Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Erik Kirschbaum Interview




Following on from my review of Soccer Without Borders which I reviewed via NetGalley, I had the pleasure of interviewing the author, Erik Kirschbaum, via a request with his publisher Picador in America:

- What was it about Jurgen Klinsmann that made you think you could write a book about him?
We had dozens of interviews and conversations over the years after I started covering him in 2004 in Germany, mostly for stories for Reuters, and I found his determination and courage to shake things up and take on the status quo fascinating. As a journalist and amateur student of history, I've always been interested in people who aren't afraid to go against the grain and are ready to take on conventional wisdom even at the risk of getting bashed on the head. I started looking around for books in English on Klinsmann and couldn't find any, so I asked if he might be interested in working on a book together with me in about 2007. He said he wasn't interested about 10 times before he finally agreed in 2014, right after the World Cup in Brazil. My argument was: as an American who spent half his life in Germany, I could hopefully explain to an American audience what Klinsmann, who has spent half his life in the United States, a little bit about where he's coming from and what he's trying to do. Compared to most soccer coaches and soccer players, Klinsmann is incredibly open, honest and straight-forward. It's a refreshing change of pace for journalists and soccer fans, but it does sometimes cause tensions and problems with some journalists, players, fans and the special interests who seem to be happy with the status quo and don't like all his moving and shaking. 


- It isn't necessarily a biography but I know more about him now, do you think he is misunderstood?
Yes, I think Klinsmann and what he is trying to do with soccer in the United States is not really understood or not really appreciated in the United States. Contrary to what some in the U.S. might think, he is by no means a mercenary coming in from Europe and trying to change everything in the United States. He has lived in California for nearly 20 years and watched his kids growing up with soccer in the United States. He is much more American than German these days and over the years our conversations have switched to 50-50 German-English to almost all English. And because he is so open, his comments and ideas are sometimes taken out of context and used against him. For example, he gave an interview last September to an experienced soccer writer at a major U.S. newspaper expressing the hope that those who follow and write about soccer in the United States could become more "educated" about the nuances of the game -- for instance that the performance of a team in the World Cup is the absolute gold standard globally and what soccer people around the world will talk about for the next four years...and that friendlies or Gold Cups or Confed Cups, while interesting, aren't really that important in the bigger scheme of things. But instead of taking that as a constructive suggestion, it was used against him and Klinsmann was blasted for being condescending. There are countless other examples of Klinsmann being criticised in the U.S. for things that soccer followers in other countries, like Germany, ask: "So? What's the problem with what he just said? That's the way it is, isn't it?" You can accuse Klinsmann many things -- like maybe being too demanding -- but I think he is anything but condescending. He simply wants to help U.S. soccer take big steps forward and win the World Cup. 

Erik Kirschbaum
Erik Kirschbaum - Author of Soccer Without Borders

- Do you think his tenure as American coach has been a success, is there more to come in next World Cup?
I think Klinsmann's five years in charge have been a tremendous success and I think anyone who honestly looks at the way the team is now playing in the Copa America, or played against really big teams like the Netherlands and Germany last year, would have to agree the style of play, the pace, the aggressiveness, the skill, the fitness and the tactics have improved. They would have to improve because pretty much every other national team in the world has improved in these last five years. The game is faster now than ever before and the game has simply moved on. If the U.S. hadn't improved, the team would probably have fallen from a top 30 FIFA ranking to spot in the top 60. Five years ago the U.S.M.N.T. played friendlies mostly against other teams in the CONCACAF region. Now, Klinsmann has been scheduling friendlies against the world powers in Europe -- and doing surprisingly well. His plan and goal is to get U.S. players accustomed to playing against the game's big names so that when a World Cup semi-final or final rolls around in 2, 6 or 10 years, they won't be intimidated or overly impressed by the big names on opposing team. That's another reason why he wants more top U.S. players in the world's best leagues in Europe, competing on teams in the Champions League, in order to improve their own game but to see that the Messis, the Ronaldos and Rooneys of the world are are not super-human but just ordinary people as well who can be beaten. 

