Month: June 2010

Time for goal-line technology? No, not really

Prepare yourself for a round of deep scorn, flagellation and recrimination from the tabloids as the inquest into the England football team’s well-deserved World Cup humiliation at the hands of ‘The Old Enemy’, Germany, gets under way from tomorrow. The wise-after-the-event will be dusting off their professional outrage in the traditional quadrennial inquest into the failings of the national game. Part and parcel of that process will be an inevitable debate about goal-line technology following the incident where the match officials missed what would have been an equaliser for England.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to attempt to analyse the woes of Fabio Capello’s team – others will be able to summon far greater hysteria for that purpose, and besides, (unlike its cricketing counterpart) I can’t work myself into a lather over the England football team at the best of times. But as someone who nevertheless loves the game, the sport’s attitude to technology is something that does interest me. Shouldn’t there be a fast and easy mechanism to inform the match officials that the ball has crossed the line?

The arguments in favour are clear and highly persuasive: it doesn’t hold the game up too much, the technology required is fairly simple, and it would have the (very hard to argue against) benefit of making sure teams like England wouldn’t be denied a perfectly legitimate goal (or that teams like West Germany weren’t penalised needlessly in World Cup Finals at Wembley, for that matter). But who said the debate over technology had to be a rational one?

Football is a game which raises the temperatures of those who follow it. Its disagreements and differences of interpretation are among the reasons people read the sports pages and talk about it in pubs and workplaces all over the world. For example, today’s other game (between Argentina and Mexico) saw a controversial opener by a player who was in an offside position when he scored. The goal shouldn’t have stood and all hell broke loose at half time between players, officials and coaching staff on the touchline – and it was great fun to watch.

Controversy is part of the appeal, and there will surely be more before the tournament is over. There are no end of people who will tell you that football has lost something since ‘the old days’ and perhaps they are right. Goal-line technology would take away something else – the talking point – and I think, however irrationally, that the game would be a poorer spectacle for it. It is, after all, meant to be entertainment, and what could be more entertaining than seeing, just to pick a random example, Spurs denied a certain winner at Old Trafford (below) purely because of the glorious incompetence of the match officials? Reason enough to leave things well alone.

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If you lie down with dogs…

If you lie down with dogs there’s a good chance you’re going to get up with fleas. With that in mind, I don’t suppose I should be in the least bit surprised at the nature of this week’s Budget, not least the inclusion of the Tories’ favourite tax, VAT.

I’m also fully aware of the nature of coalition. There are those who express surprise at the amount of Lib Dem election manifesto commitments which have either disappeared or been completely reversed, but I guess these people haven’t grasped the concept of being the junior partner in a coalition. The Tories have the lion’s share of the seats and so the government’s agenda is basically theirs with a few added Lib Dem bells and whistles (movement towards a £10,000 tax allowance, for example, or a referendum on limited voting reform).

But I still can’t get past the thought that the price of these noble policy aims has been to accept a regressive Budget from a Chancellor who clearly doesn’t give a damn about those less well off than himself (in other words, most of the rest of us). I deliberately didn’t post in the immediate afterscorch of the Budget for fear of bursting out with a purely emotional response to its provisions, but three days on and my view of it is pretty much the same.

I can accept some of the cuts for the simple reason that as a country we can’t simply keep on spending money we clearly don’t have. Contrary to what the Labour Party will tell you, running a massive deficit is not a progressive policy because someone will have to pay for it in the end and the longer we wait the more it will cost, both in terms of cash and public services. That said, there has to be a balance between controlling spending and making sure such cuts don’t damage the wider economy. I think the nature and timing of the cuts will put the economy at serious risk and that the coalition has taken this leap for ideological rather than pragmatic considerations.

Inevitably part of the ‘medicine’ comes in the form of increased taxation, but here is the most glaring case of Tory ideological fingerprints all over the Budget. (I know I’m running the risk of turning this blog into a continual rant about VAT but I really do believe it is a most unfair revenue-raiser which disproportionately punishes those who can least afford it.) I think I could probably have lived with much of the remainder of the Budget had the Chancellor looked towards Income Tax as his source of increased revenue, but that was never going to be on the cards. Throughout the campaign the guarded comments of both George Osborne and Alistair Darling can have left no one in any doubt that, whichever of them was Chancellor, they would look to VAT to balance the books. What has been surprising is how meekly the Lib Dems, who rightly spoke out against the tax during the election, have allowed the rise to 20% to be nodded through.

I can’t pretend I’m happy about the Budget (or the coalition for that matter) but none of that stops me being a Lib Dem, albeit on the progressive social democrat wing of the party. I’m also relieved to have an excellent local Lib Dem MP (Dan Rogerson) rather than a Tory alternative. I’m certainly not going to jump ship – Labour are, let’s not forget, the authoritarian, warmongering joke that helped get us all into this mess in the first place – but equally I have no intention of being an unquestioning apologist for the coalition. I will happily applaud them when they do well, and there is already much they can point to, particularly in the area of civil liberties. But I’m no longer prepared to stay silent when they indulge in the morally indefensible, as they did this week with Osborne’s Budget.

