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Category: Features

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Football transfer rumours: Real Madrid to sign Joe Hart?

Today’s rumours are bad losers

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Football transfer rumours: Real Madrid to sign Joe Hart?

Today’s rumours are bad losers

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Leeds adrift in sea of uncertainty as League casts off Massimo Cellino

Championship club must find fresh investment funds quickly after the Italian’s attempt to buy a majority stake was rejected

For Leeds United the future remains uncertain. There have been turbulent times at Elland Road over the past 10 years but none more so than the situation over recent months. Now, following the decision by the Football League to reject Massimo Cellino’s takeover, there is at least a semblance of closure in a saga that has played out dramatically since the Italian’s interest first became apparent. Yet the club’s plight has arguably never been more fraught with danger.

Credit must go to the League who, unbowed by pressure from the club to make an announcement on Friday, declared on Monday that Cellino has been disqualified from buying a majority stake in Leeds under the “owners’ and directors’ test” after being convicted in Italy of failing to pay €388,500 (£235,000) of import tax on Nélie, a yacht seized by police and customs officials in June 2012.

Given that the Italian has been bankrolling the club for the past two months – paying wages and staff costs as well as providing money for loan signings – it leaves Leeds in a perilous position.

David Haigh, the club’s managing director, who was due to become the chief executive under Cellino’s regime, declared earlier in the month that there was “no chance” of Leeds going into administration and that United were in “good hands”. Indeed, a club statement issued on Monday on Monday said: “We would like to reassure the fans of the continuity of our great club.”

The reality is that Cellino is owed a significant reimbursement. It is understood he has put around £10m into Leeds since January and reports in the local media say he is due interest of 10% on the money injected. Given that Leeds are operating on losses of approximately £1m a month, Haigh’s assertion will do little to dampen fears of supporters who are deeply concerned about the club’s future.

Gulf Finance House, the Bahrain-based bank who bought the club from Ken Bates in December 2012, must now go back to the drawing board in their desperate search for fresh investment. Cellino told the Guardian: “GFH tried to sell to me because they needed to sell Leeds, not because they wanted to.”

GFH could turn to Mike Farnan and the Together Leeds consortium, who still have an interest in buying the club. However, given the controversy that has blighted GFH’s tenure, who knows what the future holds?

Serious questions must be asked regarding the background checks that the Bahrain investment bank compiled on Cellino before agreeing to sell a 75% stake in the club to his company Eleonora Sports in February. Cellino, who lives in Miami and has been president of the Serie A club Cagliari for more than 20 years, is certainly a colourful and controversial character, and even the quickest of internet searches would have discovered that he had a number of charges to his name in Italy.

The Football League’s rules, laid out in its “owners’ and directors’ test”, are clear. Maligned following the takeovers at Birmingham City, Notts County and Coventry City in recent times, the organisation has acknowledged that more responsibility has to be taken to protect clubs and find out who prospective owners are and where their money is coming from.

If GFH had done the same, then Leeds would not be in this predicament. They would have ascertained that Cellino has a 2001 conviction for false accounting, for which he was given a 15-month suspended prison sentence, and that he is under investigation for alleged misuse of public funds relating to work on Cagliari’s Quartu Sant’Elena stadium.

There is also the matter of two trials for alleged evasion of import duty this year, one relating to another yacht, the other to a Range Rover. Cellino denies wrongdoing on both counts.

The most pressing offence that GFH would have discovered, though, was the charge against the Italian in a Sardinia court accusing him of illegally evading import duty on Nélie.

The guilty verdict that was delivered last week, subject to appeal, was the key decision that caused the League to vote unanimously to disqualify Cellino from taking control of Leeds.

The problem for GFH was that Cellino was the man offering far more money for Leeds than any other bidder. In a frantic attempt to secure the financial future of the Championship club, glaring oversights were made that now leave Leeds in a much more dangerous position than before the Italian entered the picture.

Despite Haigh insisting that administration was not on the agenda, even the suggestion of such a fate, which would lead to the club being docked 10 points, could put off investors. Anyone interested in securing the club might be persuaded to hold out and wait.

If Leeds descend into deeper financial trouble and administration becomes a possibility, investors would most likely wait and then swoop in to buy the club for a vastly reduced sum.

Cellino claims he is not motivated by money and repayment is not an immediate priority. However, Leeds’ future is in the balance – not for the first time.

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Leeds adrift in sea of uncertainty as League casts off Massimo Cellino

Championship club must find fresh investment funds quickly after the Italian’s attempt to buy a majority stake was rejected

For Leeds United the future remains uncertain. There have been turbulent times at Elland Road over the past 10 years but none more so than the situation over recent months. Now, following the decision by the Football League to reject Massimo Cellino’s takeover, there is at least a semblance of closure in a saga that has played out dramatically since the Italian’s interest first became apparent. Yet the club’s plight has arguably never been more fraught with danger.

Credit must go to the League who, unbowed by pressure from the club to make an announcement on Friday, declared on Monday that Cellino has been disqualified from buying a majority stake in Leeds under the “owners’ and directors’ test” after being convicted in Italy of failing to pay €388,500 (£235,000) of import tax on Nélie, a yacht seized by police and customs officials in June 2012.

Given that the Italian has been bankrolling the club for the past two months – paying wages and staff costs as well as providing money for loan signings – it leaves Leeds in a perilous position.

David Haigh, the club’s managing director, who was due to become the chief executive under Cellino’s regime, declared earlier in the month that there was “no chance” of Leeds going into administration and that United were in “good hands”. Indeed, a club statement issued on Monday on Monday said: “We would like to reassure the fans of the continuity of our great club.”

The reality is that Cellino is owed a significant reimbursement. It is understood he has put around £10m into Leeds since January and reports in the local media say he is due interest of 10% on the money injected. Given that Leeds are operating on losses of approximately £1m a month, Haigh’s assertion will do little to dampen fears of supporters who are deeply concerned about the club’s future.

Gulf Finance House, the Bahrain-based bank who bought the club from Ken Bates in December 2012, must now go back to the drawing board in their desperate search for fresh investment. Cellino told the Guardian: “GFH tried to sell to me because they needed to sell Leeds, not because they wanted to.”

GFH could turn to Mike Farnan and the Together Leeds consortium, who still have an interest in buying the club. However, given the controversy that has blighted GFH’s tenure, who knows what the future holds?

Serious questions must be asked regarding the background checks that the Bahrain investment bank compiled on Cellino before agreeing to sell a 75% stake in the club to his company Eleonora Sports in February. Cellino, who lives in Miami and has been president of the Serie A club Cagliari for more than 20 years, is certainly a colourful and controversial character, and even the quickest of internet searches would have discovered that he had a number of charges to his name in Italy.

The Football League’s rules, laid out in its “owners’ and directors’ test”, are clear. Maligned following the takeovers at Birmingham City, Notts County and Coventry City in recent times, the organisation has acknowledged that more responsibility has to be taken to protect clubs and find out who prospective owners are and where their money is coming from.

If GFH had done the same, then Leeds would not be in this predicament. They would have ascertained that Cellino has a 2001 conviction for false accounting, for which he was given a 15-month suspended prison sentence, and that he is under investigation for alleged misuse of public funds relating to work on Cagliari’s Quartu Sant’Elena stadium.

There is also the matter of two trials for alleged evasion of import duty this year, one relating to another yacht, the other to a Range Rover. Cellino denies wrongdoing on both counts.

The most pressing offence that GFH would have discovered, though, was the charge against the Italian in a Sardinia court accusing him of illegally evading import duty on Nélie.

The guilty verdict that was delivered last week, subject to appeal, was the key decision that caused the League to vote unanimously to disqualify Cellino from taking control of Leeds.

The problem for GFH was that Cellino was the man offering far more money for Leeds than any other bidder. In a frantic attempt to secure the financial future of the Championship club, glaring oversights were made that now leave Leeds in a much more dangerous position than before the Italian entered the picture.

Despite Haigh insisting that administration was not on the agenda, even the suggestion of such a fate, which would lead to the club being docked 10 points, could put off investors. Anyone interested in securing the club might be persuaded to hold out and wait.

If Leeds descend into deeper financial trouble and administration becomes a possibility, investors would most likely wait and then swoop in to buy the club for a vastly reduced sum.

Cellino claims he is not motivated by money and repayment is not an immediate priority. However, Leeds’ future is in the balance – not for the first time.

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Football transfer rumours: Sadio Mané to Tottenham Hotspur?

Today’s tell-all is ticking over very nicely

Fresh from their spirited comeback from two goals down against Southampton yesterday afternoon, Tottenham Hotspur have emerged as frontrunners to sign 21-year-old winger Sadio Mané from Red Bull Salzburg. The Mirror reports that Tim Sherwood has on several occasions sent his chief scout Ian Broomfield to monitor the Senegalese winger, who has also attracted interest from Manchester City, Newcastle and Chelsea with his performances in the Austrian Bundesliga, where he scored the fourth of his side’s goals in a 5-0 win over the mighty Wiener Nestadt in the Red Bull Arena on Sunday. The win leaves Salzburg just 27 points clear of local rivals SV Grödig at the top of the table.

Meanwhile in Denmark, taxi drivers in the nation’s capital have breathed a collective sigh of relief upon hearing FC Copenhagen director Anders Horsholt dismiss rumours that wayward local lad Nicklas Bendtner might be signing for the club after he was spotted in the crowd for their 1-1 Danish Superliga draw with Randers on Sunday afternoon. On his way out of Arsenal and in dire need of resurrecting a once promising career, the confident 26-year-old is not a transfer target for his home-town club, according to club director Anders Horsholt. “We are not talking about that,” said Horsholt, when quizzed on the matter by reporters. “He [Bendtner] is in town and is an old Copenhagen boy, who [attended games] during his childhood days. He wanted to see some football, it isn’t anything more than that.”

While Arsène Wenger has let it be known that Bendtner is unlikely to be seen in Arsenal colours again, he will be encouraged by the news that Bayern Munich have announced they have no interest in signing the north London club’s long-term target Julian Draxler from Schalke. “I can assure that we will not buy Julian Draxler this summer,” said Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. “I do not know [if he wants to join Bayern]. We never talked to his agents. In my opinion the public do not understand our transfer policy yet. We will not buy any players from Dortmund or Schalke only to hurt them. We will buy only players who bring more quality to the club immediately. In the past we bought some players to be better prepared for the future because some of our players were becoming older than 30. But we will not do that anymore.” So now we know.

Speculation about the future of Arsenal’s right-back Bacary Sagna rumbles on, but reports linking him with a summer move to Inter have been denied by the Serie A club’s director Piero Ausilio, who says his recent visits to England were in no way linked to rumours that he was busy trying to sign Sagna and Manchester City striker Edin Dzeko. “There’s no connection with my trips to Sagna and the same goes for Dzeko,” Ausilio told reporters. “There is the opportunity to travel when we don’t have matches during the week. It’s an opportunity to develop contacts by being around other people in the industry.” Despite Ausilio’s assertion that he has not been trying to lure Dzeko to the San Siro, TuttoMercato claims that Inter-bound Manchester United defender Nemanja Vidic has been running up his phone bill in an effort to convince the Bosnian to join him in Italy.

