New music for Oldies

How do people of a certain age discover new music?

It’s easy enough when you’re young. Your friends, classmates and work colleagues will tell you all about the groups and artists they like and vice versa. But it becomes harder as you grow older. You tend to socialise less and stay at home more. And you find, at least I did, that most conventional radio stations play music that appeals to listeners half your age at most.

You can of course read the music magazines. I subscribe to Classic Rock, and it’s been instrumental (groan!) in bringing to my attention some of my favourite current bands like Anathema and Band of Skulls. But these publications aren’t cheap and inevitably much of their content will be irrelevant to you as it’ll be about performers you’re not especially fond of. Then there’s the Internet, but where to start?

Well, let me give you a tip that won’t cost you anything.

Most of you will have heard of the music-streaming service Spotify. Its Premium plan costs £9.99 a month, less than the cost of a CD, and gives you unlimited access to more than 30 million tracks that you can even download to your computer or device. It’s well worth the outlay in my opinion.

But if you aren’t fussed about downloading and are prepared to put up with ads and lower quality audio (160Kbps compared with Premium’s 320Kbps) you can use Spotify free, gratis and for nothing. Spotify learns from your listening habits. It suggests music it thinks you may enjoy based on your choices so far, and even puts together daily mixes similar to the genius playlists you get on iTunes. There’s also Discover Weekly in which the site offers you a “mixtape of fresh music” every Monday with “new discoveries and deep cuts chosen just for you”.

These playlists can be a bit hit-and-miss, but here’s a trick I learned that increases the chances you’ll like the recommended music. Play an album by a favourite artist, or just the last track, but don’t stop or pause it when it reaches the end. If you allow play to continue, Spotify enters “album radio” mode. While essentially this is also a playlist in my experience it will more accurately reflect your taste by combining songs by that artist and, crucially, others similar to it. You can even refine the “radio” by giving individual tracks the thumbs up or down. Now, that truly is music to an old codger’s ears.

And so it begins

The wait is finally over. The most eagerly anticipated global sports event, the quadrennial football fest that is the World Cup, is underway. As a pensioner now, it’ll be the first time I can watch every match without having to take annual leave, and I fully intend to: there’s 64 of them, so family beware!

MISSING HEAVYWEIGHTS

Before discussing the potential winners, a moment’s silence for two notable absentees. The Dutch reached the final in 1974, 1978 and 2010, and finished third four years ago, but they’ve not qualified this time around. Their famous orange shirts, so dashingly sported by Johan Cruyff’s golden generation, will be sorely missed.

So will those of gli azzurri. For the first time in 60 years Italy, one of the giants of world football, have failed to make the cut. For a nation that’s won the trophy four times and appeared in two other finals it’s the greatest humiliation since 1966 when Sandro Mazzola, Gianni Rivera and company were beaten by North Korea and returned home in disgrace. Reports that coach Gian Piero Ventura, sacked after Italy’s loss to Sweden in the playoffs last November, is in hiding from the mob are apparently unfounded!

THE ALSO-RANS

So, to those who have made it to Russia. In a previous column I reluctantly discarded England. They have a young, inexperienced team that will hopefully stand them in good stead for the future, but the quarter finals is the best they can reasonably aspire to in my opinion. The hosts, meanwhile, have a poor side and are currently 70th in the FIFA rankings, the lowest of all 32 participating teams. After yesterday’s 5-0 thrashing of Saudi Arabia they may well get out of their group, but that’s as far as I reckon they’ll go.

With all due respect to them, I also rule out the representatives of the Asian Football Confederation: Australia, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia (especially after yesterday’s result) and Iran. None is better than 200-1 with the bookies, and they know a thing or two. Debutants Panama and Iceland are already celebrating; any goals or points they get will be a bonus.

No African nation has ever won the World Cup and I don’t expect that to change this year. I hope our neighbours Morocco do well, although they have their work cut out in a group that includes Spain and Portugal. Keep an eye out for Senegal though. They’re in an evenly matched group and could progress at the expense of Poland or Colombia.

As usual the main contenders will be from Europe and South America. Eight countries from these two federations have shared all 20 World Cups between them. Can anyone break their hegemony and inscribe their name on the trophy on July 15th?

THE OUTSIDERS

Belgium seem the best bet. They have an outstanding squad and two of the world’s finest outfield players in Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne. Goalie Thibaut Courtois and striker Romelu Lukaku aren’t too shabby either.

Croatia, with Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, have possibly the best central midfield duo of the competition. And you discount reigning European champions Portugal, complete with five-time Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldo, at your peril.

In the end though experience and squad depth are crucial, and that’s why it’s difficult to see beyond five teams for the title, all of them previous champions.

