The Flying Dutchman

One midweek evening in London in the February of 1977, I made the pilgrimage required of anyone who deemed themselves to be a serious football fanatic.

However, I did not undertake the journey to what was then regarded as the Home of Football — the old Wembley Stadium — merely to watch a dismal England side slide to yet another defeat in an international “friendly”.

The management of the national team was then in the deadening hands of Don Revie. The former Leeds United boss had taken that club from the obscurity of the old Second Division to the top of the First Division (now the Premier League) — and, more importantly, kept the club up there.

But his stint as England’s manager fell far short of his success at Leeds. It was not a case of England lacking talent. Somehow Revie sucked the natural flair and inspiration out of players like (now Sir)Trevor Brooking, Trevor Francis, and even the marvellously quirky and independently-minded Stan Bowles, who was surely the best player ever to pull on a Queens Park Rangers shirt.

Revie’s style of football relied on sneaking a goal and then hanging onto that lead by hook or by crook.

And frequently there was a lot more crook than hook. Under Revie, Leeds had given new meaning to the words “dirty player”. In those days, referees were not so protective of strikers as is now the case now,

A Leeds’ defender’s Saturday afternoon was not complete without making a string of bone-crunching tackles crippling the opposition’s best forwards.

While Leeds did have some very good players like Johnny Giles and Allan Clarke, the club’s biggest crime was that it wasb just plain boring to watch.

And England likewise during Revie’s three-year tenure as boss. This was a bleak period for the England team which three times running failed to qualify for the final stages of the World Cup during the 1970s and early 1980s.

But all that misery was an ongoing story which was (briefly) incidental to what would be on display that chill English winter’s night. For soccer aficionados, this was the chance to witness the magic of one of the great, if not the greatest ever footballers.

Many will dispute the placing of such a crown on the head of Holland’s Johan Cruyff. But few would question his candidacy for such a title.

Cruyff., who died of lung cancer at Easter weekend, was instrumental in the Dutch club Ajax Amsterdam winning a swag of domestic and European titles in the early 1970s.

Subsequently sold to the then struggling Barcelona, he repeated his success he had achieved at Ajax.

When he had the ball, it seemed as if it was connected to his boots by a piece of string. When he had possession, he would tantalise defenders by tempting them to tackle him by seemingly putting the ball within their reach. Then just as quickly he would pull it back and swerve away, leaving the defender tackling nothing but air.

He could leave three or four defenders sprawled on the turf in his wake..

Such was his dexterity and ball control, he was difficult to foul.

He was a goalkeeper’s nightmare, such was the accuracy of his shots.

Much the same might be said of the likes of Pele, George Best, Maradona, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo. But none of those brilliant players possessed  or possesses quite the tactical acumen of Cruyff.

He could dominate proceedings, but was still a team player. He was the axle around which what became known as “total football” revolved.

That revolutionary style involved players moving in and out of different positions to confuse the opponent’s defenders, thereby openings gaps which unmarked players could exploit.

Cruyff used this freedom to play a deeper role as more of a midfielder than a conventional striker.

Most remarkable of all was his possession of some sixth sense of what was about to happen. Facing his own goal, he could turn and hit a 30 metre-plus pass right to the feet of a teammate whom it seemed impossible for him to have seen to be running into a gap in the opposition’s defence.

All such elements of this virtuoso’s repertoire were on display that evening at Wembley. England simply did not know how to contain Cruyff. Holland strolled to a 2-0 victory, leaving the crowd hurling abuse at the hapless Revie.

He was gone within months, taking up what was no doubt the more lucrative and less stressful job of managing the United Arab Emirates team.

Cruyff ended his a few months later, apparently because he was unwilling to play in the 1978 World Cup in Argentina which was then ruled by a military dictatorship.

However, his decision to retire may have been heavily influenced by an attempt to kidnap him and his family in Barcelona.


Not (flag)waving but drowning

The two weeks following the outcome of the second referendum on the national flag have been notable for one thing — the pro-change brigade’s clutching at straws.

We have been told the result was a lot closer than had been expected.

Likewise, it has been suggested that there might have even been a majority for change had there been a better-designed alternative on offer.

Furthermore, many Labour supporters had heeded their party’s advice not to vote for change in order to give John Key a bloody nose.

In turn, it was claimed that people did not vote for change because Key had “politicised” the referendum process. That process was flawed. People had been annoyed about the$26 million cost of the flag referenda.

All in all, the second referendum had revealed there was actually now a real mood for change which would only intensify over time. And so on.

All this post-hoc rationalisation of the result by the pro-change lobby could not disguise the blunt truth. Key and company suffered a real drubbing.

