Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Last week was a frustrating experience for Arsenal fans, as their youthful team casually threw away leads twice against seemingly inferior opposition: first conceding an injury time equalizer to AZ Alkmaar in the Champions League; then relinquishing a two goal advantage after they had been cruising in their local derby against West Ham in the Premier League. Here we go again was the refrain, closely followed by the usual question of why the club does not invest some money in more experienced players to provide a stronger spine to the dazzling, but fragile, young tyros.

It surely cannot be due to lack of funds, if you believe the media’s take on the club’s recent annual (financial) results, where Arsenal announced a 24% increase in pre-tax profit to £46 mln. This included income of £313 mln, which is the largest annual turnover ever reported by a British football club. Gate and match day revenue exceeded £100 mln for the first time, largely because the team reached the semi-finals of both the Champions League and the FA Cup, which also contributed additional broadcasting revenue.

"How much is my transfer budget?"

Outstanding, but, as is so often the case, we need to look beyond the headlines. In this case, the impact of property development on Arsenal’s financials cannot be over-stated. Over £88 mln of the record-breaking turnover came from the sales of apartments at the Highbury Square development, accounting for almost all of the increase in pre-tax profit (£9 mln). Without this property revenue stream, Arsenal’s turnover is reduced to £225 mln, which is still very respectable, but is well behind the £256 mln recorded by Manchester United.

In addition, it has to be recognised that the Highbury Square development, which was intended to contribute over £100 mln profit to Arsene Wenger’s transfer budget, has now become a giant millstone around the club’s neck, directly impacting the manager’s spending capacity. Otherwise, why would the club have recently accepted a low-ball offer from real estate group London & Stamford Property for some of the flats? Even after the reduction in property valuations following the credit crunch, experts estimated the market value to be £500 per square foot, but Arsenal were happy to take a knock-down price of £400 – a 20% discount worth around £10 mln.

"Money's too tight to mention"

This shows how concerned the Arsenal Board is about the level of debt, which was still around £300 mln at the time of the accounts. To place that £300 mln debt into perspective, it’s about 1.3x the group’s annual football income, which looks pretty good compared to most people’s ratio of mortgage to salary, which would be at least 3x (assuming no sub-prime dodgy deals). Furthermore, borrowing money to purchase an asset (the Emirates Stadium) that will considerably increase future revenue generation is not exactly a gross misuse of company funds.

Even though this is significantly less than Manchester United’s gigantic £650 mln debt and effectively much lower than Liverpool’s £300 mln debt (as they have not yet funded their proposed new stadium), it’s obviously still enough to worry Arsenal’s money men. The other “Big Four” team, Chelsea’s debt is probably not an issue, unless their benevolent Russian oligarch has a change of heart, because from time to time he simply converts their debt into equity, as an example reducing it from £700 mln to £300 mln last year.

Arsenal’s debt has actually been cut by £20 mln over the last twelve months, mainly as a result of the loan repayments that reduced the balance on the Highbury Square facility from £134 mln to £124 mln. Subsequent to the year end, this loan has been substantially further reduced to £47 mln. The other good news is that they have refinanced the remaining loan into a new facility, pushing back the repayment from April to December 2010. Although this came at an additional cost with the margin increasing to 2.5% above LIBOR (previously the two loan tranches had margins of 1.3% and 1.7%), the huge pressure of finding a £120 mln loan repayment by April has now been removed. This still leaves the long-term stadium financing of around £245 mln, which is covered by a 21 year loan at a fixed rate of 5.3%, the agreement obviously having been struck before today’s historically low interest rates. Including the capital repayment of £5 mln, the total annual cost of servicing the bonds is £20 mln, excluding any property development financing.

"This used to be a football club"

Arsenal do appear to be managing their business with the requisite degree of prudence, but what are the major risks that could impact their financial performance? Well, the most significant issue still concerns property development, first through the sale of the remaining apartments (around a third of the original 655) at Highbury Square, but also the question of what to do with the Queensland Road site. When presenting the results, Arsenal’s new Chief Executive Ivan Gazidis was confident enough to state, “We anticipate it is likely we will make a profit out of that (Highbury Square) development, which will then be available to the football side”. However, the accounts strike a more cautious note, “conditions remain very tough and uncertain for our property business and this will likely continue to impact both of our main property development projects over the next year”, which is not surprising, given the difficult conditions in the mortgage lending sector.

The Arsenal Board faces an enormous decision over the Queensland Road site. They have already had to book an impairment charge to cover the increase in costs following the project delays and the decrease in market valuation, but the site has now finally received planning permission. Will they use the cash retained in the business to finance future developments? Or, after the trials and tribulations of Highbury Square, will it be a case of “once bitten, twice shy”? If so, they may just sell the site to a real estate developer, instead of pretending that AFC stands for Arsenal Football Construction. This decision may play a crucial role in determining whether the transfer purse strings will be loosened – or not.

"Subtle Emirates advertising"

Ironically, much of Arsenal’s performance off the pitch is linked to their performance on the pitch. As it should be, you might think, but it may be worthwhile stating the obvious, namely that the club’s income is affected by the performance and popularity of the team. This is unlikely to be an issue for season tickets, at least in the short-term, as the club currently has over 40,000 supporters on the waiting list, though I would note that the club did freeze ticket prices this season.

Most important is the team’s participation in the UEFA Champions League. Even though Chairman Peter Hill-Wood told the recent AGM that the club only budgets to qualify for the Champions League three seasons out of four, the reality is that it would be a financial calamity if Arsenal were to drop out of the four qualifying places available in England. Arsenal do not separately break out the revenue earned from UEFA’s central distribution, but Deloittes quoted £18 mln in their review of the 2008 accounts (excluding match day revenue), while Alex Fynn, co-author of “Arsenal: The Making of a Modern Superclub”, estimates the current worth to be £40 mln. What is certain is that the total pool available to UEFA has increased by 25% this year to €1.05 bln.

