17 November 2012

Public convenience

So after the death, the post-mortem. As the results of the PCCs elections emerged today, the sheer scale of the embarrassment became apparent to even the most ardent government supporter. The Electoral Commission promised to investigate the worst election turnout in the post-war period. Highlights included one polling station where literally no-one voted and, nearer to home, 10 times the usual number of spoiled ballots (ahem) in the neighbouring county of Suffolk. Opponents blamed a lack of information and publicity, those sympathetic to the cause suggested the weather. The government adopted its favourite passive-aggressive tactic of blaming a lack of understanding by the electorate, like with the earlier NHS reforms, further cementing an unfortunate reputation for condescension.

But even for an opponent of the measures like me, I can see this is not an isolated case, but part of a trend that worries a lot of people. Although we expect minor ballots, like yesterday's, to attract low numbers, long term trends show falling levels of participation in even General Elections, which usually attract the highest numbers of voters:
So what does this mean? Are fewer of us interested in politics than previous generations? Have politicians so betrayed our trust that we are punishing them by not turning up at the polls? Or is this symptomatic of loosening social ties - where there is no sense of duty to vote, and no social embarrassment in not voting? Actually, I think it's much simpler than that - elections haven't caught up with our entitlement to choice.

Choice, as a political concept, has been a watchword of the Right for at least 30 years, and is now grudgingly embraced by the Left when the occasion suits. At its worst, it's an excuse for dismantling public services, whether through ideological zeal or economic necessity. At its best it allows us to demand more from the world around us, and often the world responds to that need. I can remember when, in order to get a telephone, you had to register with British Telecom, rent a phone from them, and then wait 6 weeks before they bothered to come around to connect you. That seems as alien from today's world as motor cars must have been to the mid-Victorians.

The diversification of services, growth of choice, and speed of technological change has not only revolutionised our lives, it has fragmented what were once collective experiences. If the War represented a Year Zero in collective experience - rationing, mobilisation, isolation - then the 70 years since have been an ever-widening funnel of disparate and diverse possibilities in an integrated world. People talk with glassy-eyed fondness of the days when 25 million Britons would watch Morecambe and Wise at Christmas, conveniently forgetting that this was largely because there were only 3 TV channels to watch. Even in my youth, in playground reenactments, I could pretty much guarantee my friends would have watched the same TV show the night before. Now, it could be from any one of hundreds of channels, assuming they watched anything at all, and weren't on an XBox, Facebook or uploading themselves singing onto YouTube.

And yet, come election time, we expect everyone to suddenly act like a homogenous group: to do the same thing on the same day in a way that would be familiar to their grandparents. While we have crawled with the times to allow postal voting for those cheeky enough to go on holiday during an election, it is a remarkably old-fashioned demand to make of generations who have been told they can have what they want, when they want. Pause the TV, buy it online, listen to it whenever you want, speak instantly with your friends any time of day. It's not that people don't take an interest any more, but that, frankly, it's not that convenient, and we've been told choice is not just good, it's practically a human right.

But it's more than thinking up radical solutions, like voting with your iPhone, or gamifying voter participation. People don't just expect the world to work to their pace, there is more competition for their time. Or, to put it simply, there's more stuff to do these days than 30 years ago. Politicians who worry about these trends think in terms of making politics "fun" and "exciting", as if anyone other than policy wonks has ever felt that way about it, even in the 1960s. But 50 years ago, there was less to distract you, less to do. The pubs closed every time you felt thirsty, you might as well go and vote. Now, we can do all the same things people did then as well as everything else that's been invented since - basejumping, web-surfing, battle reenactments, 24-hour drinking, gambling, TV on demand, skateboarding, night-time shopping, Gangnam-style dancing. You can do stuff whenever you want - it is utterly amazing and thrilling. Except vote. You've got to queue in the pissing-down rain, to mark a scrap of paper with a scratchy pencil on a string at the local church hall on one day of the year, outside of work, childcare, parent-care or anything else you might do. Frankly, given the choice between a session of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 or picking between three charmless greasers you'll never see for four years, I'm surprised they even get 50%.

15 November 2012

You have the right to remain silent

Tomorrow, literally dozens of people up and down the country will be voting for the first time to choose a local Police Commissioner. In keeping with the spirit of electoral firsts, I'm going to do two things that I've never done before as well.

