Thursday, 16 December 2010

Andy Brassell

Top Brass

It wasn't all fine wines and canopies at last nights NOPA awards. In between hobnobbing with Barry Glendenning, the chaps from the Football Ramble, Zonal Marking, Swiss Ramble and virtually all of Twitter, I managed to grab a few words with European football freelancer, Andy Brassell.

Since you ask, European Football Weekends went home with 66% of the trophy for best blog during the aforementioned ceremony. The other 33% of the award currently resides under the floorboards of Hoxton Hall. After Glendenning and Luke Moore from the Football Ramble had brought the house down with a plethora of funnies, I shuffled up to the stage, mumbled something about Qatar, and back down again to be met by bear hugs from the equally shocked Cynical Dave and Mr Fuller from the Ball is Round. In the ensuing melee, the award was knocked to the floor, and the glass globe rolled comically along the ground and into a hole never to be seen again.

Anyway, back to the issue in hand. Andy Brassell is a bit of hero of mine, not least for his unrivalled knowledge on European football. So it was about time we dragged him on to these pages to share some of his pearls of wisdom:

We're fairly partial to a European Football Weekend on this site, and boy, you've been to a few. Which city would you recommend as the perfect EFW destination? It has to be Marseille's Stade Vélodrome. Football is a central part of the city's personality and that really comes across. It's a rough and ready town, and they're so passionate. The Vieux Port is great for going out, a really lively hub, and it's not expensive to get tickets. The noise is extraordinary in the stadium, and not just for the big games. I was speaking to Habib Beye about it recently and he was pointing out how noisy it must have been before the roof was removed in the renovations for World Cup 98, given what it's like now. It's one of those rare stadiums where the atmosphere comes across really strongly on TV too, and quite a few people tweeted me after the Chelsea game saying how great it looked and would I recommend a trip there.

Athletic Bilbao's San Mames has to get a mention as well. I've been to around 15 grounds in Spain but nowhere else in the country has an atmosphere like it. A fair bit of that comes from the pride of the Basque people of course, but the stadium's always almost full, the stands are nice and tight to the pitch and the fans are noisy, despite there being lots of women and children, as opposed to that typically English demographic of all blokes between 10 and 65. You can make a good weekend of it with mates; bus it to Mundaka, about 45 minutes away on the bus, which is one of the prime surfing spots in Europe. An Aussie guy runs a shop hiring gear and giving lessons, and for history buffs, you go through Guernica on the way.

You spent a couple of seasons watching Lyon. Where does their match with St Etienne rate in the great derbies of Europe? It doesn't have the extent of historical context as, say, the Old Firm, but its newness is what gives it its edge. St Etienne's chairman from their glory years in the 1970s, Roger Rocher, once famously said that "in football, St Etienne will always be the city and Lyon the suburbs", as opposed to the other way round as the cities themselves are, but that's all changed since then. St Etienne are really sore about a nouveau riche club (as they see it) that doesn't have a smidgeon of their history lording it over them, whereas older generations of Lyon fans love getting their own back on the golden boys of the '70s who laughed at them as small fry.

The April 2006 derby at the Gerland (Lyon's home ground) marked the first home game since Lyon had won the title that season and they showboated to a quite ridiculous extent, dyeing their hair in the club colours and celebrating the goals (they belted Sainté 4-0 that day) extremely ostentatiously, running to the corner flag and letting off streamers and the like. St Etienne are still fuming over that one and it shows the mutual enmity there.

You are a regular down at AFC Wimbledon. How far can they climb up the leagues and are they any close to a dream move back to Merton? I always said from the start that I'd be happy with being in the fourth tier for forever and a day, and not much has changed there. The size of the club means much higher isn't realistic, and you could argue that Wimbledon punching above their weight was what left the club so vulnerable to opportunists in the first place. The Conference is great fun and having long-distance away games again is great, but ideologically getting back into the Football League is important. Our league place was stolen from us and to get it back is the major thing.

Merton is a tricky one. I really want to believe it's possible, though I'm not prepared to cede supporter control for that to happen; we've been down that road before. What concerns me a little is that supporters younger than me, who never saw Wimbledon play at Plough Lane (they left when I was 13), don't feel the pull of the area as keenly as the older ones, and fans who've started following in the AFCW years won't get it at all. It's always been a waiting game and will be for a while yet. It's much more important than relentless on-pitch success to me, but I accept that others don't feel the same way.

Any other clubs tickle the Brassell fancy aside from AFC Wimbledon and Lyon? I have admiration for a lot of clubs - I'm a lover, not a hater, Dan - but I can't help but have a bit of affection for Valencia. Great city, great stadium with tons of character, and their bat mascot has to be seen to be believed. It's like something from Hitchcock on acid. I bought a small replica, whom I named Joaquin, and after I flippantly mentioned having a pet bat in some potted bio that I dashed off, rumours about me being some sort of European football Ray Reardon spread like wildfire.