"Now that's what I call branding"

What may not be appreciated is that UEFA share out the Champions League sponsorship and television income according to a complicated formula, which rewards clubs according to the size of the television market in their home country. As England is a large nation with many people watching “footy on the telly”, the English clubs receive a higher proportion of the revenue than their European rivals. Moreover, most of the money is divvied up at the Group Stage, which is why it’s of supreme importance to at least get this far. More prize money is available if you progress to the quarter-finals, semi-finals or the final itself, but the majority has already been distributed before then. The position where you finish in your domestic league is important too, as this also impacts the way the revenue is carved out, e.g. the side qualifying second receives less money than the side qualifying first. Therefore, scraping into the Champions League by qualifying fourth has a financial impact, as well as increasing the stress levels of supporters.

In fact, coming fourth has a double whammy, because UEFA has adjusted the qualifying procedure for the Champions League, in order to guarantee that clubs from lower ranked leagues have participants in the group phase of the competition. This means that clubs from the “big five” European leagues now face theoretically stronger opposition in the matches to qualify for the Group Stage, so face a bigger risk of missing out. Hence, Arsenal could be faced by the likes of Valencia instead of the winners of the Bulgarian league.

"New shirt sponsor"

Arsenal’s accounts state that the club derives a significant amount of revenue (£48 mln) from commercial activities, but any risk is lessened by the long-term nature of the arrangements with its partners, so that naming rights and shirt sponsorship contracts with Emirates Airlines only expire in 2021 and 2014 respectively, and the kit sponsorship deal with Nike only runs out in 2011. However, in their annual Football Review, Deloittes pointed out that in 2008 commercial revenue represented only 21% of total income and was much smaller than Chelsea (£17 mln less) and Manchester United (£20 mln less). To further place this into context, Arsenal’s commercial revenue is less than half of what is earned by Real Madrid – the real purpose of the Galacticos project. Therefore, Arsenal’s long-term commercial contracts are something of a double-edged sword: although they may bring some certainty to future revenue, it does mean that Arsenal have fallen behind other clubs in this sphere, as seen by the £80 mln shirt sponsorship deal that Liverpool signed with Standard Chartered last month.

This has to be one of the drivers for the appointment of former Major League Soccer (MLS) Deputy Commissioner Ivan Gazidis as the new Chief Executive. The Board clearly hopes that Gazidis and his team will help boost future growth. The problem here is that this will inevitably involve things like growing the brand, increasing the global reach and the continuing “Arsenalisation” of the stadium. Although Gazidis seems like a sound chap, I sincerely hope that he does not morph into a Peter Kenyon or Garry Cook with their constant references to “the project”. It will be interesting to see whether Gazidis tries to pressurise Wenger into undertaking lucrative pre-season tours to the Far East or the States, like Chelski and Franchise Utd, instead of the usual, cosy trip to Austria.

"Ground control to Major Tom"

Broadcasting revenue is also hugely important to the club’s turnover, increasing to £73 mln, mainly due to the Arsenal’s progress in the Champions League, which was further boosted by Sterling’s weakness, as UEFA’s revenues are sourced in Euros. Although pay-TV operators are not immune to the turbulent economic conditions, football remains key content for these companies and continues to drive subscriptions, hence the next Premier League contract has already been secured until season 2012/13 with an increase of 5%. All well and good, but again the Spanish clubs lead the way here, as they are allowed to negotiate individual broadcast deals, as opposed to the Premier League collective bargaining, so that Real Madrid earn well over £100 mln a year from television rights.

Enough already with what accountants call the “top line”, what about the costs? Like investment banks, by far the most important expense is wage costs, which have increased to an incredible £104 mln. The annual report proudly states that the wages to turnover ratio of 46% continues to fall within the club’s target range. Hang on a minute, almost half of the club’s revenue goes to the staff? If you ever thought, just for a moment, that footballers were over-paid, here’s your confirmation.

"The good old days"

Not only the players, when you see that Ken Friar received total remuneration of £1.4 mln last year. I appreciate that he took on some Managing Director duties before the arrival of Ivan Gazidis, but that’s pretty good for a man who started out at Arsenal as a tea boy. Former Managing Director Keith Edelman also received a very generous “golden goodbye” of £1.7 mln as compensation for his loss of office, despite the fact that he was reported to have resigned.

Unfortunately, the pressure on staff costs is unlikely to change in the near future, even though owners would dearly love to introduce some form of salary cap, as there remains enormous competition between clubs for the best players. Actually, the situation is likely to get worse for the Premier League clubs, following: (a) the introduction of the 50% income tax rate (witness Andrei Arshavin’s frequent complaints); and (b) the depreciation of the Pound against the Euro. Just look at this summer when Ronaldo, Kaka and Benzema all took their skills to sunny, tax-friendly Spain instead of the “best league in the world”.

"Welcome to Highbury"

Some commentators have claimed that Arsene Wenger has transfer funds available to him of up to £80 mln, but I just can’t see it myself. Straight off the bat, once the property development financing is cleared, the club has to find £20 mln to pay off the stadium loan every year for the next 21 years. Assuming that the football business continues to produce annual profit of £30 mln, that leaves just £10 mln per annum. Of course, this presupposes continued qualification for the Champions League Group Stage, which is no longer a certainty after the rise of Manchester City (and, to a lesser extent, Spurs and Aston Villa).

