Thursday, 26 May 2011

The Grand Duchy

Geographically, Luxembourg is a small country bordered by Germany, France and Belgium.  As well as being the world's only surviving Grand Duchy, it's a major financial centre, courtesy of its position and the comparative freedom under which banks can operate (at least back in the 80s when it really began to flourish), and nowadays is a governmental and administrative centre of the EU too - as befits a founding member.

But it still has a reputation of being a bit of a cultural backwater, a boring place.  As an example, I cannot think of a single famous Luxembourger.  It's tough enough thinking of a famous Belgian (a country similar in many ways to its smaller neighbour) but from there I can come up with 3 - cyclist Eddy Merckx; Herge, the bloke who wrote the TinTin stories; and Eddy Wallie, a bizarre sub-Las Vegas Walloon crooner who featured regularly on Channel 4's Eurotrash back in the 90s.  But from the Duchy?  Nope, not one.  Sorry.  Good God, the place even had to resort to hiring horse faced karaoke hag Celine Dion (pre tooth and nose job) to represent it at one Eurovision Song Contest (and she didn't win).

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It seems a nice enough place, quite picturesque.  There is lots of rolling countryside around the capital city, called imaginatively Luxembourg, with some nice (but small) woodland.   There's a river that runs through the city centre, in quite a deep gorge spanned by a lovely old bridge and surrounded by a very nice park.  And quite a lot of motorways around the city, linking it to its neighbouring countries.  There is a native population of about half a million, plus probably as many ex-pats working in the banks and EU institutions.  Because it's a wealthy country there don't seem to be too many crap cars there - I visited last week and all the cars I saw were new looking BMW, Audi, Mercedes etc - luxury vehicles and predominately German.  There was also a good number of top-of-the-range French Citroen and Renaults as well.  Oh, and I saw 2 Jags and an Aston Martin.  Very nice - Clarkson would love it.

The airport is small, and very restricted in that there only seem to be a couple of airlines licenced to use it - Luxair (the national carrier), Swiss and maybe Lufthansa.  It makes getting in and out interesting, travelling from Warsaw.  Outbound I went via Zurich and homeward via Munich.   There is no business lounge (at least that I could find) and only one small bar in the Departure lounge, plus about 4 duty free shops, and it's certainly not the cheapest airport I've ever been through.  I found the Luxair staff very unfriendly and not particularly helpful - the day before travelling home I tried an internet check-in for my flights.  The Lufthansa flight from Munich to Warsaw was fine, but I couldn't get to the Luxembourg - Munich first leg, despite it being another Lufthansa flight code.  I called the Service Centre, who confirmed my check-in to Warsaw but told me to use the Luxair website for the first leg.  I logged in, but was unable to get to my flight - the system did not accept any possible combination of the booking code, e-ticket number, my name, travel date and Frequent Flyer number, all of which appeared on the ticket.  I called their Service Centre and spoke to a very brusque man who told me that because the ticket was bought via Swiss the details did not appear on Luxair's system so I would have to check in at the airport.  He refused to answer when I asked him how come I'd been able to check in for my LH flight from Munich and ended the call.  Nice bloke..... 

It wasn't much better at the Check in Desk next morning - the girl there had problems finding the booking, took nearly 10 minutes to do so, and again wasn't forthcoming when I asked politely what the problem was.  It appears that Luxair operates in splendid isolation and does not belong to an airline alliance, despite operating codeshare flights with several airlines who are members of various alliances, which means there are no links between the various computer systems and makes check-in processes more difficult than is normal in the EU.....surprising, given its rampantly pro-European policies and hosting of sundry pan-European agencies.  This is fine as far as it goes: if that is the way that suits the airline best then I certainly can't change anything, nor am I entitled to try to do so......but equally, they still surely have a duty to provide a good service level to all customers, and that includes polite and helpful check-in and service centre agents, I would have thought.  But this not a new situation - I've flown to Luxembourg perhaps five times over the past 12 years, and every time it has been the same.  Despite service improvements virutally everywhere else in the world, never mind just Europe, the Duchy seems to exist in its own little bubble, impervious to increased customer expectations.  Surprising, and a shame.

