Ireland’s Wars: The Conventional Civil War In Louth

The moment that the National Army had opened fire on the Four Courts was a starting pistol for the rest of the country, even if it took a while for the news of what was happening in the capital to reach every corner. There had been months of jockeying for position in the run-up to the start of the Civil War, and now that it had come the seizure of buildings, barracks’ and town centres escalated dramatically. Even as the National Army was securing Dublin and then the surrounding area, opposing forces were attempting to determine position of territory to the north of the city, in the strategically vital town of Drogheda, a conflict that would soon escalate to County Louth’s other major urban centre of Dundalk.

Louth may not, at first glance, have seemed like a strategically vital bit of land, being the smallest county in Ireland, having no major (recent) revolutionary heritage, and largely dwarfed by Dublin to the south in terms of major urban areas. But it was exactly because of its proximity to Dublin that it was important. The pro-Treaty side had already made a substantial effort to clear out the territory south of the city, so that the capital’s security could be increased. Making sure that Drogheda and Dundalk were similarly secured was vital for the same reason, so that they could not be used by the IRA as potential jumping off points for another assault on the capital. Moreover, Louth provided a bridge between Dublin and the North, where many pro-Treaty IRA units were yet based. And, if for no other reason, Anti-Treaty IRA units were already in place there and had to be dealt with.

Anti-Treaty forces of the 1st Eastern Division had, in the run-up to the Civil War, occupied several crucial positions in Drogheda, with IRA units in Louth split down the middle. The most important position was probably the Millmount Fort and barracks near the centre of town, a complex whose origins dated back to the 12th century. The fort itself was located on a mound of earth and contained towers built in previous centuries. It provided an excellent field of view over the entire town, but owing to its age was vulnerable to artillery attack. The IRA also held the towns railway station and several other positions. The rest of Drogheda was in the control of the National Army, who had been placing more and more troops there throughout May and June.

When the fighting began in Dublin these forces moved quicker than their opponents. They rapidly surrounded Millmount and demanded its surrender. Fire was exchanged and men on both sides killed, as civilians in the town began to flee in expectation of greater fighting. Things inevitably escalated: scattered firefights broke out throughout the town, with the pro and anti-Treaty forces engaged outside Millmount, and with National Army barracks also attacked. Attempting to take the initiative, the IRA attempted to cut roads and bridges leading into Drogheda to isolate it from the pro-Treaty side, mindful of reinforcements coming from Dublin.

They were to be unsuccessful, able only to delay and not prevent the oncoming assault. Pro-Treaty reinforcements were able to arrive from Dublin in the following days and, while they were not in especially large numbers, they brought with them the vital force of artillery, with big guns that had been used in the shelling of the Four Courts. Republican units were swamped by the new infantry entering the town, and the Millmount complex was soon being hit by artillery rounds. The republican garrison inside lasted only a few hours before they were obliged to withdraw or surrender, with the Mayor of the town one of the casualties in the last part of the fighting, hit in the neck by a stray bullet as he attempted to organise a truce. The fall of Millmount essentially left Drogheda in the hands of the provisional government, and shortly after the IRA garrison in the railway station gave up the fight also. Throughout the engagement the anti-Treaty side had been hamstrung by a lack of arms, with an O/C of the larger division later to claim there had been barely 70 rifles for the entire force after the conventional Civil War was over.

After Drogheda, the events of the conventional Civil War in Louth revolved around the person of Frank Aiken. Upon the outbreak of fighting in Dublin he attempted to walk a line between the pro and anti-Treaty sides, along with his 4th Northern Division, preaching restraint and contacting leading figures on either side to try and organise a ceasefire or truce. Aiken’s proposals to make this a reality were fundamentally impossible for the provisional government to agree to however, as they included the dropping of the Oath of Allegiance from the Free State constitution. Operating from a base in Dundalk’s military barracks, where he had been supplied at least partially by the provisional government in advance of the Northern Offensive, Aiken travelled to Dublin and then Limerick to confer with Richard Mulcahy and Liam Lynch on his proposals, but got nowhere. His refusal to accept a position in the National Army presumably put him on a path to confrontation with the pro-Treaty side, and only a week and a half after Drogheda’s capture that side struck against Aiken.

The instigator was Dan Hogan, encountered already in this series for his part in the Clones shootout, now the O/C of the 5th Northern Division. He and Aiken had been divisional neighbours throughout the truce period, but while Aiken skewed more and more to an anti-Treaty position Hogan, who had served underneath Eoin O’Duffy during the War of Independence, was an out-and-out pro-Treatyite, and the majority of his men went the same way. On the 16th July, he took an opportunity to seize Dundalk and its military barracks, apparently taking advantage of some discontent among Aiken’s ranks. Aiken would later claim that a disgruntled officer who had been demoted for “inefficiency”, along with some other men who had been punished for drunkenness, had opened the gates of the barracks for Hogan and his men that night, and they completed the takeover of the building, and the capture of its occupants, without a shot being fired. Aiken remembers being woken in the early hours of the morning with National Army men pointing Thompsons at his head, and lamented the all-too-easy capture of 300 IRA Volunteers.

It’s telling of the fluid situation that a number of the captured republicans avoided detention by agreeing to join the National Army, but the rest found themselves imprisoned within the Dundalk barracks. It was to be a short enough sojourn: barely a week and a half later some men of Aiken’s unit who had avoided capture were able to blow a hole in the barracks wall, allowing a hundred of those inside to escape, including Aiken. 50 of them would end up re-arrested but Aiken avoided this. A National Army soldier was killed in a subsequent engagement in the town, as the IRA attempted to delay a pursuit. The affair was typical of a recurring problem for the provisional government during the Civil War, in that they had a terrible record effectively detaining political prisoners.

Aiken had been suitably radicalised by his experience in provisional government detention, and wanted to free the rest of his men that were still imprisoned in Dundalk. While the National Army fought, and largely won, the conventional war in the rest of the country, he drew his plans to launch an audacious strike much closer to home. The target was again Dundalk, with Aiken organising what would be a rapid strike into the town under the cover of darkness, to take the military barracks first and then the rest of the town, in what would amount to a flying raid and a brief occupation afterwards. He counted on the inexperience of the soldiers garrisoned in the town, and on catching them by surprise. With the support of Ernie O’Malley, by then in command of IRA forces in the east, he assembled men and explosives, and was in a position to strike at Dundalk by the middle of August.

In the early hours of the 14th of that month, he took a hundred or so men in boats across the Castletown River and into the town. With a “storming” party consisting of a unit of men armed with submachine guns, Aiken crept up to the walls of the Dundalk barracks, placed his explosives, and detonated them. The IRA had complete surprise, and were able to storm the resulting breaches. An extended firefight, perhaps lasting as long as two hours, occured in the interior of the barracks, as the pro-Treaty side attempted to hold out or force the IRA back. Even as that was happening, anti-Treaty fighters were placing further explosives and starting fires, with the intention of reducing the barracks to rubble, an aim they achieved partial success with. Before noon, the National Army soldiers in the barracks, and then by extension in the rest of the town, had surrendered.

The entire affair was a confusing one in many respects. Exploding or collapsing masonry killed or wounded several men on ether side and at least one serious incident of friendly fire cost the life of an anti-Treaty officer, when a mine was detonated under an armoured car that he had captured. Seven total, five pro and 2 anti-Treaty, were killed, and dozens more wounded, along with some civilian casualties. Hundreds of anti-Treaty prisoners were freed, and rapidly replaced by the captured pro-Treaty soldiers. A huge amount of guns and ammunition were captured, probably the really key success for Aiken and his men as the arms allowed them the ability to continue the fight for some time.

It was never Aiken’s intention to hold the town and, after giving speech in its centre where he again called for a truce -a speech that was allegedly booed by the largely pro-Treaty residents – he and his men dispersed. Dan Hogan led a column of men and cars from Dublin to retake Dundalk, but by the time he got there he found the town undefended. At a time when the provisional government was essentially taking all before it in other parts of the country, the entire affair was a serious black eye, taking place so close to Dublin and at the hands of a man who had been in provisional government custody only weeks before.

The raid on Dundalk has to go down as one of the best operations carried out by the anti-Treaty side in the entire Civil War. At a time when the movement was floundering elsewhere, it was an unequivocal success: IRA men had successfully infiltrated an urban location held in force, captured its main strong points with limited loss of life, held the town for a time, and gotten away with badly needed supplies. On the other hand, the pro-Treaty defenders had been badly caught out, taking more casualties than their opponents in a losing battle and, indeed, were shown up as being ineffectual and weak when the situation was right. Aiken’s achievement was somewhat undercut by his and his men’s general lack of activity for the rest of the Civil War, but at the time was a trumpeted beacon for the anti-Treaty faction, riven as it was with military defeat and increasingly reduced options.

But it was just a single moment in time, and the anti-Treaty side did not make the best use of either the success or the guns. Perhaps the most important final result of the war in Louth was that the general area north of Dublin, despite the anti-Treaty successes and demonstrations of power, was not going to be a source of danger for the capital. Anti-Treaty threat from this avenue was largely neutered for the remainder of the war, and the National Army secured the major urban centres, never to give them up again. Where the IRA had an opportunity, if they had been properly supported, to be a serious thorn in the side of the provisional government, they now limited themselves to a largely ineffective guerrilla struggle.

Across the country, similar jostling for position was taking place, but in many cases in a much more lop-sided manner. In the next entry we will go to one such place, in the north-west of the country. Nowhere else would there be as lonely a conflict as there was to be in Donegal, and it was to be a conflict with only one clear victor.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

Posted in History, Ireland, Ireland's Wars, War | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

NFB Watches Wrestling #49: PWA Premiership Episode 1

OK, time for something really different as we go into the southern hemisphere. It’s the 19th October 2020 and we’re in the Pro Wrestling Academy of Ingleburn, New South Wales, Australia for Episode One of the 2020 Pro Wrestling Australia Premiership! Your main event tonight: Unsocial Jordan vs William Preston in an A-Block match of the PWA Premiership!

PWA is I suppose the biggest wrestling promotion in Australia? It’s been around for a few years, a creation of the Eagles family of wrestlers I believe, and has morphed from a family-friendly outfit into a more “adult” promotion in recent years. This Youtube available series is a G1 Climax-esque tournament of two blocks, so should be a good showcase for what PWA can offer, in terms of wrestling and roster.

Some slick opening titles for a regional indie (though a little heavy on the Kevin Dunn slow-mo zoom-ins) and we move into a video package explaining the competition, all HD, all very well put together. Quick glimpses of the 16 competitors, and good to see that this is an inter-gender event. Andrew Rose, wearing a Progress t-shirt, and Chris Gove are your commentators, welcoming us to the PWA Academy. They run down the rules of the “novel” competition (novel? Every promotion in the world has done something like this I’d say), and all you really need to know is that it’s G1 rules but each match has a ten minute time limit. The blocks are outlined and it is a bunch of men and women I have never heard of. Tonight is the turn of Block A, and we are thrown to our first contest.

Kai Drake vs Sam Osborne w/Don Marnell (PWA Premiership Block A Round One)

We are in a COVID-compliant warehouse of an arena, so no cheering crowds today. Drake is a heel who is one half of the PWA Tag Champs, in a team apparently called “MK Plus Ultra”. So what, they are pumping people full of hallucinogens? His opponents manager, OTT’s Don Marnell, out smartly dressed and with the catchphrase “Well, well, well” on the mike beforehand. He runs Drake down in rhyme, saying that Drake is the Sideshow Bob to Osbourne’s rake, which is a pretty clever put down in fairness. Osborne out with a cup of tea, and given his cocky body language I’m assuming this is heel vs heel?

Osborne dodges a roundhouse to start. Wrist-lock chain, another dodged roundhouse, and Osborne scurries out of the ring to take some advice from Marnell. Back in, more lock chains, and Osborne gets two off a crucifix pin and then a backslide. Takedown on Drake, leg-lock, but Osborne appears to just let go as we take a pause. Eight minutes left.

Lock-up, Drake taken down again and ref breaks up a pin that was being assisted by Marnell. More chains, and Drake able to hit a drop-kick. Strikes in the corner, kick to the back, but Osborne back on top after a distraction from the ref. Hammerlock, into a Bow and Arrow variation. Drake back with forearms and a chop, but his right hand is damaged. Despite this, Osborne decides to work over the left leg. Hmm. Leglock for a bit, then another, five minutes left. Big left knee smash, Osborne to the outside, looking to wrap the leg around the ringpost but Drake pulls him into it instead. Four minutes left.

Drake with forearms, corner clothesline, then a bridging German for two. Kicks to the chest with Osborne caught in the ropes, then a brainbuster for two. Looking for a Scoop Slam attempt (commentator calls it a suplex), Osbourne out of it, counter chains, awkward takedown where Drake looks like he lands on his head, and Osborne with a kneebar. Looks legitimately sore, but Drake to the ropes. Two minutes left. Drake hits a big enziguri OUTTANOWHERE, but Marnell puts Osborne’s foot on the rope on the subsequent pin. One minute left. Exchanging shots, both down to their knees. 30 seconds. More strikes, takedowns, and the clock expires.

Winner: No-one! Both get a point.

Verdict: Alright opener, Osborne was doing must of the heavy lifting for the ten minutes, but Drake got to hit the high impact stuff. Neither really set the world alight I suppose, and one bad spot, but it was perfectly passable.

Marnell on the mike again afterwards, says the most important thing is they didn’t lose. Osborne says a few more seconds in the knee bar and Drake would have tapped. Marnell adds that “the only boat that doesn’t sink is Sam Osborne’s PWA Premier-ship”. Oh dear. At least he adds a bit of character to proceedings. Moving right along.

Charli Evans vs Kingsley (PWA Premiership Block A Round One)

The ring announcer is struggling a bit with his timing, a lot of “Introducing…” followed by a long pause. Evans a rep of some faction called the “Medusa Complex”, so guessing she is a heel. Kingsley’s gimmick appears to be that she carries a tea cup around and is “Freshly Brewed” which seems like an Orange Cassidy rip-off: a sentiment not helped by the fact that there is a picture of Freshly Squeezed on the wall of the arena. Awkward moment where the ref calls for the bell, nothing happens, and it finally rings when he’s in the middle of calling for it again. It’s still an indie promotion!

Sign of respect, lock-up, and Kingsley shoved back. Test of strength, wrist-lock chains, countered into headlock chains, and Evans with a modified half-Boston Crab. Kingsley to the ropes, kicks from Evans, Kingsley back with forearms, waistlock chains, mounted punches from Kingsley, Evans dodges a PK, but not a kick to the back, and Evans back with her own kick to the back. Eight minutes left, good start to this one.

Kingsley hits a DDT for two, then flatlined into the turnbuckle off a charge, nice. Running knee from Evans, Scoop Slam, two. Some odd ringside camerawork, live Dutch angles are not to be welcomed. Evans in control, beatdown, corner chokes, snap suplex, two. Big chop, more kicks, takedown, leg-lock. All Evans for the last few minutes, and she poses in the middle of a submission, nice. A sort of Regal Stretch STF locked in, but Kingsley to the ropes. Five minutes left.

Kingsley mounting her comeback, forearms, running clothesline, two. Belly-to-back, two. Evans dodges a corner charge, running knee to Kingsley, two. Good rhythm now. Four minutes left. Evans looking for something big, Kingsley jumps up and puts in a bear hug/sleeper, but Evans counters into a modified DDT for the pin in six-and-a-half on the dot.

Winner: Charli Evans, who does seem like a complete package.

Verdict: Really good stuff from both, nice mix of technical and powerhouse styles.

Evans interviewed, says she’s “f**cking happy” about winning, not so much about being made to bleed. Kingsley, who has a bit of a ZSJ vibe in terms of responding to losses, says she is here to prove she belongs on her own merits, and not because she has relatives in the business. Onto the next one.

Paris de Silva vs Mick Moretti (PWA Premiership Block A Round 1)

Moretti a painted “rapscallion” billed as being “from somewhere in Australia”. He and de Silva were once Tag Champs, but now de Silva is with Kai Drake. Story! It can be done in brief. Circling, Moretti points to Matty Wahlberg at ringside, and then he explodes with strikes and kicks. Apparently Moretti not a big fan of the “Generation Now” faction. Springboard Senton with huge air gets Moretti two. Continues the beatdown with a hard whip into the corner, for two. Eight minutes left.

Snapmare, pump-kick, two. This is just a squash so far, but now de Silva able to come back with a kick to the head, then a rana, then a spinning heel kick, then a standing moonsault for two. Sweet sequence. Moretti avoiding a strike with a headstand, then trips de Silva off the rope. Moretti slinks out, forearm to de Silva when he follows, and Moretti with an apron leg-drop for two. Moretti looking for a fisherman’s suplex, but countered into a stunner, nice. De Silva with a frog splash, then goes for a corkscrew, but no one home. Moretti back with a fisherman’s brainbuster, sizes de Silva up and hits a modified Famouser, apparently Wahlberg’s finisher, for the win in just over five-and-a-half.

Winner: PWA’s Sting

Verdict: Good match, I’d watch more of Moretti. A few over-the-top spots I suppose, but this was good entertainment for the brevity of it.

Moretti acts like Heath Ledger’s Joker in an interview after, and says Wahlberg has poisoned de Silva’s mind. He’ll end Generation Now, and will see Wahlberg in the final.

Unsocial Jordan vs William Preston (PWA Premiership Block A Round 1)

Preston out with a sign declaring Jordan is “a simp: change my mind”. Very current. That meme appears to be Preston’s gimmick. Jordan out with 56K dial-up entrance music and holding a tripod. I need someone to explain this to me. Jordan leaves the ring straight away to grab something from underneath. It’s a turtleneck! He offers it to Preston, but as Preston considers he gets ambushed and shoved into the ring post. A bit elaborate, but OK. Preston gets a choke with the turtleneck, which gets a count from the ref instead of a DQ. Working over the left arm, Kimuru Lock, but Preston fights out of it. Eight minutes left.

Jordan with chops, kicks in the corner, but then Preston dodges a charge. Two on a roll-up, running chains, and Preston lands a jumping bulldog for two. Second rope crossbody for two, but Jordan back on top with a Driver for two right after. Kimuru again, but Preston to the ropes. Six minutes left. Preston on the apron, elbow to Jordan, Preston to the top, top-rope nothing and a roll-through, and Jordan hits an awkward looking Dragon Suplex for two. Preston grabs the tripod, ref intervenes, and odd moment where Preston is in position for a roll-up, but doesn’t go for it. Jordan makes him pay with an Electric Chair front drop, running knee, then a superkick for the 1, 2, 3 in nearly six minutes.

Winner: Heely McHeelface

Verdict: Had some strange moments that took me out of it, but I suppose it was fine.

Commentary thanks us for being here. We have time for Jordan to tell us how much he hates the current factions in PWA, and that he is the only hope for the company. Not sure I’m buying it. And that is all.

Best Match: Evans/Kingsley I suppose, no bad matches really but that one did the absolute most with the time that it had.

Best Wrestler: Sam Osborne carried the ball for most of the opener and looked like the kind of guy who could do a job somewhere bigger than this.

Worst Match: I suppose the main event by default, just had a bit of an off energy at moments and one very dodgy suplex spot.

Worst Wrestler: Hard to single anyone out. Paris de Silva didn’t really do much in his match.

Overall Verdict: I’d watch more of this, and PWA generally, looks like they have a good set-up. They could do a better job at outlining how things stand, faction wise, to new viewers, but the wrestling was decent. Give it a look, it’s all on Youtube.

To view more entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

Posted in Reviews, Wrestling | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Review: Zack Snyder’s Justice League

Zack Snyder’s Justice League

Trailer

Get in some Hawkgirl and John Stewart and you’d really be cooking.

