Sport

The Definition of Football

Latin America is not a happy hunting ground for Germany. The last grand battle they faced in these waters finished when the sailors aboard the Graf Spee scuttled their own ship, rather than face defeat. But this time round, they came out all guns blazing, and it was their opponents who self destructed. Not since the French in 1940 has the world seen such a complete capitulation in the face of a German attack. And like the French, the humiliation was complete when the Brazilians decided to collaborate, providing standing ovations and oles as the Germans scored, teased and tormented their hapless opponents.

The totally unnecessary war references are there purely because, as a Brit, I am culturally obliged to relate any German success, or failure for that matter, to World War Two. And to mock the French. It’s what we do. On Tuesday we watched something special. Something for the ages. The Germans lived up to their stereotype in 90 minutes of slick, ruthless, even brutal efficiency. They truly blitzed the enemy, leaving them dazed and confused. And thoroughly beaten. To their credit, and unlike the French, the Brazilians didn’t surrender.

I am, of course, referring to the Germans 7 to 1 trouncing of Brazil in the first World Cup 2014 semi final. How does this game rank in the history of the sport? Football is a game with many facets, and for each facet that is game that is held as the prime example. A game that embodies a virtue, for good or bad, and that is remembered forever. A game that sets the standard by which all other games of that nature will be compared to. A game that is embedded into the global consciousness of the sport. Never to be forgotten. There are ten games which have shaped this sport. Here they are…

The Battle of Santiago

Sport is a competitive cauldron of testosterone fuelled men, determined to emerge triumphant. Sometimes competitors snap and lash out. Swing an elbow. A discreet headbutt. Or have a little nibble of someone’s shoulder. But the finest example of on-field physical combat came in Santiago during a game between Chile an Italy. Neither side left the field with their dignity intact. But the Italians departed with their reputation in tatters. The first foul occured after just twelve seconds. The first sending off, for a punch, after 12 minutes. Technically he was sent off. In reality he was dragged off the pitch by police, having refused to go for an early shower. The police were forced to intervene several more times as fists continued to fly. The referee, an Englishman, did little to intervene. He did go on to invent the yellow and red card though.

 

The Russian Linesman

Dodgy offside calls, missed fouls, wrongly given or ruled out goals – the poor referee and his linesmen have long been getting it in the neck for getting things wrong. But the grand daddy of dubious decision belongs to a Russian. Actually, he wasn’t Russian. He was from Azerbaijan. But everyone thinks he was Russian. In 1966 at Wembley, in extra time of a thrilling final between England and Germany, Geoff Hurst thundered a shot against the underside of the bar and over the line. Or not over the line. No one really knows. It will never be settled one way or the other. The referee wasn’t sure. But the Russian linesman, he was sure. He waved his flag, had a chat to the ref and the goal was given. England went on to score another, Geoff Hurst netting his third, the only hat-trick ever scored in a final.

 

The Shock

A David versus Goliath battle always catches the imagination. When David wins…well, you’d write a chapter for a book about it, wouldn’t you. At the very least. There are plenty of candidates for shock results. England’s defeat by the USA in Brazil 1950 sent shock waves through the world of football. But perhaps the honour of the greatest shocks belongs to North Korea. The communists out east played a starring role in the World Cup in England. But before the Russian linesman got to take to the stage, a team of North Korean no-hopers took on the might of Italy.  A beat them.

The Match of the Century

The 1970 tournament in Mexico was the the tournament that just kept on giving. Early on, the two giants of the game at the time played a fabulous match. England were the reigning champions, taking on the favourites Brazil. The game is famous for the greatest save ever made, one of the finest tackles and an iconic photo of two true champions embracing in an era when sport was still sport.

But this was not the Match of the Century. That came in the semi final. To be fair, the first 90 minutes were very ordinary. Dull, even. But with extra time under way, the two giants of European football slugged it out, trading blow for blow. Video fails to catch the drama, tension and fear that enveloped the game as it headed towards a goal fest climax. Italy triumphed over the Germans and went through to the final.

Perhaps in hindsight they’d wish they hadn’t. Because…

The Beautiful Game

It is said that the English invented the game. And Brazil made it beautiful. Both statements are correct. The latter sentiment was etched into history in the final of the 1970 World Cup. A magnificent Brazil played the game how it should be played. The way you’d play in your dreams. With flair, daring, genius. The defensive fortress of Italy was put to the test by the finest attacking team in history. An immoveable object against an irresistible force. One had to give, and it was the Italians, swept aside by a relentless tide of green and yellow sporting gods. The fourth goal trascended normal sport. It was poetry in motion. Moving art. Pele, the conductor of a footballing orchestra of unsurpassed quality defined what football is, was and forever should be.

 

German Blitzkrieg

In American football, a blitz is a defined as an attack on a player as soon as the ball is snapped. He is charged and taken out of the game. This isn’t a move that is technically permitted in normal football. Not within the rules. Normally. How apt that it was a German who imported the move. There have been many moments of brutality on the football field, but no single incident springs so readily to mind that that inflicted on the French player Patrick Battiston by the German keeper Harald Schumacher.

Astonishingly, the referee failed to even so much as award a foul. How he felt that Battiston ended up on the floor unconscious with smashed up teeth and vertebrae – well, only he knows. The game itself was also a classic, decided on penalties after the sides had drawn 3-3 after the end of extra time.

