Sunday, June 29, 2008

Book Review: Comrade Jim

I'm finally getting into some summer reading, and that always means football books. So here's the first of what I'm assuming will be many book reviews, on a new book called Comrade Jim.

The subtitle of this book is The Spy who Played for Spartak. It's a lovely short book if you can get past two things: he was never really a spy and he barely played for Spartak.

As a tall, gangly child growing up in Portsmouth, he often played centre-half for his school teams. He was never of a calibre to play professionally, but he enjoyed it and continued playing into his army days when he was drafted into the national service. He had been a bright lad, and had managed to secure a place in a grammar school and stuck it out through his A-levels, to the disapproval of his working-class mum's friends who thought that all that studying would make him "one of them, not one of us".

In the army, he was considered bright enough to be sent for Russian lessons - 8 months of intensive language study which would enable him to monitor Soviet radio broadcasts. Subsequently sent to Berlin, he listened in on communications traffic at airbases in eastern germany. This, it turns out, was the sum total of his "spying".

Indeed, far from a career in spying against the communists, he became one himself. The actual circumstances in which this occurred in 1959 seem somewhat hazy. He had a love of Russia instilled in him by his admittedly non-ideological teachers in the army. His Soviet studies teachers at Birmingham University seem to have been predominantly of the view that Bolshevism was bad for Russia. And he implies that he was quite aware of Krushchev's Secret Speech and the invasion of Hungary in 1956. And yet, there he is, applying for a Party card in 1959 and little more than two years later being sent by the CPGB to attend an 18-month course of training at the Higher Party School in Moscow, where he lived with (among others) the future hero of the Prague Spring, Alexander Dubcek.

He was no pasing communist, either. Despite meetings in Moscow with many emigres who had spent years in gulags after false accusations, despite himself having been tossed out of Russia in disgrace following false allegations, despite having quite a clear view of the double standards of the nomenklatura, this is a man who held on to his party card until the CPGB itself finally collapsed in 1991 and who claims that the first time he rued having been a communist was in 2005, at the sight of the altar on which Isaac Babel was tortured to death during the Great Terror. Why it was Babel's death that made him rue this and not any of Stalin's victims - some of the 1,000 executions a day at the height of the terror in 1937-38, perhaps, or any of the seven million who died in the Ukranian forced famines - is not entirely clear.

During his time in Moscow, he played regular kickabouts with a number of people from various team's diplomatic corps. As he was gathering information for a planned PhD dissertation on Soviet sport and culture, he was often in contact with senior Moscow sports officials and football players, some of whom happened to see him at these kickabouts. Strangely under the impression that he could play at a top level (while in National Service he had played a few times with the British Army on the Rhine selects and the Russians appeared to believe that this was the equivalent to playing for the CSKA Red Amry squad), they asked him to come along to training with them whilst they were in the midst of an injury crisis. To his shock, they asked him to play two games in their colours at the massive Lenin stadium under the name Yakov Eeordahnov (foreigners still being highly suspect in 1962 Moscow). This was the extent of his Spartak career.

Doesn't sound like much of a book? Well, it has some padding, too. In one chapter he manages to toss off the entire Passovotchka story for no reason other than that he was in England at the time and later became a communist. In another he retells the Nikolai Starotsin story (although Jonathan Wilson more or less beat him to the punch on this two years ago in his book [i]Football Behind the Iron Curtain[/i]).

But mostly, it's just the curious tale of how one working class boy from Portsmouth managed to spend five years in Moscow rubbing shoulders with composers, gulag survivors, and ex-spies amidst the obvious insanities of post-Stalinist Russia. It's no less enjoyable and informative for the fact that the author seems not to question the rightness of supporting such a monstrous regime. And it has some nice little football stories thrown in - his excitement at the arrival of Alexei Smertin arriving in Pompey from Spartak is quite charming.

If you're ever wondering about the power of football to sell books, though, it's amazing to think how 180 minutes spent 45 years ago on a pitch 1500 miles from the UK can turn an old communist's memories from being unwanted and unprintable to being a reasonable publishing success. Amazing.

Culture Clash

An intriguing story in today's Observer about Cristiano Ronaldo and his (alleged) seven-months-in-the-making transfer to Real Madrid.

According to journalist Duncan Castles, CR has been doing all the engineering of this move on his own, and his agent had been repeatedly counselling against a move. Even Real Madrid are apparently annoyed at how publicly he's been flaunting his desire to leave (this I find hard to believe, but I'm just relaying the story here).

Specifically, Ronaldo seems to be labouring under the impression (some might call it a delusion) that having more or less single-handedly delivered two trophies to Old Trafford this year, the Man United board would be happy to "reward" him by allowing him his dream move to Madrid.

This does sound a little wacky, but I think it's a piece of cultural misunderstanding.

In Iberian football, certainly, when either Barcelona or ManU come calling, you leave. End of story. Take Sergio Ramos (please) who literally bought out his own contract at Sevilla just hours before the transfer deadline in order to play for the merengues.

What was considered shameful about the Ramos transfer was not the fact that he went to Madrid, but rather the sneaky way he did it, just as the club was starting to develop into something of a powerhouse. He left, if you will, via the back door.

Contrast this with the Dany Alves saga of last summer. Alves felt that after helping Sevilla to five trophies in two years, he had earned the right to leave "by the front door", with his head held high. And so he was quite miffed when Sevilla failed to sell him to Chelsea; it took him about two months to get his head back in the game for the rojiblancos (although to be fair, the death of Antonio Puerta probably had an impact too) and by the time he was back to his best, Sevilla were too far behind the leaders to challenge for the title even in a year when no one seemed to want it. Ronaldo, being Iberian himself, seems to be taking the same position Alves took last year. I've earned this - you owe it to me.

The English, remarkably, don't see things the same way. Winning teams are kept together almost regardless of the cost. Patrick Vieira was mercilessly persued by Madrid after both Arsenal's 2002 and 2004 championship season. Wenger stuck to his guns and kept the midfielder only to sell him for much, much less the next season (2005).

It's partly the way the English view club loyalty. They are far more likely to view team failure as a valid excuse for departure ("oh well, he wants to go win some trophies, I guess") than they are team success ("but he's won everything with us - why does he want to go when everything is going so well?")

That's not to say that ManU won't sell, of course - the Glazers' holding company is holding far too much debt for them not to be seriously tempted by the 85 or 90 million euros his sale would bring. But letting him leave as a reward for success? Never. The fact that Ronaldo hasn't figured that out after five years in England suggests that he hasn't been paying attention during his stay there.

But then again, if he only ever thought that Manchester was a penitence to pay on the way to the Bernabeu, maybe he never felt the need to pay attention.