Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Best of Six Nations



The UK’s resident party of Government is synonymous with two themes.  
One is its advocacy of free markets to ensure economic growth and wealth; the other is its espousal of One Nation as a means to foster community cohesion.

It was the occurrence of the final round of matches in this year’s Six Nations rugby tournament, of all things, which prompted me to consider the wisdom of these two pillars of socio-economic philosophy.  
The prospect of Ireland playing England in London on Saint Patrick’s Day so whetted patriotic instincts that the possibility of attending the showdown in Twickenham stadium was an imperative that had to be considered.

Unlike in England whose media expect their sporting teams to win everything, the task of taking Europe’s premier rugby competition and beating all comers has almost always eluded Ireland.   
That is apart from the year before my birth and on one other occasion.  This once in my lifetime feat occurred as recently as 2009. It had taken 61 years of trying.  On that occasion, I managed to get a ticket at the very last minute in Cardiff after a day and a half of shameless begging on the city’s streets.  

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This social media post from a Worcester Warriors fan three weeks before England played Ireland says it all
In the penultimate round of matches this month a week before our encounter with England, Ireland had done enough to win the Six Nations tournament regardless of the final day’s results. 
The bigger prize, the Holy Grail, was to achieve a clean sweep - a grand slam - defeating all five other countries.

The rarity value for us of such an achievement heightens anticipation significantly.   
And having been in the shrine of Welsh rugby on the one available opportunity nine years ago, symmetry was compelling me to attend the London showdown.

I began attempts to find tickets by contacting friends in Britain about five days before the game.  
As I waited impatiently for replies, a newspaper article[i] reported a predictable sequence.  This is the inevitable consequence of demand outstripping supply, resulting in a black market for tickets. 
The article quoted England’s Rugby Football Union as urging people not to buy tickets on offer at well above face value.  Free market economics takes full rein, I thought, in spite of RFU words.

According to the article, “the RFU...is doing everything in its power to curtail unofficial sales... as well as internet sites such as Viagogo, eBay, Seatwave and GetMeIn.”  
I wondered what sanctions or other authoritative actions they might be taking, if any.  
The newspaper gave an example of tickets priced at £3750 on a site called Stubhub. 

Despite warnings of this kind from the sport’s governing bodies, buyers might feel confused and perplexed.   These sales outlets are legally constituted companies and seem to be tolerated by the regulatory authorities.   
They are witness to the untrammelled working of the free market.

Six days before the game, I had discovered that I could fly over and back for about £80. Not extortionate and an argument in favour of travelling.   
Exasperated by the lack of progress from approaches to various friends and contacts, I decided to think about examining the ticket sales websites myself.  This was against my better judgement but out of curiosity.  
Eventually, four days before match-day I succumbed to have a sneak peep at the ticketing websites.  

The first one I examined was e-Bay.  
It showed two tickets with a face value of £124 each.  Quite expensive, but probably worth it in the circumstances.  Their resale and somewhat inflated asking price, however, was for a total of £2400 (“free postage” included, presumably to lessen the severity of the knock-out blow).  
In response to the site’s invitation to make an offer, I posted a bid of £300.  An instant reply declined the offer with an invitation to make another offer.

Rather than react instantaneously, I sat down with a cup of tea and read some chapters of a crime fiction thriller novel in an attempt to think rationally and to restore my faith in human nature.  
I also wanted to avoid giving the impression of being very ready to yield easily to a seller’s greed.

Before going back onto eBay, I looked at GetMeIn website which advertised tickets from £605.  However, when I clicked on the actual purchase price, it displayed a figure of £988.  Worse still, when I proceeded to the check-out stage, the total price for two £988 tickets (with the addition of unspecified fees) became £2326.94. 

Disappointing can be used as a polite word to express masterly understatement.  
I know well, however, that free market advocates will defend the exploitation of supply and demand by arguing that that is how market forces (and apparently Government) work. 

Ninety minutes after having an initial offer rejected on eBay, I increased my bid from £300 to £500 for the two £124 tickets.  At almost four times their face value, this constitutes a generous bid by that yardstick.  
In a message aimed squarely at the seller’s social conscience, I wrote in a helpful textbox that I am classified as elderly living on a pension.  
For extra pathos, I added that I am recovering from hip and pelvic injuries sustained in a hit and run road accident.

Almost before I had pressed send, another instant rejection message came back.  It slapped me in the face with such alacrity that I slumped in shock, stunned.  
It would have been impossible for the seller to have read and considered my circumstances. The reply did, with magnanimous fairness, invite me to make a third and final offer.  

Despite being urged to bid again, I did wonder if there is any point in dealing with a mercenary seller even if his feedback rating is perfect with, somehow, a 100% positive rating.  This is further empirical evidence of the free market’s truthful working.

The one other site I examined was called StubHub as it offered tickets at £875. 
Going through the same process, the total for a pair worked out, not as £875 x 2, but rather as £2126.25.   
Hardened in attitude against this free market, and forewarned by the advice from the toothless RFU, I declined this further opportunity to deal with extortion.   
Meanwhile flight prices remained dynamic but reasonably constant, with minor daily variations.


