Euro 2016 Part Four: the Best and Worst

With France mourning yet more dead from yet another atrocity — committed on the most hallowed day on the French calendar — the patriotism and passion exhibited by the host country of Euro 2016 has been replaced by numbness and fear.

It is but small consolation in the wake of the Bastille Day slaughter in Nice that the month-long football tournament was free of terrorist incidents.
The only violence at Euro 2016 involved English and Russian thugs. And given they were largely fighting one another, that did not really matter that much.

It is somewhat ironic that the supposed supporters of those countries were causing havoc outside the stadiums while their teams were doing the exact opposite inside. Is there some connection between the two phenomena we don’t know about? Both sides were short on commitment and equally deficient in inspiration. In a word, feeble.

But enough of that. The story of Euro 2016 was one of upsets. The underdogs not only barked. They had bite. And plenty of it.

The gap between Europe’s elite and the continent’s supposedly second and third-rate football nations closed in quite dramatic fashion.

The shock results had a perverse effect, however. How did Portugal — officially ranked in the world’s top ten — become European champions despite finishing third in their four-team group? And did they really deserve to get their hands on the trophy?

Had the tournament finals not been extended from 16 nations to 24 for Euro 2016, Portugal would have been on the plane home even earlier than England.

Portugal was seeded into one of the easier groups from which to qualify for the knock-out stage. The drew all three of their group games against Iceland, Hungary and Austria — all teams which Cristiano Ronaldo’s team should have whipped.

Then the complex formula used to work out which third-placed countries in the six groups would go on to the knock-out stages resulted in Portugal ending up on what was by far the easiest side of draw. The other side included the football giants of France, Germany, Spain and Italy. Only one of those teams could make the final.

The surprise success of Wales also worked in Portugal’s favour. The Welsh produced one of the most crucial of the shock results in defeating a star-studded Belgium. The Belgians had shown in their previous game just how good they could be, with Chelsea’s Eden Hazard running rampant in the 4-0 victory over Hungary.

Knocking out Belgium saw Wales make it through to the semi-finals. And a showdown with Portugal, the latter having just squeezed past Poland after a penalty shoot-out.

Without Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey, who was suspended for having picked up too many yellow cards, the Welsh lacked midfield inspiration and basically ran out of steam. Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale, who would be on most people’s list as one of the candidates for the best player in Euro 2016, could not do it all on his own.

Because Wales and Portugal fought out the first semi-final, the latter got an extra 24 hours to recover before the final.

However, Portugal’s good fortune ran out 25 minutes into the final against France — and in the worst possible way,,with an injured Ronaldo stretchered off.

What difference that made was hard to tell.

After that interruption, it suddenly became anyone’s game with both sides creating numerous chances and hitting the woodwork several times before Eder, one of Portugal’s substitutes, settled the matter in extra time.

As the final whistle, Portugal’s horrors during the group stage were ancient history. But enough of that. It is time to hand out a few awards.

BEST TEAM: France. If only by virtue of defeating Germany 2-0 in the semi-finals. The current holders of the World Cup were not at their absolute best. The German team looks to be in transition. But getting the better of any German line-up is the toughest task in football.The French team was stacked with high-quality players who rose to the occasion, though not necessarily all at the same time, and that was a factor in their defeat in the final.

UNLUCKIEST TEAM: Italy. The national team was knocked out of the tournament by Germany following an extraordinary penalty shoot-out which was nerve jangling in the extreme. It took 18 shots from the penalty spot before the Germans prevailed by six successful spot-kicks to Italy’s five. Seven players muffed their shots.

BEST PLAYER: France’s Antoine Griezmann. He was the tournament’s top scorer. He was everywhere and involved in everything. His toe-poke of the ball past desperate German defenders to seal a place in the final was pure magic.

WORST PLAYER:  England’s goal-keeper Joe Hart. There will be some other, lesser known players who deserve such approbrium. And unlike other positions, a goal-keeper’s mistakes are there for all to see. But Hart had looked off-form during the last Premier League season and confirmed his vulnerability with three very costly blunders in three of England’s four games.

BEST GOAL: Switzerland’s Xerdan Shaqiri’s spectacular bicycle-kick against Belgium is most commentators’ favourite. However, it was a speculative effort which came off. The one that sticks in the mind was Italy’s second goal, also against Belgium. Graziano Pelle got on the end of a waist-high cross and with both feet off the ground executed a perfect volley which thundered into net .He would have been embarrassed if he had missed or miskicked the ball. He didn’t.

BEST SAVE: During the final, Portugal’s goalkeeper Rui Patricio somehow got his hand to a French header bound for the top corner of his goal and flicked the ball over the bar with little more than his fingers.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENTS:  Spain. Never looked like retaining their title. Or even getting close to doing so. And Belgium.  An enigma. They were the pick of many experts making pre-tournament predictions, given they were second only to Argentina in FIFA’s world rankings. They were dissected into tiny pieces by Italy during the group stage. They lived up to expecrtatons — and much more — with a stunning second-half demolition of Hungary. They briefly looked like doing the same against Wales. But Wales had the one thing that Belgium lacked — superb teamwork, total commitment to winning the ball, 100 per cent proof team spirit and, as the tournament progressed, soaring self-confidence that they could make things very tough for any supposedly superior side. And , of course, Bale’s lethat left foot. His energy, drive and ability to alter the course of a match with a flash of brilliance made it possible for a squad full of players which were hardly household namesJust a pity that Ramsey picked up those yellow cards.

BIGGEST EMBARRASSMENT: Not just England’s players. Premier League teams teams may seem full of players from every nation other than England. But that is no excuse. All European leagues are dominated by foreign players these days. So why do England teams fail so often fail to progress beyond the early stages of international competitions? Why do so many players produce such sub par performances when they pull on an English shirt?  Fear of failure is a viscous circle which only results in more failure and thus even more fear. But it is the coach’s job to deal with that. The Football Association needs to be accountable for what happened in France, especially given the the team”s equally abysmal showing at the last World Cup in Brazil. Somerhing is rotten somewhere. England needs to examine why the likes of Germany, Italy and France consistently make the quarter-final stages in the World Cup and the the  just completed competition restricted to European nations. And with just two years until the next World Cup in Russia, changes must happen quickly. If there is anyone doubting a shakeup is needed should ponder the following facts. France’s 5-2 thrashing of Iceland put England’s defeat by the football minnow into truly awful perspective. France was 4-0 up at half-time. The game was over. England was 1-2 down against Iceland at half-time.The game was over.

BEST HEADLINE:: “Cod Save Us”. British tabloid The Sun harks back to the 1970s, last time England buckled to Icelandic — the “Cod Wars” of the 1970s when the two couturiers were in bitter dispute over fishing rights in the North Atlantic.

