As the transfer frenzy erupted at the end of last season, I predicted: “If you don’t think a lowly football club can be ramped up to the Premiership with sheer buying power, just watch my friend Mo Al Fayed pump Fulham into the top flight by March 2001.”
With 18 points from their first six matches, Jean Tigana’s delirious fans are asking, “Who wants to wait till March? We can wrap this up by Christmas!”
But of course this is being achieved with more than money. Above everything else, it’s the mental attitude of the team that is destroying all opposition. Even when Fulham go one down, as they did against Burnley in their last game, the dedication to victory never falters.
For Crewe, it must have been like fighting the Terminator. Paul Cook’s clever free-kick took a vital deflection from the Fulham wall, and a heavy blow was landed. But the special effects department absorbed it, the wound instantly closed, and when Louis Saha scored his first, an hour into the game, the Terminator was reborn stronger and crueller than ever. “I’ll be bark,” you can hear Arnie growl, “bark in the Premyersheep!”
Saha is a stupendous striker, who cost just £2.1 million from Metz. If Gianluca Vialli had had Saha instead of the £15m Hasselbaink, maybe Luca would still have his job.
That suggestion alone shows Fulham’s success is not all about Mohammad’s money. But the money is part of his ruthless determination. If a key player is out on the injury table, even for just two weeks, I expect Mo to buy a replacement. You won’t hear Tigana moaning that his team has been unlucky with injuries – but you might see a rapid changeover in personnel.
More than any businessman I know, Mo Al Fayed understands the value of money: it has no value. Unless you use money properly, it’s just wads of paper and lumps of coin. All the money in the world cannot avert a tragedy, as his grieving family learned only too harshly when his son Dodi died.
Mohammad has a coarse and ribald sense of humour, and he loves to laugh at institutions which think they can look down on him. I am certain that part of the pleasure in taking Fulham to the top will lie in achieving his victory in that most English arena, the soccer stadium. For his ambition will not be satisfied when Tigana leads his team into the top flight. I confidently expect Fulham to finish in the top six next season, alongside Man-U and Arsenal. And the following season … who knows?
If the transfer market really is blown open by new European regulations, I expect Fulham’s reputation and Mo’s cash will be able to lure the Rivaldos and Figos. Alex Ferguson’s successor will be a bit-part player compared to Mo’s man.
Some people will object that Chelsea have set themselves the same targets, with the same weapons, and are ignominiously failing. The money is available at Stamford Bridge – but where’s the 100 per cent record?
The answer lies in the personalities of the chairmen. Mohammad Al Fayed is an elemental force … and Ken Bates is Ken Bates.
I am very sorry, of course. It was an accident. I had no intention of spoiling the fun for two billion people worldwide.
I really was not trying to cause mischief. But as I focused on the Olympic flame, flickering on my widescreen TV on its slow ascension to the torch, I may inadvertently have caused something in Sydney to break. The flame got stuck. I was focusing on international disarmament, wanting to prove that the power of the mind can halt nuclear proliferation.
It is scarcely the first time. When I first ventured outside Israel, in 1972, a German journalist challenged me to stop an escalator with the power of my mind alone. I succeeded. The Munich Olympics were at their height them – perhaps there is something in the interlocking rings which inspires my psi ability.
Skeptics in Bavaria laughed at my claims about the escalator, and challenged me to stop a cable car between peaks. That too was a success.
I stopped Big Ben when I moved to England. The tabloids scoffed, so I stopped it again. I have stopped computers, ocean liners … you name it, I’ve influenced it. It’s even been claimed by a woman that I bent her IUD coil during one of my TV shows. She got pregnant.
The Olympics have long possessed great spiritual significance for me. Six years ago, at the climax of a bio-pic about my life directed by Ken Russell, I declared my intention of using the Olympics to focus the world’s attention on nuclear disarmament. With 2,000 million people glued to their screens, I wanted to join the world in prayer for peace.
