis in mainstream British politics, politicians don't seem to be able to connect or relate to ordinary people. Like many I agree we have too many career politicians. MPs who straight out of university (PPE at Oxbridge is the classic one) get a job as political researcher and by the time they reach their late 20s early 30s the've been elected to Parliament. These people have never had a real job outside of politics.

Both Ed Miliband and David Cameron come from this background and people are alienated by it. There's nothing wrong with having young MPs from this background but we need more MPs who have worked in other areas who have life experiences. We look to young youthful leaders today but perhaps we need to look more at older politicians in the 50s and 60s like we used to do.

I think if you're like me and you're interested in politics, you want a mixture of all kinds of people that reflect the country as a whole. People who have lived real lives away from politics. I'm not saying it will solve all of the problems and apathy people have with party politics but it would certainly help.

Sunday 19 October 2014

Why Ukip's rise still doesn't convince me

Since Ukip won their first parliamentary seat in the Clacton by-election 2 weeks ago, I've been meaning to give my thoughts on their increasing success.

It's easy to forget that it's only one seat they've got in Parliament. That puts them level with the Green Party but the amount of attention the party is receiving you would think they're about to hold the balance of power in next year's General Election. I'm still not convinced.

There's no doubt Ukip have caught the imagination of a growing section of the electorate. The problem I have, is just because some of their populist rhetoric might be gaining support, it doesn't mean their policies and what they stand for is credible.

I'll be upfront with you. Ukip as a party have nothing to say to me. When it comes to who I am, where I'm from, where I live, my education, and politics. Ukip are always going to find it difficult to attract me.

I wrote about Ukip earlier in the year. At the time I thought their influence in British politics could be good as they were shaking things up a bit. My feelings are now beginning to change.

What interests me about the party is what their rise in popularity says about the state of British politics. For me it says mainstream politics isn't in a good place. Not only that, I think the views and expectations of many Ukip supporters aren't realistic.

I don't believe for one minute Ukip are an extremist party. I do think they're a one man band though. Nigel Farage is a skilled politician, I'm just sceptical and suspicious as to what's behind him.

There's still the question mark over whether Ukip are nothing more than a bunch of mild racists and little Englanders.

I think what they represent is a form of anti politics. We've seen this form of anti politics in various forms, whether it's the Tea Party in America, the SNP in Scotland and various parties across Europe

Ukip are anti the Westminster establishment - the speak directly about the concerns of ordinary people. Nigel Farage sounds like an ordinary bloke you can have a pint with (despite his relatively privileged background). People are bored with manufactured career politicians.

I understand this, I feel some of this discontent with the political mainstream myself. I just don't believe Ukip's vision for Britain is particularly progressive or realistic.

For me your typical Ukip voter is your permanently grumpy sometimes annoyed older voter, they read the Daily Mail or Express which perfectly captures their annoyance with the state of modern Britain.

Immigration, political correctness, health and safety laws, the influence of the European Union, these are the sort of things that annoy this part of the electorate. The country they see is one they're not comfortable with.

The country Ukip wish for and aspire to doesn't exist anymore (if it ever did) and isn't going to return. This is why I feel some voters need to get real with how Britain is today.

It's telling and it was a point mentioned by Simon Jenkins in the London Evening Standard this week. Ukip have little support in London.

In many ways London represents everything Ukip dislikes about modern Britain. London is multicultural and cosmopolitan, a truly international city. London is inclusive, tolerant, outward looking. Ukip struggles to sell its message to people in the city.

What I find increasingly interesting is that Ukip represents a split on the conservative and political right of British politics.

Despite Ukip's greater appeal to Labour voters, most Ukippers are still estranged conservatives.You have the likes of the Prime Minister David Cameron who represents moderate centre right conservatives.

However, you have a growing number of right wing Conservative MPs and Ukip members who are moving ever further from this moderate form of conservative politics.

This split could have significant effects on British politics. I don't think it's an exaggeration to suggest that the future of the Tory Party is at stake.

The stance of David Cameron and Tory leaders is: 'vote Ukip get Labour'. That may be true but I don't think many Ukip voters care anymore.

They're voting for something separate and different from both Labour and the Conservatives. They want a country that has moved on from what they want.

Instead of Labour the Tories pandering to the populist statements of Nigel Farage, the mainstream parties should be confident to take Ukip on and argue the points on why their vision for Britain in unrealistic and isn't going to happen.

What are your thoughts on Ukip? Are they speaking the language of the people or are they rhetoric over substance?

Related articles

Perhaps Ukip’s disruptive influence is what’s needed in British politics?

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Don't leave us Scotland: The Scottish Referendum

I find it incredible to think that by the end of this week, the country that I've lived in for my entire life. A country that's existed for just over 300 years will no longer exist! How did it come to this?

For the past 2 years we've known that Scotland would have a referendum vote but I think like a lot of people in the UK I never seriously thought the yes campaign could actually win.

That all changed last week when the Sunday Times published a poll showing the yes campaign had taken a lead in the polls. I published the tweet below which summed up my feelings:

This country is on the verge of breaking up forever and yet it feels as if our political leaders and the public have been sleep walking towards the breakup of the Union.

It's only now in the last week that we've woken up to the magnitude of what tomorrow's vote will mean for Scotland and the rest of the UK.

I've never had to consider this before but in the last week I've discovered I'm actually a unionist. I don't want Scotland to the leave the UK. I genuinely believe England and Scotland are and will be better together.

Being a history graduate I realise the the union between England and Scotland has proved incredibly successful. Since the union was formed in 1707, Great Britain has become one of the most successful countries in the world, both politically, economically and culturally.

I still believe England and Scotland can continue to form a successful political union in the future.

What I've found really interesting is how the the referendum campaign has engaged and energised people's interest in politics. The number of people eligible to vote in Scotland are at records numbers.

It's because people have something genuine to vote for - their vote really matters. Scottish voters have real political power. They know that whatever they decide, it will make a difference to the future of Scotland and the rest of the UK. I envy them.

Even if Scotland votes no to independence they're still going to get more devolved powers (devo-max) which means they'll have greater autonomy.

I'm one of those people that thinks if Scotland can have greater powers to raise and spend its own taxes, why can't parts of England have the same.

The UK is far too centralised with London dominating the agenda. I want to see devolution in the rest of England. I want to see my home town of Birmingham with greater powers along with our other major cities like Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle and Leeds.

I think one of the reasons the yes campaign has proved so popular is because people in Scotland want something different from the Westminster political establishment. Their views and concerns aren't being heard or recognised.

For the last few decades support for the Conservative Party has collapsed in Scotland. Labour the dominant political force in the country have somehow managed to lose their influence and support to the Scottish Nationalists.

Clearly many Scottish voters now want something different - they're not alone. Many people in England and Wales feel the same.

If Scotland votes for independence on Thursday it will represent a complete and utter failure by this country's political class. A failure to understand the hopes and aspirations of a significant percentage of the UK's population.

I still think the no vote will win but it will be close. I hope they win, I don't want the UK to break up, we're not perfect but we're better together.

Monday 25 August 2014

James Foley: What drives journalists to do what they do?

Like many people I was shocked and disturbed by the brutality of Islamic State in the beheading of American freelance journalist James Foley.

I watched the video of his death earlier this week after finding a clip of it on Twitter. I debated whether I should watch it or not and wondered whether it was disrespectful to Foley.

I did watch it, but I did so because I wanted to understand more about what we're dealing with. The 5 minute video is without doubt uncomfortable viewing.

James Foley was a freelance photo journalist doing his job and in doing so this ultimately cost him his life.