BEST QUOTE: “I don’t know what I’m doing here.” — England’s now former boss Roy Hodgson  questioning why should front for a press conference, given he had already quit the job. Hodgson was right. He seemed to have no idea of what he was doing.from the moment he arrived in France, if not before.

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Shorten-ing the odds on Labour

It would be unwise to draw too many inferences for New Zealand domestic politics from last Saturday’s deadlocked election in Australia. But some things which happened during the marathon eight-week campaign will come under scrutiny by National, Labour, the Greens and other parties on this side of the Tasman.

John Key, in particular, will want to know why Malcolm Turnbull’s Liberals — National’s sister party — did so badly.

The final results in some crucial seats will not be known until later in the week. But Turnbull, who decided to hold an early election with the purpose of securing majorities for the Liberal-National Party coalition in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, is now staring down the barrel of a hung Parliament in the lower one and even more obstacles in getting legislation through the upper one.

Key, however, will be asking why Turnbull’s prime theme that only the coalition could be relied upon to maintain economic stability while promising tax cuts failed to convince people to stick with the status quo. That theme has been a fundamental part of National’s election strategy.

The answer might be two-fold. First, the Lucky Country has not been so lucky over recent years following the end of the minerals boom and cuts in manufacturing, best symbolized by the closure of car plants. For many voters previously getting hefty pay packets, there is no longer any economic stability to maintain.

Second, the 2014 Budget — the first one to be delivered by the newly-elected government led by Tony Abbot — was one tough document which was a brave attempt to get government finances back into surplus as soon as possible.

. It was so stringent that it prompted an across-the-board backlash from which the coalition never really recovered.

That does not answer the question of the political efficacy of tax cuts.

Turnbull, however, was basically outmaneuvered on tax cuts by Bill Shorten, the leader of the Australian Labor Party, who shrewdly avoided slamming all of his opponent’s tax cut plans.

Shorten made it clear that the ALP would not try to block the raising of tax thresholds for those in the middle-impact bracket. However, his party did not support big companies enjoying promised cuts in company tax, saying that such reductions should only apply to small enterprises.

Shorten instead concentrated on bread-and-butter issues by constantly stressing his priorities were more jobs and better provision of education, health and other social services. It was traditional Labour party stuff.

And it seems to have worked. In leading his party to the brink of power, if not power itself, Shorten defied the political pundits who were almost universal in predicting that while Turnbull would lose some seats, he would retain a comfortable enough majority.

Shorten’s success should give New Zealand Labour more confidence to make a similar pitch to voters here at next year’s election. Labour senses that tax cuts are no longer the boon they have been for National. Labour senses a mind shift among voters that the surpluses forecast by the Treasury would be better utilised in tackling growing inequality, especially to help those at the bottom of the economic heap.

Andrew Little can also take some heart from Shorten’s performance during the election campaign. Prior to that, Shorten came across as a machine politician who whined about everything his opponents did just for the sake of it.

But he has since flowered. His relaxed personable style and approachability seemed to hit the right spot with voters. Shorten’s back story as a trade unionist did not appear to hurt him — another potential plus for Little.

Having said all that, too much can be made of last Saturday’s swing to the ALP. That was more down to a plunge in support for the ruling Liberal-National coalition. The ALP’s share of the primary vote rose from the 33.38 per cent recorded at the 2013 election to 35.32 per cent.

Those figures hardly justify cracking open the champagne. In fact, you could seriously argue the result is merely a minor blip upwards in what has otherwise been a major downwards trend in the ALP vote over recent elections,and which is likely to continue unless the party finds a way of stemming the increasing flow of voters switching to minor parties.

In that regard, the Australian Greens have a long-term of strategy to capture inner-city seats from the ALP in the major metropolitan. This threat resulted in so-called “dirty deals” being struck between the ALP and the Liberals, the former party’s traditional enemy. In some seats, Liberal Party voters have beenurged to give their second preferences to the ALP candidate in order to shut out the Greens’ candidate.

New Zealand’s electoral system is less complicated than Australia’s — and thus not prone to such perverse maneuvering. But Labour and the Greens will have to consider electoral accommodations in order to shut National’s governing allies out of Parliament. Doing so will be a test of the strength of the recently-signed co-operation agreement between both Opposition parties.

Boris, Nigel and Michael: The cautionary tale of the Three Brexiteers

 

Treachery upon treachery; back-stabbing upon back-stabbing. Things rarely get as brutal as the raw politics currently on vivid display in Britain’s deeply-divided Conservative Party.

One MP has described the turmoil within the party as making House of Cards look like Teletubbies. There is not just blood on the floor. There is blood everywhere you look. So much, in fact, that commentators and columnists daily reach for Shakespeare as they try to put the extraordinary happenings into some kind of context.

Over the past 24 hours, the preferred text has been Julius Caesar. “Et tu Brute” has become “Et tu Michael” after Boris Johnson’s supposed closest ally, Michael Gove, who is secretary,of state for justice, pulled his backing for the former mayor of London and announced he was entering the race to become the Conservative Party’s new leader.

Realising that he no longer had the numbers to capture the party’s top job — and thus become prime minister by default — Johnson soon after announced he would not be a candidate for the leadership.

By that stage, he had the backing of fewer than 50 of the party’s 330 MPs.

His rise and fall — for the time being at least — is an instructive lesson in political basics.

Johnson is a flamboyant, out-of-the-ordinary politician whose clownish air of wackiness endears him to voters. Despite having a blue-blooded background — he was educated at Eton and Oxford — Johnson is able to cross the barriers of class and reach out to the ordinary British voter.

Last week’s stay-or-go referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union emphatically also showed he is a winner. For centre-right parties like the Conservatives, power is everything. And they are willing to tolerate the eccentricities of a leader who delivers that commodity.

Within the parliamentary wing of the Conservative Party, however, Johnson is in very short supply of two essential ingredients needed to get to the top of politics’ greasy pole — trust and loyalty.

Johnson is hated by a few of his parliamentary colleagues, but disliked and distrusted by many more.

They rapidly turned into a “Stop Boris” lobby. This drew together MPs who had campaigned for Britain to stay in the European Union, along with other MPs who were anti-Europe and read his conciliatory comments after the referendum as a sign he was not serious about implementing the result. Then there were the Cabinet ministers and MPs worrying about their future under a Johnson-led government.

Many questioned whether Johnson was capable  of uniting the party and the country.

Furious  supporters of David Cameron regarded Johnson as a crass opportunist who had used the referendum and his sudden re-discovery of his Euro-scepticism in order to destroy the Prime Minister.

There were those who saw his backing of the Leave campaign as indicating that he was a politician who put self-interest ahead of the national interest and who played politics with such a crucial question as Britain’s rightful place in Europe.

And there were those who simply did not think Johnson was up to handling the job of prime minister.

There is, of course, poetic justice in Johnson having stabbed Cameron in the back, only to feel Gove’s cold stiletto this week doing the same thing to him.

