Observer Sport Monthly Interview
David Beckham isn't the only British superstar trying to change football in America. LA Vale FC has Adidas kits, Premiership ringers - and an obsessive player manager, Robbie Williams, who plans to make his team the best in the country. Observer Sport Monthly watches from the sidelines as Robbie leads his side to glory; they hang out at his home in the Hollywood Hills, where he steals their chips; and they jump on his state-of-the-art team bus, where he tells them why football beats touring...
There's still plenty of heat in the afternoon as my taxi makes the so-called ‘short' journey up the spiralling road into the Hollywood Hills, and eventually - after countless twisting miles of Mulholland Drive - plonks me in a cloud of dust outside what I hope is Robbie Williams's house. I say ‘hope' because we've already been to two that weren't. But, no, this is it. From the top of the path come shouts, and I see balls being hoofed around, and yellow shirts moving against the blue of the sky and the synthetic green of a five-a-side football pitch.
This is Robbie's team - LA Vale, baptised in the name of his beloved Port Vale, the team he has followed since boyhood - loosening up for this evening's game. It's a fair old gathering - players, knots of friends and family relaxing, someone on crutches. It takes a moment to spot Chairman Williams, as his website calls him, sitting against the fence, in yellow, too, and wearing aviator shades as he confers with his lieutenants. I'm still queasy from the car and feeling white as a wuss amid all this tanned muscle and controlled energy. It would be a shame, after coming all this way, to announce my arrival by throwing up.
Robbie gives me a friendly ‘Hi', and says he'll catch me later, and Josie, his personal manager, gets me some water and sets me off to wander palely with my notebook. I meet Robbie's dad, a genial one-time seaside comedian who likes golf and keeps me talking while the first XI are rounded up for a team picture. He has been on holiday here for a month, he says, enjoying the sun, keeping up with the USPGA Championship on telly. I talk to Robbie's ‘personal security', Decca, a steely ex-commando type from Sunderland. He's likeable, too, and direct, with the quiet authority of someone you can imagine killing a man in a single practised movement. Decca goes everywhere with Robbie: he lives in the house, he drives him around, he goes hiking with him in the mountains every day (Robbie's training). And no, he courteously tells me in reply to the first question that comes into my head, he didn't get his nickname because he goes round ‘decking' people. It's short for Derek.
Josie hands Robbie a towel and he takes me to the garage at the top end of the garden that he's planning to convert into a clubhouse with a video screen, sofas and a coffee bar. We admire the bare walls for a minute, then go to watch his players darting about and doing tricks with the ball. They look alarmingly chiselled, I say, for -Sunday league footballers. That's Californian genes, Robbie says, though half the squad are UK expats and other foreigners.
I ask how the team got started. Right here, two years ago, he says. The pitch used to be a tennis court where he and a bunch of friends had a kickaround once or twice a week. ‘It was nothing but a concrete surface and literally jumpers for goalposts. I knew a few people that played for Bafta, who have a team out here. It was just a lot of fun.' At the time he was renting this house while his own was being refashioned, but afterwards, when it came up for sale, he bought it, dug up the concrete and built this pitch.
It's the sort of thing a football-mad kid would do if he had the money, I say. ‘I am a kid,' he says. ‘I built what the kid in me wants.'
He tells me how he started to arrange five-a-side friendlies, then joined a seven-a-side league before finally going 11-a-side this year in the over-30s LA Premier League. Most of the players are friends, or friends of friends that he ‘auditioned' for the team. This season they're also playing in the tougher Los Angeles Super Metro League. At the moment they're sitting on top of both. ‘We've got a pretty good side,' he says.
It's time to go to his other house (because, of course, he now has two), so everyone piles into their cars. It's only five minutes away (though I've heard that before). I get in with Robbie and his dad, while Decca is behind the wheel. As we pass next door, Robbie tells me about his neighbour Joe Pesci, who most famously played the psycho mafia killer in Goodfellas and once came out to complain that Robbie's friend Sean Maguire - who used to be in EastEnders - had blocked him in with his car.
Obviously Pesci is not a real mafia killer, but some days later - by this time, Robbie had put up a ‘don't park here' sign - an Italian bloke approached him in a coffee shop and said (one imagines here the ‘friendly' sotto voce of mob persuaders) that Robbie had done a nice thing vis à vis the Pesci affair...
‘Joe's a great guy, actually,' Robbie says, looking around with mock nervousness. His dad laughs.
From up here, high in the hills, there's a wide, hazy view across the city. ‘That's the marine layer,' Robbie says. ‘Or fog, as we call it in England.'