In 2011 he'd worked in Libya during the uprising against Col Gadaffi. He'd been kidnapped by forces loyal to Gadaffi before being released.

When I heard this my immediate thought was why did he go to Syria knowing the risks when he'd already been kidnapped before. But as soon as I thought this, it made me think about what motivates people like James Foley and other freelancer journalists to risk their lives reporting stories from some of the world's most dangerous war zones.

Journalism is a strange industry. There are so many cases where journalism does itself no favours in the way some reporters operate. Think back to the phone hacking scandal which revealed some of the worst aspects of tabloid journalism to the public. Such stories show journalism at its worst.

On the other hand the death of James Foley reminds you that journalism is also an incredibly dangerous profession in which people risk their lives to report and tell stories that we might otherwise not hear.

You realise that journalism is still very much an idealistic and noble profession. All over the world governments, terrorist groups and religious extremists like Islamic State know how influential journalists can be in their reporting and this makes them a threat.

After returning from Libya, Foley took up an editing job for the online website
GlobalPost but it seems life in a Boston office was too dull and the urge to return to the frontline was too great.

Did this make Foley reckless? From what I've read he was certainly fearless and possessed a huge amount of self confidence but I suppose these were the qualities that allowed him to become and be a successful freelancer photojournalist.

In this line of work you have to take risks in order to be in the right place at the right time and to get the pictures to tell the story.

James Foley's tragic death has reminded me of the bravery that he and many other journalists display everyday all over the world reporting and telling stories to the outside world that many others would prefer not to be heard.

Sunday 10 August 2014

The problem with Gaza

About a week after the current crisis in Gaza started I was chatting with a friend about the situation.

When I said to him I hadn't really been following the story much he was surprised, as the crises had been dominating the news agenda for a number of days.

I was honest with him and said I felt fatigued about stories from the Middle East. Whether it's Israel, Syria, Iraq, the foreign news agenda is overly dominated by this part of the world.

I said there are other parts of the world where atrocities and violence take place everyday yet we hear very little about this.

The argument I put to my friend was essentially this: Tell me what's going on in Gaza now that's so different to what always seems to be going on over there?

My friend was even more surprised by my reaction and he correctly pointed out that hundreds of innocent civilians were being killed as a result of Israel's attacks on Hamas.

As the crisis has grown it's this human element and tragedy that has eventually pulled my attention to the crisis. It's this element that captures people's emotions.

Jon Snow's excellent appeal on Channel 4 news really brought the issues home for me.

I think Israel's response has been disproportionate and it appears they're willing to accept civilian casualties as a price worth paying to weaken Hamas.

When I was thinking about the current situation in Gaza it reminded me of a blog post I wrote on the subject 2 years ago.

The politics of the Palestine/Israeli conflict continually leave me baffled and exhausted. I find you're always having to remind yourself just exactly why they're fighting.

This was the point I made two years ago in my blog post entitled:

Confused about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict? This might help

In that post I included a great link to an article from the Washington Post which answered the most basic questions people might have about the conflict. It's brilliant and incredibly useful.

I could have just reposted that article today as everything I said then still applies now. This is the problem I have with Israel and Palestine. It's a narrative that appears to simply go round in circles.

Once this latest cease fire takes hold and things quieten down for a period, you know eventually a new crisis will emerge and we'll be back to square one.

I'll again ask myself what's different this time before reminding myself of the human element of the story which is really the best way many of us can understand the situation.

How do you feel about the conflict? Do you agree with anything I've said? I'd love to hear.

Saturday 2 August 2014

Tattoos are so Middle Class

We've enjoyed a pretty good summer this year and it's meant people have been bearing the flesh on a daily basis.

Seeing so many bare arms and legs you may have noticed the increasing amount of tattoos on show these days. It seems everyone has a tattoo. Even the most unlikely looking people have some sort of ink on them.

Reading today's Times newspaper they had an article arguing that tattoos have become mainstream. They've become so Middle Class and are no longer the preserve of the Working classes, sailors and criminals.

The article is so right, tattoos are everywhere. They're not alternative anymore. They don't mark you out as being part of a counter culture movement, they're not rebellious.

Tattoos have become mainstream for ordinary average people to express themselves, but like so many fashions and lifestyle choices - once everyone starts embracing that fashion it loses it edge and original appeal.

Over the last few weeks I've looked at my own unmarked skin and thought there's something missing. My skin looks too plain and bland without any markings.

But I'm now beginning to think that having no tattoos is the new tattoos. Perhaps I'm the alternative, rebelling against the mainstream of clichéd tattoos markings and symbols.

I'm not against tattoos. I don't have one as I can't think of what I'd want permanently marked on me. If I'm going to have something on me for the rest of my life I want to make sure I get my choice right!

If I did have a tattoo it would have to be at the top of my arm just below my shoulder. I hate the 'sleeve' look made popular by the likes of David Beckham, where the entire arm down to the wrist is covered in tattoos. I think this is horrible.

I think it's becoming more and more difficult to embrace fashions, lifestyles and cultures that are truly alternative and counter culture without the mainstream eventually getting hold of them and incorporating them into a mass culture. It looks like this is what's happened to tattoos.

Monday 14 July 2014

Final World Cup thoughts

When the World Cup started a month ago I said this was the World Cup I'd been looking forward to the most in my life. A World Cup in Brazil isn't any old World Cup.

I haven't been disappointed, I've absolutely loved every minute of it. I already feel sad it's over. It's certainly been the best World Cup I've seen since my first World Cup in 86.

The Winners

Germany deserve to be World Champions. There's so much to admire about the way Germany do things when it comes to football both domestically and at international level.

Germany beat Portugal, France, Brazil 7-1 (truly stunning) before beating Argentina in the final. Any team that does that deserves to win the World Cup.

Best goal

James Rodriguez's goal was superb but I still loved Messi's winner against Iran

Best game

The Brazil/Chile game was absorbing. Such a pity it was a second round match

Best player

Because he was the break out star of the tournament, I'm going to go for James Rodriguez.

Biggest disappointment

The Brazilian crowds weren't a true reflection of the Brazilian nation. Ticket prices as is the way in modern sport were very expensive. Only rich Brazilians could afford to attend games and that meant the crowds were also exclusively white.

On a separate point why have FIFA banned musical instruments from grounds. During Brazil games I missed that Samba sound that I associate with Brazil.

The collective is more important than the individual

I mentioned this writing about the last World Cup. Germany don't have one truly outstanding individual but they have a collection of very good players and were easily the best all round team. This is what international football is all about.

The teams that performed to the best of their potential functioned as a team and not a collection of individuals.

Sunday 13 July 2014

Pre World Cup Final thoughts

Tonight's World Cup Final between Germany and Argentina will be the third final I've seen featuring these two countries.

The first final in Mexico 86 is still the best final I've seen. The second in Italia 90 is the worst.

I'm hoping for something closer to the 86 version than 1990 but on paper tonight's final has all the ingredients for a great game.

Germany are clearly favourites particularly after the 7-1 defeat of Brazil last Tuesday. They're the best team in the competition in the sense that they're the most balanced team with the least weaknesses.

Argentina on the other hand have to some extent been a disappointment. When you look at the attacking options they have available upfront they haven't really produced any sustained and exciting football.

What they've had is a solid defence and relied on individual moments particularly from the world's best player Lionel Messi.

Argentina will have to play their best game of the tournament to win tonight and although they're underdogs they have the players and Messi to win the World Cup.

Part of me feels Germany deserve to win as they are the best team in the tournament but the best teams don't always win. It's a huge match for both countries.

It's 24 years since Germany last won the World Cup and although they've come close to winning titles in the last 10 years it hasn't quite happened for them.