Several of yesterday’s papers reported that Manchester United have agreed a £37m fee for Sporting Lisbon’s 21-year-old midfielder William Carvalho, whose agent was given a guided tour of the club’s Carrington training ground last week. As has been reported in this column ad nauseum, United are also believed to be interested in acquiring Southampton full-back Luke Shaw, Bayern Munich midfielder Toni Kroos, Borussia Dortmund midfielder Marco Reus, Real Madrid defender Fábio Coentrão and Porto centre-half Eliaquim Mangala during what promises to be an extremely expensive summer trolley dash. United will face competition for Shaw’s scrawl from Liverpool, while Manchester City are believed to remain interested in Carvalho.

Following his side’s humiliation at the hands of local rivals Derby County over the weekend, the future of Billy Davies as Nottingham Forest manager looks anything but secure. Despite the club’s Kuwaiti owner Fawaz Al-Hasawi having said that the Scotsman would remain in charge of the Championship club until the end of the season, Saturday’s embarrassment has led several newspapers to speculate that he may bring in Neil Warnock as a short-term appointment. A run of three draws and four defeats in injury-ravaged Forest’s last seven games has seen the club drop out of the top six, but it was Davies’ failure to acknowledge vocal and defiant home support on Saturday, coupled with his ongoing media silence, that is losing him the goodwill of even his most ardent cheerleaders among Forest fans.

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Premier League goals record intact despite Chelsea and Liverpool sixes

• Weekend total of 42 one short of 2011 weekend
• That included Newcastle’s comeback in 4-4 with Arsenal

The past weekend may have seen goal after glorious goal, adding up to a grand total of 42, but it failed to break the record for the most scored on a single weekend in the Premier League. That honour belongs to 5-6 February 2011, when fans had 43 goals to celebrate.

On the Saturday Everton beat Blackpool 5-3, with Louis Saha scoring four, but there was another, more famous game that involved eight goals. Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal side were three up within the first 10 minutes at Newcastle United and soon found themselves four goals to the good. However, after going down to 10 men when Abou Diaby clashed with Joey Barton and Kevin Nolan, they folded fast. Barton scored either side of Leon Best’s goal and Cheik Tioté struck a stunning long-range equaliser to secure a 4-4 draw, a result that did a lot to undermine Arsenal’s title challenge.

Elsewhere Wigan Athletic beat Blackburn Rovers 4-3, Stoke and Sunderland scored five between them while Aston Villa and Fulham shared a mere four goals. The rest of the games that Saturday all featured at least three goals.

The Sunday action was much more sedate. Liverpool were winners by a single goal at Chelsea, as were Birmingham at West Ham.

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Sergio Ramos and his 19 Real Madrid red cards: a retrospective

Sergio Ramos has won multiple honours but his ill-discipline has seen him sent off more times than any player in Madrid’s history

Sergio Ramos may have won three La Liga titles, the World Cup and two European Championships but he is in danger of becoming more renowned for his ill-discipline than his football. On Sunday night in the 4-3 clásico defeat by Barcelona at the Benabéu the 27-year-old was sent-off for the 19th time in his Real Madrid career. Here is a comprehensive guide to Ramos’s red cards …

1) Espanyol 1-0 Real Madrid, La Liga, 18 September 2005

Two yellow cards in the 61st and 87th minutes was an appropriate beginning to Ramos’s red card journey when he was sent off at the Olympic Stadium in Barcelona. It began a habit of obtaining double yellows rather than straight reds and his consequent suspension paved the way for a notable debut: step forward Jonathan Woodgate.

2) Real Madrid 2-1 Olympiakos, Champions League, 29 September 2005

Just 10 days later, Ramos received the second red of his Madrid career when he was dismissed for a clash with the Olympiakos substitute Giannakis Okkas, reacting angrily to a late challenge by the Cypriot in the 91st minute. The sending-off came only minutes after a young Roberto Soldado had spared Madrid’s blushes with a late winner.

3) Real Sociedad 2-2 Real Madrid, La Liga, 27 November 2005

Madrid needed two goals within the last five minutes to salvage a draw at the Anoeta after Ramos had earlier been sent off in a game where both sides were reduced to 10 men.

4) Real Madrid 3-3 Villarreal, La Liga, 7 May 2006

Zinedine Zidane’s final game was marred by a straight red card for Ramos after a handball in his own box. Diego Forlán duly converted the penally before Julio Baptista scored a late equaliser for Madrid.

5) Real Madrid 1-1 Atlético Madrid, La Liga, 1 October 2006

Ramos was sent off for the first time in a Madrid derby as two customary fouls earned him his two customary bookings. It seemed the experience of his fellow defenders Roberto Carlos and Fabio Cannavaro was having little impact on the young Spaniard.

6) Sevilla 2-0 Real Madrid, La Liga, 3 November 2007

Two silly tackles resulted in two yellow cards for Ramos five minutes either side of half-time. The loss relegated Madrid to third in the table, with Sevilla overtaking them.

7) Recreativo 2-3 Real Madrid, La Liga, 1 March 2008

In a hugely ill-tempered match that saw three red cards, Ramos was sent off in the 55th-minute after an elbow on the former Liverpool striker Florent Sinama-Pongolle. He had been booked following a rash double-footed challenge just five minutes earlier.

8) Mallorca 1-1 Real Madrid, La Liga, 5 April 2008

The Spaniard earned his second red card in little over two months as he was booked twice once again before receiving his marching orders. A 46th-minute handball was followed 20 minutes later by a deliberate trip. Despite dropping two points, Madrid remained top and would go on to win La Liga that season.

9) Real Madrid 4-3 Málaga, La Liga, 9 November 2008

Ramos received a straight red for a blatant step on the chest of Eliseu while the Portuguese defender was on the ground.

10) Atlético Madrid 2-3 Real Madrid, La Liga, 7 November 2009

The Spaniard was sent off for the second time in the Madrid derby, this time earning an instant dismissal following a last-man challenge on Sergio Agüero.

11) Ajax 0-4 Real Madrid, Champions League, 23 November 2010

After receiving a booking for throwing the ball away in the first half, he was shown a second yellow for the same time-wasting tactics in second-half injury-time. With the group won, sceptics believed Ramos’ dismissal to have been deliberately earned, in order that he could serve a suspension in the dead-rubber final group game.

12) Barcelona 5-0 Real Madrid, La Liga, 29 November 2010

A scything tackle on David Villa was met with a yellow card 20 minutes from time before Ramos then hacked down Lionel Messi in injury time. Additional handbags with Carles Puyol and Xavi ensured his first red card in el clásico.

13) Barcelona 2-2 Real Madrid, Copa del Rey, 25 January 2012

An initial yellow card for protesting a free-kick was followed by another for an elbow on his international team-mate Sergio Busquets. Ramos had earlier had a headed goal disallowed for a foul in the build-up on the night Madrid crashed out of the Copa at the semi-final stage.

14) Villarreal 1-1 Real Madrid, La Liga, 21 March 2012

On Ramos’s 300th appearance for Madrid, he set a new record for the club as his two yellow cards meant he had been sent off in La Liga more times than any other Madrid player in history. He received his marching orders following an elbow on Nilmar, on a night the manager José Mourinho and Mesut Özil also saw red for Madrid.

15) Real Madrid 4-0 Celta Vigo, Copa del Rey, 2 January 2013

After gaining an unneeded booking during a mild altercation with the Celta players, Ramos secured a very deserved second yellow for a challenge which possibly warranted a straight red. As they grappled for the ball, Ramos kicked out as Augusto Fernández, catching him in the chest.

16) Real Madrid 2-0 Rayo Vallecano, La Liga, 17 February 2013

Ramos received two yellow cards, was sent off and scored inside the opening 20 minutes. After doubling Madrid’s lead in the 12th minute, he was booked twice in a 42-second period five minutes later. First he tugged the shirt of Robert Trashorras before committing a deliberate handball.

17) Real Madrid 4-1 Galatasaray, Champions League, 27 November 2013

The Spaniard earned a 26th-minute straight red as the last line of defence following a foul on Umut Bulut. His dismissal meant Ramos has now averaged a red card every 20 games for Madrid.

18) Osasuna 2-2 Real Madrid, La Liga, 14 December 2013

The first of Ramos’ two yellows, shown for a dissent after he was harshly adjudged to have fouled Álvaro Cejudo, could be considered unlucky. He could arguably have been shown a straight red card though for his second offence: a forearm swing at the face of his marker. Madrid were 2-0 down at the time of his dismissal but managed to equalise thanks to a late goal from Pepe.

19) Real Madrid 3-4, La Liga, 23 March 2014

There was not a great deal of contact between Ramos and Neymar after the Barcelona forward cut across the Madrid defender in the 64th minute but the slight clip of the heels had catastrophic results. Neymar tumbled to the floor in the penalty box, Ramos was sent off despite his typically furious remonstrations and Lionel Messi stepped up to draw Barcelona level. Twenty minutes later the Argentinian repeated the trick from the spot to complete his hat-trick and blow the La Liga title race wide open.

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Sport picture of the day: seeking a friend for the end of the world

Stock agency captions often refer to people contesting the ball. That’s what’s going on in this picture of the AFL match between the Hawthorn Hawks and the Brisbane Lions. However here, taken out of context, it bears a striking resemblence to that old …

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Jonathan Wall: ‘Our future is not in doubt partly because Hall set us up’

As BBC Radio 5 Live turns 20, its controller talks sports rights, competition – and reaching the limit on savings

On Friday, Radio 5 Live turns 20. In 1994, when it was launched by a BBC News chief called Tony Hall, it was the corporation’s only breaking-news outlet. Now Hall is director general, and fighting to redefine the BBC in a world of digital media – one where people have almost infinite choice about where they find their news. Yet Jonathan Wall, who runs Radio 5 Live today, says the station’s mission hasn’t changed as much as the world around it.

“We have great clarity about why we get out of bed in the morning,” says Wall. “It’s based on a lot of the foundations from 20 years ago. We are the place on British radio where you hear breaking news, that definitively does sport better than anyone else on British radio. More recently, I feel we are now more of an agenda-setter and a national conversation. We are live debate.” And for Wall, agenda-setting doesn’t just mean politics, or the floods. It means a conscious push to “future-proof” British radio, with 5 Live playing a similar role among speech stations to that taken by Radio 1 in music.

“I think the next two or three years are the most critical in the history of British radio,” he says. He points to favourable Rajar audience data for 5 Live, and other BBC stations in terms of their weekly “reach” (the number of people who tune in at least once). But Wall notes this masks quite a swift drop in the number of hours people are, on average, listening. “I don’t want to be sat here in a few years’ time, with other BBC or commercial radio leaders, thinking ‘Why didn’t we do a bit more?'”