We cruise down the hill, a nice breeze coming through climate control. Robbie starts singing ‘Miss You' by the Rolling Stones. His dad treats us to a golfing joke about the Rock Hudson putt -‘looks straight but isn't'.
Do the Vale have a team song? ‘We did when we went to Iowa [for a pre-season friendly] but it was shit. Do you know "Lady in Red"? You lose your voice singing it and you have to be drunk to enjoy it, so I'm waiting to introduce it on a tournament trip when everyone is drunk on the bus. But there are other songs I've got tucked away. Good terrace chants.'
Just look at us. How laid-back we are! I find myself trying to square this Robbie Williams with the other one - the one I've seen on TV, gurning for the media or standing in front of an ocean of fans at Glastonbury or Knebworth, or picking up one of those innumerable Brit awards. Can this - this amiable boy-bloke in yellow with the flat vowels and nice dad and tattoos and posse of mates - be the same slick maestro of song and dance who carried off that audacious show at the Albert Hall dressed as Frank Sinatra, doing those old songs our parents liked, winking at the orchestra and the girls; winking at the world?
At the age of 33, he has been famous half his life. He has had his booze-and-drugs hell. He knows the Eltons and the Bonos and they know him. He has sold more than 50 million albums. When his world tour was announced last year, they shifted £25m worth of tickets in a day. He sang to nearly three million people in 64 shows. How do you follow that? By kicking a ball around, obviously.
Down at the house, the team have already been let in and are lolling around the big open kitchen and sunken sitting room beyond, with nibbles and drinks out of the fridge, while Robbie's three dogs - an alsatian, a bull mastiff and a wolf, for God's sake - go panting here and there, wagging their great tails. Giant TVs are on. I ask some of the team what they do. Some work in local industries - films, telly, ‘viral' advertising, websites. One is an accountant. Another sells industrial packaging. Two or three teach sports. There's a Geordie and an Irishman, a Frenchman and a Spaniard, and plenty of Americans. Jamie - English - is an unlikely mixture of builder and theatre producer. Matthew, a college athlete from Oregon, says he got into soccer because he wasn't built for football (ie the other sort) and was not tall enough for basketball. ‘Football coaches used to make fun of you if you did soccer. Now all the kids are playing soccer.' He says companies such as Nike are -pumping millions into US soccer programmes, and that was before David Beckham arrived to make the game even more cool.
I ask if Robbie - or Rob, as everyone here calls him - is a taskmaster. I'm trying to whip up a little mischief, but it's no good. They love him to bits. Not because he's a pop star - no one here even thinks of him as a pop star (he's not big in the US). And if you half-close your eyes he just blends in among these other youngish guys - one yellow shirt among many, sometimes bantering, but mainly quiet and watchful, like a guest in his own house. Certainly there's none of the swagger and exaggerated emotion familiar to observers of that heated other life of his.
I feel like moving in myself. Perhaps this easy comradeship of Diet Coke and cookies and telly is all you need to get a team going. But no, says Fred, another American, Robbie has inspiring qualities, too. ‘Everyone plays harder when he's on the field. No one wants to disappoint him.' Someone else says Rob's worth another 10 per cent. Even when he's not playing, Fred says, ‘he's on his feet the whole time'.
One of the players has an unusually wild beard. He turns out to be Santiago Cabrera, star of the hit TV series Heroes (he's the tortured junkie artist who averts world catastrophes by painting the future). Santiago is Chilean but was brought up in the UK and once played in the Ryman League - one of the major semi-pro leagues, based around London and the south-east - which is what I call heroic. But is that a real beard? He grew it for a part, he says, but he's not allowed to say what he's filming. He tells me he got to know Robbie through an actor friend, Sean Maguire. Hey, I say, didn't he used to be in EastEnders?
After a while Robbie comes in from the sitting room and stands at the window with a tub of popcorn. Everyone seems at home, I say. ‘Yeah, the house is quite big and a bit grand, but it's comfortable and people feel they can put their feet up and chill out, which is good for me.'
Across the garden, inflatable toys are scattered under a tree. I ask if he has children up here.
‘Um... not in a Michael Jackson way,' he says.
It's getting on for four and time to leave. ‘We're the only team who are in both leagues and have their own bus,' he says. It's a huge, gleaming black-and-chrome monster. I'm not usually keen on buses because of my rare travel-sickness condition (well, rare for anyone over 11), but this one has fold-down screens showing clips from the 1974 World Cup.