Ed Balls: dishonest or delusional?

Ed Balls is right. As he wrote on Thursday, an increase in VAT would be unfair to the poorest and damaging to jobs and the economy, and the coalition will be making a big mistake if George Osborne’s budget includes such an increase.

Balls has said, in an email to Labour Party members, that “Raising VAT is hugely unfair. The VAT rise will hit the poorest households harder than the richest and will hit pensioner couples and ordinary families hardest of all. It is simply not right.” His parliamentary question, tabled ahead of the Budget, asking for the distributional impact of a VAT rise is a smart political move which gets to the very heart of why VAT is wrong, and his stance on this issue has helped to set him aside from the other candidates in the Labour leadership contest.

But does he honestly think that if his great mentor, Gordon Brown had won the General Election Labour would not have increased VAT? Ever since 1992 Labour have been terrified of increasing the headline rate of Income Tax – clearly the fairest way of raising revenue – and all the evasions during the election campaign clearly pointed to a VAT hike as their preferred tool for dealing with part of the deficit. Yes, Alistair Darling – rightly – increased the top rate to 50% in his 2009 Budget, but this can clearly be seen as the act of a dying government which had suddenly found a lost reserve of courage. It certainly wasn’t a typical example of the New Labour approach to fiscal policy.

Balls’ posturing on VAT is of course naked opportunism, designed to bolster his bid for the Labour leadership, and I can’t blame him for that. The party’s leadership contest has yet to burst into life and hasn’t come anywhere close to engaging the wider public. Perhaps Balls has found an issue which can resonate with many who are sceptical at best about Osborne’s “we’re all in this together” nonsense.

None of that changes the fact that VAT is a thoroughly regressive tax and that it will be a particularly appalling day for the coalition (and in particular the Lib Dems) if Osborne is allowed to push through a hike.

But had Labour pulled off the impossible and won the General Election they would certainly have increased VAT – no question about it. As Balls himself admits, all of their campaign rhetoric pointed in this direction. For him to claim now that there would have been any other outcome demonstrates that he is either plainly dishonest or deeply delusional.

VAT: the sneakiest tax

I suppose the bedrock of any coalition must be the readiness to compromise. It is for that reason that the Lib Dems have had to swallow (among other things) the Tories’ aggressive cuts agenda and Michael Gove’s potty ‘Free School’ nonsense in return for progress towards a £10,000 tax threshold, limited political reform and the ability to restrain the mouth-foaming wing of the Conservative Party.

Within the culture of compromise there still have to be red lines, however. With George Osborne’s ‘Emergency’ Budget on the horizon, first and foremost among these should be a Lib Dem refusal to countenance any increase in VAT.

As I’ve written before, VAT is the worst tax of all. It gives the impression of fairness (no one is exempt, the more you spend the more you pay in tax) yet disproportionately punishes the poorest because they naturally spend a higher proportion of their income (VAT accounts for 13.6% of the gross household income for the poorest 10%, compared to 4.1% for the wealthiest 10%). In addition the wealthy can afford to have their accountants play with the books and claim large chunks of VAT back from the taxman – those on the minimum wage cannot.

Let’s not forget that the Tories spent most of the election campaign bitching about the rise in NI contributions (in fact, they could barely squeeze a sentence out of their over-indulged mouths without uttering the campaign’s most irritating soundbite – “Labour’s Jobs Tax”) yet now there’s every chance they will impose an additional cost on small businesses in the form of VAT. Never mind, at least the super-wealthy won’t be too badly affected.

Of course, Labour supporters will erupt in faux outrage if and when Osborne raises VAT on Tuesday, conveniently ignoring the fact that their standard defence when asked about an increase during the election campaign was exactly the same as the Tories – “We have no plans to raise VAT” or “You can’t expect me to reveal what would be in our first Budget”. They will try to have a field day on this issue, but anyone from the Labour Party who tells you they wouldn’t have raised VAT if they’d won the election is either dishonest, deluded or both.

Lib Dems are naturally opposed to regressive forms of taxation such as VAT – or at least, they should be. There’s little dispute that, allied with a certain level of spending cuts, taxation will have to rise to offset the deficit left by the last government, but surely the fairest – and most honest – way of doing that is via Income Tax. This most straightforward of taxes is based on what you earn, and is clearly outlined in your payslip. It is universally regarded as the most ‘progressive’ form of taxation and, while no one particularly likes paying it, at least we would all know where we stood. Why then are the Coalition so scared of it?

ITV Sport, lost goals and Clive Tyldesley

I don’t own an HD TV, and when ITV Sport pull another missing-a-goal-through-cramming-in-an-extra-advert masterpiece purely for the benefit of their High Definition viewers, I have little reason to muster any envy for those who do.

I can’t say I’m a fan of ITV Sport. They appear to have an unhappy knack of making any sporting event, no matter how prestigious, somehow seem cheap and just a little bit, well, crap really. And so it proved once again for the World Cup group match between England and the USA, with HD viewers missing Steven Gerrard’s early false dawn for England while ITV broadcast an advert instead.