Of course, Arsene Wenger is renowned for his ability to also generate revenue from the transfers of players that he has developed. In particular, last year’s accounts include a profit of £23 mln from the sale of player registrations. They also exclude the £42 mln received this summer from the City slickers for Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Toure, though the net money available is almost certainly less, as many Arsenal players have received increases in their contracts in the last few months. The accounts actually state that the net income resulting from these transfers is only £27 mln, presumably because the purchase of Thomas Vermaelen and others is also included.

"The Arsenal board"

What about the profit generated from property development? First of all, it’s very unclear whether there will actually be much profit accruing from this activity, but there may also be an intention to use any gains for a potential Queensland Road development. In fact, the accounts include a get-out clause along these very lines: “The use of property profits which may be transferred to the football segment is not determined until such time as those profits are realised and transferred in cash to the club – accordingly, there is no current commitment to use any such profits and cash anywhere within the Group at any specific time for any specific purpose”. So, there is absolutely no guarantee that any property profits will be made available for football transfers.

In short, only the Board and (presumably) Arsene Wenger know for sure how much money is genuinely available in the transfer pot and any external estimate can only be speculation. Wenger himself has said that, “there is money to spend, but at the moment I am very happy with the squad I have”. This may well be accurate and Wenger may genuinely want to build a team from scratch without breaking the bank, but somehow it does not ring true. I just cannot imagine that if funds were genuinely available, then we would not have seen the arrival of the experienced players that the team has so palpably needed for the last four years.

"Eton rifles"

Until the distractions of the property arm of the business cease, the paradox of Arsenal being described as one of the richest clubs in the world (3rd according to Forbes magazine, 6th per the Deloitte Annual Review) and yet apparently having no money available for transfers will surely continue. Any long-suffering fan expecting Arsene Wenger to stride into a press conference to the sound of “Hey, Big Spender” any time soon is likely to be sorely disappointed.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Boy Wonder

Think back to what you were doing when you were 17 years old. No matter how precocious you may have been, I’m willing to bet that you weren’t writing songs for one of the finest ever debut albums, as Roddy Frame was doing with Aztec Camera’s “High Land, Hard Rain”. Released in 1983, this is a remarkably assured collection of songs about love, loss and vulnerability with Frame exhibiting a maturity way beyond his adolescent years. The perfect bridge between the indie idealism of the time and the pop sensibilities of the early 80s, it’s a fresh, vibrant record that showcases Frame’s incredible songwriting, marrying the wide-eyed innocence of youth with the bitter experience of life.

Aztec Camera is a gloriously silly name, but for all intents and purposes, the band is Roddy Frame. There have been numerous changes to the line-up over the years, but it has always centred around the lad from East Kilbride. Indeed, the other musicians left the group before the first album was released, leaving Frame to complete the record by himself.

"Smile like you mean it"

Aztec Camera were a Scottish new wave band working at the sensitive, tuneful end of the spectrum, very much the contemporaries of similar well-scrubbed guitar bands like Orange Juice. The early 80s was a great time to be an aspiring pop star in Glasgow with Alan Horne’s pioneering indie label Postcard Records standing proudly in the centre of the scene, recruiting Aztec Camera, Edwyn Collins and Josef K to what he considered to be the Scottish equivalent of Motown. Aztec Camera first came to prominence with an acoustic version of “We Could Send Letters” that appeared on the influential C81 compilation cassette distributed by the NME in, yes, 1981. The band released two singles on Postcard before following the well trodden path south, in their case to Rough Trade.

Rejecting the synthesizers, fancy clothes and lip gloss prevalent in the charts, Aztec Camera sounded like nothing else at the time. Strumming an unfashionable acoustic guitar and dressed in similarly unpretentious clothes, the teenage Frame delivered his heartfelt songs with a charming lack of guile and sincere boyish enthusiasm. These soul-searching alternatives to the somewhat bland muzak of the period demanded your attention.

"Yes, I am Scottish"

Though generally considered to have been born during the new wave movement, Aztec Camera’s well-crafted, multi-layered pop was largely an acoustic affair with its genre-hopping stylings combining pop, jazz, folk and even flamenco. However, the twists and turns of the arrangements provide the minimalist set-up with a unique, huge sound. The calming melodies and soothing rhythms may envelop you, but this music has teeth, with Frame’s prowess as a guitarist taking the songs into unexpected directions, aided and abetted by his deep, slightly nasal voice.

Their sound is somewhere between Orange Juice (for the jangly guitars) and The Smiths (for the clever wordplay), though the pastoral elements are similar to XTC’s “Skylarking”. You could argue that Frame was slightly ahead of his time, foreshadowing the likes of The Style Council and Everything But The Girl with their jazz influences.

Praised by no less than Elvis Costello, the ultimate wordsmith, for being one of the best songwriters he had ever heard, Frame’s trademark is the thoughtful, wordy song that manages to pull the listener in with a kind of strained emotion. Every composition is a minor masterpiece of musical poetry, full of words that feel like old-fashioned movie dialogue, but crafted with a witty, wry turn of phrase that marked him out as a new literary voice. References range from Romantic poets (“Bottle merchants both of us/Overdosed on Keats/we smashed them all/And watched them fall/Like magic in the streets”) to The Clash (“Faces of Strummer that fell from your wall/And nothing was left where they hung”). His songs meld an air of militancy with a love of life, featuring a lyrical craft reminiscent of future label mate and all-round charming man, Morrissey.

"Guitar hero"

Frame’s relative youth may explain the album’s preoccupation with affairs of the heart, but his love songs are neither sentimental, nor dumb. No, Frame’s ruminations on romance were both sweet and sour. There is a proud, confessional glow to much of his writing, but even though the songs cover ground of an intensely personal nature they still pack a mighty emotional punch. His under-stated singing style can lull you into a false sense of security, before he spits out a line that is so direct and to the point that you just have to sit up and take notice of what he’s saying. Although he’s clearly been buffeted by the winds of loneliness and loss, there is an underlying optimism here – a desire to pick himself up and start again. The album may breathe emotion, but it contains an indomitable spirit that will lift your heart.