I sit at the back with Robbie's dad and Robbie. Robbie's dad tells me there was an earthquake last night that almost tipped him out of bed. He marvels at the houses on stilts that somehow just cling to the hillsides round here. Robbie is revealing his pre-match hopes on camera to Scott, who will be capturing events for the team's website: ‘This will be a big test for us,' Robbie is saying. ‘We're due for a dip in form so we need to raise our game. It might be a banana skin.' On all the little screens a gangling Cruyff is -loping past defenders, showcasing that famous ‘turn' that bears his name. There's a nice air of anticipation. It occurs to me that I haven't been on a team bus since 1968.
I ask Robbie about tonight's opposition, LA United SC. He says all the sides are good at this level. A lot of players are ‘college standard' (ie very good, all sports scholarships - even -soccer - being ferociously competitive out here). Some teams even have ex-pros from Brazil. The problem with this league - the Super Metro - is that the referees are rubbish, he says, and biased, and take the fun out of everything - ‘no leeway, no humour, very authoritarian. At the end of the day, it's a kickabout, isn't it?' Last week someone got sent off for peeing in the bushes.
So who are the refs biased against? ‘Probably white Caucasian,' says one of the players in front, meaning non-Hispanic. ‘The refs are Mexican,' Robbie explains, and the fixture list bristles with names such as Deportivo Oaxaca, San Pedro, Guadalupano. ‘Instead of reffing the game they try to balance it out.' Robbie says he prefers the over-30s LA Premier League that they're playing in tomorrow night. ‘It's just more fun,' he says.
We arrive at the ground - a topiaried space in the quasi-Renaissance arcadia of the UCLA campus. Robbie has come to an arrangement with the university (ie he gives them money) to use this as the Vale's home ground. The pitch is like a bowling green. Everything looks like it was built yesterday. Chelsea trained here during their pre-season US tour. That's how posh it is.
Robbie warms up with the others, but won't be playing. He is recovering from knee and groin injuries, but for a full-back he looks (as they say) comfortable on the ball. He can do that thing where you flick it up and balance it on your head.
He and player-coach Dean gather the boys for some rousing words, and we soon have kick-off, with Robbie patrolling the touchline, bellowing instructions. ‘Good talking, Chris'; ‘Head on it, yellow'; ‘Great chasing down'; ‘Keep thinking'. The pace is quick and there's skill on both sides, but Vale have the best of the play and win a free-kick, 20 yards out. Someone (don't ask me who) steps up and - whump! - curls a lovely one round the wall and, blimey, it's in the net! A perfect strike, hitting the inside of the post and in off the back of the goalie's head. The crowd (such as we are) go wild. But no, the ref has blown for offside! Is he mad? Much protest follows, earning one of our guys a yellow. Deano's fuming. ‘Leave it Deano,' Robbie is shouting. ‘It's gone.'
Two more go in the book for something and nothing. The ref has the look of someone who knows he's crap but has all the guns. Robbie shouts for calm, but gets into trouble for standing too near the pitch. At half time, Deano's talk is about everyone keeping their heads in the face of malfeasant refereeing. ‘He's looking to give everything to them,' he says. ‘And the more we shout, the more biased they're going to be. Let's be positive. Let's play our game.'
But things are worse in the second half. The ref continues to blow for silly offsides and fouls that aren't fouls, and throws go to the wrong side. One of their players is shown a second yellow, but unaccountably doesn't get sent off. Robbie calls to Decca for a cigarette. ‘And a -valium...' he adds glumly.
Robbie smokes like a chimney. On the plate between us on the bench his stubbed-out butts sit amid the half-sucked orange segments. Robbie takes Fred off, and puts on his Gallic weapon, Patrice - who scores almost immediately, with a belting header from a corner. One‑nil. Hooray!
That's the final score and there are high fives and a quick pitchside huddle that erupts in one of those communal grunts on the count of three designed to make pigeons take off: ‘VALE!' On the bus there are high spirits and a cheer for Patrice. Robbie joins in then is quiet.
Back at the house we sit in his study - wooden floor, leather-and-chrome chairs, a gold record on the wall - where he gives Scott his post-match comments. He praises the opposition and castigates the ref, not least for letting one of their guys spit at one of ours. ‘My boys were fucking ace in the face of adversity,' he concludes. Satisfied, Scott goes off with his camera.
I say I'm surprised at how popular football is out here, the level of skill, the sheer numbers of registered teams. ‘Yeah, there's hundreds, every Sunday and every night of the week. And it is a great standard, but all the best teams fragment. I've been thinking, given the quality of the refereeing, to approach all the best teams in the best leagues and make a super league of some sort. That would be interesting. And I'm -looking to get a stadium, a pitch, that is, with some bleachers, as they call them here - like we saw today at UCLA, a similar set up.' What's the aim - Major League Soccer?