 

Death of Football

Brazil made football beautiful. Their great teams of 1958, 1962 and 1970 have gone down in footballing folklore. They played with a sense of flair, panache and imagination that every other team in the world aspires to. They set the bar for footballing excellence. But it’s been a while since the Brazilians themselves have managed to field a team that comes close to reaching that bar.

The last time? That would be Spain in 1982. Zico, Socrates, Junior, Eder and Falcao provided an attacking force that lived up to all expectations. True, their defence was known to be a little suspect. But that shouldn’t have mattered. They sent ten goals flying past their three opponents in the first group stage.  In the second round group of three the comfortably despatched fierce rivals and reigning champions Argentina 3 to 1. Which left them needing just a single point from their second game in order to proceed to the semi finals.

It was to be another battle of traditional flair, wrapped in a Brazilian flag, against a functional, defensive Italian team spearheaded by Paolo Rossi – a player who should have been serving the final year of a three year ban for match fixing. What transpired was a game for the ages, but a horror show for the purist. And the death of football as it should be played. At least from a Brazilian perspective.

 

Hand of God

There is a fine line between madness and genius. And plenty of examples to prove the point. Diego Maradona being football’s prime example. When he wasn’t shooting up drugs or shooting at journalists, he was scoring the most sublime goals the game has seen. He was famed for single handedly dragging inferior teams to ultimate glory. Yet, he could also express the darker side of his nature of the pitch too.

In less that five minutes of mayhem and magic in the Estadio Azteca in 1986, he demonstrated both facets of his character. In a quarter final against England, fuelled into a fervently hostile clash thanks to the recent Falklands War, Maradona first cheated his way to a goal – the infamous Hand of God – and then scored the finest individual goal the tournament has ever seen. The rest, as they say, is history. And the World Cup was won a week or so later, and on a plane back to Buenos Airies.

 

The Comeback

Every game so far has been a World Cup games, featuring national teams. Not this one. But this one is special. It captured the imagination of football fans across the world. It is the very definition of a comeback. Sure, there have been games where a team has pulled back a greater deficit. But never on a stage this big. Never against a team of the likes of AC Milan. Never in the style of this Liverpool team.

What do you want from your game of football? Forty thousand screaming red fans? A giant and the underdog? A first half crushing that would demoralise your opponents and cast them into despair? A rousing rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone as the teams return to the field for the second half. Seven minutes of insanity as the scores are brought level? Two ridiculously improbable saves? And to finish, the drama of a penalty shoot out. Check, check, check, check, check, check and check.

 

The Crying Game

And we come full circle, ending the post where I started it. With Brazil’s humiliating defeat at the hands of Germany. Yes, most other teams have suffered a humiliation from time to time. The Germans are still trying to forget being thumped 5-1 by England in their own Olympic stadium in 2002. In turn England are trying to forget about their German thumping four years ago. Or at least, we will remind you of the scandalously disallowed Lampard goal.

But this was a World Cup semi final. In Brazil’s own World Cup. With so much Brazilian hype prior to this game. To be fair, many people saw it coming. More than a month ago, when Brazil manager picked Jo and Fred over Ronaldinho, Kaka or Coutinho, the signs were there. Tactically they’ve been off. Going forward they were toothless. They were fortunate to get a result against Croatia, were held easily by Mexico, and were lucky to get past Chile. They played better against Colombia but also showed their nasty side and were fortunate to get past them as well.

But still. No matter how you word it. No matter what excuses you make. From this point forward, any team can suffer any result and still say, ‘well things could be worse – we could be Brazil’.

 

Fangs For The Memories

Oh such a cliche, predictable and tabloid-esque headline.  But someone has to say it, so I might as well get in there first. Luis Suarez has been sold to Barcelona for a whopping £75,000,000. Most Liverpool fans feared at the end of last season that this might happen, but hoped it wouldn’t come to pass. That he has since gotten himself a long ban for biting, again, made it an easier deal for Liverpool to swallow.

I will miss seeing his genius on the field at Anfield in a red shirt. He was something very special. Over the last twelve months he has been the best player in the world. Only Messi and Ronaldo can do the things he does with the ball. He is the finest, most talented player I have ever seen at Liverpool. And there have been some mighty talented players at that club. Sure, he could be a bit temperamental, a bit emotional and most of all a little bit bitey. Is he the greatest red ever? No, of course not. The King will always been Kenny.

As much as we will miss him, we will go on without him. The guy is as much a liability as he is a genius. Had we kept him, he would have missed another thirteen games at the beginning of next season. By the time he is fully back in the swing of things, half the season will have gone.

But the biggest question of all, had Liverpool kept him – what happens when he goes in for a fourth chomp of a bit of shoulder, calf or neck at some point in the future? What will the ban be then? I suspect it would be enormous. We will miss you Luis and every Liverpool fan will wish you well. We’d have been happy had you stayed. But every story must come to an end eventually. Thanks for the £75 million.

Death On Grass

Thirty years ago, Torvill and Dean enchanted the world at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo with their rendition of Bolero. Their performance won gold and set records as they scored a set of perfect sixes. Their routine changed ice skating. They creatively elongated their performance to fit the musical score by staying on their knees at the beginning, and they introduced ‘death on ice’ to the sport with their finale, collapsing on to the white stuff as if they’d been shot. It started a trend. Before you knew it, skaters were finishing their dances with more and more elaborate death routines. Appearing to have simply been shot was ‘old school’. Skaters mimicked being mown down by Gatling guns, or from being slashed with a thousand cyanide laced blades. Yes, it became ridiculous. Utterly absurd.

