Danish goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard in action for Manchester City in January 2012. Photo: Getty
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A prayer for the goalies and referees of the World Cup

Let’s take a minute to remember the perennial villains of the game.

Here is one thing I can predict with total certainty about this World Cup: an as-yet-to-be determined number of goalies and referees are going to suffer terrible fates. They will be vilified. They will ruin their lives as we watch. They will shoulder the rage and sorrows of entire nations.

As we saunter into this month-long spectacle, let us take a moment to thank them. For their suffering is what makes this theatre possible.

I was the goalie for my suburban American youth team, and I actually remember a kind of beautiful peace to the role. You watch, from a quiet distance, as the pattern of the game unfolds, at ease when the ball is far off, gradually more and more alert as it approaches. There’s a kind of curious apartness to being a goalie. Except, of course, when your defenders once again screw up, and the ball comes streaking towards you, and in a gesture of complete irrationality and abandon you throw yourself in its path. And then, often enough, after all that, as your face smashes into the dirt, the ball goes into the net anyway. And it’s all your fault.

I was spared this experience much of the time only because an Icelandic wunderkind named Yakko had miraculously descended into the precincts of Bethesda, and even more miraculously ended up on our second-rate team. My job mostly consisted in watching him leave a trail consisting of every opposing player lying on the ground, then scoring one goal after another, then running back to us, all smiles, and high-fiving me as if I had contributed somehow by standing inert in the goal in the meantime.

I do remember well, though, the brief period when my Bolivian coach (who, he always repeated to us, had once “played with Pelé”, allowing us to imagine this taking place in some grand circumstance) decided I should be a striker. Apparently I’d dribbled better than anyone (save Yakko) during a drill. Plus I was Belgian, which I think he hoped would have conferred on me some skill in the midst of the desert of talent he found himself in. My career as a striker was relatively short, but I do remember well the incredible freedom I felt, the lightness of trying to score rather than stopping others from scoring. It was sometimes my fault we didn’t win. But it was never precisely my fault that we lost, the way it was when I was a goalie.

The lot of the goalie has generated its share of art, literature and philosophy. Albert Camus was a goalie, and I feel pretty comfortable attributing the entire structure of existentialist thought to that fact. And of course we have constantly been hearing of late about Moacir Barbosa, whose mistake in the final of the 1950 World Cup cost Brazil its trophy, completely ruining his life for good in the process, since Brazilians blamed forever for the worst thing that ever happened in history. If you are ever feeling sorry for yourself just imagine trying to go out to dinner in Rio as Moacir Barbosa.

If you are lucky as a goalie for a losing side, people will forget you. Who was the English goalie against whom Maradona scored his two legendary goals in 1986? Most of us don’t know his name, because no one really blames him for letting those two goals in. They either blame or celebrate Maradona, who occupies enough space in people’s memories anyway.

Often, though, goalies play extraordinary games but then are remembered for one failure. Think of Raïs M’Bohli, the amazing goalie for Algeria in the 2010 World Cup who stopped strike after strike from the U.S., basically keeping his team in the game. Except we don’t remember that so much as the fact that in its final minutes, Landon Donovan scored probably the most exciting goal in our country’s history against him.

Goalies do have some things going for them. In the right circumstances, they can be heroes. I suspect that for many goalies there is a certain pleasure in penalty shoot-outs for precisely this reason. The tables are turned, and for once it is those who are trying to score who bear all the responsibility. During penalty kicks, every player becomes a goalie. They get the chance to lose everything for their team. Roberto Baggio is condemned to be forever sending his shot far over the cross bar and into the stands in the 1994 final against Brazil, losing the Cup for Italy in that one instant.

As bad as goalies have it, referees have it even worse. The very best they can hope for is relative invisibility. If they referee a perfect match, people will forget they were even there. As for glory or praise, they can pretty much give up on that. When’s the last time you sat around with friends and waxed poetic about the brilliant refereeing of Howard Webb? Will there ever be a video game called FIFA referee?

Much more likely for a referee is that they will at some point be accused of being absolutely the worst person on the planet. Remember Koman Coulibaly, who at the 2010 World Cup disallowed a goal scored by the U.S. that was clearly over the line? Suddenly all kinds of people who never had seemed to care about soccer much before were enraged that this African referee – who, some noted, didn’t even speak English! – had stolen a goal from United States. As Paul Kennedy put it wryly, Coulibaly had actually done us a big favor: “He accomplished what no one else could in more than 100 years. He made Americans care passionately about soccer.”

I love yelling at referees as much as anyone else. I’m rip-roaring mad about the refereeing of the 1982 semifinal between France and Germany, which happened when I was ten and which I have only ever seen on YouTube.

But even though I realise this is a completely quixotic hope, one that goes against the very core of the being of most football fans, I’m still going to make this modest proposal for this World Cup. When the moment comes when we want to blame everything on a goalie or a referee, let us stop for a moment and imagine ourselves in his cleats. If we do that, maybe in a small way this World Cup will actually make a contribution to humanity.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

Photo: Getty
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Ken Livingstone says publicly what many are saying privately: tomorrow belongs to John McDonnell

The Shadow Chancellor has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election happen. 