“High Land, Hard Rain” hits the floor running with three upbeat, bouncy tracks. The opening song is the sublime pop classic “Oblivious” with its utterly infectious melody. Its light, funky rhythms, swooning backing vocals and (Spanish) guitar hooks obscure the anguish of unrequited love with bitter lines like, “I see you crying and I want to kill your friends” and “They'll call us lonely when we're really just alone”. Musically, Frame shows off his Scottish roots in the hyper-active “The Boy Wonders”, as he tells of the magic of meeting his love, “We threw our hands up high/We nearly touched the sky/We clicked our heels and spat and swore/We'd never let it die”, though even here, he seems to be pre-empting future disappointment, “Now this boy wonders/Why the words were never worth the wait”.

"Spy kid"

Another track with soulful backing and sparkling guitars is “Walk Out To Winter”, which is a complex yet catchy, erudite yet accessible version of Puppy Love, “Met in the summer and walked 'til the fall/And breathless we talked, it was tongues/Despite what they'll say/It wasn't youth/We hit the truth”. The only other “fast” song on the album is “Pillar To Post”, which is the first track of the second side of the LP (for vinyl freaks). This again highlights Frame’s ability to contrast jaunty, happy-sounding music with depressing lyrics, as he recounts the break-up of his previously beautiful relationship, “Once I was happy in happy extremes/Packing my bags for the path of the free/From pillar to post I am driven it seems/These bitter tokens are worthless to me”.

The depth of emotion in this record shines through most powerfully in the slower numbers like “The Bugle Sounds Again”, where Frame is scared to acknowledge his new-found love, “The cards are on the table now/And every other cliché/Somehow fits me like a glove/You know that I’d be loathe to call it love”. The meandering bass line superbly evokes the restless, can’t-sit-still nature of young love, while the song closes with a cheesy synth sounding just like a (you’ve guessed it) bugle that somehow makes you think of an unbreakable relationship.

"What is known as park life"

It’s achingly beautiful, but pales into insignificance next to the astonishing “We Could Send Letters”. This is a haunting, uplifting experience whose emotional waves rise to a crescendo, “You said you’re free, for me that says it all/You’re free to push me and I’m free to fall/So if we weaken, we can call it stress/You’ve got my trust, I’ve got your home address”. More than any other song on the album, this is the one where initial despair (about a relationship close to collapse due to enforced separation) builds into a triumphant climax of hope, “Just close your eyes again/Until these things get better/You’re never far away/But we could send letters”. That determination to make things work is reflected in “Back On Board”. In spite of all the draining arguments, there’s still a spark, “Even after all those words/I want you for my own/Touch me when the sun comes up/And tell me when we’re home”.

The exquisite “Release” starts off slowly, picking up the pace as it goes along, hitting hard in a crazy round of The Organist Entertains, as Frame has to let his love go, “Cause I wanted the world/And all I could get to/Was a gun or a girl”, leading to a lament for what might have been in the atmospheric “Lost Outside The Tunnel”, complete with spooky synth sound and lightly tapped percussion, “I laughed until it got too dark/Somewhere else her voice will bark/Someone else will be involved/Someone stronger still”.

"Man at C&A"

The original album came to a perfect conclusion with the simple “Down The Dip”, a song that references both Frame’s folk background and The Diplomat, a pub back home in his native East Kilbride. This is a short song, featuring just Roddy and his acoustic guitar, that looks forward to whatever life will bring in the future, “And I'm holding my ticket tight/Stupidity and suffering are on that ticket too/And I'm going down the dip with you”. Throughout the album he’s been riding a rollercoaster of a relationship, not knowing what’s around the corner, but at the end he’s striding ahead with a spring in his step.

Some consider “High Land, Hard Rain” to be a concept album , charting the ups and downs of a single relationship over the course of a few months. While it is often easy to attempt to identify a common thread in an album’s songs, even where none exists, I think that there may be something to this one. In chronological order, the lyrics describe a time where the girl of his dreams is initially unaware of his existence. Then the couple meets and embarks upon an affair that runs through summer, strengthening during autumn, before being endangered by having to live apart and ultimately breaking up. After that he describes how he had to release the love of his life, leading to loneliness and regret at what could have been. Just when you think all hope is lost, the couple forgives each other and gets back together again, looking forward to the future with optimism. Well, it’s as good a theory as any.

"Tartan Army"

Roddy Frame and Aztec Camera have released some excellent albums over the years, most notably the energetic “Stray”, the mature “Dreamland” and the enticing “Love”, but he has never quite reproduced the absolute brilliance of this debut effort. Some performers never make a bigger splash than with their first record and it is true that “High Land, Hard Rain” remains the stunning highlight of Frame’s career. It is a masterclass in melancholy pop, bright guitars and shimmering keyboards refreshing the sharp vignettes about love with great vitality and energy.

This album heralded the arrival of one of the most literate songwriters of the post punk period, who “felt the rain and called it genius” in “The Boy Wonders”. Genius is a term that is terribly over-used these days, but in the case of Roddy Frame I think that we can safely make an exception.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Power, Corruption & Lies

Hands up anybody who was surprised by last week’s outburst from FIFA vice-president Jack Warner, when he described England’s bid to stage the 2018 World Cup as “lightweight”. Probably only the gullible suits in the Football Association, who foolishly believed that sucking up to the old despot would somehow guarantee his support in the bid process.