- Does Klinsmann require more from the MLS? Should he convince players to go and play in Europe?
Despite what some of his critics say, Klinsmann is a big fan and supporter of MLS and believes that for some players it's the right environment. I don't think he has ever twisted anyone's arm to play in Europe. But he believes, as do most soccer followers and experts around the world, that the best leagues and best teams are simply in Western Europe. And if a player wants to raise his game, top clubs in Europe are the place they ought to strive for. Most American soccer players understand that too. That's what the best players in South America, Mexico, Asia and the Middle East are doing -- trying to get to a top club in Europe and play in the Champions League. Why is the United States the only country in the world where that idea is so disputed? All the best basketball and football players in the world want to play in the NBA or NFL. I think Klinsmann will obviously be glad to see, one day, when there will be 20 or 30 or 40 ambitious American soccer players making an impact on teams playing in the Champions League -- whether those clubs are in England, Spain, Germany, Italy, France or wherever. But I also think that there will always be some MLS players on the U.S. team as well and I think he hopes the level of play in MLS will keep rising as it has to narrow the gap. 

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Jurgen Klinsmann has exceeded expectations

- What has changed since the World Cup in Brazil? How has he handled the changing of the guard and retirement of Landon Donovan?
Parts of the U.S. soccer public and media seem more critical of Klinsmann now than before the World Cup -- which baffles me and many others who follow soccer in Europe. He helped get the U.S.M.N.T through the "Group of Death", one of the toughest World Cup groups ever, with a win over Ghana and a tie against Portugal. That was a huge step forward and tremendous accomplishment by any measure. Soccer followers around the world took note and said "Wow, the U.S. isn't a door mat anymore". That was a giant step forward. Before the World Cup, major soccer writers in the U.S. were saying Klinsmann would be a "visionary" if he got the team through the Group of Death without Landon Donovan. He did it and yet the criticism only seemed to get louder. Why is that? In any other major soccer country, a national team coach deciding not to nominate a 32-year-old forward who wasn't scoring goals in the league anymore and had taken a sabbatical from the game the year before might be criticised or challenged about that for a few weeks. And if the team then performed better than expected at the World Cup, it would be the end of the story. But in the U.S. there seems to be a lot of sentimentality for Donovan, perhaps because in other sports like football, basketball or baseball a team can carry an ageing veteran into their late 30s. But soccer is different and no major soccer power would ever put a player past his prime on the team or the field for sentimental reasons. It just doesn't happen. Also, Klinsmann had experienced as a player first-hand how important team chemistry at a big tournament is. At the 1994 World Cup Germany was the defending champion and had an even better team than in 1990 but got knocked out in the 1994 quarter-finals because there had been so many distractions on the team. His point of view is that team chemistry for a big tournament is vitally important, everyone needs to row in the same direction, and back-up players need to understand their role as back-up players. I think Klinsmann is trying hard to find and nurture younger players to step into the shoes of the ageing veterans but the talent pool in the United States is not as deep yet as it is elsewhere so it's a great challenge to find the right mixture of old and young. I think the Copa America is showing that he's got a pretty good touch with some hungry young players like Wood, Brooks, Zardes, Pulisic, Nagbe pushing some of the vets such as Dempsey, Bradley and Jones to raise their game. The chemistry seems to be excellent. 


- Can America compete without a marquee player like a Messi, Ronaldo or Bale?
Yes, definitely. Germany rarely has a marquee player yet has won four World Cups and there Euros. To their own great frustration, neither Messi, Ronaldo nor Bale have yet to win a World Cup or Euro. Obviously, it's a team game and the performance of the entire team is what wins big tournaments. But who knows? Maybe in five or 10 years, we can have this conversation again, and see that America has produced such a standout player. 

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Christian Pulisic - the future of USMNT

- What is your writing routine?
I usually try to get cracking as early as possible in the morning. For some reason when I wake up my head is full of ideas about what I'm working on or should be working on, as if the ideas have been swimming around in my brain all night and then settle somewhere just before dawn. So I try to turn on the computer as quickly as I can after waking up and get to it. After a couple of hours, I'll try to go for a walk or run or do kind of physical activity for an hour or so to get the blood and ideas flowing again. Some days I'll write 1,000 words, some days 2,000 or even 3,000. At some point, when I'm getting tired of typing, I'll browse around and try to read newspaper articles, magazines or a good book to find a new spark of energy. Reading good writing by others often gets me inspired to write something really good. That's one of the reasons I always really enjoyed covering the Olympics and World Cups at Reuters -- all the best writers would be there and reading their great stuff invariably inspired me to raise my game another notch or two.

- What has been your opinion of the Euro 2016 tournament?
It's been fun to watch the games and especially the so-called "minnows" of the game like Iceland, Albania, Austria and Hungary doing well. To be honest, getting up in the middle of the night to watch the Copa America has, however, been more fun so far.