Football has its own version of death on ice. I shall call it ‘Death on Grass’. Others refer to it simply as diving or cheating. The more eloquent commentator refers to it as simulation. But it’s far more than that. It is truly performance art. It’s a dance. It’s a talent. Some are better at it than others. And it is played to an audience of three. True, there may be tens of thousands in the crowds and tens of millions watching at home on television. But the performance is purely for the benefit of the referee and his two assistants on the line. The referee signals his approval of the dance in question by blowing his whistle and awarding the match to the team who performed Death on Grass the best over the 90 minutes.

The evidence that it is an art form and not cheating? Every time you hear someone say ‘well, it’s part of the game these days‘. Or, ‘...I know, but that Robben, he’s just so good at it‘. Or even, ‘…yes, but if you leave a leg out, you know what he’s going to do‘. Even my own argument against diving is an admission. ‘But it shouldn’t be part of the game’. That I say the word shouldn’t as opposed to isn’t is a confession that I know that actually, when all is said and done, it is. And so it continues. Our beloved, beautiful game continues to be shamed and gamed by artists performing Death on Grass.

Some of it is almost Monty Python-esque. Death by shooting, slashing, from a piano dropped on the player from a great height. Death by being shoved in a tumble dryer or from being struck by a bulldozer. Some look like they are in a rabid death throe. Do you remember Indiana Jones and all those lucky escapes he had from certain doom? Did you ever wonder what those scenes would have looked like if he hadn’t escaped? Watch a game of football and all will be revealed. When and where exactly did all this nonsense start? I do not know. But being British I will point an accusing finger at the continentals. Especially the Italians. But you know the Germans are probably at the centre of it all. Bloody Germans. Where will it end? Hopefully before several team mates go so far as to get together and choreograph  ‘death by nuclear blast’.

Football has spent the last week completely focussed on the Luis Suarez biting incident. It shocked the entire sport. You don’t bite on the football field, Luis! You are an animal! But what were the actual consequences of his bite. Not to make light of the trivial bruising to Chiellini’s shoulder, but the consequences to the result were as they should have been. On the field that day, none. After the event, the offender was punished. You could argue that Suarez should have been sent off, and that this might have altered the final outcome. I accept that. But his action in itself did not influence the scoreline.

Last Sunday, Arjen Robben, a world renowned grand master of Death on Grass, treated the world to a special performance of his art form. Which is, technically, every bit against the rules as biting. The consequences? The Mexican football team were knocked out of the competition. He broke the hearts of more than a hundred million of my compadres and comadres. El Tri’s grand Brazilian adventure was cruelly and unfairly cut short. We were deprived further touchline remonstrations and celebrations by Miguel Herrera. We must suffer further games of Dutch Head Kicking football. Yet, as further evidence of how open to interpretation Death on Grass is, there are arguments on both sides, for and against Robben. But as a fan, I’d rather see Suarez take a nibble out of a players should than see a team cheated out of the whole competition. And then there’s this guy. Who shall henceforth be forever known as What The Hell Oh My God guy. But the Guardian has a more composed view…

For the record, my firm opinion is that Robben dived and cheated. Was there a sliver of contact? I don’t care. Robben clearly played the ref, not the game. Who do I blame? Robben, of course. Plus, his manager. Indeed, I blame all managers. I always find the post match interviews galling, having to listen to a manger ranting and raving about how his side were cheated. Here’s the deal. If the referee is fooled, then the only consequence a player might face for his cheating would be via his manager. I cannot recall a single incidence of a player actually having to face any consequences for diving in a Monday morning meeting with his manager. I have, a couple of times, heard a manager say ‘he’ll have a few words’ with an obvious and persistent diver. Who continues diving the very next week. So one assumes those words were ‘keep it up, son!’

Football mangers will continue to bemoan ‘poor refereeing decisions’. They will continue to send teams out who will attempt to create the perfect conditions to goad a poor decision out of the ref. I will continue to mock their hypocrisy. And nothing will change. Until the governing bodies take firmer action. A television referee for top flight football. Who can view the replay, at different angles, and make an informed and more accurate decision. The game can be brought back and the offender punished.

Some people say this would break up the flow of the game. I argue it will do quite the opposite. If the players can’t get away with it, they won’t do it. The flow of the game will be improved. And games will be decided by goals again, rather than by performance art.

The world of ice skating eventually curbed the ever more evocative interpretations of death. The world of football can do the same, if it imposes its will on to the players taking the field. Let’s not forget that football is a game. It’s sport. It’s not, despite Bill Shankley’s assertion to the contrary, more important than life or death. Twenty years ago yesterday, a sad and non-simulated ‘Death on Grass’ type incident occurred. Colombia’s defender Andres Escobar was gunned down and killed, days after scoring an own goal that knocked his country out of the World Cup in the US.