Those with longer memories will recall that in June 2008 the FA sanctioned a meaningless friendly against Trinidad & Tobago, forcing the England team to fly half way round the world after a long, tiring season, in order to further line Warner’s bulging pockets with cash, sorry, to celebrate the anniversary of the local Football Federation.

"If looks could kill"

To be fair to the FA, their groveling strategy of pimping out the national team did appear to be paying dividends for a while. After Warner had once again profited from the beautiful game with his tried-and-trusted strategy of selling tickets at vastly inflated prices and had enjoyed his photo opportunity with the England captain, David Beckham, he duly made some nice noises about England’s proposal after the FA asked him to “clarify” his position:

The time has come. The fact is they invented this sport. They last held the World Cup 42 years ago. That is almost two to three generations. There are guys in England who have never seen a World Cup on English soil.

This conversion to “Union Jack” represented a remarkable turnaround from his previous stance, when he had asserted:

England invented the sport but has never made any impact on world football. England is an irritant. Nobody in Europe likes England.

As they say, a leopard never changes its spots and Jack Warner has a history of alleged corruption as long as his considerable career with FIFA, having been frequently accused of taking advantage of his position for financial gain.

"Show me the money"

During the 2006 World Cup, Warner worked his connections at FIFA to ensure that his family controlled Trinidad & Tobago’s allocation of tickets, which they then sold to ordinary fans at vastly inflated prices. Independent auditors Ernst & Young estimated that Warner’s family made a profit of at least $1 million from this operation. Secret minutes from FIFA’s Executive Committee revealed that Warner’s son, Daryan, was ordered to pay a $1 million fine to charity “to compensate for the profits it had made through the resale of 2006 FIFA World Cup tickets”. Despite numerous reminders from FIFA, apparently only $250,000 has ever been paid, which, by an incredible coincidence, is exactly the same amount as FIFA’s annual grant to the Trinidad & Tobago Football Federation.

This is not the first time Warner was accused of acting like a sordid ticket tout, as the Daily Mail had pointed the finger at him for making $350,000 from a similar scalping operation at the 2002 World Cup.

"One day, son, all of this will be yours"

Also at the 2006 World Cup Warner trousered even more cash from his own players, the Soca Warriors. The self-appointed “special adviser” had brokered a deal with the Football Federation, whereby the players would receive 50% of the proceeds from their participation in Germany. In a now familiar move, Warner’s other son, Daryll, was placed in charge of the company looking after sponsors’ contributions. After the tournament, Warner claimed that once expenses had been deducted from the revenue of TT$ 18 million, a pool of only TT$ 350,000 remained. However, he had employed the most creative accounting imaginable, estimating expenses for “lost” receipts, deducting a third of the money “to prepare Trinidad for the 2010 World Cup”, “forgetting” to include money contributed by the government and including revenue from sponsors which appeared to be significantly lower than their press releases claimed.

When the case was brought to independent arbitration, the Trinidad & Tobago government revealed that the Federation had received over TT$ 173 million, nearly ten times Warner’s estimate, and the players were awarded everything they claimed. To date, Warner’s response has been restricted to banning the players from representing their country. He has not paid them a single cent on the grounds that the decision was “nullified” after it had been leaked to the Trinidad Guardian (whose editor has written two glowing biographies of a certain Jack Warner). The players’ lawyer lamented:

This is a sporting and financial scandal, which the major football authorities are ignoring. Jack Warner, a FIFA vice-president and president of CONCACAF, is involved up to his neck, yet nothing is done about it. He has shown by banning the players that he cares nothing about Caribbean football and their golden generation, only his own financial well-being.

When Trinidad staged FIFA’s Under-17 championship in 2001, FIFA (well, actually Jack Warner) described it as “the best run and most successful world event ever”. In terms of boosting his own Family Fortunes, you can say that again. Ignoring any conflicts of interest, Warner, in his role as chairman of the organising committee, had a say in allocating the construction contracts to build four stadia and also owned the exclusive television rights. His travel agency handled the flight tickets for teams and officials and some teams stayed at hotels where he had an interest. Of course, his sons also got in on the act: the catering contract was awarded to Daryan, while Daryll was granted a $2 million contract for video screens in hotel lobbies. How do you spell “nepotism”?

"Let me tell you"

Nearer to home, Scottish Football Association President John McBeth claimed that Warner asked for the cheque for the $75,000 match fee from a friendly match between Scotland and Trinidad & Tobago to be made out to him personally, rather than his Football Federation. When McBeth refused, Warner approached several other members of the SFA with the same request.

Given his kleptomaniac tendencies and oft-documented involvement in questionable practices, there is a delicious irony in Warner’s recent criticism of cheating on the football pitch and his approval for the use of sin bins for divers in next year’s World Cup Finals. When you’re in a glass house, don’t throw stones.

In the past, Jack has occasionally played the racism card, and, to be fair, he can speak on this subject with some authority, having been captured on camera screaming, “No foreigner, particularly a white foreigner, will come to my country and harass me”, when the BBC dared to question some of his actions. Perhaps a reminder of FIFA’s Ethics Code is in order: “Racism has no place in football. FIFA is deploying all the means at its disposal to eliminate this form of discrimination” – except when it applies to a member of its own Executive Committee obviously.

"Where's my goody bag?"

As the late, great Alan Clark once admitted in the witness box, Warner has also sometimes been "economical with the actualité". in 2006 he instructed his lawyer to write to the BBC, claiming that investigative reporter Andrew Jennings had hit him in the mouth with his hand microphone at an airport in Trinidad. A few weeks later, millions of Panorama viewers saw that Jennings didn’t have a hand microphone, but was wearing a clip microphone on his shirt collar. Furthermore, Warner didn’t suffer a blow from anyone. In fact, it was Warner doing the punching. Unsurprisingly, Warner never did risk any legal action.