Wall’s answer includes both “beefing up” 5 Live’s journalism and offering the Twitter generation different ways of hearing it. In his first year in the job, 5 Live has launched Question Time Extra Time (which sits alongside the BBC1 debate programme) and done extended live broadcasts from an A&E department in Wigan and a dementia clinic in Wigan. Next month, the early-morning business programme Wake Up to Money will be extended by 15 minutes, and the station will debut a new science show.

This week, Wall launches an online initiative, “5 Live in short”. “We will be the first linear station to have a full home of short-form content, in one place on our website,” he says. “You can get Pienaar’s Politics in perhaps the two-minute version rather than the one-hour version, the Pistorius trial in five minutes, right next to the best of 606.” The station already offers similarly truncated versions of shows such as Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review and Fighting Talk – which, says Wall, are often gateways for listeners, who’ll subsequently tune in to the full programme.

Wall took over 5 Live after his predecessor, Adrian Van Klaveren, had been recalled to London to help deal with the Jimmy Savile scandal – and was relieved of his position after getting embroiled in the Newsnight/Lord McAlpine fiasco. In post since last February, the station’s fifth controller talks with genuine animation about his digital ambitions, as well as other collaborations with different bits of the BBC – not least, a potential sports-themed concert at this year’s Proms. Scrunched into one of BBC Salford’s trendy-but-impractical “meeting pods”, Wall is unflappably good-humoured. His answers, even to questions about touchy BBC subjects like budgets and cuts, are unusually free of weasel-words and jargon.

Wall’s frankness helps throw into sharp relief the financial pressure that 5 Live – in common with other BBC services – is facing. The station’s overall content budget, as reported in last year’s BBC annual report, was £55m – but much of that is spent on things outside Wall’s domain, such as centralised newsgathering. The remainder – Wall’s “controllable spend” – has, he says, dropped by £7m over three years (from about £33m in 2011/12 to £26m in 2014/15).

Wall acknowledges he has reached the limit of plausible “efficiency” savings, and that even another £1m off his budget would mean cuts to the station’s output. “We might have to play tapes overnight between 1am and 5am, instead of live news,” he says. “And we currently do 28 different sports a year – I’m not sure we’d be able to do that any more.” That would mean an end to Dotun Adebayo’s Up All Night. Wall says he might also have to cut back further on international sport.

Pressure on 5 Live’s sports coverage isn’t new, though, and it comes from a variety of conflicting sources. The station is often told (by the BBC Trust and its major competitor, TalkSport) that it spends too much on sports rights. But Wall stoutly defends its position, particularly in the Premier League rights market. “I don’t see how we can be too big a beast, when we have less, and TalkSport and Absolute have more, than they used to have,” he says. “We used to have six out of seven [Premier League rights] packages, now we have four.” And he would be happy to share more rights with commercial competitors. “In an ideal world, we wouldn’t want any of it to be exclusive – the Premier League determine how they want that process to run.”

The other side of Wall’s sport problem is the regular bids that deep-pocketed TV competitors, such as Sky, make for its on-air talent. He lost football commentator Darren Fletcher to BT Sport, and says matter-of-factly: “Even if I had my £7m back, the BBC wouldn’t be matching some of the offers. BT have changed the market.” Wall points out, though, that sometimes he’s able to make progress as a result of talent departures. Putting more women on the air is, he says, “a priority” – and his Formula 1 team is now led by Jennie Gow, after his old team was hired en masse by Sky.

One threat that Wall isn’t contemplating, even after Hall’s announcement of the surprise closure of BBC3, is that 5 Live will be axed. “There’s no doubt about our future,” says Wall – unless the next licence fee settlement involves a dramatic cut to the BBC’s income. “Partly because Tony Hall set us up 20 years ago, I feel far more connected, and more strategic – and partly because we’re in Salford, we’re at the heart of this project here.”

That Salford project – which saw 5 Live move north from Television Centre in 2011 – is one which Wall has embraced with greater vigour than perhaps any other executive. He grew up nearby, in Altrincham. His dad was a Salford native, and used to take the young Jonathan to Salford’s disused docks. Notably unlike other BBC execs – including BBC North’s overall boss, Peter Salmon – Wall has moved his family north, to a new home in Knutsford.

When Wall contemplates his own future – as opposed to the future-proofed future of 5 Live – that geography looms large in his plans. “I kind of hope that this building can fulfil me and my career,” he says. So, maybe he’s aiming for Salmon’s job one day? “I haven’t really thought about that. But I’d like to think that having moved up here, I should be a big leader and player of this being a success. That’s 5 Live for now, and what could that mean afterwards? Well, let’s see how I do in the next two or three years.”

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Sport picture of the day: gymnast or contortionist?

Israeli gymnast Victoria Filanovski frozen in time at the absolute peak of extensionTom Simpson

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Oscar Pistorius: nation readies for final act of high drama as Blade Runner takes the stand

He has wept, vomited and clung to his family as his trial for the murder of Reeva Steenkamp has unfolded. Now the athlete is readying for the one testimony that could turn the trial – his own

At the end of each day Oscar Pistorius walks back into prelapsarian fame. When his murder trial adjourns, he steels himself for a moment, then steps outside through a corridor of cameras as a bodyguard shouts “Make way!” On the street, police restrain schoolchildren craning their necks and camera phones shouting “Keyo keyo keyo Oscar! [Here’s Oscar]”, as he climbs into a vehicle with tinted windows.

For a moment, the clamour is like the days when Pistorius, the first amputee to run in the Olympics, was a hero without a victim. It is a brief respite for the sportsman, who shuttles between his uncle’s mansion in Pretoria, and the austere court, a wooden cocoon with its own rules and rituals, which can make the outside world seem unreal.

Pistorius, 27, sits on a bench in the dock, by turns staring implacably, taking notes, resting hand on head, weeping or vomiting, as he is force-fed action replays of the moments that ended one life and broke his own.

Case number CC 113/13, or the media extravaganza that is “the Kardashians meet OJ Simpson” in the words of crime writer Margie Orford, will reach a critical point this week when the prosecution presents its final witnesses and rests its case that Pistorius murdered his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in cold blood on Valentine’s Day last year. What is expected to follow is the episode on which the entire trial may turn: the appearance of Pistorius on the witness stand.

It will be the most theatrical moment yet in a trial that has already broken new ground as an exercise in justice as public spectacle. For some, gavel-to-gavel TV and radio coverage is providing an unprecedented education about the workings of the courts, albeit a version that few poor people would recognise. It is also demonstrating that, when post-apartheid South Africa is held up to the light of global scrutiny, not everything must be seen through the prism of race.

For others, however, the presence of cameras in the courtroom, and the obsessive compulsions of newspapers and websites, is a trivialising force that diminishes the majesty of the law into the stuff of soap opera. At worst, they say, as journalists tweet the accused’s every tear, retch or prayer to a global audience, there are disquieting echoes of mob justice.

“I sit there with my kids and on one level it’s good they get an education about the law and see that life as an advocate is painstaking and not the glamour you normally get on TV,” said Craig Freimond, a writer and director. “But on another level we’re sitting at dinner and still talking about what angle the blood spattered. It’s all a bit weird.”

Such anxieties will peak when Pistorius, once a superstar best known as the “blade runner” because of his prosthetic limbs, is cross-examined about his claim that he shot four times through a locked bathroom door because he mistook Steenkamp, a model and law graduate, for an intruder. Given the pitiful figure he cut at last year’s bail application hearing and at times during the trial – heaving, shaking, sobbing uncontrollably, the whole world his prison – his defence team may have concerns about his psychological readiness.

Laurie James, a criminologist, said: “He’s going to be torn apart and he knows this. I don’t think the prosecutor, Gerrie Nel, will give Oscar Pistorius an inch when he takes the stand. Given his depleted state of mind, he’s in a position where anyone would find it hard to deal with.” James has spoken to Pistorius during the trial and he told her he was feeling very tired. “He’s probably not sleeping well,” she said. “How the guy hasn’t cracked by now, I don’t know. It must be that he has a strong family support system and a very good legal team.”

Pistorius seems likely to exercise his right to remain invisible to TV viewers during his testimony, although they will be able to hear him. Some believe this could cost him public sympathy. George Mazarakis, executive editor of a dedicated Oscar Pistorius trial channel, said: “We intimated to his team that they’re making a mistake by not allowing him to appear.”

Mazarakis rejects the view that the televised cross-examination is a 21st-century version of mob rule. “It’s not that crude,” he said. “The principle of justice being done is an important one. The principle of open justice is an important one.”

The 24-hour channel is believed to be pulling in more than 200,000 viewers a day, making it one of the most popular in South Africa, and its Twitter account has 114,000 followers. “We have been very careful about not sensationalising things and having serious legal analysis,” said Mazarakis.

In court, the families of Pistorius and Steenkamp sit on opposite ends of the front row of the public gallery. In recent days, the Pistoriuses have tried to make peace with Steenkamp’s mother, June. A row behind are journalists with laptops whose typing surges and wanes like rain, depending on the revelatory value of the testimony.

From this vantage point, the view is of Pistorius’s back. Beyond him the two legal teams, led by prosecutor Nel and defence counsel Barry Roux, whose sardonic cross-examinations bear the hallmark phrase: “I put it to you… ” People have sought his autograph or to take “selfies” with him; a parody Twitter account has been launched in his name; and a local radio station has recorded a rap song: “I put it to you/that it is true/everything you say/I will misconstrue… “

Sitting on high at the far side of the court, flanked by two assessors, is the red-gowned judge, Thokozile Masipa, a former crime reporter who mostly indulges Roux’s showboating but occasionally puts her foot down. In the absence of juries – and of the death penalty – in South Africa, it is Masipa who will decide whether Pistorius must go to prison.

Then there are the witnesses, each trailing biographical clues in their names, dress, accents and occupations that would give Sherlock Holmes a field day. The parade “gives a glimpse into rich, diverse, flawed and accomplished lives, swept into a single narrative from previously anonymous routines,” noted an Associated Press report.

There are Pistorius’s well-to-do white neighbours at the Silver Woods estate in Pretoria, a gated community of soulless architecture where residents apparently go to bed before 10pm. A university academic with a PhD who described hearing “blood-curdling screams” on the night of the killing. A doctor specialising in radiology with a smooth bedside manner who casually referred to his “domestic servant,” illuminating a back story of patrician white privilege.

The court has also met Pistorius’s pals, a different social circle involving fast cars, guns and girls. “If it’s got wheels or a skirt it’s gonna cost you money,” reads the caption on the Twitter page of Darren Fresco, who has long hair and a facial scar and uttered the only f-word of the trial so far. He was driving well above the speed limit when Pistorius allegedly fired a gun through his sunroof and was there when a pistol went off in a restaurant in the presence of another witness, boxer Kevin “KO Kid” Lerena.

