Mihir Bose: Football’s Janus face

Has there ever been a time when football has been so much in demand, even likely to affect a British general election, yet the people who run the sport are considered so incompetent, if not downright dishonest?

Just consider this. David Cameron, who as a thirteen year old was taken to Aston Villa by his uncle who was then the club chairman, has always claimed to be a fan of the club. But then during this election campaign he confuses the Midland’s team with East London’s pride West Ham and all hell breaks loose. The Prime Minister is mocked, doubts are cast as to whether he knows anything about football. When he claims a brain fade he is seen as no better than Natalie Bennett, the leader of the Green party, who also claimed a brain fade when she forgot what the policies of the Greens were. It gets so bad that Cameron has to give an interview to the Birmingham Mail where, if anything, he make matters worse by explaining that he was thinking of cricket when he confused Villa with the Hammers.

Now all this could be a symptom of an election where, despite all the noise made by the politicians, the campaign has not really got going. It needed something to fire it up and this was too good to miss. But even if that is the case what this demonstrates is that football is considered important. Indeed the campaign has been marked by many references to the game. So why has David Cameron and his Chancellor George Osborne been the main Conservative spokesmen on important BBC programs like Today? The answer given is they are considered the Premier League, while others like Michael Gove, a very talented minister who was meant to be the spokesman, is not.

Indeed at one election husting where Gove was present he made much of the fact that Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, was a Leeds United supporter and so would know that, just as his once great team has now fallen into the depths of despair, so has the party he leads.

And even the fact that the campaign has not caught fire has made one Guardian journalist moan that this shows the politicians are copying Jose Mourinho. Just as the Portuguese is accused of winning the League for Chelsea by playing such boring football that he has made all of us, barring Chelsea supporters, go to sleep so politicians are hoping to win by making it the most boring election yet. Back in 1966 Harold Wilson claimed that England won the 1966 World Cup because Labour was in power and in 1970, my first British election, it was suggested that Labour’s defeat was influenced by the fact that polling day came four days after England, the World Cup holders, had been sensationally knocked out of the competition by West Germany.

As one wag put it: “The nation had paid little attention to the election, basking in the June sun shine and staying up late at night watching the matches being televised from Mexico. Then after Peter Bonetti proved fallible in goal, the nation woke up, decided it must throw the rascals out and decided the rascals were Harold Wilson and his Labour party.”

But that was said in jest. What makes the present interest in football fascinating is that at the same time there is a lot of attention being paid to the men who run football, particularly at the top level at FIFA and the other international federations, never have these men in suits been held in such low esteem. We will all be reminded of this when next month Sepp Blatter, almost inevitably, gets re-elected for a fifth term. Even now papers like the Economist hold Blatter and FIFA in such contempt that, as it did in an editorial two months ago, the Economist termed FIFA as “football’s disgraced governing body” and called on “the egregious FIFA to clean up” its acts “by making public both their decision-making on venues and their executives’ interests.”

So how do we square the circle? The answer is football is now high profile. Even if it is generally considered to be irredeemably corrupt at its highest reaches, it is still seen as a game which can provide rewards not only to politicians but to people in all walks of life, even writers of crime thrillers. Consider January Window by Philip Kerr. Kerr is an award winning writer of detective fiction. An Arsenal supporter he has now taken football as the setting for a murder mystery which is solved by a football coach called Scott Manson.

Kerr makes it very clear that his man works in a dreadful world, “the glamourous, corrupt world of Premier League football”. Manson is himself part black who had himself been jailed as a rapist before it emerges this was all the work of a racist cop who had set him up. Kerr, having sketched out this corrupt world, then uses it to spin both a story of modern football and also a very readable piece of detective writing. Manson is shown as rehabilitating himself so well that he becomes a coach at London City, a club owned by a Ukrainian billionaire. The club is managed by a Portuguese, Joao Zarco, who is such a dresser that he has been on the front cover of GQ and Esquire. While these are fictitious characters it is easy enough to see who they are based on and the book is full of references to real life football figures.

So when London City play Newcastle and beat them 4-1 we are told Newcastle is managed by Alan Pardew – the book was written before he moved to Crystal Palace – and Manson is dreading the post-match interview with Geoff Shreeves, the real life Sky interviewer. It is during this match that Zarco is found murdered, a crime Manson has to solve. And as you would expect, solve he does, proving as Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes did, that in Britain the amateur detective is always better than the paid plodders of Scotland Yard.

Kerr to be sure does not present Manson as a modern day Poirot or Holmes. For a start these were suave detectives who would never have used the stream of four letter words Manson uses nor describe their sexual activities. What is more had they ever bothered with sport, they would have looked at cricket or racing, football would just not have been on their radar. Holmes creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, was a keen cricketer and Agatha Christie got Poirot, despite the fact that he was a Belgian, to talk intelligibly about cricket and even comment on how effective the great Hedley Verity might be on a wet Oval wicket in a Test against Australia.

Kerr’s publishers are promoting this book as doing with football what Dick Francis did with horse racing. Whether they will succeed or not remains to be seen but the thriller emphasises the new status of football. The game may be, as in this book, almost without redemption, a dreadful world of crooked men and women but it provides all the ingredients for adventure and drama. What more could anyone ask?

Philip Kerr, January Window, Head of Zeus, 398p, £14.99

Mihir Bose was the first sports editor of the BBC. He has worked for various media outlets and launched the Inside Sport column for the Daily Telegraph. Now a freelance journalist he has written 29 books. The Spirit of the Game, published by Constable and Robinson, is now available in paperback. Follow Mihir on twitter @mihirbose