Having been a member of FIFA’s Executive Committee since 1983 and the President of CONCACAF (the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football) since 1990, Jack Warner is one of the most powerful men in world football. He is a close ally of FIFA President Sepp Blatter, controlling 35 of the 207 votes at FIFA’s congress. In 2003, Warner boomed:

I have told Mr. Blatter that whenever he is running for election, do not come to campaign in CONCACAF. He doesn’t have to. Don’t waste his time. CONCACAF has 35 votes. He gets 35.

"33, 34, that's 35 votes"

Is that the agreement? Blatter gets the FIFA presidency for life; FIFA turns a blind eye to Jack’s disreputable activities. When Warner’s involvement in the World Cup tickets scandal was brought before FIFA’s Executive Committee, his great buddy Sepp did little more than rap his knuckles:

The committee expressed its disapproval … drawing attention to the fact that Mr. Warner should be more cautious and prudent. That is all there is to say in relation to this affair and we now consider the case closed.

Apparently, there was no evidence that Warner had infringed FIFA rules, as “the person who did the re-selling is not subject to the FIFA jurisdiction, because it is the son of Jack Warner”. Oh, that’s alright then. This is clearly not a case for FIFA’s much-trumpeted Ethics Committee, lead by our very own Lord Coe. Warner’s treatment was in stark contrast to fellow Executive Committee member Ismail Bhamjee, who was ordered to resign after selling twelve 2006 World Cup tickets at three times their face value. By coincidence, Bhamjee had been due to vacate his position at the end of that year in any case, having failed to win re-election.

"Meet El Presidente"

Returning to the 2018 World Cup bid, I don’t really care if England gets the tournament, but Warner’s criticism is laughable. Speaking at the Leaders in Football conference, he harrumphed:

England cannot count on our vote for the World Cup. It is time to wake up. I am saying that if you don't get your act together you will lose. You have no divine right to host the World Cup. I was in Rio last week and my colleagues were talking about Spain, Russia and USA. Not many talk about England. You had it in 1966, is it your turn to have it now?

He went on to suggest that the FA should make better use of David Beckham and even the Queen in their campaign. We already know how much Jack loves schmoozing with the great and good after his recent trip to Washington to meet President Obama. This is also the man who demanded that Nelson Mandela flew to Zurich to meet him on the eve of the vote for the 2006 World Cup, even though Mandela’s doctors said that it might kill him. Everyone should kiss his ring. After all, he’s Jack Warner. This encouragement to “start galloping” is yet another volte face from the very same man who had previously advised the FA not to act like a colonial power, but to remain humble and not to get in people’s faces.

"This time next year, we'll be millionaires"

At the same conference Jack noted that some bid committees gave each attendee a free goody bag:

I came here and was shocked that I got a bag for Australia at the entrance. Why isn’t there a bag for England? People are looking at these things and asking themselves questions.

Are they really? Or are they just saying spend more money to entertain and impress us before the vote? I’ve got a couple of suggestions for you: (1) keep your big mouth shut to maintain a semblance of independence and impartiality; (2) judge each bid purely on its merits. The criteria used should include boring details like the quality of the football grounds, the infrastructure and other facilities. The truth is that England could host a World Cup tomorrow, like a number of other major European nations, but England last hosted the World Cup in 1966, while others have staged it much more recently (Germany 2006 and 1974, France 1998, Italy 1990, Spain 1982).

"Jack in the box"

So why has Jack now decided to put the boot in? Past history would indicate that it’s his subtle plea to “show me the money”. His wealth may have suffered in the credit crunch, so it must be time to replenish the coffers. He knows that the more he slates the English, the more he will get from them. Don’t be surprised if you hear the announcement of a money-spinning friendly at the new Wembley featuring Trinidad & Tobago in the near future. Or maybe some sort of investment in “youth development” in the Caribbean. Or even English support for any campaign by Trinidad & Tobago to host the 2018 Commonwealth Games. In fact, anything where Jack can see the Dollar signs.

There may be an even more Machiavellian undertone to Jack’s comments, as he starts chipping away at the bids he does not favour. Is the fix in? Has FIFA already decided who will get the richest prize in world football? This might just be the beginning of a “killing me softly” campaign that will let the English down gently. Looking at the candidates, would it really surprise anyone if the tournament were awarded to President Obama (sorry, USA) or Prime Minister Putin (sorry, Russia)? We shall see.

"Don't mention any backhanders"

The conventional wisdom is that Warner must be “looked after” if England are to win the 2018 World Cup bid, which is why the FA is so terrified of offending the sleazy money-grabber. He can shoot his mouth off all day long, safe in the knowledge that nobody associated with the campaign dare make the slightest criticism of his absurd behaviour for fear of the votes he holds. However, the FA would do well to remember the old saying that if you dine with the devil, you should bring a long spoon. It’s a pity that those involved cannot say publicly what they must think in private about this unprincipled buffoon. Even the normally acidic UK media rarely go further than calling him “controversial”, instead of telling him to “Jack it in”.

In an ideal world, they would surely love to follow Roy Keane’s example of a few years ago. After Warner condemned the then Sunderland manager for refusing to release Dwight Yorke for a Trinidad match, even though Keane claimed that Yorke had retired from international football, the Irishman told Warner that he was a clown, vowing to have nothing more to do with him, “If he’s vice-president of FIFA, God help everybody”.