‘No, that would be too serious. I'd have to distance myself from the players and I want to be one of them. The minute you start trying to get into the MLS or anything like that there's an awful lot of red tape and emotionally a lot of distance between you and the grassroots, the people you want to be with. I don't think I want to do that. I want to be the best team at this level in California. Or America. That's the aim. And if I do go out and do this super league idea, then that's going to be the best league to be in. Get some structure. Get another league below us, have some teams relegated, others promoted. Because that doesn't happen here. Everyone just plays in the same league again the next season.'
Has he seen Beckham since he came to LA? ‘I saw him a few months ago. I was concerned for him, because the football isn't as good as in Europe. But he said all the guys here were just brilliant. He was genuinely enjoying himself. It was nice to see him so happy.' Maybe he'll sign for Vale when he's done with Galaxy, I say. ‘Ha. I doubt it. At one time, though, I was thinking of bringing a few players over from England, but the side's so good at the moment I don't need to.'
He's always had what he calls a ‘parallel life' in football. He has played in testimonials and in the charity match for Soccer Aid last year at Old Trafford. ‘I've always knocked around with a lot of real footballers,' he says. Has he had any Premier League players up here for a kickabout? ‘A few but I can't mention them because they come and play with me off-season, and they're not supposed to. I don't want to get them into trouble.' Just give me their names, I say. I won't tell...
He laughs, and I dig out a book I bought at the airport for him - David Peace's The Damned Utd, a fictional account of Brian Clough's disastrous 44 days at Leeds, a must-read for aspiring managers. He's been meaning to get this one, he says. He looks at the cover, Cloughie leading the team out at Wembley for the 1974 Charity Shield. ‘They hated him, didn't they?' They did. Unlike Robbie's team, who strike me as something of a band of brothers. (They're out in the Jacuzzi right now, except Alex the Spaniard. Robbie says: ‘It's far too homoerotic for him.') It must be nice having a bunch of friends around, I say, being up here in the hills on your own. ‘I suppose so. I've always wanted to be a member of a gang. So, really, I've bought a gang. I've been fortunate because we've been together quite a while now. There's no nails sticking out that need hammering down. They're all fond of me and I'm fond of them. At the beginning, some new lads came in and they started complaining about the amount of time they were getting on the field. But, you know, I didn't put this thing together for conflict, so I got rid of them.'
Football might seem like an odd way of avoiding conflict, but it's his way of stepping out of -himself - a refuge from the ‘Robbie Williams' who has sold those 50 million albums and from the daily madness that attends that sort of success. Last year's world tour - 44 concerts in 14 countries - left him exhausted and mentally wrecked: he became hooked on antidepressants and ended up in rehab. I ask whether he'd think twice before doing it again. ‘I definitely wouldn't go on a tour that was more than about a month. I'm just not built for it. Some people are and I'm not.'
This, then, might be described as his gap year - and LA Vale is what he is doing in it. Is it working out? Is happiness football-shaped? ‘Well I'm back to where I was before I went on tour. My life was amazing. I was just really laid-back, loving life. And, yeah, I suppose football gives me a bit of balance. But you can see how deeply I felt today - I'm only just coming out of it - about the fun being taken out of it because of the referees. At half time the game was over for me and the final score didn't matter, because of the bias. It means an awful lot to me that the fun's there. We won today, but I felt like shit on the coach back.'
Reading the official Robbie biography on the plane (Chris Heath's excellent Feel), I was struck by his capacity to dwell on injustices - personal slights, hurtful gossip, the debilitating antics of the paparazzi - and a difficulty in letting things lie. I ask if that's a fair observation. ‘I find things hard to shake off. I find the lack of integrity in some people to be a bigger problem than it should be. It's not so much the things that people write about per se. It's like... I go past Britney Spears's house every day on the way to my hike and there's 30 cars outside, and I just want to get out and kill them. You know, for some it's like water off a duck's back but for me it's an injustice. And an injustice happened today and it upset me. It's just how I'm built. I'm not saying I'm topped up with the world's biggest heap of integrity myself, but I have a basic sense of what's right and wrong, and how you should treat people. We were treated poorly today.'
One of the advantages of not being big in America is that hardly anyone bothers him when he's out and about. It's why he decided to settle in Los Angeles five years ago and it's why he has been ambivalent about putting any sustained effort into succeeding here.