Up to that point, Johnson’s cynicism had gone unchecked.

Stamping his imprimatur on the Leave campaign was a cost-free exercise for Johnson. The referendum was a matter of political life and death for Cameron.

Had the Leave campaign been thrashed, then Johnson would have looked a fool. But the polls showed there was no danger of that happening. It was was all upside for Johnson. Had the referendum resulted in a narrow majority in favour of Britain staying in Europe, Johnson could have still claimed a kind of victory because most people expected the Remain camp to win by a reasonable margin.

In contrast, Cameron had to win — and preferably win big. The victory of the anti-Europe lobby was a de facto vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister. Cameron had to go.

UKIP’s Nigel Farage was meanwhile declaring “Independence Day” for Britain. Having achieved its goal, UKIP had made itself redundant.

But within hours of the final vote count, the full title of Farage’s party — the United Kingdom Independence Party — was looking like a sick joke. The Kingdom was no longer United.

Farage and Johnson could have never imagined that in their moment of triumph that the result would be sliced into tiny pieces by Scotland’s formidable first secretary, Nicola Sturgeon.

Suddenly, the only talk of independence was focussed solely on Scotland’s future in the United Kingdom.

It quickly became apparent that Brexit had achieved much. But none of it could be deemed as being positive. Or in Britain’s national interest for that matter.

The British pound has slumped in value. No-one can claim to know Brexit’s impact on the British and European economies along with those beyond the continent’s shores. There is the likely break-up of the United Kingdom. There has been abuse of migrants from Eastern Europe and the prospect of inter-generational friction between younger voters and the elderly.

Worse, Britain’s two-fingered salute to Paris, Berlin, Rome, Brussels and Europe’s other capitals has given succour to extreme parties on the right peddling variants of the ugly and dangerous brew of ultra-nationalism — the very thing that the architects of a united Europe were trying to eliminate.

Brexit has coincided with those political movements already making strong gains in support on the back of public fears that the tidal wave of economic and other refugees crossing the Mediterranean from Africa and the Middle East will take their jobs, lower wages and increase taxes to fund the extra housing, education, health and other social services that will be required to cope with the sudden influx.

The political casualties of this public panic are the old centre-left and centre-right parties who provided the foundations of the European Union, but who are now paying a price for that.

Those parties largely provided the cement which has made the integration of member nations’ economies possible. The sharp decline in support for those parties, most notably those of the social democratic variety, is bound to weaken the European Union.

Someone else stands to benefit from fracturing of that collective — Russia’s president Vladimir Putin. Having been hit by European sanctions following his military excursions in the Crimea and Ukraine, no doubt the smile on his face is as broad as the one exhibited in public by Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s right-wing National Front following the result of the referendum.

If Johnson did not think through the possible implications of victory for the Leave option, then he is not qualified to be prime minister If he was aware of the possible repercussions, then his silence on those matters shows a bottom-of-the-barrel level of cynicism that likewise disqualifies him from the job.

Those potential implications explain why officials running the European Commission along with MPs in the European Parliament want Britain to exit the European Union as quickly as possible.

They do not want things to drag on.They want to remove the uncertainty surrounding the mechanics of the parting of the ways. They don’t want other member states to catch the British disease.

They have made it crystal clear that Britain will not be allowed to dine a la carte during negotiations on the country’s exit. In other words, Britain cannot expect to get trade-offs and compromises on things that really matter to London.

For example, post-referendum, Johnson’s advisers were floating the notion of not banning completely the free movement of citizens of countries in the European Union by granting work permits to those who had secured a job prior to arriving in Britain while blocking entry to those who were going to Britain merely to look for work.

In return for this supposed concession to European Union rules, Britain would still retain access to the single European market.

The message from a very angry Europe is forget it. You are either in or out.

Euro 2016 Part Three: The Nightmare in Nice

To be a supporter of England’s football team is to be guaranteed a life sentence of disappointment and misery.

Just when you allow yourself the luxury of thinking England might actually reach the latter stages of a major tournament, your optimism is punctured yet again by another abysmal display which culminates once more in embarrassing defeat.

England’s exit from Euro 2016 at the hands of tiny Iceland in their last 16 clash in the Mediteranean city of Nice is not quite as woeful as the national team’s shock 1-0 loss to the United States during the 1950 World Cup. But it comes awfully close.

Where to start? Well, England were unbeaten during the qualifying round for the Euro 2016 finals being hosted by France. England even pulled off a come-from-behind 3-2 win against the might of Germany in a pre-tournament friendly.

But having made the finals, England suffered what can only be described as a crisis of confidence which only deepened as the competition progressed from group play play to the knockout stages.

England’s players have now failed to perform on the big stage with such frequency that its players are obviously now paralysed by the fear of failure. Failure begets failure. It is a vicious circle.

England started the tournament creating plenty of chances in front of goal, but failed to convert them. They ended their sojourn in France struggling to create any decent chances, let alone score, during the crucial second half of the Iceland game.

The statistics tell the story. Four goals in four games was simply not good enough from players earning more than $200,000 a week on their club contactsy.

England manager Roy Hodgson was the ex-England manager within minutes of the final whistle in the Iceland match. His resignation at least saved the trouble of having to sack him.

He made some perplexing decisions during Euro 2016. He kept changing his line-up during the group stage, thereby failing to give his key players the time to combine as an effective and well-drilled unit.

Instead, England’s defence was frail. The midfield was a mess. Its strikers were correspondingly toothless.

Hodgson persisted in picking Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling, who, to be frank, failed to trouble most defences and seemed to lack maturity despite having made frequent appearances at international level.

Sterling’s tournament was summed up by him blasting the ball well over the bar in the match against Wales when it seemed impossible for him not to score.

His overall performance was summarised even better by The Guardian which quipped “the value of Sterling, on the evidence of this, is in decline here as across the rest of the world”.

Hodgson had overly high expectations of Jack Wilshere despite the Arsenal midfielder having barely touched the ball during the last Premier League season after fracturing his ankle, an injury which kept him out of action for many months.

Spurs’ defensive midfielder Eric Dier was one of the few players who looked to be on their game during the group stage. But he was invisible against Iceland and was justifiably replaced at half-time.

Hodgson appeared to have little faith in Jamie Vardy cutting it at this level despite the Leicester City striker possessing the kind of magic form which comes from scoring a swag of goals during the English domestic season.

Hodgson seemed to prefer Spurs’ Harry Kane, who, at the end of the day, simply did not deliver.

Likewise, Wayne Rooney, who was very ordinary and failed to stamp his authority on any of England’s four matches in France.

His Manchester United team-mate, the 18-year-old Marcus Rashford, showed flashes of the raw talent that mark him out as a player to watch. But Hodgson brought him on far too late for him to make any impact in the two appearances he made from the substitutes’ bench.

One could go on. But special mention must be made of Joe Hart.