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My first trip to Luxembourg was in 1981 or thereabouts.  At the time I was working for a major American investment bank, at the time the biggest in the world.  At the time also the European bond markets were growing extensively so of course my company was a leading player.  Market growth was being aided by the existance at two competing central securities depositories (Brussels-based Euroclear, hosted by US mega bank JP Morgan, and the smaller, more independant Luxembourg- based Cedel) of bond lending programs.  Put simply, members of Euroclear and Cedel were able to lend securities from their portfolios to other market participants who needed them - for instance to cover short sales - against a fee, the entire process done anonymously and managed by Euroclear and Cedel.  A lender did not know who had borrowed the bonds, and a borrower did not know whose securities he had borrowed, only the clearers had that information.  My bank had extensive portfolios at both organizations and hence was a major player in the system.

The problem was we had somehow contrived to lose track of what we owned, what we had lent and who we had lent to, by virtue of largely manual reconciliation processes (computer support was still in its infancy in those days) and perhaps taking on more than we could be expected to manage.  Clearly we were at serious financial risk - we are talking tens of millions of dollars worth of "lost" securities: small beer today but a significant number then.  One of our regular organizational changes brought in a new manager, a feisty middle aged lady from the US Southern states, who was horrified by the situation (rightly so) and immediately withdrew temporarily from both lending programmes until such time as we had properly reconciled all our positions and figured out where the hell everything was.  Needless to say, both Euroclear and Cedel threw their hands up in despair, and "invited" us to visit with them to discuss the situation.  So Betty put together a delegation, led by her, to make our case and off we went.  To this day, I have no idea why I was included - I'd been with the company for about 18 months, had little experience in the lending programs, and had only recently been promoted to supervisor of the unit charged with reconciling positions (but primariliy internally rather than against outside accounts such as these).

Anyway, off we went.  we flew from Heathrow to Luxembourg, arriving about lunchtime - there were few direct flights in those days - and met with Cedel's managing director in the afternoon.  Beyond saying hello, I did not participate in the meeting at all, merely sat there listening with an increasing level of boredom.  We were taken around the place and introduced to various managers who were involved in Cedel's lending program, and they were all very helpful and pledged to provide whatever support and assistance we needed.  In the evening, we were taken out to dinner at a restuarant in the city - for the life of me, I can't remember what it was called - that apart from an excellent menu and a fine selection of beers provided interesting diner entertainment: all evening porn movies were being projected on a number of wall-sized screens around the place, complete with sound.  It made for an interesting meal.....

The following morning we met up, all very hungover, and caught the train to Brussels (there were no direct flights at all between the two cities).  We travelled first class, which was the last coach on the train, and had it to oursleves, so spent the next 5 hours sleeping it off as the train lumbered slowly through the Ardennes in the rain.  We spent the rest of that day in similar discussions with Euroclear and again beyond introducing myself I took no part in the conversation.   By contrast to the open door visit hosted by the Managing Director in Luxembourg, our discussions with Euroclear took place in a windowless conference room somewhere in the basement of JP Morgan's Brussels office, hosted by a pair of middle managers.   Despite their somewhat hectoring manner, and complaints that our actions had depressed the entire European bond market, Betty stuck to her guns and refused to start lending again until we had completed our reconciliation effort.  Eventually, we were shown the door and shoved in a couple of taxis to the airport and flew back to London.

From memory, it took a month or so before we were ready to re-commence lending.  Cedel welcomed us back with open arms, Euroclear merely said, privately at least, "about time too....".