For Argentina the wait is four years longer. They've become real underachievers in World football in the last 20 years, routinely producing top class players but not fulfilling their potential.

1986 was the last time they were World Champions and they haven't won the Copa America Since 1993.

Tonight's final could prove to be the last great opportunity to win the World Cup for Argentina. For years they've won world titles at youth level. Six players in Argentina's squad won the Under 20 World Cup in 2005.

Unfortunately for Argentina the production line of young talent appears to be drying up. Add to the fact, this year's tournament is on their own continent, they're backed by thousands of their own fans making each game feel like a home match; there's a feeling that if Argentina can't win the World Cup this year when can they win it?

Everything's set up for a great match. My head says a Germany win but Argentina can't be discounted. I just hope this brilliant World Cup gets the final it deserves.

Saturday 12 July 2014

Brazil How does it feel?

One thing I've loved about this World Cup is the South American flavour that we've experienced.

Fans from Chile, Colombia, Uruguay and Mexico have come in huge numbers. They've been noisy, colourful and passionate. But if I had to give an award for the best fans in Brazil, it has to be Argentina.

Whether Argentina win on Sunday, this World Cup will always be remembered for Argentina's World Cup Anthem: Brasil decime que se siente? Brazil how does it feel?

This might be Brazil's World Cup, but Argentina are the noisy neighbours who have gatecrashed the party. Everywhere they've been their anthem has followed them, much to the annoyance of Brazilians.

The lyrics of the song roughly translate as:

Brazil how does it feel to be bossed about in your own home.

They then go on to reminisce about Argentina's win against Brazil in the 2nd round of the 1990 World Cup. Claudio Caniggia scoring a late winner after Maradona's dribble and pass set him up.

The song ends with the controversial taunt that Maradona is better than Pele! Argentinians already have a reputation in Latin America for being a bit full of themselves - this song does them no favours!

Personally this is what I want to see at a World Cup. With high ticket prices and FIFA's demands on how host countries should manage a World Cup. There's a risk that World Cups becomes bland and homogenised - each one looking and feeling the same.

You can't say this about Brazil. Argentina and other Latin American countries have brought a raucous, edgy and colourful presence to this World Cup and that's something I'm always going to remember.

Friday 11 July 2014

Brazil Character Lab

During the World Cup I've been keeping up to date with all things Brazilian through a great Twitter account called Brazil Character Lab.

After I visited the country last year, I decided I wanted to keep in touch with stories emerging from Brazil. That's how I found Brazilian journalist Sérgio Charlab's twitter feed where he writes and shares English language stories on different aspects of Brazilian life and culture.

Here's a selection of a few of the stories I've been reading this week.

If the World Cup has sparked your interest in all things Brazilian, Brazil Character Lab is a great place to start learning more about this amazing country.

Wednesday 9 July 2014

Shocking Brazil: Brazil 1 Germany 7

At the beginning of this World Cup I started reading a book by Brazilian football writer Fernando Duarte called Shocking Brazil: Six Games that Shook the World Cup.

The book looks at 6 of Brazil's World Cup campaigns that ended in failure and how those failures altered the face of Brazilian football. After last night's result the book is already out of date and needs a new chapter written.

Like millions of football fans around the world I was absolutely stunned by what I watched last night. It's the most shocking result I've ever seen and probably the entire history of the World Cup.

To watch a team capitulate in a World Cup Semi Final like Brazil did was painful and embarrassing to watch. After half an hour I considered turning the tv off as I felt like I was going to cry.

How could this possibly happen to Brazil?

I've been thinking about this a lot today. Firstly lets give credit to Germany who were superb. After the first goal by Muller they sensed Brazil were there for the taking and ruthlessly exposed all of Brazil's flaws which we suspected might be there.

This is what Germany are so good at and some of the seeds of last night's result were sown in the last World Cup in 2010.

In South Africa, Germany did to England what they did to Brazil last night. They brutally exposed all of England's faults and failings when they beat England 4-1 in the Second round.

They did the same thing in the Quarter Finals against Argentina who were humiliated by Germany, partly helped by Maradona's tactical naivety.

Brazil were also knocked out in the Quarter Finals by Holland. Seemingly in control of the game and 1-0 up late on, a mistake by the Brazilian keeper Julio Cesar allowed Holland to equalise. After that they seemed to collapse mentally and the Dutch went on to win.

Immediately after last night's game I heard a few comments saying that Brazilian football needed this result. There are clearly major problems with the structure and organisation of domestic Brazilian football.

For too long Brazil have been complacent over the state of their game, consoling themselves that they have been World Champions 5 times.

But something is wrong with Brazilian football - they're not producing the quality of players as in previous generations. How else do explain how the likes of Fred and Hulk can play upfront for Brazil.

Brazil have a lot soulsearching to do, something England seem to do every couple of years. Every team suffers failure and at times humiliation, the question is how you react and what lessons you learn. We'll find out from Brazil in the next few years.

Tuesday 8 July 2014

A Question of Style: Brazil winning ugly

Brazil take on Germany tonight in the first Semi Final of this World Cup.

Brazil have moved a step closer to achieving their dream of winning the World Cup in their own country but they're not winning friends with their style of play.

Millions of football fans around the world have grown up with the idea that Brazil play the 'beautiful game' or Jogo Bonito. We live on images of Brazil's great teams of 1970 and 1982. When we watch this current Brazilian side we don't see beauty - instead we see a functional pragmatic team getting results.

The Brazilian public are happy with this as it's all about the winning the World Cup, for the neutral we look at this Brazil team and think: Where's the Brazil we dream of watching?

Brazil can't continually play football like the 82 squad.

This is the problem Brazil face everytime the Selecao take to the pitch. Brazil are held to a higher standard than any other football nation. They're not just expected to win, they're expected to win with style and beauty.

During this World Cup I've started thinking that the rest of the world needs to get over this mystique that's held about Brazil. During their Quarter Final win over Colombia, Brazil played at times like a more glamorous Stoke City in the Premier League.

Aggressive, in your face, Brazil continually fouled and targeted Colombia's James Rodriguez quite cynically. For the purists this isn't what Brazilian football is all about. For Brazil as a country they don't care.

This World Cup has given us so much of a chance to learn more about Brazil as a country but perhaps what we've also learnt is that in football's spiritual home winning and getting results is just as important for Brazilians as any other nation.

Sunday 29 June 2014

World Cup Thoughts

At the midway point of the World Cup and with the group stage now over, I thought I'd share some of my thoughts on the tournament so far.

Best thing about the World Cup

The goals, the great games. but most of all having a World Cup in South America. It's something many fans have never seen before. It's not just a Brazilian World Cup but a Latin American one.

Any game featuring Chile or Argentina have become almost home games for those countries. Their supporters have been amazing.

Most disappointing thing about the World Cup

Brazil is the most ethnically diverse country I've ever been to but this isn't reflected in the stadiums.

FIFA's ticket prices have priced out many ordinary Brazilians from attending and this has meant the crowds have been largely white reflecting the significance race and class have in Brazilian society.

Here's a great article on the subject.

Best Match

There's been so many, but I'm going to go for Holland's destruction of Spain. It was so dramatic seeing a footballing empire collapsing right in front of your eyes.

Best goal

I loved Messi's goal against Iran. Just when his country needed him, he produced something truly special.

Biggest surprise

Like many people I'd totally written off Costa Rica. In no scenario could I see them topping a group featuring Italy, England and Uruguay.

In the end they deserved to finish top. Costa Rica's success shows there are no minnows at the World Cup and that football is becoming a truly global game.

