Monday, December 29, 2008

Irn Bru and Boys in Dresses

I was going to leave this till the new year but I figured it’s a good place to close one year and enter into the spirit of the next where discussions about what isn’t and what is football fiction should continue unabated. Ferociously even, if I can manage it.

David Walliams has written a book about a boy who plays football. A boy who plays football and likes wearing dresses. In the interests of additions to the shelf, thesimplestgame thought we’d better take a look at it.

David Walliams is the tall one from Little Britain . While that should tell you about the level and style of humour in the book, for the sake of context, had you not seen the very popular BBC (now stateside) series, he’s a straight man more comfortable wearing dresses than talking about football. Still he’s had a crack (oh dear, apologies).

The Boy In The Dress has done well as far as bookshops are concerned and it should. It’s funny, touching, heart-warming, sweetly delivered to its intended audience and, possibly best of all, has potential for controversy.

I lost the very stiff woman I was trying to sell it to at ‘…and he likes wearing dresses’. Odd in itself because I imagined Australians more tolerant of cross-dressing than they are of football. That’s if it is cross dressing, for kids this age it probably still qualifies as dressing up, doesn’t it?

Back to the book…Its a delight to read. And not, as your brain leaps into panic at my flagrant use of the term ‘cross-dressing’, about a boy with a sexual identity crises. He just likes wearing dresses. Make up, eyelashes, tights, heels and dresses. He likes playing football too. Almost as much as he likes wearing dresses, which is just as well, because it’s his football prowess that wins his detractors over in the end. That would be a spoiler to some, but only a few, discerning readers.

See his Mum’s gone, his Dad, a fairly hefty cardboard cut-out of an earnest and fairly typical embodiment of overtly masculine fatherliness – he likes football a lot too, but he doesn’t do boys in dresses – (apologies again for inappropriate word choice) is left to look after the boy in the dress and his rough ’n ready big brother.

When he’s sent to detention the boy meets a girl. She’s only the school’s coolest, most beautiful girl. The girl he’s had crush on since like forever. They make friends and she seduces him out of his clothes and into her best frocks with a pile of Italian Vogues and a nice shade of lippy. Before anyone realises what’s going on, he’s become The Boy in the Dress in class, at his own school, where he poses as a female French exchange student until he falls over and shakes his wig loose.

Importantly, he’s also the school’s star footballer. His skills allow him some Shane Warnesque leeway when his couturian adventures are unveiled. Before the stumble, he plays a few games and even scores a couple of goals, which help get his teammates to the grand final. With his teammates needing him and the headmaster having banned him for all their blushes, Williams promises and delivers an excellent resolution opportunity for the whole will-he/won’t-he-play, will-they/won’t-they-win scenario.

Walliams’ description of the football can be painful and may even be excused when the narrator openly announces early doors (page 28) that he knows nothing about the game. Its an effective way to reduce audience expectations – this is not a sports novel. In fingering the flaw Williams essentially highlights the football as the vehicle that gains the protagonist understanding (from his family), ‘forgiveness’ (the awful general societal kind) and acceptance in his local community. It also lets Walliams make one of those oft used, parochially English, self-deprecatory joking truths designed to smooth the sharp edges off a blatant lack of competence.

That’s not to say that Walliams is lacking in competence. He’s a funny man and he writes well. It’s just his football knowledge that’s tosh. I would imagine in terms of a football fiction perspective his efforts have, at the very least, taken the game to new audiences. That has to be commended and as a result we’d have to say The Boy In The Dress has found a home on the shelf.

Be safe in your bringing the year in. Nurse your hangovers with Irn Bru if you can and if you can’t, we hope you don’t suffer too badly. All the best from thesimplestgame.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

popular pictures and women's football

Whether its prawns and bottled beer by the pool or a couple of pints and a whisky round the fire in the pub, it seems to be the time of year for reflection and family and watching loads of telly and eating too much and drinking more than is considered reasonable. It’s the holidays though and you should be good to yourself.