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So my first view of Luxembourg made little real impression on me.  I wasn't there long enough to appreciate anything at all apart from the undoubted quality of certain eating establishments in Europe (there was certainly nothing remotely like it in Tunbridge Wells, where I was living at the time).  I vaguely remember the city being small and full of old buldings, and the station platform being very cold and wet and lacking in shelter.  Beyond that, nothing.

It was 20 years before I went back.  By then I had left banking, started my Travelling Life, divorced, moved to Poland and met my second quite a lot had happened.  A lot of change.  My company sent me to a bank in Luxembourg for a couple of days' business review and specification at a live customer of ours, and I managed to persuade them to let me take Ania with me (a VERY rare case of generosity by the company, I have to say!).   We flew via Frankfurt (for once a painless trip) and were booked in a city centre hotel.  While I was at work, Ania did some sight-seeing, and sat in the sunshine in the park, it being early summer.  In the evening we went to the Luxembourg equivalent of Warsaw's Old Town and spent a lovely time eating and drinking at an open air restaurant there.  The next day I finished early and we spent the afternoon and evening sight-seeing together, and sitting in the park, before another Old Town evening (but in a different bar).  We flew home the next day.  It was a nice trip.

But although my life had changed, Luxembourg, at least outwardly, hadn't.  It looked exactly the same as it had on my original trip twenty years before.  There seemed to be no more people on the streets, the old buildings looked unchanged, it still looked like the small European town it had been in 1981.  There was a little building work going on, close to the station - a new complex to house some EU institutions was underway, but that was about it really.

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Three or four years passed.  Then I was sent to our Luxembourg office for a training course.

I saw no more of the place than I had done previously - except for the roads.  I stayed in the Hilton hotel, fairly close to the airport and for that reason out of the town centre.  My office, it transpired, was right across the other side of the city, and the quickest way to get there and back was on the ring road - like the M25 only a lot shorter.  It was a 30 minute drive either way, and the office turned out to be in a little town (village really) just outside the main city centre - like Croydon I suppose, except that the entire village seemed to be about the size of the Whitgift Shopping Centre there.  There was literally nothing there: our office formed part of a building on an estate not unlike an English industrial complex except the buildings were office blocks, three storeys high and no more, instead of factories.  Across the roundabout at the estate entrance was a supermarket, part of a French Tesco-like chain (I can't remember whether it was LeClerc or Auchan) that also had a small sandwich and cake shop - that was lunch taken care of.  Then there were a couple of housing estates.  And that was all - no bars, not even a church or a petrol station (at least that I saw).  The taxi fare was EUR30 each way, which on a per diem of EUR56 left me short.   I had to get special dispensation from my management to claim the fares, since these normally form part of the expense to be covered out of per diem - I basically told them that unless they paid the fares as extras I would be on the next flight home.

It wasn't much of a trip.  Given the location of the office and the hotel in relation to Luxembourg town centre and the lack of money to spend, I had a sandwich at my desk for lunch and ate in the hotel in the evenings rather than spend another EUR50 getting into town and back (that's before meal costs).  Even the course was a complete waste of time.....

And I still had absolutely no view on Luxembourg apart from it being a bastard of a place to get to....

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But now I've had two trips within the past year, both to the same bank (another live site - we have have a dozen in the Duchy, it was one of the first areas in which we really made a mark).  The first time, last spring, I again stayed in the Hilton and had the chore of a taxi both ways.  Last week I stayed at the Sofitel, within walking distance of the bank.  And my eyes were opened.