Best player

He's a familiar face and has been around for years, but I think Arjen Robben has been brilliant for Holland.

Star players performing

I said at the start of the tournament that I wanted to see the world's star players turn up. This is exactly what's happened. Neymar and Messi have both carried their teams so far.

Neymar in particular seems to love being the main man for Brazil and is thriving on the pressure.

Most entertaining team

I always enjoy watching Chile, but I'm going to go for Colombia. First time they've reached the last 8 of the World Cup. Great achievement for them.

Unknown star to emerge

Has to be Colombia's James Rodríguez.

How have I missed this guy? He was sold to Monaco from Porto for huge money but still seemed to remain under the radar for many people. Not now though. 5 goals already including this amazing strike against Uruguay.

The team is greater than the individual

We've seen the likes of Neymar and Messi shine despite rather uninspiring performances from Brazil and Argentina. Star players will always have the quality to win a match with a moment of brilliance.

However, we've seen many teams such as Chile and even Holland who have what on paper seem to be fairly average international players but collectively they're forming strong teams.

Having a collection of good individuals isn't enough - this World Cup is showing that you have to have system and a style of play in which you form your team around.


If going out in the first round isn't a wakeup call for England and English football I don't know what is. At every tournament we keep saying things will change, things will get better but I'm not so sure.

There's needs to be a real revolution with English football. We need an identity, a system and style of play that all levels of England teams play from under 19, 21 and the full squad.

We need more tactically aware players and we have to accept that unless we're prepared to change our philosophy and identity, then just reaching a World Cup final is as good as it will get for us.

Sunday 22 June 2014

Will England ever learn? #World Cup 2014

Following England's 2-1 defeat to Uruguay on Thursday, that effectively ended England's World Cup campaign. ITV's cameras panned onto some England fans looking shocked and bewildered over what had just happened.

I thought to myself, what exactly are you shocked about?

Here's what happened. A rather average mediocre side lost to a slightly better side that had a truly world class striker upfront who scored two goals.

England's exit from the World Cup - the first time they've failed to get out the group stage since 1958 hasn't upset me too much.

We have some good attacking players, an average midfield and possibly one of the weakest defences I've ever seen from an England side.

Like a number of England fans I've seen too many failures over the last 25 years to realise that England are never going to achieve anything at international level until there are major changes in the structure and organisation of English football.

Will this happen? It's hard to say, but as things currently stand England will keep on failing at every tournament.

It should be remembered that England were in a tough group with Italy and Uruguay and nobody expected Costa Rica to have the success they've had.

England played reasonably well in both games but lacked the know how to get a result. Going out in the first round is always humiliating for the big football nations.

Spain, Italy, and France have gone out at the group stage in recent tournaments. The difference between them and England is that they bounce back immediately getting to major finals. You know with England that's not going to happen.

Before writing this blog I looked back at the post I wrote four years ago after England got knocked out by Germany in South Africa

What's most depressing is that many of the reasons for England's failure then still apply now. Lack of English players playing in the Premier League, poor technique, lack of tactical awareness, poor coaching at youth level.

Expectations were low this time round, but with a good crop of promising young players coming through expectations did start to increase.

You can't expect young players to carry a team to the latter stages of a major tournament. As Gary Lineker said, excluding Wayne Rooney we don't have enough quality players aged between 25 - 30 to really make an impact.

As for the future, should Roy Hodgson resign? No, he can only work with the players available. He may have gone against his natural cautious instinct in his tactics but realistically there's nobody else available. We don't have enough English managers coming through and managing at the highest level.

We do have a promising group of young players but it's just promise. There's no guarantee they will all come through and because the Premier is full of foreign players, English players get hyped in way that does them no favours.

If there's one thing I notice about football compared to 20 - 25 years ago, it's how tactical football has become - even intellectual.

In England we've traditionally looked for virtues such has hard work, passion, giving 100%. This is becoming outdated and can only take you so far.

England has to produce more tactically aware players with greater footballing intelligence. Until we do so we'll keep on failing time and time again.

Tuesday 17 June 2014

12 June 2014 - A day like no other in Sao Paulo

I came across this short video documentary yesterday looking at one day in the city of Sao Paolo.

But the 12 June was no ordinary day in Brazil. It was the start of the World Cup. Interesting to see what was going on in the city that day.

Monday 16 June 2014

"Brazil is not for Beginners" Tom Jobim

So far I have to say I'm loving this World Cup.

The games have been great, even England entertained me against Italy, but what I love is that this World Cup isn't just about the football.

It's about getting to know Brazil as a country. This was something I had a chance to do last year when I spent two weeks in Brazil, firstly in Rio before heading north to Salvador.

Brazil's always intrigued and fascinated me. Before I went, I felt like I knew a bit about country. It's history, the people, of course its football and music.

For some reason I naively thought Brazil would be like a South American version of Spain or Italy, perhaps just a bit more exotic. When I look back I couldn't have been more wrong.

Brazil wasn't quite what I expected. Yes in Rio I experienced the popular images of sun, beaches, football and samba, but I slowly began to realise that I didn't know Brazil at all. That actually when you go beyond the cliches, Brazil is a real unknown quantity to many people.

I've come to the conclusion that Brazil is unique; you can't compare it to anywhere else in the world. That uniqueness comes from many different sources. Firstly the language - they speak Portuguese while the rest of Latin America speaks Spanish. The ethnic mix is incredible. It's not a white country, a black country or a mixed race country it's just Brazil.

It's the size of a continent and as much as Rio represents the face of Brazil to the rest of the world. One city can never truly represent the whole country. For all my previous interest and knowledge about Brazil it's more complex and contradictory than I imagined.

This World Cup is giving people a chance to rethink all the stereotypes and preconceptions about what Brazil and Brazilians are all about.

Things started to change during last year's Confederations Cup competition. The world saw thousands of Brazilians take to the streets to protest about the cost of hosting the World Cup.

It came as a surprise to many. We're told Brazil is the spiritual home of football but suddenly we were confronted by Brazilians who were more concerned about government corruption, poor healthcare and education and a failing transport infrastructure. These things were far more important than a football tournament.

What happened to he happy go lucky party people we like to imagine Brazilians to be?

I've heard a lot about how many Brazilians would like their country to be known for more than just football, samba and a great place to party. I can understand that frustration of a vast and complex nation being defined by a few tired cliches.

The Famous Brazilian Bossa Nova composer Tom Jobim once said about Brazil:

'Brazil is not for beginners'

I heard this quote twice in the space of two days last week. Firstly by the BBC's South American football correspondent Tim Vickery and again in an article in last weekend's Sunday Times.

What does this quote mean? Brazil isn't what you think it is. It's more complex, more confusing, more contradictory, more challenging than a few basic assumptions.

Perhaps by the end of this World Cup, none us will be beginners anymore when it comes to Brazil.

Thursday 12 June 2014

World Cup Predictions and Hopes

It's 7:00 and there's only 2 hours to go before Brazil kick off against Croatia to start the World Cup.

With that in mind it's about time I revealed my predictions and hopes for this year's tournament.

The highest level of football is now found in the Champions League and not international football. With 32 teams in a World Cup the quality is going to suffer. The standard in some of the group games isn't particularly great.

But in saying this, International football and the World Cup are both still special.

Unlike club football, it's not about who's spent the most money on the best players and managers. It's about each country making the most of its footballing resources, culture and organisation, then bringing it together to produce a national team.

So what am I expecting, what do I want to see?

Who's going to win it?

I'm expecting a Brazil/Argentina Final.

Brazil are obviously favourites and have a squad capable of winning the tournament but they're under huge pressure from the Brazilian public. Can they handle it?