Yep, we’re doing this. I find it useful that I have had a few weeks to fully absorb the experience of this, probably the most talked about directors cut since Ridley Scott just could not stop having a go at Blade Runner. What was it I said about the Joss Whedon cut of this film: “an extra 20, 30 minutes may have done Justice League the world of good…Part of me is a little interested to see Snyder’s original 170 minute cut, even if that would probably come with lots of new problems.” Well, here we are, only it’s more like 230 minutes. More than enough time to fix some of the original versions many problems, and more than enough time to create some new ones at the same time.

I’m ambivalent enough about the circumstances that have led to the creation of this, a new enough version that I’m comfortable dubbing it a new film. On the one hand, if Zack and Deborah Snyder are able to find some form of closure for the death of their daughter through the completion of this film, then I think they can make a 20 hour version, and anyone who says they shouldn’t can, with respect, have sex with themselves. On the other, the movement behind this film, and lots of its marketing, has a basis in the very worst parts of the internet, the kind that made Joker, one of the worst films of recent years, the undeserved success that it was. I was rooting for Zack Snyder’s Justice League – lets just call it ZSJL going forward – just as much as I was rooting for what came out in 2017, but was apprehensive about more than that running time. One full-on four hour sitting later, did ZSJL redeem the flawed creation of too many minds, or is it the ultimate exercise in now leaving well enough alone?

In the aftermath of Superman’s (Henry Cavill) death, Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), fearful of an attack from extra-terrestrial invaders, embarks on a mission to unite various super-powered beings in defence of Earth. There’s Amazonian Diana (Gal Gadot), half-Atlantean Arthur (Jason Mamoa), speedster Barry (Ezra Miller) and cybernetic Victor (Ray Fisher), who all come together despite their differences and complicated backgrounds. When Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds), the intergalactic vanguard for the mighty Darkseid, attacks, they are all that stands between him and the Earth’s destruction.

So, it’s sort of inevitable that I compare ZSJL to the Joss Whedon version, but I will try and focus as much as I can on the newer edition, to evaluate it first and foremost on its own merits. And, to give a brief summary: I liked it. This is as complete a Justice League story as we are ever likely to get from these versions of these characters and from this director, and the solidity, and sheer scope, of Snyder’s vision shines through, from a stylized look at the final moments of Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice all the way through to watching Jared Leto’s Joker spar with “Knightmare” Batman in a dark, twisted future we’ll probably never get to see expanded upon. If nothing else, Zack Snyder’s Justice League really is Zack Snyder’s Justice League.

There is a tonal consistency here that, being blunt, is absolutely crucial. Love it or loath it, this is a film that grasps a hold of grimdark as its guiding star, and everything in the film, be it the cinematography, the script, the acting, the backstories, lends itself towards that. Gone is the half-and-half approach where Snyder’s Gothic predilections were mixed with Whedon’s light-hearted quipping: that produced a mess in 2017, that has been rectified now. So, Batman doesn’t open his conversation with Aquaman by saying “I hear you talk to fish”, instead he’s right to the business of getting Arthur Curry to fight aliens. Some will hate the deliberate darkness of it, the lack of pop or colour, but it cannot be denied that this is a more consistent, more thematically clear production, and I really think that the material is all the better for that.

The expansive length has, as you would expect, good aspects and not-so-good aspects. Split into five meaty chapters and then an equally meaty prologue, having just under four hours to play with means that everybody gets lots of extra scenes, everybody gets lots of backstories, everybody gets a few more moments of epic action and incredible demonstrations of their powers. The characters of ZSJL are more fully formed than they were in 2017, most especially Ray Fisher’s Cyborg, who comes close to being the main player for stretches, and Jason Mamoa’s Aquaman, with ZSJL properly serving as the backdoor pilot for his film that it should have been: Willem DaFoe and Amber Heard show up in properly-fleshed out roles in his parts of ZSJL, to an extent that actually feels distracting at times.

Barry Allen’s desperation to make something of himself so he can help free his father from an unjust prison sentence, Wonder Woman’s connection to past struggles against Darkseid, even Steppenwolf gets a bit more time here to be an actually three-dimensional being, and not just some bland CGI monstrosity for Superman to throw himself at. Snyder has far more time for the likes of Aquaman, Flash (and look at that, a superhero film that understands “less is more” when it comes to the comic relief character) and Cyborg than Whedon did, perhaps betraying a studio-driven insistence that Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman – the tentpoles – get the lions share of the screen-time in 2017. This expanded focus, and actually the reduction in time for others – Superman only appears in Part Five – is to be welcomed, making this seem like an real league of equals. So is the appearance of Darkseid as Steppenwolf’s puppetmaster, and a greater effort to tie everything together into an eons-long narrative.

The result is that the film feels properly epic and huge in scope, an enormous planet-spanning battle against evil invaders. Far more than the 2017 version, ZSJL captures the sense of this DC Universe being an enormous, deep thing, with a mythology in its past and in its present that you actually want to watch more of. Crowning moments for each individual superhero, where they get to flat-out save the world through some incredible mastery of their powers, feel much more impactfull (one towards the end, featuring The Flash, really whets the appetite for a stand-alone there). But the film also manages to marry that to something very personal: Cyborg’s strained relationship with his father, Arthur Curry’s vagabond life, Lois Lane’s grief, these are all things that help to ground the film so it isn’t just demi-gods throwing lumps at each other.

Let the universe howl in despair, for I have returned…

Of course, it’s is long. Too long. You couldn’t imagine sitting in a cinema to watch this in one sitting, (even if I did that in my bedroom watching on a phone and all, albeit a phone with good resolution). There are plenty of instances where Snyder has indulged himself a bit too much, and I don’t just mean the incredible overuse of slow-motion effects from start to finish. No, I mean scenes: one that springs to mind in a lengthy sequence involving the Amazonian warriors lighting a beacon fire for Wonder Woman where we have to see the idea presented, the fire lit in an elaborate ceremony, Diana seeing the fire, and then Diana travelling to the fire: roughly 5-10 minutes of screentime that could be nicely cut down to the necessary essentials. It’s one example of many, and I would say for every three scenes, action beat or conversation that gets expanded, there’s one that doesn’t need the girth. What does the inclusion of the Martian Manhunter (Harry Lennix) really accomplish here?

Yet, in a way I acknowledge as a little strange, ZSJL didn’t feel as ponderous and slow-moving as I thought that it would. Snyder actually manages to pace out his action beats pretty well, in a formula that marries battles to plot not unlike that of the MCU really. I never felt bored watching this film, just maybe occasionally wishing that it would move along a little faster: I choose to watch it in one sitting because I think this is how the director wanted it to be seen, but looking back I do think the miniseries option should have been considered. There’s a more palatable three or four episode show to be made out of this material, and it was released on TV after all.

Visually, this is, as Snyder’s films nearly always are, a bit of a marmite experience: you either like his stylised dark preferences, or you think it’s one of the worst things you have ever seen. You should be able to get beyond the 4:3 eventually: God knows you have enough time to. It certainly marks ZSJL out: in ratio and look this is about as far from the sometimes garishly colourful MCU as you can get, and I imagine that is very much the intention of the director. But it’s also cleaner in look than it was in 2017, if that makes any sense. The effects are more mature, the costumes that little bit more realised, the backgrounds and the colour palette that little bit more considered and fully thought out. It’s still dark, make no mistake about it, but it isn’t as dark as, say, 300, nor as faux bright as Watchmen.

More important, numerous edits, inclusions and deletions have made the property much more engaging from a visual perspective. There are a thousand different examples I could focus on, but to speak in general terms things flow a bit easier in action scenes, seem a bit more natural in dialogue-focused segments and there are just better choices made all round. Major things like Henry Cavill’s CGI mustache removal are no longer factors, while minor things – Superman’s entry to the films final battle is 300% better accomplished here, the Ukrainian family that Whedon used as a “Look, they save people!” crutch in the finale are thankfully dismissed, I could go on – just build up, and up, and up. Snyder is pretty much the same director he was over a decade ago, but he is the only director here at least. It’s seems like such a simple thing to say, but it bears repeating: I would rather a film have one creative direction and look unpalatable, than have two creative directions and look like a ridiculous smorgasbord of tones and styles. ZSJL has that one creative direction, and while you might get sick of the shadows, the slow motion, the repetitive action moves and the sense that Snyder has limited imagination when it comes to choreography, blocking and resisting “bad-ass” framing, you will have to admit that it is better than mixing and matching with an entirety different aesthetic.

Musically the film is a little all over the place. Snyder’s never been very good when it comes to the inclusion of songs in his works, and there are a bunch of them that get thrown in here for montages or moments that don’t quite fit, or are a bit too on the nose. A really glaring one is some kind of Icelandic choral offering early on, that is far more bemusing than it is interesting. Junkie XL’s score is not hugely more noticeable than the one made for 2017, and there is little else to add. An epic film really needed some epic audio, and ZSJL just doesn’t have that. No offence to XL, who has done much better with other projects, but I do feel like this kind of production needs someone like Hanz Zimmer at the tiller of the music (Zimmer is co-credited on some themes, but thats all). I’ll make an exception in my thoughts for the credits version of “Hallelujah”, by Allison Crowe, which has ties to the person the film is dedicated to, and is a beautiful rendition.

There’s probably no greater example of the difference between 2017’s Justice League and ZSJL than how they end. Joss Whedon’s version had a mid-credits scene where Superman and The Flash jokingly start a race to prove which one of them is faster. Snyder’s version has an elongated glimpse into an apocalyptic future where a Batman-led Suicide Squad plans a hit on an evil Superman, with Bruce Wayne jawing at that fascinating, if still infuriatingly immaterial, vision of the Joker. To call the change stark would be a wild dangerous understatement: one is just the MCU-style writ, clumsily, onto DC, the other is Zack Snyder teasing us with what’s left of his unformed vision, which going by the word of the man himself constitutes two more additional films. Will we ever get to see them made? Never say never I suppose, especially not after the movement that got ZSJL made and released, but should it get made? I’m erring towards no, that it would be better for DC and WB to move on from Snyder now and stick to their more individual focus when it comes to their superhero property. But would I watch continuations if they were to be made? Yes, yes I would.

I suppose that is the deepest triumph of ZSJL: it’s a redemption of sorts for a franchise that seemed fit only to be mocked by an internet community that has made an entire industry of podcasts and Youtube accounts out of running things down. That same industry was rearing back to do the same to ZSJL, family tragedy be damned, but the impact has been significantly less hard than some would have anticipated, or that some particularly joyless people were hoping. ZSJL is the best DC film that Snyder has come out with, and I think is a pretty good film in its own right. Once you get beyond the incredible length, which alone marks the film out in the lager superhero genre, and can count yourself as someone who doesn’t dismiss the cinematography from the outset, then there is a lot to enjoy in ZSJL, a film that respects its characters and where they came from, and crafts an engaging, and entertaining narrative with really epic pretensions.

The truth is, we, “we” being the community who flock to comic book movies likes flies to excrement, need films like ZSJL. You may not want to hear that, but it’s true. It’s different. It stands out. It doesn’t feel like it’s been designed by a committee who are trying to appeal to every demographic, it doesn’t have the sense that it was dragged down by studio notes to make it funnier. It’s not a masterpiece, far from it. It’s OK to think it ugly, one-note, narrow-minded in who it is trying to be for. It’s too long, Snyder has never really evolved as a filmmaker from a visual perspective, musically it’s underwhelming and ZSJL will never be able to separate itself from the deplorables who had a major hand in its creation. But its existence is not a crime, or some fault of the industry. ZSJL justifies itself, if for no other reason then the obvious passion behind it. This may well be the end of Zack Snyder’s run in DC, and if so it ends on a high, and I hope he and his wife have the peace they need. Recommended.

Tell me, do you think we’ll see a sequel? You will.

(All images are copyright of HBO Max)

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211 To 1: Reflections On The Road To Qatar 2022 – (VI) March Madness

Part One: The Beginning

Part Two: The Road Broadens

Part Three: Dreaming In Asia

Part Four: Football In The Time Of COVID

Part Five: Getting On With It

Four months after the last game of World Cup qualifying the whole process burst back into life in March, with three confederations holding matches simultaneously: North America and Europe got their shows on the road, while Asia continued drip-feeding us games. It was a hectic final week of the month, with well over 60 games packed into a tight timeframe: dreams were met, dashed, or dared to be grasped, in little more than seven fateful days.

Part Six: March Madness

43. In The Eye Of A Hurricane: Puerto Rico

44. “We Are Not Bad Either”: Tajikistan

45. The North Remembers: Canada

46. Doped: Russia

47. The Eruption : Montserrat

48. 15%: Faroe Islands

49. The Forbidden Door: Japan

50. Expressions Of Nationhood: British/U.S. Virgin Islands

51. Lions And Eagles: England/Poland

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43. In The Eye Of A Hurricane: Puerto Rico

(24/03/2021)

Nearly four years on from a defining catastrophe, Puerto Rico’s footballing community tries to progress on the field and give back to the community.

Football, actual international football, recommences today in terms of World Cup qualifiers, after a break of four months. The arena is the First Round of CONCACAF’s qualifying process, where the majority of the lower-ranked sides in the confederation compete in a single round robin group stage over the course of a few hectic months. The winners of each group progress. The other teams are finished. It is likely to be a road to nowhere for many sides, island minnows who will be happy for the chance to play more competitive games than is usual. For others it will be a tense, nail-biting affair, where the single round format will make every goal scored, and every goal missed, all the more important, a figurative matter of life-and-death.

But away from football, one of the sides engaged today has already had more than enough literal life-and-death situations in the not-too-distant past. The island of Puerto Rico continues to recover from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria three-and-a-half years ago, and aside from the lives lost, the homes destroyed and the after-effects on the islands economy and society, the sporting life of Puerto Ricans continues to be affected. Today’s tie, St Kitts & Nevis in the nominated host nation of the Dominican Republic, is a chance to return to something resembling normality, even as the game does its best to contribute to the ongoing effort to mitigate any future disasters, and to give back to the community that sustains it even in the most difficult of times.

Even before Maria, Puerto Rican football was up against it. The island’s status as a unincorporated territory of the United States – a long-standing debate continues, with no end in sight, over whether Puerto Rico should become the 51st state – means that American culture has had a large influence, with basketball and baseball being the most popular sports. Even after them, football – and it is “football”, not “soccer”, despite Uncle Sam’s impact – lags behind boxing. Various iterations of a national league, mostly competing with amateur or semi-professional sides, have come and gone, while the national team has struggled to ever be considered anything other than a CONCACAF also-ran, its lone appearance at a finals being at the 1993 Caribbean Cup. While football is a popular sport in terms of participation at young ages, the island has never been able to cobble together a truly competitive side.

In many ways, more emphasis has been placed on Puerto Rican clubs playing in continental leagues than on the national side. One of the most prominent of those recently was Puerto Rico FC, who played in the North American Soccer League, which at the time of its existence constituted the second tier of American soccer. The club was somewhat competitive in the few seasons of that existence, providing a professional outlet for the best footballers from the island, but when NASL got into financial trouble in 2018, deferring its season and then vanishing altogether, the latest hope of Puerto Rican football followed the league into oblivion.

Before that oblivion came the hurricane. Over three terrible days in September 2017, Puerto Rico was battered by the Category 5 Maria, the most powerful storm to have hit the island in nearly a century. Close to 3’000 people were later adjudged to have either been killed by the hurricane, or by its effects in the aftermath. $90 billion dollars worth of damage was done to the island, including the destruction of its electricity network, and widespread battering of water systems, the agriculture industry and the almost complete gutting of several urban centres. In the face of a totally inadequate response from the Trump administration, and only a few weeks after the less devastating, but still destructive, Hurricane Irma had wrecked havoc, Puerto Rico was landed into an enormous humanitarian crisis.

The clean-up was lengthy, and the consequences for all manner of Puerto Rican institutions immense. The economy of the island was wrecked, and a debt crisis led to an extremely controversial law that allowed for an appointed committee to control the country’s budget. This resulted in an imposed austerity that has cut the legs out from under large parts of Puerto Rican society and turned the years after the hurricane into one of the defining political crises of the island’s history. To talk about football in the face of such human misery seems somewhat tawdry, but it can be acknowledged that every single aspect of Puerto Rican life was hit in some way by Maria and the aftermath, and football was a victim too.

Numerous pitches and stadiums were completely smashed, most notably the national stadium, and home of Puerto Rico FC, the Juan Ramon Lubriel just outside of the capital San Juan. In the aftermath, sporting life was rightfully placed far behind the necessitates of survival and rebuilding vital infrastructure, though football did its part: charity games held on the island and throughout America contributed to the relief effort, football served as an escape and mental health boost for some, and the plans for a new Puerto Rican league, the LigaPro, are tied to the ideals of being a major socioeconomic contributor to the island (though they may yet come into conflict with the PRFF, which runs its own “official” leagues).

Now the quest to rise from the ashes has begun in earnest. In terms of infrastructure, that means the rebuilding of stadiums – already accomplished in the case of the Lubriel – and the relaying of pitches. In this, there are efforts to create lasting eco-friendly structures that will be better able to face up to the winds of another hurricane. Better yet, the new grounds that have gone up, with some help from CONCACAF and FIFA, are being specifically designed so that they can, in time of need, be more easily turned into shelters and temporary refuges for those made homeless by another storm. In that respect, Puerto Rican football is committed to not suffering the same damage again, and to being a contributor to a larger national effort to forestall another catastrophe. In terms of the team it means the hiring of Dave Sarachan, once an assistant to Bruce Arena in the U.S., as the head coach, who took over a few weeks before this campaign.

In Group F of the First Round, Puerto Rico face relative giants Trinidad & Tobago, Guyana, the Bahamas and today’s opponents St Kitts & Nevis. Fourth seeded, few expect much from Puerto Rico, who would be doing well to take three points from the Bahamas, and maybe one or two elsewhere if they really play-up. But this should not be taken as meaning that the side have no ambitions. Puerto Rico, like a lot of the Caribbean islands, are looking more to 2026 than 2022, when the combination of the enlarged tournament and the absence of co-hosts Canada, America and Mexico from the qualifying process, will open up some slots that were not open before.

Puerto Rico’s new would-be league claims that it is fully behind the building of a national side that will be able to have a tilt at qualification at that time, and are trying to lay the groundwork for that now, with that new competitive structure for the island, with better facilities, coaching and attractiveness, from which a World Cup worthy squad might be available. But 2022 is not off the radar yet, and Puerto Rico will have to face four difficult games before they can put that behind them. Hopefully they will be contests that test the mettle and teach some lessons, if nothing else. Puerto Rican football has survived a hurricane: after that, there’s really no telling what it could end up doing.

44. “We Are Not Bad Either”: Tajikistan

(25/03/2021)

Tajikistan host the return of World Cup qualifying in Asia in Dunshabe, in the hope that they can have their football make headlines for the right reasons.

Tonight, football resumes in the worlds largest continent, four months after the last qualifying game. The competition is AFC’s Second Round, Group F, the arena is the Pamir Stadium in Dushanbe, and the game sees Tajikistan take on Mongolia. For the visitors, still nominally in contention to progress, the game is yet another chance for them to roll the dice and try to upend the odds, having already taken one scalp, in the form of Myanmar, already. But the game is far more important for the hosts, who have the genuine possibility of progression to the last stage of World Cup qualifying in their hands, should they choose to seize it. It has been a somewhat remarkable rise in fortunes for the Tajik’s in recent years, having been also-rans for some time: as defender Akhtam Nazarov said when Group F was first drawn “All of the teams are good: Japan are strong, Kyrgyz Republic are strong” before adding, with a degree of devilish understatement, “and we are not bad either.”