I've read All or Nothing: A season in the Champions League by Andy Brassell a couple of times now. That must have been huge fun to put together? Blimey, that's more than my wife's read it! It really was. The idea struck me when I'd already started doing the research; that I could do some sort of rolling travel narrative of the season as I was getting about to these places, so I just went with it. It would have been a heck of a lot harder but a lot of great people showed real kindness and gave me some brilliant help along the way - the likes of Phil Ball, Xavier Rivoire, Guillem Balague and Sid Lowe.

When I was a kid, I lapped any bits to do with European football as they were so few and far between, especially with the Heysel ban. If I saw a snippet of a team on TV or in the newspaper, I always used to run and fetch the atlas and look up where I might find Lech Poznan or Red Star Belgrade. I never could have imagined going to half of these places (I think I went on an aeroplane twice before I was 18) so it was something for nine-year-old me as much as it was adult me.

To pen the book, you travelled 20,000 miles, through 8 countries in 18 different stadiums. Just like heaven. Which was the best and worst of those 18 (eighteen) different stadiums? So many fall into the best category. The Vélodrome was the first one on the list and (as mentioned above) that's pretty special, but then you have the European night atmosphere at Celtic Park, the biggest standing terrace in Europe in Borussia Dortmund's Sudtribhune, Deportivo La Coruña's Riazor right next to the sea on the end of the beach...the list is endless.

I'm not sure I'd go as far as 'worst' for any of the stadiums; I genuinely enjoyed every one. Although I did briefly question my vocation in Moscow, sat on the coach's bench the day before the match in a minus 15 February watching the Monaco team do light training. Though any chill was alleviated at the match by one of my mates texting me "Alright mate. Looks a bit cold there." Do you think so?

Are there any plans afoot for another book? There's always a few irons in the fire. The difference now is that I have to think about the dreaded 'sell' to make it worthwhile time-wise, whereas for the last one I just did what I wanted. I'm busy enough that it's hard to find the time to sit down and write a coherent draft too.

There will definitely be another one along at some point though. The actual writing (as opposed to researching) of 'All Or Nothing' took ages and for a long time the thought of doing another book made me want to throw. I'm over that now though! The feeling of satisfaction when you've got the first copy in your hands makes it all worth it. As you'll find out. So when's yours out, then?

It may be all singing, all dancing as far as UEFA are concerned. But the early rounds of the Champions League can be a bit dull can't they? You could say that for a lot of cup competitions, really. It's natural that a competition should get more exciting as it goes on and gets to the latter stages. As far as the first half of the Champions League goes the organisers can't win; you either have competitive groups with the same old names, or reorganised qualifiers that give lesser lights their chance but ultimately end up serving up the likes of Zilina as cannon fodder for Chelsea and company.

If, as would be utopia for many, it reverted to the old European Cup straight knockout, the stakes would be so high in every tie nowadays that I couldn't see it producing much other than very cagey, negative football, with both teams scared to make the mistake that would finish a large part of their season.

Richard Keys and company will continue to have kittens when AC Milan draw Chelsea, but is the increasingly regularity of those games decreasing the value of the Champions League? In other words, are they still special? Just about. The problem is the competition has to hit such a fine balance between what's befitting the history of the cup as the very pinnacle of European football and what makes the big boys the most money - because if the second clause isn't fulfilled, then the giant clubs will just break off and form their own European Super League. Obviously the upshot of that would be even more of the biggest clubs playing each other all the time, and the domestic leagues' worth drastically decreasing.

The other point to note is that the same clubs often dominated in cycles in the European Cup days - Real Madrid won the first five, Benfica were in four of the next five finals, Ajax and Bayern both won three in a row in the '70s. It's just we're more conscious of repetition now because this is the first generation where we have all of the live matches at our fingertips, so we naturally have less patience and get bored more quickly.

The Europa League is a long draw out competition which very few people give a rats arse about and should revert back to a straight knock out competition to generate interest. Discuss. Again, a tricky one. People were complaining about the UEFA Cup being worthless for ages, and the same people jumped on the new format and ripped it to shreds within weeks of it starting. It's only in its second season now, so to write the new format off already seems very premature to me.

In the medium/long term, I'm hopeful that the format will help bridge the gap with the Champions League, which is definitely something that needs to happen. That a club as rich as Shakhtar Donetsk has taken this long to qualify for the last 16 of the Champions League shows how important that prep is, and hopefully it'll lead to both competitions being even more competitive.