I have this feeling that Argentina might cause an upset. It's a big World Cup for Argentina as well.

For all his brilliance for Barcelona, there's a question mark over Lionel Messi. He's never produced that form or had that impact at this level with Argentina. Will this be his moment?

Argentina have underachieved in recent years. I heard an amazing stat this week. Since reaching the final in 1990, Argentina have only beaten Mexico (2006 & 2010) in knock out World Cup matches!

That's unbelievable when you think of some of the talented players they've had over the years.

I want iconic moments

When I think about the World Cup, I think about iconic moments.

Brazil's 4th goal against Italy in the 1970 Final. Maradona's second goal against England in 1986. Marco Tardelli's goal and celebration against West Germany in 1982. There are so many to choose from.

I want some iconic moments from this World Cup, a goal, a performance a game that stays in my memory for years to come.

We haven't really had those iconic moments in recent World Cups and I'm hoping a World Cup in Brazil will inspire some stand out moments.

Star players to perform

If you want iconic moments then you need the biggest names to perform. This is becoming more and more difficult, it's hard to recreate the same player understanding you find at club level in international football. And players are normally so tired after a long gruelling season.

We all hope and want to see the likes of Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar really perform to the best of the abilities. Lets hope it happens.

Dark Horses

Dark Horses never win World Cups!

This World Cup is unlikely to be any different. People are looking at the likes of Belgium who have produced a real golden generation, and I enjoy watching Chile. However, one team that's gone under the radar slightly is France.

They always produce good players, they have a talented squad and they'll be desperate to make up for the debacle that was their 2010 campaign in South Africa.

I want to see a break out star

Being a World Cup purist, I want to see a player emerge who we don't really know much about.

In Italia 90 I remember Toto Schillaci becoming top scorer, there was also Roger Milla from Cameroon.

In our modern era of football, nothing is really unknown anymore. The top European Leagues are multi national, we can watch games from all over the world every week. We have social media particularly Youtube and by the time the World Cup comes around there are few surprises for us.

I hope there's a player out there who will seize the moment and announce themselves to the rest of the world.

Top goal scorer

This is always difficult to predict. In previous World Cup's the player who ended up as top goal scorer was never someone you would have thought of.

However, a good bet would be Argentina's Sergio Aguero. Argentina on paper have the best attacking line up and the draw is relatively kind for Argentina.

Young talents to look out for

There's one young player from Europe who I've been really impressed by whenever I've seen him and could have a real impact in this World Cup.

I'm talking about France's Paul Pogba. This is a guy who left Man Utd because he wasn't getting enough opportunities and took himself off to Juventus in Italy and has been a huge success. I think he could be a real star.

What about England

I'll tell you what I want from England, I want to be entertained.

I haven't enjoyed an England game in a World Cup since Japan and Korea in 2002. I know, that's a long time.

There's no expectation on this team, suddenly going out in the Quarter Finals would be considered a success. We've got a good crop of young players, which you couldn't see emerging two years ago.

I want to see England play without any inhibitions, it's a World Cup in Brazil, I want England players to enjoy the experience and see what happens.

Wednesday 11 June 2014

Great expectations: Can Brazil avoid a second Maracanazo?

Not since Italy in Italia 90 has a home country faced so much pressure to win the World Cup as Brazil.

I expect Brazil to get to the final and it won't be a surprise if they emerge as winners. But can they handle the pressure and expectation from the Brazilian public.

Brazil is an emerging country. When I was there last year I felt that feeling of being in a country that's on the way up.

There are still huge problems to overcome. Poverty, inequality, corruption, lack of public services and government provisions but there's so much potential for Brazil to be a major world power.

If there's one area where Brazil has never been up and coming it's football. They're world leaders - no country has won the World Cup more times than Brazil. If they win in their own country it will make it 6 world titles.

What's amazing is that for all their success, nothing (except perhaps a victory next month) can make up for the national disaster that was the 1950 World Cup Final.

That was the last time Brazil held the World Cup and just like this year's tournament, the competition was about Brazil announcing itself to the world as a modern, progressive country.

Winning the World Cup was meant to be a statement to the world to show that Brazil had arrived.

But it all went wrong!

World Cup 1950 final the MARACANAZO

I'm reading a great book at the moment by Brazilian football correspondent Fernando Duarte. It's called: Shocking Brazil - Six Games that shook the World Cup.

The book looks at 6 crucial World Cup campaigns that altered the face of Brazilian football. The book begins with arguably the biggest failure which was the 1950 World Cup. The parallels with today are striking.

The defeat by Uruguay when Brazil only needed a draw seemed to leave the country in an psychological crisis. They hadn't arrived, they failed and the pain of that defeat still lingers on.

Can this World Cup make up for 1950?

I hope and want Brazil to do well. I'm one of those people who always like to see Brazil do well. But I don't think there's ever been a World Cup where failure by the host nation could have such repercussions, both culturally, politically and from a sporting perspective.

A World Cup in Brazil is not an ordinary World Cup

The World Cup finally begins tomorrow, with hosts Brazil opening the tournament against Croatia.

I don't think there's been a World Cup I've looked forward to more in my adult life than this one.

Why do I feel this way? It's Brazil, there's a romance about a World Cup in Brazil. England might be the home of football, but Brazil is the country that we associate with most when we think about what makes football such a beautiful and amazing game.

There's also the fact that I went to Brazil last year, spending time in Rio and Salvador. I got a chance to discover and get a feel for the country. It's a unique country, I realised there's so much more to Brazil than the cliches of sun, beaches, football and carnival.

The World Cup is a chance for the world to really discover what Brazil is all about, and this is something I really want to see.

Sunday 25 May 2014

Perhaps UKIP's disruptive influence is what's needed in British politics?

It's been a strange week in politics following the local elections on Thursday.

UKIP, a party that failed to gain control of any council in England and Wales and who will struggle to win a seat at next year's General Election were seen by many as the real winners.

The three main political parties all emerged from the election with some serious questions to ask about what the results mean for their chances in next year's election.

Labour, the Tories and Lib Dems are like three rubbish football teams struggling to stay in the Premier League. All three deserve to go down but you know at least one will survive almost by default.

Labour 'won' the election but they're not winners. Many Labour diehards will struggle to convince you that they believe Ed Miliband looks and acts like a Prime Minister in waiting.

UKIP's success isn't a political earthquake as some are suggesting but it's certainly a disruption. A message to the political establishment that says people are dissatisfied with what's on offer - I know exactly how they feel.

A few years ago I went to vote in the local elections. When I got to my polling station I was told I wasn't on the register and couldn't vote. I was gutted!

I felt like I didn't have a voice, I couldn't make my feelings known, it felt horrible. I decided at the time I would never allow that to happen again.

With that in mind, earlier this year I wondered whether my name was still on the electoral register as I knew there were elections coming up in May. I thought about calling Newham Council to check but after thinking about it I couldn't be bothered.

It gives me no pleasure writing the last sentence. The truth is I didn't care whether I could vote or not. I decided the local and European elections would make no difference to me.

I'm a political person I follow politics, I like to know what's going on at Westminster but even I've been struck down with apathy. How did this happen?

UKIP or should I say Nigal Farage has tapped into this dissatisfaction with politics brilliantly. They have something to say which people want to hear.

UKIP have always attracted fed up Tory voters but now they're attracting more people by addressing immigration concerns and presenting themselves as ordinary straight talking people unlike the 'on message' manufactured politicians found in the three main parties.

I would never vote UKIP - I'm not their natural voter. I respect Nigel Farage's leadership as he knows his message and how to communicate it perfectly, but behind him who have you got?