THE GENUINE CONTENDERS

After their disastrous 2014 campaign when they were thrashed 5-1 by Netherlands and also lost to Chile, Spain have rebuilt and are in with a chance. They beat Italy 3-0 on their way to qualification and have not lost a match in nearly two years. Recent results include a 6-1 hammering of Argentina in March. The physical condition of midfield maestro Andrés Iniesta could be crucial to Spain’s fortunes. Iniesta became a legend after scoring the only goal of the 2010 final, but he’s now 34 and will be playing his football next season in the less demanding Japanese league, after 16 years at Barcelona. Will he stay fit enough to help his team-mates through to the latter stages? Another doubt surrounds the sacking of coach Julen Lopetegui on the eve of the tournament: will it unsettle or motivate the team?

With the mentioned 6-1 reverse against Spain and a lacklustre qualifying campaign, twice-winners Argentina don’t look at their best. They also have the oldest squad in the tournament. But in Leo Messi they possess one of the best players ever to grace a football field, worthy of being mentioned alongside legends like Di Stéfano, Pelé and Maradona. Messi turns 31 during the competition, which means this is probably his last chance to lift the coveted gold trophy. With a strong supporting cast that includes Sergio Agüero, Gonzalo Higuaín and Ángel Di María who’s to say he won’t succeed?

France are notoriously inconsistent, and there are doubts about the effectiveness of coach Didier Deschamps. But he’s blessed with a staggeringly good squad. On their day, France can beat anyone. Real Madrid’s Raphaël Varane and Barcelona’s Samuel Umtiti form a redoubtable centre-back pairing. In midfield there’s Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté while a front line led by Antoine Griezmann should guarantee plenty of goals. Watch out too for rising stars Thomas Lemar and Kylian Mbappé.

THE FAVOURITES

That leaves just Brazil and Germany, the two most successful sides in World Cup history with five and four wins apiece respectively. Not surprisingly, they’re first and second favourites.

Germany, previously West Germany, have actually been in more finals: eight to Brazil’s seven. They’re the reigning world champions of course and, despite the retirement of key players like Bastian Schweinsteiger and Philipp Lahm, they remain a formidable proposition. They sailed through qualification, winning all ten matches and conceding only four goals. The squad has bags of experience: Manuel Neuer (if he’s fit) in goal, one of the world’s best centre backs in Jérôme Boateng, and midfielders Toni Kroos and Sami Khedira. It’s in attack where there may be a slight concern. Thomas Müller isn’t an out-and-out striker and Mario Gomez isn’t the best centre forward Die Mannschaft have ever had. On the other hand 22-year-old Timo Werner, with seven goals in twelve international matches, could be one of the stars of the tournament.

Finally, Brazil.

Four years ago they were in crisis. As hosts they struggled past Chile and Colombia in the knockout stages, before being mauled by Germany in the semi finals. They lost 7-1, the worst defeat in Brazil’s history, and were also thumped 3-0 by Netherlands in the third-place play off match. The omens weren’t good at the start of the campaign for this World Cup either; a third of the way through, they were outside the qualification places. But a change of manager had the desired effect. Dunga was dumped and his replacement, Tite, restored much of the attacking flair the yellow jerseys are famous for. They eventually topped the South American section, ten points clear of second-placed Uruguay.

MY TIP

Brazil have won all their World Cup warm up games against Russia as well as Germany, Croatia and Austria. Their swagger is back, and they’re my tip for the tournament. Wouldn’t it be great if they met Germany in the final?

A New Dawn in Spain?

Gibraltar breathed a collective sigh of relief this month when Mariano Rajoy’s Partido Popular government was toppled in the most dramatic of fashions. After seven years at the helm, the “Teflon” prime minister, survivor of Spain’s economic crisis and corruption scandal after corruption scandal, became the first since the restoration of democracy to be ousted through a motion of no confidence. To make defeat even more unpalatable, the knife was wielded by Pedro Sanchez, leader of the socialist PSOE party, whom Mr Rajoy had comfortably beaten in the quickfire elections of 2015 and 2016.

It’s no mean feat. Under the Spanish constitution, simply mustering the required number of votes to get rid of the incumbent premier is not enough: the motion must also specify who would replace him. Mr Sanchez isn’t even an MP (he gave up his seat in October 2016 after the PSOE decided to abstain in Mr Rajoy’s investiture enabling the PP leader to form a minority government) so persuading seven other parties to support his candidacy can’t have been easy.

What happens next isn’t clear. With only 84 seats in the 350-seat parliament the socialists are extremely vulnerable. Whether Pedro Sanchez can get MPs who were united in their distaste for Mr Rajoy and the PP to now back the PSOE’s policies remains to be seen. Some pundits foresee an early general election. Whenever the election takes place, the possibility exists that the Populares will get back in. We in Gibraltar will also be nervous about what a new and therefore inexperienced Spanish administration may bring, especially in the context of Brexit.

