Sunday, 27 March 2016

Johan Cruyff 1947 - 2016

Football lost one of its all time greats this week with the death of Johan Cruyff.

I knew he was battling against cancer but following his announcement earlier this year that he was '2-0 up' against cancer I assumed he was on the road to recovery.

All the major footballing nations of Europe and South America have their own footballing culture and identity. I would describe Cruyff as being the godfather of Dutch football.

What makes Cruyff an all time great of football is not only how he played the game and what he achieved on the pitch. It's also his legacy off the pitch in terms of his coaching, club management and how he viewed and spoke about the game.

All football fans who know their history know about the great Ajax and Dutch national teams of the late 60s and early 70s. They introduced the world to 'Total football' A style where players where equally comfortable understanding and playing in different parts of the pitch. Cruyff was the leader of that Ajax and Dutch team and in 1974 he lead them to the World Cup final against West Germany.

I wasn't around for the 1974 World Cup but Holland were the team of the tournament and Cruyff the star player but sport doesn't always follow the romantic script and Holland lost in the final to West Germany when everyone expected and hoped they'd win.

Having watched documentaries on the 74 World Cup and read the book Brilliant Orange Perhaps it was a mixture of Dutch arrogance and overconfidence that they thought they would naturally beat a very good West Germany team.

In club football, Cruyff left Ajax after winning 3 European Cups in a row (1971-73) to join Spanish giants Barcelona. It's hard to believe now but when Cruyff joined Barcelona they hadn't won the league since 1960. By the end of his first season in Barcelona they had won the league. When he left Barcelona to go and play in America he was a hero in Catalonia.

By the time I started watching football in the mid 80s Cruyff had recently retired and had become manager of Ajax. My earliest memories of Cruyff was as manager where he was in charge of Barcelona and where he led them to an unprecedented 4 consecutive league titles from 1991 - 1994 and the club's first European Cup in 1992.

When I look back it's his time at Barcelona that you begin to see the legacy of Cruyff. When he returned to the club Barcelona had only won one league title since Cruyff left. That was in 1985 under Terry Venables.

Since the early 90s Barcelona have arguably been the most successful football club in the world in terms of winning trophies, developing youth players and playing a game that is loved by football fans across the world. Johan Cruyff started all of this and his influence can be seen today with the way Barcelona play the game now and you can see the roots and origins of their football if you go all the way back to the glory days of Dutch football at the start of the 1970s. That's what you call a legacy.

One of the great things I've discovered as a football fan in recent years is Youtube. You can now watch old clips of games and players who you may previously have only seen a few familiar clips.

In the past I've watched highlights of Cruyff particularly towards the end of his career in the early 80s when he returned to Ajax and more controversially to Ajax's biggest rivals Feyenoord of Rotterdam. What stands out is how stylish and elegant he was as a player even in his mid 30s. Some of his goals are just beautiful to watch.

Players like Johan Cruyff don't come around very often but when they do they remind you why you love the game of football so much.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

The Brussels terrorist attacks

Following this week's bombings in Brussels, I've been thinking what I could possibly say that wasn't already said after last year's attacks in Paris.

The bombings are both shocking but not surprising and raises the question of which European capital will be next. Knowing that in all likelihood there will be another major attack is one of the most depressing aspects of this story.

We've had the show of solidarity for the Brussels victims, the calls for how we must not let the terrorists alter our way of life but after all of this what comes next?

It would appear that the Belgium counter-terrorist authorities have proved a weak link in Western Europe's overall strategy against Islamic terrorism. From what I can tell the Belgium authorities simply don't have the same level of experience of dealing with terrorist groups in comparison to say Britain with our history of dealing with the IRA.

Britain's security forces have been fairly successful in preventing terrorist plots which explains why we haven't had a major attack since 7/7. But as the old saying goes, the terrorists only have to be lucky once while the security forces need to get it right every single time.

