Archive for July, 2021

27
Jul
21

Crowded out

The Olympics are underway at last, but minus a key ingredient the postponed Games feel more like an obligation than a celebration… (日本語版)

Tokyo 2020, which was starting to feel like it was just just an illusion, a mirage on the horizon that would never actually take place, is finally upon us.

The Olympics are finally happening, athletes are finally in Japan and finally competing with each other for some of the most coveted titles in the world of sport. And yet, something is lacking.

The Games have begun, but there’s an air of incompleteness, a sense of something not quite being right. Without spectators this just doesn’t feel like the Olympics. 

“We can only go faster, we can only aim higher, we can only become stronger, if we stand together – in solidarity,” IOC president Thomas Bach intoned at the opening ceremony at Tokyo National Stadium on 23 July, seemingly unaware of the irony of his words echoing around a stadium empty except for the athletes and the thousand or so members of the ‘Olympic Family’ afforded entry.

“This is why the IOC has adapted the Olympic motto to our times: faster, higher, stronger – together. This feeling of togetherness – this is the light at the end of the dark tunnel.”

And while we have already seen plenty of sensational performances – Yuki Horigome claiming the first ever skateboarding gold for Japan, 18-year-old Tunisian Ahmed Hafnaoui triumphing in the men’s 400 metre freestyle, Uta and Hifumi Abe being crowned Olympic champions within an hour of each other – the lingering feeling is disappointment that fans cannot be in the venues to revel in these triumphs along with the victors.

There was a similar sensation during the opening ceremony, a slow and mostly sombre affair which was closed to the public but which resulted in thousands gathering a few hundred metres away anyway to either experience the moment as best they could or protest against the Games, depending on their perspective on the event.

Things have been very much the same at the football, with the swathes of empty seats at the cavernous stadiums sucking energy out of proceedings and making everything feel flat. 

Mana Iwabuchi’s audacious equaliser against Canada would have taken the roof off Sapporo Dome, Takefusa Kubo’s strikes against South Africa and Mexico deserved a wall of sound, and Ritsu Doan’s penalty rippling the Saitama Stadium net should have torn the tension apart and sparked scenes of jubilation. Instead, Blur’s ‘Song 2’ and the shouts of the players and team staff were all that could be heard.

“It’s really weird with no crowd, really weird,” British swimmer Adam Peaty said after his 100m breaststroke heat on 24 July. “But that’s the psychological thing we need to adapt to. I had no idea how it was going to feel out there.

“It doesn’t feel like an Olympics. It’s not the same, of course it’s not. So it’s about controlling all of those emotions and performing when it matters.”

Covid-19 has of course thrown the world into turmoil, and the sight of tens of thousands of maskless fans piled on top of one another at the Euros was certainly jarring when cast against the restraint being shown by so many others around the world as they wait for vaccinations and life to return to normality.

But sport in Japan has shown for the past year that it can safely manage supporter presence at stadiums, and allowing limited numbers into venues provided they follow safety precautions would have added so much to these Games – for the athletes, for the organisers, and of course for the fans themselves.

”I think a lot of people’s tax money is going to hold these Olympics,” Maya Yoshida said in widely reported comments after Japan’s final pre-tournament friendly against Spain. “Despite that, people can’t go and watch. So you wonder about who the Olympics is for, and what it is for. Of course athletes want to play in front of fans.

“It’s not just the players who are competing, but the family members, every one of them. So if they can’t watch the match, well who and what is that match for?”

Of course, everybody knows who and what it is for, and why the Olympics are being forced through despite all of the difficulties and opposition to them. The ban on fans merely serves to underline that fact, and further drives home the feeling that an event which is supposed to be a communal celebration of teams and individuals pushing themselves to be the best they can be is instead little more than an obligation.

11
Jul
21

Leading by example

England aren’t only in the final of the European Championship for the first time ever, but they have been led there in style by a man who oozes class… (日本語版)

England fans aren’t used to this.

There is always hype ahead of international tournaments, always optimism that this could be the team that achieves glory, that football will finally be ‘coming home’.

Then the players ‘fall short’ – or, more accurately, make it about as far as their quality can carry them – and the recriminations begin, blame is apportioned, scapegoats are made, and the cycle continues.