I gave a passing thought to joining the fray and posting one of those ‘the year that was’ posts, ye know, where we all cast an eye over my motley assemblage of entires into cyberspace, the football fiction, the events or the authors I’ve encountered, but you know what? You can read through those posts yourself. Have a wee look at the archive thing, past the posts, on the side there. >>>>>>

One thing that has been very curious though is the popularity of this picture of a woman holding her ball. I used it to discuss women’s football, and maybe highlight the attractiveness of their more graceful game, but for some reason this photo keeps pulling visitors into my wee football fictive world. Now I’ve put pictures of Hiedi Klum, David Beckham, Jessica Alba, Robbie Williams, Jessica Biel, George Clooney, Angelina Jolie, the girl from Sex in the City, a women’s beach volleyball team and Danny Glover in my posts and yet the picture of the woman holding the ball has been the most requested, looked at, linked to article on my humble pages. Obviously I would love the main attractions to be my dazzling wit, rapacious insight, content, football fiction celebrities or even my sense of humour, but if it means people are reading it, it can’t be a bad thing. Can it? As unfortunate or desperate or debauched as detractors find it, sex really does sell.

And that leads me nicely to my next point.

I can only sit back and wonder why the W-League is not picking up even bigger audiences, it’s being marketed well, Australia’s ABC have been televising weekend games and the football’s good - if you needed any more convincing that it was worth watching Tameka Butt’s absolutely delicious goal against Melbourne Victory, a perfectly weighted curler into the postage stamp, is an excellent example. I can assure you it’s a belter but have a look anyway .

Our local team, the Women’s Queenland Roar, have just won the minor premiership and are odds on favourites to win the grand final in mid January too. The peeps at thesimplestgame would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the girls. They have our full support and ask that they would have yours too dear reader.

I know there isn’t much football fiction in this post, but there will be loads in the new year including a look at David Williams (Little Britain) foray into the young adult fiction market.

Before I finish I would quickly like to point to the close, and obviously unrelated, timing of the Australian Government's announcement of a $6.1bn effort to tackle homelessness and the success of the homeless world cup which finished on December 7th (that's another two fingers to you, Andrew Bolt).

To everyone else thesimplestgame says, enjoy your holidays, enjoy your pressies (if you’re lucky enough to get any), enjoy yourself (I don’t mean it like that... but if that’s what it takes, knock yourself out – just wash your hands afterwards). Go merrily onwards and Slainte!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

they may take our homes

The 2008 homeless world cup was an amazing experience. It’s only now with distance I realise how connected I was to it. I followed the progress of a number of teams, managed to sneak into places I wasn’t supposed to be, won a few friends and witnessed some cracking football. But it had more of a grip on me than that. I could wax lyrically about the melodrama and emotional rollercoasters, but I’m not sure I could do it justice. Much of the time I was balanced somewhere between pragmatic joy and brimming over with heart strung happiness. Lumped throat, watery eyes and everything. Even when we were wandering round the Victorian State Library or eating Gelati on Lygon Street, my mind was in Fed Square.

To those not lucky enough to have been near it, that may sound over the top. Even writing it does, but I’m at a loss as to how to convey exactly how I felt, except maybe that I was content while the tournament was being played out and more than a wee bit sad when it finished.

So if it had that effect on me, how can it not have had an impact on the participants? My fear for those who played would be in having to return to face their own realities. I struggled a little with my own, so I don’t blame those who’ve sought refugee status for doing so – we, I should say Australians, keeping telling everyone what a great place this is, it surprises me that some still have the audacity to be stern and, worse still, abhorred when other people from somewhere much worse actually decide it is better than where they’ve come from and want to stay. Andrew Bolt, you are a dick. (I considered posting a link to his latest right wing diatribal drivel, so you could decide (see) for yourself, but elected against wasting time, yours or mine, on it.)