- Is the gap closing between CONACAF and CONMEBOL?
I think so. I think it has to close. I think the gaps everywhere are closing and there will be more upsets all around the world in the future. I think Western Europe is still the dominate region for soccer but the gaps are narrowing everywhere as the best and brightest hone their skills in the top club leagues in Europe.

- Who do you read regularly?
I read all kinds of general news and sports articles in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Guardian as well as  Bild newspaper, Der Spiegel and Die Welt -- about half of what I read is English and the other half German. It's a nice mixture for me to keep track of the different points of view. I also enjoy reading books, especially biographies. One of my favourites in the last year or two was Soccernomics as well as a biography of Elon Musk. I'm looking forward to Bruce Springsteen's autobiography due out in September.


My thanks to Erik Kirschbaum for his time, and to Marlena Brown at Picador USA for arranging for my questions to be asked by the author.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Streets of Darkness



Born and bred in Bradford, A. A. Dhand is a befitting example of write what you know. Dhand has written a gritty and gripping thriller for his first book entitled Streets of Darkness, featuring a new anti-hero Detective Harry Virdee. 

Harry (or Hardeep) is suspended when we meet him, yet enlisted to help with a murder enquiry off the books to save his career. Harry has a lot going on in his life, his Muslim wife is expecting their first child and his marriage is a question of contention as Harry is a Sikh and mixed faith marriages are frowned upon in general especially in such a sub-contential bastion as Bradford is. The mixing of faith, religion and politics is one of the key storylines running in the book.

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A A Dhand, the author of Streets of Darkness

The book is being pitched as a mix of the questionable hero like Luther and the hard nose naturalism of The Wire, and in Dhand's prose he does not hold back writing very graphic descriptions of drug use and violence seemingly paramount within the day in the life narrative. 

Mixing many tropes of the thriller genre - race against time, rivals from different backgrounds having to work together and put differences aside, are you on the right side of the law - Dhand writes with a crispness and pace that is good to see in a new British writer following in the footsteps of Lee Child, who many think of as a naturalised American.

Dhand writes with intelligence about religion and respect to his home town yet never wavering from his zest for character and narrative.  He has a keen eye for observational detail in characters be they periphery or central, and can inject little details such as when Harry sneezes when he enters a disused boxing gym due to the swirling of dust, a small detail that is sometimes overlooked in bigger thrillers on page and screen.

The film rights have already been optioned, and if they can find the right actor of Muslim hertiage then perhaps they can have a great series or film on their hands. My call to play Harry would be Arsher Ali, while he plays socially awkward characters or insecure souls, he has a bit of recognition in terms of his appearances in Line of Duty and The Missing, and if he can beef up a bit then he has the range to do Harry justice.

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Arsher Ali is Harry Virdee

Streets of Darkness is both page turning and can leave you wincing at the bleakness of human nature, but in this day and age it is good to see a book that is entrenched in reality and not sugar coating such matters as inter-racial marriage, race hate crimes and political corruption.

Streets of Darkness is released by Bantam Press on 16th June for £12.99 in Hardback and £7.99 on Kindle

https://www.penguinrandomhouse.co.uk/publishers/transworld/

Thursday, 2 June 2016

The Jungle Book (2016)

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Disney Studios are really on a roll at the moment. Having bought out both Lucasfilm and Marvel Studios, therefore guaranteeing box office gold for the next few, well forever. They are now mining the back catalogue of their own revered animation history and attempting to do live action versions of the films.

In the trailers before the films, we caught a glimpse of Pete's Dragon, and this was in the same week that the world first got a glimpse of Beauty and the Beast, starring Emma Watson and Dan Stevens. With the forthcoming release of Finding Dory by Pixar Studios, the time is now to buy into Disney stock, if you can.
I am sometimes wary of live action versions of beloved animation classics, and they do not come more beloved than the last film Walt Disney himself was working on before his death in 1966. 

The Jungle Book was released in 1967 to near universal acclaim, thanks in part to a combination of traditional Disney animation, a great adaptation of a fable - in this case Rudyard Kipling's tale of Mowgli the man cub in the sub-continental jungles; along with a memorable score by the Sherman Brothers who wrote two instant classics in The Bare Necessities and I Wanna Be Like You.

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How could Disney attempt to do a live action film of that involves the two things you should not film with, animals (a lot of them) and children? Yet in the hands of Jon Favreau (Swingers, Elf) , Disney have again succeeded in crafting a film full of fare for the whole family.