In England’s first game, the Manchester City goalkeeper gifted Russia an injury-time equaliser, He failed to deal with a cross which ended up being a free header for one of Russia’s advancing defenders. The ball looped over Hart, who was stranded in no-man’s land, and into the goal.

Hart should have been dropped for the next game against Wales during which he made a complete hash of what admittedly was a thunderous shot from a free-kick taken by Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale.

Even that howler was not enough to prompt Hodgson to replace Hart with Southampton’s Fraser Forster.

That proved to be a very costly error of judgement. During England’s nightmare clash with Iceland, Hart muffed his dive in trying to save what was a soft shot. The ball somehow manage to squeeze under his arms and into the goal, giving Iceland a 2-1 lead. England never really recovered from that blow.

Like good wine, some goalkeepers get better with age. Hart does not look like becoming one.
If nothing else, he should never be allowed to pull on an England jersey again for a very long time, if ever.

Euro 2016 Part Two: Are the Azzurri the Dark Horses?

If I was a betting man — which I am, but strictly only on the outcome of major football tournaments plus some Wellington Phoenix games — I would be tempted to put some money on Italy to win Euro 2016.

It is a bit of a stab in the dark. But the TAB currently has the Azzurri — the Italian national team’s longstanding nickname — at $17 for outright victory.

Those may turn out to be rather generous odds, given France and Germany, which are of similar stature to Italy in European football, are paying only $5.00 and $5.25 respectively. The TAB lengthened the odds on Italy taking out the trophy from $11 to $17 after one of the many upsets at the group stage has left that nation with a date with Spain ($6) on Tuesday morning (NZT), with the winner securing a place in the quarter finals. Spain were lacklustre in their final group match, being blitzed by a very good Croatia line-up.

Italy also lost their final group match to Ireland. But having already qualified for the round of 16, they fielded a much-changed team and rested several key players.

Even if they send Spain home early, Italy will likely have to beat France or England, and then probably Germany to make the final. That’s a very tall order.

Italy, however, were very impressive in their first game of Euro 2016, defeating highly-fancied Belgium 2-0 with surprising ease. As the game progressed, Belgium, whose line-up includes the likes of Chelsea’s Eden Hazard, Everton’s Romelu Lukako and Manchester United’s Marouane Fellaini, got more and more frustrated.

The Italians were solid in defence, innovative and enterprising in midfield, and, crucially, looked like an outfit which will not waste any chances that they make.

France ($5) are the bookies’ favourite. As ever, they are an enigma. Their David versus Goliath group match with tiny Albania a 2-0 score line which was mightily over-flattering to the French. They had to wait until the last five minutes of the game before finally hitting the back of the net. The second goal came almost on the final whistle and largely resulted from most of the Albanian team being at the other end of pitch in desperate search for what would have been a very well-deserved equaliser.

In their opening match against Romania, the French played like a team. Against Albania, they had all the cohesion of players had only met each other for the first time the day before the game.

For obvious reasons winning Euro 2016 would be a huge shot in the arm for French national morale. As it is, there is already huge pressure on the team to perform well as host nation.

It may all turn out to be too big a burden to carry.

Germany have been, well, Germany. They looked slightly below par in their group matches. But may have been holding back something special for knock-out stages. We will have a better idea after their match against Slovakia tomorrow morning, the latter having held England ($10) to a goal-less draw in group play.

Of England, we will speak later.

Euro 2016 Part One: The Hand of God?

Few tears will be shed for Cristiano Ronaldo despite Portugal’s Euro 2016 campaign unexpectedly stumbling and possibly even crumbling.

The team should still manage to scuttle through to the knockout stage of the competition with their tales firmly between their legs. But then they “should” have thumped Iceland and Austria, instead of being held to a draw in both matches.

Pre-tournament, Portugal had been tipped as a strong contender when it came to predicting which country would become European champions for the next four years.

That still remains a possibility. In both games, Portugal dominated possession of the ball. Its players created numerous scoring opportunities. Some ended up being near misses on goal; others were squandered.

But the telling statistic is that Ronaldo and company have only scored one goal during the 180 minutes or so that they have been on the pitch. And that goal was not scored by the normally prolific Real Madrid striker

Apart from the running battles between the various tribes of Euro thugs outside football stadiums in host country France’s major cities, Ronaldo’s performance both on off the pitch have been the biggest story so far in Euro 2016.

Portugal’s captain likes to talk about God a lot. And he has God-given talents in abundance. No question. But keeping his mouth shut when it is wiser to say nothing is not one of them.

Instead, wIth his team having been humbled by tiny Iceland, which clung on long enough to force a 1-1 draw, Ronaldo sought retribution post-match.

After the final whistle had blown, he reportedly refused to partake in the usual end-of-match handshakes and exchange of shirts with members of the opposing team. 

He then astonished everyone by rubbishing Iceland for doing little else in the match but “defend, defend and defend”, adding acidly that such tactics were those of a team with a “small mentality” and whose presence contributed nothing to the tournament.

What else did he expect Iceland to do? Did he think that country’s defenders should have rolled over and out of his way so Ronaldo could partake in yet another exercise in self-glorification.

His outburst begged a question: what would he have said had Portugal lost the game?

His  bleating was sparked by more than just a disappointing result. It cut deeper than him simply being a sore loser. The failure to beat a team which is no.34 in FIFA’s world rankings compared to Portugal’s slot at no.8 could not be allowed to be a large blot on the record of someone who has enjoyed so much success.

Ronaldo is a perfectionist who believes he was “born to be the best.” But to become the best also required huge self-motivation which requires impregnable self-confidence.

That can be drained by defeat. So someone else has to take the blame. In this case, it was Iceland. But Iceland was the underdog. You don’t attack underdogs. You instead do all you can to try to convince everyone that you are not taking them lightly. And if they win or draw, you praise them.

But such simple sporting psychology is obviously not part of.Ronaldo’s lexicon.

With an estimated annual salary of more than $50 million — that’s right, you didn’t read that wrong — he is the second highest paid player in European football.

He is also on record as claiming he is the best player of the past 20 years. He is most definitely one of the best. But he is not the one who should be making such judgements.

No surprises then that his vanity and arrogance — the possession of which he contends has been a major factor in his success — have also made him one of the most loathed and detested players in Europe, if not elsewhere.

Iceland’s management initially tried to make fun of Ronaldo’s complete lack of judgement by saying that if they had a small mentality it was because Iceland was a small country.

But the defender charged with marking Ronaldo knew how to get under the maestro’s skin. He simply remarked that Ronaldo would never be as good as Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, who is the highest paid player and thus credited as being the best.

If the huge backlash that he copped from his petulance was not enough to make him think twice before speaking in such fashion ever again, then last Saturday’s fixture with Austria provided even more comeuppance for the Portuguese maestro.