Afghanistan won. They beat Russia in the final. Aye, see now there’s something in itself. The fairy tale ending. People travelled the length and breadth of the country to witness it too. Melbourne’s Fed. Square resounded with their clamour. And to defeat the Russians, well, it’s like getting yer own back on the back in the day school bully for all the chewing gum/toilet water/spit/ (please insert your own personally suitable alternative) in your hair.

More important than all of that, Scotland’s quarterfinal penalty shoot out defeat of England. That’s what I said. We beat the Auld Enemy. It’s the first time in the tournament’s history that the two nation teams have met. We done them. The rivalry was energetic, fierce and very humorous. It provided a great advertisement for what the tournament’s about and a great argument against the nonsense of a GB team for the 2012 Olympics.

Fear not, I’m not going to turn this into one of those things where we say… ‘Och well, we got beat in the semis by the Russians and then lost to Ghana, a team we beat comfortably in the second stage, in the third place play off, but none of that matters, because the game against England was the team’s real triumph.’ That would be puerile. Churlish even. But we did beat them. We done them and the roar across Fed Square when we did made my heart sing, but I’d leave it there.

Like I said the tournament was an amazing experience, it has the power to change things for people, like really truly madly change things. In Milan 2009, I expect it’ll be even bigger, attract even more attention – good and bad - and be an even bigger success. I'd happily get involved again.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008


Things that have impressed me most about the homeless world cup…individual player’s stories, the how they got here and the difference it makes would break your heart a hundred times. That teams like Zimbabwe, Afghanistan and Rwanda, countries literally torn apart in recent years, are here at all. And the embracing warming sense of community, people are happy to be here, to help one another out, to get along. I know, I could be falling over clichés. But it is incredible.

I met one of the Scottish players on his way to play in goal for the Canadians. I stayed and watched the game. He had a good game, they needed his help. I also met the Argentinian goalkeeper. He can’t speak English and I can’t speak Spanish, despite rumours to the contrary. Mumbling common and sometimes lucky words and phrases, offering hand signals, the strangest expressions, we found a way to converse. I then watched their game against the Ukraine where he let in at least 9. He passed me on the way out after the game. He looked so gutted I didn’t have the heart to say anything – in Spanish or English.

The other thing... some of the football has been absolutely stunning.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Moments from a tournament

The Homeless World Cup is an awesome tournament. The street soccer is fast, sharp and entertaining. Goals everywhere. Better still, the people are spectacular. I have a number of moments of magic which I will maybe share at length in later blogs but I’ve not the time… in the tradition of tv football commentary here are some highlights.

Meeting the Scottish team. Great lads, resplendent in our national strip and out done by a classy Afghani side. The boys battled well to come back from a two-goal deficit. The game finished 5 each and the Afghani boy slid the ball around our keeper. He’d had a great game as well. I don’t think it was a bad start, in fact I think it’ll work in their favour. I believe they’ll win the rest of their games now. I think it was a result of too much pressure – when was the last time Scotland were the world’s footballing number one?
I’m pretty sure the playing of Scotland the Brave as our anthem, instead of Flower of Scotland may well have had an impact. It upset me. If nothing else, I was looking forward to singing it.

I met The Age’s Martin Flanagan, a man of great stories. Easy to see why I like reading his work, right enough.

I met Lawrence Cann whose blogging about the tournament for the NY Times. He’s also President of Street Soccer USA which I think is most impressive.

Chibbing Craig Foster about his dislike of Scottish football and quietly reminding him that we won this tournament last year was a touch of gold to an already bejewelled day.

But watching the opening matches from the touchline among the photographers was something special. Me n the wee yin, she was on my shoulders, were moved on a number of times, but a kindly soul, a lovely lady, let me stay for the duration of the Scotland game at least.

If the rest of the week is even half the adventure of these few wee hours, I'll be a very happy man.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Knuckleheads on football forums

The most worthy of international tournaments is almost upon us. Sunday night is draw night for the homeless world cup. The route to the final which takes places the following Sunday (that'll be the 7th) will be announced. It’s exciting. Heidi Klum won't be pulling the balls out of her bag, but it is exciting nonetheless. As an added bonus wee sleekit Sepp isn't there either.