Despite the signal failure to repeat doing my patriotic duty, this is a story with a happy ending, as everybody knows.   Our team achieved the clean sweep; national pride, civic pride, rural pride, gay pride - every pride you can think of - all were restored.  
I was left wondering if it is too much to suggest that this sporting occasion might be a metaphor for how things could be.  Is it fanciful to think that elected representatives could learn from the sporting model? 

All of this coincides with the uncertainty of a time when seemingly irreconcilable differences deprive Northern Ireland of regional governance for well over a year.    
And it’s also a time when questions continue over Westminster’s policy to implement the popular campaign-winning, if oxymoronic, pledge to take back control of its borders which it wants to be invisible. 

In numbers, the rugby grand slam victors in 2018 are the one of the Six Nations teams which accumulated the most points (26), an island (quoting its anthem) of “four proud Provinces” partitioned into two constitutionally distinctive jurisdictions.   
And despite adversity, such as years of disappointment and underachieving in the quest for success, it has succeeded as One Nation on the field of international play.

Best of the 6 Nations
This is not a romantic idyll to be dismissed lightly.   
The publicity and boost for our image internationally goes a long way to counteract pictures of division and recidivism.   Success has come off a modus operandi which has been developed patiently over time.  
This method is based on solid principles of life and on standards for diplomatic behaviour. 

These include developing a specific strategy for each encounter, moving forward from past failures and building on progress, adoption of a positive and can-do mind-set in the interests of the greater good, co-operative working across seamless borders without friction, players united in taking risks calculated to achieve a big objective and, crucially, employing creative leadership which inspires.

On the eve of the St Patrick’s Day fixture, this very example of sport providing a role model bringing people together was eloquently envisaged by “Northern Ireland’s daily newspaper.”[ii]    
Happily on this occasion, our team delivered[iii].  
Don’t say there are no parallels or lessons to be learned.


©Michael McSorley 2018


[i] Belfast Telegraph 13 March 2018 page 3 Ian Begley:  https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/sport/rugby/six-nations/tickets-for-irelands-grand-slam-bid-on-sale-for-4k-36698954.html
[ii] Belfast Telegraph 16 March 2018 p 12 Martin O’Brien:   https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/opinion/tomorrow-ireland-will-come-together-as-never-before-for-st-patricks-day-and-the-rugby-wouldnt-it-just-be-great-if-it-was-like-this-all-the-time-36710160.html

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The 2014 World Cup



Economic success

Is it conceivable that the characteristics which affect the success or under-achievement of national economies could be reflected in the performance their national football teams?

Could it be that the real reason that Germany won the World Cup was that the philosophy that has thrust the country as the powerhouse economy of Europe has been adapted to the benefit of its world-beating football team?

The odds, before the first ball was even kicked, would have scorned such a proposition.  The fact is that no European team has ever won the World Cup anywhere in the Americas.

European conquistadors

If any team were to achieve such an unlikely feat, then the principal candidate would surely have to be Spain.   
Spain, after all, qualified for these finals as reigning champions of the world.  Not content with one title, they sandwiched the global accolade between victories in the European championship on the two last occasions, a unique treble.   
And as if to emphasise Spanish dominance, two teams from Madrid had contested the recent final of Europe’s club teams, the Champions League.

If there were to be a rival European invader who might lift the global title, that could be the hosts’ own fatherland country, Portugal.  After all, their captain is the multiple-award-winning star and 2014 world player of the year, Christiano Ronaldo.

One of the many shocks of this year’s competition, however, was that the two European countries with the closest cultural and linguistic connections with South America were eliminated in the preliminary round.  
What made the Iberian nations’ failure incomprehensible was their record of proven success coupled with the galactic renown of key players.

Before long, however, it became apparent that the countries with the world’s cash-richest leagues would fare badly in this competition.  
England, Italy and Spain were knocked out because of poor results in the first round of competition. 

Consequent questions arise about the management and business models of their domestic leagues, normally held up to be the best in the world.

Business model in Europe

The norm is that success breeds success.  Because of their star quality, these three leagues attract huge revenues from television and other endorsements.   
Their top clubs pay enormous transfer fees and pay extraordinary wages to attract what are considered to be the best footballers from all over the world.   
These teams tend to be owned by large business interests, often from abroad.

In England, prescient fans express disquiet about the prospect of their beloved clubs being saddled with foreign corporate debt.   
Many are unhappy about having to pay high prices for supporters’ essentials like season tickets and club jerseys.   
In the light of England’s early departure from the tournament in Brazil, their long-suffering fans are feeling increasingly indignant at what they refer to as “forty-eight years of hurt.”

Will these hapless football fans start to ask searching questions such as: - 

·        Has the extravagance of the salary structure in the modestly entitled Premier League reduced the motivation of players to perform for their country?

·        Do huge pay cheques motivate these international players perform better?

·         Is the influx of foreign stars reducing the opportunities for up and coming local talent to emerge in the country’s domestic league?