With him and his team becoming ever more frustrated by their inability to score, Ronaldo was up-ended by an Austrian defender late in the game and Portugal was awarded a penalty.

Despite having had a pretty poor record recently with shots from the spot, Ronaldo stepped up to take kick.

But the prior number of near misses by Portugal plus some fine goalkeeping on Austria’s part suggested this was not going to be Ronaldo’snight.

His shot was precise enough,hit hard enough and low enough to give the keeper no chance of saving it even if he had dived the right way.

For a split second, it looked like Ronaldo had restored his penalty-taking reputation of old.

Then,as if by divine intervention, the ball thundered against the bottom of the goal-post and bounced back into play from where it was safely cleared by Austria.

And that was about it.

Portugal has a meagre two points out of a possible six in what was regarded as one of the easiest groups.

Portugal must now beat Hungary to guarantee making the next round. Hungary only needs a draw.

If you compare yourself to a god, you are just a short step from thinking you are God. That Saint Cristiano has fallen on his face over the past week may suggest the hand of God at work — but a very different one famously flourished by Argentina’s Diego Maradona, and someone who would have given Ronaldo the Great a more than decent run for his money.

Shock! Horror! Peace breaks out between Labour and the Greens

To borrow Neil Armstrong’s never-to-be-forgotten dictum: it is one small step for the Greens; it  is one giant leap for the Labour Party.

No doubt some activists in both parties will question whether their respective leaders have made the correct call in signing a ground-breaking co-operation agreement, which initially seemed more sizzle than sausage.

In Labour”s case in particular, there will have been much pondering already within party ranks as to whether that leap is forwards — or backwards.

However, the beaming smiles on the faces of delegates and their sustained applause which greeted Andrew Little’s speech to last weekend’s Green Party AGM spoke for both parties.

The agreement has sent a lightning bolt through the centre-left which has lifted morale to levels not seen since Helen Clark’s heyday. The announcement of the new accord may also have been well-timed.

The centre-left finally seems to be getting its act together just as the third-term National-led Government is showing an increasing inclination to imbibe from the cup containing the fatal cocktail of arrogance,expediency and more than a little incompetence.

The co-operation agreement includes a memorandum of understanding detailing how the agreement will work. It is a pretty innocuous document. It contains the standard “no surprises” and “agree to disagree” clauses; the former to ensure the smooth running of what has at times been a pretty cantankerous relationship, the latter in order for each party to preserve its independence.

The significance of the document resides in its very existence, it took just one week for its tentative and timid contents to be displaced by confirmation that Labour will defintely go into coalition with the Greens if the numbers fall their way on election night next year.

Winston Peters has dismissed the co-operation agreement as “worthless”. But then he would. He stands to be the big loser from the reconciliation occurring to the left of New Zealand First.

Labour and the Greens are sending an unambiguous message to Peters that they will function as coalition partners during any negotiations on government formation following the election.

Peters might not like being in any governing arrangement which includes the Greens. Well, too bad. Peters can take it or leave it. But should there be a swing to the left which is large enough to change the government with the assistance of New Zealand First, then Peters will have to have a darned good reason to block such a change.

What would be the value for him helping to keep an increasingly tired-looking fourth-term National government in power — a government furthermore which would be deprived of John Key’s political magic earlier rather than later in the next parliamentary term as the current Prime Minister more than likely quits domestic politics for challenges afresh.

If Peters was still refusing to be in formal coalition with the Greens, he could reach an agreement with Labour which resulted in New Zealand First being part of an overall governing arrangement which meant Labour alone handled relations with Peters.

That model was first used by Clark in 2005 when she set up a minority government which had Peters’ backing on confidence motions, but which still allowed New Zealand First to hold ministerial portfolios despite not being a component party in that minority government.

That model has not been tested in circumstances where the major party has to satisfy two other parties holding a respectable number of seats. That might be far trickier. There would only be a set number of portfolios to distribute. Labour would have to give priority to the Greens. While Labour would ensure Peters’ personal wishes were accommodated, his party colleagues might find jobs for them being scarce in number and desirability.

Alternatively, New Zealand First could sit on Parliament’s cross-benches to preserve a high degree of independence or even abstain on confidence motions and Budget matters in order to appear even more non-aligned. Assuming the next election will be Peters’ swan song, confining himself to the cross-benches would be a less than satisfying way to complete his long career in politics.

What is not in doubt — as political scientist Jon Johansson aptly put it — is that Labour and the Greens have walked through a door together. That door has slammed shut behind them. There is no turning back. But there is no danger of that happening. Instead, there has been seemingly unstoppable rush forward, as if the two parties feel a need to make up for the wasted years of Opposition.

In the week or so since the agreement was signed in Parliament’s old Legislative Council chamber, Little’s public stance on the co-operation agreement has shifted markedly. Initially, the Labour leader declared his party’s new relationship would not necessarily be “monogamous” — an implied reference to the likely need for Labour to reach some kind of accommodation with New Zealand First to be able to govern.

Little was also non-committal about what status and role the Greens would have in post-election negotiations.

However, hIs speech to the Greens’ AGM removed any doubts that the two parties would be coalition partners. By this week, he was going as far as confirming there will be Green ministers in any Cabinet he forms.

All of that is predicated on Labour’s and the Greens’ combined share of the vote matching or coming close to National’s. With National still riding high on 48 per cent against Labour on 29 per cent and the Greens on 12 per cent, Tuesday’s One News-Colmar Brunton poll suggested it was very much business as usual despite the Labour-Greens pact.

But closing that gap is not insurmountable. Interestingly, the polling period straddled the announcement of the agreement. When those polled after the announcement are taken in isolation from the overall result, support for Labour jumped by 5 percentage points from the pre-announcement level of 26 per cent to 31per cent. New Zealand First slid from 11 per cent to just 7 percent. National rose slightly, while the Greens slipped slightly. But only the Labour and New Zealand changes were deemed as being statistically significant.

It is easy to read too much into this poll. But it might ease the fears of those Labour MPs who consider the co-operation accord to be an open invitation to the Greens to pillage Labour’s core support.

The likelihood of that happening is overstated. The Greens failed to lift their share of the overall vote at the last election despite the plunge in support for Labour. With the polls showing backing for the Greens remaining static, the party’s always fanciful dream of supplanting Labour as the major party on the centre-left is no longer even on the back-burner.

Likewise the oft talked about notion of moving far closer to the centre so that the party could partner National instead of always being hostage to Labour’s fortunes. The Greens’ adherence to principles of social justice are as strong as its environmental ethic. Propping up a minority National administration would have torn the Greens asunder.

But absolute adherence to principle has come at an increasing practical cost.

Despite having been in Parliament for close to two decades, the party has little to show for it in terms of concrete achievements. Having been in Opposition throughout that time, the Greens are now hungry for power — very, very hungry. But before they could even dare to hope of getting their feet under the Cabinet table alongside Labour’s, the latter party has had to be taught a couple of expensive lessons.

