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.