Popular perception of sport in Tajikistan often focuses on the altogether remarkable horseback game of buzkashi, but football is the biggest draw in the country, and largely has been since it was introduced there in the 1920’s. The national league is extremely popular and the national team rarely fails to pack out the Pamir, perhaps as they are the best means of exhibiting the country’s status and sovereignty, as one of the smallest breakaway Soviet republics, on the international stage. But in terms of the World Cup, the efforts to get to one has resulted in a history of failure. From their first attempt for France 1998 Tajikistan have consistently fallen at an early hurdle. Things grew rather desperate in the last decade, as South Africa 2010 qualifying was ended with a rather humiliating loss in a play-off to Singapore, Brazil 2014 qualifying saw them battered by Uzbekistan, Japan and North Korea before much the same happened against Australia, Jordan and Kyrgyzstan for Russia 2018.

The reasons for this litany of underwhelming results are obvious if one takes even a cursory look at how the sport is managed within the country. Tajikistan’s inability, or unwillingness, to send players out to foreign leagues is obvious, so they rarely get the chance to improve their skills like others do. The national side has had an unfortunate preference for a succession of failing coaches in the last ten years, who come and go with an average reign of just over a year. Blatant nepotism in its footballing organisation is obvious, with the biggest example being the fact that the son of the country’s dictatorial ruler, Emomali Rahmon, is President of the Tajikistan Football Federation. The same son runs the capital’s Istiklol Dushanbe club who have, in an eye-raising coincidence, won every Tajik league since 2010. Hooliganism has been a oft-seen part of the club game in response to Istiklol dominance and perceptions of corrupt officiating. And there is the inevitable impact of political instability at home, with Tajikistan fighting a low-level military conflict with eastern militants for some time now along with frequent incursions by terrorist groups like Islamic State. All of these factors help to negate the popularity of the sport internally when it comes to the fortunes of the international team.

And from the outside looking in recently, some of the biggest headlines internationally about Tajik football have also come with a rather negative tinge, as they come arm-in-arm with examination of the country’s lackadaisical approach to the COVID pandemic. COVID hit Tajikistan as hard as it hit its neighbours though Rahmon’s government, never one to allow the press much freedom, has always been quick to downplay its impact, going as far as to declare the country “COVID-free” earlier this year (numerous international agencies disagree). But despite this, the Tajik football pyramid, most notably its “Higher League” went ahead on its normal schedule from April 2020 onward, in line with a general “as you were” attitude for most of Tajik society.

The Federation only went as far as banning spectators, but sides like Istiklol went ahead with their games as if nothing was amiss. For a period Tajikistan was one of only a handful of countries – the others including Belarus, Nicaragua and Burandi – maintaining its league system, virus be damned. This meant that it garnered an unexpected amount of interest from a western football-watching community starved of competitive sport, with Tajik club games suddenly getting ten times their usual audience. The government and TFF were able to crow about their outlier status, especially in the face of record streaming rights revenues, but such things appear to have come at an enormous cost for Tajik society and sporting life. Throughout April, and despite government denials, the COVID incidence rate was sky-rocketing. Eventually, around a month after the start of the season, it was realised that the situation could not hold and the TFF suspended its play, though only for a month-and-a-half. In the end a reduced 18 game season was completed, with a predictable winner.

It’s a bad situation no matter which way you look at it, but at least in terms of the international game Tajikistan can point to better news that carries less of a taint with it. In March 2018, following setbacks in qualifying for the Asian Cup, Uzbek Usmon Toshev was brought on to coach the national team. With a background as a bit of a journeyman manager throughout Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, Toshev came out of nowhere to a certain extent, but in line with having a hold on the Tajikistan underage set-ups, he has managed to do great things in a very short amount of time. He’s been helped by what appears to be a veritable golden generation of youth players who are making a big impact, having come up through overachieving U-16 and U-17 sides. They include 18-year-old Rustam Soirov and 22-year-old Shahrom Samiev upfront who have been banging in goals for their clubs, with Samiev making a rare jaunt outside of Tajikistan to do so with Moldova’s Dinamo-Auto Tiraspol. Rustam Yatimov in goal, Zoir Juraboev in defence and Amirbek Juraboev in midfield are similar examples of very young players who have gelled competing together for the underage sides, and also for the same club: you probably don’t need three guesses to determine which one. At the extreme end, a promising 16-year-old, Alijoni Aini, may make his senior international bow as well. The average age of the squad to face Mongolia is under 22, making Tajikistan’s team one of the youngest in international football history. With this comes inexperience, but it also comes with speed, enthusiasm and a lack of history weighing them down.

The current campaign has, at least in part, played out well in terms of Toshev’s preference for youth. A hugely impressive opening day victory over neighbours Kyrgyzstan was followed up with victory over Mongolia before an almost inevitable defeat to the destined group winners Japan. A degree of overconfidence heading into the game against bottom seeds Myanmar perhaps resulted in Tajikistan being on the wrong side of a seven-goal thriller and they needed to bounce back a few days later with their hopes of progression in the balance. Seven minutes away from doing the double over main rivals Kyrgyzstan, the Tajik’s had to settle for a a 1-1, in their last competitive game over 16 months ago. Despite that catastrophic loss to Myanmar, it has been a mostly positive campaign for the Tajik’s, who now face into what are bound to be the most nervy matches of their recent history.

Tonight it is Mongolia, a game where they simply must take all three points. There will follow the return game against Japan, where a draw would be a minor miracle and more likely can already be dismissed as an exercise in learning some lessons from the continents best team. They close against Myanmar, where they will presumably need little in the way of motivation. Level on points with Kyrgyzstan, who play the same opposition in a different order, Tajikistan must hope that their neighbours slip up and drop points, as they languish 7 GD behind them. And it must be remembered that whoever comes out on top of this horse race for second spot might yet be denied progression to the last stage of Asian qualification, as only the best five of the eight second-place teams will gain that prize. But Tajikistan still being in contention for that spot, and still having most of their destiny in their own hands, is an enormous improvement for a side that have never gotten to that last stage in qualifying, and hasn’t looked likely to do so for the better part of 20 years.

The confidence that these results have engendered in this young Tajik squad, who can now declare themselves on the same level as their rivals, is obvious. The lengthy wait between qualifiers may only swell this feeling: a team of youth has had a year to mature, and most of them got a season of club football in during that time, even if the manner that they did so was troubling. Tajikistan are unlikely to be among the 32 in Qatar, but if they were to make it to the AFC’s Third Round, a promised land all of its own for teams that have never made it that far, it would be the kind of headline that its footballing stakeholders will prefer over those that carry with it criticism of their COVID response. “We are not bad either” can be the the unlikely rallying cry for this new generation, that seeks to move beyond the virus, beyond the dictatorship and beyond a history of underachievement to stake a brighter future for Tajik football.

45. The North Remembers: Canada

(26/03/2021)

The moment of moments in 1985, but Canada’s greatest footballing memory comes with a large asterix.

Canada began their own delayed journey to try and make it to the World Cup Finals last night, away to the Cayman Islands. The Canadians will have optimism that they can get through this opening stage, and make a creditable effort at qualification for Qatar, ahead of their automatic place as co-hosts in 2026. Improvements in their position and quality of play recently have been obvious, but the Great White North has never been a footballing hotspot, with precious little in the way of major success in their history with the international game. The one significant exception to that was their appearance at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, but that moment, the kind of thing that should be a hallmark of footballing consciousness in any nation with a paucity of achievement, carries a stain owing to events in the aftermath. Little discussed nowadays, how some of the most important players who got Canada to the Finals ended up exiled from that team just a short time later remains one of that country’s darkest sporting stories.

Canada in the 80’s were a team on a slow upwards trend. Following many disappointing decades of humdrum results in World Cup qualifying and continental competitions, the result of poor administration, amateur or semi-amateur status and constantly being overshadowed by the two nations to their south, the team began to get better results. This was thanks largely to English coach Tony Waiters, who took over the side in 1981 and instantly began to manufacture an upswing. An English international with five caps, he had narrowly missed out on a place in the squad that won the World Cup in 1966, something that perhaps motivated his own sterling efforts to give Canadian international football a shot in the arm. After a brief career at the club level in Canada he was promoted to the national side and was able to utilise some of the most exciting talent that Canada had ever seen up to that point. They included pacy forward Carl Valentine and, more importantly, Igor Vrablic, a Slovakian-born emigre who was his adopted nations most potent attacking threat. In 1984 Waiters was able to steer them to a respectable Quarter-Final appearance in that year’s Olympics, where they went out to Brazil only on penalties. The following year would be Canada’s apogee, as they faced into the 1985 CONCACAF Championship – the forerunner of the Gold Cup – that doubled as qualification for Mexico 1986.

Canada had gotten to the tournament on a walkover after Jamaica withdrew from qualification, a sign of how badly run things frequently were in the confederation at the time. They were given a favourable draw in the First Round, facing Guatemala and Haiti: the former were dispatched at home and held to a draw away, while the latter were relieved of four full points. That got Canada into the Final Round, alongside Honduras and Costa Rica (Mexico were qualified automatically as hosts, while the States had crashed and burned beforehand).

That Final Round was a roller-coaster all of its own in many ways, played home and away and with only one game ending without a draw or a single goal victory. Canada opened with a hard-fought stalemate with Costa Rica, followed it up a week later with a momentum-gathering win away in Honduras – who had been to Spain ’82, so were no slouches – and then ground out a scoreless draw in San Jose. For the last game of the group, Canada vs Honduras in St John’s, all three teams were on three points, with the Canadians top by virtue of a single goal difference. A win or a draw would do it.

That entire game can be found online, and is a classic example of 80’s football coverage. The broadcast opens with a track-suited, and very awkward, Waiters attempting to confidently assert that his team has a great chance of qualification, but looking very much like a rabbit in the headlights. He needn’t have been so concerned. A rabid record-setting crowd had filled the King George V stadium – a ramshackle affair situated in the centre of a park, buttressed with temporary stands for the match – and they saw a tough, physical game, as they so often are against Central American sides. The weather was bitterly cold, which was half the reason Canada had chosen to play the match there, utilising their familiarity with the temperature (and their opponents unfamiliarity).

Canada took the lead through veteran striker George Pakos 15 minutes in, as he drove a loose ball home after a scramble in the box, a moment that had the Canadian goalkeeper sprinting up the field to join celebrations. The Hondurans came back though, and equalised early in the second half, Porfirio Betancourt prodding home from close range after the home defence was split open down the right. A draw was still enough but the Canadians, mindful of missing out on previous World Cup appearances by very slim margins, pressed on. Just past the hour, a swift corner was whipped in, going over the heads of attackers, defenders and a mis-positioned goalie alike, and Vrablic was on the line to knee the ball into the net. The passionate crowd, seeing history unfold in front of them, cheered the team home. At the final whistle, they invaded the pitch. Canada were North American Champions, and World Cup qualifiers, something that would have seemed an impossible dream barely a decade earlier.

Canada’s time in Mexico had less happy memories, but one cannot expect miracles. They were placed in a tough group, against heavyweights France, a Soviet Union team that would be European runners-up within two years and a not inconsiderable Hungary side. They put up a worthy fight in the opening game against Platini’s France, holding one of the pro-tournament favourites to a stalemate until 11 minutes from time. Platini had his head in his hands while addressing the press afterwards, while Waiters, and his accomplishment in undermining expectations his side would be walloped, was largely ignored. His side went on to two routine defeats to the other teams in the group, both 2-0, and were on the way home soon enough. But getting there, and being competitive there, were major achievements. In line with the launch of a new Canadian Soccer League the following year, things looked bright for Canada’s footballing future.

And then it all came crashing down. Waiters stepped away from his position after the World Cup, perhaps reasoning that he had laid the groundwork and that it was now time for someone else to bring the side forward. His replacement, Bob Bearmark, had his first opportunity to take the team at a friendly tournament, the Merlion Cup, in the autumn of 1986. Along with a core of veterans from the World Cup squad, Bearmark’s roster included plenty of youth and first-time debutantes. In a six-team round robin format, Canada easily progressed to the knock-outs, where they were down to face North Korea.

The night before the game, some of those veterans – Dave Norman and Vrablic – and some of those new faces – Hector Marinaro and Chris Chueden – sat down to play some cards. A late arrival to proceedings was midfielder Paul James, who suddenly found himself being given the chance to take part in a scheme involving the others at the table: to throw the game against the Koreans and then pocket a share of $100’000 they had been offered to do so by local bookmakers. James agreed, and the game was duly lost by a score of two goals to nothing.

But James was struck with pangs of conscience, and later returned his share to the other conspirators. That wasn’t enough to soothe his moral qualms, and he eventually divulged the truth to other players, Waiters and then the Canadian Soccer Association. A criminal investigation was launched, though as the events in question took place in Singapore no charges could be prosecuted (the Singaporean bookmakers got two years in prison). But the players in question, minus James, all received bans from the international side.

One must remember the precarious employment situation for these players, with their careers always dependent on clubs that seemed to fade in-and-out of existence with disturbing regularity, with the only outlet sometimes available in Canada being the less-than-glamorous world of indoor football: in such circumstances the temptation for a relatively massive payday would be huge. But Vrablic’s involvement remains puzzling, given his status. Playing for a top tier Belgian club at the time, he was taking in the kind of paychecks his Canadian teammates could mostly just dream about, so his willingness to risk it all is still confusing today. Was it simple greed, or the ego of a talented young athlete who thought he could get away with anything?

Norman’s ban was rescinded six years later after he was sufficiently contrite about his part, but it stuck for everyone else. Vrablic vanished from the game altogether, European clubs unwilling to hire him. He has lived in obscurity ever after, his career over before he was 22. With the nucleus and best attacking options of the side suddenly gone, and the manner of their absence leaving a pall over the team, Canada regressed sharply. For Italia ’90 they were swiftly knocked out of contention by Guatemala and, though they improved during qualification for subsequent World Cups, they spent the next decade floundering at the continental level.

Since then things have ebbed and flowed for the Canadians. A Gold Cup success in 2000 has been the height of their achievements, but comes against a litany of World Cup failures, Canada consistently failing to be on a par with Mexico, the United States or the best of Central America since 1986. There has been plenty of reasons for optimism more recently however. The establishment of a new top tier for Canadian club football, the Canadian Premier League, is a major plus, allowing Canada to form its own structures and potential feeder system for the national team, outside of the MLS (which remains the primary recruitment pool for the senior mens side). More Canadians are playing at an elite level in Europe, perhaps most notably forward Jonathan David with Lille, who became the most expensive Canadian footballer in history last year after a reported €30 million move from Gent. Current manager John Herdman is also of note, with his coaching background up to this point being almost entirely with womens teams: having guided Canada’s women to some success up to 2018, he has now been backed with getting the men to the sort of level they want to be at ahead of their guaranteed return to the World Cup in 2026.

Canada would dearly love to show that they don’t need co-hosting rights to get that privilege though, and have a chance to prove it by making it to Qatar. Getting past this First Round shouldn’t be the hardest, with their opposition all island minnows or semi-amateurs. In their first game last night, the Cayman Islands were put to the sword with Cyle Larin of Besiktas notching a hat-trick as Canada largely coasted to a 5-1 victory, with the opposition only getting on the board off an unlikely goalie error. Such games prove little difficulty for a Canadian squad with veteran found throughout MLS and European leagues, and top spot in the group is a strong likelihood. But they will then have the harder task of a home-and-away tie against a team of similar level in the Second Round before, if they get there, that eight team Third Round where the real giants of CONCACAF await. Top three get to Qatar, fourth gets the intercontinentals. Not impossible, but difficult: it may yet prove a step too far for Canada.

At least they can focus on the challenge with a certain level of expectation, and without any weight from their history. But while the suspensions of Vrablic and his conspirators are a little noted aspect of Canadian sporting history, it is there all the same. It’s a stain and a regret, that inevitably dilutes any celebration of that glorious day in St John’s when the dreams of their football fans – always in short supply in North America – came true. The chance to banish that regret entirely, and create a new generation of heroes out of the current team, remains. The North remembers, and it also expects.

46. Doped: Russia

(27/03/2021)

The relationship between Russia and FIFA has not been enough to prevent a banning of the Russian name from Qatar, another stunning stop on a road filled with dodgy dealings and unanswered questions.

A few nights ago, the 2018 hosts got their 2022 campaign underway with the relatively easy task of Malta in Valletta. Russia walked away with all three points, after a slightly harder-than-expected 3-1 victory. Following on from their unexpected success in their own World Cup, Russia are off to a strong start, and it is likely that either they or Croatia will top Group H when all of the games are done. But this first match was taking place under a bit of a pall for the visitors, with an emphasis very much on “a bit”: it’s the first game the Russian team has played since confirmation that, if they are to make it to Qatar, they will be not be permitted to play in the World Cup Finals as Russia.

This unusual status is a result of a long-running series of investigations and tribunals connected to Russian sport and its doping practices, but the really important point is that the footballers of Russia are not actually barred from the tournament. No team from the Russian Federation that makes it there will be able to play as “Russia”, but they will be able to play, as long as they are labelled, to a sufficient extent, as “neutral athletes”. They won’t be able to walk out behind their flag, but they can use Russian colours in their jerseys. They won’t be able to hear the “State Anthem” before their matches – I’m not sure what would be used in its place – but once the anthems are over they will be able to take the field and play. This strange limbo has raised many eyebrows, a ban of a country but not its footballers, and naturally engendered questions as to whether it is a suitable punishment, or if it has any merit as a punitive measure at all.

Sports-based doping has a lengthy enough history in Russia, going back to the time of the USSR. The 1980 Olympics in Moscow were dubbed the “Chemists Games” by an investigatory committee, that claimed most medal winners from the host nation were on some drug or another, usually provided by the state as part of a finely researched and well-funded programme. Even after the fall of communism, the Russian Federation appears to have kept up the effort, with a long series of their athletes and teams implicated in the use of performance-enhancing drugs, but with the additional level of murk that comes with such things being state-sponsored.

The vast majority of attention on such matters, which really began to blow-up following the airing of a German whistleblower-influenced documentary, “The Doping Secret: ‘How Russia Creates its Champions“, in 2014, has been squarely on various shades of Olympic athlete, and the list is long on that score. But football has been far from guiltless in the growing scandal. In June 2016, another documentary, among other accusations, provided evidence that then Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko had been involved in covering up the doping of an unnamed player from Russia’s FC Krasnodar. The player was allegedly found to have hexarelin, a synthetic growth hormone, in his system, but the test was quashed. Mutko sat on FIFA’s governing council at the time, and was a leading name in the efforts to organise the 2018 World Cup. A month later the McClaren Report, commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency to investigate state collusion in Russian doping, claimed that there were at least 11 separate instances where a positive drug test of a Russian footballer was the subject of an officially-backed “disappearing positive methodology”, where they either vanished or were swapped with a clean sample.

The report set-off a chain of further investigations related to the 2016 Olympics in Rio, but as Russia had failed to qualify for the footballing portion of events there it is fair to say that this side of things got little attention. In regards the 33 footballers named in the report from Russia, FIFA would only go so far as to confirm that no Russian footballer had failed a drug test at the 2014 World Cup, or at the 2017 Confederations Cup, and that there was insufficient evidence to take any more action. Such things did little to dispell concern, and that concern became acute when, late in 2017, it was revealed that FIFA had sacked Professor Jiri Dvorak, their chief medical officer, while he was in the process of investigating Russian doping. The sacking, which came with no notice or explanation, occurred around the same time as the chairmen of FIFA’s ethics and governance committees were also removed: both had been involved in the investigations into Mutko’s role in the scandal and the discussions on whether he was suitable for a role on FIFA’s governing council. FIFA has made no official comment on the sackings, and also refused to confirm whether any of the appointed replacements were continuing the work.

By the summer of 2018, with the Russian World Cup imminent, the issue was back in the headlines when Grigory Rodchenkov, a whistleblower who claimed to have been intimately involved in the state doping programmes, claimed that a member of the Russian squad for the Finals had participated in one of those programmes. Again, FIFA insisted they could do nothing, and later confirmed that no Russian player in the Finales failed a drug test. That didn’t stop the father of Russian midfielder Denis Cheryshev claiming a few months later that his son had taken growth hormone supplements at the time, though Cheryshev was later cleared. But enough accusations of Russian footballers being involved in such programmes, combined with the telltale signs of an official cover-up, have been made that it is increasingly hard to take FIFA at their word.