The teams have been arriving all week. The team from Scotland came out of the gloomy rain to the warm shine of the Melbourne sun with big smiles on their faces. If you were ever looking for an example of how far the tournament has come and how far it’s brought the people it has embraced, they'd be one of many.

Nelson Mandela famously said, “Sport has the power to change the world.” The ripple effect of the homeless world cup which runs from the 1st to the 7th of December will be felt long afterwards. Within twelve months of 2005 Homeless World Cup in Edinburgh, 77% of players had changed their lives. They moved into education, homes, jobs, come off drugs and alcohol and improved and developed stronger social and family relationships. 12 players even got work in football as semi or professional coaches or players.

That makes the HWC a powerful thing. With 56 countries competing in men’s and women’s tournaments, this year’s HWC is the biggest yet. SBS's World Game will televise the final. Channel 10 in Oz are currently making a doco about the Street Socceroos. You know something’s working when the event is getting that kind of attention. People are really taking notice. And they should its really making a difference.

I’ve spent close to 20 hours in the last week or so trying to get it talked about, spruiked and promoted across a number of different online forums and blogs including the old facebook. I got into trouble there for sending lots of people the same message. Spam, apparently. Pish, if you ask me.

It’s fair to say I met with some success in some places and little or none in others.

A true believer in karma and justice of the poetic nature, I’ll not mention names. A couple of knuckleheads on the World Game’s forum for example will hopefully be shitting hedgehogs next time they sit down to squeeze their heads. I have to add here that I think the World Game's site is a solid one with great coverage of the beautiful game. They can't be held responsible for a few broadbanded lolly boilers.

There are some very decent peeps out there. This clip is well worth a look and it was posted by one of the many posters on the same forum... lovely music, lovely idea

Dougie Brimson, author and long term friend of this blog, has vowed to give the tournament a shout on his site. Jack Bell, soccer blogger extraordinaire at the New York Times blog Goal, is a gentleman lending his support and his blog - the US team Coach will post from the tournament. And Fiona Crawford, a foxy blogger putting the boot in for the girls at 442, is a gentle lady with plans for HWC coverage.

I hit up some more blogs to a range of responses, including ignored, and worse, removed.

I’ll be providing some scribbles and some updates here, but I’d ask you to look at the Homeless World Cup yourself, n maybe give somebody who needs it a hand up while you're there.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Hand Up Not a Hand Out

I love the Big Issue's slogan. It’s smart, simple and it means a great deal to the people who’ve sold the big issue in all the countries it’s now sold in. It says it all. Its not just a magazine, it’s about giving people a means to regain something, rebuild a bit, a means to get by or enough cash for a decent feed. Its a way to help the vendors sort out whatever it is they need to sort out whether it’s a job, a home or themselves.

To me it’s even more than that but. What about the stick they have to take? People taking the piss or worse. It takes bollix to stand on a street corner, to be ignored by hundreds of passing people. It takes bollix to stand there and say, “Hey I know I made mistakes, I wouldn’t be standing here if I didn’t, but I’m trying to fix them now and you, yes you, can help me.” It takes bollix to stand there whether the weather’s shite or not, because well because there’s a millions reasons int there? I don’t know if its something I could do. They’re the ones making an effort. All we need to do is stop for a minute, put our and in our pocket. When a nod and a smile are a comfort and someone actually buying the paper is a bonus, it’s a hard road, could you do it?

Quiet, smiling Tom, the guy who sells it on QUT campus is a gem. If it’s the second week, he even tells me, he’s like, “You sure you’ve not got this already?” and I’m like “I’m sure Tom just give us the magazine, will ye?” I’d get it off him every week. Because he’s honest, because its a good read (interesting, topical, funny and definitely worth 5 bucks) and because he’s making an effort.