Until I, like Mohammed Ali and that other great sporting icon, Olivia Newton John, am invited to the Olympic ceremony, I cannot address the planet from that stage. But nothing will prevent me from praying for peace in my own home, as the fireworks erupt and the flame coasts towards the torch.
And if the power of my prayers has the energy to provoke a mechanical glitch or two, all I can say is ‘Sorry’. Really. I’m sorry. Honestly I am. Very very sorry.
Note to pedantic readers: Yes, this isn’t strictly about football. It’s more about sport in the wider sense. But if I get enough emails of dissention, I promise to file a column later this week titled: “Why Chelsea face certain relegation.” Please send your angry protests to mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org
Football In Heaven
They play football in heaven. Otherwise it wouldn’t be heaven, would it? On Saturday afternoons you’d have to stay on your cloud and watch the reruns of Have I Got News For You on BBC2. Which is the definition of purgatory.
A TV pundit pal was listing me his Heaven XI. I remember he picked Dixie Dean and Bobby Moore, but my football history is shaky and I couldn’t really name a team of soccer ghosts, unless you count last season’s Spurs side.
So I called up a team of deities to play his saints: The four-legged Hindu god Vishnu as centre forward, the 30-foot-high Welsh hero Kai in midfield, Jesus in goal – because, as the bumper stickers proclaim, Jesus Saves S
“Whoa there,” cut in my friend, “I know you’re Jewish, but that’s blasphemy.”
And I’d been sure my companion was an atheist! I tried to backtrack.
“Football,” he said, “is a religion. And you’re taking its name in vain.”
He wasn’t the first person to say that this summer. Psychologist Antony Clare compared stadiums to cathedrals, with towering spires and an atmosphere of fervent awe. The faithful sit in rows, stand for communal singing and pray loudly at frequent intervals.
In the Vatican, where a former Barcelona season ticket holder, Pope John-Paul II, used to play in goal for the Polish amateur team Wostyla, football fans talk about qualifying for the 2002 World Cup. The five-a-side league boasts teams of Holy City firemen, Swiss guards and even telephonists. The former leader of England’s Catholic church, Cardinal Hume, was a ferocious Newcastle fan who had his own No 9 shirt and wanted the Match Of The Day theme to be played at his funeral.
Newcastle are well stocked with famous Christians – Tony Blair took half an hour out of the G8 economic summit last May to watch his team losing the FA Cup final.
I’d like to make a point about the New Age, and claim that soccer’s divine status is a product of the worldwide awakening, a sublime gesture to the coming Millennium.
Sadly, I can’t. Football has appealed to all men, from the devout to the devilish, for centuries. The list of ball-kicking clerics in Cassell’s Soccer Companion fills almost a page. Canon William de Spalding, way back in the 14th Century, was a dirty tackler who needed special dispensation from the Pope after an opposing wing-back fell awkwardly and impaled himself on the churchman’s knife.
Brother Eddy Brown scored over 200 League goals. The Rev Ken Hunt scored for Wolves in the 1908 FA Cup final. Derby fan the Rev Ben Crockett would not marry couples during home matches, and Kingston Hill’s Canon A Wellesley Orr would dress his altar and pulpit in pennants and corner flags, and announce the sermon with a blast on a ref’s whistle.
The encyclopedias say nothing about footballing rabbis, but they must be out there, and I want to hear about them.
The Italia newspaper Corriere della Sera is campaigning to have the Bulgarian Passionist bishop Yevgeni Vincent Eugene Bossilkov, who was murdered by Communists, named as patron saint of soccer. Bossilkov was a heavy-smoking, hard-drinking man, whose idea of a good time was probably a night in a Manchester club with Teddy Sheringham and a couple of Karaoke hostesses.
He was imprisoned, tortured, subjected to a show trial and executed by firing squad, for refusing to flee the Eastern Bloc despite Stalin’s anti-religion laws.The secret police watched him day and night, and made their presence very plain, but the unflinching Bishop remained with his people until the puppet government under Todor Zhikhov made a final, lethal purge of the church.