The length and breath of the legal processes that have taken place because of all of these accusations are an epic in themselves, constituting a tangled web of inquiries, tribunals, punitive measures, appeals and counter-appeals, all going back and forth between numerous committees, watchdogs and court systems. Though the most recent ruling from WADA seems like it has an air of finality to it, there is likely going to more in the way of challenges still to be made, as people as high in Russian society as Vladimir Putin – I can’t really think of anyone higher – have previously expressed the sentiment that competing in international tournaments under a neutral name and flag is a humiliation that cannot be borne.

And there is the other side of course, the cavalcade of voices that feel like what has been decided doesn’t go nearly far enough when it comes to punishing Russia for what it has done with its athletes. Various sporting personalities have cried foul at what they see as WADA essentially washing its hands of the issue, with a punishment that doesn’t really punish anyone. WADA, an organisation seemingly designed not to make any friends in the sporting world, has come under increasing pressure to do more to combat such widescale doping programmes, and it would seem that the unstated opinion is that Russia should be banned, in any form, from going to Qatar. The news last week that FIFA had opened proceedings against three unnamed Russian footballers accused of taking performance enhancers has kept the overall story in the headlines, even if those three are uncapped at national level.

All of this overshadows what has been a relatively successful period for Russian national football. Few, among them myself, gave them much of a chance of accomplishing anything in the summer of 2018, having to tackle a group that included Uruguay and Egypt, but they came through it, and then scored a famous victory against a directionless Spain in the Last 16. They couldn’t repeat the trick in the Quarter-Finals against Croatia but getting that far was achievement enough, a run that left Russian football fans enraptured at the unexpected progression. Russia’s inability to ever really make good on its advantages in population, funding and not inconsiderable league is something that weighs heavily: 2018 showed that they have the potential to compete with the very best at this level. But one hopes they are doing so fairly. And if they are not, that they will be caught doing so.

After Malta, tonight’s match, Russia’s first home game of the campaign, should be the somewhat harder test of Slovenia. Russian footballers can still dream of a place in Qatar and a chance to prove that 2018 was not a fluke. But the accusations, recriminations and perceptions over what has gone on across Russian sport, regardless of FIFA’s dismissals, will continue to cast a shadow that is not so easily dispelled.

47. The Eruption: Montserrat

(28/03/2021)

The volcano looms in more ways than one over Montserrat, but now the football team will continue their efforts to make the island known for more than just that disaster.

In the northern stretch of the Leeward Islands, in the chain known as the Lesser Antilles, is the Caribbean speck of Montserrat. A British territory that is home to less than five thousand people, the island has always traditionally been one of the minnows of CONCACAF football, but have bucked that trend somewhat in their first game of World Cup qualification, a 2-2 with Antigua and Barbuda, in the COVID mandated surrounds of Curacao. Curacao is also where Montserrat take the field for their first nominal home game of Group A today, where they “host” El Salvador. The idea of making it to Qatar is an extremely distant dream for the Montserratians, but the long shot nature of that unlikely ambition should not deflect too much from a resurgence in the island’s footballing prospects as of late, as it continues to emerge from the shadow of not-too-distant disaster.

Montserrat has never been able to make much of an impact on the world, with the two most notable things attached to the place a metronome between the briefly curious and terribly tragic. The first is the island’s connection to Ireland, with large numbers of Irish settling there in the 17th century, many of them not by choice but rather at the, to put it nicely, insistence of British authorities. This gave, and still gives to a certain extent, Montserrat a distinctly Irish flavour in terms of its culture, even if the time when Irish ethnicity was a recognised fact of life on the island is long since gone. Place names include Kinsale, St Patricks and Cork Hill, the coat of arms is a representation of Erin, the 17th March is a national holiday and a few words in the local dialect can still be recognised as having Irish roots. For the footballers, this extends to being dubbed “the Emerald Boys”.

The second thing, the tragedy, was the eruption of the Soufriere Hills volcano in 1995, which wiped out the settlements on the southern half of the island, including the capital, Plymouth. 19 people were killed, and in the following years the majority of the island’s population left for good, with only the northern half of Montserrat deemed capable of habitation. The years since have been about a slow and steady recovery, in population, tourist trade and economy, and while there have been some gains Montserrat remains a minor part of Britain’s modern-day colonial portfolio.

Football was far from immune from the destruction meted out by the volcano: having only been constituted in 1991, the nearly entirely amateur national team took a lengthy enough break from competition owing to both the destruction of facilities and the loss of many players who had moved permanently to the UK afterwards. With barely a thousand people on the island the chances of getting a league going, let alone a national team, were kaput for several years. After losing 11-0 to St Vincent and the Grenadines in a Caribbean Cup qualifier in May 1995, it would not be until February 1999 that Montserrat would take to the field again, losing 3-1 to the British Virgin Islands in a Caribbean Nations qualifier. Added on top of it all was the inability of the island to host its own home games, and it would not be until 2014 that Montserrat did that again.

Montserrat’s footballing status was so low at the time that when other teams were gearing up for the World Cup in 2002, the Emerald Boys were looking up at them from the very bottom, ranked dead last of FIFA’s then 203 nations. An unlikely opportunity for publicity arose from such circumstances however, when two Dutch ad agency partners, Johan Kramer and Matthijs de Jongh, organised “The Other Final” to compensate themselves for a lack of orange in South Korea/Japan. The game pitted #203 in Montserrat against #202 in Bhutan. Despite initial skepticism from either side about the project, the prospective FA’s eventually embraced it as a good publicity exercise if nothing else, with such an avenue especially important for a Caribbean island considerably down on its luck. The game, that took place in the high altitudes of Thimpu, ended in a 4-0 victory for the hosts, but the scoreline wasn’t really important. It remains the most notable thing in the history of Montserratian sport, an example of good sportsmanship and international opportunity through football.

The most notable until recently that is, when an eruption of a very different kind has occurred. An increase in the islands population, greater ties to players who have their club game in England – the current squad includes men from Bolton Wanderers and Maidenhead United – and the appointment, in 2018, of Willie Donachie as manager have all played in their part in what has been Montserrat’s best period ever. Donachie, a one-time Scottish international, is a renowned coach whose intelligence, mindfulness focus and holistic teaching methods has seen him become a fondly remembered part of the recent history of clubs like Oldham, Everton, Manchester City, Newcastle as well as other Caribbean sides. It’s unlikely, for example, that Manchester City would be the footballing behemoth that they are today without him, as he was an acclaimed part of the backroom team that saw the side recover from their Second Division position in 1999, that included that fateful play-off win over Gillingham.

He’s helped to blood a new generation of Montserratian footballers by concentrating on making the game enjoyable to play for them first-and-foremost, with a penchant for positive reinforcement when he isn’t advising players on breathing exercises. With a background in mediation and a pro-active attitude, Donachie has managed to inject a greater verve, cohesion and aptitude in his charges. And the aim has been more than just introducing a feel-good factor, but of making Montserrat a team worthy of respect, capable of going toe-to-toe with any of their neighbours.

The end product has been undeniable, with Montserrat entering the 2018/19 CONCACAF Nations League as one of the lowest ranked sides in the confederation, and leaving it with three wins – over Belize, Aruba and the Cayman Islands – and a hard-fought loss to El Salvador. Going into the competition among the worst seeded of 34 participants, Montserrat came within two GD of qualifying for the 2019 Gold Cup. In the subsequent smaller groups, the team added more wins over the Dominican Republic and Saint Lucia and, due to the somewhat convoluted process of the competition, have made it to the final qualification tournament for the 2021 Gold Cup, due to take place in July. The campaign constitutes more than half of Montserrat’s winning performances in their entire history, and is a stunning endorsement of Donachie’s somewhat unique approach to coaching.

Now Montserrat aim to bring that measurable improvement in their fortunes to the next test. Montserrat have never won a game in World Cup qualifying. Last week, they got only their second draw. Today, they face a bigger test in El Salvador, the team that denied them that place in the Gold Cup. An unlikely grudge match, if Montserrat could get a win, or a draw, it would put them in contention for the kind of progression that nations of such size and population can typically only dream about. Regardless, Montserratian football has already played its part in a re-orientation of how the island is perceived from abroad, and can be safely backed to continue that trend, until that speck in the Caribbean is far more than just an island with a volcano.

48. 15%: Faroe Islands

(29/03/2021)

In one of the most isolated, and beautiful, parts of Europe, football finds a way to take root, survive and thrive.

Last week, one of Europe’s long-standing minnow nations began yet another seemingly hopeless campaign for World Cup qualification. Away to Moldova, Håkan Ericson’s charges sought to get things off to the best possible start, ahead of much tougher tasks later against Denmark and Austria, and were able to walk away with a 1-1 draw. Despite the nature of Ericson’s team, few would have automatically called it an embarrassment for Moldova. The Faroe Islands have always been tough, have always taken their pride in representing their country and have always turned that pride into a resilience on the pitch beyond their nominal level. This doesn’t mean that they punch above their weight too much, but it does mean they can be a very tricky opponent, with any trip to Torshavn a potential banana skin. From their famous 1-0 win over Austria in their first ever competitive match in 1990 to their record points hall in the qualification for Russia 2018, the Faroese have frequently defied expectations in terms of their competitiveness.

The reasons you might think little of their footballing chances are obvious. The place is a windswept collection of small islands, islets and skerries, with the nearest populated part of Europe being almost 300 km’s away, so the opportunities to be part of a larger footballing community is already facing a substantial geographic obstacle. Little more than 52’000 people call the islands home, making their way almost entirely through fishing and fish farming, so there isn’t an enormous (footballing) catchment area. They stick mostly to the coasts, with the interior of the islands rugged and rocky, so there isn’t much room for football pitches. And the Faroe Islands are not a fully sovereign country, being rather an autonomous territory of Denmark, that has been humming and hawing about independence for decades; there are few examples of such political entities making good on a sporting stage.

And yet, these are all obstacles that the Faroese have consistently battled to overcome. It helps that, in line with their culturally-similar brethren in mainland Scandinavia, the population of the islands has every opportunity to embrace athleticism. Those 52’000 people spend a lot of time and energy on sporting endevours, embracing the Nordic model of publicly backed sporting facilities being readily available for every citizen. This means that participation levels are through the roof in the Islands compared to other European nations, with plenty taking part in handball, volleyball and rowing. But football outstrips them all. A staggering 8’000 Faroese citizens are either registered football players or confirmed as playing the sport recreationally on a regular basis: 15% of the overall population. In comparison, studies have found that in England only 8% of the population can say the same. In pitches that dot the landscape wherever they can be fitted, often of the artificial variety, the Faroese play, and play all the time. The local league is well-supported, with ten clubs scattered throughout the islands, and three tiers operating below them. My own country, one of nearly 5 million people, supports only two.

Their footballing history reflects the obsession in many ways. Where other minnows that the Islands are often classed with, like Andorra, Liechtenstein or San Marino, regularly go through World Cup qualifying groups without scoring a single point, the Faroese have never failed to. That 1-0 victory over Austria is etched in the memory, a very important go-to example of national pride, famous for a thundering speech delivered pre-game by coach Páll Guðlaugsson, who railed against the “arrogant Austrians” and encouraged his team to throw themselves into tackles on behalf of their childhood home. Some very notable results have followed over the last thirty years: draws with Scotland, Slovenia, and Cyprus, near things against Germany and Italy, wins against Estonia, Lithuania and Greece. They have never gotten close to qualification to either a World Cup or a EURO’s, and have shipped plenty of losses, so they are consistently in the lower 100’s of FIFA rankings. But the time has never really come when a game against them is considered a gimme. Under a number of committed coaches – Henrik Larsen and Brian Kerr probably the most notable – successive crops of players, the vast majority homegrown, have been groomed, overachieved relative to their country’s level and then helped the next generation do the same.

All of this led up to that aforementioned Russia 2018 campaign. Under Dane Lars Olsen the Faroese had been coming on in leaps and bounds since 2011, scoring more and registering those stunning back-to-back wins over Greece in qualifying for EURO 2016. More and more of the team was finding a place in clubs outside of the islands, in various Scandinavian leagues and even the Bundesliga in the case of striker Joan Edmundsson. Heavy defeats to Portugal and less heavy defeats to Switzerland were the low points of an otherwise spectacular campaign, with wins against Latvia and Andorra matched with three draws seeing the Faroe Islands hit 4th in a six team group, and by only a goal scored or conceded in games against Hungary tantalisingly close to third. In line with an impressive performance in the Nations League, where they moved from the “D” tier to “C” last year, and the decent Europa League run of last seasons league champions KI, it is clear that the Faroese are more than just dismissable whipping boys.

But what is it all for, in international terms? The Nations League opens up a potential path into future EURO’s that would have been all but impossible beforehand, and Faroese eyes will presumably be very focused on that, more achievable, goal, instead of the World Cup. Even when that tournament expands to 48 teams, getting high enough in the perpetually tough UEFA qualification system would seem like a long shot, regardless of pluck and never-say-die attitudes. Nations like Iceland provide the template for possible success though: perhaps with the same commitment to youth development, infrastructural advancement and, most importantly, patience in abundance, the Faroese could one day legitimately dream of reaching that height. In some ways that is their biggest contribution to the international game: for the other perennial fifth and sixth seeds, the Faroe Islands demonstrate that it is possible to compete, to win and not be laughed out the door when talk turns to the idea of tournament qualification.

Trying to match or better that 2018 campaign in the current one is a big enough task to be facing at the present time however. In the first match they got a point: the Faroese will hope to pick up a win in the return fixture, and then target additional successes against a perennially struggling Israeli side and maybe even the Scots, against whom that have been capable of stealing points before. But before any of that, last nights game brought back a familiar foe: Austria in Vienna. Since that famous 1990 victory, the Faroese have faced the Austrian five times, drawing one and losing four.

They were not fancied to come full circle since 30 years ago, but had the script re-written a tad by getting the first goal, a Sonni Nattestad header from a corner. This time it was the jolt Austria needed, and they scored the next three to run out comfortable winners, but the Faroe Islands and proved their worth, competitiveness and gumption yet again. If they were to snatch a draw, or even a win, in the return fixture it might be a surprise, though we could not call it the shock of the World Cup. Not anymore. For the Faroese and their 15%, the game is just another opportunity to show the rest of us just who they are and what they are made of.

49. The Forbidden Door: Japan

(30/03/2021)

Knock knock

Tonight, Japan face Mongolia in a match they are widely expected to win. In the reverse fixture almost a year-and-a-half ago, the Blue Samurai stuck six goals into the same oppositions net, and with six different scorers to boot. They are one of only three sides to have maintained a 100% record at this stage of AFC qualification, and victory in this match, nominally a Mongolian home affair but actually being played in Japan due to COVID, will make their advancement to the final round of qualifying a near mathematical certainty. For Japan, this part of the international footballing calendar has become as routine as it can possibly be. It’s just everything afterwards that is the problem.

Japan, despite their position at the head of the AFC table, despite their imminently successful national league and despite the pool of talented players to put on the blue jersey, have found themselves consistently unable to get beyond the last 16 of the World Cup. It is a forbidden door that many in the AFC have been unable to get past, but for which Japan have less excuses than most, with all of their apparent advantages. Figuring out just why is at the heart of national football in the islands.

The Japanese performance at the most recent World Cup in Russia makes the point. Qualification, despite topping both group stages in the AFC, was a closer run thing than they would have liked, the performances poor enough that Bosnian coach Vahid Halilhodžić was sacked less than three months before the Finals, replaced by Technical Director Akira Nashino. Few expected much, but Nashino’s philosophy of attack-minded, flowing football was able to catch a lot of people on the hop, albeit with a bit of luck. Carlos Sanchez’ red card flipped the expected narrative of the opening game against Columbia on its head, even if Japan still looked somewhat out of their depth in squeezing out a 2-1 victory against a team playing with ten men for 87 minutes. Coming from behind twice to draw with Senegal was arguably a more creditable performance in the second game before losing the last 1-0 to Poland, a match marked by the lackadaisical approach to the final few minutes, with Japan advancing to the knock-outs on fair play points and unwilling to risk any yellow cards. Such things drew criticism, but Japan were breaking no rules. Moreover, they had gazumped the predictions and gotten to their high water mark yet again.

Few would have expected any more of Japan, going up against one of the tournament favourites in the Second Round, but the world was alight on 68 minutes with Belgium two goals behind and staring elimination in the face. A potent, open and attacking tactical set-up had allowed Japan to take advantage of Belgian underestimation and nerves to score twice in the second half, before the forbidden door to further progression closed again: the same open tactics allowed Belgium to score three in the last 25 minutes of play. The third was particularly cruel: a Japanese corner where the Asian side committed men forward looking for a winner, only to get caught on a blistering counter-attack. They may have wowed the neutrals, but it was the same old story in terms of results.

For Japan, it was just the latest example of coming up against that forbidden door, the third time they have reached the last 16, the third time they have been unable to go any further and the third time they have had to watch their conquerors march on to further glory. Having been in the international wilderness before the 1990’s, a consequence of a largely amateur club set-up before then, Japan have been one of the most dominant sides continentally for the last thirty years, but their World Cup appearances have had little to talk about. It has been three matches, three defeats in France, a Second Round exit to Turkey in the tournament they co-hosted, one point in Germany, a Second Round exit to Paraguay on penalties in South Africa, one point in Brazil and then the heartbreaking loss to Belgium in Russia. Even while they have wracked up an impressive number of triumphs in the Asian Cup – winning four of the last eight tournaments – and made sure of an appearance at every World Cup for the last 22 years, Japan have never been able to make the impact that they want to make at that level. They have become endemic of a perceived deficiency in Asian international football, whose nations have only made it to the final eight of a World Cup twice (both times being a Korea, North in 1966 and South in 2002). Only Oceania has a worse record: if Japan, probably the most consistently talented Asian team of recent times, can’t do, then who can?

And it certainly isn’t for lack of trying, or for lack of appreciation from fans, both Japanese and neutral. Japan continue to play with an open attacking mindset, displaying a confidence in their abilities that some outside of the continent might find surprising. Part of this comes from being a big fish in a small pond most of the time, part of it comes from a squad full of European veterans, well-versed in attacking and counter-attacking styles. And part of it comes from Hajime Moriyasu, who took over the national side after the Russian World Cup. A 35 cap veteran of the team in much leaner times, he encourages individuality and places an emphasis on speed: the result is an fluid, forward thinking side, an extension of the team that scared the life out of Belgium, that sometimes plays in a full-on 4-4-2, pragmatism be damned. Predictably, the joys of such a philosophy can be weighed against the despair: a 3-0 victory over fellow Asian heavyweights Iran in the 2019 Asian Cup was hugely impressive but not so much was a 4-0 thumping at the hands of Chile in the 2019 Copa.

Such peaks and valleys are being driven by a team that is head and shoulders above most of the other squads they might have cause to face in Asia, especially in the Second Round of World Cup qualifying. There’s Shinji Okazaki who bangs them in upfront for country and club, Huesca, in La Liga. Southampton’s pacy left-winger Takumi Minamino provides much of the impetus going forward, and is capable of taking the chances that fall his way. Tough centre back Maya Yoshida captains the side from defence, and is one of the squads most consistent presences. And Eiji Kawashima, having gone from Belgium to Scotland to France, remains a reliable last line between the sticks.