The first is to tell you how you how I'm voting. Although you may guess my political affiliations, so far in twenty years, I have never actually told anyone how I vote in public elections, not even my wife. As we are patronisingly told every year, people died so we could vote (an argument that I have never found particularly convincing: people have died for a whole host of causes, some barmy, some noble, but the fact that someone threw herself under the King's horse doesn't make me beholden to her whims). More importantly, campaigners for popular suffrage also championed secret ballots just as passionately, to prevent the circumventing of the democratic process, which I think is worth respecting just as much when I turn out to cast my mark at the polling station.

The second thing I shall be doing for the first time is spoiling my ballot paper, as a signal of my opinion about the new Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs). There is no popular mandate for this policy - it was bunged into the post-election Coalition agreement as a makeweight for Nick Clegg being allowed to use the loo in Downing Street. A fact that is borne out by the record low turnout expected across the land, as Dave's Big Society gesture attracts the smallest of crowds. I am using the only mechanism I have to register my displeasure at the whole unappetising spectacle.

Not only do most people not know what the new Commissioners are supposed to be doing, they don't know what they are replacing. At present, Police Authorities are responsible for all the powers the PCCs will inherit: Budget setting, hire & firing of the Chief Constable, determining local criminal justice priorities. These bodies are composed of local councillors, magistrates, criminal justice experts and appointed representatives from among the general public. This amalgam of expert and lay opinion, elected and unelected will now be replaced by a single party hack with one eye on the TV news and the other on the ballot box. This is not some great revolution in crime fighting - new dynamism sweeping away red tape and getting More Bobbies Back On The Beat (TM). It is taking exactly the same powers currently in the hands of an expert body, and giving them to a failed politician. It's the concentration of considerable power with very few checks apart the quadrennial trip to the electorate.

It has all the hallmarks of an eye-catching Big Idea for the Big Society - Tory party Thought Architects no doubt imagined Mom & Pop candidates standing to give a voice to the man on the Clapham Omnibus, without a thought as to how they might fund an election across a wide area without party backing. The means the reality is, of course, the overwhelming majority of candidates belong to political parties, and are standing on party platforms - exactly the opposite of what was intended. And in the absence of any other criteria, name recognition will count for much. To cap it all, multi-party contests will be using the ever-baffling Supplementary Vote system to ensure everyone's second choice is elected.

This unwelcome and unnecessary politicisation of the police is the classic example of a solution in search of a problem - something beloved of all politicians down the ages. Because no-one has actually been able to say exactly what problem the new PCCs were supposed to be solving. Crime has been consistently falling for twenty years, police continue, overall, to retain high levels of popular support and respect. Even the high-profile problems there have been - from the Hillsborough cover-up to cash-for-information to journalists - have been symptomatic of either front line cultural or management failings. Not the sort of thing individual Police Commissioners are best placed to tackle.

So why stop at the police? Why not heads of PCTs, Traffic Wardens, dinnerladies and dustmen. Why shouldn't we be given the chance to pick every public servant, repeatedly, on a never-ending conveyor-belt of choice? Maybe one day, if we prove ourselves capable of keeping up with the exponential growth of elections, we could even get to choose our Head of State? But Dave would probably think that ridiculous.

11 November 2012

Voting: it all ads up.

Democracy is, in its crudest form, a numbers game, and while many this week were focusing on the number 270, as the total number of electoral college votes the US Presidential candidates had to reach, some were pointing to some other numbers. Two billion, for example - the amount in dollars spent by both candidates to achieve the same outcome on 6 November as there had been on 4 November. One of the things Mitt Romney and I have in common is the fact that neither of us is the US President, but the difference is, I haven't just spent millions of dollars not to achieve that. Makes me feel a bit better about not winning the lottery.

This may seem like a lot of money - a point has been made repeatedly across the world's media - but is it really? It's the same amount of money the USA spends in Afghanistan every week. It's the same amount shrugged off in May by JP Morgan as a loss by another rogue trader. Most interestingly of all, it's the same amount of money the US government spent NOT building a large hadron collider in Texas before CERN came along - because they took the idea of a "God Particle" literally, and then changed their minds when they realised what it meant. Frankly, if it cost any less than $2bn to elect the most powerful man in the world, I'd be thinking we weren't taking it all that seriously.