Colombia was not a safe or happy place at the time. This was only eight years after Colombia had been due to host the World Cup themselves, in 1986, but were forced to give the tournament over to Mexico due to a lack of finance to put the necessary infrastructure in place. It was a shame that such a talented team who had such high expectations had to exit in such a fashion. More of a shame that the defeat lead to the death of one of the team’s stars. I watched a movie/documentary called The Two Escobars a few years ago. It was an excellent film. It’s now on YouTube. Enjoy…

 

 

 

Alex Ferguson

Today, a sporting interlude. Alex Ferguson announced his retirement today. Twenty six years in the top job at a top club. That’s a career length pretty much unheard of in any era, any sport. Unlikely to be repeated. There’s an awful lot to admire about the guy. His dealings in the transfer market? No, not really. He was pretty average. Wenger rules that roost. How about as a tactician? Accomplished, but not the best. Mourinho has his number there.

But as team builder and motivator, he’s one of the finest. No doubts. He’s had some great players come and go under him. But he’s had a few fairly average (for the top echelons of the Premier League) teams as well, and gotten a lot more out of the team than the sum of the parts would suggest is possible. His ability to nurture talent and get the most out of it is second to none.

There’s a lot to dislike about him too. His manner can be brusque. To say the least. His ability to throw a childish tantrum and bear a grudge is lamentable. Most of all though, I resent what he did to the national team. He created and fostered the practice of withholding players from international games, under the pretense of injury. Other managers joined in, but it was something Ferguson started. The harm done to our national team was immeasurable. We had a genuine golden generation from 1996 to 2006. There was a trophy to be won. And we failed. Not least, because England fielded their finest eleven for a full ninety minutes so rarely.

He’s won 38 trophies in those 26 years though. So maybe some of those negatives are forgivable. Personally, I’m glad he’s gone. Delighted. Overjoyed. I’m a Liverpool fan. My glee at seeing him depart is, perhaps, the biggest compliment. His replacement will probably be David Moyes. I’m equally delighted. He’s done wonders at a small club. But is he a big club man? I don’t think he is. I’ll explain. When does the Alex Ferguson story start? Man Utd fans will often tell you 1986.

Actually it was before then. Fergie managed a small club, just like Moyes has. But Fergie won things. Titles and a European trophy. Man Utd bought in a winner. Moyes, despite ‘working wonders’, has won nowt. Ever. Some people just are winners. Other aren’t. Moyes, probably, isn’t. We’ll find out in the years to come. Incidentally, Ferguson should probably have quit a couple of years ago, when he won his second European Cup. Only two European Cups, though. As a Liverpool fan, that also delights me, and in true form I’ll depart this post by falling back in traditional Scouse fashion. Ferguson was good, but he wasn’t ‘three European Cups’ good. He wasn’t ‘Bob Paisley’ good.

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The Bournemouth Bay Run

It’s been a sporty week at Chez Denness. The delight of watching someone else’s athletic endeavors on Saturday, to my financial gain. But on Sunday I put my own muscles to work. As did Mr’s P. We ran the 10km option in the annual Bournemouth Bay Run. From Bournemouth Pier to Boscombe Pier, a couple of clicks beyond that, and then back again. It was a beautiful crisp morning, with blue skies, a little sun and a cool refreshing breeze. It’s a really scenic run too, along some of the sandiest beaches the UK has to offer.

I’ve got plenty of 10k runs under my belt, but it was Mrs P’s first. A fine debut it was too. Her kms per minute time was nearly a minute better than recent 5km practice runs. I did well too, mind you! I haven’t run a 10km race in nearly a year and a half. My left knee just isn’t up to it anymore, sadly. But I’ve found the slower pace suits my knee better. It gets sore. I can feel it clanking about. But it didn’t seize up. I didn’t suffer the  agony that follows its seizing up that I’ve been through before in order to cross the finish line. I’m just going to have to accept that I’m getting old and have to take it easier! The more relaxed pace allows me more time to take some photos too. All with my Samsung Galaxy S2 phone – click here to see them.

 

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Taking along my cell phone isn’t just handy for snapping shots along the route. Since January I’ve been using an app called RunKeeper. There’s a whole load of apps that have followed in Nike+ footsteps to help you record your runs. I like RunKeeper for a few reasons. It’s free. It’s dead easy to use. It’s got a slick and attractive interface. See the screenshot below.

It’s not just nice to be able to record your route on a map thanks to the GPS. It’s motivating. I can look back at a whole stream of data to see where I’ve been running, how fast or how many calories I’ve burned. I can tell it whether I’m running, walking or cycling. Probably other stuff too. Best of all, it’s just plain fun. There is an upgrade option, for $20. Having stated previously that one of the things I like about it is that it’s free, I think I might indulge myself and spend some of yesterdays winnings on that upgrade. Not just to get the upgrade, but because if I really like and value something, I don’t mind contributing financially. It’s a perfect example as to how the freemium business model can work.

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The Grand National

Horse racing isn’t perhaps the fixture of British life that it once was. In the old days, if you wanted to gamble, your choices were limited. Punters put their money down on either the football pools, greyhounds or the horses. Of the three, the latter was by far the most popular. A bookies sat on every high street, ready to take the cash from chaps who fancied a flutter on the gee gees. Today, the bookies have to compete for trade with the National Lottery and a burgeoning casino industry.