So, why is it then that the Quarter-Finals have been out of reach? It is, as it always is, a combination of factors really. The dominance in Asia is a curse as a much as a blessing, with Japan lacking the kind of tough opposition, in so many of their local games, as is required for any team seeking to be among the best of the best: banging in goals against Mongolia is all well and good, but the Turkeys, Belgiums and Paraguays of this world are having their mettle tested throughout World Cup qualifying. For all of their footballers emerging from the strong home league to play abroad, they are too often squad players at best, and the treks back and forth to play internationals can be gruelling. Moreover, there remains a hesitance in some managers to employ the best of Japanese football at club level, owing to those international commitments. And, at the end of the day, the psychological dimension cannot be discounted either: consistent failure at that highest of levels, at that critical test, can breed in sides a mental block as much as anything, a subconscious feeling of inferiority that can be as hard to get beyond as any imbalance in physical characteristics or skill. But Japan were good enough to get beyond Senegal and Poland, and are good enough to break beyond their high water mark. They just have to go out and do it.

The match against Mongolia is largely an academic exercise before a ball has been kicked. They were put to the sword in emphatic fashion in the other fixture, and have generally underwhelmed in this phase of AFC qualification: all being as it is, they should prove little match for Japan. Victory here will essentially confirm the top seeds as having one of the first berths in the real business end of Asian qualifying, and the start, for them at least, of the serious battles, against the better sides of the AFC. In between there is the Tokyo Olympics where a mostly U-23 squad, still packed full of senior caps and would-be hopefuls, will vie to impress Moriyasu. But at the end of the road, should it lead to Qatar, will still lie the test that faces so many nearly-men: of getting beyond the group stage, getting beyond the last 16, and proving that Japan is worthy of being called the greatest team on the largest continent. The forbidden door still awaits.

50. Expressions Of Nationhood: British/U.S. Virgin Islands

(31/03/2021)

They may just be dots in the ocean, but the two sets of Virgin Islands have the same chance at World Cup glory as many others.

The First Round of CONCACAF qualification continued last night, where the very best teams of the Caribbean region rise above the chaff, and seek to progress into the more serious business of the later stages. As I hope has already been made clear by earlier entries, there are still plenty of fascinating footballing tidbits to be discovered in this early segment of qualification if one is to go looking for them, confluences of football with land-grabbing history, ecological wonders or unlikely escapes from the impact of COVID. Some teams have already been eliminated from contention, others have withdrawn before they even got started. Yesterday two sets of islands from this region, emblazoned with the names of much larger powers, took to the field once again to demonstrate their identity and sovereignty in the sporting arena. They did so with little expectation of progression, but there are more important reasons for such representations sometimes. The British and U.S. Virgin Islands are two territories that know this better than some.

The history of the Virgin Islands as we know it is largely a history of colonialism. Larger parties greedily carved up the Caribbean between them when it was realised the bountiful resources that they held and the Virgins were no exception, a source for sugar and tobacco, the desire for which was slacked by the employment of slaves carried away from Africa. The Spanish, Dutch, Danes, French, Prussians even the Knights Hospitaller have all had their turn with some or all of the islands, that have swapped hands with regularity. Today, a small number of them, the Spanish, are attached to the larger territory of Puerto Rico, and the rest are divided between being an unincorporated territory of Uncle Sam and an overseas territory of the Queen, self-governing to an extent but still largely under the aegis of their long-term political overlords. And a special relationship exists between the two, to match and exceed the one between the larger constructs.

Despite being divided by the vagaries of colonial horse-trading, there is more to tie the Virgin Islands together than can be split apart by political designations. The British and U.S. Islands share a common ancestry, a common language, a common culture and common tastes in cuisine, music and art. This extends to the sporting sphere as well, where the geographical closeness of the United States and Puerto Rico means that basketball and baseball are popular on both sets of islands, with cricket gaining an additional foothold in the British Virgins. And football is there too, as it is in every part of the globe, but perhaps more than any other sport allows for that degree of national self-expression.

The British Virgin Islands, as you might well expect, has the older side, the game brought to the Caribbean by the British Royal Navy and expanded by the Royal Engineers. Despite the head start on their American-titled cousins to the north, the British Virgins went decades before even attempting World Cup qualification, and have never won a game in pursuit of such a goal. Like other Caribbean nations they have the opportunity to look to the United Kingdom for players, taking advantage of the grandparent rule: recent squads are littered with men from the lower tiers of the English system, or underage squads of more established clubs. For example Poole Town, who play in the seventh tier in England, have an established relationship with the BVIFA that means they provide nearly a quarter of the current squad. As such, the British Virgin Islands have been able to outsource much of the needed training and learning environment needs when it comes to their footballers. The results, relative to their neighbours, are clear, with the British Virgins consistently ranked above their American counterparts.

Of course, those counterparts have had their not insignificant struggles. The U.S. Virgin Islands only played their first official match in 1998, and their history has been one of a constant search for relevance in the baseball/basketball centric islands, and for a home. Football, or rather soccer in the local parlance, is simply not on the radar to a huge extent, at least until relativity recently, with the national side fielding amateur players, many of whom consider the United States to be their real international team. They have bounced between numerous stadiums in their two decade and change existence, playing on baseball fields frequently, and seeing one of the few dedicated football pitches in the Paul E. Joseph Stadium demolished in 2012, with a new sporting centre built on the site that did not include a football pitch. The team was forced at one point to play on high school facilities before the new Bethlehem Soccer Stadium was opened in St Croix in 2018, providing a more permanent home for the “Dashing Eagles”. The team finds its players from throughout Caribbean leagues, regional competitions in the States and academic athletics: probably their most notable squad member is Lionel Brown, a back-up keeper for Miami FC in the American second tier.

The two sides are no strangers to each other, with some of the most important matches in their history being against the opposing set of islands. The very first game that the U.S. Virgins played as a recognised FIFA entity was against the British Virgins: the U.S. ran out 1-0 winners. It would take them 13 years to win another game, yet when that moment came it was against the same opposition, a 4-1 aggregate victory in the qualification for Brazil 2014. That result came as an enormous shock to the British Virgin Islanders, and an enormous delight for the U.S. equivalents, who jumped 50 ranking places in the process. But that was the end of the fairytale: they would ship an average of six goals a game in the next round. British superiority in the intervening years should not be taken as an indication that they are on a different level entirely: the truth is that both teams, with unpaid players and volunteer coaching, competing with cricket and baseball for attention, must take whatever successes they can get as they come.

But getting to a World Cup isn’t really the point, at least when viewed from the position of recognising that such a goal is so far away that focusing on it is an exercise in futility. The Virgin Islands, British and U.S., will only get so many chances to showcase their identity on an international stage, with such opportunities largely absent in other sports, and with independence movements in both territories very much a minority position. Despite claims that their incorporation into FIFA was as much about increasing a voter base for men like Sepp Blatter, their status as full members of the international governing body allows the islands this vital outlet, a way to demonstrate that their are more than just a forgettable colonial outpost or tax haven. The growth of the game in the British Virgins, the search for a permanent home in the U.S. Virgins, these are signs of how important the sport is, and while that importance might apply to a smaller section of the population than in other places in the Caribbean, it is a good and praise-worthy thing that such work gets its end-result in this sporting expression of nationhood. The Virgin Islands may remain a colonial plaything for some to come, but at least in football they can display the flag, sing their anthem and compete at the same basic level as England or the United States.

Every new campaign is a new adventure for both sets of islands, and World Cup qualification for Qatar is no exception. Both teams are bottom seeds in their respective groups, arraigned against a host of more capable Caribbean or Central American sides, in what must be deemed a largely hopeless quest to progress to the next round. Opening day losses to Antigua and Barbuda for the U.S. and Guatemala for the British are likely to be repeated results, but nothing is certain until the full-time whistle goes. Today, the U.S. Virgin Islands play Grenada while the British Virgin Islands take on Saint Vincente and the Grenadines. Regardless of the results, the battle for relevancy, for national identity and any scrap of footballing success will go on.

51. Lions And Eagles: England/Poland

(01/04/2021)

One team seeking a long-awaited triumph, another seeking to prove a point about being a one-man side: both trying to gain a stranglehold on qualification.

UEFA World Cup qualifying last night threw up one of the most notable games of of the global process so far, in pitching the teams of England and Poland against each other in Group I. Both sides could be considered some of Europe’s traditional heavy-hitters, both could be considered to have some of the world’s best players in their squads, and both could be considered to have underwhelmed at an international level for years. Expectation lies heavy in England, fears of a generational talent being wasted the same in Poland. But more than that, at the end of a rapid-fire first series of games, it was a contest that neither side could easily afford to lose, even this early in qualification.

For the hosts, it would be simple to feel that the commencement of this campaign is portentous. The performance of the Three Lions in Russia captured the imagination of a country that has always assumed a right to footballing success, not quite justified by their practical achievements since 1966. The semi-final run, equaling the achievement of the 1990 team, was a magnetic affair, carried out by an exciting squad of young potent talents like Raheem Sterling, Deli Alli, John Stones and Harry Kane. Opinions that England only beat the teams you would expect them to beat, and lost to the teams you would expect them to lose to, were largely dismissed with excited commentary that Gareth Southgate’s charges will be the perfect age come 2022. Expectations, always high in the home of football, have sky-rocketed, and may yet be boosted again by what kind of performance England put in this summer at the delayed EURO 2020, where they host the final. In the first match of this campaign minnows San Marino were put to the sword with professionalism in a facile 5-0 walloping before England eased past Albania at the weekend, but last night was the first big test on the road to a desperately desired World Cup glory.

For the visitors, the game had already taken on an additional level of pressure, following a disappointing performance in their opening match away to Hungary last Thursday night. The Eagles had to come from behind twice to share the points and while Hungary are worthy of some respect, the nature of the result will leave plenty wondering if the relatively good days of the last ten years are in danger of coming to an end for Poland. A much easier task was dispatching Andorra at home a few days ago, but having dropped points already and now facing into what is nominally the toughest game of the group, Poland were eager to dig themselves out of a hole that threatened to swallow them before they could properly get going. An over-reliance on their star man, Robert Lewandowski, has consistently led to Poland being labelled a one-man team: it was Lewandowski, on a run of scoring in ten consecutive matches for club and country, who got the last goal in that 3-3 stalemate, after Poland had failed to register a shot in nearly an hour, before he scored two of the three against Andorra. But last night Poland had to make do without him, after a knee injury ruled sustained in the previous tie: a huge challenge, but also an opportunity to prove to the watching world that Poland could get a result with the rest of the squad.

England went into the game with a strong team, bolstered by Mason Mount’s late passing of a fitness test. Ben Chilwell came in for Luke Shaw at left-back, but other than that it was the same side that had defeated San Marino and Albania, lining up in an attack-focused 4-3-3. Harry Kane, Ben Foden and Raheem Sterling were the key men at the front, with Declan Rice tasked with pulling the strings in the centre of midfield in-between Kalvin Phillips and Mount. Kyle Walker, John Stones and Harry Maguire linked with Chilwell at the back, ahead of Nick Pope in goal, on a run of five consecutive clean sheets. On the other side, to counter-act the major blow that Lewandowski’s absence represented, manager Paulo Sousa was able to call in experienced midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak after his recovery from a COVID diagnosis. Wojciech Szczesny started from the the back, behind Michal Helik, Kamil Glik and Jan Bendarek, with Bartosz Bereszynski and Maciej Ryber providing extension down the wings. Piotr Zielinski, Krychowiak and Jakub Moder were the central midfield trio giving support for Krzysztof Piatek and Karol Swiderski up front, with Moder an optional attacker if the moment called for it. A packed out midfield in a changeable 3-5-2 gave Poland some options but it was undoubtedly a less impressive side without Lewandowski’s name in it. England were clear favourites, though not so clear as to be above worry: Poland may not be consistent qualifiers, but only a fool would consider them pushovers.

An empty Wembley was the arena, with the absence of fans continuing to give games that endlessly eerie feeling. After the anthems, kneeling and touching of “Respect” logos, the game began and the pattern was set fairly quickly. England controlled the majority of position and went forward seeking gaps with short passes, pacy off-the-ball movement and pinging crosses. Rice was immediately pivotal, even if things were breaking down quickly inside the final third. The few Polish forays forward were limited and liable to meet the brick-wall of the English defence led by Stones and Maguire that was, for the time being, immovable. Ben Foden headed over around nine minutes in, the first real chance, and a few minutes later was nearly able to get a similar hit on goal again, the Polish defence under Southampton’s Bendarek scrambling to prevent such chances.

Twenty minutes in and you could tell the frustration was starting to build a bit for the English, able to pass the ball around easily in midfield, but denied the incisive pass or throughball to set the forwards free. Poland were dealing with the crosses, and starting to make England look a bit impotent. But then it happened. Raheem Sterling got its first opportunity to burst forward, headed to the byline for a cut back and got stopped in his tracks by Barnsley’s Helik. The replays were somewhat inconclusive, with Sterling perhaps stumbling more than caught, but the contact was enough to convince referee Björn Kuipers. Kane stepped up to become England’s record holder for scoring penalties, with a simple side-footed effort down the centre, and suddenly Poland’s defensive solidity was no longer going to be enough for them.

The visitors had to come out of their shell a bit, but initially had no success making any headway against the opposition. An attempt to finesse the ball through the packed midfield only resulted in a lethally quick English counter, where Sterling should have taken a shot on himself but instead tried to pass to Foden for a tap-in. The selflessness allowed Glik to make a last-ditch clearance, and Poland were able to breathe. England continued to press and continued to go down the left, utilising a great relationship between Mount and Sterling to get to the by-line time and again. Only a few more chances were made though and, bar a Kane shot batted away by Szczesny after a well-worked move, England were unable to find a clear opening. Up the other end, Poland were the team now exposed as impotent, and perhaps hopelessly reliant on their absent figurehead: only a keeping error from Nick Pope, hitting a clearance straight at Stones who was able to control the ball, gave the Poles a sniff of a chance. Half-time perhaps came a bit too early for England, in total control of the game but unable to increase their lead and kill the contest off.

Arkadiusz Milik replaced Swiderski upfront for Poland to begin the second half, with his immediate impact being to get booked for a clumsy foul on Kane. At first the pattern of the game seemed to have just resumed, with Sterling dangerously close to getting on the end of a Kyle Walker cross minutes into the half. But then Poland came back into it, holding more of the ball, getting down the flanks, and testing the English defence with a succession of teasing crosses. The first significant pressure of the game they had to deal with appeared to knock some confidence out of that defence, with Stones playing his keeper into trouble on the 55 minute mark with a careless backpass, Pope able to only just avoid disaster by drawing a foul from an onrushing Piatek.

But the relief would only last three minutes. Stones, dawdling on the ball in a routine moment, found himself caught in possession by Moder on the edge of the area, Milik picked up the resulting loose ball, played Moder in, and the Brighten midfielder was left with an easy finish from close range. It was an absolute gift from the Manchester City defender, and instantly re-ignited concerns that the routinely untested English back line is the serious weakpoint of Southgate’s side. Suddenly the Poles were looking more confident, certainly sounding more vocal, and the hosts were unable to immediately grab back control of the contest.

Things went somewhat flat for a while past the hour mark, as both sides probed. English mentality to adversity has been questioned at times, and this kind of slow reaction to going behind is only fuel to that fire. However it isn’t like Poland, despite their coming back into the contest, were truly bossing the game either, with Milic having a decent headed chance on 65 minutes but little else being created. Kane’s charging on Szczesny five minutes later to try and claim an unlikely blockdown goal was as good as England could do, before Foden wastefully put a shot straight at the same man on a sudden breakaway.

With less than 15 minutes to play Sousa signaled his satisfaction with the way things stood by sending defensive midfielder Rafal Augustyniak on for Piatek. To the concern of many commentators, Southgate withstood the desire to change things up himself, something that surely would have warranted much criticism if things had stayed the same. But the England manager was to be redeemed for his patience and his faith in the XI on the field. England grabbed control of the game again, pressed forward and were rewarded. Five minutes from time Stones rose at the back to head a corner into the path of Harry Maguire, who hit a scorching effort, truly leathered, into the roof of the Polish net. A vicious dagger to the heart, the assist and the scorer temporarily quashed the concerns about the defence, by showcasing the attacking qualities of the back line. Augustyniak tried one wild shot in injury time but England were not to be denied, seeing the game out with the same ease they had controlled the majority it.

The result leaves them firmly in charge of their qualification destiny, three wins from three and two points clear at the top of the group. A place in Qatar seems like a near certainty for a team that hasn’t missed a Finals since USA ’94, though whether they can truly be called contenders is another matter: defensive frailty and ability to withstand setbacks remain things that Southgate must work on. For Poland, five points adrift of automatic qualification, it is not yet the time to ring the alarm bells: two of their hardest games are now past them and they will have a good chance to gain two wins, against San Marino and Albania, before they play England again in September. By then they will hope Lewandowski will be back in the team and back in the same form as he previously was: if this game showcased anything it is that reliance, now more evident than ever.

Expectation remains in both camps. For England, it is that Southgate and this group of exceptional players could be the ones to break the hoodoo, and put the country that did more than any other to spread the game globally back at the very pinnacle of world football. For Poland the golden generation, if it ever existed, wanes, and it is hoped that Sousa may be able to utilise Lewandowski and the others to the highest extent this summer, and then again in Qatar next year, before time inevitably runs out. Neither manager is really in an enviable position, with similar levels of pressure and similar levels of hopes and dreams to carry on their backs. For the Lions and the Eagles, their managers and their players, what they do from here will be measured against those expectations, as UEFA qualification rounds off its first series of games and now looks to its deferred continental tournament.

Teams Qualified For The Finals

Qatar

Teams Still Capable Of Qualifying

Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, American Samoa, Andorra, Angola, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Barbados, Belarus, Belgium, Belize, Benin, Bermuda, Bolivia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Cameroon, Canada, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chile, China (People’s Republic),  Colombia, Congo (Democratic Republic), Congo (Republic), Cook Islands, Costa Rica, Cote d’Ivoire, Croatia, Curacao, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Djibouti, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, England, Equatorial Guinea, Estonia, Ethiopia, Faroe Islands, Fiji, Finland, France, Gabon, Georgia, Germany, Ghana, Gibraltar, Greece, Grenada, Guatemala, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, India, Iran, Iraq, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Korea (Democratic People’s Republic), Korea (Republic), Kosovo, Kuwait, Kyrgyz Republic, Latvia, Lebanon, Liberia, Libya, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Madagascar, Malawi, Malaysia, Maldives, Mali, Malta, Mauritania, Mexico, Moldova, Montenegro, Montserrat, Morocco, Mozambique, Myanmar, Namibia, Nepal, Netherlands, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Niger, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, North Macedonia, Norway, Oman, Palestine, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Romania, Russia*, Rwanda, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, San Marino, Saudi Arabia, Scotland, Senegal, Serbia, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Solomon Islands, South Africa, Spain, Sudan, Suriname, Sweden, Switzerland, Syria, Tahiti, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Thailand, Togo, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uganda, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United States, United States Virgin Islands, Uruguay, Uzbekistan, Vanuatu, Venezuela, Vietnam, Wales, Yemen, Zambia, Zimbabwe

Teams Eliminated But With Games To Play

Anguilla, Aruba, Bahamas, Bangladesh, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Chinese Taipei, Cuba, Dominica, Guam, Indonesia, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Turks and Caicos Islands

Teams Eliminated

Bhutan, Botswana, Brunei Darussalem, Burundi, Chad, Comoros, Eritrea, Eswatini, Gambia, Laos, Lesotho, Macau, Mauritius, Pakistan, Sao Tome and Principe, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Sudan, Timor-Leste

Teams Withdrawn

Saint Lucia

*Should they qualify, Russia are banned from competing in the World Cup Finals under that name.

Photo Credits

In The Eye Of A Hurricane: Fans of the now defunct Puerto Rico Islander take in a game at the Juan Ramon Loubriel Stadium in Bayamon in 2009. Photo by Sebastian Perez, reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License.

“We Are Not Bad Either”: A view of Tajikistan’s Pamir Stadium in Dunshanbe, taken in 2019. Photo by Akhemen, reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License.

