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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.