You're an expert in, amongst many other things, Spanish and Portuguese football. Where did their World Cup bid go wrong? Even given the view of the rather murky bidding process, the talk of collusion between the bid and Qatar didn't do them any favours. The fact that the bid leaders didn't get after this as a major PR issue betrayed a certain arrogance, but the bid team didn't have too much public confidence anyway. The FPF (Portuguese FA) have had their hands full dealing with the Carlos Queiroz situation in the World Cup, and there's a strong body of public opinion that president Gilberto Madail should have gone after that.

The fact that the two countries are on their uppers economically can't have helped either. Even bearing in mind that the facilities are already good in both, it's hard to escape the feeling that improvements in infrastructure, security etc would have placed an intolerable burden on the public purse. Some things, like health and education, are simply more important than football, and most football fans realise that. Especially in Portugal, where public cash went on white elephants like the stadiums in Leiria and Coimbra for Euro 2004, many feel that the bid missing out is actually best for both countries.

Qatar was the natural choice as a venue for the 2022 World Cup was it not? The tradition factor isn't something that bothers me that much. It's what seems to be the horribly vague attitude to the bid's shortcomings and supporters' comfort that gets me. The idea that air conditioning is the solution to all the climatic problems is simply laughable. Remember Ricky Hatton's performance against Juan Arango in his first fight out in Vegas? He got a stinking cold from the air-con, and anyone who's worked or lived in it constantly knows how hard it can be on the nose and throat.

Of course, this doesn't cover the other 21 hours of the day that the fans won't be in the stadium either. That we're already hearing talk of moving it to winter shows how little attention was paid to whether the logistics of the bid. It's not even going to leave a legacy there, with the stadiums being dismantled and shipped off. For me, the idea that we'll be going into the most ecologically unfriendly sports tournament of all time over a decade from now is negligent beyond belief.

Did it bother you that England spent millions of pounds to secure just two votes in their 2018 bid? I'm probably not the person to ask. I always thought the FA should have spent on youth development rather than doing up Wembley. The best thing about the construction phase was when England were 'on tour', around Old Trafford, St James's Park, St Mary's etc. There are huge swathes of English football's heartlands that deserve the opportunity to host the national team, and I think I'd feel pretty pissed off if was from the north-west, or north-east, and had to get down to an obscure part of north-west London to see England all the time. Of course if Wembley hadn't been constructed, it may well have been that all big qualifiers would just default to Old Trafford, but the plan is a good one in principle at least.

Going back to the 2018 bid, I accept that you have to speculate to accumulate in this situation; that's simply part of any bidding process. What I found a far more upsetting prospect is the FIFA standard of them not being charged tax on any World Cup profit. It's nothing new, but something that I find very hard to stomach. Who do they think they are? They won't accept political interference but they can interfere with politics? I'm glad that didn't happen to us, however much I would have liked to see the tournament here.

Who is to blame for their failings in bringing football home? The idea that the media should have kept schtum about FIFA throughout the bid process is absolutely ludicrous, as is the suggestion that Panorama or the Sunday Times broke the bid; it's their right and responsibility to do as they did. That the British media is nosy is no news to anybody, and the idea that FIFA was blissfully unaware of this before is simply untrue. It's unlikely that they would have wanted the extra scrutiny of their activities for the next seven years or so that would have gone hand in hand with it being on English soil.

Clearly the voting procedure is fundamentally flawed, though why this couldn't have been addressed before now, especially by a football market as strong, influential and lucrative as England's, is a mystery to me. But the bid team glad-handing, withdrawing complaints about Russia's comments, and disassociating themselves for the media only to turn around and cry foul afterwards takes the edge off what are mainly legitimate complaints about transparency and procedure.

The World Football phone-in with Tim Vickery has a large following, and is a tremendous listen. Would you like to see that brought forward in the 5 Live scheduling, 8-10pm on a Thursday night for example? Thanks! The creation of a podcast has really made it blow up (as Jay-Z or Kanye might say), which is great and something I'm grateful for, but it does make people forget sometimes that its context is that of a late-night show. Much as getting to bed at a more civilised hour has its attractions, the timetabling gives us the chance to not have to be so mainstream, wander off topic in whichever way suits and create a more intimate setting with the listeners - all things that give the show its charm.

Which players are currently catching the Brass eye that we may not have heard about? I'd heartily recommend watching Alexandre Lacazette. Yes, he plays for Lyon, but his career highlight thus far is probably scoring the winner for France versus Spain in the summer's European Under-19 Championship final. That was on the Friday, he got up at the crack of dawn on Saturday, made it to London where Lyon were playing in the Emirates Cup and made his first two first-team appearances on Saturday and Sunday to make it three games in three days! Jumpers for goalposts! He's quick, intelligent and a tidy finisher too. France is still great for producing talent and another young one to look out for (though older and a slightly later bloomer than Lacazette) is Lynel Kitambala, who's banging them in for Lorient this year.