The North Remembers: The 1985 Canadian team celebrates Igor Vrablic’s winning goal against Honduras. Photo by CBC.

Doped: Several major figures in Russian politics and FIFA watch the opening game of the 2017 Confederations Cup. Photo by ww.kremlin.ru, reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License.

The Eruption: The Soufriere Hills volcano in Montserrat, pictured in 2011. Photo by David Stanley, reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License.

15%: The Dungasandi ground of the Faroe Islands’ SÍ club. Photo by Erik Christensen, reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.

The Forbidden Door: The Japanese team that played Poland at the 2018 World Cup. Photo by Светлана Бекетова, reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.

Expressions Of Nationhood: A 2007 satellite photo of the US Virgin Islands’ St John to the south, and the British Virgin Islands’ Tortola to the north. Photo by NASA Earth Observatory, in the public domain.

Lions And Eagles: Harry Maguire of England celebrates scoring the winning goal against Poland in their World Cup qualifier. Image copyright of Football365.

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NFB Re-Watches Battlestar Galactica Season One: “Flesh And Bone”

I’m looking forward to spending a little bit more time with you, Starbuck. We have a lot to talk about!

Air Date: 13/12/2004

Director: Brad Turner

Writer: Toni Graphia

Synopsis: A Cylon agent discovered hiding in the Fleet claims to have planted a nuclear bomb on a ship, pushing Starbuck to take drastic measures in the interrogation. Boomer pushes Baltar to test his Cylon detector on her first.

Review

Strange as it to say given that the vast majority of this episode’s running time deals with Starbuck and Leoben, it’s actually more of a Laura Roslin affair. “Flesh and Bone” opens and closes with Roslin facing two very different crises, as BSG begins to slip into the territory of premonitions and prophecy. Starting with her dream which contains anti-military themes and concluding with the doubts she now obviously has about Adama, care of Leoben, “Flesh And Bone” sees Roslin take a more centre stage role in the overall plot of BSG for the first time since the Miniseries really, and it is a welcome transition.

Graphia’s script sets up a bit of a swerve here in regards Roslin, who is depicted as acting a tad unhinged in the first three quarters of the episode: physically affected by the drugs she’s taking for her cancer, letting others get a tad too close to the Cylon agent, and then choosing to confront him herself, all because of a dream. But then suddenly BSG snaps back to cold, hard reality with her, with an emphasis on “cold” and “hard”: like she’s suddenly realised that she can’t let drug-induced dreams rule her, she decides she won’t play Leoben’s game, manipulates him into admitting his plot is make-believe, and then decisively orders him to be executed. We’ve seen decisive, ruthless Roslin already of course, but this is an up-close-and-personal example, as she watches Leoben get spaced right in front of her, and never for a moment seems to regret doing so. Is the sudden change an effective one? I think so, it fits a woman undergoing the physical and emotional trial that Roslin is, still very far from being the dying leader of prophecy, but on that path.

But the meat of the episode is, as stated, Starbuck and Leoben. Katee Sackoff and Callum Keith Rennie have a really good back-and-forth throughout, the start of a long-running verbal battle between the two characters, and the dynamic between the two is laid out well here: Leoben as this frequently incomprehensible mad prophet, and Starbuck as a cynical, hair-trigger temper counterpart. Leoben presents a new challenge for Starbuck too, with us having seen her deal with Cylon Raiders, sniping and unresolved historical trauma: now, there is a more directly human adversary for her to face.

Like any good interrogation plot, the object becomes how best Starbuck can beat Leoben, and it is a dangerous game that she is playing, considering that Leoben’s whole mission is seemingly just to sow fear and doubt. It starts with some basic interactions, transitions to violence, onto philosophising and, finally, some prophecy. The whole time there is a tension, not so much with the apparent threat of the nuclear bomb, but in wondering just how Starbuck can break through the defences of a being like Leoben, who is slippery as a snake. Asking him doesn’t do it. Torture doesn’t do it. Letting him ramble doesn’t do it, and in fact plays into his hands.

The interaction allows BSG the chance to touch on a range of subjects, among them whether the Cylon’s can be considered God’s instrument of retribution for his overly-sinful firstborn, something that enrages Starbuck. Her anger at the suggestion calls to the allusions we have seen to her perhaps being more religious than most, reinforced by her last scene. There’s death and the nature of death when you resurrect when you die, and if a created being like Leoben has the ability to enter an afterlife: the only time Starbuck seems to get anywhere when it comes to turning the tables is when she has Leoben worried that there is no beyond for him. There’s the first comments on Thrace’s abusive mother, a plot gun that won’t really fire until much later, but which I suppose constitutes the beginning of the “Starbuck’s destiny” narrative, that was so divisive with fans. And there is the first proper mention of the cycle in the context of the larger show, that “All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again”.

Leoben’s final manipulation, regards a predicted discovery of Kobol, is another humdinger, as it will call to mind Adama’s promise of Earth and how he seemingly knows where it is. It’s enough, along with the comments on Starbuck’s mother, for Thrace to have some kind of change of heart over Leoben: in reaching out her hand at the moment of his death and in later praying for his soul, if he had one, we can see that. It’s not clear what exactly did it for Starbuck, but Leoben got inside her head: made her believe that he was more than just a machine. In the end, I suppose that is a victory of sorts for Leoben.

We can’t move on from the main plot without talking a bit about the episodes depiction of torture. It’s December 2004 here, so we’re eight months or so after the Abu Gharib scandal: what BSG is showcasing is frighteningly relevant, at least for the United States. Torture is depicted as an act of coercion, as a test of humanoid Cylons’ ability to feel pain, as revenge and as an emotional crutch for those inflicting the pain. It’s also depicted as being ineffective, which marks BSG out from other media at the time, that sometimes seemed at pains to showcase the act as a “greater good” deal. “Flesh And Bone” ties in Starbuck torture of Leoben to her own physical trauma from an apparently violent upbringing, which I thought added some depth to the whole exercise. In the end, Thrace seems shamed by what she has done, which is also to be welcomed.

“Flesh And Bone” has time for a few bits elsewhere, the most important being Boomer. It’s a good representation of a woman clutching at straws, deciding that if she can pass Baltar’s Cylon detector Tyrol might be willing to resume their relationship (though he doesn’t actually give assent to this idea). She allows Baltar and Head Six the chance to add their, by now, oddly comfortable interaction into proceedings, and the episode gives us another satisfying look at panicked Baltar when his Cylon detector confirms what we all know. There’s also the distant conflict between Adama and Leoben, a holdover from “Part Two” of the Miniseries, manifesting here in a staring match between the Commander and a Leoben corpse. It seems like they might be setting things up for those two to come back within each others orbit, but that was not to be.

We end with Cylon occupied Caprica, as we always tend to. Just the one scene here, but a very important one for the overall plot, as Sharon decides to take off with Helo for real, after Helo’s death becomes a very likely possibility. The turn happens very quickly here, with only a flashback montage to cover it, which is disappointing. You would hope that future episodes will flesh things out a bit more, as we head firmly into the second half of the first season.

Laura, I have something to tell you.

Notes

-The title presumably has no deeper meaning other than to add to the larger examination of the episode, in asking what makes a human human.

-Given some of the events of this episode related to torture, interesting to note that director Brad Turner was a producer/director for the last four seasons of 24.

-I’ll admit, I got an unintentional laugh off of part of the “Previously on…” where Helo proclaims “You’re the one who needs sleep” followed by Sharon immediately putting her tongue down his throat. Turns out she didn’t.

-Roslin’s dream is a bit Twin Peaks – Brilliant, truly brilliant, I have no idea what’s going on – but set-up the episode nicely enough, especially the larger conflict between the civil and military that is a defining aspect of the first season. But is it a God sent dream? We can only presume.

-Interesting how we go through different descriptors for Leoben early on. Roslin uses “him”, earning a rebuke from Adama, who prefers “it”. Roslin diplomatically moves to “this thing” a few sentences later, but then uses “him” at the end of the conversation. She’s already been introduced to the guy in her dreams, so I guess a bit of confusion fits.

-Boy does Adama have it right when he says that Leoben’s threat isn’t because he lies, it’s because “he mixes lies with truth”. That’s something infinitely more dangerous, and is at the heart of why Leoben is as problematic as he is.

-Boomer is back to being a bit creepy with the Raider, humming some kind of wistful tune and petting it, and it doesn’t work as well here as it did in “Six Degrees Of Separation”. Just a bit too out there. The tune is apparently a Korean children’s song.

-The question about how human Leoben is starts off with a simple note from Starbuck: Leoben is sweating. It’s a very human act after all, tending to happen in moments of high tension, and that is what “Flesh And Bone” is all about.

-Leoben is a dodgy customer, opening his conversation with Starbuck by bargaining almost immediately, trying to get her to volunteer her name. When he “guesses”, it’s a definite point for him.

-As I said, the main tension in the episode is not really the supposed nuclear bomb. If you think about it, such a threat makes no sense anyway, since the Galactica should be able to detect it, they certainly did in “33”. Instead, we should focus on how Leoben is able to create fear of a fictional device.

-Oh, the raised tension when Leoben insists that is he not asking “a trick question”. Everything out of his mouth is a trick, it’s just a matter of figuring that out.

-The coercion really starts when Starbuck eats a meal in front of Leoben, knowing he presumably hasn’t eaten in days. Aside from being a pretty normal interrogation method, it’s clever as another test of humanoid Cylons: do they need to eat? Can they turn hunger on and off? The answers are presumably “Yes” and “No”.

-It’s hard to nail down Leoben’s philosophy, it seems intentionally scatter-brained and obtuse, touching on various themes and sub-genres so quick it’s impossible to get a read. I suppose if pushed I would say it’s a sort of evangelical fatalism mixed with claims to an almost Buddhist-like transcendence. If that makes any sense.

-I have no idea why, but Leoben’s line that “When you’re starving, anything tastes good” has always stuck with me. Maybe it’s because it’s a very human sentiment to express. Or maybe it’s reflective of the nature of the interrogation, where the Fleet is so hungry for info they are willing to swallow the threat of the nuclear device.

-It says something about Starbuck that she decides the best way to test whether Leoben is human or not is through the application of pain. Because that seems to be what she associates primarily with being human. Leoben differs, looking beyond the mortal form: “this is not all that we are”.

-Oh Head Six, always with that sexual edge: “Wonder why they call her Boomer?” Baltar of course can’t let it lie and hilariously tries to get an answer.

-“Why the rush?” Six asks when Boomer wants to be the first Cylon detector test subject. Baltar says the same thing seconds later. To me it felt less like parroting, and more like the two were on the same page completely. And that’s a dangerous thought.

-Interesting comment from the Six on Caprica: “We are as we do”. She’s referring to Sharon acting human, which makes her more human in Six’s eyes: the sentiment could be expanded to simply say that in BSG, characters are defined by their actions, whether it is torturing a prisoner or having the same prisoner thrown out an airlock.

-I’ll admit, Sharon’s turn to genuinely helping Helo is a bit much in its presentation: we get one short montage of their time together over the last few episodes and suddenly she’s happy to throw in her lot with Team Human. I felt like BSG could have built to that better, in previous episodes or in the next few.

-Sharon also “remembers” leaving Helo on Caprica in “Part One” of the Miniseries, only that was Boomer, not her. I can’t remember if this is ever addressed.

-Starbuck’s anger at Leoben claiming that God created the Cylon’s in response to mankind’s evil is interesting: she seems genuinely affronted. Again, this points towards her being more religious than it may initially appear.

-Leoben’s escape is pretty scary, even if he calls his shots. It’s good to be reminded that the Cylon’s, while mimicking humanity, have enhanced abilities.

-Adama’s scene with the corpse of Leoben from Part Two of the Miniseries is interesting, as he silently weighs the panic that the Cylon is causing. His one line – “No” – is a suitable refutation of that panic, and the anger that he is causing in the Commander.

-The water torture scenes do seem like a very direct reference to Iraq, waterboarding and the period of the 00’s when the US was beginning to realise that there were only shades of bad in Iraq and Cuba. Apparently the production crew wanted to go further, but the network balked.

-Starbuck’s use of the term “Does not compute” doesn’t ring great to me, a little too close to the real world.

-“You were born to a woman who though suffering was good for the soul, so you suffered”. Oof, a brutal way to describe an abusive parent. And instantly we learn a lot about Starbuck and where she came from.

-Interesting use of an underwater camera shot to see Leoben being tortured. The way, in one moment, that he seems to calmly accept what is happening to him is very eerie.

-Boomer’s backstory, in that she comes from a small town that was wiped out by a mining explosion, is a nice little touch, establishing that the Cylon’s play it clever with such sleeper agents. It also makes you wonder about other characters on the ship and if they have backgrounds that could be described in a similar fashion.

-Baltar faces a difficult choice when confronted with the evidence that Boomer is a Cylon. I liked how Six’s taunting that Boomer was liable to kill him if he was truthful was actual good advice, leading Baltar to keep the secret.

-“All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again”. This is the first indication of “the cycle” I think, and it’s suitably vague. Bodes well for the future though. TV Tropes calls this idea “Eternal recurrence”.

-We’ve heard mention of “Kobol” before, briefly, as the Colonials are described as being descended from the “12 tribes of Kobol” in the Miniseries, and the Gods are the “Lords of Kobol”. This is the first time it has been indicated that Kobol is a real place though, and a planet to boot.

-After eight hours of being tortured, Roslin is nice to Leoben and he immediately spills the beans. Of course I’m sure that this is not really meant to be taken as the actual solution, it’s just Leoben manipulating people again. When he’s treated with humanity he responds positively, and that’s for Starbuck’s benefit I’m sure. It’s all a game, it just so happens him telling the truth at that moment helps him to “win”.

-“They teach you to dehumanise people” Leoben tells Roslin about the military. Interesting choice of words, and presumably another effort to cast doubt on civil-military relations.

-“Adama is a Cylon”. With four words, Leoben accomplishes what would appear to be his real mission: to sow doubt, fear and distrust among the Colonials.

-“Put him out the airlock”. And a catchphrase was born. Still, ice cold from the President.

-Roslin has come around completely, as her accurate analysis of the situation shows: Starbuck has lost the run of herself, the Fleet has been left critically weakened and they are all running around like headless chickens on account of Leoben. It’s time to excise the cancer, to use what I suppose is a potent metaphor.

-Starbuck’s idols are a nice touch for the character. Going by Leoben’s words earlier, I assume they must be representations of Aphrodite and Artemis.

-“Something wrong?” Adama asks of Roslin at the end of the episode. If you only knew Commander, If you only knew…

Overall Verdict: “Flesh And Blood” is another very solid episode, with good performances all round and some nice complicating of the larger plot. The only significant flaw is the Sharon turn and how quick it is, but that can be forgiven I feel. The Roslin stuff is engaging, the Leoben/Starbuck interaction is eye-catching and the episode overall is a polished example of the kind of weighty subject matter BSG was capable of undertaking. I’m not so sure about the next episode.

To read more entries in this series, click here to go the index.

Posted in Battlestar Galactica, Reviews, TV/Movies | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Ireland’s Wars: The Opposing Forces And Initial Strategy Of The Conventional Civil War

The Irish Civil War had begun in earnest, with the pro-Treaty side securing Dublin and then clearing their enemies from outside of the capital as well. A week after the opening of hostilities saw things precariously in the balance across the country, with large concentrations of anti-Treaty forces in Munster and elsewhere, but the better armed and arguably better led National Army now moving to meet them. In this entry, I want to take the time to discuss how things stood for both sides at this moment, in terms of their forces, leadership, political direction and strategic thinking, as what is known as the “conventional” Civil War erupted across the country.

One of the most important things to consider from the military perspective is just how many men each side had to call upon. Given the mess of administration that the final weeks and months of the truce period had been, it is understandable that there is a degree of vagueness to the numbers that either the IRA or the National Army had in their ranks, further confused by the reality that not all of those men had actual guns. Provisional government estimates at the time of the Civil War’s beginning had anti-Treaty numbers at over 12’000, but with guns for only a bit more than half that number: nearly 10’000 men had sworn oaths to the National Army at the same juncture, but senior figures in that military thought only 8’000 of these could be considered effectives. Further, while the IRA was spread out through Ireland, the pro-Treaty side was heavily concentrated in Dublin. The pro-Treaty faction could also eventually call upon more specialised soldiers, such as engineers or “crack” units like the Dublin Guards, that the anti-Treaty side could not. There was also a not insignificant section of the IRA that identified itself as “Neutral” and refused to take either side, instead preaching peace and seeking a truce.

In the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Dublin, the provisional government ramped up recruitment to the National Army quickly, and within a few weeks had thousands of more men signed up. Such a drive was helped by the uncertain economic situation, where employment in the military offered the possibility of reliable pay (and it was only a possibility), along with all of the other reasons that young men will join the army in times of war: learning a trade, alleviating boredom and the chance to embark on a romanticised adventure in uniform (not that every person in the National Army would have one of those). The success of the recruitment campaign paid dividends in terms of the number of soldiers the provisional government could employ, but many of these were barely trained before they were sent into the field, with consequential deficiencies in martial performance, along with plenty of ill-discipline and desertion throughout the course of the Civil War. More long-term, the swelling of the National Army produced an inevitable militaristic feel to the pro-Treaty faction that would result in something approximating a coup attempt two years later. British guns, artillery and other material of war also steadily continued to be transported to Ireland, giving the pro-Treaty side a fairly unassailable advantage in that respect, and a re-organisation of the command structure, along with the hiring of many British Army veterans for senior positions, would create the conditions for a series of largely independently-operating armies split down regional lines.

In terms of the physical position of those forces, things were still hazy in parts of the country but getting clearer every day. The pro-Treaty faction had clear control of Dublin and the immediate surrounding area, and clear control of a number of other urban centres and their surrounding areas all over the country, in the midlands, Connacht and Ulster. In Munster, they held a number of crucial barracks’ in Limerick City, most of Clare and parts of Tipperary. The anti-Treaty faction held the majority of Munster and most of its urban centres, including Cork City, Waterford City and half of the major positions in Limerick City. Outside of that the areas of their control were more nebulous, often confined to smaller towns, villages and the countryside in-between, but were quite extensive: in parts of Donegal, Mayo and Galway, pro-Treaty positions were nominally very isolated, in a sea of republican IRA control. This was counter-acted somewhat by the reality that most of the civilian population was on the pro-Treaty side, with consequential lack of support for anti-Treaty fighters in terms of supplies, hideouts or intelligence gathering.

The anti-Treaty position in the south has often been dubbed the “Munster Republic”. It’s unclear where this term first arose, and may be considered a bit of a post-dated label, at least in terms of its more large-scale use. There was never any such republic declared in-being, and it can be considered to more of an informal, almost affectionate, term used pre-dominantly by anti-Treaty personnel to refer to their general control of the Munster province, than any kind of claim at an actual political entity. The anti-Treaty faction considered themselves to be the Republic, that is the entity proclaimed in January 1919, merely continuing under the leadership of the IRA Executive. There was never any sort of republican government enacted in Munster. Moreover, the idea that this entity had a fixed line of defence, supposedly running in an arc from Limerick to Waterford, was mostly a fiction. The IRA lacked the men to hold such a line, and even when they were present they were not always a guarantee of a bulwark, with scores of Volunteers leaving this posts for Sunday mass every week.

In terms of structure, leadership and political direction, things were far more clear for one side than the other. The pro-Treaty martial forces were the National Army, constituted as the military of the provisional government, and the yet to be officially constituted Irish Free State. This was a entity led by a general staff based in Beggers Bush, with men like Michael Collins, Richard Mulcahy and Eoin O’Duffy at the top of the chain. Its political direction came from the cabinet of the provisional government, headed at the start of the Civil War by Arthur Griffith, with Collins also having a substantial political role, to the extent that some perceive the pro-Treaty faction as being a largely military-driven affair. But it certainly had defined military and civil elements for the most part, with both situated in Dublin.