Finally, there are the experts. Gert Saayman, a pathologist, described Steenkamp’s wounds with such delicate precision that Pistorius threw up. “Death is effectively a process rather than an event, and may take some minutes for it to come to its conclusion at a physiological level,” he said. But police witnesses have been skewered by Roux over contaminated evidence, contradictory statements and even stealing from Pistorius’s home. Mostly white Afrikaner men who grew up under apartheid and joined the force just as the old order was crumbling, their looks and methods call to mind the BBC drama Life on Mars about hard-drinking cops in 70s Manchester.

Yet as Pistorius, the judge, the lawyers, the family, the journalists and the public prepare to reassemble on Monday under the strip lights of the courtroom, this is a case that defies glib categorisation – a rare South African story in which race has been reduced from headline to mere subtext.

Unlike the Simpson trial, there is no racial division between perpetrator and victim. Many of those schoolchildren who gather to witness Pistorius’s daily exit from the courthouse are black. And what is most extraordinary about Masipa presiding over South Africa’s mega-trial is how ordinary it is. “Twenty years ago it would have been unthinkable to have a black female judge,” Mazarakis said. “The respect she is shown is indicative of the normalisation of the society and how we shouldn’t make too much of it.”

South Africa is still far from the non-racial society that Nelson Mandela envisaged. But the unique social experiment in justice being seen to be done that is the Pistorius trial is a reminder of the danger of a single story. Chris Thurman, an academic and newspaper columnist, said: “On one level, race is always explicit in South African discourse. But there are also public spaces where we are happy for race to be absent. We’re wrong if we cling to the belief that race is the only axis on which South Africa can be understood.”

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Oscar Pistorius: nation readies for final act of high drama as Blade Runner takes the stand

He has wept, vomited and clung to his family as his trial for the murder of Reeva Steenkamp has unfolded. Now the athlete is readying for the one testimony that could turn the trial – his own

At the end of each day Oscar Pistorius walks back into prelapsarian fame. When his murder trial adjourns, he steels himself for a moment, then steps outside through a corridor of cameras as a bodyguard shouts “Make way!” On the street, police restrain schoolchildren craning their necks and camera phones shouting “Keyo keyo keyo Oscar! [Here’s Oscar]”, as he climbs into a vehicle with tinted windows.

For a moment, the clamour is like the days when Pistorius, the first amputee to run in the Olympics, was a hero without a victim. It is a brief respite for the sportsman, who shuttles between his uncle’s mansion in Pretoria, and the austere court, a wooden cocoon with its own rules and rituals, which can make the outside world seem unreal.

Pistorius, 27, sits on a bench in the dock, by turns staring implacably, taking notes, resting hand on head, weeping or vomiting, as he is force-fed action replays of the moments that ended one life and broke his own.

Case number CC 113/13, or the media extravaganza that is “the Kardashians meet OJ Simpson” in the words of crime writer Margie Orford, will reach a critical point this week when the prosecution presents its final witnesses and rests its case that Pistorius murdered his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in cold blood on Valentine’s Day last year. What is expected to follow is the episode on which the entire trial may turn: the appearance of Pistorius on the witness stand.

It will be the most theatrical moment yet in a trial that has already broken new ground as an exercise in justice as public spectacle. For some, gavel-to-gavel TV and radio coverage is providing an unprecedented education about the workings of the courts, albeit a version that few poor people would recognise. It is also demonstrating that, when post-apartheid South Africa is held up to the light of global scrutiny, not everything must be seen through the prism of race.

For others, however, the presence of cameras in the courtroom, and the obsessive compulsions of newspapers and websites, is a trivialising force that diminishes the majesty of the law into the stuff of soap opera. At worst, they say, as journalists tweet the accused’s every tear, retch or prayer to a global audience, there are disquieting echoes of mob justice.

“I sit there with my kids and on one level it’s good they get an education about the law and see that life as an advocate is painstaking and not the glamour you normally get on TV,” said Craig Freimond, a writer and director. “But on another level we’re sitting at dinner and still talking about what angle the blood spattered. It’s all a bit weird.”

Such anxieties will peak when Pistorius, once a superstar best known as the “blade runner” because of his prosthetic limbs, is cross-examined about his claim that he shot four times through a locked bathroom door because he mistook Steenkamp, a model and law graduate, for an intruder. Given the pitiful figure he cut at last year’s bail application hearing and at times during the trial – heaving, shaking, sobbing uncontrollably, the whole world his prison – his defence team may have concerns about his psychological readiness.

Laurie James, a criminologist, said: “He’s going to be torn apart and he knows this. I don’t think the prosecutor, Gerrie Nel, will give Oscar Pistorius an inch when he takes the stand. Given his depleted state of mind, he’s in a position where anyone would find it hard to deal with.” James has spoken to Pistorius during the trial and he told her he was feeling very tired. “He’s probably not sleeping well,” she said. “How the guy hasn’t cracked by now, I don’t know. It must be that he has a strong family support system and a very good legal team.”

Pistorius seems likely to exercise his right to remain invisible to TV viewers during his testimony, although they will be able to hear him. Some believe this could cost him public sympathy. George Mazarakis, executive editor of a dedicated Oscar Pistorius trial channel, said: “We intimated to his team that they’re making a mistake by not allowing him to appear.”

Mazarakis rejects the view that the televised cross-examination is a 21st-century version of mob rule. “It’s not that crude,” he said. “The principle of justice being done is an important one. The principle of open justice is an important one.”

The 24-hour channel is believed to be pulling in more than 200,000 viewers a day, making it one of the most popular in South Africa, and its Twitter account has 114,000 followers. “We have been very careful about not sensationalising things and having serious legal analysis,” said Mazarakis.

In court, the families of Pistorius and Steenkamp sit on opposite ends of the front row of the public gallery. In recent days, the Pistoriuses have tried to make peace with Steenkamp’s mother, June. A row behind are journalists with laptops whose typing surges and wanes like rain, depending on the revelatory value of the testimony.

From this vantage point, the view is of Pistorius’s back. Beyond him the two legal teams, led by prosecutor Nel and defence counsel Barry Roux, whose sardonic cross-examinations bear the hallmark phrase: “I put it to you… ” People have sought his autograph or to take “selfies” with him; a parody Twitter account has been launched in his name; and a local radio station has recorded a rap song: “I put it to you/that it is true/everything you say/I will misconstrue… “

Sitting on high at the far side of the court, flanked by two assessors, is the red-gowned judge, Thokozile Masipa, a former crime reporter who mostly indulges Roux’s showboating but occasionally puts her foot down. In the absence of juries – and of the death penalty – in South Africa, it is Masipa who will decide whether Pistorius must go to prison.

Then there are the witnesses, each trailing biographical clues in their names, dress, accents and occupations that would give Sherlock Holmes a field day. The parade “gives a glimpse into rich, diverse, flawed and accomplished lives, swept into a single narrative from previously anonymous routines,” noted an Associated Press report.

There are Pistorius’s well-to-do white neighbours at the Silver Woods estate in Pretoria, a gated community of soulless architecture where residents apparently go to bed before 10pm. A university academic with a PhD who described hearing “blood-curdling screams” on the night of the killing. A doctor specialising in radiology with a smooth bedside manner who casually referred to his “domestic servant,” illuminating a back story of patrician white privilege.

The court has also met Pistorius’s pals, a different social circle involving fast cars, guns and girls. “If it’s got wheels or a skirt it’s gonna cost you money,” reads the caption on the Twitter page of Darren Fresco, who has long hair and a facial scar and uttered the only f-word of the trial so far. He was driving well above the speed limit when Pistorius allegedly fired a gun through his sunroof and was there when a pistol went off in a restaurant in the presence of another witness, boxer Kevin “KO Kid” Lerena.

Finally, there are the experts. Gert Saayman, a pathologist, described Steenkamp’s wounds with such delicate precision that Pistorius threw up. “Death is effectively a process rather than an event, and may take some minutes for it to come to its conclusion at a physiological level,” he said. But police witnesses have been skewered by Roux over contaminated evidence, contradictory statements and even stealing from Pistorius’s home. Mostly white Afrikaner men who grew up under apartheid and joined the force just as the old order was crumbling, their looks and methods call to mind the BBC drama Life on Mars about hard-drinking cops in 70s Manchester.

Yet as Pistorius, the judge, the lawyers, the family, the journalists and the public prepare to reassemble on Monday under the strip lights of the courtroom, this is a case that defies glib categorisation – a rare South African story in which race has been reduced from headline to mere subtext.

Unlike the Simpson trial, there is no racial division between perpetrator and victim. Many of those schoolchildren who gather to witness Pistorius’s daily exit from the courthouse are black. And what is most extraordinary about Masipa presiding over South Africa’s mega-trial is how ordinary it is. “Twenty years ago it would have been unthinkable to have a black female judge,” Mazarakis said. “The respect she is shown is indicative of the normalisation of the society and how we shouldn’t make too much of it.”

South Africa is still far from the non-racial society that Nelson Mandela envisaged. But the unique social experiment in justice being seen to be done that is the Pistorius trial is a reminder of the danger of a single story. Chris Thurman, an academic and newspaper columnist, said: “On one level, race is always explicit in South African discourse. But there are also public spaces where we are happy for race to be absent. We’re wrong if we cling to the belief that race is the only axis on which South Africa can be understood.”

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Trick or tweet: the boy who hoaxed the football world

Sam Gardiner is a football-mad schoolboy, but no one took his opinions seriously. So he created a fake Twitter personality and soon was talking tactics with Premiership players. Tim Lewis meets the spoofer extraordinaire

For five minutes, Sam Gardiner panicked. He had been rumbled: he wasn’t Dominic Jones. He hadn’t spent years as a football scout, going to games most nights, searching for that one-in-a-million prospect, getting home at 3am, as he once claimed in an article he had written. He wasn’t now a reporter for Goal, the international football magazine. He didn’t look anything like the picture that was his Twitter identity.

But then Gardiner calmed down. He did a web search to check his legal position, which indicated that he hadn’t committed fraud, because he had invented a new persona, not stolen someone else’s. He went back on Twitter and with a few keystrokes created Samuel Rhodes, a freelance journalist for the Daily Telegraph and Financial Times. He trawled Google images for a byline photograph and on page 11 he found a clean-cut, blond chap with a resemblance to the Australian actor Simon Baker. His Twitter profile was back up instantly and scarcely any of his 3,000 followers even noticed.

Gardiner, of course, is not Dominic Jones or Samuel Rhodes; the reality is both more interesting and more humdrum. Gardiner is a 17-year-old from High Barnet, north London. His dad runs a financial trading company and his mum has a business selling leather coats and sheepskin products. He is currently doing his A-levels at JFS, an academic powerhouse that is Europe’s largest Jewish secondary school, and he wants to study politics and economics at university. I meet him at Nando’s in Kingsbury for an early lunch, squeezed in between double maths and politics.

In January, the Samuel Rhodes account – at that point with 20,000-plus followers – was deleted by Twitter. He was busted on this occasion by Kate Day, director of digital content at the Telegraph. “I had more followers than her,” Gardiner notes, slightly peeved, before conceding: “I don’t know, she was probably right.” Depending on how you view these things, Gardiner is either a harmless hoaxer with an opportunistic spirit, or he’s a reminder of the dangers we all face now that we’re taking more of our news from social media and non-traditional sources.