The first is that regardless of what kind of deal that the two parties might or might not strike with Peters after the coming election, Labour and the Greens need to project themselves as a viable “government in waiting”.

Voters need to have some idea of what a Labour-Greens administration would resemble and what its priorities would be.

The second lesson is that allowing Peters to continue to play divide-and-rule with the parties on the centre-left through his refusal to have any truck with the Greens is a fast route to nowhere.

Labour now realizes that the party’s tactics prior to the 2014 election were counter-productive to say the least.

David Cunliffe, the then Labour leader, engaged in the ultimate exercise in futility —trying to woo Peters ahead of election day in the vain hope the New Zealand First leader would smile more kindly on Labour should he become the kingmaker in post-election coalition talks.

Knowing Peters would have no truck with the Greens, Cunlffe believed he could shut them out of a governing arrangement which included New Zealand First.

And with good reason.  The Greens would have had little choice but to support a Labour-New Zealand First minority government, at least on confidence motions. Not to do so would have resulted in that government collapsing and likely replaced by something much worse in the Greens’ world view — a resurrected National-led administration.

To avert such a scenario, the Greens offered their supposed ally a similar non-aggression pact to the one in place now. But Cunliffe rebuffed the approach. That was a major strategic gaffe. He had the good grace to later admit he had made a mistake in rejecting the Greens’ offer.

It also may have been wiser had the Greens kept the lid on the whole deal until it was signed and sealed. Both parties desperately needed to convince voters they could work together.They instead did the opposite.

The centre-right parties, meanwhile, had been providing ample evidence of their capacity to provide stable government.

The awful atmospherics generated by Labour’s offhand treatment of the Greens and the latter party’s tendency to play holier than thou games of one-upmanship to taunt Labour for making compromises over some policy matters are gone.

They have been replaced over the past week or so by the intoxicating power of something unique to the political left. That something is solidarity.

The memorandum of understanding is accordingly being widely hailed as “historic”. The two parties have previously worked together in a piecemeal fashion on matters of mutual interest, such as opposing privatisation and holding an inquiry into the future of domestic manufacturing in a global economy.

Back in 2006 when Labour was in power, a very different and constitutionally questionable co-operation agreement allowed Jeanette Fitzsimmons and Sue Bradford to be in charge of a couple of minor government programmes despite the two Green MPs strictly being in Opposition.

In return, Labour received assurances from the Greens that if necessary, they would back Helen Clark’s minority government on confidence and supply motions.

It was Clark’s insurance to cover any walk out by New Zealand First from the governing arrangement she had cobbled together with Peters

The latest agreement will be historic if it works for both parties. The initial flush of enthusiasm must be followed up with some adroit positioning on some matters so that their combined impact is far more than the simple sum of their parts.

That is currently the case with the Opposition blitzkrieg on National which is being slowly throttled by the multi-headed hydra that is the Auckland housing crisis.

The shortage of affordable homes to rent or buy has exposed chronic levels of social deprivation. The centre-left parties are discerning a shift in the public mood which will increasingly put Labour and the Greens much more in sync with middle New Zealand on an issue which may well be at the heart of next next year’s election — whether forecast Budget surpluses should be used to fund tax cuts or be shoveled into addressing the deficits in the country’s social and economic infrastructure.

There will be matters where either party will still be able to speak its mind — the Greens, for example, on climate change.

But it is also contingent on the Greens to illustrate the policy areas where they are willing to make significant compromises. The level of defence spending and the type of military hardware purchased is an obvious example.

It is of major significance that the Greens have acknowledged that the two most powerful positions in any government — that of prime minister and finance minister — will be in Labour’s hands.

But the big question remains: what exactly will Labour get out of its new agreement with the Greens? To provide an answer may require asking what will happen if the two parties failed to co-operate. Labour will be acutely conscious that they risk catching — or may have already caught — the same crippling disease which is afflicting other like-minded social democratic parties elsewhere, especially in Europe.

Those parties’ problems have a familiar ring. They are finding environmental lobbies being turned into political movements on their left while parties led by populist figures are similarly squeezing them on their right.

They are struggling to find ways of making themselves relevant when more traditional parties have adopted more middle-of-the-road policies —just as John Key has — and rebranded themselves under the banner of ” caring conservatism”.

Like Labour in New Zealand, the share of the vote enjoyed by those social democratic has plummeted. The question is whether that drop in support is cyclical or permanent.

Labour cannot afford to hang around to find out. Little and his Labour colleagues are punting that the size of the Green vote has reached its zenith. But that is a big punt.

Some voters may well opt for the Greens if that only affects the shape of the coalition rather than stopping it from happening.

If Labour and the Greens look like they could change the government,then middle-ground voters who previously backed National might switch to Labour in order to reduce the leverage that the Greens would have in a centre-left coalition.

Or so Labour would hope. The imponderables are many. But nothing will stop National from endlessly repeating that accommodating the Greens will inevitably pull Labour to the left.

In that regard, there is a risk that MPs on the left of the Labour caucus try to exploit the presence of similarly-minded Green MPs to try to get the Labour leadership to adopt radical policies.

That would only provide more sustenance to those who argue that Labour has yet to offer compelling reasons why centre-ground voters who have yet to be given a should be bothered to get back in touch with Labour.

Little needs to make far greater endeavour to trump Key in that centre-ground and, if possible, surprise National’s leadèr by taking positions on issues which outflank Key on his right.

Little has done that on immigration. That has drawn criticism. He should ignore it. He may not feel comfortable in doing so. But Labour lost the 2008 election for the perceived crime of exhibiting too much political correctness. Little should leave the market for namby-pambyism to the Greens.

His task is to pull votes away from New Zealand First and National. That means — as Key has shown in abundance — walking the talk of what is by and largely conservative-minded middle New Zealand. But can he?

Home is where the heart is

Way back in 1966, the BBC in Britain screened a television play entitled Cathy Come Home. 

n what these days would be termed a docudrama, it told the distressing story of a young working class family ripped apart by homelessness.

It was fictional. But what has been described as its “gritty realism” shocked most of the estimated 12 million viewers who watched the first of many screenings.

It portrayed a much darker side of life in Britain in the so-called “swinging sixties”; one in which people could fall through gaping holes in the supposed safety net of the welfare state through no fault of their own.

It will come as no great surprise to those acquainted with his films that Cathy Come Home was directed by Ken Loach, someone who wears his left-wing politics as a badge of pride.

But in the case of Cathy Come Home, Loach’s politics were irrelevant. The work still ranks in most television critics’ minds as one of the most influential productions in television history.

Its impact was so profound that the story goes that the actor who played the role of the mother would be stopped in the street by strangers who would hand her money. That was in large part because of the mother’s fate in losing her children who were placed into state care in the drama’s harrowing finale.