Having to suck up to the likes of Warner seems to be the price you have to pay to host a World Cup. Greedy, dishonest “presidents” like him are the reason why it is not worth getting involved in this humiliating, squalid process. To paraphrase his classy response to a Panorama reporter, Jack Warner can go fuck himself.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Love Bites

With the popularity of the teen movie Twilight and the cult TV series True Blood, vampires are one again in fashion, but at this stage in the game you would not expect to discover a truly original film in this genre, as just about every conceivable aspect of the vampire myth has been explored and exploited in the many years since Nosferatu first bared his fangs. However, last year a Swedish horror film came along that mined the legend for all sorts of insinuating variations and challenging new themes.

Although undeniably a scary movie, it could be argued that the vampire element in Let The Right One In is actually a sub-plot of the true story, which describes the unfolding relationship between a bullied 12 year-old called Oskar and his new best friend, tough girl Eli. Indeed, John Ajvide Lindqvist, the writer of the screenplay and the bestselling novel on which it was based, explained his idea “as an attempt to portray the area that I grew up in, and not as a vampire story”. One of the pleasures of Let The Right One In is that it takes a while to reveal what sort of film it is, that is to say, a mesmerising exploration of loneliness and alienation via a masterful transformation of the vampire movie into an innovative, touching, heartwarming story about friendship and love.

"The first cut is the deepest"

Yes, there are many horrifying, bloody moments, but the focus is on the harrowing coming-of-age of the isolated pre-teens. Theirs is an urgent friendship, conveying all the awkwardness and pain of growing up with a convincing naturalism, but it’s also under-stated in a way that demonstrates a great observation of how children behave on the brink of adolescence. There are elements of a blossoming boy-meets-girl romance, but these are tentative, thus avoiding any hint of a melodramatic love affair.

Oskar is a shy, studious boy living with his divorced mother in the depressing Stockholm suburbs. A loner, regularly tormented by his classmates, he spends his evenings stabbing a tree with a knife, imagining revenge, “Squeal like a pig. So, scream!” One night, he meets a kindred spirit, Eli, a pale, androgynous girl his own age and they bond over a Rubik’s Cube (this is the early 80s, after all). Together, Oskar and Eli form a union against the world with Eli encouraging Oskar to stand up to his aggressors, which he later does in an unforgettable escalation of violence. Slowly, but surely, Oskar realises that Eli is different from other girls:

Oskar: Are you a vampire?

Eli: I live off blood ... yes.

Oskar: Are you ... dead?

Eli: No. Can't you tell?

Rather than being frightened, Oskar is actually more intrigued, his desire for the friendship of someone his own age over-riding the fact that Eli is cold to the touch. She transforms his life – teaching him to defend himself, piercing his solitude – and there’s no turning back.

"Yes, I'm a big fan of Cubism"

Kåre Hedebrant, with his blond hair and translucent skin, is a fascinating choice to play Oskar, and he makes the character seem remote, withdrawn and a little creepy. Cursed with an unfortunate page-boy haircut and a permanently runny nose, he is a magnet for the school bullies and it is hard not to feel sorry for him. Even though Eli is a vampire, Oskar is at that age when he calmly accepts astonishing facts. Instinctively, he knows enough to leave certain questions well alone.

Eli, played by Lina Leandersson, is the (undead) girl next door, exhibiting all the signs of a classical vampire: never venturing out in daylight, leaving buildings without having to use the stairs and strangely impervious to the cold (even for a Scandinavian). However, this is one bloodsucker that will attract your sympathies. Although consumed by a desperate craving, she resembles a hunted animal, stricken with a terrible disease that means she has to kill other people and drink their blood to survive. This necessity makes her a breath of fresh air, even if she occasionally gives off the faint scent of a decaying corpse. Although recognizably a child, Eli’s dark, straggly hair and haunted appearance express all the loneliness of her condition and make her look as old as time itself. Indeed, Leandersson’s voice was over-dubbed with a less feminine one to provide the incongruity of a 200 year-old vampire in a young girl’s body – and make her all the more menacing.

Oskar: Are you really twelve?

Eli: Yes. It's just I've been twelve for a very long time.

"Just hanging around"

Oskar and Eli are clearly mirror images of each other, like two sides of the same coin. Dark, strong and brave, Eli is everything that the blond, fragile Oskar is not. However, it is a voyage of discovery for the two protagonists, as they realise that they are outsiders equally struggling to survive in an oppressive world, both thirsting for blood: he fantasises about stabbing his tormentors, while she needs the red stuff to stay alive.

Oskar: Who are you?

Eli: I'm like you.

Oskar: What do you mean?

Eli: What are you staring at? Well? Are you looking at me? So, scream! Squeal! Those were the first words I heard you say.

Oskar: I don't kill people.

Eli: No, but you'd like to, if you could. To get revenge. Right?

Oskar: Yes.

Eli: Oskar, I do it because I have to.

It becomes apparent that they need each other, as each offers what the other one lacks: he gets the strength to face down his bullies, while she gains acceptance. What they have in common is more important than what sets them apart and the reality that they share is that they are both achingly alone.

"How do we sleep when our beds are burning?"

In one of the movie’s principal ironies, Eli is the only person who treats Oskar with anything resembling humanity, so much so that Oskar thinks it’s time to go steady:

Oskar: Will you be my girlfriend?

Eli: Oskar, I’m not a girl.

It’s a heartbreaking moment, but shows that Oskar is unwilling to forsake Eli, even when he knows that she is a vampire, as he is aware of the tragic implications of her plight. She, in turn, comes to his aid when he needs it most in the extraordinary final confrontation. The central story is about accepting love when it comes to you, even if it comes from the strangest places. Young love is complicated, especially if you fall for a vampire, but when the options are limited, you allow anyone into your life. However, the film’s title sounds an alarm and there is a disquieting ambiguity over whether Eli’s motives for befriending Oskar are of a darker nature, possibly grooming him as the replacement for Håkan, her old protector, who has become increasingly ineffective at providing her with the blood she needs. Will Eli be a girlfriend “to die for” in more senses than one?