So why did Gardiner do it? “I wanted to prove a point,” he says between mouthfuls of peri-peri chicken. “When I was 15, I created a Twitter account that was me – Sam Gardiner, Arsenal fan – but no one was taking me seriously. I had 300 followers. Adults don’t want to listen to 15-year-olds and I don’t blame them, to be honest. But I was getting really frustrated, because I love football, I love talking about football and I just wanted to air my opinions to as many people as possible.”

Gardiner set himself the goal of engaging 50,000 followers, and whatever you think of the morality of it, the tactics he used were smart. Football fans are obsessed with transfer rumours, and the most respected voices – rightly or wrongly – are journalists, who supporters believe have an inside track on any deals going through. So, first as Dominic Jones, until a real writer for Goal alerted Twitter, and then Samuel Rhodes, Gardiner used their made-up credentials and his knowledge of European football to start spreading gossip.

“I had formulas for the rumours and they seemed to work,” he says. “Chelsea were always looking for the new Didier Drogba; Arsenal were always looking for that marquee signing; United were always looking for the new Paul Scholes; and Liverpool were looking to waste some more money… I knew which players would go to which clubs because I watched so much football. And that’s why a lot of my rumours came true.” Later he’ll boast: “I figured out the trends. I conquered the transfer market.”

Gardiner’s exaggerating a tad there – he was certainly wrong much more than he was right – but he did make one eye-catching prophecy. In November 2012, he claimed on Twitter that he had spoken to a Chelsea representative and the manager Roberto di Matteo would be fired the next day. Unexpectedly, he was. “It was complete luck,” Gardiner says, “but that gave me a lot of credibility.”

These posts might not sound too malicious, but Gardiner became more ambitious. He’d claim he was speaking to a player, ask his Twitter followers for questions and then get back to them with replies. One of his supposed interviewees was Yohan Cabaye, a French international who seemed perennially on the verge of leaving Newcastle United (which he eventually did in January). Gardiner recalls: “I’d be like: ‘Cabaye says he loves Newcastle, he loves the club, it suits his style well.’ I’d quote him – well, I didn’t, I wouldn’t quote him, I’d quote what I thought he’d say.”

Gardiner notices my eyebrows knitting sceptically. “I felt sorry for Newcastle fans, because they were hoping he’d stay, so I wanted to make them happy.”

As Samuel Rhodes’s following grew, even professional footballers (as well as legitimate sports journalists) started buying into it. The first was Wigan’s Scottish international James McArthur, who put him in contact with his then teammate Grant Holt, now on loan at Aston Villa. Gardiner would send them private messages telling them there had been rumours – of a prospective transfer, say, or a bust-up on the training ground – and he was keen to put their side of the story.

The high point for Gardiner was an exchange he had with Holt on Twitter last Christmas Eve. “My parents weren’t interested,” he says. “I’d be like: ‘Mum, I’m talking to Grant Holt right now; he plays for Wigan.’ And she’d be like: ‘OK. Get on with your homework.'”

No one else involved was especially keen to speak about what Gardiner had done. Wigan Athletic and the Telegraph‘s Kate Day both declined to comment. Perhaps there’s some embarrassment that they were hoodwinked by a schoolboy – for the record, neither of the footballers shared anything too scandalous with Gardiner – but in fact many of us would have been guilty at some point of taking something we’d seen on social media at face value. It has never been easier to create a fake online identity or post inaccurate information and we have probably never been so lax about trusting what we read.

If there’s a salutary lesson to be taken from the Sam Gardiner episode, it’s that it is welcome to be reminded of our vulnerability to deception when the information at stake is merely whether Mohamed Salah, an Egyptian winger, would join Liverpool or Chelsea.

Meeting Gardiner, it’s hard to feel you are in the presence of an amoral con artist. He keeps reiterating that he just “wanted to prove a point” and show to adults that some kids do know what they are talking about. He’s obviously mischievous – “I’m really naughty in lessons,” he admits, “I answer back a lot” – but neither his school nor his parents have considered the matter worthy of further censure.

In fact, Gardiner is already back on Twitter: he’s been taken on by Yakatak, a company that develops sports apps, and asked to run their football feed. This time, however, he’s planning to stick to facts and opinion, not speculation. “Most of my friends have to get jobs as waiters,” says Gardiner, “and I’m getting paid to watch football and talk about it.”

The new gig, Gardiner hopes, will be a stepping stone to his eventual dream career as a football journalist. Or, even better, he could take Daniel Finkelstein‘s job at the Times, writing about his own twin passions of football and politics. “The world’s my oyster,” he says, as we walk back towards his school. “I could be an MP…” And it suddenly occurs to me that Gardiner might just have alighted on the perfect profession for his skills.

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The maggots that changed my life (and the future of the Tory party) | Stewart Lee

As a young comedian, I used to be at a loose end in the early hours. Then I encountered the most unusual contraption…

From 1989 to 1991 I lived in Finsbury Park, decades before it began to show signs of gentrification. I’d get home late from unpaid standup try-out spots, and it was hard to hold down a day job. At the end of my street, outside a hardware shop on Tollington Park, was a contraption so unusual that each night, in a state of adrenaline-driven imbalance, I would find myself staring at it in the small hours in bleak fascination. It was a maggot vending machine; faintly glowing, dimly humming, and stuffed with millions of live maggots throbbing gently en masse in a barely warmed state of collective suspended animation. As a younger, and more impressionable, man I couldn’t help but find it vaguely profound.

One hot July night in 1990, around 1.30am, I was staring at the maggot machine as usual, a contraband comedy club’s can of Carlsberg in hand, thinking about the maggots as metaphors for something or other, when my musings were interrupted by a sharply dressed young man, of around my age, emerging from a van bearing the legend “House of Maggots”. “Excuse me sir,” he said, politely, “maggot maintenance”, and he wheeled over a pallet of plastic cool boxes. Unlocking the maggot machine he began to pour gallons of immobilised maggots into it, topping up the depleted stock within.

“Can I have a look, mate?” I asked. “I walk past this machine every night and I’ve wondered how it works.” “By all means,” said the man, and helped me up with a politeness and confidence that my prejudiced assumptions hadn’t led me to expect in a man who vended maggots. Beneath me, millions of maggots pulsated slowly in comatose contentment. “I keep them just warm enough to live,” he said, “but not hot enough to get excited, nor cold enough to expire. Here, pour this on them. It’s their food.” The man handed me a sachet of yeasty smelling flakes and I sprinkled it over the ignorant maggots.

“You’re out late,” the maggot man said, as he locked up the machine. “I’m trying to be a comedian,” I replied. “I get back late from all these try-out gigs and the buzz keeps me awake. It’s making it hard to hold on to temp jobs.” “Oh,” the man said. “Can you drive?” One cup of tea at an all-night cafe in Crouch End later and I became House of Maggots’ second ever staff member.

Each night after my try-out gigs, I would get a train up to Watford to meet Grant, who patrolled his patch (principally London, and vast swaths of Norfolk and Suffolk, where early-morning anglers gathered by his machines in laybys and car parks), nocturnally maintaining his maggot empire. Like me, Grant had left further education a year previously, having studied finance at Manchester Polytechnic. One morning, setting off early on a fishing trip with an uncle who had forgotten to pack live bait, Grant spotted a gap in the market that his business brain could exploit. And House of Maggots was born.

There was less traffic in the nighttime, and between midnight and morning Grant and I swiftly circumnavigated his machines in a minivan full of permanently chilled larvae. Pretty soon our roles were established. I did all the heavy lifting and driving, while Grant sat in the passenger seat doing paperwork, maintaining his swelling maggot supply lines. Grant’s enthusiasm was infectious. I liked him, though we rarely saw eye to eye on politics. Mick Jones from the Clash was Grant’s cousin, and we’d blast his tapes from the tinny stereo, singing along to the words while debating the sentiment.

“How can you like the Clash,” I asked Grant, “when you’re obviously a Tory entrepreneur?” “Easy,” he answered. “A protest group like the Clash? They’re extremely valuable. The disgruntled proles go and see them on a Saturday night, get drunk, jump around, and feel like their grievances have been addressed. Then they’re much happier going back to being wage slaves for the rest of the week.” I laughed. Back then I assumed Grant was joking. “Out you get,” he continued, “and don’t forget to feed the maggots.”

One night, as I was topping up a maggot machine in a layby near Thetford, an angler arrived to fill a Tupperware box with comatose larvae. While he made small talk he threaded the fattest maggots on to a succession of hooks, spiking them between two black, eye-like markings on one end. It seems silly to write about it now, but when I got back in the van with Grant I felt a twinge of conscience. “Grant,” I said, “don’t you ever feel bad about this? We spend the absolute minimum on maintaining those barely alive maggots, just so someone can buy them and then throw them to their deaths?” “My dear fellow,” he said, buoyant as ever, “the maggots are comfortable, and they’re fed, and they’re warm-ish. They are serving an economic purpose. Their pointless existence is being monetised. I validate them.”

When I got my first unpaid half spot at the old Comedy Store, on the east side of Leicester Square in December 1990, I told Grant I was quitting and he kindly came to see the show. The hot Saturday night sweat box was stuffed with drunken revellers, packed together at 2am in tight rows like sardines, though I got the feeling Grant saw them as something else. I stumbled through a typical anti-Tory alternative-comedy set and Grant handed me a good-luck card. When I got home I realised it contained the most eloquently written letter of encouragement and £50 in cash. I never saw Grant again.

Grant left House of Maggots, by then a successful outfit with nine employees, in 1997, when he stood as a Conservative MP, but remained a director until 2009, three years before he became chairman of the Conservative party. The skills Grant picked up in marketing maggots seemed to have deserted him earlier this week, when he blundered on to Twitter with an ill-judged graphic about the budget that swiftly sent the social network into meltdown. But I liked Grant back then and I still like him now, despite never actually having met him. Grant just wants all hardworking people to be content, fit for purpose, and able to do more of the things they enjoy.

Stewart Lee appears at the Brighton Dome tonight, in an evening celebrating the music of Nick Pynn, with Kevin Eldon, Boothby Graffoe, Mike Heron and Arthur Brown. Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle is on BBC2 on Saturdays at 10pm

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The maggots that changed my life (and the future of the Tory party) | Stewart Lee

As a young comedian, I used to be at a loose end in the early hours. Then I encountered the most unusual contraption…

From 1989 to 1991 I lived in Finsbury Park, decades before it began to show signs of gentrification. I’d get home late from unpaid standup try-out spots, and it was hard to hold down a day job. At the end of my street, outside a hardware shop on Tollington Park, was a contraption so unusual that each night, in a state of adrenaline-driven imbalance, I would find myself staring at it in the small hours in bleak fascination. It was a maggot vending machine; faintly glowing, dimly humming, and stuffed with millions of live maggots throbbing gently en masse in a barely warmed state of collective suspended animation. As a younger, and more impressionable, man I couldn’t help but find it vaguely profound.