Over the last couple of weeks or so, New Zealand has played out its own version of Cathy Come Home.

The blight of child poverty has bubbled away for some time as a political issue. National thought it had contained it, most notably by stealing a march on Labour by increasing benefit rates for the first time in literally decades.

But the extra $25 a week for beneficiary families, which came into effect last month, has so far paid little by way of a political dividend.

National instead has been the proverbial stunned mullet in struggling to put an end to the seemingly never-ending media exposure of the numbers of people living in cars, garages and (and if they are lucky) chronically overcrowded houses.

John Key and his ministers continue to argue there is no crisis. In doing so, they only succeed in appearing to be in denial. However, yesterday’s surprise announcement on the eve-of Budget day of a new scheme which dangles the carrot of a $5000 grant to entice state house tenants and the homeless to leave Auckland and go and live in the regions indicated a degree of panic seeping out of the Beehive..

It is a sticking plaster-like solution to a byproduct of the complexities of the Auckland housing crisis, more exactly the shortage of affordable homes for low-income earners to either buy or rent.

National has become trapped in its own dogma. Like some kind of mad scientist, Bill English is still conducting his experiment of trying to create a market whereby privately-owned or run housing organisations would compete against one another to be providers of what is now termed as “social housing”.

Such an ideology-driven reform has required the run down of the existing state provider, Housing New Zealand,. This is in order to ensure the corporation’s current dominance in the provision of housing for beneficiaries does not translate into market-distorting monopoly.

English’s Treasury-backed scheme has taken the best part of six years to reach even the pilot stage. That time-lag in itself suggests the notion  of creating a social housing market for those at the very bottom of the economic heap is fundamentally flawed and impossible implement unless you subsidise private providers to enter the market by handing them Housing New Zealand stock at knockdown prices.

Such twisted logic is compounding homelessness because the demolition of Housing New Zealand is already under way without the market alternative being in place. Little wonder people are falling through the cracks.

Making what may well turn out to be the most politically foolish statement by a politician this year, Building and Housing Minister Nick Smith argued that the idea that homelessness had suddenly happened in May 2016 was a “figment of some people’s imagination.” In other words, the poor have always been with us.

But if the answer to housing the homeless is the latter ending up thousands of dollars in debt to Work and Income for money loaned to them to stay in motels, then it must be a rather stupid question. It is the stuff of Kafka.

That there is a new category of the poor who are victims of circumstances far beyond their control and who cannot be dismissed as welfare bludgers is something which will disturb fair-minded New Zealanders, whatever their politics.

What is most puzzling is why an administration that takes an “investment” approach to social policy by targeting problem  families at an early stage in the hope of saving money in the longer term on things like prisons and mental health units,, is making it ever more difficult for such families to get access to the most fundamental driver in improving social outcomes. That driver is decent housing.

Regardless, parents and their children living in cars fits no-one’s vision of what is acceptable in what is supposed to be God’s. Own country.

The “Kiwi Dream” may have become a cliche. But the belief that everyone should be given a fair go remains embedded deeply in the nation’s consciousness. 

In  failing to acknowledge that homelessness has reached crisis levels, National risks being seen as ignoring that national trait.

Today’s Budget will provide the measure of whether National is losing its heart along with its head.

The Key Doctrine: Confuse in order to Defuse

So the Prime Minister got booted out of Parliament last week. Well, big deal. The only surprise is that John Key had not been turfed out of the chamber before now.

Speakers are reluctant, however, to eject prime ministers for bad behaviour during question-time because that only punishes Opposition parties whose job it is to hold him or her to account.

There’s no show without Punch.

Key tends to push the boundaries and tries to land as many verbal jabs — many of them not relevant to the question at hand — on his opponents as he can before the Speaker calls time and interrupts him. Sometimes Key carries on regardless.

David Carter finally lost his patience last Wednesday. Having issued repeated warnings which Key ignored, Carter ordered Key to leave for failing to “resume his seat” when the Speaker was on his feet.

Labour tried to argue that the Prime Minister had simply lost the plot. But Key never loses the plot — especially when he knew very well that he was going to get another barrage of questions from Opposition parties on the Panama Papers, the handling of which has not seen National covering itself in glory.

Others have suggested Key deliberately got himself thrown out; that it was a stunt for the benefit of the television cameras. If so, it was something a prime minister can only do once. Were it to become a habit, he or she would stand accused of running scared of the Opposition.

Key, however, did not need to create a distraction. He had already produced one by dragging Greenpeace, Amnesty International and the Red Cross into the argument over whether the latest batch of the Panama Papers further underlined the Government’s embarrassing failure to tighten the disclosure requirements of foreign trusts, ministers having ignored Inland Revenue advice to do so following lobbying from the small number of New Zealand companies engaged in the lucrative business of setting up such trusts for the benefit of overseas entries.

The papers showed that while Key has repeatedly insisted that New Zealand is not a tax haven, the country is making a very good impression of being one.

Trying to defend the indefensible, Key has continued to argue that everything is hunky dory with regard to the existing law and regulations covering foreign trusts, while at the same time giving assurances that if the official inquiry being conducted by tax specialist John Shewan found fault with the existing regime, the Government would look seriously look at any recommendations he might make for change.

With Key taking shelter under an inquiry which initially he had been extremely most reluctant to establish, the Prime Minister found himself on the receiving end of a very relevant and highly potent question from Greens co-leader James Shaw ,which showed just how weak was Key’s assertion that New Zealand did not fit the definition of a tax haven. Shaw wondered that if  New Zealand was not a tax haven, why would Mossack Fonseca—a company for whom tax avoidance by its own admission comprised 95 per cent of its business —urge its clients to use New Zealand’s foreign trust and company structures.

But Key had something up his sleeve. He replied that there were quite legitimate reasons why people had a foreign trust. He then made the startling suggestion that Shaw ring Greenpeace, Amnesty International and the Red Cross “because they are implicated in the papers”.

The notion that any of those organisations have dodgy trusts secretly hidden in tax havens is preposterous. Their good names have simply been hijacked by other entities setting up such trusts for possibly nefarious purposes.

It is a political maxim, however, that if you can define what the debate is about you are halfway to winning it. Key is a master when it comes to shifting the focus of an argument. Moreover, he is not that fussed about what means he employs to do just that.

This modus operandi has previously been described by Grant Robertson, one of Labour’s senior MPs, as a strategy of “distract, divert and diffuse”, the latter word meaning to spread the blame for something going wrong as widely as possible.

Labour has other “d” words to describe Key’s methodology for averting or stemming political trouble — words like deny, deflect, denigrate and demean.

Key’s confuse-to-defuse tactics were most visible in his accusation last November that Labour was backing “murderers, rapists and child molesters” by supporting New Zealand detainees in Australia’s Christmas Island detention centre.