The number that tells me it was being taken seriously was 1,000,000. This was the number of TV ads run by both sides. If this were to be run on a continuous loop 24-hours a day, it would take almost a year to run them all. A million ads maybe doesn't seem a lot across such a big place as the US, but when you consider the overwhelming majority were probably run across half a dozen battleground  "swing states", that's a year of pretty horrific television for a large minority of the people. Personally, I'd find the idea of living in Florida bad enough in itself, without Mitt Romney interrupting Mad Men every five minutes to tell me Paul Ryan can bench press 300 lbs. I suppose the reason Romney attacked PBS was because it was the one place he couldn't buy airtime.

On our own shores, nearly as much passion and interest has been shown in next week's elections for regional police commissioners. If by 'passion' you mean 'indifference' and interest, you mean 'ennui'. In The 'States, the idea of publicly elected policemen is the norm, of course, along with judges, school commissioners and the local rat catcher, and they sensibly put all the choices on the same Presidential ballot. Here we've decided it's such an amazing opportunity to spend £75,000,000 of public money we don't have, we're going to give it an election all of its own - to almost universal indifference. Turnout next week is expected to be between 10 and 15% of the eligible electoral role. Considering we cannot even choose our own Head of State or upper chamber of the Legislature, you'd think we'd jump at the chance to pick our local top coppers.

Maybe this problem, along with the overall decline in voter turnout at General and Local Elections, stems from the fact that, unlike in the USA, candidates cannot advertise on TV, except under highly restricted conditions. Maybe the government could enact legislation that would trigger the right to advertise on TV at the next elections, if turnout at these ballots falls below, say, 40%. The threat of allowing televisual political spam could, I believe, act as a powerful incentive to drive up voter participation levels in future elections. Instead of fining non-voters, like they do in Australia, we'd threaten to subject everyone to more politicians. Before long, self-formed neighbourhood citizens groups would march the streets with burning torches to drive the under-motivated to the polling stations. Which would at least give the new Police Commissioners something to do.

13 September 2012

This sporting death

On Tuesday I tweeted that the real climax of 2012's great Summer of Sport was not Andy Murray winning the US Open, but the release of the Hillsborough Independent Panel's report into that ill-fated FA Cup semi-final on 15 April 1989 (full report here). But as the full extent of the systematic abuse of due process emerged, I realised the difficulty in understanding why such a broad "coalition of culpability" took so long to be exposed is because of the revolution that has taken place in professional sport in the UK since those dark days.

If your only frame of reference is the modern stadia of the Premier League of today, it's hard to imagine what it was like to attend a professional football match back in the 1980s. Many people remember fondly the swaying terraces of Old Wembley in the pre-seats era. Me, I remember the toilets that probably defied the Geneva Convention, terrible noisome pissoirs as seemingly imagined by the men who built the Soviet Gulags. The frightening swaying terraced crowds, a baying monster of profanities that engulfed you and threatening to spit in your hair or stub its cigarette out on your neck. And the FA and government scratched their heads as to why violent thugs used to turn up at such venues to pick fights when the whole set-up seemed designed to entice them in at the expense at anyone else with basic social skills and awareness of personal hygiene. It's hard to pinpoint which came first in this particular chicken-and-egg scenario - did people behave like animals because they were treated like them, or vice versa?

Anyone under the age of 35 might be shocked that people were locked into cages to view football matches. But although unheeded warnings had apparently been given by Health & Safety professionals to the indifferent suits at the FA, at the time it seemed perfectly normal. The question of how to evacuate people from such enclosures was couched solely in terms of containing social disorder rather than protecting the lives of the fans themselves. This shows the extent to which football fans had become dehumanised and demonised into a collective mob in the eyes of many members of the press and, it must be said, the wider general public. And you don't have to look very far through the news reports of football matches of the day to see why.

And not to put too fine a point on it, by April 15, 1989 Liverpool FC were themselves four years into a ban from European football competitions because of the actions of their own fans. In such a context it is easy to see why The Sun's smears of drunken, violent, thieving yobs was seized upon as official explanation, and why it took so long to shake. Liverpool fans fitted the convention demanded by the narrative, because the alternative was more unpalatable: that we'd have to start treating football fans as human beings, with all the variety and complexity that entails, instead of members of a quasi-illegal militia.

The journey from the squalor of Hillsborough to the triumph of London 2012 was the slow dawning amongst a broader populace that watching and celebrating sporting achievements was an acceptable activity, and that if you raise the expectations of its fans, you can raise your own expectations of their behaviour. Hillsborough in 1989 seems shocking to us in 2012 not just because of the callous disregard for human life by contemptuous public bodies, but because the expectation of what public sporting occasions can and should be has changed so much. When so much talk around London 2012 is of "legacy", the Games themselves were the true legacy of Hillsborough: that you can go to a sporting occasion with the expectation of returning alive. What a pity it took 96 deaths to rise to that challenge.

