Sunday, 26 January 2014

Does Fantasy Football ruin actual football?

"Shite, why didn't I captain Suarez this week?"

Before Christmas I was sitting in a pub in Tralee watching a football match. It was Arsenal vs Chelsea. These two are titans of the Premier League and between them possess some of the finest attackers on the planet; Hazard, Ozil, Cazorla, Walcott, Willian, Oscar, just to name the main cast. Arsenal play a wonderfully fluid style of football, their players float across the pitch with the grace of Njinsky in his pomp (Not the horse) and play with such a deft touch that they sometimes make David Ginola look like Razor Ruddock after half a pack of Lucky Strike. Chelsea, on the other hand, are certainly the more pragmatic of the two though in Oscar, Hazard and Willian, they have players who are capable of breathtaking moments of quality.

With all this in mind, isn’t it odd that I had a grin as wide as the Thames etched across my face as the game ambled, scoreless, to its denouement? Nah, because I had Terry and Koscielny in my fantasy football team and a scoreless draw was worth at least 8 points to me with the further possibility of bonus points for one of my defensive duo.

I’ll give you another example. I’m sitting in a bar in Ghana watching the Merseyside derby November last. A cracking game it was, as those who watched it will attest to, and I cheered so passionately when Romelu Lukaku knocked in a brace in the second half that it’s wonder I didn’t receive a smack in the gob from one of the Liverpool supporters sitting there next to me, glum and mute. I’m a Manchester United fan so it’s always nice to see Liverpool drop a couple of points but was this the source of my outpouring of ecstasy? Nah, as you may have guessed, I had Lukaku sitting in my fantasy team, hoovering up a tasty 8 points for his goals with three bonus points almost certainly guaranteed. And when Daniel Sturridge equalised for Liverpool in the dying moments to rescue a point for the Reds, my jovial mood was not perturbed in the slightest. I had my points and that’s all that matters.

This is the life of a Fantasy Football follower. For the uninitiated, fantasy football is a game where you select 11 active Premier League players and the number of points you accrue each week is based on the real-life performances of the players. So if one of your strikers scores a goal you get 4 points and if one of your midfielders scores you get 5 and if a defender keeps a clean sheet you get 4 and so on.

Yes, at the start of the season, every man and his dog has a fantasy football team but it takes dedication, perseverance and mental strength to last the whole season. It’s a strenuous task, taking minutes and then hours out of your day as you deliberate on who’s a better bet; Whittingham at home to West Ham or Ki-Seung Yeung away to Fulham?

But does it suck the fun out of football? When there’s a thrilling game on the telly, say a 3-3 draw or one of those mad high scoring victories like Liverpool’s 5-3 win over Stoke the other week, commentators often remark on how “the neutrals sitting at home will be loving this”. But oh, there is a paucity of games every weekend where I am actually a neutral. In the majority of games I usually have a vested interest. Or two. In the aforementioned Liverpool-Stoke game, I had Simon Mignolet in goal in my fantasy team. So I was not exactly thrilled by his less than proficient performance. At the same time, I had the honourable Uruguayan gentleman Luis Suarez captained so his two goals and one assist were much appreciated.

But that game is another example of my, perhaps, unhealthy obsession with fantasy football. When Liverpool raced into a two goal lead early in the first half, all I wanted was a nice, dour 60 minutes of scoreless football. Suarez had got his goal and Mignolet would get his clean sheet. This wish was dashed just before half-time as part-time beanpole Peter Crouch pulled one back for Stoke and then, the oldest looking 27 year old in the world, Charlie Adam, equalised for the Potters. The first goal was galling but after the initial disgruntlement I suppose there is a smidgen of liberation. After that goal flew in I thought, “Fuck it, score as many goals as you bastards want now”. I reverted back to being a proper, neutral football fan and genuinely enjoyed watching the two defences trying to outdo each other in incompetence.

So being a fantasy football nut makes neutrality downright unfeasible. But at the other end of the spectrum, it also makes supporting a team difficult. As I mentioned above I am a Manchester United fan and a very loyal and erudite one too, I would argue. While naturally I would never cheer a United loss or wish for them to drop points for the good of my fantasy football team, there have been times this season, a season which for United has been a puddle of shit might I add, where I have secretly been wishing for United to concede the odd tactical goal to add to my weekly fantasy score.