But there’s still one race that has huge chunks of the British population risking a hard earned pound or two on a randomly chosen steed. The Grand National has been run almost every year since 1839, at the Aintree racecourse in Liverpool. The most valuable race in Europe, infamous as the toughest test of horse and man in the world, and watched globally by well over half a billion people. It is, many would argue, the biggest horse race in the world. Others, of course, would argue otherwise. It is a dangerous race though. Horse fatalities are not rare. Two died last year and two the year before. On average, more horses will fall or throw their rider than will finish. One year, only six of the forty horses made it to the end with the jockey intact.

I’m not a gambler. I dislike losing money too much to ever really make much of a gambler. But I’ve always put a few pounds on the Grand National. Three pounds to be precise. One pound each on three horses. I won once, back in the very early 90′s on Seagram. He was one of the favourites, so I didn’t make much. I’ll always put a pound on a favourite, a pound on one of the dark horses and a pound on an outright outsider. It’s my ‘system’. It’s not, as my record shows, a particularly successful system.

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This year I picked Imperial Commander, Ballabriggs and Auroras Encore. The latter was chosen because I plucked him out of the envelope in the work sweepstakes. So I stuck a pound on him at Ladbrokes too.  His starting price was 66/1. Only a couple of horses at 50/1 or more had triumphed in the last half a century. So I hedged my bets and put another pound on him, each way. He was 100/1 when I laid down my pound – a serious outsider.

It was an inspired decision. My nag kept up with the front runners from the off. Heck, I won’t provide a belated running commentary. You can watch the whole race – I’ve embedded it below. You’ll just have to picture me in front of the telly. Resigned at defeat as he stumbled over the third from last fence. Renewed interest as he managed to regain ground at the second from last. Shouting, cheering and maybe a curse word or two as he stormed over the last without breaking stride as his rivals started to find it tough going. Sheer delight as he ran away from the field over the final furlong. Another curse word or two.

My winnings? I’ve relieved Ladbrokes of £127. And I am, perhaps for the first time ever, looking forward to work on Monday morning, so I can pick up my £40 from the sweepstakes. I know. It’s not exactly going to change my life. But £167 for free? Yes please! I haven’t loved a horse so much since I had a Tescos burger a few weeks ago.

Mastrettas and McLarens

Do you remember the outrage when Top Gear’s trio of presenters gave Mexico a hard time? And the Mexican ambassador in London in particular. Although it turned out the ambassador is actually a pretty switched on guy. They’ve had a few light hearted pops since, mostly poking fun at the reaction they received.  Clarkson also went to the Mexican Embassy in London for the Independence Day celebration a year or so ago and made amends.

But still, they did mock Mexico’s first ever home grown car, the Mastretta MX.  They didn’t seem to have a terribly high opinion of the little roadster. Many people pointed out that Mexico has the last laugh, seeing as the country overtook the UK at the beginning of the century as a global car manufacturer. I’ll be honest though. I’m not totally taken by the Mastretta’s looks. And if we measure quality over quantity, I’d pick a Jag, Bentley, Range Rover, Rolls Royce, Aston Martin or Mini over a Chevy or VW any day of the week.

But enough of these numbers and marques. Let’s move on. Before someone points out that Britain’s peak as a car manufacturer came in the 1970′s, and my quality over quantity argument falls over. So. Moving on. You’ll be pleased to know that Top Gear have gone the whole hog to atone for their naughty comments. The main offender, Richard Hammond, was sent into Mexico to road test the Mastretta. He quite liked it, with reservations. As a first attempt, it got a thumbs up. Ok, there were a few ‘beheading’ puns, but still. Mexicans, take what you can get, and this is probably as much of a fig leaf as you’ll get.

But I have good news on the Mexican/British car front, and we can leave Top Gear well behind us! I do enjoy F1 season, watching Ferrari, Lotus, McLaren, Williams and the gang send their automotive steeds to assorted tarmacked arenas around the world to do battle. The new season begins in March, and young Mexican driver Sergio ‘Checo’ Perez has gotten himself a seat in a McLaren. That’s a hell of a ride to get. Checo’s three 2012 podium finishes, in a less than competitive car, obviously impressed the right people. His odds of winning the title? A decent 14/1. He’s already setting hot lap times, posting the fasted time in pre season testing in Barcelona.

I’m not much of a gambler, truth be told. But those are half decent odds, and if McLaren have a competitive card, then it’s gotta be worth a fiver. Hasn’t it? I’ve put a fiver down, so I’ll tell you towards the end of the year. Can a British Mexican motor combo turn my fiver into seventy five shiny British pounds? Course, I should be in Mexico by then, so 1,450 shiny Mexican pesos may be preferable. But the excitement of seeing a Mexican ride a British car to a world title would be worth more than the money. He does have tough competition though. The other McLaren contains a seasoned F1 pro with a world title already in the cabinet. And he has what is quite possibly the greatest name in the history of motor racing – Jensen Button.

 

Euro 2012 Predictions

This is going to be a very eventful summer. A Diamond Jubilee. The 2012 Olympics. And the Euro 2012 football championships. Which, if we are going to honest about it, is just like the World Cup but without Argentina and Brazil. The hosts this year are Poland and the Ukraine. Is it ‘the Ukraine’, or just ‘Ukraine’? It seems to sound right with ‘the’ in front of it. It seems I was right, once. But no longer.

The biggest Euro 2012 stories of the last few months have been about the late delivery of the infrastructure required to host such a tournament, and the threat of racist fans ruining it for everyone. Former English footballer Sol Campbell has told non-white fans to stay at home and watch on the telly, and the families of several black English footballers have declared they will do just that.