A bunch of ill disciplined, political amateurs who at their worst pander to people's mild prejudices and ideas of a Britain that no longer exists.

In saying this I don't have a problem with people who have voted UKIP, they're probably like me and feel indifferent or uninterested with what the three main parties have to say to them.

My problem is there isn't an equivalent of UKIP that I would feel comfortable voting for. The major parties should be worried about this. When people like me can't be bothered I feel there's a problem with politics.

I'm no fan of UKIP but perhaps their success and disruptive influence is what's needed to shake up the complacency of the political mainstream in the country.

Tell me what you think, do you agree?

Tuesday 13 May 2014

My week in Japan

I've spent the last week in Japan visiting my cousin who's been living out there for the last 13 years.

I love Japan. If you want to experience somewhere that's truly foreign then Japan is the place.

When I first went there in 2002 I remember at times feeling overwhelmed by the size and pace of Tokyo and the overall strangeness of the country in general.

This time round it was different, I knew what to expect. But what I love about being in Japan is the feeling of entering into an alternative world. A world that's vaguely familiar yet completely different.

Now that I'm back in the UK I thought I would share with you 5 things I think you should do if you ever get the chance to visit Japan and Tokyo.

Tsukiji Central Fish Market

Tsukiji Fish market is one of the highlight's of any visit to Tokyo. Fish are caught and served on a plate ready to eat in matter of hours.

Tuna is the most popular dish, which is what I had below for lunch. I never knew raw tuna could taste so good and with a touch of Wasabi sauce which gives it that extra kick!

Senso-ji (Senso Temple)

Senso-ji is Tokyo's oldest temple located in the Asakusa area of the city. It's one of biggest attractions in the city.

It's somewhere I remember vividly from my first visit in 2002 and it was great to be back there again.

Spend an evening in Shibuya

During the daytime Tokyo can look like a big concrete jungle but every evening the city literally lights up when the neon lights come on.

Tokyo at night is like no other city. If there's one area of Tokyo that represents everything you've always imagined Tokyo to be it has to be Shibuya.

You'll find the famous Shibuya Crossing rumoured to be the biggest intersection in the world.

Visit the Meiji-jingu

The Meiji-jingu is Tokyo's oldest Shinto Shrine.

I checked this out on my last day in Tokyo. My original plan was to spend the afternoon in nearby Harajuku an area famous for its street fashion.

I'm glad I realised that the Meiji-jingu was just a short distance from the train station. It's well worth a visit.

Take a day trip to Kamakura and Enoshima

Kamakura is a small city about an hour away from Tokyo. It's famous for dozens of temples and shrines and a giant Buddhist statue, The Daibutsu (Big Buddha). I missed the chance to see it in 2002 but made up for it this time.

A short ride from Kamakura by train is the beachside area of Enoshima.

Enoshima is famous for Enoshima island. One of the highlights on my trip was walking along the bridge to the island and watching the sun set of Mount Fuji in the distance.

It was beautiful.

Wednesday 23 April 2014

David Moyes Sacked as Man Utd Manager: Where did it go wrong?

From the 'chosen one' to the sacked one in the space of 10 months. David Moyes is no longer manager of Manchester Utd.

I have a lot of sympathy for Moyes, he was faced with such a difficult task taking over at Manchester Utd. The job would have tested the skills of the most able managers in the world game.

In the end it was hard to see how he could survive. Some of Man Utd's performances this season were unrecognisable from the teams we've seen over the last 25 years.

This summer's transfer window is without doubt the most important in the club's recent history. In the end the Glazers simply didn't believe Moyes was the right man to begin the massive rebuilding job required at the club.

So where has it all gone wrong for? Here's some of my thoughts.

Was Moyes the right man for the job?

In hindsight no, but at the time of his appointment I thought it was a good choice. I was pleased a British manager had been given the chance to manager the biggest club in England.

However, when you look at how things have gone this season, it feels like Moyes was the wrong man at the wrong time. Had he taken over 4 years ago it would have been a difficult task but faced with a Man Utd squad clearly in decline his chances of success were made even more difficult.

Moyes should have embraced more of Utd's attacking traditions. He was far too cautious in the way he set his teams to play, you can't do that at Man Utd.

Was Moyes given enough time?

Personally I thought Moyes should have been given the summer to bring in new players and see if he could turn things around.

The club sent out a clear statement that this was a long term project when they handed Moyes a 6 year contract. However the realities of modern day football shows that contract meant nothing.

People will argue that Ferguson was given time back in the late 80s before he started winning trophies but the late 80s was a completely different era for football.

Man Utd won the FA Cup in 1990, Fergie's first trophy and still finished 13th in the old Division 1! Today not even Fergie would be allowed to finish a season 13th. He would have been sacked much earlier.

Football has changed beyond recognition since the late 80s. The major European clubs can't afford to spend years in transition rebuilding.

Was it right for Alex Ferguson to choose his successor?

Again another no. After all the years of success that he brought to club, it was clear that his opinions should have been listened to but again with hindsight it was clear that the final decision should have come from the owners.

Who is responsible for Man Utd's problems?

There's no doubt that Man Utd are a club in crisis. The next few years could be the most difficult it's faced since the early 70s when the club went into decline after Sir Matt Busby's retirement.

Man Utd's squad has been in decline for a number of years, this decline has been masked by the brilliance of Alex Ferguson who somehow still managed to challenge and win league titles.

The midfield has needed a significant overhaul for years and this was highlighted in the Champions League Final defeats against Barcelona in 2009 and 2011. Utd weren't just beaten in those games they were outclassed.

Ferguson left at just the right time and even if he'd remained in charge this season I couldn't see them finishing any higher than 3rd at best.

Secondly, the Glazers have some serious questions to answer and some tough choices ahead. They've leveraged the club with debt and essentially under invested in the club over the last 5 years compared to Utd's rivals.

They managed to get away with this by having one of the greatest managers of all time in charge. Now Fergie's gone they can't rely on his abilities alone to keep the club winning titles.

They need to spend at least 150 - 200 million in the summer to rebuild the squad and they face the biggest challenge since they took over the club.

Who will take over?

Everything points to Louis Van Gaal. He has the pedigree and reputation and fits the bill as to what is needed at Manchester Utd. I'd be amazed if he wasn't in charge at the start of next season.

Manchester Utd are now just another club

Every football club in special in its own way, but what made Utd special was that continuity of having such a successful manager in charge for so long.

Utd didn't go around sacking managers like other clubs, but I remember reading a great comment in the Guardian a few months ago which said they've never needed to be a club that sacked managers before. Now things have changed.

Utd are now just like any other club, where results mean everything. In this era of football if a manager remains in charge of a club for 5 years that's a lifetime.

What next for Utd?

It might come as a shock to younger readers to discover that back in the mid 70s Utd were relegated to the old Second Division.

Finishing 7th in the Premier League and failing to qualify for the Champions League is a modern day relegation for Manchester Utd.

You know and expect the club to spend big in the summer to get back to where they belong but it's going to be a challenge.

The top of the Premier League is easily the most competitive in Europe. You've essentially got a mini league of 7 clubs competing against each other.

When you look at the financial power of Chelsea and Man City you have to expect that they will be in the top four for some time. We've also seen the re-emergence of Liverpool this season under Brendan Rogers.

It's going to be tough to get back into the top four for Man Utd let alone reclaim the title.

Utd have enjoyed an entire generation of continuous success but that cycle is now over. Like all great clubs they will be back, it's just a question of how long it will take.