A case in point would be United’s match against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge last Sunday. I, like most mentally sound United fans, did not expect much from the game. At the same time, I am still a fan so I dearly, dearly yearned for a point or three. By half-time it was clear United had about as much chance of getting something out of the game as I have in becoming the pope’s meth dealer. So I did what any rational fantasy football manager would do, I mentally urged Oscar to get his name on the scoresheet as I had the baby-faced Brazilian in my fantasy team. “Well fuck it”, I thought, “If we’re going to lose does it make a difference if it’s 2-0, 3-0 or 4-0.”

United lost 3-1 in the end with Samuel “I’m worth more than the GDP of my country” Eto’o netting all three goals in what must surely rank as the worst ever hat-trick scored against United, narrowly edging out that time when Dirk Kuyt knocked three past Edwin Van Der Sar in Anfield from the accumulative distance of three yards.

So these are the things fantasy football does to you. It makes football a very artificial experience, one could argue. A cynic might add that it crystallises everything that is wrong with modern culture; intensely giving a shit about something which is entirely fatuous and that does nothing to advance you mentally, physically or even metaphysically. A philosophical cynic, maybe. And then someone else might point out that following an actual football team produces the exact same experience. I ain’t saying nuffink.  

Perhaps it’s a case of overegging the pudding. The Premier League is already a supreme dish which has nourished and satisfied me for two decades now. Fantasy Football is such a genius idea (Which we have the Americans to thank for) and in this digital age so instantly accessible that it’s irresistible. But maybe it’s too much. Two great things are not always compatible. One could say it’s a bit like drenching a sirloin steak in maple syrup. It is to my own personal relationship with the Premier League what the inclusion of Chachi was to Happy Days.

But fuck it, Lukaku at home to West Brom or Remy away to Crystal Palace?

Monday, 13 January 2014

Why hasn't an anti-immigration party like UKIP emerged in Ireland?

If it was a pint of Guinness he was holding we might reconsider

They were once famously branded as a party of "fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists" by David Cameron but UKIP have become so popular lately that Cameron's Conservative Party have had to adopt their rhetoric and even policies to prove their right-wing credentials. Yes, no one's chuckling at Nigel Farage's party anymore with the Guardian even beginning to acknowledge their seismic effect on the British political scene.

UKIP's success has largely been built on that most primal, most basic of human emotions - fear of the outsider. They have latched on to an issue with considerable historical baggage in Britain and an issue which still carries a lot of significance for a considerable portion of the population - immigration.

Inward migration to the UK is not something new. Nor is opposition to it. But never has a party which is so explicitly anti-immigration gained such traction in the UK. But I do not wish to discuss the reasons for that. What I wish to query is why a similar party or movement has not emerged in Ireland. 

Inward migration to Ireland is a relatively new beast and while it has abated considerably since the beginning of the recession, over 50,000 people emigrated to Ireland in 2012. The social fabric of Ireland has changed significantly since the early 90s. Prior to then, Ireland was decidedly white and decidedly catholic. Not since the Vikings had Ireland witnessed any real surge in inward migration. And we were world champions of outward migration, of course. 

While reaction to immigration in Ireland has been typically difficult to gauge (We're a nation who likes to keep our political opinions to ourselves - unless we're down the pub) there is unquestionably a sense of opposition among a portion of the population, mainly older and more rural people, to immigration. This opposition, its relative strength or weakness difficult to measure, has not manifested itself in any practical way.

There has been no mass, quasi-patriotic, anti-immigration movement in Ireland like UKIP. Does this not seem strange to people? I'm not advocating the founding of such an organisation but it seems like it would have been a natural step. So what are the probable reasons for this state of affairs? I can only speculate but speculate is what I shall do. 

Well first off, as I have already alluded to, we have a prolific history of outward migration. Like, seriously prolific. If each country was a player in the Emigration World Cup we would be Pele, Romario and Messi rolled into one. So is there an argument to be made that, because of this, we have a keener understanding of and sympathy with incoming migrants than a country like the UK would? 

Stories abound of Irish immigrants being the victims of very distasteful discrimination in America and Britain for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. No blacks, dogs, or Irish as the old adage goes (Indeed, A People's History of the United States of America by Howard Zinn is a good book if you wish to read more about the difficulties faced by Irish immigrants in the US in the years after the Famine.) So, perhaps there is a case to be made that we are more naturally welcoming to immigrants than our Anglo cousins for we've seen what a challenge it can be to up-sticks and move to a strange, foreign country. 