In all those years, there has indeed been considerable change in the city: I just hadn't seen it.  Between the airport and the centre is the suburb of Kirchberg.  On my first trip (and possibly my second) it was no more than another small village on the edge of town that passed me by - I had no concept of its existance.  But now, sometime over the last 5 or 6 years I should think, a whole "new town" of modern multi-floor office blocks has sprung up cheek-by-jowl with the old village.  Cedel, now re-branded Clearstream and a much bigger organisation than it was on my 1981 visit, occupy one of the largest, an entire quartet of blocks surrounding a little square.  All the major banks are there, in buildings large and small, plus the major accountancy and consulting and legal firms like Deloittes and Linklaters, and some of those pan-European quasi- governmental offices.  There is a big shopping mall centred around an Auchan supermarket, with expensive looking boutiques and bistro's and sandwich bars.  There are two up-market business hotels next door to each other (the Sofitel and the Novotel).  A multi-lane highway - the John F. Kennedy Boulevard - runs through it to the city centre, all contra-flow systems with buses and taxis and normal traffic going in opposite directions on adjoining lanes - an interesting concept that seems to work fine but would cause complete chaos if it was tried in any UK city.......look at how well received bus lane on the M4 between Heathrow and London was when introduced a few years ago.  The whole Kirchberg area reminded me very much of a better planned and executed Canary Wharf - almost as if the Luxembourgers had watched Britain's attempts at creating a brand-new out-of-town financial district, spotted the mistakes and corrected them in their own development.

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So the Grand Duchy then......conclusions.

Well, it's a nice enough place I guess.  Pretty, in a rural central European way.  Very prosperous and good at what it does.  Expensive.  Good road links to the rest of the Continent, and probably improved rail links too.  Need to work some more on air links and certainly customer care at both the airport and the national carrier.

But all I've really seen is the area immediately surrounding Luxembourg (the city that is).  Because of its small size and the fact that it is landlocked, without a beach or a mountain to its name, it could never be considered a holiday destination, unless your idea of a holiday is roaming around admittedly pleasant countryside and doing a bit of expensive-car spotting.  But then, that is not what Luxembourg is all about.

Whatever its history, pre-1955 or thereabouts (when the original EEC came into being) - and I readily admit I know nothing about Luxembourg history - the country and the state are now completely bound to banking and EU governance.  It is a European centre of what used to be caused private banking but is now increasingly called Private Wealth Management - basically banks providing investment services to people with loads of money in order makes loads more, both for the people and the bank itself.  In that, it's very good - if not an exact rival to Switzerland, then doing very well indeed - and enjoys an excellant reputation.  As a founder member of the European Coal and Steel Council back in the mid 50s, that morphed into the European Economic Community and finally the European Union, it has been at the very centre of European politics for the past 60 years, and played a pivotal role in the EU's development.  It continues to be one of the EUs administrtive centres, along with Brussels and Strasbourg.  It seems very happy with its lot, and the people, affluent to a man, seem to have a lot to be happy about - nice looking homes (I've seen nothing resembling an inner city slum or apartment block), nice expensive cars (see above....) and nice shopping (all the biggest and most exclusive brands and outlets are in town).

Do I like the place?  Know, what, I'm still not sure.  There is nothing really to dislike about it, but equally I've seen nothing yet to make me feel anything more than ambivalent about it.   I enjoy going there, and it's a pleasant enough place when I get there, but if someone was to say to me that I'll never set foot in the Grand Duchy again in my life - well, I would neither shed tears nor lose sleep over it.

And I STILL can't think of any famous Luxembourgers!

Thursday, 19 May 2011

The Noble Art of Goalkeeping

There are many truisms in sport.

Like - Michael Schumacher should not have come back to F1 last season.  He's too old at 42 and has lost the edge that made him virtually unbeatable and arguably the greatest driver in the history of the sport.  He is now consistently outperformed by his team mate Nico Rosberg and is in danger of spoiling his 7 title legacy by looking like a rookie (and a poor one at that).

Like - there is nothing an Australian cricket team or fan likes more than whipping England's arse in an Ashes series.  And vice versa.

Like - heavyweight boxing now is absolute shite compared with the late 60s and 70s, when legends like Frazier, Norton, Foreman and the incomparable Ali were in their prime.