Mr Campbell went on to say that Polan and Ukraine shouldn’t have been given the tournament until they had sorted this problem out. He’s right. It should have been held in England, where our hooligans are equal opportunity advocates and will happily beat the living daylights out of anyone, regardless of colour.

My prediction is that the tournament will be a good one, but that the media will provide saturated coverage of any negative incident, no matter how minor. But this isn’t the important prediction. The important prediction is in naming the winner. England qualified comfortably, but have since completely self destructed. First the capitain John Terry got himself arrested and stripped of the captaincy. Again. Then the manager Fabio Capello quit in protest at that decision. Wayne Rooney got himself banned from the first two games. And we got drawn in a slightly tricky group.

This had reduced our hopes and expectations to almost zero. Which is unusual, because we are normally wildly optimistic. I’m no exception. The the FA named, belatedly, as the new England manager….Roy Hodgson. Quite possibly the most boring and unimaginative choice, with a mostly appalling record at the highest level. Universally derided and scorned by the average English footy fan, but more so by Liverpool fans. Our expections had been near zero. His appointment removed any linger half hearted hope whatsoever.

And that may be a master-stroke. England’s biggest problem at tournaments has been the huge expectations placed upon the team. The players often look like rabbits trapped in headlights. So here’s hoping that this England squad, the weakest we have fielded in decades (possibly ever) will feel they have something to prove, and will actually perform.

This tournament is going to be an open one. Germany, France, Spain England and the Dutch all have a bunch of decent players, but all have vulnerabilities too. I don’t see Spain winning this one – they’ve gone off the boil. The Germans look the strongest of the bunch, with France close behind. My dark horse pick would be Russia.

Want to see my full set of predictions? I’ve decided to use a smartphone app called Football Attack. It’s available on Android or iPhone. You can add me on Facebook and join in the fun. Until then, here’s the ITV trailer for your amusement…

The Essence Of Englishness

I stopped Paola as we walked along an old disused railway line. A lot of railway lines have been reclaimed by nature, or by nature loving people since the mass closures of lines and stations in the 60′s. The railway line we were on has an old iron bridge that once safely guided old steam locomotives across the river Avon. That’s where I stopped her, as I’d spotted something as equally English as a closed rail line.

Below us was a fisherman, with a bent rod. He’d caught something, and it looked like it might be sizeable. Fishing is one of mankind’s oldest skills. It still brings out the hunter in us. The battle of wits between man and beast, and the struggle for survival – to eat or to at least not be eaten. The fisherman managed to bring his catch close to the bank and scooped it up in a large landing net. He’d caught a pike, a carniverous fish that roams many of England’s natural waterways.

He used a pair of hook pliers to free the bait from its gut. He weighed the beast –  10 pounds. And then, very gently, he released the fish back into the water. He wasn’t for the dinner table. He was freed, unharmed and ready to fight another day. Which is very un-English. We’re normally very quick to kills things. We’ve spent centuries shooting, cutting, strangling and bludgeoning living things all around the world. It’s rather what we’re known for, really. But when it comes to fishing, that’s not always the case. Which could be regarded as rather eccentric. And eccentricity is very English.

Between landing and releasing the fearsome creature, the fisherman asked me to take a photo of him and his catch. It really was a very good catch indeed, and well worth recording for posterity. He handed me his camera. The battery, alas, was flat. But I always have my shiny new Samsung Galaxy S2 in my pocket, with it’s 8mp camera at the ready. I snapped and sent the resulting image by text, and he has proof of his catch when telling the tale of his battle in the pub later in the evening.

080808

Back in February 2008 I asked Paola to marry me. The evening had all gone a bit wrong, and the romantic event that was supposed to be was…well, that’s another story. But the question was popped. The answer was positive. She got her ring. And the wedding planning began. We had to factor in guests coming from three different countries across two different continents. And a civil ceremony to be held in the Milwaukee Courthouse. As a result, the date chose itself.

We didn’t realise until later that the date we’d chosen was the 8th of August, 2008. A very lucky number in China, that is…080808. So lucky, that’s when they decided to have the opening ceremony for the Olympics. My heart dropped a bit when I found that out. I wanted to watch the opening ceremony. The number eight clearly wasn’t my luckt Olympic number. Such is life. There’d be other Olympics.

And of course, the next Olympics are in London, next year. I ordered a whole bunch of tickets. There was a ballot system in place, so there was no guarantee of actually getting all the tickets you order. In fact, more than half of all applicants didn’t get a single ticket. Nothing. Nada. So I was lucky to get something at all. I got two tickets out of the dozen or more that I ordered.

I’ll get to go to the Olympic Stadium to see some running and jumping. The date? The 8th of August. Turns out it is my lucky Olympic number after all. I don’t have a photo of the Olympic Stadium in London yet. I will get one eventually. Till then, here’s one of the Olympic Stadium in Mexico City, from one of the greatest, and most controversial, Olympics of them all.

Five Empty Rings

Jack Of All Trades

Being a ‘Jack Of All Trades’ isn’t really something that one aspires to. Yes, it does imply some level of proficiency across a number of different tasks. In supermarkets they call it ‘multi-skilled’. But it also implies that the owner of this moniker lacks focus, dedication and any real, genuine talent in any single discipline. Jack of all trades, master of none. And he or she probably works in a supermarket. Where his ‘multi-skilled’ attributes will be appreciated, but rarely rewarded.