22 August 2012

What a difference a Games makes

In the warm afterglow of the recent Summer Olympic games held in London, there has been a certain amount of self-congratulation. Despite the warnings by Jeremiahs in the media and amongst the general populace, not only didn't we cock things up, we actually made the games a success. More surprising to a lot of my compatriots than the logistical success was that we managed something far more elusive than making the trains run on time - that we actually got into the spirit of things.

In some quarters the British have a reputation for being reserved that would seemingly make them mis-matched for the high-octane hyperbole that surrounds the modern Olympic movement. Certainly some people had predicted a less-than-enthusiastic reception for The Games in the UK, not least the man being tolerated in the race for the US Presidency, Mitt Romney, a man not encumbered by tact or, it would seem, basic self-awareness. His misreading of British understatement as lack of enthusiasm shows a man who has clearly never spent time at a professional football match in England. Sport is one of the few occasions Brits allow themselves to throw off the yoke of overbearing respect of others’ private space and openly commune, often fuelled by the accelerant of alcohol. As shocked residents of many European cities during World Cup qualifying campaigns of the 1970s and 80s could sadly testify.

But instead of energetic violence, an army of thousands of volunteers from far beyond the Capital willingly (and freely) gave their time to dress up in an alarmingly-coloured uniform and advise visitors how to get around, determined to prove we are not a nation of total misanthropes. In the ten days or so since The Games ended, there has been a good deal of speculation about how long such warm feelings of goodwill to others can last, or how long we can continue to feel good about ourselves.

Two stories emerged today that made me think that maybe the idea of a legacy is not simply the marketing shtick some have decried it as. First, that high-profile NHS hospitals are being encouraged to expand operations overseas, taking their brands into new markets. While we should acknowledge this partly for what it is at heart - a desperate revenue-raising exercise by the government facing a terminal decline of its own - we should also recognise it as an enormous expression of self-confidence. Although much beloved by Brits, the NHS is so frequently used as a political football by vested interests in public life and the media, it's sometimes hard to see beyond its more newsworthy though less appetising features: waiting lists, MRSA, overcrowding, closed wards, low staff morale and waste. Danny Boyle's brave decision to put it at the heart of the Olympic Games opening ceremony tapped into a powerful British shibboleth. Reaction to today's announcement of an overseas expansion has been greeted with cynicism at the government's motive rather than incredulity at the idea that anyone else would want our hospitals at all (with the notable exception of the Daily Mash). I can't help thinking the reaction would have been quite different a few weeks ago.

The second story was the more quietly-revealed, but no less remarkable, news that Transport for London (TfL) has been appointed as transport consultant to the Rio 2016 Olympic Games organising committee. Given the pre-Games apocalyptic warnings of transport chaos issued by, amongst others, TfL themselves - not to say the collective anger inspired by bus, tube and train failures on a daily basis in the despairing hearts of millions of London workers - this is something of a coup. That we made it work using the world's oldest Underground train network should prove instructive for Brazil, who need to develop the world's newest system to serve their forthcoming Games. 

Both stories reveal the benefits of bringing global insight to the usual blinkered view we can take of ourselves and our institutions. Maybe the Olympic Games legacy will be not sports facilities for the masses or homes for the East End poor (though both of those would be nice), but a greater sense of our own worth, and the ways we go about things. That we can turn "The summer like no other" into a new slogan for a new confident age, as we face up to the biggest economic crisis in living memory: "Great Britain: not always as rubbish as we think we are".

15 April 2012

Dive talkin'

One of the main operating principles of this blog is that in no way should it offer advice or opinions that could in any way be construed as useful. But I'm about to break that rule, mainly because I have had an idea that is too long to tweet or put on Facebook, so bear with me if you are not comfortable with this phenomenon, or if you have no interest in Association Football. For I have solved one of the most vexing problems of this sport: how to resolve poor decisions by referees who award penalties where none was due, or who fail to award one where an obvious infringement has taken place.