“It would be John.” Ken Livingstone, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal allies in the media, has said publicly what many are saying privately: if something does happen to Corbyn, or should he choose to step down, place your bets on John McDonnell. Livingstone, speaking to Russia Today, said that if Corbyn were "pushed under a bus", John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Even among the Labour leader’s allies, speculation is rife as to if the Islington North MP will lead the party into the 2020 election. Corbyn would be 71 in 2020 – the oldest candidate for Prime Minister since Clement Attlee lost the 1955 election aged 72.

While Corbyn is said to be enjoying the role at present, he still resents the intrusion of much of the press and dislikes many of the duties of the party leader. McDonnell, however, has impressed even some critics with his increasingly polished TV performances and has wowed a few sceptical donors. One big donor, who was thinking of pulling their money, confided that a one-on-one chat with the shadow chancellor had left them feeling much happier than a similar chat with Ed Miliband.

The issue of the succession is widely discussed on the left. For many, having waited decades to achieve a position of power, pinning their hopes on the health of one man would be unforgivably foolish. One historically-minded trade union official points out that Hugh Gaitskell, at 56, and John Smith, at 55, were 10 and 11 years younger than Corbyn when they died. In 1994, the right was ready and had two natural successors in the shape of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in place. In 1963, the right was unprepared and lost the leadership to Harold Wilson, from the party's centre. "If something happens, or he just decides to call it a day, [we have to make sure] it will be '94 not '63," they observed.

While McDonnell is just two years younger than Corbyn, his closest ally in politics and a close personal friend, he is seen by some as considerably more vigorous. His increasingly frequent outings on television have seen him emerge as one of the most adept media performers from the Labour left, and he has won internal plaudits for his recent tussles with George Osborne over the tax bill.

The left’s hopes of securing a non-Corbyn candidate on the ballot have been boosted in recent weeks. The parliamentary Labour party’s successful attempt to boot Steve Rotheram off the party’s ruling NEC, while superficially a victory for the party’s Corbynsceptics, revealed that the numbers are still there for a candidate of the left to make the ballot. 30 MPs voted to keep Rotheram in place, with many MPs from the left of the party, including McDonnell, Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John Trickett, abstaining.

The ballot threshold has risen due to a little-noticed rule change, agreed over the summer, to give members of the European Parliament equal rights with members of the Westminster Parliament. However, Labour’s MEPs are more leftwing, on the whole, than the party in Westminster . In addition, party members vote on the order that Labour MEPs appear on the party list, increasing (or decreasing) their chances of being re-elected, making them more likely to be susceptible to an organised campaign to secure a place for a leftwinger on the ballot.

That makes it – in the views of many key players – incredibly likely that the necessary 51 nominations to secure a place on the ballot are well within reach for the left, particularly if by-election selections in Ogmore, where the sitting MP, is standing down to run for the Welsh Assembly, and Sheffield Brightside, where Harry Harpham has died, return candidates from the party’s left.

McDonnell’s rivals on the left of the party are believed to have fallen short for one reason or another. Clive Lewis, who many party activists believe could provide Corbynism without the historical baggage of the man himself, is unlikely to be able to secure the nominations necessary to make the ballot.

Any left candidate’s route to the ballot paper runs through the 2015 intake, who are on the whole more leftwing than their predecessors. But Lewis has alienated many of his potential allies, with his antics in the 2015 intake’s WhatsApp group a sore point for many. “He has brought too much politics into it,” complained one MP who is also on the left of the party. (The group is usually used for blowing off steam and arranging social events.)

Lisa Nandy, who is from the soft left rather than the left of the party, is widely believed to be in the running also, despite her ruling out any leadership ambitions in a recent interview with the New Statesman.However, she would represent a break from the Corbynite approach, albeit a more leftwing one than Dan Jarvis or Hilary Benn.

Local party chairs in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is profiling should another leadership election arise. One constituency chair noted to the New Statesman that: “you could tell who was going for it [last time], because they were desperate to speak [at events]”. Tom Watson, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall all visited local parties across the country in preparation for their election bids in 2015.

Now, speaking to local party activists, four names are mentioned more than any other: Dan Jarvis, currently on the backbenches, but in whom the hopes – and the donations – of many who are disillusioned by the current leadership are invested, Gloria De Piero, who is touring the country as part of the party’s voter registration drive, her close ally Jon Ashworth, and John McDonnell.

Another close ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, who worked closely on the leadership election, is in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run should the need arise.  “You remember when that nice Mr Watson went touring the country? Well, pay attention to John’s movements.”

As for his chances of success, McDonnell may well be even more popular among members than Corbyn himself. He is regularly at or near the top of LabourList's shadow cabinet rankings, and is frequently praised by members. Should he be able to secure the nominations to get on the ballot, an even bigger victory than that secured by Corbyn in September is not out of the question.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.