Things were far messier on the anti-Treaty side, whose military was that of the Irish Republican Army as it was constituted after the Split. Nominally the IRA were being led by their Executive, which comprised a number of high-profile republicans, with Liam Lynch as the Chief-of-Staff. In reality Lynch held the closest position to overall command, with individual officers in the field carrying a great deal of authority in their local areas. In political terms there was precious little that the anti-Treaty side could present, with their most significant civil figures, like Eamon de Valera, largely marginalised by the military voices in the overall faction, and no legislature or cabinet formed to compete with that in Dublin. Sinn Fein as a political entity would largely collapse during the Civil War. The anti-Treaty side had no firm capital or centre of political gravity, beyond simply stating this as the majority of Munster. In essence, it was far easier for the average pro-Treaty soldier to know who he was getting his orders from, and who that person was getting their orders from, than it was for the corresponding Volunteer on the other side.

The situation was made worse by the larger number of captured officers early in the war, who were never adequately replaced. As such, other officers could find themselves in command of areas far larger than they had the ability to effectively lead, or units could be placed in the control of incompetent men. Inter-company or divisional rivalry within the anti-Treaty faction reared its head often, and a common thread of the conventional Civil War is a gradual collapse in anti-Treaty morale and, in many cases, discipline. The Executives also had issues with finance, consistently short of money, and taking what they needed from civilians in the forms of levies, or just outright looting, would increase hostility from the general population.

In strategic terms, things were also more clear for one side than they were for the other. The provisional government and its forces aimed for little less than the total military defeat of the anti-Treaty IRA, and having secured Dublin in the initial fighting would now move to fulfill that aim as quickly as possible. This would necessitate a large offensive movement into the south-west of the country, with one batch of forces to head into Wexford and then turn towards Waterford, and another going more directly to secure the midlands and Limerick, before the republican heartland in County Limerick, County Cork and Kerry would be squeezed from all possible directions, including the sea. National Army positions in those areas, or in Connacht and Ulster, would at worst hold out under anti-Treaty attack, or at best move to consolidate their control in the wider area. In all of this, the National Army aimed to make the best use of its number of armed men, its advantages in artillery, armour and sea-faring vehicles, as well as its capacity to remain mobile and on the offensive. Major urban centres would be hit first, the anti-Treaty factions ability to wage a conventional war would disintegrate and after that, well, that lay beyond the possibility of sight. Longer term, the provisional government had a clear goal of instituting the terms of the Treaty and bringing the Irish Free State into being.

The anti-Treaty side’s opposing strategy was, as it could only have been, much more fragmented and vague. Loose plans of coordinated attack east were made by some, but were never close to real fruition. The securing of urban centres and that “Munster Republic” were key objectives in the short-term, but the strategy to do so appears to have been little more than to try and hold in place and absorb the inevitable pro-Treaty attack. A lack of centralised leadership in this faction meant that individual companies were often operating without anything like higher direction, with no orders to advance, retreat or do anything other than continue existing. The sheer confusion of the the early days and weeks meant that it would not be until October that the IRA Executive was able to meet again, and even figureheads like Lynch did not aid matters, continuing to cling to the possibility of peace for a time, and then refusing to authorise offensive operations. A move to guerrilla warfare was not contemplated at this time, as the Executive IRA, insofar as it was constituted, wanted to maintain the perception that it was the true military authority of Ireland and capable of holding the territory that it had been able to gain during the truce period. Moreover, there may have been a genuine belief that the IRA was capable of going toe-to-toe with the men in the National Army, and winning, despite what had happened in Dublin and outside of it.

The anti-Treaty strategy was thus fatally shallow, reactive rather than pro-active, and overly optimistic about their chances of successfully engaging the provisional government on its own conventional terms. In terms of larger political goals, a defence of “the Republic” was now the only game in town, despite de Valera’s still desired “External Association”, but this remained as vague and nebulous a concept as it always had been. The failure to tie the anti-Treaty faction to a political entity, even just the face of one, was an error that showcased the lack of direction the IRA had, and betrayed Lynch as a man who seemed to believe in military action as an end in itself.

From here on in, we will dive more concretely into the Irish Civil War and its conventional phase. Most of the major incidents of this period occured in Munster, and we will get to that in time. But for the next few entries I want to talk about the fighting in what Michael Hopkinson dubbed “the localities”: those areas that lacked any major stand-out encounters between pro and anti-Treaty that might be worthy of their own specific battlestudy, as occurred in many parts of Munster, but still hosted more general campaigns and events that warrant further study. It will be a tour of the future Irish Free State in many ways, moving from the north of Dublin into Donegal, then Connacht, through the Midlands and then the south-west, as concurrent clashes erupted between the IRA and the National Army, that went a long way towards securing the majority of the country for the provisional government, long before the final assault on the Munster Republic. We will begin in County Louth, where the town of Drogheda was to be a serious flashpoint in the escalating conflict.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

Posted in History, Ireland, Ireland's Wars, War | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

NFB Watches Wrestling #48: Power Pro Wrestling (15/03/1986)

OK, here’s a real niche one from the vault. It’s the 15th March 1986 and we’re in a basic studio for an episode of Power Pro Wrestling! Your main event tonight: Chavo Guerrero vs Mike Steirn in a Lights Out Match!

So, this can be a bit confusing, because if you look up “Power Pro Wrestling” you’re generally directed to a later promotion that lasted between 1998 and 2001. What this is, is essentially another TV show for Mid-South Wrestling when it was on the verge of becoming the Universal Wrestling Federation. I picked this episode off a RNG, and by sheer chance it’s one from only two weeks after my previous sojourn with Mid-South. So if that was “the end of the road” as I called it, here we have run out of road, and the car is tumbling to a halt.

Old Mid-South synth, basic highlights of some stiff looking wrestling and we are with Good ol’ JR who introduces us to the next “60 minutes” of action, in a show that is 38 minutes on the Network. He runs down some of the matches we will see and plugs the upcoming Crockett Cup.

Korstia Korchenko w/Eddie Gilbert vs Perry Jackson

A really tired sounding commentator introduces us to this one, noting “USA” chants like it’s paint drying. Gilbert introduces Korchenko, but the audio is so bad it’s impossible to understand what he is saying. “The people are…really being patriotic lately”. Hmm. Korchenko beating Jackson down, high chop off a whip, big chop to the chest as Gilbert on the mike again, running down the crowd I think? Korchenko just punching Jackson to the floor, clothesline, shoulder backbreaker and that’s it in just about two.

Winner: The fur-booted Russian.

Verdict: In Soviet Russia, jobber squashes you.

We are briefly back with JR then a sudden cut to a tag match from a different show entirely, that starts almost as soon as we go to it, no intro, no context.

Road Warriors (Animal & Hawk) vs Ron Rossi & Nick Busick

I only got the names of the victims from the Network bookmark. Makes sense, seeing as how Animal gives Rossi a press slam and pins him in less than ten seconds.

Winners: The Road Warriors

Verdict: Why?

Back to JR, who reminds us that the Road Warriors are in the Crockett Cup. I guess that was the point of all this?

Koko B. Ware vs Rob Rechsteiner

I swear I thought that said Rob Schneider. I recall Ware was one of the only decent things in Mid-South at this time, so this is a Best Match contender. Ware opens with a hip-toss, whip chains, then another, bigger, hip-toss. And again. Rechsteiner complaining that his tights were being pulled, but I don’t see how that helps you with a hip-toss. Lock-up, Ware with a wrist-lock that has Rechsteiner howling. Complaining to the ref again, lock-up and Rechsteiner gets in some offence with a shoulder-block, then takes another couple of hip-tosses immediately. Rechsteiner takes a brief powder as the commentator asks “What will it take to bring down the bird man?” with a lack of enthusiasm that sentence does not need.

Lock-up, thumb to the eye puts Rechstiener in control. Scoop Slam, mounted punch, Scoop Slam, and Ware gets in his comeback with rapid shots. Neat moment where Ware fakes a moonsault, then hits a second rope missile drop-kick for the win in just under six.

Winner: The only man worth watching here.

Verdict: An actual match, which I didn’t expect, so it gets top marks from me.

After the break, straight into the next match.

The Blade Runners (Flash & Rock) w/Eddie Gilbert vs Brett Sawyer & Sean O’Reilly

Hey, the Blade Runners again! Yes, it is still the future Sting and the future Ultimate Warrior. I couldn’t tell you who their opponents are. Flash shoves Sawyer around, then throws a tantrum when Sawyer dodges a charge. Headlock, Sawyer down off a few shoulder-blocks, but then able to hit a drop-kick, which Flash sells like it was an A-Bomb. In comes Rock, whom the commentator openly states is suffering from “the steroid effect”. Throws Sawyer around for a bit, O’Reilly tagged in, and takes a body slam immediately. Bear hug, Flash in, puts on a bear hug himself. Rock back in, chokes in the corner, the ref doing nothing for some reason. Flash in, bear hug again, and man this is getting dull. Rock in, and there’s a bear hug/clothesline combination to end it in around four.

Winners: Fock

Verdict: One-sided squash.

JR sings the priases of the Blade Runners, then straight to the next match,

Chavo Guererro vs Steve Keirn (Lights Out Match)

Chavo has a bucket of paint with him because the loser of this match gets painted. It’s also a “Lights Out Match” which in this context, it is explained, is because it’s outside of the regular match card. Keirn best known as “Skinner” in early 90’s WWF, a gator hunter from the Everglades. Exchanging shots in the corner, and Guerrero laying them in stiff, then a rana. Keirn takes a powder “like the coward that he is”. New commentator by the way, and this one has an ounce of personality, so that’s an improvement.

Keirn back in, lock-up, more shots exchanged, and Keirn takes another powder. Back in eventually, looks for a handshake but the future Chavo Classic isn’t falling for it and puts in a few elbow drops on the left knee. Indian Leglock, good for a few counts of one, and Keirn back with a swipe to the eyes, but Chavo keeps the submission locked in for a bit. Keirn out again. Takes a while to get back in this time, Chavo with strikes, and then able to put in a surfboard (the commentator calls it a “Hacksaw Deathlock”) and then transitions to a Camel Clutch as we go to break.

After we’re back it is still Guerrero on top as he gets two off a headlock spot. Suplex for two, Guerrero getting frustrated and puts in a choke for a few seconds. Keirn gets his head smashed off the turnbuckle, then Guerrero hits a bear hug into belly-to-belly facebuster, and that looked ugly as hell. Scoop Slam for two, and Keirn hasn’t got in a lick of offence apart from strikes. Now he gets in a kick, but Guerrero immediately with a hard whip into the corner, Bridging German from there, and that’s the 1, 2, 3 in about seven.

Winner: Latino Mild

Verdict: Strange squash where the face just kept putting in moves way past the time it should have ended.

Someone actually throws rubbish into the ring at the result. Keirn blindsides Guerrero, throws the ref out, as a women in the front row screams bloody murder. Guerrero back to give Keirn a piledriver, to a big pop, before Keirn’s tag team partner Stan Lane comes out. Beatdown on Guerrero, piledriver, and Keirn applies the paint. It spills everywhere, the ref getting plenty. Was expecting some face to come out and make the save, but nothing doing. Back in the studio JR sums up what we have seen, and announces that Keirn and Lane will face the Guerreros – which ones, I don’t know – in a steel cage next week. I’m good.

We close with “archive” footage of the Midnight Express celebrating their winning of the Mid-South Tag Team Championships, with Jim Cornette. Said celebration is party hooters, hand thrown confetti and cake, but host JR isn’t allowed to have any. Cornette doing all the talking of course, hilariously mentioning a congratulations letter from his mother that Ross isn’t allowed to read. Running down the crowd (they aren’t invited), Cornette goes to cut the cake, and of course the Rock N’ Roll Express are here to shove his face in it. The faces then heroically run off, and Cornette is left with cake on his face.

JR runs won the card for next week, which is largely more of the same, and that will be all.

Best Match: I guess Ware/Rechsteiner by default.

Best Wrestler: Um, Chavo? Not many to pick from here.

Worst Match: The Road Warriors tag, which wasn’t even a match really.

Worst Wrestler: Keirn didn’t do much it has to be said.

Overall Verdict: Waste of a TV show, even by the standards of the era. Pointless matches, bad editing, bizarre ending, no wonder they were going to try and do a 180 on this who enterprise within weeks. Avoid.

To view more entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

Posted in Reviews, Wrestling | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Review: I Never Cry

I Never Cry

Trailer

I bet she will though.

And so, for me, the film festival came to an end. Based purely on the three films so far that I had seen, I can only see that quality wise it was a big of an iffy year: a half-decent film, a pretty good one, and then a third that I really didn’t like at all. Still time for things to go on an upswing of course, and I had a good feeling about the last film on my list, a Polish indie with a distinctly Irish flavour.

So, this was a total unknown for me. Not aware of the director, not aware of the cast, bar a few of the minor Irish roles, and I have no experience of dealing with any of the premise, thankfully. But that didn’t matter on this occasion, with that premise being interesting enough of its own accord. The Polish experience in Ireland, working often quite menial jobs very far from home, is a good mine for drama, especially when placed in the context of distant relatives who know the emigrant more as a source for revenue than as a family member. Was I Never CryJak Najdalej Stad in the Polish – a good exploration of that state of affairs, and more importantly for my opinion or the medium, was it accurately marketed as a comedy? I caught a screening of I Never Cry through the Virgin Media International Film Festival.

When she learns that her father, a stevedore working in Dublin, has died in an accident, 17-year-old Olka (Zofia Stafiej) is tasked by her mother with travelling to Ireland to arrange repatriation of the body. She does so with reluctance, having barely known her father and conscious of her inexperience with foreign travel, and soon finds herself lost in a frustrating mix of expensive bureaucracy matched with a growing mystery about who her father actually was.

Well, the film festival has done it again. Perhaps it’s just because it is a sure fire way to get more people in the non-literal doors, but their penchant for describing a film that contains a few jokes as a “comedy” (or more often, a “dark comedy”, just to cover their bases) has become repeated to the point that it’s a bit of a bad joke among me and the people I know. I Never Cry is an interesting movie that has a lot of sometimes quite profound things to say, but it is not really as funny movie, and calling it a comedy just isn’t accurate, to put it bluntly.

Having gotten that out of the way, lets pretend that I want into I Never Cry with the right kinds of expectations, and evaluate it from there. I do think it’s a decent film. It’s got a strong central narrative, an engaging protagonist and forms in itself one of the more thought-provoking coming-of-age stories that I have seen in a while. With a quick set-up in Poland where we see the frustrated Olka – unable to pass a driving test, dealing with a nagging mother and a disabled brother, having the only somewhat unwanted attentions of the would-be teenaged lothario down the street – we pretty quickly get thrown into the meat-and-bones of the story, a modern-day fable of familial obligation clashing with cold-hard reality and teenaged cynicism.

The journey is one that is filled with a succession of impediments: in something like the Divine Comedy, Olka fills her Dublin days encountering a number of different people, who either offer a new obstacle to her quest or just add to the increasing number of layers that make-up her now deceased father. There’s the work agent (Arkadiusz Jakubik) who helped employ her father, who seems to represent a diaspora that has made its home permanently outside of the mother country; the cheap-as-chips funeral director (Shane Casey, of The Young Offenders) who can only shrug as he tries to soften the blow of the enormous costs of moving a dead body between countries with some ill-timed Irish wit; the site manager (Nigel O’Neill) who is more concerned with what union rules Olka’s father was breaking at the time he was killed than his actual death; the mysterious woman (Cosmima Stratan) who appears to have been more than just a friend to the deceased, and perhaps represents a different, more hopeless, aspect of Irish immigration; and her exploitative boss (David Pearse), the closest the film gets to something resembling a villain.

Olka is an interesting character, well-played by a first-timer.

I Never Cry goes through this laundry-list of experiences with decent pace, never stopping too long in any given scene or sequence. The only real character of consequence is Olka, who begins her journey in the firm belief that her father was a distant stranger good only for the car he promised to buy her one day, and ends it in a somewhat different place entirely. As the title would seem to indicate, Olka is a young woman not pre-disposed to displays of emotion, and treats the Sisyphean task of getting her father’s remains home more as an annoying, and often frustrating, chore, rather than a labour of love. Understanding how her father died, what his life was like in Ireland and what’s really important when it comes to things like money, are the main waypoints between arriving in Ireland and getting back to her home country. Getting to know our father is something everyone wants to do, but having to do it after they die makes for some fascinating story-telling. And in the end Olka really only learns a very small amount, left in largely as much ignorance as she was when she started, save for a few critical details.

Stafiej is quite good in the lead role, capturing something of the teenage mindset when it comes to their parents, their expectations and what they think of an increasingly bleak globalised world. Her grief and rage mix together well, creating an emotion of stubborn steadfastness in her goal, reflected in the films title. She’s a veritable tornado on screen, always moving, always finding ways around the roadblocks that are put in her path, dead set on achieving the kind of independence she desires. There are times when I Never Cry lets her down a bit – a whole sequence where she goes drinking with some strangers she has met up with didn’t seem very necessary really – but she does an excellent job with what must be considered a fairly challenging part. Adolescent sullenness is such a hard thing to accurately capture on-screen, without coming off like a cartoon or a maniac, but she nails it, this facade of stubborn nonchalance that masks a crippling maelstrom of emotional turmoil. Through the series of encounters that Olka goes through, we see her grow and mature a little bit, coming to realise that her father was more than a regularly sent cheque: Stafiej brings us through that with skill. The other cast members simply don’t have the time to make much of an impact, save Stratan as Sara, the woman that Olka’s father appears to have been having an affair with.

In the end, I Never Cry does a more than decent job of exploring the realities of the emigrant experience, and of giving us a look into the heart of what it means to be an emigrant nation, to be, as the director put it in an interview, a “euro-orphan”. Irish audiences, who are perhaps slipping back into the cozy ease of dismissing our past status as such a thing once again, could do worse than watch this film as a reminder, that only a few years ago you could have made this film about an Irish teenager travelling to Britain, the States, Canada or Australia to repatriate their fathers dead body. Indeed, if you treat the Celtic Tiger as the aberration it really was, then we have been a similar kind of emigrant nation longer than we haven’t. I Never Cry and the trauma and melding of cultures that it represents, should more easily find a mark here than it would in other places.

Director/writer Piotr Domalewski, known mostly in his own country, directs a fairly basic production. I Never Cry has a style I would almost call documentarian, very down-to-earth, principal focused, with the camera, hand-held, often bobbing along right next to Olka’s head, with the Polish and Dublin backgrounds just distant scenery, often out of focus. Olka always seems to be moving, rushing from one obstacle to the next, and scenes where she is standing still have a sort of strange quality as a result. There’s an honesty in the cinematography of Dublin that I do appreciate in many ways: no tourism video here, just a frequently drab city that has rare moments of life, that reflects the reality of how the immigrant worker might see the city: a place of grey buildings, colourless beaches, building sites, packed apartments and more rainy days than sunny. It’s not dissimilar of course to the way that Olka’s home city is treated, with similar apartment blocks and backed-up traffic, and I suppose that is intentional, drawing a line from one place to another, the Polish heart and its home-away-from-home.

I wouldn’t call I Never Cry a disappointment per say. It was certainly mis-advertised a bit, but that isn’t its fault. It has an engaging story of familial exploration in trying circumstances, a strong central performance from the lead and a host of others who weave in and out of the story, and is shot well. On the other hand it is perhaps a bit too long with a few superfluous scenes/sequences, would perhaps be better off leaving out any pretensions of being a dark comedy and heaps too much pressure on Stafiej’s shoulders to carry the film entirely on her own. In the final assessment, it’s a good example of cinema from the eastern half of Europe, and positively unique in the way it identifies as being from that area while having a distinctly Irish character in so many ways. The apogee of the Polish community in Ireland, in terms of numbers, may have been reached a few years ago but they remain a key part of the demographics of our island. This film will give an Irish audience at least a partial understanding of their experience, and allow us to draw even greater the connection between two emigrant nations. Recommended.

