Thursday 16 August 2012

Teddy Bears vs Alexander Lukashenko

No Picnic for the ‘Last Dictator’

Family Guy creator Seth McFarland’s directorial debut, Ted, about a man whose boyhood wish that his teddy bear can speak comes to fruition, has met with mixed reviews since it opened but frankly I have found its detractors’ humourlessness aggravating, simply because the premise on its own is hilarious.

They share, in my view, something of the sensibility of Europe’s last dictator, the Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, who, since July 4th, has been fulminating in all directions against a brilliant stunt by a pair of Swedish activists who flew a plane into Belarusia from neighbouring Lithuania and dropped hundreds of teddy bears bearing messages of support for the freedom of expression, something Minsk doesn’t favour much.

I wonder, when Lukashenko is engaged in his tirades against the sudden mass influx of the adorable toys from the air, how many of his population are absolutely cracked up in mirth at not only the thought but by the sight of these furry paratroopers ‘invading’ their land.

Knowing former Communist Europe as I do, I can imagine the hilarity practically rocking the apartment blocks of Minsk and elsewhere in the country, when their perennial president denounces Sweden and Lithuania, with his references to ‘teddy bears’.

Lukashenko’s sense of humour deficiency has never really been in doubt and he has been making some ludicrously violent threats against both Sweden and Lithuania, the latter apparently about to suffer ruinously from a diversion of Belarusian cargo, from that of the port of Klaipeda, towards others in the Baltic region. Lithuania is heavily reliant on its neighbour’s goods travelling over its land to be then transported over the sea. Lukashenko’s warnings against Vilnius would, however, damage Minsk more than Lithuania because his exports would probably dry up. 

The Belarusian’s bombast here is as ridiculous as is his aversion to foreign teddy bears dropping in. He has even threatened the interloping pilots with the KGB. Predictably, safe at home in Sweden, they aren’t in the least bit scared. Seth Macfarlane’s Ted would also undoubtedly stick one pudgy finger up to Lukashenko in response to his hot air.

Sometimes allies, sometimes foes, Lukashenko and his counterpart in Moscow, Vladimir Putin, are clearly of a kind, up to a point. But the latter has, by a whisker, more humanity about him, not least because he can allow himself to have it as head of a much larger nation. He has sung Fats Dominos songs to the delight of Hollywood stars and ridden in front of a preposterously contrived macho pack of bikers into the heart of Moscow, whereas Lukashenko is a complete square, hardly ever given to publicity-generating gimmicks. He clearly doesn’t see the need for them. The hard act will do and he will never be aware of the fact of his own absurdity.

As president of 10 million people, and with his desire to dominate them forever, Lukashenko views every intrusion into his country, whether from chubby-faced bouncing toys, perhaps into the arms of a delighted child - oblivious to the politics – or anybody or anything else as nothing to laugh about.

He’d have shot that light aircraft down if he could have done but he didn’t and there lies the power in the gesture. Lukashenko has sacked the military men concerned because they did not bring down an aeroplane of teddy-bear toting pilots.

The Swedish activists had a cause, which the West understandably supports. No one, least of all many Belarusians, wants Lukashenko. Vladimir Putin is also, by the day, with his awful and equivocal remarks on the Pussy Riot case, a pariah yet again. The Swedes can laugh their heads off at Lukashenko as much as they like, and good luck to them. The women in Moscow just had balaclavas, their anger and forty seconds in a church. It is much easier to protest from the clouds, if the local airforce is asleep and you get away with it. On the ground, you invariably can’t.

This all makes the West look superior but if a plane flew over London right now and emptied a cargo of teddy bears over the territory, it would not last long, I would guess. Those surface-to-air missiles, that gained notoriety prior to the Olympics, would soon come into play. Then the British would have to look at the current status of their civil liberties and much-vaunted sense of humour, as well.

The Olympics can lead to a good deal of self-deception. Back in 1980, the hosts the Soviet Union used a cutesy bear, Misha, as the games’ mascot and had a troupe of children-come-teddy-bears perform a loveable dance during the opening ceremony. I bet Lukashenko-the-throw-back won’t want reminding of that right now.

Saturday 4 August 2012

Guest Blogger: Steve Porter on the Rangers' Debacle and Scottish Football

Part 2: The Revolution Will Be Televised

 “Football without fans is nothing.” – Jock Stein

The Scottish Premier League kicks off this weekend with a new look. Two fresh teams in the league for the first time in years, although Rangers absence from the top table has consequences for all concerned. It is not a decision that SPL chairmen would have taken were it not for the fact they were faced by a fan mutiny.

When asked what should be done about Rangers financial misconduct of recent years, over 95% of supporters of the other SPL clubs consistently said in surveys that they would not tolerate instant readmission to the SPL for the new Rangers. A fair number were threatening to stay away from the clubs they supported altogether if this happened. When it was suggested that Rangers only drop to Division One, many fans in that league followed suit. As we know, the Gers are now in Division Three and must work their way up.  

