On the Couch / Yes, Fans Can Make the Difference

In his engaging book, "Salonica - City of Ghosts," Mark Mazower appeals for the histories of all the different communities whose pasts weave the tapestry of the fascinating northern Greek city to be taken into account: "Other futures may require other pasts," he writes. To which another eminent cultural historian, the Hebrew University's Steven Aschheim, offers an intriguing addendum, "Better futures require different pasts."

"Better pasts for a brighter present," is what came to mind when reading Yossi Benayoun unburdening his heart via Haaretz following the national team's disappointing draw at Ramat Gan last Saturday night.

For all the obvious 100 percent commitment of the players, dismayed by how commentators and fans alike turned on them, Yossi let loose a rage that had clearly been building prior to Wednesday night's rematch in Crete: "I suggest the fans cheer us, even if we are playing poorly, or are trailing," said the once-wonder boy from Dimona, now wonder man from Merseyside.

"They must give us the feeling of being at home, and be patriotic like the fans we meet abroad. The moment the match ends and we've lost or weren't good, I have no problem if they curse or criticize. They can curse me until tomorrow, but only once the match ends."

Yossi may be a mite too loyal in citing Liverpool as the rule rather than the exception when he insists their fans remain loyal through thick and thin; but then, who can forget the revival in the Istanbul Champions League final three years ago when one was proud, even if not a commited Merseysider, to call oneself a Red supporter?

The one occasion I managed to get to a Wembley Cup Final was in 1979: Man United v Arsenal. Ten minutes from time, United were trailing by two goals when, of a sudden, a fearsome bellow of support rose from the Manchester stands. The team was lifted, staged a dramatic recovery and amazingly wiped out the two-goal deficit. Their cheering didn't stop, even in disappointment and eventual defeat, after Gary Bailey in United's goal committed a major gaffe in the dying seconds. He failed to cut out a cross from the left and United lost 3-2.

The sight of such dedicated supporters was a great moral uplift, a memory to be savored, and to be recalled over and over in this age of demand for victory-at-all-costs, a time when, one constantly senses, absolute commitment to the cause is becoming ever more scarce.

Another busy midfielder had loyalty of another sort in mind this week. On the eve of England's latest World Cup victory - five on the trot now - Frank Lampard let loose a scathing assessment of recent less-successful England team regimes.

Lampard credited the current England boss, Frank Capello, for the revival. "A strong man like Capello was exactly what we needed," said the Chelsea midfielder. "We needed a bit more selflessness. It was easy to see how we used to play too much as individuals. We have very, very good individuals, but the team didn't perform because we weren't playing as a group. To play as a team, you need to have humility and to be selfless. You need to work for your mate next to you, or to play out of position if that's what's required."

From another age - a time when soccer was quite a different game, so distinct from today's pampered stars and millionaire managers - came clips of a new film, Damned United, about one of England's simultaneously best-loved and most-scorned coaches, Brian Clough.

Actor Michael Sheen (who played Tony Blair in "The Queen") plays the hero/anti-hero, and says, "Clough was one of those people who has decided he's going to shape the rest of the world in his image. Inevitably, there's something in us that recognizes that that's playing with fire and the gods will have to strike you down."

Clough, who died five years ago, aged 69, was most noted for his success with two distinctly non-illustrious Midlands clubs, Derby County and Nottingham Forest. His achievement of winning back-to-back European Cups with Forest is considered among the most unlikely feats in soccer history.

Damned United is about a less distinguished time, about how Clough performed as manager of Leeds United. He actually despises the club, its players, and the former club manager, Don Revie. In the 44 days he is manager at Elland Road, the club win only one of six games and he is duly sacked. Charismatic, outspoken and often controversial, Clough had been on record as denouncing the Revie style not only as overly aggressive, but also effectively, in his opinion, as illegal. He alienates many of Leeds's star players, notably Johnny Giles, Norman Hunter and Billy Bremner.

Damned United is based on a novel of the same name by David Peace. The publishers were successfully sued by Irish midfielder Giles, who said, "Many of the things in the book never happened. I felt it necessary to go to the courts to establish that this was fiction based on fact - nothing more."

Most people portrayed in the book had died by the time of the book's release and were unable to take similar action. The film went on release in Britain this week. Who can wait?

The Cloughie age was some time before the game was totally transformed with the takeover of soccer by global TV, and the millions and millions it pumps into the game which creates, at one and the same time, serious perils for the future of soccer and boundless joy for viewers around the globe.

As far as TV coverage is concerned, however, women's sport might still be in the Stone Age. Of late, there's been plenty of loud muttering from advocates about how ill-served the women are by the all-dominating medium. Outside India, there really was very little justice done to the women's world cricket cup which has just ended in Australia. But while women cricketers may forever be doomed to play second fiddle to men, that's far from the case in curling.

You would have done yourself a real favor this week to have become a fan of a sport sometimes defined as bowls or boule on ice, and which is undoubtedly one of TV's most exciting sports - one from which it's impossible to exclude the women. Oh, I can just hear those sneers and catcalls. Thankfully, though, Eurosport has a professional approach and gave dedicated coverage of the world championships from Gangneung in South Korea.

Women's sport can generally be calculated to provide great viewing, since competitors are not scared to let emotions hang out, especially if the cameras are able to get in close - as they can on the curling rink. Thus, we had unfettered insight into what was going on behind the glasses of the talented young Chinese captain, Bing Yu Wang. The diminutive skip, who 10 years ago couldn't tell a curling stone from a block of granite or a curling brush from a sponja stick, burst onto the scene just last year.

This week, she gave another masterly performance in outdueling the veteran Swede, Anette Norberg, 8-6 to guarantee China its first-ever world women's championship. Trailing 7-6 in the 10th end, Norberg drew to the edge of the four-foot zone with her final stone and lay two shots. The Chinese skip still had one to play, however.

Bravely, she chose to aim for a straight hit in order to secure the win. Duly, both stones were removed. As they went spinning out of contention, Bing Yu Wang jumped ecstatically into the air, soon to be joined by the rest of her team in a group hug. China's stunning sudden climb to the top of world curling was complete.

The Winter Olympics in Vancouver are just 10 months away. Mark down women's curling as a viewing must!