‘I get a lot of nice film offers, TV shows, that are very flattering to receive, but I turn them all down. I love the fact that I don't want anything from this town and everybody else here does. I take almost a perverse joy in saying "no thanks" to things. I moved here because it's the perfect place to live. At the football there'll be paparazzi, but I don't mind that. I've made it public on my website that this is what I'm doing now. I want my team to be known. I want it to be an attractive team to play for. I want there to be a buzz around it. So I don't mind who turns up. All the matches are on the internet. So I kind of encourage it.' Is he trying to crack America by other means? He laughs. ‘No that's not happening. This is genuine. It's not what I'm doing it for. Anyway, tomorrow you'll see a happier game. A load of fans turn up for the over-30s league. The atmosphere's better, the referee's amazing - a Russian. He keeps all the games ticking over.'
He's right. The next night's game - an 20:30.
start against O'Brien's, played on a school pitch in Santa Monica - is different. As promised, there's a crowd of women on the bleachers next to ours cheering and shaking tambourines and maracas at Robbie's splendid tattoos. It's a frenetic game. Robbie puts himself on for 20 minutes or so and it's his clearance that's pounced on by our No 10, Oliver, at the other end to tuck it away for the first goal. Vale snatch another and then another, but in the second half O'Brien's somehow pull level, setting up a -perfect Hollywood ending as Vale captain Seth scores the winner with minutes to go. It's 4‑3 and a cracking match.
Everybody climbs on the bus. There's a ripple of excitement when Decca comes to the back to say there's a woman out there with a message that Zinedine Zidane is coming over to LA and might be interested in playing. She seems genuine. ‘Fuck!' Robbie says. ‘Get her number.'
There's much laughter about the dramatic comeback. Robbie talks about character and spirit. ‘I thought it was a really good performance, considering we had a war yesterday.' He could mention the way they nearly let it slip, but doesn't. ‘The main thing about this team is there isn't any negativity. I don't want anyone shouting at each other or giving each other a hard time. I can't deal with that shit. I didn't like it when I was a kid. I don't respond to it very well now - grown men shouting at each other. I wanted to steer it away from that macho, "we're fucking hard", "fuck off" etcetera. We want to win, play fairly, and get along with each other.'
It seems a different game here. Less muddy somehow. ‘It isn't as physical as in England,' he says. ‘In the first couple of years if I put in a tackle or a shoulder that's perfectly acceptable, they'd be "Man, we don't do that here!"'
It's about 10.30. Robbie is singing The Kinks' ‘Lola' to himself. Some of the players have to work in the morning, while others are sleepy, having gone out into the desert last night to see a meteor shower and talk about UFOs. I ask whether Robbie has any rules about going to deserts or having sex or drinking before games. ‘Well we've got a few drinkers. [He no longer drinks himself.] The Sunday before last, at eight in the morning, all of them were pissed. But far be it for me to tell people not to drink before a game. Anyway, they play well even when they're hungover.'
A hardcore of us go back to the house for ribs and fries. Robbie plays Scrabble with his dad. The dogs are out there watching us eat through the windows. Robbie finishes my chips, then shows me around the house - up in the lift (an absurdity he never gets tired of) to see his world-class collection of shoes (600 pairs, 596 of them trainers), his guitars and drums, his gym, then down in the lift to see his E-type Jag from the days of George Best. We don't linger in the bedroom, where if I was any kind of journalist I would be forced to ask about his sex life rather than, say, admire the huge TV that takes up a whole wall.
He watches all the Premier League matches and prefers TV to live games. ‘Football is a sort of poor man's meditation,' he says. ‘I hate to come over all Californian, but when you're watching, you're in the moment. After a while I can zone out and it washes over me - the sounds, the crowds, the commentator's voice... Anyway, I don't like crowds. I don't like having to get to the ground. It's always a Krypton Factor course full of dickheads who are pissed or on their way to being pissed, angry, upset or wondering what the fuck you're doing there.'
We emerge in the hall. There's a vintage motorbike parked here and a road sign on the wall reading: ‘No God for 2 miles'. Robbie collects art, too: a set of Warhol cows up the staircase, a couple of Banksys, a Roy Lichtenstein. There's a huge Haywain that he had painted because his nan used to have one. He was close to his nan. There's an old black-and-white photo of her on his sideboard, along with her school certificate he has had framed, from 1924. She looks like him, and his dad, both of them reminders of the journey he has made - from Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent, where he was born; from Port Vale FC, where there is now a Robbie Williams banqueting suite.
It's gone midnight. My taxi's due. What will he do, I ask, if Zidane does come over? He grins. ‘I don't know if he'd get in. It's a bit tight in midfield.'
Interviewed by Phil Hogan
Copyright Guardian News and Media Ltd 2007. Originally published in Observer Sport Monthly on Sunday 30 September 2007. For more features from OSM's Hollywood issue visit www.observer.co.uk/osm. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.