A bit of context for the footballing ingenue: Despite running a multi-billion dollar sporting franchise, none of the governing bodies of Association Football allow the use of video technology to help officials make decisions during live play. To the outsider this must seem like running a long jump competition without using a tape measure, but for the gnomes of Zurich, where FIFA is splendidly headquartered, this is something of a badge of honour. From the point-of-view of such a venal, bloated, corrupt, blinkered, reactionary collection of self-serving, vainglorious tosspots, it is entirely understandable that any questioning of officialdom should be stamped on with zealous enthusiasm. For the mere hint of questioning the fallibility of a referee is the thin end of a long wedge that ends with the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to a country so ill-suited to its hosting, the only possible explanation for the outcome is malfeasance.

But grown-up sports such as cricket, rugby (both codes), tennis, athletics and even horse racing have all realised that arriving at the right decision is better than not hurting the feelings of put-upon referees. Without exception each of these sports has improved as a result of the introduction of technology, when seen from a utilitarian overview of the totality of decisions made. That this is self-evidently so in practice only increases the pressure upon Association Football authorities to surrender to the obvious every time a poor decision is made. Every week, in other words.

The anti-technologists, who somehow feel poor decision-making adds to the richness of a sport, make two key objections to the use of video during play: it disrupts the flow of the match and it undermines the authority of the referee. So let's look at these objections, before setting out my solution:

1) It disrupts the flow of a match. Anyone who has ever watched a live match in any of the top European leagues knows a professional football game flows like a frozen lake. The ball is actually in open play for around two-thirds of a match. In other words, 33% of every game played is spent NOT playing football. I think we can cope with the odd break before we wander off like attention-deficient children who've spotted a new toy.

2) It undermines the authority of referees.Again, anyone who has watched more than, say, two professional football matches will- HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA, hoo-hoo, hee hee, heh-heh *is carried out helpless with mirth on a stretcher*. No, really, what did you say? The Authority of...? Oh, dear me, that really is a good one. No, really, what was your SERIOUS objection?

My suggestion is simple: Football should follow the example of the DRS system used in cricket. Each team would have one appeal per match for an incident that happens inside the penalty area. If a penalty is awarded, the defending team may appeal to an off-pitch referee with access to all TV camera angles, or, similarly, an attacking team who feels a foul was committed can appeal through the same process, if the on-field referee denies them a penalty. The off-field ref must be satisfied the video evidence is strong enough to overturn the on-field referee's original decision. If the appeal is upheld, the decision is overturned and the appealing team retains its appeal for future use in the match. If the on-field referee's decision is upheld, the appealing team has no further appeals to use in the game, and must abide by all the on-field decisions. If a penalty is overruled, the diving attacking player incurs an automatic yellow card.

This is restricted to incidents in the penalty area. The captain is the designated decision maker about whether to appeal and he has 15 seconds from the ball going out of play to lodge an appeal with the referee. It supports the primacy of the on-field referee, but allows teams to overrule the obvious howler. It would also give the lie to those wise-after-the-event players to put up or shut up during the game. It might even, as a result, give a hitherto unknown respect for referees by the players, who realise it isn't easy making decisions on the hoof. By involving players in the decision-making process, it would probably also encourage a sense of self-policing, engendering a greater professional responsibility among a group not known for such a thing.

I realise there is a significant downside to this proposal: if poor decision-making were eliminated from football penalty areas, what on earth would football fans talk about for hours? Entire radio phone-in programmes would become barren empty wastelands. TalkSport FM would cease to exist as a going concern. The entire fabric of the football-watching world would be torn to shreds. Perhaps Sepp Blatter and his cronies have a point after all.

17 February 2012

Salmond fishing

I don't often give much thought to Scottish politics, as it doesn't often give much thought to me. Even rarer is it for me to feel much sympathy for David Cameron. But both these things happened yesterday, so I thought I should write something down before I forgot to mark it on the calendar.

Despite being blessed with a Scottish name, Cameron is not blessed with many Scottish supporters. So more or less anything he says on the topic of the independence referendum north of the border will be swatted away by the native Big Beast of the SNP, Alex Salmond, with an ad hominem swipe.

Cameron came apparently bearing divisive gifts: reject independence, he cooed to the voters, and we'll see what we can do about extending devolution. This was the political equivalent of stuffing a roll of banknotes into the electorate's bra and telling them to go Up West and treat themselves to a new dress. Salmond said such breezy promises were worthless because they'd been offered something similar in 1979 that never materialised. I was promised a PlayMobil knight in 1979 that I never received, but I've rebuilt my life since then. Salmond obviously remains scarred. I'm surprised he didn't bring up the Highland Clearances.