Watching the live action version, something struck me as to what makes a family film successful. It needs the right blend of fun, frivolity but also a healthy dose of fear. You need those moments of peril for the young viewer to observe; in the feature length cartoon it was the sheer presence of Shere Khan (here voiced by Idris Elba) and his battle at the end with fire along with the ominous dread of vultures circling. 

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In this version, the elements of fear are amped up to the nth degree with Khan being evil in a tiger skin and pouncing from out of nowhere. Favreau cleverly does not show any characters straight away, instead giving you a sense of nervous trepidation about what Mowgli could be running from or about to encounter. 

The only one we see at face value is Mowgli (winningly played by Neel Sethi); Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) catches Mowgli at the film's beginning, Baloo (Bill Murray) comes out of a bush and King Louie (Christopher Walken) is shrouded in darkness from us all in his temple.  



Even the elephants, those of the famous Dawn patrol from 1967, are given silent roles in this film; but this does not diminish their importance, as all bow towards them as the kings of the jungle. Nevertheless, they pop up out of nowhere in the forest, and their appearance bring with it a twist on the interaction they have with Mowgli, who does the most humane thing.  

This film is keen to tell young viewers that forest conservation is important, this is helped by having the most cuddly character, Baloo, say the most important line about the red flower (fire) in the film, 'The red flower is dangerous. Do not play with it'.

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The film allows a brilliant in-joke for cinephile adults with the introduction of Louie, making him out to be a Marlon Brando/Colonel Kurtz doppelganger from Apocalypse Now, which actually made me laugh because I got the witty insert

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Favreau - who has directed two Iron Man movies - again shows his ability in pacing and maintaining tempo throughout the film, even in moments where the brakes go on such as Mowgli getting Baloo his honey or Kaa ensnaring Mowgli; there is a real sense of vigour and adventure on display. Special and visual effect supervisors will get due credit but equal plaudits should go to Favreau and his editor, Mark Livolsi who maintain this pace and can even inject songs into the narrative without it becoming hokey or sentimental.

The film does not suffer third act problems as recent big blockbusters do, perhaps because it is true to the first adaptation and it even has a different ending which is surprising but nevertheless provides Mowgli with a justifiable character arc and desired purpose.

The voice cast is across the board brilliant, Bill Murray of course gets the best lines;
 - You hibernate?
 - No, but I sleep a lot.
yet all are good, the most pleasant surprise being Walken as Louie who delivers a real menace to a big character and shows he can even carry a tune.

This is one of the better family films I have seen in recent years and in a sold out cinema screen on a Bank Holiday Monday it maintained the attention of the young and old in attendance, hush in anticipation and gripped by enjoyment, that is all you can ask for, in spite of a power surge when we had an unplanned five minute intermission.

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Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Sky At Night

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The sky at night
Looks like it will never see the day.
The long night ahead of it
Looks like it will never end
Scary to be amongst it
Scary to see it so.
The sky is dark above us.
But blue when the light shows
Rain falling downwards
Every direction it can
Can I muster the courage
To get out of it in one piece
No end in sight
When will it end
Do we have to ride it out
Ride out the scary night
Could be in a tent
Could be on our knees
Changing a tyre in the hard shoulder
While my shoulder gives out one me
Need one to cry on
I cannot find the strength
As the rain falls harder and harder
Soaked through, home is a thought
At the end of the road
A road that flashes behind me
As my speed knows no limit
Scary is the night
Lights and sights all around
The sky looks like it might fall
What will today have in store?

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Fifty Years of Hurt


Henry Winter, five time Football Writer of the Year, is one of the most recognised football journalists of recent times thanks to frequent appearances on Sky's Sunday Supplement and BBC 5 Live.  His knowledge of the game is second to none, yet few would know of his love of the game and the national team.

His new book, Fifty Years of Hurt, may change any loose assumptions of a writer being not in love with his nation's best XI. Winter is eager for you to know he has seen the last 244 England internationals, and even saw some games off his own pocket when he was between jobs at the Daily Telegraph and his new employer, The Times.

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Henry Winter

Winter has always come across as a well spoken, articulate intellectual about the sport; an admirer of the great purveyors of majestic football from our own Paul Scholes to the continental mastery of Xavi and Andrea Pirlo. Yet Winter is a disgruntled fan, one who is embarrassed that his nation has only won the World Cup once, only reached semi-finals of a major tournament four times and are seemingly always taking two steps back such as the woeful 2014 World Cup performance in Brazil proved.

Yet the author is full of hope and optimism for the near future, perhaps Euro 2016 is one tournament too soon for the new breed of zestful youth at Roy Hodgson's disposal in the guise of Harry Kane, Eric Dier, Dele Alli and John Stones; but he sees that the full influx of a plan of action culminating in the centre piece of St. George's Park in Burton is coming to fruition for a new golden generation.