Britain is a bit of a Jack Of All Trades sometimes. Particularly with sport. Most of the world’s most popular sports were ‘invented’ here. Football, rugby, cricket, boxing, baseball, badminton, tennis, hockey, golf. basketball, table tennis and darts amongst them. More modern sports such as bungee jumping and (surprisingly) bobsleigh also came from Britain.

I used the apostrophes with the word ‘invented’ because, of course, many other nations and cultures make claims of their own with regards some of these sports. Some of them have substance, others are really quite spurios. But most of them are generally attributed to Britain. If those with losing claims need solace, it comes with the fact that Britain are, more often than not, the master of none.

That is a bit unfair really I guess. We have had our world beaters. We are the third highest ranking country in the Summer Olympics as far as gold medals go. Although that is largely due to extremely large hauls gained in the early games. More recently, or at least within my lifetime, there have been others. Lennox Lewis beat everyone there was to beat. Torville and Dean skated their way to perfection.

Nigel Mansell, Damon Hill, Lewis Hamilton and Jensen Button have all won F1 World Championships. As have Williams, McClaren and Lotus, the manufacturers. Lola and Reynard once cleared up the trophies in the US variant of motor racing. In fact no other country seems able to consistently match the British teams in motor racing. What a shame we can build such magnificent machines for the track, but seem so incapable of building more humble cars for sale to road users…

But we do love out sport, and the big sporting occasions. The Boat Race and World Snooker Final at the Crucible in April. The FA Cup Final in May. Wimbledon in June. The British Golf Open and Silverstone GP in July. And tomorrow is the last ‘biggie’ on the calendar. The Grand National at Aintree in Liverpool.  A Brit might win that. We make up most of the runners.

The Grand National is a tradition. And putting a few quid on a horse or two in the race is just as much of a tradition. Tomorrow, betting shops will have their busiest day as people up and down the country go to pick their nag. People who otherwise never gamble, save perhaps for the odd game of bingo, will have a flutter on the national. If there’s only one race someone bets on in the year, it’s this one. I’ve put my stake down. A very heady £1.50 on three gee gees, 50p each. To win. My slip is below. Fingers crossed…

A Footballing Interlude

Today is the last day of the transfer window in the UK, and Europe, a last chance to buy a player or three to help chase a place in Europe. Or to stave off relegation. While the window opens on January 1st, the most exciting deals are often completed in the final hours on the 31st and this year is no exception. Especially if, like me, your team is Liverpool. Especially after the painful torment of the first half of the season, with a dunce for a manager, two crooked owners and the crazy threat of relegation hanging over the club.

But we’ve got what we wanted. Hicks and Gillett are gone, and so is Hodgson. King Kenny is back in charge after a 20 year absense, and our star player, Fernando Torres, is firing again. Except. Torres then goes and hands in a transfer request. He will in all likelihood be a Chelsea player by 11pm this evening, heading one way down the motorway while £50 million is going in the opposite direction. Disaster?

Not in my opinion. In fact I am feeling more positive about the second half of the season than I ever thought I would be. As I write, Newcastle have just accepted Liverpool’s record breaking bid of £35 million for striker Andy Carroll, Uruguay’s Luis Suarez has agreed terms on a £23 million deal, Charlie Adam looks like switches Pool’s, from Black to Liver, and there may yet be more to come.

I’ve been suggesting for the last year at least that if someone comes in for Torres with £50 million or more, the club should take the cash and run. Nando has spent far too long injured over the last couple of years, and I have more than a sneaky feeling that he’ll carry on hogging a table in the physio room for years to come. Yep, he’s a fine striker, one of the best. Yep, his goals per games ratio will always be better than Carroll’s over the long term. But no, he probably won’t be scoring in as many games. And that is key. Goals in bunches looks great, but earns very few points. We need a player who can scores 10 goals in 20 games, not a player who’ll score 11 goals in 5 games.

Carroll is just 22 years old too, and will undoubtedly improve further still. He is the closest thing in the Premier League to Alan Shearer in terms of attributes – great with his head and with either foot, from 1 yard out or 20. Not that he is the ‘new’ Alan Shearer. The stats reveal there is really only one Alan Shearer, metaphorically as well as literally. And Carroll is a perfect foil for Suarez, who can add some very literal bite to the Liverpool attack. If his name sounds familiar, it may be because he was the guy who broke Ghana’s heart in the World Cup with his handy intervention.

Liverpool still lack width, and I’d have loved to see a wide player or two come into the squad. I guess there’s still four hours of the transfer window going, so you never know. Defensively, the team have looked fragile for a year, so strengthening there would have been nice too. But that may stretch the coffers too far. There’s a recession on, you know. The prices we’ve paid for Carroll and Suarez are way, way over the odds, but if they work out, and if Torres does go on to have an injury plagued few years, then this might well be looked back on as having been good business.

The Secret FIFA Farce

Fools Idiots Fuckwits and Arseholes. Pardon the language, but you know what I’m talking about. It was the most suitable acronym I could come up with at short notice. Needless to say I have a few thought about how this mornings vote for the 2018 and 2022 hosts went. I had previously, in the comments on one of my recent posts, queried the ethics of a secret vote.

