Football Is Not 'Art', and That's Fine
A chat with Ken Early, host of possibly the world's best football podcast.
Photo: Allstar Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo
Watching the World Cup is great. But what's also great is reading about it at work, listening to podcasts about it on the way back from work and watching several shows about it once you're home.
When it comes to the writing and the talking, Ken Early – who has been covering international tournaments since 2002 – is about the best there is. Writing in the Irish Times and talking on the Second Captains, Ken is a sports geek with the soul of a poet, telling the funniest stories and delivering the best analysis not just of tactics, but of the people on the pitch and their battle for footballing immortality.
Second Captains is an Irish sports podcast that has raised itself above the brutal melee of football podcasts over the last 18 months. Last year, when James Richardson quit the Guardian's Football Weekly to set up his own Totally Football Show, it was indicative of an arms race across the medium. The Independent, The Times, about eight BBC ones, indie ones like The Football Ramble – even ones from bloody America – are all vying for twice weekly attention. But it's The Second Captains that deserves yours.
Anyway, this summer, Ken – one of the cofounders of The Second Captains – has been delivering travelogues from across Russia's great mass. Every day, key highlights from his exploits (hippy crack, babushkas, getting locked in a toilet) are introduced in musical montages, before he leans back and pontificates over a day's worth of football.
It's been the best month for football I can remember, so I called him up to hear what it's been like to actually be there.
VICE: Where are you right now, Ken?
Ken Early: I'm in Moscow, in what looks like a Le Pain Quotidien rip-off place.
Lovely. How's Russia been so far? I was in Moscow for a few days and it seemed like the fear of thugs and hacking and bears was all unwarranted.
It's been great. I was in Marseille when the fighting happened between England and Russia fans at the 2016 Euros, and that was like: Jesus, these fuckers really mean business; this is not a joke. That was a tiny fraction, though, and I think that what they can do on tour is very different from what they can get away with at home.
The media coverage definitely had an effect, though, because there haven't been many England fans here. There have been far more South Americans than Europeans; there's obviously a different perception of Russia in the press over there. Media organisations are terrified of hacking – one journalist turned up with a Chromebook so secure that he couldn't log on to the fucking wi-fi at the media centre. The biggest VIP for the first England game – FIFA send you a list – was Sol Campbell.
That's bleak. How have our boys behaved?
What I've noticed is that the further away from England you get, the more peaceful the fans become. It's probably to do with numbers. In Portugal (2004), Germany (2006) and France (2016) there were huge numbers. And what you had was [fans] gathering in the squares and everyone getting together, and it's this huge, big, shirts-off, throw beers in the air sing-a-long, which is not in itself aggressive, but to people outside does look a little bit aggressive.
The thing that made Marseille different was the local Marseille boys taking this as a challenge. The English guys had parked themselves and were like, "The city is ours, fuck off Europe." So then you had little skirmishes, and then the French police's approach to everything is: tear gas, batons, see who's still here, hopefully everyone's fucked off. They were quite happy when the Russians came and properly dispersed the English with terror tactics.
But in Russia it's been different?
In Nizhny Novgorod, I was on the metro and these English lads got on and were singing really loud, and you could see all these Russians looking at them. When they finished their song they paused for a second and then started singing, "Ross-i-ya, Ross-i-ya." What was really nice about it was that you could see how happy the Russians were, and when the England fans finished, I swear to god, they started applauding.
If you're doing a match report for the newspaper, what happens at the game?
You go into the press centre, which is usually halfway line, second tier, central position. The way they do it in the World Cup is that each numbered desk has A, B and C seats, and each desk will have a little TV and some lamps for some reason – there's always loads of lamps at World Cups; somebody got a contract to provide lamps, I've never seen so many lamps. Then, if the game is at 9 and finishes at 11, you've got about 40 minutes for a newspaper deadline. When you’re writing a match report, you really don’t see much of the last half hour of the match, which is nonsense. You’re supposed to be there to cover it and you're seeing less of it than people who are watching it. You hear a noise and you're like, "What the fuck happened?"
Vibes-wise, is this the best tournament you've been at?
I think, vibes-wise, that was probably the Germany World Cup in 2006. For a long time, Germans had been educated to resist any nationalistic urges: other people can get out their flags and jump around, but we know what road that leads down. And basically, the 2006 World Cup was them realising that feelings of tribal togetherness can be really important. It's not even nationalism; it's community feeling – a little bit of that is good. People need it and want it. It's kind of what you go to football for.
I remember being in Berlin after Germany beat Poland and the whole place stopped. People were crying, just overcome. It was a crowd experiencing itself at the same time, which wouldn’t happen now because rather than participating, everyone would just be filming it.
How much is the on-the-street jocularity we see at World Cups now defined by TV and phone cameras?