Like - both FIFA and UEFA are rotten to the core and in desperate need of a thorough overhaul to bring honesty and transparency to the way they govern football and manage their respective tournaments.  For that reason, there is as much likelihood of it happening in my lifetime as there is of Jesus Christ the Son of God signing for the mighty Ebbsfleet United for the 2011/2012 Blue Square Bet Premier season.

Another truism used to be that British goalkeepers are the best in the world......

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Well, English mainly.  Go back to the 60s and 70s.  Great names like Gordon Banks, Peter Shilton, Ray Clemence, Phil Parkes (two of them and both brilliant), Joe Corrigan, Peter Bonetti, Alex Stepney....  And more: my boyhood hero, Northern Ireland's magnificent Pat Jennings.  Bob Wilson, the first really good Scottish 'keeper (even though he was English born and bred).  For Wales, Gary Sprake (ok, maybe I'm stretching things a bit with him.....) and later the Binman, Neville Southall.  Then Dave Seaman (shame about the hair.....), Nigel Martyn, Chris Woods, Dave "Lurch" Beasant.  Even "There's Only Two" Andy Gorams was pretty handy for a Scot.  Packy Bonner.

The list goes on and on, but that will do for now.  You get my drift.

Football was different then.  Essentially, we still kicked a pumped up ball of leather (and each other) around a field, trying to get it into a 24ft by 8ft net more often than the other team, the same as teams do now.  But it was harder.  A good bit slower, yes, but HARDER.  For a start the ball was heavier.  You could also kick lumps off the opposition (and have lumps licked off you in return) without some officious twat with a black shirt and a whistle stopping you  - at least not as quickly as nowadays.  The pitches, even at the top level, were largely crap, ploughed fields with little or no grass and prone to flooding (and that's just the Baseball Ground, should have seen my local park pitch, built on  top of a hill: the centre spot was at the top, so you were always kicking uphill and downhill simultaneously).

Boots were heavier too, not carpet slippers, and came in three styles: adidas, Puma or Mitre.  They were always black, with white stripes of different style, and had either moulded rubber soles (for dry pitches at the beginning and end of the season) or soles with screw-in plastic studs (that you could sharpen up a treat with a quick stroll across the car park before kick off, usually for a quick fag - er, cigarette).   Happy days.

For we goalkeepers, the specialist equipment was, by today's standards, not very special at all.  Gloves today are about the size of shovels, with lovely soft rubbery palms that always seem to be sticky no matter how often you use and clean them, with re-inforced fingers to help you avoid painful dislocations and fractures.  The first gloves I owned where endorsed by Ron Springett (Sheffield Wednesday and England, understudy to Gordon Banks in the '66 World Cup).  They were basically string gloves with pimpled rubber strips sown onto the palm to aid grip.  But the thread rotted quickly with washing, and by the season's mid-point (say Christmas) the rubber bits fell off.  The string material itself didn't last much longer, and by the time Easter came around they were gone, fit only for the dustbin.  The Peter Bonetti endorsed gloves were even worse.....a green cotton thing (no rubbery bits) that fell apart after half a dozen washes.  I got through about four pairs one season.  Awful things.  But for half the season we never wore the things anyway......if the pitches were dry and it didn't rain - so the beginning and end of the season - we made do with a mouthful of spit and some dirt rubbed into the palm of the hands instead.  It worked just as well, but left us very prone to dislocated, broken ot sprained fingers.....I did every one of mine by the time I was 23.   Now I'm 58 and I don't have a straight finger or "normal" knuckle to my name, and when the weather gets cold suffer from terrible rheumatic pain in them all.   The best gloves I ever had cost me about 30 bob, from the local garden centre.....strong string gloves, double layered, with dozens of little plasticy pimples moulded into the material front and back.  They were strong gardening gloves, designed to enable you to pull up roses or stinging nettles or bloody great thistles without tearing your hands to bits, so ideal for goalkeeping.  I used and washed them every week for about 5 years, and they were still as good as new when I stopped playing.