Since Gareth Southgate became England manager, however, that narrative has started to change, and this is very much a team carved in his image.

The former Crystal Palace, Aston Villa, and Middlesbrough player originally joined the Football Association as head of elite development at the start of 2011, before being appointed Under-21 head coach in August 2013 –  during which time he worked with several of the squad now at this summer’s European Championship, including Jordan Pickford, John Stones, and Harry Kane. 

Southgate initially ruled himself out of the running for the full England job after Roy Hodgson departed following Euro 2016, only to then reluctantly take over on an interim basis when Sam Allardyce was forced to step down after a scandal in September 2016. He immediately impressed in charge of the Three Lions, however, not only with the results he delivered on the pitch but also the manner in which he carried himself off it, and his contract was made permanent a couple of months later.

Always composed and respectful, Southgate has earned praise for his dignity and erudition during a time of division and conflict in England – whether because of Brexit, social justice protests, or Covid-19 – all while guiding England to the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup in Russia and now this weekend’s Euro 2020 final against Italy.

“The standard of leaders in this country in the last couple of years has been poor,” former Manchester United and England defender Gary Neville, now a television pundit, said after England’s 2-1 win over Denmark on Wednesday night. “Looking at that man there, that’s everything a leader should be. Respectful, humble, tells the truth, genuine. He’s fantastic, Gareth Southgate. He really is unbelievable, and has done a great job.”

The conduct of the manager has also shone through in that of the players too, and this is one of the most united and likeable England teams in recent memory. All too often in the past players were assured of their places on account of their reputations, and while undoubtedly talented individuals the star names never seemed like they were capable of gelling to form a team worth as much as the sum of its parts.

Southgate’s interpersonal skills have enabled him to avoid any such issues, however, and while the general public have been crying out for him to give more starts to the likes of Jack Grealish and Jadon Sancho, the players themselves seem fully understanding of their manager’s decisions.

“I see some stuff sometimes about me and Gareth but we have a great relationship,” Grealish said before the quarter-final against Ukraine. “He does with all the players. He’s a brilliant man-manager.

“You have got six players that play either side of Harry [Kane] that, in reality, could play for most clubs in the world. Myself, Jadon [Sancho], Marcus [Rashford], Raheem, Phil Foden and Bukayo [Saka]. It’s scary how good us six are. That’s not being big-headed or nothing. That is just the truth.

“He can’t play all six of us but one thing he’s done really well is make people think that they are still involved. He still speaks to everyone on a daily basis.”

As well as maintaining positive relations within the camp, Southgate has also been eloquent and firm when dealing with issues swirling around the team, including their decision to take a knee before games in order to highlight racial inequality and discrimination. There were audible boos from some sections of the crowd as they did so ahead of the pre-tournament friendly win over Austria in Middlesbrough at the start of June, for instance, and instead of avoiding the matter the manager instead approached it head on.

“I was pleased it was drowned out by the majority of the crowd but we can’t deny it happened,” he said.

“It’s not something on behalf of our black players that I wanted to hear because it feels as though it is a criticism of them. I think the most important thing for our players to know is that all their team-mates and all the staff are fully supportive.”

Sections of the England support – including some portions of the media – continue to detract slightly from the enjoyment of following the national team, whether as a result of their arrogance, the booing of opponents’ national anthems, or other jingoistic behaviour, and the fact that Southgate has managed to stay true to himself and his beliefs in the face of such things and still deliver results on the pitch is worthy of huge credit.

“He is such a fundamentally decent man, but so exposed also to anger and hostility, it is easy to fear that this might finally get to him,” Barney Ronay wrote of the 50-year-old after England beat Germany in the Round of 16. “Most of the time he sounds like the last sensible person left in the country.”

For all the entitlement that gets attached to the refrain ‘football’s coming home’ these days, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the song was originally written as a tongue-in-cheek treatise on the disappointment football fans experience ninety percent of the time. Whether Southgate – whose missed semi-final penalty against Germany is inextricably tied up with the Euro 96 tournament for which the song was released – is able to deliver one of the rare occasions when England fans are able to celebrate remains to be seen. Win or lose against Italy, however, his efforts at bringing them to this point, and the manner in which he has done so, deserve nothing but praise.




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