I should probably pick a defender too, so I'll plump for Yaroslav Rakitskiy of Shakhtar Donetsk. He's been very impressive in the Champions League this season, having got a chance when Dmytro Chygrynskiy went to Barça last year. He's proof that you don't need to be a six-and-a-half-foot brute to be a good centre-back, and you should get to see him in the latter stages of the CL this season, as well as with Ukraine in Euro 2012.

Do you get time to read any football blogs? Yes, although not as often as I'd like because I'm pretty busy doing my own stuff most of the time. I don't really want to single out individuals because there's an enormous amount of quality and enthusiasm out there. I feel encouraged that there's more and more recognition of that, not just with stuff like the NOPAs but from the mainstream, with Michael Cox of Zonal Marking's column in The Guardian for instance, which shows what's out there and what a public appetite there is for it. Great football bloggers are great for football writing as a whole, raising standards and keeping the traditional outlets honest.

Who are your favourite football journalists? From the European angle, it's hard to look beyond Sid Lowe. He's been doing it for years, but his column is still exciting and action-packed. There's always a breathlessness to his stuff that tells of someone who still loves what he's doing. The best - for me - are the journos who can put football in a wider human context. I'm lucky enough to have my work published at ESPN Soccernet now alongside some people that have a always set a gold standard in writing about European football in this way, like Phil Ball and Uli Hesse.

I don't always read the British dailies from cover to cover as my focus is mainly on continental Europe, but I always really enjoy reading Rory Smith. Not only is there real wit and insight to his writing, but he has a great sense of the ridiculousness of the whole roadshow, which I think is really valuable in a context where some people in and around the game take themselves far too seriously.

I've heard you're a bit of an actual footballer yourself. In fact Luke Moore from the Football Ramble has just described you as Zlatan-esque, in that you don't run anywhere, but score some decent goals. Guilty as charged? I'll take that. Though I'm of a much sunnier disposition than the great man, so I'd describe myself as Zlatan after a week at Club Tropicana. Though last time I turned out for the Ramble, I played more like Zlatan after a week in mid-Britpop Camden Town....

Talking of the Football Ramble. Those boys must be on a high after all the critical acclaim that rightly comes their way these days, no? They're doing things the right way, trying to expand into new areas - with the new website etc - without moving away from what they're good at. Even allowing for the egalitarianism of the Twitter and Facebook age, they're brilliant at connecting with genuine fans just because they're so incredibly enthusiastic about the game, as well as knowing their onions and being very, very funny.

And you're contributing to their success with a series of articles on their blog as well? It seemed a natural enough thing to do; I already knew them and what they were about pretty well, so I was pleased to be asked. I really believe in their values (well, apart from those involving drunken exposure) and what they're aiming to do. The quality of writing on the blog is absolutely phenomenal too; Chris Nee, James Appell, Chris Mann, Jim Campbell, Rupert Fryer, Steve Grant and co are as good as you'll find anywhere, which is good to be part of. You also get the recognition that there's football outside Europe and the Americas, like with the reports from Pyongyang and Pete Josse's piece from Nepal.

You've got upwards of 4,000 followers on Twitter. Does that eat up much your time in between radio shows, penning articles and tv appearances? I try to respond to every question, though time sometimes holds up responses and I imagine I miss the odd one or two. Tweet Deck is a godsend, as I can dip in and out while working. I've had a few people say thanks for responding, to which I always wonder - why wouldn't I? If people weren't interested in reading or listening to what I have to say, then I wouldn't have a job. So thank you.

And finally, who else would you like to see interviewed on EFW and why? Paulo Futre. An absolute legend and you'd be able to bust it in Spanish, of course! He still lives in Madrid, where his son plays for the Atléti youth team, and does co-commentary for Al-Jazeera. And who better than you to ask him about the famous 'Futre 10' moment in the dressing room at West Ham?

For more of Andy's work, head to his website HERE, and follow him on Twitter there.

With Christmas just around the corner, you could do worse than to treat yourself with a copy of his excellent book. Go mad and buy it HERE.

Andy's sidekick on the World Football Phone-in, Tim Vickery will be interviewed on the excellent In bed with Maradona website next week.

- Feel free to comment below -


LIzzy said...

What happened to the other 1% of the trophy then?


Danny Last said...

NOPA stands for Not One hundred Percent Awards. See what I did there?

Lizzy said...

F*****g smart arse!