Winter's book takes us on a journey from the halcyon sepia toned triumph of Wembley 1966 to every failure since. He speaks to great English players and asks why it is they failed at that certain tournament, and when we did have success why did we not kick on from there and build upon it as Spain and Germany have done in recent times claiming the ultimate prize in the sport, the World Cup.

The author attempts to dissect and pin point a problem as to why we fail at the game we love so much, a game that hosts the most watched domestic league in the world, a league where a team rated as relegation favourites can win the title convincingly. 

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England's greatest day - 30th July 1966

This is a great premise for a book, yet at times the book comes across as more enamoured with the great players he is interviewing than getting to the crux of the matter. As a reader, I was expecting a more technical evaluation of the problems we have with our national team in the vein of say Jonathan Wilson whose Inverting the Pyramid is a keynote book for any football lover. I was expecting how changes of formations and styles of play have left us standing still, failing to qualify for tournaments whilst Germany never do.

Instead the book sometimes reads like a hard luck story for the national team, where all we needed was a little bit of luck and avoid playing a phenomenal talent at the peak of his powers and we might have won. If only Alf Ramsey did not take Bobby Charlton off when 2-0 up against Germany in Mexico 1970 or Gordon Banks did not have a dicky tummy? If only we did not have to play Argentina and Diego Maradona in 1986 we would have won? If only we knew how to take penalties? If only our players had stronger metatarsals?

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England have encountered bad luck over many years

At times it reads like a sob story when it really should not, England have struggled for years to harness creative players and build around them from Glenn Hoddle to Chris Waddle to Paul Gascoigne. These players were marginalised and used sparingly when they should be at the centre of a side. Now Gascoigne had his demons and injuries but it is no coincidence that when he was at the peak of his powers twice, twice we got to a major semi-final.

England have picked the wrong manager and then jettison one when they are getting results as Bobby Robson and Terry Venables can attest to, they hired Steve McLaren when he was only a good coach not a manager. They failed to use the great players of the past and pick their brains when things went wrong, the FA being a situation of upper class elite thinking of players as mere servants and beneath them.  This has led to the FA selling their soul to the Premier League, and having no power over events. Players get paid handsomely for playing 90 minutes a week and then retire not wanting to give anything back to the game, they would much prefer to sit in a studio and be critical than coach or train the next flock of talent.

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Neville's ambition is absent in his peers

The chapter 'Pathways' is an interview with Gary Neville (most likely interviewed after his short term spell with Valencia) and he puts it in great perspective about his peers from the so-called 'Golden Generation'; 

'Look at Gerrard, Lampard, Carragher, Ferdinand, Owen, Beckham, Terry, Ashley Cole, Sol [Campbell] - how many of them gone into coaching? You're talking about a whole England team, the best players, and only me coaching, and I'm in televison as well.'

This is not to put the book down, as it is a page turning endeavour. The sort of book you can devour in just a few sittings and it is to Winter's credit and established persona that he can get such luminaries as Gary Lineker and Alan Shearer, individuals you suspect to be guarded to talk with such forthright honesty about the situation.

You could do without such chapters as 'In the Shadow of the Show' where Winter is watching a Premier League game in Los Angeles at 6am on a Sunday whilst on his gardening leave from the Telegraph. Its a nice angle to show the global reach of the League but you get the sense that the fact that football is being shown in LA is not the reason we left Brazil early. 

Nevertheless, Winter rights with a real passion and desire to see England succeed in this modern age, he wants to see a team be as admired by the tika-taka of Guardiola's Barcelona sides; yet perhaps the need for change might not come from a constitutional change as we have seen in France where there new footballing school ended in 1998 home glory during the World Cup, perhaps you need an individual with a vision to be the mainstay of the change of direction be it Pep Guardiola or Jurgen Klinsmann, willing to bring something new to the party and stick with it. England had this with Glenn Hoddle, but then his personal views made his position untenable, England have never recovered and a chance was missed.

When will the years of hurt end for England? Winter may not necessarily have the answers but if people were put in charge of the national team with as much verve and ambition as him, then perhaps the hurt might not last for much longer.

Fifty Years of Hurt is published by Bantam Press in Hardback on 2nd June 2016 for £20.00. A perfect gift for Father's Day and a great read during Euro 2016 and to celebrate the anniversary of England winning the World Cup in 1966 on 30th July.