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But for us it wasn't only hand injuries. 

We routinely used to dive on the ball at the feet of forwards (or anyone else for that matter) to make a save, and very rarely was there any attempt by them to avoid contact.  Oh, were fair game.   At 16 I broke my nose like that.  The ball was stuck on the six yard line, with about four players kicking at it more or less together, so it was going nowhere quite fast.  I claimed it, dived on it, smothered it quite happily - and my centre half mistook my face for the ball.  There was an almighty crack and blood everywhere.  The trainer came on, poured a bucket of water over my head (his usual treatment), shoved a wad of cotton wool up each nostril, and left me to get on with it.  I did, played out the last half an hour.  Then I went to hospital, and they told me I'd broken my nose (I think the two black eyes were a bit of a giveaway).  By the following week the swelling and bruising had gone down, and I took my place between the sticks for the next match.  I don't consider that at all exceptional, it was what was expected of any 'keeper then, no matter I was still a kid at school.   Eight years later came a repeat performance, only this time it was opposition centre forward, and he did a cracking job, re-locating my nose somewhere in the middle of my left cheek.   That time I went off and at the hosspital after an x-ray (where my very tender and misshapen hooter was shoved hard against the screen) I was told  my nose was broken, come back in a couple of weeks and we'll fix it for you.  When I got home my wife straightened it for me - strangely enough it didn't hurt a bit.  Again, I played the next week. 

It wouldn't happen now.......I can't remember the last time I saw a 'keeper nursing a broken nose on Match of the Day.   But in my youth it was a regular thing, maybe three or four times a season.  Noses, jaws, cheeks, sometimes all three at once......great in colour.  I remember a young lad playing for Charlton, Graham Tutt I think his name was, getting a whack in the face at (I think) Sunderland and going off on a stretcher with the left side of his face basically destroyed.  He never played again.  The bloke who kicked him wasn't even booked.

Concussion was pretty common too.  Now, when anyone goes up for a header, they raise their arms - it helps get you airborne, basic physics.  Now and then, players do it a bit more enthusiastically, and are generally booked for dangerous play - leading with the arm.   Very rarely is anyone seriously hurt by these collisions.  But in my day forwards challenging a 'keeper for a high ball routinely "led with the arm", generally in a way that Bruce Lee could have learned a lot from.  Result?  Smelling salts for the 'keeper, usually, since he would probably be out cold.  Often cuts and stitches too.  On average I could rely on the smelling salts treatment from an incident like that every other month....maybe four or five times a season.  My team-mates found it bloody hilarious (and so did the team-mates of every other 'keeper so nobbled). 

Maybe it was exceptional, but I have a very serious issue with Chelsea's Petr Cech still wearing his helmet about 5 years after Reading put him in hospital with (admittedly) a fractured skull.  As Bert Trauttmann (the famous German 'keeper who broke his neck playing in the FA Cup Final in 1956, but played on and collected his winners medal) said in recent interview, Cech should really get over it, he's not the same 'keeper he was and never will be until he really gets some confidence back....   I tend to agree with old Bert.  But then maybe being paid a million a year by the helmet manufacturer for wearing their product has something to do with it (as recounted to me by a Chelsea supporting mate with connections to the club beyond buying a ticket).

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I'm beginning to sound like a Grumpy Old Man, I know... but I really do believe that back then goalkeepers really were better. 