But before worrying about any of that let’s savour the moment; it’s been a tough seven years after all. Foreign minister Margallo’s infamous “Gibraltar español” quip immediately set the tone and there was no let up. Long frontier queues in the sweltering summer heat, unfounded accusations of money laundering and opaqueness, incursions by sea and air and, unforgivably, the abandonment of the Trilateral Forum for Dialogue and the hard-won 2006 Córdoba Agreements.

There’s no doubt that, historically, relations with our nearest neighbours have been better when the PSOE has been in power. Spain may have been obliged to reopen the border in the 1980s if it wanted to be admitted as a member of the European Economic Community but, whatever the circumstances, it was a socialist, Felipe González, who finally ended the 16-year blockade.

The mentioned Trilateral Forum, which for the first time recognised Gibraltar’s own separate voice in talks, would never even have been contemplated by the PP. And without ever renouncing Spain’s objective of recovering the Rock, socialist foreign ministers, in particular Fernando Morán and Miguel Ángel Moratinos, came to earn the respect of the Gibraltarians. Chief minister Fabian Picardo even shared a platform with Mr Moratinos at a 2015 lecture in San Roque during which the ex Spanish foreign minister called for a return to dialogue.

Mr Picardo evidently sees the opportunity of an unexpected thaw in relations. In his prompt message of congratulations to Pedro Sanchez he spoke of Gibraltar’s desire to bring “dialogue, understanding and cooperation to the issues that arise between our people”. And he expressed the wish that the ideology of the new Spanish government and how it engages with Number Six Convent Place “may change”.

Early signs are good. The PSOE’s international relations secretary has said he expects a “flexible” approach from his government over Gibraltar and that the socialists are committed to a deal that prevents the border becoming an obstacle after Brexit.

A new dawn? We’ll have to wait and see.

World Cup Willies

I fear for England.

Not because of Brexit: there’s time enough to worry about that. No, the danger I see is much closer at hand and potentially just as damaging for the national psyche. I am of course referring to the World Cup, international football’s flagship competition, which gets underway in Russia on 14 June.

England’s 1966 mascot

At eight years old I was too young to appreciate England’s only triumph, in 1966 on home soil. I read somewhere that the final was the first programme in colour on British television but I don’t recall the matches being shown live at all on TV in Gibraltar. I had to wait until the feature film “Goal!” came to the cinema before seeing any of the action.

I was thrilled, but it’s been pretty much downhill all the way for us fans since then.

As holders in 1970 England lost 1-0 in the group stage to the brilliant Brazilians, the eventual winners. Nevertheless I have fond memories of that match: Gordon Banks’s famous fingertips save from Pelé’s downward header for one and the iconic images of Pelé and Bobby Moore smiling as they exchanged shirts at the end of the game. Besides, England still went through to the quarter-finals as group runners-up.

It was in that encounter against West Germany that I experienced my first proverbial “sick as a parrot” feeling in football. Alf Ramsey’s side was 2-0 up with twenty minutes to go when he made possibly the worst decision of his illustrious managerial career. With one eye prematurely on the semis, he took off the talismanic Bobby Charlton and immediately handed the Germans the initiative. They took full advantage, going on to win 3-2 after extra time.

The hangover from that defeat lasted 12 years as England failed to qualify for either of the next two Finals. I was glued to the radio for commentary on the must-win clash with Poland at Wembley on 17 October 1973.

Grzegorz Lato, top scorer with 7 goals

A combination of bad luck – the home side had 36 shots on goal and hit the woodwork twice – and ‘keeper Jan Tomaszewski’s heroics enabled the Poles to come away with a draw and the English were eliminated. Mind you Poland ended up being one of the revelations of the 1974 World Cup. They finished third, beating Argentina, Italy and Brazil along the way and striker Grzegorz Lato won the Golden Boot as the tournament’s top scorer.

Italy was the nemesis in 1978 qualification; England missed out on goal difference and also failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup in the USA. Gary Lineker did win the Golden Boot in 1986 but the only other modest success came in 1990. Guided by Bobby Robson England reached the semi-finals, where they lost to West Germany (again) in a penalty shoot-out.

From 1998 onwards no England team has gone further than the last eight. In Brazil 2014 the Three Lions were more like pussycats; they lost to Italy and Uruguay and managed only a goalless draw against Costa Rica to finish bottom of Group D.

This time around the nation will demand more. Wins against Tunisia and tournament first-timers Panama would ensure qualification for the knockout stage before the showdown with top seeds Belgium on 28 June, but that’s easier said than done. Tunisia are just one place below England in the FIFA rankings and if you’re thinking Panama will be a soft touch, cast your mind back to the European Championships two years ago and the humiliating defeat and elimination by lowly Iceland.

I can at least offer one crumb of comfort.

However England fares it will have done better than four-time winners Italy and three-time finalists Holland. Both will be absent from Russia 2018.