The respective voting figures of 57 per cent in in favour of keeping the current ensign against 42 per cent wanting a different flag were almost identical to the result of the 2011 referendum which produced a similar majority in favour of retaining MMP. No-one suggested the latter outcome was in anyway close.

The likely impact of the rejection of an alternative will be to shove the matter of the flag under the umbrella of the far wider debate over whether New Zealand should become a republic. And that debate does not look like happening any time soon.

To the contrary, the defeat suffered by pro-change enthusiasts will likely have only further delayed that monarchy versus republic debate.

More than likely, Key will emerge unscathed from the whole affair. But the lesson for him and all other politicians is that there is no political upside in trying to spearhead any fresh initiative to change to the national ensign.But there is a big risk of a lot of political downside. So why take that risk?

Any new initiative will have to be people-driven rather than politician-led.

Whether the flag does ever change may now hinge on what Australia does. If our trans-Tasman cousins choose republicanism — which they will probably do sooner rather than later — then New Zealanders may feel obliged to think about following suit.

Much hinges on whether the atmospherics alter after the Queen eventually dies or hands over the reins to Prince Charles and whether his eccentricities prevail and become tiresome. He is now in his late sixties and his reign could be short or not even happen. The swift ascent of Prince William to the Throne would likely stifle any nascent debate on cutting formal ties with the monarchy.

Even were such a debate to get under way, it would be very tentative.

The two year old report by the Government-appointed constitutional advisory panel got no further than recommending the Government “actively support a continuing conversation about the constitution by ensuring people can find out more about the current arrangements and about options for our future”.

Well, hold the front page. The panel’s caution was understandable, however. The near impossibility of getting any kind of consensus on such constitutional matters as becoming a republic, having a written constitution, strengthening the Bill of Rights, enhanced Maori representation in Parliament, and lastly, the role of the Treaty was highlighted by a Government-backed conference entitled “Building the Constitution” which was held in Wellington in 2000.

One constitutional expert, Professor Philip Joseph, who was a key speaker at the conference and is not someone prone to hyperbole, described the event as a “spectacular failure” because every session imploded on the same issue: the place of the Treaty in any written constitution.

Nearly two decades onwards, the Treaty has unquestionably become integral to the country’s unwritten constitution.

There will be great reluctance to go down the road to a republic if that resurrects bitter argument about the role of the Treaty and the relationship between Maori and the Crown, or more pertinently, what would replace it.

It is more than tempting to say if it ain’t broke why fix it.

It is notable that the vote favouring a change of flag was lower than 26 per cent in six of the seven Maori seats and thus way behind levels recorded in the general seats.

Maori are being very smart. They fear that any change in the flag could be the thin end of a very big wedge which might threaten their rights and interests.

That seems unlikely to happen given the obvious reluctance of the wider population to engage in any serious discussion on cutting ties with the monarchy.

But Maori clearly believe they should do all they can to ensure there is little or no chance of such a debate occurIng — at least in the short and medium terms.

Winston Trump or Donald Peters?

Don’t fret. Do!n’t worry. Donald Trump will never become President of the United States.

In time, American voters will “come to their senses” and bring Trump’s crude crusade for the keys to the White House to an abrupt halt.

So spoke one such voter questioned in a report screened by Al Jazeera which purported to analyse the reasons driving Trump’s unexpected rise and rise which has made him the front-runner in the race for the Republican party’s nomination for the presidency.

What was puzzling was why the journalist who produced the piece for the Doha-based television news channel gave so much air time to the views of a 62-year-old former lawyer and unflinching supporter of the Democrats – someone who would have been about as ideologically distanced from Trumpland as it is possible to get.

It is not that difficult to explain why so many Americans have fallen under the spell of Trump’s brand of populism. There is nothing new or particularly unique in the business mogul’s strategy.

Anyone who was living in New Zealand in the mid-1990s will have noted a marked similarity between Trump’s campaign themes and those stressed by one Winston Peters.

Having got himself booted out of the National Party in 1992, Peters cannily exploited the public’s anger at both major parties to raise the profile of his new political vehicle, New Zealand First.

Peters banged the same drum as Trump is now banging — an anti-foreigner,anti-migrant, anti-establishment and anti-free trade. tirade..

National Party MPs have been quickest to make the comparison, with Maggie Barry describing Peters as Trump “without the comb-over”.

But the differences between Trump and Peters go way beyond the latter having a better haircut and a better taste in suits.

Peters used coded language in his rabble-rousing speeches, avoiding mentioning the word “Asians” when everyone knew to whom he was referring.