Tuesday 1 April 2014

Frankie Knuckles 1955 - 2014 The Godfather of House

Growing up in the late 1980s I was surrounded by music. I listened to the music of my parents: Reggae, Rhythm & Blues, Jazz and Soul. I also loved 80s Pop music.

In 1987 things changed. I discovered 2 genres of music from black America. One was Hip Hop the other was House music. I've never stopped listening to those 2 genres.

Today I discovered that the man who invented House music, the pioneer, the Godfather died. His name was Frankie Knuckles and I can't imagine what my record collection would look like if it wasn't for him.

Anyone who knows anything about House music and dance music culture in general will know just how significant and influential Frankie Knuckles truly was.

One the greatest house tracks ever

Back in the early 80s Disco was on its way out. Exploited by major records labels and suffering the backlash that the 'disco sucks movement' created. Disco went back underground never to be seen again...or so people thought.

Disco never died it simply mutated and reformed and the man responsible was Frankie Knuckles. He kept disco alive by re-editing and remixing old disco tracks he played at the Warehouse nightclub in Chicago.

The records that Knuckles played at the Warehouse started to become known has house tracks and a new genre was born.

By the late 80s House music was gaining popularity in the UK and an entire music culture was forming. No wonder Knuckles referred to House music as 'Disco's revenge'

The Whistle song Frankie's biggest hit in the UK.

It probably wasn't until the early 90s that I really started getting into House music properly. Listening to Pete Tong's Essential Selection on a Friday evening and then going out shopping at weekends buying 12" records on vinyl.

So many great remixes to choose from but I'm going with Andrea Mendez: Bring Me Love

I soon got up to speed on the major players in House music of which Knuckles was the Godfather. I've spent the last 25 years being obsessed with this music.

Hours of my life spent in record shops and in clubs. Never getting tired or bored of House music. Knowing that it never lets me down and will always get me on a dancefloor.

I owe all of this to Frankie Knuckles.

Wednesday 26 March 2014

The crisis in Ukraine shows Russia has its mojo back

Watching events unfold in Ukraine over the last few weeks, it's reminded me that Russia has started to reclaim its international 'bad guy' reputation.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, The West found new enemies to turn its attention to. Iraq, Iran, Muslim extremists but now Russia is back on the scene.

Following the revolution in Ukraine, Russia is beginning to flex its muscles again. But the question I'd ask is this: Did anyone really think they would sit back and allow Ukraine to start developing closer ties with Europe?

Although I support those Ukrainians who want to see less corruption and a more democratic form of government in their country.

I sometimes feel those countries from the former Soviet Union have to accept their geographical fate in life. They're always going to be in Russia's back yard.

As much as they want to be free of Russia's influence, there's always going to be a limit to how close they can be to the West.

In Ukraine's case, the idea that one day they could join the European Union is a non starter. There's no way Russia would allow that and those European politicians that have encouraged such an idea are at best naive and worst irresponsible.

Russia has been and remains a major world power. Here in the West we can shout from the sidelines about how terrible it is of Putin to essentially annex the Crimea from the Ukraine, but what are we really going to do about it?

Any form of military intervention is a non starter. You can tell that the West doesn't have the stomach for it and besides many Western governments have spent the last 2 decades decreasing their defence spending budgets.

Secondly, countries like Germany know they can only push Russia so far, as they rely so heavily on Russia gas. The West can impose sanctions but Russia would hit back by turning off the energy taps.

You can see that Eastern Europe is a part of the world where more problems could start occurring in the next few months and years.

I've been reading recently that countries like Latvia that used to be part of Soviet Union are getting worried as like Ukraine they have a large ethnic Russian minority. The situation in Ukraine could easily start playing out in other countries bordering Russia.

For all their fears and protests from the West, it's hard to see what we can do, we're trying to tell Russia what to do in its own backyard.

It's difficult as this is their sphere of influence, always has been and probably will be for the forseeable future.

Sunday 9 March 2014

Birmingham City owner Carson Yeung jailed. 'Fit and Proper'? I don't think so

For fans of Birmingham City Football Club, the only story that's mattered this week was the conviction and jailing for money laundering of our owner Carson Yeung.

Birmingham may have won the Carling Cup in 2011 and finished 9th in the Premier League in 2010 but it doesn't change the fact that his ownership of the club has been a disaster!

Since his arrest in 2011, the club has slowly been asset stripped. Losing all its players from the Premier League and forced to sell up and coming stars like Nathan Redmond and Jack Butland.

The club has no money, is relying on young players and loanees and has the weakest squad in over 20 years. The club is going nowhere fast as things currently stand.

His buying of the club and subsequent conviction raise some awkward questions for the Premier League, the Football League and the game in general in this country.

How was Carson Yeung allowed to take a controlling share of a Premier League club?

Yeung took and passed the 'fit and proper test' or to give it its official name the 'owners and directors' test.

He passed it as he didn't have any unspent criminal convictions. He also had to confirm he hadn't been involved in two football insolvencies in the previous 3 years or been sanctioned by another sporting body.

However, he'd been under investigation for money laundering since 2008. A year before taking control of Blues in October 2009.

He tried to buy the club towards the end of 2007 but the deal fell through as he couldn't raise enough money.

Despite this, he was still able to buy the club for a ridiculous £81 million pounds two years later. It seems the fit and proper test failed when it was needed.

The Premier League in the last 10 years has become a huge global brand. It's the most glamourous and exciting football league in the world.

The Premier League has been elevated and put on a pedestal. Its attracted an ever growing number of foreign owners to English football.

Many are unfamiliar with owning and running professional football clubs. Some don't have a feel or understanding for the social and cultural importance that clubs play to fans, towns and cities around the country.

The biggest English clubs like Man Utd, Chelsea and Liverpool hold an obvious appeal to any potential buyer, but mid ranking clubs like Birmingham are also proving to be attractive to overseas business people.

When I say mid ranking I'm talking about clubs like Birmingham who are big enough to be in the Premier League but there's so many similar sized clubs that they can't all be in the Premier League at the same time. (look at the Championship for mid ranking)

The likes of Carson Yeung want to have a piece of the glamour and prestige of the Premier League. They can't buy the truly big clubs, but clubs like Birmingham become more attractive.

What they fail to release is that unless you own a club challenging for a Champions League place you don't really matter on a global stage. Yeung wanted to grow the Birmingham City brand in China? Blues will never be a global brand!

English football is unique and special but when I look at what's happened at Blues in the last 3 years, it's made me think the footballing authorities in England need to work harder at protecting the values and traditions of football.

Clubs are cultural and social institutions that mean something to people, prospective owners from abroad should be vetted properly.

Yeung may have lived the dream of owning a Premier League football club but the details of his trial reveal that he was simply a chancer.

His vanity is what made him take over Blues, a vanity that can never understand the emotional and financial investment thousands of Blues fans like myself have invested over the years.

Sunday 2 March 2014

The First World War - A necessary war?

Being a history geek 2014 is a significant year as it marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War.

The war started on 28 July 1914 so we still have a few months before the official 100th anniversary but the books and history programmes looking back on the origins of the war have already begun.

This week I watched two programmes on the BBC looking at whether it was right for Britain to enter the war. The first show called the Necessary War was presented by historian and journalist Max Hastings.

He argued as the title suggests, that the First World War was a war Britain had to fight despite the popular view that it was a terrible mistake in which thousands of men lost their lives in a futile war.

On Friday I watched the second show called The Pity of War. The show which included a studio debate was chaired by historian Naill Ferguson.

His argument was that Britain's participation in the war was a terrible mistake which should never have happened.

I've always found the origins of the First World War fascinating. Unlike the Second World War, which in a simplistic sense is viewed as Britain and America good, Hitler and Nazis bad!