Now when Mel Young and Harold Schmied banged their heads together and the homeless world cup fell out, it took the issue to a new place. They weren’t talking about giving somebody a wee job for a spell, they weren’t talking about helping somebody or giving them a hand. This was something new, something much bigger. They set out to give people a once in a lifetime experience. Along with their respective organisations they've said ‘Here, start again’ or ‘Life doesnae always need to be a struggle’.

Hey, it’s no a holiday by any means. Try 15 minutes of street soccer. Its hard work. The team players don’t just show up on a Saturday to find their boots polished and the strips ironed, they have to put in a tremendous effort off the park as well as on it. Just getting to practice every week is a steep hurdle over the water.

I don’t just think the Homeless World Cup is important, I love it. And not just because Scotland are the current world champs either. The HWC is about football. Football that actually changes people’s lives. Really changes them. Physically, emotionally, mentally. Scotland’s coach, is just one of many shining examples of what I’m talking about.

You don't have to imagine it, football is the Anthony Robbins here, and it’s not charging some mug a small fortune to walk over hot coals.

So make an effort, it doesn’t even have to be a big one, just show them some support. Buy an issue, donate some cash, take the vendor a cup of coffee. Go and see the documentary.
Keep an eye on the results at this year’s tournament in Melbourne - December 1st to December 7th – if your in Melbourne Federation Square is just one of the venues.

There’s 56 countries competing this year, so there’s every chance your country could be could be a world champion football side and you wouldn’t even know it.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

For Whom The Ball Rolls

Following on beautifully from last week’s less than stable football supporter, I give you Alf Wangerman.
An ostensible fan of Welfare club football, he happens to be one of my favourite characters in football fiction. A solid, hob-nail booted, cigarette-rolling, donkey jacket-wearing abuser of referees.

The mission he chose to accept in Ian Plenderleith’s short story, Furlington Welfare’s Last Great Orator is to keep out of order Ref’s in order. The ordinary ones too when it comes to it. That’s all he does. He’s no interest in the football, the people around him or the result. His scorn, a singular, unrepeated, often unrepeatable, unrepentant stream of vitriolic verbosity, is plentifully poured all over the men in black. He attends games just to carry out these incessant attacks and gains some minor celebrity until… well, you can read it for yourself.

Scottish football refs have been joined by Irish Rugby Union refs in their acceptance of a Specsavers sponsorship. It’s a mark of their sense of humour and how they’ve taken the stick from the terraces in good grace. Under Alf’s avalanche they all crumble. Like some great Lincolnshire Viking, he sets the boat on fire before he pushes it out. It’s calamitous. Messy even. And brilliantly funny. But there’s a touch of sadness in it too. Sadness for the loss of what going to the game was like before corporatised, channel-hopping mercernary conglomerate football overwhelmed us. It reminded me of Pointless Jeff Connor’s spectacular non-fiction season with the completely unspectacular East Stirlingshire, the worst team in Scotland.

Another quality story in Plenderleith’s collection is The Man in the Mascot. A washed up alcy actor spends his Saturday afternoons inside the bird suit mascot of his local team and his Saturday nights willing his doomed relationship to change or fall apart. The girl, a slick marketing exec looking for a bit of rough or at least handing out a sympathy shag, seems just as ambivalent. A study of the morose, the bleak and the darkly (like night time in the middle of a Norwegian winter) funny, it’s another standout.

I’m also not the first to use Plenderleth’s work in the academic arena. A German Masters student used it in her thesis and translated the chapter about this story - have a look.

In For Whom the Ball Rolls there are many other stories which catch the eye. We almost tenderly take in the wife of an ex-player who cannot move past his miss in the cup final. Save of the Day (in a Small Scottish Village in 1974) feels like a tale from Plenderleith’s childhood. Importantly, it could so easily have been from my own. The Right Result and The Day FIFA came to Lincolnshire have a don’t-let-the-bastards-grind-you-down ebullience which makes them hard to forget. They’re classic boy’s own (and just a bit more grown up) football stories. Like many of the stories in the collection, they woo the pants off the ghost of football past.