For a start, we caught the ball.  Anything in the six yard box was the 'keepers, and you would get bollocked severely if you didn't claim the ball, even under challenge...a punch was acceptable, but a catch preferred.  And if you stayed rooted to the goal-line, as is more often than not the case nowadays - well, expect a physical assault from your team mates and/or manager in the dressing room.  So we came, and we usually caught cleanly, and took the knocks, because that's what goalies do.....  Of course, some were better than others.  Sprake was a bit of a flapper but at least he came.  Shilton and Clemence tended to be a bit more continental and punch more, but not to the extent even the best do nowadays (that's when they come at all), but big Pat Jennings was the master.  He had these huge hands, and could catch a ball quite comfortably in one of them.  I remember a picture of him making a catch....I can't remember who it was against, but the forward is airborne, about to head the ball, his marker is on his way to ground where the forward has gone over the top of him, and there's Big Pat, both feet off the ground, his right arm stright out in front of him, with the ball held fast in one huge hand, literally snatching it off the forward's head.  Like picking apples.  An iconic image, and why he was my hero when I was at school and learning the game.

It wasn't only crosses, though.  Shots too were expected to be held, even if you were diving at full stretch.  Turn a shot aside and you'd get yelled at....."catch the fuckin' thing!" was pretty common.  The fact that you've just hurled yourself seven feet off the ground and way across to one side, and done well to get near the ball is irrelevant....the catch should have been made.  And more often than not, it was.   Nowadays, everything is parried, unless it's coming straight into your midriff, and even then not always.  A good save today is showing strong wrists and pushing a routine shot away from goal and any forwards who may be following it my day it was showing soft hands and holding onto that same routine shot.  Maybe it's those shovel gloves everyone wears now, perhaps soft hands aren't possible anymore......

And distribution.  When I first started, you could walk around the penalty area for minutes on end, provided you released the ball every four you just bounced it and carried on.  Great way to slow the game down so you can all take a bit of a breather if you've been under pressure for a while, or wind the clock down when you're a goal up with a minute to go in a cup final or something.  Then you'd usually get to the 18 yard line and welly it as far upfield as possible, aiming of course for a team mate.  In the better teams, players would move into a position allowing you to throw or roll the ball to them (but not too many of those at my local league level).  Then they changed the rules, and said you couldn't hold the ball more than four steps, we'd take a step, and drop the ball and dribble it around the area, with foot control.  That would give us three more steps to eventually pick it up and (yes) welly it as far upfield as possible, aiming of course for a team mate.  You could do that for ages as well.....time wasting was an art form.

But now of course, the ball is one of the crap plastic ones we used to play with at school in the playground.   So a decent keeper can throw the thing as far as we used to kick the old ones - well over the halfway line - much more accurate.  And kick it even further.  But look faintly ridiculous, because another rule change says you can only hang onto the ball for about 5 seconds before having to release it completely (no more pick up), so you get the ludicrous spectacle of a keeper making a save, or picking the ball up or something, then sprinting out to the edge of the area and hurling the ball away as hard and as far as possible.  Or even if no-one is around walking it 10 or 15 yards outside the area, almost to the entre circle in fact, before lumping it as far as possible upfield, aiming of course for a team mate.  At least, that's what most British keepers do - the foreigners, perhaps because they can never seem to throw or kick so far, tend to take their time and look for a teammate close to them (and there always is one) and roll the ball to them, very stylishly a la Ray Wilkins in his pomp.

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I don't think I could enjoy 'keeping the way I used to, if I were playing now.  Despite the bumps and bruises, the cuts and concussions, the busted noses and bent fingers, it was great - I used to love it.  It's another sporting truism (or it was, I'm not so sure) that goalkeepers are different.   Not like other players.  Nuts.  Special somehow.

I don't consider myself in any way special. Maybe a bit nuts, I'll grant you.  And then I think of other keepers, ones who never made the grade in football but went on to do other great things......the philosopher and writer Albert Camus.  Che Guevara.  Pope John Paul II.  Ed "Stewpot" Stewart (remember him?  Useless DJ, but quite useful playing for a Showbiz team I saw once).

And then I think, yes it was a Noble Art, and I'm glad I played when I did.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Public Enemy #1

It's been a long haul.  After the best part of 15 years on the FBI's Most Wanted List, and nearly 10 years at the top of the chart, so to speak, Public Enemy #1 has been taken out.