The reasons for a World War in 1914 are more complex and difficult to understand. There's more ambiguity as to how and why the war started and who was responsible.

I studied the war during my history degree at university but even now I have to remind myself on the origins and causes of the war. Generally speaking Germany was mainly responsible but all the major European powers had their own reasons for wanting to fight in 1914.

What's good about the anniversary is that we've got a chance to think about and re-evaluate the war. I left university back in the late 90s. There's a lot of things from my studies on the war that I've forgotten.

The First World War is one of the most significant events in World history. For me it brought to an end 19th century Europe, and marks the beginning certainly politically of the 20th century.

I'm in agreement with Max Hastings when he says the First World War was a war Britain had to fight. The popular opinions about the war are too limited.

It's all about the Western Front, thousands of men being killed in trench warfare - led into battle by an incompetent officer class.

However, Britain went to war for the same reason it always went to war, it couldn't sit back and watch the continent be dominated by one country, in this case Germany.

Imperial Germany under the Kaiser might not have been as evil as Nazi Germany but a Germany victory in World War 1 would hardly have been good news for Europe.

Germany in 1914 was an autocratic regime led by the Kaiser, it was militaristic, aggressive with plans to expand its empire and influence. It certainly wasn't a democracy. It's highly unlikely that political freedom would have flourished in a German dominated Europe.

You could argue that the end of the First World War led to the rise of Communism and Fascism so democracy wasn't allowed to take hold in many countries but I still don't believe a Germany victory would have been much better.

Hastings argues that had Britain stayed out of the war, we would most likely have had to fight the Germans at a later date.

I find the first part of the 20th century incredibly interesting and the First World War is hugely significant in terms of its impact when it comes to politics, society, popular culture and the arts.

The Second World War gets more attention and is easier to understand but over the next few months and years we should all hopefully begin to get a better understanding of the importance of the First World War.

Thursday 30 January 2014

12 Years A Slave - A story for everyone

I went to see the film 12 Years A Slave yesterday at the cinema.

I rarely go to the cinema and I know I should go more often, but I felt this was a film I really needed to see now rather than wait.

I wasn't disappointed, it's an uncompromising account of the slave trade and the brutality of how human beings can treat one another.

The film tells the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man and violinist who lived in upstate New York. In 1841 he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Deep South.

11 years, 8 months, and 26 days later he was finally freed. 5 months after his release, he published his book telling his story.

As someone of Afro Caribbean descent the story of slavery is nothing new to me, it's part of who I am. What makes 12 Years A Slave so special is that we rarely see Hollywood films tackle the story of slavery.

Now we have one, directed by a black British director, Steve McQueen with a story told from the perspective of a black protagonist in Solomon Northup.

I've read a few interviews with McQueen where he highlights the lack of films made about slavery compared with the numerous films about the Holocaust.

The Holocaust for all its horrors lasted for 6 years, slavery as an institution lasted 400 years.

Much of the wealth made by Britain, the United States and other Western European powers was built on the back of the slave trade. Slavery isn't just a story for black people whose ancestors were brought to the Americas as slaves. The slave trade is a story for everyone.

I realised this a few years ago, when I read a book called The Sugar Barons.

I wanted to find a book that told my own history of the Caribbean and the slave trade and this book was perfect.

I love history, I have a degree in the subject, but like many black people who have grown up in England I realised it was a story I would need to find out myself.

What was ironic is that I didn't just learn about my own personal history. I learned just as much about Britain and how Britain built its wealth, its naval power and empire through its dominance of the sugar trade in the Caribbean.

This is why the story of slavery is so important for everyone regardless of what colour they are. Slavery explains how the societies we live in today were partly built on the slave trade.

When questioned by the Sunday Times on why film studios have been slow to focus more on slavery. Chiwetel Ejiofor who plays Northup said:

"People have a fear of questioning societies to which they owe their whole system of reality"

He's right. I thought this was a brilliant point. What would Britain and the United States look like today without slavery? We'd all be living in a very different place.

Slavery is an uncomfortable subject for many people to deal with but that doesn't mean we shouldn't tackle it head on.

12 Years A Slave does this and this is why it's such an important film.

Friday 24 January 2014

Channel 4's Benefits Street - What is it trying to say?

Is there a more controversial tv show on at the moment than Channel 4's Benefits Street?

Since the first episode was shown two weeks ago there's been countless media coverage looking at the benefits culture in the UK and the portrayal of poverty by the media.

If you haven't seen the show, the documentary follows the lives of a number of residents living on James Turner Street, in the Winson Green area of Birmingham. Apparently 95% of the residents of James Turner Street rely on state benefits to survive.

The series has a special interest to me being a born and bred Brummie, although I grew up on the other side of the city from where the show is set.

Having a show like Benefits Street is a good thing. It's important to look at and highlight some of the issues faced by those living on low income or surviving almost exclusively on state benefits - the key though is how you tell these stories.

There's a narrative that exists, rightly or wrongly that says most people who claim benefits or who are long term unemployed do so because they have no interest in work, they expect the state to look after them, and they don't deserve any sympathy as they're lazy and feckless.

Programmes like Benefits Street form part of this narrative and are popular, partly because they allow us to look at the poverty of other people's lives and be glad it's not us.

We can also shake our heads, sneer at and generally feel a sense of superiority over those people who are seen as the lowest of the low.

There's even a term for it. It's called 'poverty porn'. It's not a new phenomenon look at the success of the Jeremy Kyle show, which is the king of 'poverty porn' shows.

The first episode of Benefits Street seemed to fit into this description, which probably explains why on social media sites like Twitter there was so much hatred and abuse written about some of the residents featured.

After the first episode, I read in the Birmingham Mail that some residents complained about how they were portrayed. They claimed they were misled by the programme makers who said the show would focus on the community spirit of the street rather than a culture of benefits.

As with all reality tv shows, the programme makers have chosen to feature the most interesting, engaging and outrageous characters available on the street. The people who are going to make the most interesting television.

After the first episode, I wondered whether the aim of the show was to highlight the lives and struggles of others or to entertain the prejudices and preconceptions of some of the viewers?

The programme makers have been working with the residents for over a year and in that time you're only going to get a snapshot of people's lives in four hours of television.

There are 99 houses on the street, different people, from different backgrounds. Many of them do have jobs but they're not necessarily people who have interesting stories to tell.

The first episode had more sensationalist elements to it; such as shoplifter Danny Smith showing viewers how to steal clothes without getting caught, but I think episodes 2 and 3 have had a different tone and feel to them.

In the second show, they featured a Romanian family who were evicted from a house on the street because they couldn't keep up with their rent and bills. There was also a group of Romanian men living in one house who had come to Britain looking for work.

I found this interesting as I don't personally know any Romanians. We hear stories about how thousands of them are coming to the UK to claim benefits, but the lives being shown seemed to suggest that coming to the UK was not the dream they were hoping for.

This week's episode featured the young couple Mark Thomas and Becky Howe both 23, out of work and struggling to bring up their 2 young children.

It showed the difficulties Mark had in trying to find a full time job, something made more difficult when you have little or no qualifications and practically no experience of ever working.

Programmes like Benefits Street raise loads of interesting talking points and issues to debate; but there's a huge amount of responsibility on the producers in terms of how they want to look at and explore these issues.

There is a growing attitude in this country that wants to see and think the worst of those struggling at the bottom of our society.

Programme makers have to be aware of this when they make documentaries like Benefits Street.

There's a delicate balancing act in terms of accurately reporting and documenting people's lives and aspects of our society, but without exploiting people by feeding into the prejudices some people may have about the poor.