One hot July night in 1990, around 1.30am, I was staring at the maggot machine as usual, a contraband comedy club’s can of Carlsberg in hand, thinking about the maggots as metaphors for something or other, when my musings were interrupted by a sharply dressed young man, of around my age, emerging from a van bearing the legend “House of Maggots”. “Excuse me sir,” he said, politely, “maggot maintenance”, and he wheeled over a pallet of plastic cool boxes. Unlocking the maggot machine he began to pour gallons of immobilised maggots into it, topping up the depleted stock within.

“Can I have a look, mate?” I asked. “I walk past this machine every night and I’ve wondered how it works.” “By all means,” said the man, and helped me up with a politeness and confidence that my prejudiced assumptions hadn’t led me to expect in a man who vended maggots. Beneath me, millions of maggots pulsated slowly in comatose contentment. “I keep them just warm enough to live,” he said, “but not hot enough to get excited, nor cold enough to expire. Here, pour this on them. It’s their food.” The man handed me a sachet of yeasty smelling flakes and I sprinkled it over the ignorant maggots.

“You’re out late,” the maggot man said, as he locked up the machine. “I’m trying to be a comedian,” I replied. “I get back late from all these try-out gigs and the buzz keeps me awake. It’s making it hard to hold on to temp jobs.” “Oh,” the man said. “Can you drive?” One cup of tea at an all-night cafe in Crouch End later and I became House of Maggots’ second ever staff member.

Each night after my try-out gigs, I would get a train up to Watford to meet Grant, who patrolled his patch (principally London, and vast swaths of Norfolk and Suffolk, where early-morning anglers gathered by his machines in laybys and car parks), nocturnally maintaining his maggot empire. Like me, Grant had left further education a year previously, having studied finance at Manchester Polytechnic. One morning, setting off early on a fishing trip with an uncle who had forgotten to pack live bait, Grant spotted a gap in the market that his business brain could exploit. And House of Maggots was born.

There was less traffic in the nighttime, and between midnight and morning Grant and I swiftly circumnavigated his machines in a minivan full of permanently chilled larvae. Pretty soon our roles were established. I did all the heavy lifting and driving, while Grant sat in the passenger seat doing paperwork, maintaining his swelling maggot supply lines. Grant’s enthusiasm was infectious. I liked him, though we rarely saw eye to eye on politics. Mick Jones from the Clash was Grant’s cousin, and we’d blast his tapes from the tinny stereo, singing along to the words while debating the sentiment.

“How can you like the Clash,” I asked Grant, “when you’re obviously a Tory entrepreneur?” “Easy,” he answered. “A protest group like the Clash? They’re extremely valuable. The disgruntled proles go and see them on a Saturday night, get drunk, jump around, and feel like their grievances have been addressed. Then they’re much happier going back to being wage slaves for the rest of the week.” I laughed. Back then I assumed Grant was joking. “Out you get,” he continued, “and don’t forget to feed the maggots.”

One night, as I was topping up a maggot machine in a layby near Thetford, an angler arrived to fill a Tupperware box with comatose larvae. While he made small talk he threaded the fattest maggots on to a succession of hooks, spiking them between two black, eye-like markings on one end. It seems silly to write about it now, but when I got back in the van with Grant I felt a twinge of conscience. “Grant,” I said, “don’t you ever feel bad about this? We spend the absolute minimum on maintaining those barely alive maggots, just so someone can buy them and then throw them to their deaths?” “My dear fellow,” he said, buoyant as ever, “the maggots are comfortable, and they’re fed, and they’re warm-ish. They are serving an economic purpose. Their pointless existence is being monetised. I validate them.”

When I got my first unpaid half spot at the old Comedy Store, on the east side of Leicester Square in December 1990, I told Grant I was quitting and he kindly came to see the show. The hot Saturday night sweat box was stuffed with drunken revellers, packed together at 2am in tight rows like sardines, though I got the feeling Grant saw them as something else. I stumbled through a typical anti-Tory alternative-comedy set and Grant handed me a good-luck card. When I got home I realised it contained the most eloquently written letter of encouragement and £50 in cash. I never saw Grant again.

Grant left House of Maggots, by then a successful outfit with nine employees, in 1997, when he stood as a Conservative MP, but remained a director until 2009, three years before he became chairman of the Conservative party. The skills Grant picked up in marketing maggots seemed to have deserted him earlier this week, when he blundered on to Twitter with an ill-judged graphic about the budget that swiftly sent the social network into meltdown. But I liked Grant back then and I still like him now, despite never actually having met him. Grant just wants all hardworking people to be content, fit for purpose, and able to do more of the things they enjoy.

Stewart Lee appears at the Brighton Dome tonight, in an evening celebrating the music of Nick Pynn, with Kevin Eldon, Boothby Graffoe, Mike Heron and Arthur Brown. Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle is on BBC2 on Saturdays at 10pm

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Said & Done: the week in football – Jack Warner’s war on fools

The week in football – Fifa’s job done; Farfan’s big day out; romance news; plus why this damn foolishness must stop

Reform: job done

Headlining Fifa’s 2013 financial report: the completion of their two-year ethics overhaul – a range of reforms including “an independent review of key management compensation”. The result: Fifa’s key managers compensated with a $36.3m bonus pot – up from $33.5m in 2012.

Meanwhile: standing firm

Former key manager Jack Warner: putting last week’s new bribery allegations against him down to more press “foolishness” – a repeat of 2010’s “BBC foolishness“; 2012’s allegations by Trinidad players: “This foolishness must stop“; last year’s speculation over his political future: “You asked me once and I said that is foolishness. I will say again, that is foolishness“; and 2012’s rumours of an FBI inquiry: “It’s damn foolishness … I will sue to the high heavens … It will be court after court after court.”

Not finding space to cover the latest Warner bribery allegations: Trinidad’s Sunshine newspaper – set up last year by Jack to counter years of “unholy”, “dirty” press smears against him. Sunshine’s editorial ethos: “Truth, when crushed to the ground, will always rise.”

Among the stories that did make it in to last week’s Sunshine: a cover story by Jack alleging a corrupt business deal by political rivals (“corruption has never been as vulgar as it is today”); plus: “Woman marries DOG – after marriage to man didn’t work out”.

Timing of the week

Pelé denying claims by Brazil’s anti-poverty protesters that he “sold out” to Fifa’s commercial agenda; and making a new public appearance – fronting the launch of the official limited edition Hublot Brazil World Cup timepiece, available in ceramic or gold from $26,200.

Plus: legacy update

South Africa president Jacob Zuma, four years after his pledge of a World Cup legacy “for all South Africans”, told to repay the £14m of public money he spent on his private estate. Zuma said the new facilities – an amphitheatre, gym, helipads, pool and space for four wives – were “essential security upgrades”.

Number crunching

£300,000: The amount Hereford need to raise to complete the season – and the amount Premier League clubs spend on agents every 27 hours.

PR man of the week

Ghana: FA ethics head Nana Adjei Ampofo reacting to press coverage of a string of assaults on match officials, one of whom died from his injuries. “It appears that things are being exaggerated by the media … We must not exaggerate these things.”

Executives of the week

Bulgaria: Levski Sofia owner Todor Batkov, reacting to a cup defeat by stopping all staff salaries. “There are 11 games left, games of honour, games in which women must prove they are men. Those who fight and die for this club will get money. The rest can go to hell.”

Mexico: Celaya’s owner Alejandro Márquez, reacting after his players protested over pay and conditions by lining up for a team photo wearing paper bags on their heads marked “pay me”. “I paid them. Am I angry? I’m not angry. I’m emotional.”

Romania: Astra owner Ioan Niculae, following up last week’s appraisal of club captain Constantin Budescu (“He eats too much and shows a punk attitude. A seven-year-old has a bigger brain”) by banning him. “Budescu no longer exists.”

(Also making news: Niculae’s Astra chairman Dinu Gheorghe – denying wrongdoing after he appeared on the touchline during their game against Otelul and tripped up an opposition player.)

Most awkward

Ghana: Hearts of Oak coach Mohammed Polo, writing to the board to ask them to sack all his backroom staff. “I’ve told them: I can’t work with these guys. I’ve had enough of them all. The earlier they leave, the better.”

Fine of the week

Ecuador: Liga de Quito coach Luis Zubeldía – fined $2,000 for reacting to his fourth dismissal since 2011 by telling the press: “Referees are getting obsessed with me. I must tell them, I already have a girlfriend, we’re happy, I’m not looking for anyone else.”

Best attempt

Germany: Schalke fining injured striker Jefferson Farfan for skipping a treatment session to go shopping in Milan. “He told us he’d been given permission by another member of staff. This was an invention.”

Music news

Romania: Ex-Chelsea striker Adrian Mutu, lined up to feature in Snoop Dogg’s new video. Director Massimo Caroletti: “Mutu has great potential. He’s a sincere and serious person.”

Plus: love news

Argentina: Model Wanda Nara, moving on from last year’s denials of an affair with Inter’s Mauro Icardi by co-starring in a Pepsi advert with him, having a Mauro tattoo, and tweeting a date for their wedding. Nara, ex-wife of Icardi’s team-mate Maxi López, says: “Our theme will be romance.”

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Chris Froome in action, Peter Shilton on offer and MotoGP goes green

Tour of Catalunya for Froome, join England stalwart Shilton for the World Cup, and Ronnie O’Sullivan on air, here’s this week’s:

… BIKES OPENER

Proving that anything F1 can do the premier class of bike racing can also manage, MotoGP kicks off its season on Sunday in Qatar (BT Sport 2, 7pm), with a variety of rule changes. As with F1 they are complex but promise intriguing racing: the teams must now choose between running factory-spec software (the “factory” class – last year’s prototypes) or being part of the “open” class, using series-supplied software. The latter will go into the season with the advantage of 24 litres of fuel instead of 20, 12 engines per season instead of five, unlimited testing and a softer tyre, and interestingly Ducati have chosen to do just that. On board, all eyes will be on Honda’s Marc Marquez, who became the youngest winner of the championship in a record-breaking rookie season last year. His team-mate Dani Pedrosa is still trying for his first title after nine years with Honda, while Jorge Lorenzo has been struggling with his Yamaha in contrast to his team-mate, the old master Valentino Rossi, who has made internal team changes that suggest he is not lacking in motivation for the new season.

… SPECIAL GUEST

Face it, you’re not going to Brazil. It’s miles away and will cost a fortune. Besides, it’s more enjoyable watching with friends. Something the creators of Wasgij have identified. The popular jigsaw-cum-puzzle-game manufacturer is currently offering fans the chance to win the opportunity to watch England v Uruguay (19 June, 8pm) at a UK venue with up to 20 people and to bring a very special voice to the barking at the screen, they’ve arranged for Peter Shilton to come and join you. That’s Shilts, watching telly, with your mates. Details: wasgij.co.uk

… FROOME RETURN

Back in the saddle after having to pull out of the Tirreno-Adriatico because of an inflammation in his back, Chris Froome returns to lead team Sky in the Tour of Catalunya (British Eurosport, from Monday). It will be a good test for last year’s Tour de France winner as he builds towards retaining his title in France. He will face off against the recent Paris-Nice winner, Carlos Betancur, and the Tirreno victor, Alberto Contador. The highlight of the seven-stage tour is Thursday’s climb to Valter 2000 which includes five peaks and culminates with a 12km ascent to the Pyrenean ski resort.