Trump cannot be bothered with such “dog-whistle” politics. His trademark is outrage. He is winning votes by saying what Middle America is thinking but feel it cannot say.

If anything, American voters are even more fed up with the goings on in Washington than were many New Zealanders with Wellington two decades ago.

Trump is surfing a wave of discontent and disillusion born of the slow recovery of the American economy, alongside the disappointing presidency of Barak Obama which has fallen far short of initial expectations.

There are also fundamental underlying factors contributing much to Trump’s success, most notably that the ongoing decline in the American middle class which has put the American Dream more and more out of reach for increasing numbers of the country’s citizens.

According to the Washington Post, In 1979, what the paper labelled as “middle-skill” jobs accounted for 57 percent of the jobs in the American economy. By 2009, that share was down to 46 per cent. When middle-skill jobs vanish, those workers must either take low-skill jobs or compete for the fewer middle-skill jobs left. That extra competition pushes down everybody’s pay, .

Perhaps the most telling statistic is the one revealing that the pre-tax income for middle-income American families fell by about 7 per cent in real terms 2010 and 2013, while those of the top 10 per cent of income earners actually rose by 2%, despite the huge losses incurred during the global financial crisis.

Hillary, you have a problem.

Another major difference between Trump and Peters is that every candidate in this presidential race has found him or herself obliged to say how they will make America great again. That is, apart from Hillary Clinton,who claims America is still great. This is not what Middle America is thinking.

The United States is just the latest country to discover it is easier to go into Afghanistan than to get out. Likewise, the horror story that is Iraq. IPutin’s occupation of Crimea and destabilisation of Ukraine made a mockery of America’s supposed supremacy. China’s expansion into the South China Sea is another kick in the shins.

When Trump talks of making America great again, he is simply saying what many Americans want to hear. That was exemplified by Sarah Palin’s assurance that Trump would “kick ISIS ass”.

Throughout the primaries the ever more pertinent question has been how his rivals for the nomination deal with Trump.

At first, his candidacy was seen as a joke. Then a bad joke. It was then assumed he would be destroyed in theu early primaries. The talk now is of Trump failing to get a majority of delegates at the Republican convention.

That may be wishful thinking.

Moreover, any attempt to sideline Trump will be seen as verifying voters’ sour view of the Washington establishment. As it is,the Washington-based media and political pundits have been acutely embarrassed by their wayward predictions which have only showed just how much they are out of touch they are with the rest of the nation.

Trump’s opponents have been similarly silly in their efforts to malign Trump. The most pathetic example was the wheeling out of Mitt Romney, the Republican’s failed 2012 candidate, who slammed Trump as a fraud and a fake. A walking cure for insomnia, Romney had no problems accepting Trump’s endorsement in 2012.

Such attacks  only enhance Trump’s appeal as someone who will clean out the Aegean Stables that Washington is seen as becoming.

Not even his strongest supporters would be stupid enough to believe he would actually build a wall across the whole of the border between the United States and Mexico and expect the latter country to pay for it.

Likewise, no-one would argue that Trump is not without faults. But most of these have long been fodder for the gossip columns and entertainment channels.

So far, only one person has landed any kind of hit on Trump, and that person was not even an American. When Trump visited London, he claimed there were Muslim parts of the city that the police would not go. In reply, the city’s mayor Boris Johnson said there were some parts of New York that he was not prepared to visit for fear of running into Donald Trump.

What voters are doing is using Trump to deliver a blunt message in the strongest possible terms to the political and economic elites that something has to change in terms of the rich getting richer while not only the poor are getting poorer.

“This is also why Bernie Sanders is causing headaches for Clinton on the other side of the political spectrum.

Trump’s appeal as a non-politician is his greatest asset. But it is also potentially his greatest weakness. His opponents’ may have to rely on his massive ego and over confidence bringing his downfall.

His statement that women who have had abortions should be punished is his first real mistake. And it is a big one. Worse were his efforts to spin his way out of that blunder.

The Wisconsin primary this week will be a crucial test of how much that mistake has cost him.

This year’s primaries have been the most fascinating and intriguing since George McGovern secured the Democratic nomination in 1972, only for him to be subsequently whipped by the then Republican president Richard Nixon.

That campaign was immortalised in Hunter S Thompson’s splendid book Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. The gonzo journalist is no longer with us, sadly. But the enticing prospect of Donald Trump, the ugliest loud mouth to ever have infected American politics, facinguu off against the steely, but far too naked ambition of Hillary Clinton would have had him salivating over his keyboard.

There is only one thing left to say. Bring it on.