Dundee United’s Stephen Thompson summed it up nicely a few months back when he said the situation was “a lose-lose” one for chairmen. In other words, that had the choice of seeing more home supporters walk away or forego some of the financial benefits Rangers brought, such as a big away support and, more importantly nowadays, money generated from televised games.

One of the questions I considered when writing ‘Countries of the World’ was, what is a fan nowadays? Is it somebody who regularly goes to games or could it just as easily be someone sitting on their arse watching from the comfort of their own living room or the local pub? Traditionalists might argue with the semantics, but it is clear to me that the armchair supporter, whether considered a ‘real fan’ or not, has become more and more important – perhaps at the expense of those who actually attend games.

In my book I observed that the stadium can be half-empty and the club is not too concerned because they are still making money. But what if one day clubs were forced to choose? The current situation in Scotland has been something of a testing ground for this. It would seem that Jock Stein’s view, given that he was obviously talking about fans in the old-fashioned sense, has won out for now. The bottom line for Scotland’s clubs was that it made no sense to sacrifice their own loyal support in favour of outside forces. 

As it has turned out, Thompson’s Dundee United may be the SPL club least affected by Rangers’ demise. Their rivals Dundee, who play at Dens Park, literally a stone’s throw from Tannadice, were First Division runners-up and have taken Rangers' place in the SPL. The other week, a near capacity crowd filled Dens for a pre-season friendly between British football’s closest geographical neighbours. The unexpected renewed rivalry this season will have both chairmen rubbing their hands. St Johnstone, the other Tayside club in the SPL, should also be reasonably well-compensated by more local derbies with the old foe Dundee.

The new season will also see the first ever Highland derby in the top division, ensuring a few big gates for Inverness Caledonian Thistle and their rivals from across the Kessock Bridge – newcomers Ross County. This extra cash should cover for the loss of visits from Rangers, at least at the turnstiles.

It is the loss of money from the TV companies that is the biggest worry. Panic ensued when it became clear that Rangers would not be parachuted into Division One. SPL and SFA top brass could now see at least three years of football without the income Rangers generated and feared the plug could be pulled altogether on the TV deal.

The dust has settled now. Sky and ESPN have agreed terms to continue covering Scottish football for the next five years. The chaotic organisation of the game in Scotland, meant the SPL had to buy rights from the SFL for £1m to show some Rangers games in the Third Division, and then have discussions with the old and new Ibrox companies, before thrashing out a revised deal. Third Division clubs should cash in from the Gers’ presence, although many managers pointed out that it reduced their own hopes of promotion. 

One of the most interesting games could be the Glasgow derby between Rangers and those grand old Corinthians of the Scottish game – Queens Park. The latter of course, play at Hampden, so Rangers are still guaranteed a couple of visits to the national stadium. Queens Park have said they are hoping for a crowd of around 20,000 for the festive fixture. It’s impossible to predict but it will be fascinating to see how many turn up. 

The Daily Record has been instrumental in painting a very gloomy picture for Scottish football post-Old Firm (remember, they have to pacify their readership). The Record’s latest claim, made by Craig Swan on Wednesday, is that the loss of Rangers has cost the SPL £17m in TV money. But when you break that down, it’s over 5 years and split between 12 clubs, which doesn’t sound so apocalyptic. 

In fact, Hibernian and Dundee United have already sold more season tickets than last season, while Aberdeen, Motherwell, St. Mirren and even Kilmarnock (the only SPL club who did not vote to remove Rangers) are all reporting better sales than at this stage last year. 

What about Celtic you might ask? Fans of the Hoops have been as vociferous as anyone about sending Rangers down, even though it means one of the world’s most famous derbies disappearing from the calendar. Back in February, when Rangers first went into administration, Celtic chief executive Peter Lawwell said: “We look after ourselves; we don’t rely on any other club.” It remains to be seen how Celtic are affected without Rangers breathing down their necks. Will the lack of a serious challenge in the SPL have a detrimental effect? The club has kept a fairly low profile all through this affair, but they have admitted that qualifying for the group stages of the Champions League takes on even greater importance. But unless a new league challenger emerges, they look to be virtually guaranteed a crack at that every year for the foreseeable future. 

Whether Scottish football will survive has never seriously been in any doubt. News of its death has been greatly exaggerated. But the game north of the border has been badly in need of a shake up. It has come about through an unexpected series of events rather than imaginative leadership. More changes will have to take place over the next few seasons to avoid another mutiny. 

Steven Porter is the author of Countries of the World, a football-based novel that also deals with some of the major events of the 80’s: Thatcherism, the Falklands War, World Cups, military coups, dictatorships and disappearances.