… CRICKET ON AIR

While the debate over the licence fee is fresh in the mind, it’s worth noting that the Beeb still does some things well. The ICC World Twenty20, which is televised on Sky, is also being comprehensively covered by 5 Live Sports Extra. The women’s tournament, in which England, led by Charlotte Edwards, are a far stronger side than the men’s, sadly does not have a look in on TV or radio, which the BBC will surely address should they progress …

… FREE LIVE RUGBY

One of BT Sport’s less muscularly promoted offerings, the Aviva Premiership is on offer as a sample of their wares on Sunday. Non-subscribers can watch Leicester Tigers v Exeter Chiefs at 2pm.

… ROCKET SHOW

The snooker Players Championship Grand Final is being held in Preston this year due to political unrest in Bangkok, which was to have staged it. The competition features the top 24 players from the European Tour and the top eight from the Asian Tour. It begins on Tuesday (Eurosport, 1pm) and to set the scene before the action begins the channel has commissioned one of the only players who could pull off a standalone show about snooker – Ronnie O’Sullivan – to host a new series looking into the game (12.30pm).

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World Cup heat is on for England as they prepare for Amazon rainforest

Roy Hodgson has planned his squad’s pre-tournament schedule so they are ready for the humid conditions in Manaus, where they play Italy in their first World Cup match on 14 June

There was a time, many years ago, when Manaus was awash with England’s influence. A decadent period in Amazonian history coincided with a strong English presence – sterling was the common currency at the end of the 19th century as the rubber barons of northern Brazil basked in splendour and excess. It was only when an Englishman took the plant to Malaysia that the city’s opulence soon descended into deep depression.

Manaus today, however, does not hold a grudge. Gone are the times when the aristocracy sent their expensive clothes to Lisbon and back for washing, lighting cigars by burning money. Ninety years on from the end of that affluent era the vast metropolis in the middle of the rainforest is ready for a new dawn. England’s World Cup opener against Italy on 14 June represents such a landmark. Yet for Roy Hodgson’s England side the reality, rather than the romance, is somewhat daunting. They will be welcomed in Manaus with open arms but England will need to be fully prepared for all extremities if they are going to enjoy a successful summer in the land of la joga bonito.

It is no coincidence that no European side has won the World Cup in South America. Reaching the last eight would be a major achievement for England but, for all teams competing in the tournament, there will be myriad logistical and physical challenges.

The countdown to the World Cup, which kicks off on 12 June when Brazil play Croatia in São Paulo, could yet be fraught with twists and turns. Three stadiums have yet to be finished, transport infrastructure remains a concern while the threat of more protests against the government hangs like an ominous cloud. During the Confederations Cup last year more than one million protesters took to the streets to demonstrate against perceived social injustice and the lack of money spent on public services. Six people died as police used tear gas and rubber bullets to quell the storm.

During that tournament Sepp Blatter and the Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff, were booed at the first game. Perhaps it is no wonder then that the Fifa president has decided to dispense with an opening speech at the World Cup finals.

For England, though, preparations are going as well as can be expected. The Football Association’s decision to stay in Rio de Janeiro, at the Royal Tulip hotel in São Conrado, has paid off even if the team will not be playing at the Maracanã.

England’s other group matches, against Uruguay and Costa Rica, will take place in nearby São Paulo and Belo Horizonte respectively, leaving the opening game with the Azzurri in Manaus, a rumble in the jungle that could shape the team’s entire World Cup, as the major logistical conundrum. As one local told the Observer: “Here the rivers are our roads. In your country you have car crashes, here we have anacondas and alligators.”

England will travel to the Amazonas state capital two days before the match against Italy and fly back to Rio immediately after the game. Hodgson has already stayed at the team hotel – the Blue Tree Premium – during his recent visit to the region, a peace-making expedition as well as a pre-tournament reccy, and has visited the training ground in Manaus, which is located 15 minutes from the hotel.

One area of concern is the pitch at the new Arena da Amazônia, built for the tournament at a cost of £173m, with sections of the surface undernourished and damaged by excessive use of fertiliser. The São Paulo-based company that laid down the turf has been called back to help alleviate the problem, with stadium officials confident the surface will be repaired before England’s match with Italy.

Before the draw, the Amazon’s tropical climate caused Hodgson to declare that Manaus was “the place to avoid”, a comment that incurred the wrath of the city’s mayor, Arthur Virgilio, who responded by saying: “We hope to get a better team and a coach who is more sensible and polite. He’s one of the few people in the world who is not curious about the Amazon.”

Hodgson has since built bridges with locals aggrieved at the comments, and during his recent visit he will have found a region that, despite its geography, is relatively prosperous once again.

Manaus is an urban sprawl that stops abruptly at the Amazon, where rainforest and wild verdant land spreads for miles on end. The confluence of the Amazon and the Rio Negro, known as the meeting of the waters, marks a symbolic location, but despite the wilderness and exposed natural location of the region, the city has a population of two million and houses more than 600 major international companies, including Nokia, Panasonic, Yamaha and Honda due to the state’s low tax, regulated by the government at 3.5% to attract business. “We worked a lot to get this chance for the World Cup,” says Roberio Braga, the Amazonas secretary of culture, speaking at Manaus’s famous Opera House in the centre of town, the centrepiece of the city’s cultural cornucopia.

“There is a lot of English history here. We have an old relationship that had strength from 1890 to the 1920s. The younger generations aren’t aware of this but we have to keep it alive. Some of the local politicians were annoyed and there was some bad feeling when Hodgson said it was too hot here. We’re fine with that now.”

The England manager The England manager did have a point, though. Manaus’s humidity is renowned in Brazil as the most challenging of conditions to play in. If you stand pitchside at the Arena da Amazônia the intense heat is inescapable in the 44,500-capacity stadium that has an outside membrane aimed at keeping temperatures down. When England play it will be comfortably above 30C.

Mirandinha, the first Brazilian to play in England when he joined Newcastle United in 1987, says playing in the “little Paris of Brazil” will test Europe’s elite. Mirandinha, who is now based in the host city of Fortaleza on the north-east coast of the country, said: “Manaus is even harder than here. I lived there for nine years and it’s much hotter than here. I think they will struggle. In Manaus it is not like Fortaleza and Recife. You don’t have wind, it’s not only hot but very, very humid. It makes it more difficult for the players and it is very hard there. When I went there it was difficult to breathe.

“My first game [in Manaus] was when I was playing for Palmeiras and when I went there I felt very, very bad – the beginning of the game was horrible. But then you get the pace. The best way to prepare for any national team coming here is to get there before and acclimatise to the weather. It is very important to come early.”

The FA is heeding such advice and has planned England’s build-up accordingly. As well as two friendlies in Miami, against Ecuador and Honduras, the players will fly out to Portugal on 19 May for a week of warm-weather training specifically focused on individual fitness. An FA spokesman said: “Temperatures and humidity were key factors in choosing both these locations, matches and kick-off times.”

Other than the climate, there is also the issue of security. The chief of the Amazon military, General Ubiratan Poty, admitted that because of an increased terrorist threat, local forces will be on special alert when England and the USA play in Manaus. He said: “One way or the other we will have extra attention for those two teams, where they are training. One hour before and three hours after their games all the air space in the region will be closed.”

There are more serious issues across Brazil less than three months before the start of the competition. Construction work at the stadium in Curitiba is not expected to be completed until the beginning of May, while arenas at Cuiabá and São Paulo have not been finished.

Flights into the country and domestic air travel are also worries. The airport at Fortaleza still needs work, the São Paulo international terminal is not finished and Belo Horizonte has had to expand capacity with a temporary terminal. Even the smallest of check-in queues can cause significant delays and the Brazilian newspaper O Globo reported that at least 16,000 passengers will have their flights cancelled or re-routed during the World Cup. Three thousand England supporters will travel to Manaus through the FA’s membership scheme, although many more are expected to attend.

According to the government’s deputy sports minister, Luis Fernandes, the problems that have ensued since Brazil were awarded the World Cup have been inevitable, the result of a developing nation being selected to host a major international event without sufficient infrastructure already in place.

He said: “We are a huge country but a developing country so the World Cup and the Olympic Games [to be held in Rio in 2016] are the opportunity to build up the basic infrastructure that we have lacked. They gave us an opportunity to set up investments, but that would take us a long time to put into practice.”

Brazil has spent more than £3bn on the tournament, including £2bn on stadia and £1bn on transport. Such vast spending sparked the mass protests across the country last year, with sections of society angered that funds were not distributed more evenly on public services such as education and health.

Fernandes insisted that the authorities would not be heavy-handed if further protests ensue, but warned of minority groups turning to violence.

“The people in our government were brought up fighting for democracy, in a culture of political resistance, fighting against dictatorship,” he said.

For England, the Brazilian campaign represents a major challenge, and one that could live long in the memory for the right or wrong reasons. Suspect travel, potential protests and testing conditions aside, Brazil remains a country that eats, sleeps and breathes football. England versus Italy in the middle of the Amazon, what could possibly go wrong?

James Riach’s trip to Brazil was paid for by SECOM and the Brazilian Tourism Board

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World Cup heat is on for England in Brazil

Roy Hodgson has planned his squad’s pre-tournament schedule so they are ready for the humid conditions in Manaus, where they play Italy in their first World Cup match on 14 June

There was a time, many years ago, when Manaus was awash with England’s influence. A decadent period in Amazonian history coincided with a strong English presence – sterling was the common currency at the end of the 19th century as the rubber barons of northern Brazil basked in splendour and excess. It was only when an Englishman took the plant to Malaysia that the city’s opulence soon descended into deep depression.

Manaus today, however, does not hold a grudge. Gone are the times when the aristocracy sent their expensive clothes to Lisbon and back for washing, lighting cigars by burning money. Ninety years on from the end of that affluent era the vast metropolis in the middle of the rainforest is ready for a new dawn. England’s World Cup opener against Italy on 14 June represents such a landmark. Yet for Roy Hodgson’s England side the reality, rather than the romance, is somewhat daunting. They will be welcomed in Manaus with open arms but England will need to be fully prepared for all extremities if they are going to enjoy a successful summer in the land of la joga bonito.

It is no coincidence that no European side has won the World Cup in South America. Reaching the last eight would be a major achievement for England but, for all teams competing in the tournament, there will be myriad logistical and physical challenges.

The countdown to the World Cup, which kicks off on 12 June when Brazil play Croatia in São Paulo, could yet be fraught with twists and turns. Three stadiums have yet to be finished, transport infrastructure remains a concern while the threat of more protests against the government hangs like an ominous cloud. During the Confederations Cup last year more than one million protesters took to the streets to demonstrate against perceived social injustice and the lack of money spent on public services. Six people died as police used tear gas and rubber bullets to quell the storm.