Now that point is really only speculation. I can't prove that. So perhaps we could do with some more practical reasons. Like the fact that we have much, much bigger problems on our plate than immigration. I don't want to dwell too much on the recession or the bank bailout or our new, 21st century brand of emigration but I have to. While the economic picture in Britain since the world was shook by the stock market crash of 2008 has been far from rosy, the entire fabric of their political and economic infrastructure has not been torn apart in quite the same way ours has. 

Here's just a few statistics. The UK's unemployment rate is currently 7.4% while Ireland's is 12.4%. Indeed, Ireland's rate hit 15.1% as recently as February 2012 and the sharp decrease has less to do with positive economic activity and more to do with the gentle massaging of statistics thanks to JobBridge and similar internship schemes, underemployment and of course our old friend emigration. Which leads me on to my next point rather nicely. Since 2008, over 200,000 people have left Ireland. And the problem isn't going away with 250 people still leaving Ireland every day

So maybe, in a very simple way, we just don't have the time to be worrying about immigration. Contrary to what the weekend papers have been trumpeting in the last few weeks, Ireland is not yet out of murky waters and our supposed recovery has been very slow and grinding. Perhaps for the more affluent classes it is a different story, but for the majority of the population, Ireland is still waiting for an actual "good news story". We remain too distracted by a myriad of serious issuess for an issue-heavy party like the UKIP to emerge and the emphasis right now is on the economy and not much else. 

Then there's the dominance of the major parties; Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour. Now some may claim that this point is moot as the major political parties in Britain have enjoyed a similar hegemony, since the Second World War at least. Labour and the Tories have taken turns as Britain's most popular party while the Lib Dems are as used to bronze as Dannii Minogue is to botox. Judging by the local elections held last year however, UKIP have broken this triangle of power. We'll get a better idea in next year's general election but judging by the polls, they should make some healthy gains

A handful of small political parties have made it into power in Ireland, albeit as very junior members of coalitions with the big boys. The  Democratic Left, the PDs and the Greens have all sat around the cabinet table in the last 20 years though two of those parties no longer exist while the Greens were virtually wiped out in the last election. No small political party in Ireland has ever had the impact UKIP have made in the UK. Some may point to Sinn Féin's recent resurgence but it's an entirely different story given Sinn Féin's prominence in modern Irish history. 

Ireland's attitude towards immigration remains difficult to gauge. While the assimilation of many different nationalities has hardly been rosy, the Immigrant Council of Ireland reports that there has been an 85% increase in the number of migrants complaining of racist incidents in the past year for example, we have not seen close to the disruption caused in Britain by rising racial tensions. I'm not quite sure why this is, some may point to the fact that Britain is far more industrialised and far more densely populated than Ireland and that this is bound to cause tensions to simmer, others may say it's more to do with our apparent apathy. 

In truth, whatever negative attitudes persist in Ireland with regards to immigration, it remains very unlikely that a party like UKIP will emerge any time soon. Even after the tumult of the last half-decade, Ireland's political arena remains remarkably stagnant and remarkably short of fresh blood. We may not be happy with our current lot, but it doesn't seem like there's much of a queue lining up to replace them. 

My own personal opinion (Related to but separate from the above post)

Now,  I've remained remarkably impartial throughout the above post so I feel as though I should state my position very clearly on immigration. I am strongly in favour of the free movement of persons regardless of colour, creed or race. I have grown up in a relatively multicultural society, much more so than people 20 or even 10 years older than me did, and can say with certainty that diversity and immigration makes things more interesting. 

Now it is important to remain aware however. The free movement of persons around the EU, particularly from the poorer Eastern countries, is loudly applauded by the capitalist classes and it's not because they're champions of multiculturalism. When there's an influx of foreign labour in Ireland it is used as a tool to drive wages and working conditions down. Foreign workers are more likely to accept lower wages and poorer working conditions than Irish workers and Irish workers in turn are forced to accept lower wages and poorer working conditions for fear of dismissal.

This is a win-win for the capitalist class as, along with the obvious monetary benefits, the Irish workers generally vent their anger towards the foreign workers instead of those who really deserve their ire, the capitalist classes. This is a vicious cycle and one which unfortunately will not be rectified in the foreseeable future due to obvious systematic problems. 