This highly provocative assertion  — made in Parliament — sparked a mass walkout by Labour MPs. Key would have been confident that both major television channels’ coverage on that night’s news bulletins would focus on the parliamentary fracas, rather than on the real story — the Government’s feeble response to Australia’s outrageous, unjust and cruel decision to deport New Zealand citizens with criminal records even though they may have lived most of their lives in Australia.

Last week’s events had Andrew Little accusing Key of being up to his “old tricks”. The Labour leader acknowledged the Prime Minister had tried to divert attention away from his support for the “grubby foreign trust tax-dodging industry”. But this time — Little claimed — Key had failed to do so.

That is arguable. Both Little and Shaw ended up going some way down Key’s diversionary path to nowhere. When Parliament met on Wednesday, both leaders demanded that the Prime Minister apologise to the three organisations which he had implied had foreign trusts.

But Key’s story had changed overnight. He was now saying that what had happened to the likes of Greenpeace was an example of how the names of innocent New Zealanders had been sullied by them having unwittingly ended up on the Panama Papers database.

Ipso facto, the database should be “taken with a grain of salt”.

As it was, by mid-week, the release of that database had not proved to be quite the treasure trove that Opposition parties had been expecting. The story would have kept running if the names of many more prominent New Zealanders had been on the database. That would have provided the local angle that more and more drives New Zealand  media coverage of international events more and more.

 Instead, the story was fizzing out, thus seemingly giving more credence to Key’s assertion that the Panama Papers amounted to “incrimination by insinuation”.

The real story in the papers, is how foreigners are using New Zealand’s lax regime to avoid or evade paying tax in their home countries.

The focus will now shift to the findings of the Shewan inquiry which is due to report by the end of next month. His appointment was not free of controversy.

Whatever his findings, his report will be a political football that is going to get a lot of kicking. No pressure, Mr Shewan.

As for apologies, Key finally made one on the last day of Parliament last year for his “murderers, rapists and child molesters” outburst. Greenpeace, should not hold its breath in anticipation of likewise getting an expression of sorrow from the Prime Minister.

Jungle Boy boxes Foxes

 

No-one would want to rain on Leicester City’s parade.

RMAnd what a parade it was. One British national newspaper described the cacophony which greeted the team members as they made their way to a local Italian restaurant for a celebratory lunch as being akin to Jesus’ triumphant ride into Jerusalem.

But elsewhere not everyone is quiteh so willing to applaud the Foxes for having pulled off what was widely thought to be impossible.

Leicester’s fairytale season made a mockery of the notion that an unfashionable club without much money (relatively speaking) would never again become champions of the English Premier League.

Ray Crawford is one person who certainly doesn’t think Leicester has done something unique. Ray who? Well, once Leicester had been confirmed as Premier League champions, Crawford would have been one of the first people contacted by the sports desk at the Ipswich-based East Anglian Daily Times.

The reason? The 79-year-old Crawford was a member of the Ipswich Town team which sent shockwaves through English football by winning the First Division title back in 1962 — the equivalent of what Leicester has achieved in the Premier League this season.

Crawford thus has grounds to question the hyperbole which has gushed from the media and elsewhere in the week since Leicester’s triumph. Crawford told the newspaper he and his team mates were even bigger underdogs than the current Leicester side.

Well, he would say that, woudn’t he? Unlike Leicester, however, Ipswich had the added kudos of winning the title in the club’s first season in the top flight, having been promoted from the old Second Division the previous season.

No-one in the team had played at international level. Like Leicester, Ipswich were considered to be a collection of nobodies and a prime candidate for relegation straight back to where they had come from.

So much for the pundits. Ipswich began the season in August with a draw and two losses. The team then defied expectations and won the next five games. There was another purple patch during November, with Ipswich beating Tottenham Hotspur, the previous season’s champions, along with Manchester United and Chelsea. By February, Ipswich was in second place behind Burnley, whom were eventually overhauled, making Ipswich the new champions.

The person who was most responsible for this unexpected success was Ipswich’s manager, none other than Alf Ramsay, the man who would earn the everlasting thanks of his nation four years later when England, under his stewardship, won the World Cup for the first and so far only time.

Ramsey’s England team came to be called the “wingless wonders”. In those days, wingers were supposed to patrol the touch line and draw marking full-backs out wide before crossing the ball to the team’s centre-forward who would rise above the opponents’ centre-half and head the ball past the goalkeeper and into the net.

Ramsay pulled his wingers back into a deeper position which made them more like midfielders than forwards.This tactic had its genesis at Ipswich.

It confused opponents’ defenders. Ipswich’s strikers — Crawford and Ted Phillips — scored 61 goals between them. With a total of 33, Crawford, who was nicknamed “Jungle Boy” by the team’s fans because he served briefly with the British army in Malaya,was the division’s top equal goal scorer.

In contrast, Leicester hero Jamie Vardy has hit the back of the net 24 times this season, but from fewer appearances.

Both clubs benefitted hugely from some of their heavyweight competitors, like Chelsea  and Manchester United, being out of form and having poor or patchy seasons.

For all his success on the pitch, however,Crawford was paid the princely sum of £30 a week — which is equivalent to about $1000 in today’s money. In contrast, Chelsea’s best players who are on three-year contracts now get from between £140,00 to £185,000 a week.

The scale of such rpayments highlights the crucial difference between Leicester’s and Ipswich’s respective achievements. A handful of clubs are now awash with cash partly thanks to having (usually foreign) multi-millionaire owners. The playing squads of those top Premier League sides squads are stacked with some of the world’s best players, including internationals from Argentina, Brazil, Spain and African countries, such as Nigeria, Senegal and Cameroon. Those squads have a vast depth of talent to insure the club as much as possible is not affected detrimentally by injuries or a hectic schedule of matches. Back in 1962, there were few foreign players on the books of English clubs.

The ever-widening of the gap in the wealth between an elite few clubs and the rest makes unfancied Leicester’s winning of the Premier League more of an achievement than Ipswich coming out on top of the First Division back in 1962. But not by that much.

Ipswich slipped to 17th place in the next season and were relegated to the Second Division in the following one.

Leicester’ fans should make the most of things while they can. Next season will come around soon enough. Rumours have swirled for months that the big clubs have been sniffing around Vardy and Leicester’s other star players. Some of those are bound to be lured away by big money offers. It may sound depressing, but the brutal truth is that life at the top for such clubs is always  brief  and they have to transform themselves into outfits which are hard to beat if they are to survive in 7the Premier League.

  • As  f at as upsets in a single match go, the United States1-0 victory over England in the 1950 Worldh Cup in Brazil was of real David and Goliath proportions. The American team was comprised of unknown semi-professionals and amateurs, including the driver of a hearse. An England victory was considered to be a formality. So much so that when the result was telegraphed to the world’s newspapers, many assumed that the operator had meant to type 10-1 in England’s favour. The New York Times delayed publication of the shock outcome of the match because it thought it was a hoax.