"Wall of silence"

The two young actors deliver astonishingly powerful performances in these emotionally draining roles, managing to combine the deeply moving innocence of childhood with a strange kind of grown-up weariness. Amid the ice-cold landscape, there is such warmth in their gauche, unconventional relationship that we care more for them than they appear to care about themselves. Hedebrand infects Oskar with a quiet vulnerability, even as he slowly regains his self respect, while Leandersson manages to convey a timeless resignation in her blank expression.

In contrast to the children’s evolving worldliness, the adults are portrayed as being generally useless, so that Oskar and Eli are forced to grow up quickly and take matters into their own hands. Oskar’s parents are divorced and pay him only as much attention as they can fit into their busy schedules. Eli’s “guardian” attempts to find victims to provide blood for his charge, but he is staggeringly incompetent and slow, picking the most unsuitable locations, forcing Eli to stake out (see what I did there?) her own targets. Then, there is the town’s collection of sad alcoholics, who do not allow the growing list of bodies to impinge upon their drab lives, until one actually witnesses a murder from his balcony – though they’re not above mocking themselves, “Thank you again for another evening steeped in merriment and friendship”.

"Once bitten, twice shy"

The sexual aspect of vampire mythology has been deliberately downplayed, given the extreme youth of the main characters. For this reason, Eli’s adult helper, Håkan, who is a paedophile in the novel, becomes a submissive acolyte in the movie, as this theme would have distracted from the story of the two young soulmates. The film also handles the issue of Eli’s gender more ambiguously than the book, which presents her/him as a boy castrated by a sadistic nobleman. In the film, we are offered a glimpse of a suggestive scar, when Eli changes into a dress and, of course, she does inform Oskar that she’s not a girl. However, I still think that the best interpretation is to consider Eli a female, as this works best for her relationship with Oskar in the movie.

Directed by Tomas Alfredson, the story unravels with subtlety and restraint, allowing the violent moments to speak for themselves rather than artificially boosting them with cinematic trickery and sound effects. Paced with the meticulous deliberation of a killer stalking his prey, Alfredson’s unhurried, matter-of-fact style draws the viewer into the film, allowing you to learn about Eli exactly as Oskar does. He infuses the film with a low key, unsentimental naturalism that produces maximum believability. The dialogue is sparse, though every spoken word feels important, and characters communicate just as much through occasional glances and meaningful stares.

"Bully for you"

There are some truly memorable scenes, especially the jaw-dropping finale in a swimming pool when Oskar’s bullies come to an untimely end, with their demise uniquely witnessed from his underwater perspective. When Oskar suggests to Eli that they should cement their relationship with a blood bond, he cuts his hand, provoking Eli to savagely lap up the spilt blood from her floor. We freeze in anticipation of what she might do to him, but she is able to hold back just enough to beg Oskar to leave. Further evidence of Eli’s vampire abilities comes with a spectacular, rapid ascent up the side of a building, followed by Oskar’s puzzlement when she leaves his room through the window. Supporting our heroes are numerous offbeat characters, including a woman bitten by Eli who bursts into flames when sunlight streams through her blinds in the morning; a bully who bursts into tears every time he attacks Oskar; and a neighbour who lives in a cramped apartment over-run by cats.

The film realistically depicts an early 80s Stockholm suburbia that is unremittingly hostile, complete with Cold War tensions over the discovery of a Russian submarine in Swedish waters (and I should know, for I lived there during this period). It captures the desolate, snowy landscape so well that you can really feel the cold. There is a remarkable stillness to many of the film’s indelible images, so that the exterior looks almost frozen. Everything is bathed in the chilly glare of grayish sunlight reflecting on the snow with this muted colour palette only occasionally lifted by splashes of red. Most of the violent scenes are shot in the distance, which somehow only serves to make them more disturbing. In contrast, Alfredson’s camera lingers on the midnight snowflakes that fall on the children’s hands, as their fingers gently intertwine for the first time.

"Blondes have more fun?"

The soundscape also helps establish the captivating mood. Eschewing Hollywood’s standard reliance on blood-curdling special effects and dramatic music to announce a murder, the audacious sound design focuses on the intimate: the morse code tapped on the walls of the children’s adjoining bedrooms; Oskar’s wintry breaths; and blood slowly dripping into a plastic funnel. It’s as if the thick snow deadens the sound with the first few moments of the film virtually silent. The musical score sounds hopeful and romantic, in contrast to the horrific events taking place, and was described by the Ain’t It Cool News website as “scrupulously weaving together strains of bone-chillingly cold horror with the encompassing warmth of newly acquired love”.

Like all the best horror movies, it takes vampire mythology very seriously, though don’t expect overwrought conventions like crosses, garlic, trembling bosoms or bloody fangs here. As the title, from a song by professional miserabilist Morrissey, implies, a vampire can only enter a home if invited, and one of the key questions posed by the film is what happens if you don’t invite a vampire in, but they cross the threshold anyway? In this case, Eli slowly begins to bleed from her eyes, ears and every pore, as she comes to the aid of Oskar. Yet, this is far from a gore fest with the sporadic moments of bloodshed making them all the more startling. Although not a truly frightening film, it belongs to the school of movies that are genuinely unsettling in their ambiguity, like Don’t Look Now and The Shining.

"There will be blood"

You can imagine the marketing men flinching at the prospect of funding a movie with no specific target market, but thankfully the writers had the courage of their convictions, producing a gripping reshaping of the vampire myth and a fiercely intelligent arthouse movie. Let The Right One In is a remarkably moving evocation of the loneliness and terrors of childhood; a truly original and inspirational film that pumps new blood into a well-trodden genre.

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