Vatican spokesman Father Aidan Troy hinted to the Times that playing football counted for something if you wanted to become a saint. “I’ve been living here for four years,” he said, “and the passion for football is so incredible. When I told other priests about this idea of a patron saint there was great interest and enthusiasm for the idea.
“There’s no denial that Bossilkov loved football and played all his life. He only died in 1952 – we’re not talking about someone who died ten centuries ago.”
Footballing priest Gabriel Zsidi, a Chelsea fan who preaches at Our Lady Of Fatima in London, put the decision to beatify the bishop into context: “The fact the Bossilkov was a passionate football supporter and that he gave his life for an important principle may be something that people who follow football can learn from.
“Footballers or football supporters can then say, ‘He was a man who had high ideals but he was also one of us’.”
July 26, 2000
My son wants me to buy Exeter City for him. “Go on Dad … they could be in the First Division in a year or two! Think of the money we’d make from advertising. AmazonDotCom or someone would give us billions to put their website on our shirts. And think of those shirts – change the strip twice a season, and the away kit can be updated every other week! Come on Dad, you could print your own pound notes but this would be even easier … You know what they used to call Martin Edwards at Man-U? Money Edwards! You could be Money Geller, Dad. Just buy the Grecians … go on, go on.”
And I was tempted. My wife said it would be quicker to make a bonfire of all our savings and investment bonds on the lawn behind the house, and at least that would serve a useful purpose – we’d get rid of all last autumn’s leaves. But I kept looking north to Manchester, and dreaming of owning the world’s biggest brand-name. Because Man-U is no less than that. Bigger than the Dallas Cowboys or the New York Giants, bigger than Bernie Ecclestone’s Formula One brand or Bill Gates’ Microsoft. Manchester United is known by every male between six and fifty-six, in every country and on every island. Fly to Polynesia for your holidays and you’ll be greeted by customs officers in red tops with the Sharp logo. In Tokyo the other week, I shook hands with a thousand excitable businessmen eager to impress with their knowledge of English culture: “Lion Giggs, glate player! Loy Keane, velly tuff!”
I could have a slice of that please. We could build up the Grecians – buy Ginola perhaps (because the Devon air is so debonair), buy Juninho (God knows no one else wants the little genius for next season), buy Le Boeuf (Vialli couldn’t get rid of him fast enough, and don’t believe anything else you read). And if you don’t think a lowly football club can be ramped up to the Premiership with sheer buying power, just watch my friend Mo Al Fayed pump Fulham into the top flight by March 2001.
So I played some Fantasy Exeter Football. At first it was easy – I got FA Cup veteran Ben Roberts on a Bosman from Boro, and Davor Suker turned up on a free from Arsenal (Wenger is clinically insane: discuss, in not more than 50 words). I paid a trivial £1m for Martijn Reuser, and I got Mitch Ward for just £250,000. I took a deep breath and paid £2.5m for John Collins – either he is about to hit the most mature form of his career, or he’s finished … I lie awake worrying. And I found the same sum for a cast-iron player, Niclas Alexanderrson. And then things got hairy.
For Viduka, £6m. For Carl Cort, £7m – Carl Cort, I mean, Carl Cort. Didn’t the Dons get relegated last year? So I’m paying £7m for a chance at relegation? For Edu, £6m, only he doesn’t have a passport (and rumour has it I won’t get my money back). For a goalkeeper with butter liberally smeared all over his gloves, a mere £2.5m (I figured it was safer to buy Massimo Taibo than Fabien Barthez, for reasons I can’t expound upon in print). And finally, in need of a striker, I coughed up £15m for Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. He hasn’t won many trophies yet, but I’m sure he can turn that round with Exeter City.
So in my fantasy, I paid out more than £40m, and it really cleaned me out. But I was happy. I had a full squad – two goalies, admittedly, and another guy barred from the country, but it was looking OK. And then my son explained I would have to pay these people. Every week. Sometimes as much as £30,000. And never less than £7,500. Every seven days. No breaks.
Footballs to that, I said. And went out to the garden to make a bonfire.
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