He and his organization (or network of organizations, according to many security experts) certainly had a hell of a track record - Embassy bombings in Africa way back in the last century, when Slick Billy was US President; night-time attacks on US warships in Yemeni harbours; a failed attempt to blow up the World Trade Centre from its underground car-park.  Then sponsoring the carnage of 9/11, and years later, in London, 7/7.  Successfully evading capture when bottled up in Tora Bora after a massive military operation and seeming to disappear off the face of the earth for the next several years. 

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He and his associates managed to change travel irrevocably, for millions of passengers world-wide.  The era of being able to rock up at the airport half an hour or so before flight time, stroll through passport control with your bag and hop on your flight are long gone, permanently replaced by hours queueing to go through increasingly rigourous and intrusive security screening before getting anywhere near the departure gate - sometimes multiple times at the same airport just to change flights (Frankfurt springs to mind here....).  It's the same at the Eurostar terminals, although the lines are shorter.  I never expected to have to go through an x-ray machine before catching a train but now if you travel from London to Paris or Brussels from St.Pancras it's a must.  The pleasure of long-distance travel has almost disappeared as a result. 

Even kids are not immune to the security measures....every year when we go on holiday we have to submit the kid's push-chair to the same security procedures.  We've even had to open jars of pre-packed Gerber baby food and taste it in front of the security people, just to prove it really is Banana and Apple Dessert and not some kind of poison or explosive.  We've had to argue and plead to be allowed to take through pre-mixed bottles of baby milk, for God's sake.  It's incredibly frustrating, even stupid, but I can understand the authorities' insistence - better safe than sorry and all that guff - but still.......I don't expect there are too many six month old terrorists out there, and I don't believe for one minute that Islamist (or any persuasion) fundamentalists are likely to be travlling with babes-in-arms: most of these killers are misguided and angry single males.

Will the demise of Public Enemy #1 change any of this?  No.  Not in the foreseeable future.  The one thing he has undoubedly given the world (besides death and destruction, and giving Islam a possibly undeserved Bad Name) is an excuse for every fruit-cake with a grudge to masquerade as al Quaeda and make ludicrous threats, bringing airports and entire transport systems to a grinding halt.  The Hoax Caller has never had it so good.  Unfortunately every such warning has to be taken seriously, and fully investigated before any all-clear is given, with its consequent delays and unpleasantness for everyone.  The internet and "social media" play a significant role here, since it's relatively easy to find all kinds of recipes for mayhem.   Build a bomb? Sure, look at this web-page.  Poison gas?  Yep, that too.  Forum for nutters to exchange ideas and co-operate in planning atrocities?  Plenty of them.    You can't close the web down, since our entire lives are closely wound up in it - the majority of people, once they've "discovered" it would be completely lost without it (even if no-one likes to admit it....).  Communications of all kinds depend upon it, government depends upon it, security depends upon it, health and safety depend upon it.  Our entire global economy depends upon it to function properly (or, given the economic crises of the last couple of years, improperly).  It's gone way beyond a Fun Thing, it's now a quite literally a way of life.

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Whatever you think about the way in which the US went about taking out PublicEnemy #1, it was probably a job that needed doing and in the event was well done.  The world is probably a better place without him (as it's a better place without Saddam Hussein, Uncle Joe Stalin, Corporal Hitler and a whole host of undesirables).  Whether it's a safer place remains an open question.

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One final thought.  The compound in Pakistan where the man was caught and executed (or shot while resisting capture, if you prefer) is being universally described as a "luxury development".   Which just goes to show you how people's ideas of luxury differ in that part of the world.  I've been to a few "luxurious" developments around the world, and that compound, despite the wall around it, looks more like the type of slum I saw in Beirut on the way out to the airport, the sort of place that in most places in Europe or the West generally would be condemned and pulled down.  

Horses for courses, I suppose.  But a fitting place for a bastard like Public Enemy #1 to spend the last miserable months of his existence in.