Cool language.

(All images are copyright of Forum Field Polan).

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NFB Re-Watches Battlestar Galactica Season One: “Six Degrees Of Separation”

Ah, there you are. Very nice. Blouse could open up a button or two…just a thought.

Air Date: 29/11/2004

Director: Robert M. Young

Writer: Michael Angeli

Synopsis: When a flesh and blood Six appears on the Galactica claiming to have inside knowledge of his role in the Cylon attack on the Colonies, a panicked Baltar undergoes a trial by fire. On Caprica, Sharon makes her move.

Review

“Six Degrees Of Separation” is our first full-on Baltar story, after seeing him have a substantial enough, but not primary, part of “33”. And it is a hell of an effort. This episode might be one of the best meshing of high drama and comedy that I have ever seen in this medium, as Baltar faces the ultimate irony: being accused of having a role in the holocaust, but actually being innocent this time.

It’s a delicious predicament, that BSG again dresses up in the language of a religious test of faith, with Head Six having enough of Baltar’s latest round of blaspheming, and determining that he needs a reminder that God is real, and God doesn’t like your bullshit. Baltar, a man of science, rationality and skepticism, just can’t come round to the religious way of thinking, and it takes this enormous crisis, wherein he seems set to be thrown out an airlock, for him to get back onto the, apparently, righteous path. Threats to his physical existence have proven effective at getting Baltar to suddenly profess a monotheistic acceptance before, but what occurs in “Six Degrees Of Separation” is a bit different to “33”: there, it was very much a flustered, fatigued, panicked repentance, while here Baltar’s “Come to Jesus” moment is a bit more considered and thought out. I wouldn’t call it fully genuine, but it’s a bit more genuine than whatever happened in “33”: here, Baltar seems to recognise that his own survival really is dependent on playing ball with Head Six’s religion, and Baltar is a man who can play ball when his life is on the line.

Callis is amazing here, playing the under-strain Baltar with the right measures of deadly seriousness, childish malevolence and comedic terror. No one does blind panic like Baltar in this episode does it, and it’s amazing seeing him lose his mind as the situation slips away from him bit-by-bit. It’s here that the comedic element really comes into its own, as we get laugh-after-laugh watching Baltar try and pull his ass out of the fire in increasingly desperate ways, from trying to chat Gaeta up in a toilet to attempting to smash the incriminating evidence with a chair (my favourite: trying to get Gaeta to stay in the toilet by pointing out “You haven’t washed your hands!”) Where in other hands and in other shows all of this might seem like a very odd mix, in “Six Degrees Of Separation” I do think it’s a really masterful job: Baltar’s verbal and physical pratfalls fit what is happening in the episode to a tee, as he falls back on cheap words and over-the-top destruction as his saviours.

Baltar’s various attempted solutions shine a light on where he is as a character, approaching a missing Head Six like she is a stubborn women to be placated with “I Love You”, trying to outwit “Shelly Godfrey” with crazed conspiracy talk and then clumsily trying to smash the incriminating picture away. The suave facade is gone, and we are left with a fairly pathetic individual whose mental health is hanging by a thread. We see plenty of other picking up on this too: while Roslin is the most upfront about it, the role of Six and Adama in this episode show how unlikable Baltar is to other people in this universe, calling to mind Apollo’s later thunderous denunciation of Baltar at the end of the third season: “…we don’t like you very much. Because you’re arrogant, because you’re weak, because you’re a coward…”

Of course Baltar comes out of the whole thing in a better position than ever, at the literal right hand of the President and a maligned hero unjustly accused of treason as part of a Cylon plot. Which, of course, appears to have been one of the whole points of the exercise. In this, we see the beginnings of a road that is going to go to New Caprica and beyond, and adds a fascinating new dimension to Baltar, Head Six and what their purpose to things is.

But is it all just a demented plan of Head Six? Or are we back to the enduring question of “God did it?”. There’s a lot of coincidences here, like Shelly Godfrey’s miraculous disappearance (is that covered in “The Plan”? I can’t remember) and the sheer number of Cylon agents hidden in the fleet (not counting the “Final Five”, there are three more at least to the best of my recollection). It seems difficult to accept this all as mere coincidence. Is there an omnipotent directing force that decided to screw with Baltar a bit as a test of faith, with Head Six as his agent, and is also enacting a larger plan with what’s left of humanity? It seems like a fairly likely bet at the present time, and again calls to fallacy of complaining about the “God did it” nature of BSG’s finale.

“Six Degrees Of Separation” is a very focused episode, but there is time for a few other things, and a bit more character advancement. Adama gets to resist Shelly Godfrey’s seduction, showing him as a harder man than Baltar (and Helo, sort of). Tyrol attempts to bounce back from the events of “Litmus” by getting the captured Raider going. Starbuck attempts to get walking again, and struggles. Roslin has a medical set-back. Only a scene or two each, but I think that it’s all done effectively and these sub-plots fit in with the larger plot much better than BSG has been able to in the not-too-distant past. Adama’s interaction with Godfrey is a direct part of the Baltar plot; the Raider work and Starbuck are linked (and Tigh gets to have a look in); Roslin has her collapse while on the phone with Baltar. Blurring the lines between all of these things makes it seem like a properly connected world, and stops any feeling that these sub-plots are an intrusion.

That leaves only Cylon-occupied Caprica, where the Helo/Sharon plot continues its progression instead of standing still like it had been for a few episodes. The last bit of pressure is applied here, through an endless Cylon pursuit, a bit of rain and Sharon deciding, essentially, to jump Helo, letting the built-up tension do the rest. It’s another moment of perfect manipulation, and for the viewer the larger curiosity is now in seeing what the actual point is: we can guess that it is something to do with pregnancy, but then why the elaborate ruse? And of course, we are now waiting to find out what Helo’s reaction to all of this will be, when he inevitably learns the truth. A lot of that going around on BSG.

 It will be as God wants it to be.

Notes

-The title, aside from being not the last pun on Tricia Helfer’s character name, comes from the idea that people are always, at most, only six personal connections away from anybody else on the planet, an idea that has been the subject of some debate. I’m not sure how it fits here though, so I assume it’s more to do with the pun.

-Robert M. Young and Edward James Olmos have been frequent collaborators, and this won’t be the last episode Young directs: the others are good too, as I remember. He did this one at the age of 79 too.

-The episode opens with a rapid zoom-in on the Fleet, and ends with the same shot reversed. I’m not sure what the point was, other than to perhaps emphasise that the Fleet is a very small part of a very big universe: or maybe we could call it a worm under the eyes of God.

-Given the events of “33”, it’s amusing to see Baltar tempting fate with more blaspheming, but I guess that’s just his nature. As his outburst here indicates, he’s a guy under a lot of stress really.

-Something I have come to realise is that Baltar might actually be quite bad with women. His presentation as a Casanova-esque ladies man is based on his position of power on Caprica: with that stripped, he’s now just a somewhat pathetic guy whining for sex when Six isn’t immediately willing to give it to him. And I mean whining. Even his efforts with Starbuck seem to have hit a wall.

-I do love the comedy moments ahead of the instigating moment of the plot – Baltar deciding his dream world is his to mould (“It’s my fantasy, see if I care!”), having to cover with Dualla after suggesting “Let’s just skip the foreplay”, and then meeting Shelly Godfrey, with Baltar stunned to realise other people can see her (I especially like Michael Hogan’s bemused “She’s standing right there”). It establishes half of the tone of the episode very nicely.

-As Baltar reacts to being accused of treason, Adama and Tigh loom over him very nicely. It was a good way to show that sense of threat visually, and to make clear how small Baltar looks next to them.

-Getting a defined look at the image provides a decent ticking clock for the episode, even if it did smack a bit of CSI: I kept expecting the word “Enhance” to be used more than once.

-Tyrol and Cally get frustrated about Starbuck’s less-than-helpful notes on how to fly the Raider, which includes descriptions of a “dog-shaped mass” and various ganglia. I did get a chuckle out of that, and Tyrol’s disbelief at the situation.

-Love, love, love that recurring visual of Baltar searching through his fantasy home for a missing Six, it really makes that whole set-up seem like a more tangible and important part of their relationship, a mind palace that reflects his own state of being. It’s the most notable visual element of the episode for sure.

-We haven’t really seen Billy properly for a bit, but he’s back, and messing up almost immediately, broadcasting in the clear that the President has collapsed. He’ll come into his own a bit later I think.

-Doc Cottle is not having it in this episode, lambasting the President for self-medicating. “Three times the dose must work three times as fast, right?” he sarcastically asks, and that’s a line I’ve used in real life when I’ve seen family members do the same.

-Interesting line from Cottle here too: “The time is going to come when you are not going to be able to hide what you are going through”. It echoes the repeated line from the Miniseries that “The time comes when you can’t hide from the things you’ve done anymore”. There’s always that motif of action and consequence here.

-Six’s shtick really doesn’t work on Adama: he’s stone-faced as she pulls the usual routine, not reacting when she kisses him. Smash cut to him ordering her watched. This guy is made of sterner stuff.

-Helo and Sharon remain “on the run”, and again there is a fascination in seeing how the Cylon’s manufacture a close pursuit that Helo is oblivious of.

-Gotta love the Gaeta and Baltar conversation in the head, it’s like something out of a Laurel & Hardy skit. “You’re busy I know…don’t let me distract you”.

-Baltar isn’t immune to puns himself, declaring angrily in the face of Godfrey, “No more Mr Nice Gaius!”

-Boomer and the Raider share what we might call “a moment” here, where she essentially outlines the Cylon relationship to their Raiders as that of a master and pet. She evens gives the thing a pet here, with her sleeper programming breaking down a tad. Tyrol is unnerved, for good reason, but it is an interesting moment all the same.

-A bit much, the scene where Baltar walks down a hallway and gets assailed by a crowd of whisperers. Or is it all in his head?

-I did get a chuckle elsewhere in the episode, as a nervous Tyrol reacts to Starbuck getting the Raider going again: “Don’t shoot anything”.

-Roslin, in a manner of chilling calm, really gives it to Baltar with both barrels, basically telling him that she considers him guilty because, well, it rings true from her interactions with him. He’s just too unlikable a guy.

-“You’ll forgive me Madam President, if I don’t wish to be executed based on your gut feeling”. Oof, what a line, and what a delivery, full of the same snobbish disdain Baltar previously showed towards Six when she was discussing religious faith.

-The last push on Caprica is another nice bit of manipulation: Helo starts rambling about his feelings for Sharon and how he respects what she has with the Chief, and then Sharon just plants one on him and goes for it. I think she’s realised that Helo isn’t the kind to make the first move, but is obviously so infatuated with Sharon, or more, that he will welcome an advance. In fact he’s desperate for one. We might as well call him Karl “Internet Nice Guy” Agathon here.

-Interesting montage between Sharon having passionate, animal sex with Helo in a thunderstorm and Boomer having a meltdown on Galactica when someone writes “CYLON” on her locker mirror. It was a kaleidoscope of conflicting emotions for sure, and called back to Starbuck’s lustful memories during the funeral in “Act Of Contrition”.

-I suppose at some point I am going to have talk more about the Cylon use of sex, as a manipulation and a weapon. Godfrey with Adama, Head Six with Baltar, Sharon with Helo, are all examples just from this episode alone. It’s like an inherent part of their character, at least the female ones thus far, to use sex or the promise of sex to get what they want. What is the show trying to say with this?

-Baltar’s prayer seems genuine enough to me, insofar as it is the desperate effort of a man facing his end to appeal to the last arbiter for some kind of salvation. Whatever about how this particular accusation was doctored, Baltar is still guilty when it comes to the Cylon attack, and we might think of that when he asks for forgiveness.

-The jokes keep coming, even as Baltar gets let off the hook: “I’d never wear a shirt like that” he says, in reference to whomever it actually was in the photograph.

-Talk about pandering to the shippers: Gaeta and Baltar share a hug after his “innocence” is proved. These two are going on a trip, let me tell you.

-One thing that “Six Degrees Of Separation” is missing is a lack of resolution for Roslin’s comments to Baltar after he is found innocent. I really wanted to see that conversation and how Roslin approached it, considering she was all set to condemn Baltar.

-The episode ends with Baltar talking for the audience and wondering what the deal is with Shelly Godfrey. Head Six says nothing and just undresses, in one of BSG’s most significant moments of titillation. Set-up for Baltar’s last joke of the episode: a enthusiastic “God’s will be done”. Sex remains a control, in this case against awkward questions.

Overall Verdict: A really good episode of television, that balances a deadly serious threat to the life of one of the main characters with a comedic through-line that really marks the episode out from the rest of the season. Good performances, good visuals, good progression of the plot. You can’t ask for much more. As I recall BSG would try comedy one more time this season, and we’ll see if that one is as humdrum as I remember.

To read more entries in this series, click here to go the index.

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Ireland’s Wars: The Blessington Triangle

We have seen how the pro-Treaty side eliminated the centre of the anti-Treaty movement in the Four Courts, before they went on to secure the rest of Dublin. It was a decisive demonstration that the National Army was capable of defeating their opponents in an urban environment, albeit with the anti-Treaty side committing many self-made errors. But before the Battle of Dublin was even over, the larger conflict was starting in the rest of the country, and in so doing the provisional government was faced with their next test, of combating the IRA in a more open space.

That space was a rough triangle of land on the border of Dublin and Wicklow, with key points being in the townland of Brittas to the west, the town of Ballymore-Eustace to the east and, most importantly, the town of Blessington in the middle. Blessington, in some way a gateway to the Dublin/Wicklow Mountains, was a town that became an impromptu rallying point for a wide variety of anti-Treaty units, that began assembling after the opening of hostilities in Dublin. They were answering the call of Oscar Traynor for support, with the Dublin commander initially hopeful that a substantial force of IRA Volunteers would assemble, and then be in a position to relieve their comrades fighting in the city or, later, to retake the city after the IRA had been expelled from it.

But Traynor was to be disappointed. By the time he reached Blessington itself the IRA contingent that had taken over the town consisted of a column of around 100 men from South Tipperary, a few more from the South Dublin Brigade, a smattering from Kildare and men involved in the Dublin fighting who had been able to escape, such as Ernie O’Malley. Talk of “Blessington legions” ready to march on Dublin were a fantasy: by the time Traynor reached the Wicklow town, some of the Tipperary men were already making noise about returning home, being very out of their element, while there remained a paucity of arms and ammunition.

Here, the lack of firm command or higher direction again proved decisive in ruining anti-Treaty hopes of resistance, let alone any kind of offensive operation. Roads leading to the area had not been cut, there were inadequate provisions for the men assembled and it was unclear exactly who was in command. Despite this, and Traynor’s efforts to get the men to disperse, there was to be a degree of fighting in the Triangle, as the provisional government, soon after the securing of Dublin, moved to eliminate this threat to the south-west of the city.

The anti-Treaty side held a strung out set of positions between the three major areas, that extended all the way to the border of County Meath, with the main road leading from Dublin to the Curragh cut in the middle. But it was obvious how weak such a line was, and Ernie O’Malley was not of a mind to make a major fight in the area. He instead a proposed a limited engagement whose design would be to buy time for greater mobilisation elsewhere in the country, stalling any major advance from Dublin. In the towns and villages held by the IRA, roads were blocked or mined, sandbags piled and whatever other preparations could be made were made.

They were needed, as the National Army was wasting little time. By the 2nd of July three distinct columns of men, with a total number of around 500, were operating in the general area. One, under British Army veteran Michael Bishop, had advanced south into the deeper part of Wicklow to secure the county, and now turned back north. A second, coming from the Curragh under a man named McNulty, was advancing down towards the Kildare/Wicklow border. And a third, under a Commandant Joseph Heaslip and consisting mostly of men from the Dublin Guard, was advancing from the north. It was, in many ways, a remarkable state of affairs, with the regular military mobile and the guerrilla IRA forces stuck in place, defending a line they had little real expectation of holding.

After a series of sporadic minor engagements, the first serious clash took place on the morning of the 4th July, as Bishop’s men attacked into Ballymore-Eustace. In unseasonably bad weather they were able, with the support of armoured cars, to drive the IRA from their positions, but were unable to complete an encirclement and prevent the enemies withdrawal to Brittas. Bishop wasted little time and then commenced an advance on Blessington itself, but a cautious one: the pro-Treaty side were still outside of the town two days later, with its commanders wanting to wait for artillery support before they committed to an attack on this larger obstacle.

On the other side of Blessington, Heaslip’s men advanced into Brittas, seizing the small town after a two hour firefight. A series of small engagement in villages and townlands outside of Blessington – Ballytor, Crooksling, Kilbride – took place between the advancing pro-Treaty forces and the consistently retreating anti-Treaty adversary. The pattern was largely the same in each instance: brief resistance, before the IRA turned back to Blessington, overwhelmed by National Army numbers and armoured cars, and hamstrung by their own lack of ammunition and firm leaderships.

By the 7th the IRA presence in the IRA had become firmly concentrated in Blessington, and here a substantial fight could well have been the result, if the anti-Treaty camp wanted it. Initially, O’Malley seems to have preferred this option, and set his men to the task of fortifying the town as much as it could be fortified. But the situation was hopeless: it just needed time for the anti-Treaty leaders to realise it. The capture of two high-ranking anti-Treaty officers, Andrew McDonnell and Gerry Boland, who were caught while trying to inspect an anti-Treaty position they didn’t realise had been taken by the National Army, seems to have been the last straw for O’Malley, when he found out. Realising that there was no point in fighting a losing battle, he designated a rearguard of around 15 men to remain in the town and made plans for the rest to withdraw.

In this they were lucky, in terms of enemy movements and the weather. McNulty’s column was the closest to the town but owing to a paucity of men they were too slow to close the ring, and a fine mist covered the town on the morning of the 8th. Thanks to both of these events the majority of the force under O’Malley’s command was able to slip out of Blessington and then disperse, with the various components heading back to their home areas of Tipperary and Kildare.

The pro-Treaty soldiers pressed the attack later in the day. A firefight of a few hours was the result, as the IRA rearguard expended what ammo they had in an effort to make their numbers seem bigger than they were and delay the inevitable, allowing the other men the opportunity to break out and put room between themselves and the National Army. Before noon they were obligated to lay down their arms, with the pro-Treaty side not forced, in the end, to deploy the artillery that had been brought to Blessington for the much greater fight that had been expected. The surrender brought an end to this particular campaign, which ended in a significant pro-Treaty victory.

The Blessington fighting was another disaster for the anti-Treaty side. They had lost several men killed and many more captured, with the pro-Treaty soldiers taking comparatively few casualties. Only the withdrawn from Blessington ahead of the final fight prevented the battle from being a total pro-Treaty victory. Many of the same flaws and weaknesses that were evident in the Battle of Dublin were also evident in Blessington: ineffective leadership; lack of arms; needlessly sedentary tactics of holding ground; and a general lack of coordinated strategy. Just why the IRA made a fight out of the Blessington area at all seems odd, given the larger situation: the defence of those towns gained the anti-Treaty side very little, other than delaying a larger pro-Treaty advance for a few days. In the end, those few days would amount to not all that much. On the other side, the National Army showed that it could engage and defeat the Executive IRA outside of an urban setting, and for the most part do it without artillery support.

Blessington is essentially an epilogue to the fighting in Dublin, hence why I wanted to consider it here. It happened at the same time as many other significant developments in the rest of the country, in places as far apart as Enniscorthy and Donegal. Everywhere, the two sides of the Civil War were drawing battle lines and preparing for a larger, more sustained combat. In the next entry we will take the chance to evaluate how things stood nationally for both sides, in terms of numbers, military resources, leadership and positions, before discussing larger strategies for how the war was to be prosecuted and the political dimension as well.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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