No doubt it was an honest mistake, but it started me thinking that perhaps HD viewers were the lucky ones – they had an extra couple of minutes without that most grating of living room intrusions: the condescending, skull-drilling squeal of a commentary delivered by ITV’s rambling, hysterical super-irritant, Clive Tyldesley. Tyldesley just about sums up ITV Sport for me: overly portentous, lacking subtlety and obsessed with Manchester United. He tries too hard to make a name and carve a niche for himself, and instead he ends up as the amateurish embarrassment one has to accommodate in order to watch a football match.

And it’s not as if ITV have only recently become rubbish either. Everton fans will tell you that ITV Sport have previous when it comes to missing goals, but long before that we’ve cringed our way through Elton Welsby and The Big Match, (the at times truly bizarre) World Of Sport and – unforgettably – Saint chortling away at Greavsie’s latest ‘witty’ Italia ’90 t-shirts (example: “Gullit’s Bullets vs Voller’s Volleys – Rudi will rule Ruud”).

Even their F1 coverage, which was often recognised as being innovative and surprisingly in-depth, was in no way lamented when the broadcast rights transferred to the BBC in 2009. In fact, quite the reverse. The BBC kept the bits that ITV did well (Martin Brundle and Ted Kravitz), lost all the stuff they did badly (commercial breaks during the crucial closing stages of races, being suckered into covering team sponsor’s promotional events as filler in the race build-up, Jim Rosenthal) and brought back Fleetwood Mac’s ‘The Chain’ as the theme tune. There was only ever going to be one winner.

And so it will be with ITV’s World Cup coverage. They try to compete (periodically poaching BBC anchormen – think Lynam, Ryder and now Chiles) but most armchair fans will always prefer the BBC’s more unobtrusive approach to match coverage, as will be clearly demonstrated when both broadcasters go head-to-head on the Final. (The BBC tend to win these ratings battles by a margin of four to one.)

I must, of course, give ITV Sport credit for one thing at least – the late Brian Moore’s now legendary commentary of Arsenal’s last gasp title win at Anfield in 1989. Enjoy the 21 year old clip, and try not to think of the almost total absence of anything comparable from ITV Sport in the two decades since.

To be honest, I couldn’t care less about England’s World Cup

I love the World Cup. I love the skill, the passion and the excitement of watching the world’s best players compete to win the greatest prize in the world’s most popular sport, and I love the fans who travel thousands of miles to support their national side, even though most of them will return home disappointed.

I appreciate that football isn’t everyone’s game, and that the next four weeks will see an even greater television saturation of the sport than we have become accustomed to throughout the Premier League era. But for those of us who love this most beautiful of games, the first World Cup in Africa can’t come around quickly enough.

What I can’t buy into is the interminable and predictable hype about the current England squad. It is, of course, now traditional for our tabloid newspapers to ask the question “Is this England’s year?” as a precursor to seemingly endless wall-to-wall speculation about the team’s chances, alongside meaningless examinations of “injury worries”, off-field controversies, and the spending habits of ‘The WAGS’.

I have to be honest, I couldn’t really care less about the England team’s chances in South Africa this year. If you offered me a choice between an England World Cup win or an end to Arsenal’s five-year trophy drought, then I’d start dusting out the silverware cabinet at Ashburton Grove. Club football is what I watch week in week out, and the standard is higher than anything produced by the England national side. Add to that the unlovely Cole/Terry/Lampard element to the side and I find it difficult to see myself rooting for them as my all-conquering heroes.

In case you’re wondering, I’m not anti-English, nor am I a Cornish/Welsh/Scottish/Irish nationalist. As it happens, I think historical nationalism is just about the most pointless exercise anyone can engage in. I don’t care what your bit of land is called, or who did what to it several hundred years ago, and I’m not expecting any apologies from anyone for the brutal acts of long-dead kings that may or may not have affected the corner of the world I happened to be born in. Cultural nationalism – the preservation of identity through language, the arts and so on – is a different beast entirely, and is yet another attraction of the World Cup (and one of the reasons I normally end up rooting for the bright orange flash of Holland as the tournament progresses).

There are all manner of reasons why England probably won’t win the World Cup, foremost of which is the fact that there are around half a dozen other teams who quite simply have better players. Wayne Rooney is certainly the best player England have, but is that really going to be enough to overcome the challenges presented by Fernando Torres, Cristiano Ronaldo, Cesc Fabregas, Lionel Messi and so on? England will probably do what they normally do: outperform the fairly average talent within the squad, reach the quarter-finals, be knocked out on penalties by a team which has actually bothered to practice spot-kicks, and slink home to a kicking from the tabloids (all of whom built the team up way too far in the first place).

I will be in the happy position of not being the least bit surprised about such an outcome. I will also (probably) have the pleasure of watching the continuing involvement of Argentina, Brazil, France, Spain and – here’s hoping – Holland. I can’t wait.