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1986 was the first time I’d ever heard anyone talk about a group of death and naturally, it was Scotland who had the bad luck to be stuck in it. We got West Germany, Denmark and Uruguay; a two-time winner, the most exciting young team in Europe and the hardest of all the South Americans.

I was 19 when the Mexico World Cup came around and I remember spending large parts of the tournament in pubs. The opening match on a Saturday night was, I think, Bulgaria-Italy, and I watched it with a group of pals in an Edinburgh hostelry. It was lovely and sunny outside.

Pubs back then used to offer free pints of beer when Scotland scored a goal or when England conceded one. The breweries weren’t daft. They knew they wouldn’t be handing out huge amounts of alcohol. (Scotland scored one goal in three games and England conceded one.)

We were unfortunate to lose the first game to Denmark and then we were well beaten by Germany in the second. We had to beat Uruguay in the third match to qualify as one of the best third-placed sides.

But even though Uruguay had a man sent off in 55 seconds, still the fastest ever sending off in a World Cup, I believe, we couldn’t score. It was tragic. Tragically predictable.

The 1986 World Cup was to have much more significance for me in the years to come. Just four years later I found myself living in Mexico City and it was a great thrill to visit many of the grounds where Scotland (and others) had played.

The Estadio Azteca remains one of the most exciting places on the planet to watch a big football match. Unlike in some other big grounds such as the Maracana, you’re close to the action and no matter where you sit you get a great view. The noise of the crowd at pitch level was deafening.

And then a good while after that, sometime in early in the new millennium, I managed to interview Charlie Batista, the Uruguayan who was sent off after 55 seconds. We had a coffee in Buenos Aires and like two old mates meeting up after decades apart we reminisced happily about that fateful day.

“I was sent off and walked back to the dressing room,” he told me with a big smile. “When the kit man saw me he went mad. What the hell are you doing here, he screamed. The game’s about to start. Get out there! I’ve been sent off, I told. That’s impossible, he shouted, get back out. It took me 5 minutes to convince him the game had started and I’d already been sent off.”

It was funny then. And it’s funny now. But back in 1986 it was just one more chapter in Scotland’s footballing failure.


Interesting study here in Spanish purporting to show that Latin America has by far the world’s highest homicide rates.

The study suggests that 40 of the most dangerous cities in the world are in Latin America and five of the top 10 are in Mexico.

The most violent place anywhere is the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula, where the murder rate is 158.87 per 100,000. Three Brazilian cities are in the top 20.

I have my doubts about any study that has 14 Brazilian cities in the top 50 and yet doesn’t include Rio de Janeiro. According to this, there are four US cities with a higher murder rate than Rio. (New Orleans, Detroit, St Louis, and Baltimore.)

As if to underline the randomness (or half-assedness) of these studies, here’s another one that I picked up online that doesn’t include any Latin American cities at all in the world’s most violent places. According to this, the top 10 most hair-raising places are all in Africa, Pakistan or the Middle East.

The truth, of course, is probably hidden somewhere in the two studies.

But here’s the top 10 most violent cities with their homicide rates, according to Mexican group, Seguridad, Justica y Paz.


1  San Pedro Sula  Honduras   158.87

2  Juárez  México  147.77

3  Maceió  Brasil  135.26

4  Acapulco  México  127.92

5  Distrito Central   Honduras  99.69

6  Caracas  Venezuela  98.71

7  Torreón  México   87.75

8  Chihuahua  México  82.96

9  Durango  México 79.88

10  Belém  Brasil   78.04

I just wrote a piece in the Christian Science Monitor about who Brazil, and the developed world, would like to see as the new head of the International Monetary Fund.

My main interview was with Oliver Stuenkel, an assistant professor in International Affairs at the Fundação Getúlio Vargas, a leading Brazilian business school (visit his blog here).

The piece was short and there wasn’t a lot of space for analysis but Stuenkel’s points were so interesting that I’m going to reproduce a few more of them here.

Stuenkel, who is half German and half American but lives in Brazil, made two main observations. One was that while the emerging nations talk a lot about a new world order there are still national rivalries at play and those rivalries, along with a lack of organisation, is a hinderance to any consensus candidate from the developing world.

“There is a lot of tension between the BRICs and it is an illusion to say they can get together and pick a candidate amongst themselves as they are rivals. This episode shows the limitations of the alliance that Brazil is seeking to develop with India and China in the emerging world. It would have been a beautiful moment to say this is our BRIC candidate.”

When asked why Brazil hasn’t thrown its weight behind Mexican candidate Augustín Carstens, Stuenkel said:

“Mexico is a potential rival. (Brazil) is thinking, Mexico didn’t support us when we wanted to get a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. There is national interest and at the same time let’s make the world order more democratic. The whole emerging power rhetoric crumbles when push comes to shove.”

Stuenkel also pointed out that their inability to produce a convincing name puts pressure on the emerging powers to come up with a consensus candidate when the World Bank elects a new head next year.

“The emerging powers are going to scramble like crazy to get a non-American head for the World Bank. They need to get their act together because the established powers are a lot better organised. The task for the emerging powers is to agree on a candidate for next year.”