During that tournament Sepp Blatter and the Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff, were booed at the first game. Perhaps it is no wonder then that the Fifa president has decided to dispense with an opening speech at the World Cup finals.

For England, though, preparations are going as well as can be expected. The Football Association’s decision to stay in Rio de Janeiro, at the Royal Tulip hotel in São Conrado, has paid off even if the team will not be playing at the Maracanã.

England’s other group matches, against Uruguay and Costa Rica, will take place in nearby São Paulo and Belo Horizonte respectively, leaving the opening game with the Azzurri in Manaus, a rumble in the jungle that could shape the team’s entire World Cup, as the major logistical conundrum. As one local told the Observer: “Here the rivers are our roads. In your country you have car crashes, here we have anacondas and alligators.”

England will travel to the Amazonas state capital two days before the match against Italy and fly back to Rio immediately after the game. Hodgson has already stayed at the team hotel – the Blue Tree Premium – during his recent visit to the region, a peace-making expedition as well as a pre-tournament reccy, and has visited the training ground in Manaus, which is located 15 minutes from the hotel.

One area of concern is the pitch at the new Arena da Amazônia, built for the tournament at a cost of £173m, with sections of the surface undernourished and damaged by excessive use of fertiliser. The São Paulo-based company that laid down the turf has been called back to help alleviate the problem, with stadium officials confident the surface will be repaired before England’s match with Italy.

Before the draw, the Amazon’s tropical climate caused Hodgson to declare that Manaus was “the place to avoid”, a comment that incurred the wrath of the city’s mayor, Arthur Virgilio, who responded by saying: “We hope to get a better team and a coach who is more sensible and polite. He’s one of the few people in the world who is not curious about the Amazon.”

Hodgson has since built bridges with locals aggrieved at the comments, and during his recent visit he will have found a region that, despite its geography, is relatively prosperous once again.

Manaus is an urban sprawl that stops abruptly at the Amazon, where rainforest and wild verdant land spreads for miles on end. The confluence of the Amazon and the Rio Negro, known as the meeting of the waters, marks a symbolic location, but despite the wilderness and exposed natural location of the region, the city has a population of two million and houses more than 600 major international companies, including Nokia, Panasonic, Yamaha and Honda due to the state’s low tax, regulated by the government at 3.5% to attract business. “We worked a lot to get this chance for the World Cup,” says Roberio Braga, the Amazonas secretary of culture, speaking at Manaus’s famous Opera House in the centre of town, the centrepiece of the city’s cultural cornucopia.

“There is a lot of English history here. We have an old relationship that had strength from 1890 to the 1920s. The younger generations aren’t aware of this but we have to keep it alive. Some of the local politicians were annoyed and there was some bad feeling when Hodgson said it was too hot here. We’re fine with that now.”

The England manager The England manager did have a point, though. Manaus’s humidity is renowned in Brazil as the most challenging of conditions to play in. If you stand pitchside at the Arena da Amazônia the intense heat is inescapable in the 44,500-capacity stadium that has an outside membrane aimed at keeping temperatures down. When England play it will be comfortably above 30C.

Mirandinha, the first Brazilian to play in England when he joined Newcastle United in 1987, says playing in the “little Paris of Brazil” will test Europe’s elite. Mirandinha, who is now based in the host city of Fortaleza on the north-east coast of the country, said: “Manaus is even harder than here. I lived there for nine years and it’s much hotter than here. I think they will struggle. In Manaus it is not like Fortaleza and Recife. You don’t have wind, it’s not only hot but very, very humid. It makes it more difficult for the players and it is very hard there. When I went there it was difficult to breathe.

“My first game [in Manaus] was when I was playing for Palmeiras and when I went there I felt very, very bad – the beginning of the game was horrible. But then you get the pace. The best way to prepare for any national team coming here is to get there before and acclimatise to the weather. It is very important to come early.”

The FA is heeding such advice and has planned England’s build-up accordingly. As well as two friendlies in Miami, against Ecuador and Honduras, the players will fly out to Portugal on 19 May for a week of warm-weather training specifically focused on individual fitness. An FA spokesman said: “Temperatures and humidity were key factors in choosing both these locations, matches and kick-off times.”

Other than the climate, there is also the issue of security. The chief of the Amazon military, General Ubiratan Poty, admitted that because of an increased terrorist threat, local forces will be on special alert when England and the USA play in Manaus. He said: “One way or the other we will have extra attention for those two teams, where they are training. One hour before and three hours after their games all the air space in the region will be closed.”

There are more serious issues across Brazil less than three months before the start of the competition. Construction work at the stadium in Curitiba is not expected to be completed until the beginning of May, while arenas at Cuiabá and São Paulo have not been finished.

Flights into the country and domestic air travel are also worries. The airport at Fortaleza still needs work, the São Paulo international terminal is not finished and Belo Horizonte has had to expand capacity with a temporary terminal. Even the smallest of check-in queues can cause significant delays and the Brazilian newspaper O Globo reported that at least 16,000 passengers will have their flights cancelled or re-routed during the World Cup. Three thousand England supporters will travel to Manaus through the FA’s membership scheme, although many more are expected to attend.

According to the government’s deputy sports minister, Luis Fernandes, the problems that have ensued since Brazil were awarded the World Cup have been inevitable, the result of a developing nation being selected to host a major international event without sufficient infrastructure already in place.

He said: “We are a huge country but a developing country so the World Cup and the Olympic Games [to be held in Rio in 2016] are the opportunity to build up the basic infrastructure that we have lacked. They gave us an opportunity to set up investments, but that would take us a long time to put into practice.”

Brazil has spent more than £3bn on the tournament, including £2bn on stadia and £1bn on transport. Such vast spending sparked the mass protests across the country last year, with sections of society angered that funds were not distributed more evenly on public services such as education and health.

Fernandes insisted that the authorities would not be heavy-handed if further protests ensue, but warned of minority groups turning to violence.

“The people in our government were brought up fighting for democracy, in a culture of political resistance, fighting against dictatorship,” he said.

For England, the Brazilian campaign represents a major challenge, and one that could live long in the memory for the right or wrong reasons. Suspect travel, potential protests and testing conditions aside, Brazil remains a country that eats, sleeps and breathes football. England versus Italy in the middle of the Amazon, what could possibly go wrong?

James Riach’s trip to Brazil was paid for by SECOM and the Brazilian Tourism Board

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Droylsden and Hyde: life at the bottom with two of England’s worst teams

Dire finances and form have crippled two clubs in very similar positions. Why have they suffered and will anything change?

Ten miles separate Droylsden FC and Hyde FC, two of English football’s poorest teams. Both suffered relegation before spring officially arrived – and until yesterday Droylsden had not won a league match. By beating Witton Albion 4-3 they doubled their points tally from three to six. Even so, David Pace has a nice line in gallows humour considering the club he owns and manages went down from the Evo-Stik Premier in February and has a £250,000 VAT bill plus a further £350,000 debt he is struggling to pay off.

“It would make a great TV series, right from the days from when I had my floodlights pinched. That was when I said to my dad: ‘I’m going to pack it in’ and he said: ‘You’ve never jacked in anything in your life’.” Pace can only laugh at a club that is located three miles east of the Premier League billionaires of Manchester City. “It’s just soul-destroying, like getting tortured week-in week-out.”

Pace, a builder by trade, constructed the William Pace stand at Droylsden’s 3,500-capacity Butchers Arms ground in his father’s honour. It was through William that the 53-year-old, who is from nearby Openshaw, began a near-lifelong association with the club. “I played for the youth team against Manchester United and City and my dad used to watch,” Pace said. “My dad was a supporter, he wasn’t involved, I just took it from there.”

After playing abroad, including a stint at Dallas Tornado in the 1980s, Pace returned to Droylsden in 1992. “The club was advertising in the paper that they needed players. But there was no stands, nothing. I tried to do the club up a bit but it burnt down, and I didn’t get any insurance. I managed to soldier through. I built it from the bottom up, became chairman, then took over as manager in 1996, took the club all the way to the Conference Premier.”

The single season in the top division of the non-league game came in 2007‑08 and was a shining achievement from Pace, whose secret has been to unearth gems and draw performances from them before bigger clubs get wise. “Fans are great [though] the newer ones have only known success. We were live on telly about three or four times, playing against Chesterfield, Leyton Orient [in the FA Cup], but the older people realise what I’ve done. They know I’m not a multi-millionaire, I’m just a working chap that basically earns £100 and spends £99, but at the moment I’m earning £100 and spending £150.”

Chesterfield were beaten 2-1 in a second-round tie in 2008 but Droylsden were subsequently expelled for fielding Sean Newton, who scored both goals but was suspended for the game.

Another tale in the compelling Drolysden story involved Pace’s partner, Stella, replacing him as manager before going on to to claim the Manchester Senior Cup. “I fell out with the Manchester FA and Stella ran the team and won the Cup in 2000 – she picked her own side all the way through,” he says.

When an large VAT bill initiated Droyslden’s financial free-fall, Pace decided against putting the club into administration. “It’s like being punished from both sides. You don’t get help from the FA, from anywhere. You’re getting punished week in week out [on the pitch]. Whereas if you go into admin, you’d start again in a lower division but start from day one. I thought long and hard about it. I didn’t want to start up as an FC Droylsden – starting a new football club means losing its history.

“I kept on as manager this year because it would have been terrible for someone to take over – I knew the situation we were in, I can’t afford to pay the bills and pay for a team that can compete at this level. That’s the story behind why we’re getting beat each week. I’ve signed over 100 players this year, anyone who shows any potential has gone to other clubs. This year has just been a nightmare, I’ve just got to get on with it.”

At Hyde, finances are not the problem, but form is as dire. There has been one win in 39 league outings for Scott McNiven’s team and a goal difference of minus 68, after home defeat to Dartford on Saturday. Located to the east of Stockport, Hyde were saved from bankruptcy due to investment from Manchester City three years ago. In the 2010-11 season, Hyde wore their colours as part of a sponsorship deal, though the team again plays in red, with its 4,000-capacity Ewan Fields ground also used by City’s elite development and academy squads.

Pete Ainger, the chief executive, said: “The relationship with Manchester City is very good. The contract is that they pay rent for the ground. We’re not bankrolled by them, even though we’d like players from them – that hasn’t materialised. This myth perpetuated that when we won the Conference North championship [in 2011-12] we were bankrolled by City: I can categorically say that’s not true.

“We’ve found going into this league is that there is a bit of a tiered system with the monies. When you’re playing the likes of Luton Town – when we went down there this season there was a 7,000 gate. We’re lucky if we get 700. We’re one of the few teams that train part-time,” he said.

“At the start of the season we thought we had a pretty good squad, I didn’t hear any complaints from fans. Like a lot of things in football it didn’t quite work out. Results haven’t been there even though the form has. That’s been one of the bizarre things.”

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