Europe will need to improve its overall joint strategy in tackling ISIS and Islamic terrorism. Europe needs to develop its own counter-terrorism network to confront the network of ISIS.

The next issue involves a long-term challenge of tackling Islamic extremism at its roots and targeting those communities in Brussels, Paris and in cities across Britain where young Muslim men turn to violence and extremism.

This will be a slow and long process and if I'm honest I don't know the causes or the answers as to why so many young Muslim men of second and third generation immigrants in their country of birth decide to reject the values of their home country for a violent and destructive ideology of ISIS.

Friday, 18 March 2016

A weekend in Berlin

Last weekend I spent a few days in the German capital Berlin.

It was the first time I'd been to Berlin since spending a day there in 1995. At the time I was inter-railing across Europe. I wasn't there long enough to get a real feel for the city. My lasting memory was the feeling of amazement that only 6 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall I was actually in the city itself standing in front of the Brandenburg Gate!

I remembered looking over towards East Berlin and seeing what looked like a massive building site. I always thought it would be great to come back again one day once all the rebuilding had finished.

Brandenburg Gate

Berlin has a reputation of being a kind of cool hipster capital of Europe, similar to London's Shoreditch and Hoxton. I have to admit it does have that vibe about it. I was surprised at just how chilled and laid back Berlin was for a capital city.

Cities like London, Paris and New York have that feel of places that say to you: 'this is where it's at' They are cities that have the confidence to say we are the biggest and the best. Certainly with London, Paris and even Rome, you also have that European grandeur.

Even though Berlin is an historic capital I get the feeling that it doesn't have those kind of pretensions, it feels like a city that doesn't take itself too seriously which is something I quite liked.

What Berlin does have is a heavy sense of 20th century history hanging over it. No city in the world represented the division between the Capitalist West and Communist East than the Berlin Wall. I remember when the Wall came down in 1989 and realising that I was watching a truly historical event.

Other historical sites include the government parliament the Reichstag which was famously burnt down by the Nazis in 1933, Checkpoint Charlie and The Topography of Terror, both an in and outdoor museum on the site of the ruins of the old Gestapo and SS headquarters.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

I wasn't aware of the memorial until my friend pointed it out to me. It was designed by the architect Peter Eisenman and inaugurated in 2005. The memorial is made up of hundreds a grey blocks which have been formed into a grid system which once inside feels like you're in a maze. The slabs are of varying sizes and when you walk inside, can feel quite disorientating.

Berlin isn't all about the darker side of European and World history. Berlin is also famed for its nightlife. I have to admit I found Berlin's nightlife a bit confusing to begin with. The city is very quiet and doesn't have what you could call a traditional city centre, there are different neighborhoods. When you go out in the evening you didn't really come across a row of bars or clubs in the way you might do on a UK high-street.

Berlin's bars and clubs all appear to be quite discreet, its as if you have to stumble across them or know exactly where you are going to find a place. What I liked was that when you do find somewhere there are some really nice intimate chilled out bars to discover. Busy enough to create a good atmosphere but not overly crowded to make the experience tiring. a couple of the bars and clubs we went to had a bell you had to ring to get in before being confronted by a curtain. It was like you were being allowed into an exclusive venue that once inside was pretty chilled and very inclusive.

I realised that's what Berlin is all about, nice bars and cool clubs that you need to hunt down or keep your eye out for. There's no need to dress up, nobody seems to care what you look like and this is what I quite liked about Berlin.

It's definitely a cool place to spend a weekend.

Hertha v Schalke: Hertha Ultras

One of the main reasons for visiting Germany was for the chance to watch a Bundersliga football match. The Premier League may be the richest and most popular league in the world, but Germany's Bundersliga has a growing reputation were fans can watch affordable games in some of the best stadiums in the world and where the fan culture and support is second to none.

Watching Hertha v Schalke was a great experience. Hertha aren't really one of the most glamourous or famous names in German football but they're having an exceptional season. Before the start of the match they stood in 3rd place in the league behind Bayern and Dortmund. They have a great chance of qualifiing for next season's Champions League.