·         Whereas England at least qualified for the finals in Brazil, could this crowding out in the Premier League also explain the continued failure of players from Scotland, Wales and the two Irish teams to compete on the biggest stage?
Prior to the establishment of the Premier League, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish players were more prominent in the top flight of English league football.  Nowadays, it would be unusual for Northern Ireland to field more than 3 Premier League players in an international match. 

·         Is the cost of hosting a glamorous, entertaining and world-leading domestic league worth it if it is proven to be to the detriment of the national teams of England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland?

·         Could this model of free market economics be harming football in its birthplace?

The World Cup’s top three highest paid coaches – Fabio Capello (Russia), Roy Hodgson (England) and Cesari Prandelli (Italy) –.all failed to reach the knock-out stage.   
In contrast, the lowest paid Miguel Herrera took unfancied Mexico through to the knock-out stages[1].

The German approach

Compare and contrast all of these issues with the German philosophy.   
The economics and management of football in Germany are implemented on a bottom-up approach, a community ethos.  
Clubs are controlled by fans.  Important decisions have to be made by their members to be carried by a majority of at least 50% plus one of supporters.

Rapacious greed seems to be eschewed.  There is a commitment to having plentiful cheap tickets.  Club Presidents are accountable to the members and can be voted out by them.

Germany’s domestic league, the Bundesliga, appears to be less awash with foreign investment.  
Bayern Munich is the country’s richest and most successful club.  Wolfsburg and Bayer Leverkeusen are exceptional being owned by Volkswagen and the chemicals corporation Bayer (both German companies).  But no club is foreign-owned[2].

The Bundesliga attracts foreign talent, but not on a scale with that of Spain Italy or England.  German players, for the most part, play in Germany.  
In 2012, 60% of the Bundesliga’s players were German; in the Premier League the equivalent figure for English players was 39%.  Season tickets in Germany are affordable and families are essential to their support.

All in all, the German business model appears to regulate the forces of the free market.  
And it does so in a way which results in less grasping greed, coupled with a recipe for international success.

What happened at Cardiff City in the season just past could not happen in Germany.  Promoted to the top flight after a 50 year absence and backed by new Malaysian financial muscle, initial joy and optimism eroded.   
The new owners irritated fans by sacking the club’s popular manager and even changed the club’s colours from blue to red.  
The end of season result - relegation from the Premier League.

Host nation humbled

The major shock of the 2014 World Cup was the failure of the host nation Brazil to enthral us as they have done in the past.  
A series of uninspiring performances culminated in the embarrassing and record-breaking 7-1 defeat in the semi-final by Germany, followed by the 3-1 defeat in the losers’ play-off match to the Netherlands. 

What makes the Brazilian downfall sadder is the realisation that the sporting cliché about form being temporary and class being permanent might not even apply.

Brazil of old never used to play the style of football witnessed in this tournament.  
It was never their style to play petulantly, falling over with grossly exaggerated effect when tackled, feigning and exaggerating injury.  
Football authorities have an offence termed “bringing the game into disrepute.”  Maybe they could do more to control fakery.   
The paying public are alienated by this type of behaviour, as exemplified by the Italy Uruguay match.  It is the antithesis of sport and sportsmanship.

Brazil’s top players are purchased by the European leagues’ richest clubs.  
Perhaps that is where they have learned bad habits.  
Perhaps that is also where standardised coaching methods have helped them to unlearn and abandon their natural footballing skills.   

Speaking after their elimination the great Brazilian wizard Jairzinho, a member of the 1970 winning team, blamed the country’s decline on the exodus abroad.

There were ominous signals of national unease in the run-up to the finals.  Demonstrators protested loudly and clearly about the scale of expenditure being made, estimated to have been £6.5 billion.   

A month before the tournament began a newspaper headline[3] – Let them eat football - summed up the country’s debate about poverty at the expense of football.

Paulo Ito's mural of a hungry child being served a football (reproduced from G2 Guardian 10 06 2014)


Economists refer to Brazil as one of the developing world’s emerging growth nations, the so-called BRIC countries - Brazil Russia India and China – as potential rivals to the G7.   

Writing about the acronym he coined in 2001, its author reports that plans have been announced[4] to establish a new BRIC development bank.   
He adds, significantly, that all four economies are now much bigger than he forecast thirteen years ago.

Action points

It seems ironic to witness Brazil’s continuing rise as an economic power coinciding with its decline as a footballing power.

In which case, could there actually be merit in politely suggesting that Brazil (and perhaps others) might consider Germany’s community-based business model – if only to keep its public on-side?

Is the free market serving “the beautiful game” satisfactorily?  What do you think?


©Michael McSorley 2014



[1] Observer David Hills 13 July 2014 “The Final Verdict”
[2] Observer David Conn 2 December 2012 “German model bangs the drum for club country and the people’s game”
[3] Guardian 10 June 2014 Jonathan Jones “Win Lose or Draw”
[4] Daily Telegraph Jim O’Neill 26 July 2014 “The Brics have a $100b bank. Can the West start taking them seriously now?”