December 30 is a special day for me as a journalist.

It marks the 20th anniversary of my first ever published article.

The piece, which I’ve scanned here, appeared in the Mexico City News. I got my start there as an editor in November 1990 after meeting two of the paper’s editors at a party.

(More on the history of the Mexico City News at this not very good wikipedia page.)

I asked if I could write a story and this was the result, a look back on that year’s World Cup, at which I’d seen Scotland make their customary agonizing exit at the first round stage.

When I look back on the piece I recall writing it by hand, and a colleague laughing at me for not using the computer. (I was even less computer literate then than now).

I remember the oldest lady on the staff, the lovely Irene Sayago, giving me advice afterwards on how to round the piece out.

And I distinctly remember feeling that this was all a dream and that I would never realise my ambition of becoming a real journalist.

As it turned out, I wrote another piece in January on the birthday of Scot’s poet Robert Burns and then covered the INXS concert, which was big news at the time because back then foreign bands didn’t come to Latin America.

I then began to pen a regular column on European football, updating the weekend results. (Back then the internet didn’t exist and it was the only way for many fans to stay informed.)

In early 1992, after a year and a half at the News I moved on to UPI.

But that’s a story for another day.

Kevin Rafter from Ireland’s Newstalk radio just sent a message telling me that his documentary about Phil Kelly will be rebroadcast this Sunday.

Entitled Painter Man, the program looks at Kelly’s life and work, and will be aired again as a tribute to the great man who passed away last month. (See my own tribute here.)

The documentary was recorded in 2007 in Mexico City and has Phil taking about his childhood in Bray, his school days in Britain, his discovery of painting and the love he found in Mexico, Rafter said.

It will air on Newstalk at 6pm on Sunday 5 September 2010.

The documentary will also be available as part of the listen-back facility on

If anyone needs a CD version Kevin can be contacted at

Phil Kelly, by Keith Dannemiller

The email, when it came, said simply The Painter is Dead.

My friend Phil Kelly, the Irish painter whose enormous talent was matched by his marvelous generosity, had finally succumbed to liver illness.

In truth, I had been bracing myself for the sad news for some time. I knew Phil wasn’t well. But it was still a terrible blow.

I spent most of the 1990s living in Mexico City and I came to know Phil, or The Painter, as many of friends lovingly called him, in the second half of the decade.

For several years at the end of that decade, most of my weekends were spent in Phil’s company. On a Friday night, he would come to the cantina and meet with the foreign press at their weekly get together. But it was the next day that I most remember.

Almost every Saturday Phil and his wife Ruth would invite a bunch of friends round to their house, an un-fancy two-story building in the corner of a un-fancy cul-de-sac. The house was big but almost everything that went on there happened in the small foyer that served as a dining room, lounge and parlour.

There were usually around a dozen people, all crammed around the big kitchen table or sitting on the old sofa across the room. It would start, as always, with wine, and the roasted potato peelings that were his customary appetizer. A short while later, Phil would emerge from the kitchen with a couple of roast chickens, a pot or two of potatoes and green beans and a pan of his delicious bread sauce.

There was wine everywhere you looked and as the day went on and the empty bottles stacked up, the conversation got more raucous and more fun and more memorable. Phil was a quiet man and he was never the extroverted life and soul of the party. But he commanded respect. When he spoke, people listened. Everyone loved him.

It was his generosity that I most remember. We became quite friendly at one point and I’d go round and see him just to talk and chat. One afternoon the two of us sat in his front room. I can’t remember why we got talking about sheets but he understood – or misunderstood – that I didn’t have enough sheets at home. He offered me some of his own and got up to go to the cupboard and get some. I had to insist that I didn’t need his sheets. But I remember being struck that here was a man who would quite literally give you the shirt of his own back.

That generosity almost drove him to ruin in his early days, as he gave away to friends and acquaintances paintings he could have sold. When he met Ruth, he found a woman who was not only a rock to him as a wife and mother to his children, but also someone who brought some order to his life. He needed that and it gave him more freedom to paint.

And painting was his calling, one he could not give up. He painted with his hands and the toxins did him serious damage. He knew he was sick but he refused to let it detract from his work. The last time I saw him, about seven years ago, he was candid about his health problems. As we sat in his studio one afternoon, talking and drinking wine as the buzz of traffic and honking of horns fought to be heard over his customary jazz soundtrack, he acknowledged he was ill.

I halfheartedly tried to talk him into cutting back on the booze and obeying the doctor’s orders. But he just shrugged and held up his paint-stained hands. The doctor says the lead in the paint will kill me, he said with a shrug. But I can’t stop. All I want to do is paint.

Phil Kelly never did stop painting and when I look up from my computer at the  painting he gave me when I left Mexico, or when I remember the canvases of volcanoes and green VW Beetle taxis and Mexico City statues and drunken men in cantinas, images so vivid that I can still recall them clearly after all those years, I am thankful he didn’t.

But I am even more thankful that I was able to call him a friend. The Painter might be dead. But his work and his memory will never leave me. Long live The Painter.

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