Unlike Greg Furt-Trevis, the ex-player in the story the book takes its title from, we are not doomed to watch the same thing over and over. Nick Hornby’s wrong when he says all the drama we need is contained in the actual game. These stories, the ones we read in novels and collections as opposed to the ones we read in autobiographies and newspapers are worthy of our attention. For Whom the Ball Rolls proves it. It could be argued that the inclusion of non-football short stories shows these works can stand alongside their more generic counterparts.

It’s a great collection, it might be a few years old now, but it’s still relevant, it’s still fresh and most important, it’s very entertaining. Are you looking for anything else in your football fiction?

You can buy the book on Plenderleith's site.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Elements of style

The elements of style in football fiction have very little to do with fashionable strips, cutting edge hairdoo’s, trendy cars and flashier bars. It’s about the words and how they’re placed on the page. The order of things. In football it’s the stuff the manager thinks about mostly. Smart players do it too. Well… I’ll leave that where it is.
Smart fans know it’s all about the football. Smart fans don’t worry about style or image, unless it’s to take in the latest version of the club’s away game alternative training kit.

Now, take Robbie Williams, Port Vale’s ‘biggest’ fan. Obviously when we say ‘biggest’ we’re not talking pie-eating, legging stretching or Texas rancher euphemising here. We’re talking celebrity LARGesse. Yesterday, pop’s largest celebrity football fan, ignored his famously favoured team to watch what he described in an impromptu game-side Sky Sports interview as his ‘secret Vale’ in action at the Emirates stadium.

Standing alongside his old Take That chum, the Barlow boy - he is after all unofficial leader of the manboy ‘band’ (he’s the only one who can actually play an instrument), Williams blaw-blaw-blawed a profession for football love at its vainest. He unwittingly revealed something most people probably would have guessed. He suggested following Port Vale can be difficult sometimes and that he enjoys watching a team who win a game once in a while. I know. Wanker! Football fans stick with their teams through thick n thin. Or thin n thin if you’re a Vale fan, but that’s besides the point.

It turns out Williams thick, like many of football’s shallower, shiny trophy, gold diggers, is a clandestine dirty love for Man. Ewe, Alex Ferguson’s pedantically preened multi-millionaire European champers who strut, stroll and, with the ball at their feet, victoriously sweep all-comers aside. Except, they got done, didn’t they?

In the classic writer’s text, Elements of Style, by Strunk, White and Kalman, now in its fourth edition, it says write about what you know about, write about what you feel most comfortable with.

Clearly most weeks Robbie words would have wrung truer than the electronically controlled giant bell hanging above the Thames near the houses of Paharliament. Except he chose to say what he did during an interview in the stadium on a day when his sentiment was hopelessly inaccurate. Clearly as a singer of over prescribed love songs this is not new to him, but in the world of football, fictive or otherwise, these are the things that count. Like a flat cap, a black pudding under the arm, a losing racing card and a pair of steel toe-capped boots, your words are the stable, solid ground you stand on and if you get it wrong, you’re in the mire. I don’t think football fiction writers are any different.

Port Vale’s 2nd round FA cup spectacular 4-3 comeback (from 3-1 down) was the stuff of legend, a genuine football story of the day. Or would have been if it hadn’t been overshadowed by the Red Devils (has there ever been more appropriate name?) getting their bums felt by the Gooners. While the result will make the likes of Nick Hornby, Karren Brady and, allegedly, Osama Binboy Laden happy, it only leaves Robbie wishing he’d been in Huddersfield.

On a side note, I was wondering if the destruction of the part of the Emirates stadium by Osama’s mob in Chris Cleave’s novel Incendiary would count as a football fiction moment? Mind you, it’s probably just a happy coincidence that my thinking of these things has converged in this week’s post.