This was an important match as Schalke were one place behind them in fourth; if Hertha could win it would help cement their position in third. It was an good match, fairly even in the first half with Hertha taking the lead just before half time. The second half Hertha were very much the better team and deservedly doubled their lead in the middle of the second half. They had chances to make it three which they failed to take but overall they deserved their win.

Apart from the football what really stood out were the fans. Hertha's ultra supporters behind the goal were superb. They never stopped singing and chanting. It was an impressive sight to see thousands of fans all jumping up and down in unison. I should also give credit to Schalke who also brought some numbers with them as well and contributed to the atmosphere.

One of the things I loved most about Berlin is the graffiti and street art you see on buildings all over the city. I know you find graffiti in many cities but Berlin seems to have taken it to another level and forms part of the city's look and identity.

The legacy of the Wall

In various districts of the city you can find parts of the Wall that still remain. They form part of a memorial to those people who risked and lost their lives trying to cross from East to West Berlin. It's very poignant to see and it's good that they've kept bits of the Wall up, if only to remind people of the destructive nature of building barriers between people.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

The EU Referendum: Are you in or out?

It's been a few weeks since the date of the EU referendum was announced. Those of you that follow me on Twitter will know that I've already made it clear which way I'll be voting and that's to stay in.

They might as well hold the referendum next week as I know my views aren't going to change but for the next 4 months we're all going to be subjected to endless debate on the merits of staying in or coming out.

Despite my initial feelings I've still been following the debate which I think is important as the public has a rare chance to think about and make a decision on the type of country we want to be in the 21st century.

So far we're being presented with two narratives on Europe to choose from. The first comes from the stay campaign led by the Prime Minister David Cameron and the Chancellor George Osborne. They're pushing forwards the fear and uncertainty argument. One that says it is too much of a risk for the UK to leave the European Union. They may not have great affection for the EU but the risks of coming out of the EU are to great to consider.

The argument put forward by the out campaign arguably presents a more positive message. One that says the UK can prosper and thrive by going it alone and leaving the EU; saying goodbye to its intrusive laws, regulations and struggling economy.

Personally I've always considered myself to generally be pro European and I instinctively feel that Britain should remain in the EU and be a prominent player inside it.

I certainly don't believe the EU is perfect. I'm all for closer political and economic ties with our European neighbours but there is a limit to how far you can go towards greater integration. I don't want to live in a centralised European super-state, I think it's incredibly undemocratic. You only have to look at the situation in Greece where despite the Greek people electing a government opposed to more austerity, they've ultimately had to follow the orders of Germany and the EU.

The European Union needs reforming but I'd rather try and reform it from the inside rather than leaving the EU altogether. Those who want to leave the EU will never truly convince me. I think in a globalised world I don't believe that Britain will maintain the same power and influence it has by leaving the EU.

The out campaign talk about how we are a country who can trade with the world, which is true but we are still geographically part of Europe, our history and future will always be tied to the Continent regardless of whether some people dislike that fact.

The debate so far is all about our role and future in the world which is understandable but there's the other side of the argument. What would a Brexit mean for Europe?

Europe needs and wants us to stay. It would be a complete disaster for the European project if Britain was to leave. It would potentially be the beginning of the end for the European Union. That might sound dramatic but it certainly conceivable. If one of the biggest countries decided to leave what would prevent other countries from deciding to do the same thing.

Europe is facing a number of difficult challenges at present: Slow economic growth, high youth unemployment, the increasing migrant crisis, and Islamic terrorism. Europe needs to be unified and strong to deal with these issues. A Europe without Britain will be weaker and one person you know wants to see a weakened, fragmented Europe is Russia's Vladimir Putin.

The EU will never be something that this country will truly love but the consequences of Brexit will have far reaching consequences across Europe and the world for years to come.