Oh, and I find the policies of UKIP and Nigel Farage pretty odious. I also find their cheerleaders in the media, namely the Daily Mail and the Daily Express, odious. People should look to alternatives from the political establishment (Cameron, Miliband and Clegg along with Kenny, Gilmore and Martin are equally distasteful) but, as history has taught us, the far-right route only brings intolerance, misery and suffering. 

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

The rise of Snapchat: What the f**k happened?

It looks like a silhouette of Zoidberg from Futurama. Or a condom

I must admit, I'm a bit late to the party. For those of you who don't know I spent 5 months in Ghana on Co-Op so my hitherto excellent and unflappable grasp of popular culture has taken something of a hit. Twerking passed me by, as did most of Miley Cyrus' gallivanting and it was only two weeks ago I discovered that the tall lad from Glee who couldn't really sing or act or dance died in a pool of alcohol, vomit and heroin. 

The most significant change that occurred while I was away in Africa however has to be the rise of the selfie and the main vessel on which it sails, the smartphone app Snapchat. I was a puzzled boy when I returned and found that not only has Snapchat become incongruously popular but that it's so popular that it's threatening to dismantle Facebook's vice-like grip on the teen social networking market. Facebook!? Dear God, when I left it seemed it would take an alien invasion or at the very least a nuclear fallout to stifle Facebook's dominance. I had to get to the bottom of this. I had to see what all the fuss was about. So I asked myself, just why is Snapchat so popular?

The first thing that puzzled me with regards to Snapchat was the selfie. I was familiar with the term before I had left (To be honest, it's not too fucking difficult to work out) but it's become a bona fide pop culture phenomenon. It perplexes me though. Before 2013, anyone posting selfies on Facebook or any other website would be, at best, considered a tad self-satisfied and at worst a vain, preening shitcake. 

What happened in between? What made it ok to post teasing, attention-seeking images of your own mug? I was always of the understanding that there was a subtle yet strict moral code which all us decent human beings on the internet abided by. Don't cyberbully. Don't laugh at 9gag. Don't share those inane "One like = One respect for Cancer Victims" facebook posts. Don't be a vain, preening shitcake. 

But this moral code has been flipped upside down and rendered useless by the advent of the selfie. It admonishes and, nay, encourages vanity and self-obsession. The selfie has been assisted in its propulsion to ubiquity with the help of celebrities such as Cara Delevigne and Kendell Jenner. Celebrities are always reliable cheerleaders for any thing which encourages conceitedness, self-adoration and solipsism. (Solipsism is a pushing it a bit but, fuck it, I have a word count and it sounds intelligent.) These celebrities regularly post selfies on their instagram accounts to their adoring followers who number the hundreds of thousands. Instagram, ironically, is owned and operated by Facebook so maybe they aren't the big losers in this selfie explosion. 

So, in an attempt to understand Snapchat's obvious appeal I decided to download it on my own phone and give it a spin. I encountered a number of difficulties, chief among them that my phone, while ostensibly a smartphone, is a steaming pile of cheap dog shite and trying to run Snapchat on it is like trying to run the latest edition of World of Warcraft on Windows 98. I have no front-facing camera and the one on the back is a measly 3MP so the pictures end up about as clear and concise as a Jackson Pollock painting. 

Nevertheless, in the 30 or so minutes I spent faffing about on it I really didn't enjoy it. Jesus it's intrusive, constantly bugging you to "invite your friends" and "sync your contacts" so even more people can be vain, preening shitcakes with you. It sends instant messages to your phone as soon as one of your friends sends you a picture. Jesus. Do people really find their friends that interesting? 

Have we truly reached the stage in digital saturation where we want to be updated instantly as soon as our friends posts a drunken selfie or a picture of their dinner? I've barely tip-toed my way through the incipient stages of my 20s and I still feel too old for this shit. 

I can sort of understand the appeal. Snapchat is much more intimate than Facebook and, as many commentators have pointed out, Facebook has lost its cool factor thanks to the multitude of parents, aunties, uncles and even grandparents who clog up teenagers' news feeds. Is it a fad? Probably not. It's just another rung on this digital ladder which we're all climbing together. In a few years time, we'll probably be discussing the latest social networking craze that teens are flocking to (to the apparent detriment of Snapchat) and wonder if it's the end of Snapchat. But it probably won't be. Like Facebook now it'll still remain relevant and popular long past its peak. Why? Because when you get this big you don't just fall away into anonymity. Now to post a selfie of my twerkie.