The point Cameron had gone all the way to Scotland to make seems a fair one to me: for the referendum, the ballot should contain only the yes/no option on independence. By contrast, the SNP seems intent on building a menu of options to cover so-called 'Devo-Plus' (or 'Devo-Max') - extra powers for future Scottish administrations if the independence vote goes a bit Rangers FC on them. Would sir like fiscal separation with his devolution? How about a sprinkling of military autonomy?

I think there's good reason not to muddy the waters. Say the ballot does give multiple options: What happens if 55% of Scots choose independence but 65% choose 'Devo-Plus' (which I reckon is quite likely)? Does that mean independence trumps all, and subsequent questions are redundant? Or does it, in fact, undermine the case for full independence by saying more people prefer devolution over full separation? As anyone who's designed even a basic questionnaire will tell you, the answers to multiple related questions are dynamic: the responses to some will impact upon the outcome of others. Hypothetical questions about aspects of Devo-Plus are built upon an assumption of the failure of a full independence vote, which will build in a predisposition toward that failure. The act of answering the question will affect the result you reach. It's Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle as a political instrument.

It begs the question why Salmond would want to jeopardise getting a mandate for political independence for Scotland - something that has supposedly been his lifelong political dream. Maybe now it's within touching distance, the prospect of the reality of grubby day-to-day politics for an independent, not-quite-so-rich nation in a recession is making him think twice. Maybe the prospect of a bit more power without the responsibility for underwriting it is, in fact, far more enticing for a career politician. If the people of Scotland suffer a decline in living standards as a result of independence (or even as a perceived result of it) they'll be looking for someone to blame. It's nice to have an independently wealthy Old Etonian English strawman to blame for preventing Scotland from reaching its destiny, instead of someone closer to home.

11 February 2012

Child's play

Professional sport, it may be argued, is an oddly childish way to make a living. And nowhere was that better demonstrated than today at Old Trafford, where one man's selfish immaturity brought out the worst in everyone. As depressing a spectacle as this was, it's merely one of a succession of stupid feuds, tantrums, rancorous spats and general pettiness that keep the sports pages bubbling over between matches. More than just bickering, this behaviour, as embodied in today's brouhaha between Patrice Evra and Luis Suarez, is also characterised by judgement so poor that is almost autistic in its lack of awareness of other people.

Leaving aside the more serious offences committed by these athletes, let's not forget the frequent car crashes, affairs, tattooing, preening and house-pimping that goes barely noticed by a general public desensitised to the concept of a teenager earning a million pounds a month for kicking things. Mario Balotelli is the poster boy for this behaviour; stories about his follies are legendary, from setting off fireworks in his bathroom to wandering unannounced into schools to use the toilets. We raise our eyebrows, or shake our heads - but should we be amazed at such jejune antics from our leading sports stars?

It wasn't always this way, and before we all get nostalgic about the Corinthian Ideal, it's easy to forget how we ended up like this. When I was a child, my professional footballing heroes earned little more than an office worker. Around the time I was born, it was commonplace for pros to work a second job in the off-season to make a living. This week, when everyone has been imploring the FA to pay Harry Redknapp £4million a year to be the England manager, we might reflect as a player he used to stack supermarket shelves in the summers between football seasons. The man who will most likely manage England on a temporary basis, Stuart Pearce, used to advertise his electrician's business in the Nottingham Forest programmes when he first played for the club in the 1980s.

In the 25 or so years that have passed since you could call "Psycho" to come and wire your house, the game has improved in ways that would have seemed fantasy in my childhood. Technical standards, fitness levels, preparation and planning - nothing is now left to chance in pursuit of excellence. The quality of football played is vastly superior, but the trade-off is the increasing infantilisation of its players. By removing the distractions from a player's life that allow him to focus single-mindedly on kicking a plastic sphere, you are forcibly removing him from all reference points of reality. From the moment he gets up until when he goes to bed, he is told what to do, what to wear, what to eat, where to go and where not to go. His finances, diet, catering, household are all managed for him. If his on-field behaviour sometimes goes beyond the cynical, it's because he knows both the price and value of nothing.

In return, the price for spine-tingling football played at breakneck speed by the human equivalent of thoroughbred racehorses is their continued existence in a child-like state of opulence. In a profession full of Peter Pans, we shouldn't wonder why they behave so appallingly on occasion. Instead we should marvel that they don't do it more often. Racism is not a price worth paying for such sporting rewards, but even at their most sophisticated, games rarely stray far from the playground.