Oh, completely. Ireland fans are world leaders in this, actually. Ireland went to Euro '88 and it was like, "We're having such a great time, and look at us having the craic with the Germans," but that was performative too, because you know what was underlying that? It wasn't phones or social media, because they didn’t exist then. It was just pure anti-Englishness. It was: "We're not like the English. They’re going to come here, drink a lot of beer, form a big group, yell about the war and start throwing plastic chairs. We, on the other hand, are the opposite of that. So we will come in, be really nice to everyone, help old ladies across the street."
Which group of fans has charmed you the most in Russia?
Argentinians definitely have the best songs. They usually have a drum somewhere, and I like the way they swish their flags around. Probably the biggest noise in the stadium was made by Serbia. I mean, god knows what they were chanting, but they made a hell of a noise.
Ronaldo and Messi are both out now. Is this the end for these titans of football?
I don't think you can necessarily say their time has passed, because they are forced by accident of birth to play for mediocre teams in international football. Mbappe was the star the other day, and I think he's the best player to come along since Messi, but swap him and Messi in that game and France might win 5-0, and everyone would be talking about Messi, the immortal god-king whose reign will never end.
Obviously they both have to lose it at some point, and I think Ronaldo is showing signs of that – he's 33, for fuck's sake. Real Madrid have cut his buyout clause, I think, and it seems like they want to get rid. But Messi just came off another season where he won the European golden boot, so I think he's still doing OK.
What about Neymar – has he been ruined by the excesses of modern football?
There's an inter-play between his personality and the weird world in which he lives. I think going to PSG was a stupid mistake. The whole notion advanced to defend that move was stupid: he can only ever be number two at Barcelona. It's not like that! It's meant to be a team game! How could you be in the same team as guys like Messi and Suarez and Iniesta and then leave that for money? Neymar is one of the most talented footballers in the world, but there's something he doesn’t get about the game.
The World Cup has expanded and expanded, and the idea was that this would level out the quality. And yet the European teams are doing the best. What do you think is happening?
The expansion of the World Cup is kind of the result of globalisation, but really it’s globalisation that has meant that any talented player from anywhere in the world will go to Europe. This process of centralisation is everywhere, and it means the rich get richer. I'm sure the domestic leagues in Brazil and Argentina were stronger in the 1980s. Now, anybody who looks like they might be good gets sold. There's no real football culture left in the Argentine league; it's a bunch of young guys running around, trying as hard as they can but not really playing good football anymore. There aren't enough experienced players there anymore. I think Brazil has the same problem.
In that sense, football mirrors politics and society. How much do you bring politics into Second Captains and elsewhere?
Sometimes it's good to just talk about football, and sometimes the other aspects are more interesting. I wouldn’t say that you’d have a method where you’re always trying to find a political angle, because then it’d be like, "Why are you doing that?" Football is also an interesting thing to talk about. It's like when people say, "Oh, football is like art!" It's not. It's not art.
It's football, and that's fine and good.
Yeah, it's like you're saying, "Football is like art and therefore worth taking seriously." No, it is what it is and it's also worth taking seriously. Then there are things like the reconnection of Germany with benign nationalism: that was about football, but it wasn't really. There was also a feeling, like with the France '98 team, that having immigrants in the team was great. Now you've got some Germans calling Ozil a "treacherous Turk" because they lost.
This current England team seems more likeable. Do they have a chance?
Yeah, I don’t see why not. The problem England have is probably who plays in midfield if Henderson gets injured. Maybe he'll get through it. Try picking an England midfield and you realise you don’t have too many options here. Eric Dier seems to play the same kind of game as Henderson, but I just don’t think he’s a very good player.
We’re used to breaking newspapers down on their politics. Do sports journalists tend to share the politics of their paper, or are there Daily Mail football writers who are really left-wing?
I certainly don't think that you can predict with any confidence someone's political outlook from the newspaper they work for. You’re not going to be a Corbynite and work for The Sun, surely, which isn't to say that the sports journalists who work for The Sun are fascists. Tony Barrett worked for The Times, but like, he's a communist. When Brendan Rodgers took over at Liverpool, knowing who Tony was, because Brendan does his homework, the first time he met him he greeted him with, "Ah, comrade."
There's no way Brendan's a comrade.
I mean, Brendan's a slumlord! [In 2016, Rodgers was convicted of neglecting a property he co-owned, before the conviction was overturned.]
Look Ken, they've been saying the same about King Kenny and that's heresy.
Why's he always turning up with gangsters everywhere and doing business out of these really dodgy pubs in Glasgow?
For no reason whatsoever! The interview ends here! But it’s been a fun World Cup so far, hasn’t it?
It really has.
See here for more coverage of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.