FIFA has long been known to be a corrupt little club of tin pot dictators. This morning they added further evidence of that. The organisation doesn’t simply need to be cleansed, but closed and replaced with a more open, transparent and representative body. There should be more voters for a start. The Olympic hosts are chosen by a body of some 150 voters, not 24. Or 22, due to the suspension of two FIFA officials for corruption. And each person who has the privilege of casting a vote should be obliged to reveal who they voted for and why.

It has to be said, they may have voted for Russia and Qatar because they believed them to be the best bids. But we’ll never know if there was more to it than that, and have no way of investigating the matter. It could be found in future that a voter had received a dodgy payment, but without knowing which way he voted, there is no final proof. Only suggestive evidence. The fact the England’s bid finished fourth out of four is suggestive evidence in my opinion.

Were Russia and Qatar the best bids? From an environmental point of view, they were both, without any room for argument, the worst options. Not only does Russia need to build almost all their stadiums, but also airports. And the travel between venues is going to leave a high carbon footprint.

As for Qatar. I always thought that was a nasty bit of mucous you get in your nose and thoat when you are sick. But anyway, it turns out they are a country, and they also need to get busy stadium building. Indoor, air conditioned stadium building. The other thing both countries have in common? Corruption. They are arguably the two most corrupt nations of all the bidding entries. Russia has recently been labelled a ‘mafia state‘. It’s all coincidence, I’m sure.

I’ve had to look up info on Qatar, because beyond being aware that it lies somewhere in the Middle East, I know nothing of it. Wealthy they are. But small. A total population of just over one and a half million. The biggest city has less than a million people. The sixth biggest, less than 10,000. And they’ve been given a World Cup? What are they going to do with all the stadiums afterwards? Where’s the legacy? Ridiculous. Farcical.

Qatar, whilst being one of the more liberal Mid East states, still has the death penalty on its books, has a form of Shari’a law, supports Iran’s nuclear program, operates a legalised form of slavery and gay football fans might not be too keen on visiting – they may not leave for five years after the tournament has finished. But they do permit women to drive.

I don’t begrudge Russia winning the vote at all, although Qatar is another matter entirely. Everyone wants to host the World Cup, but only one country every four years can do so. I’m sure they will host a great tournament. What I do begrudge is the process. The corruption. The farce. FIFA.

I can choose to not pay a penny for anything that FIFA takes a cut of. That’s how capitalism is supposed to work. I couldn’t vote this morning. But I can vote tomorrow and every day after that. With my wallet. Except…when you look at this bid video from Russia of their stadia…you do kinda want to go.

The Qatari bid video seems to suggest that they need the World Cup because, quite frankly, their television reception is crap and the only way they’ll get to see a World Cup is by hosting one. I’m surprised their bid opponents didn’t mention that their nicest stadium is in fact a replica of Noah’s Ark from the Bible. That would have had the Qatari religious police pulling the plug on the project pretty quick, I’m sure!

The last point I will make is that my animosity is aimed at a handful of fools, idiots, fuckwits and arseholes. I’ll bet the ordinary people of Russia and Qatar are feeling over the moon right now, and are looking forward to their moment, just as I would have been. And I can’t begrudge them that. I’m sure both countries will put on a show, and Russia in particular is a country whose size and football passion deserves a World Cup.

 

 

 

World Cup 2018

Thursday is a big day. One of the biggest days of my life. In the top 20 anyway. On Thursday, in Zurich, FIFA will announce who will host the 2018 World Cup. England are one of the four candidates, and one of three who have a genuine chance of winning – the Holland/Belgium bid is very much an outsider.

If England were to win it would be the first time in more than 50 years since the world’s biggest sporting event has returned to the birthplace of the game. If we lose, I would be in my 50′s before another chance came around. It’s a big day.

England have been big favourites to win the hosting rights for most of the bidding process. FIFA have previously stated that joint bids, such as the Holland/Belgium and Spain/Portugal bids, were not favoured. The other candidate, Russia, has serious issues. Not least because of the logistics of hosting an event over such a huge area. There’s also the issue of stadiums – Russia will need to build 13 of them from scratch. England, on the other hand, could host the tournament tomorrow.

And yet, as the final vote draws near, England’s chances have slipped. Why? Because English reporters identified a number of corrupt FIFA officials, two of whom had voting rights. They correctly identified them – six members were suspended. Were FIFA grateful to have the bad eggs fingered?

Nope. They were forced to go through the process of suspensions of the members involved, but are furious that the English media put them in the spotight in the first place. Statements have filtered out that the revelations have harmed England’s candidacy. A strange reaction – unless they are all corrupt. One is left to assume they are. And England’s bid now hangs in the balance.

FIFA aren’t fit to run a sport. But such is life. One can only hope that the voting members remember that their duty is to cast their ballot for the best bid, and not the bid that put most cash in their pocket. And that they remember that votes shouldn’t be cast to spite a few individuals, but for the joy of an entire population.

Spain and Portugal, I know, would love to host the event. But should such a massive event with massive costs be given to two members of the PIGS, who may (will probably) need bailing out by other EU members in the not so distant future. That would be galling – for the English taxpayer to effectively be paying Spain to host the World Cup.

England’s bid video is below. But there are other videos worth watching. An unofficial England bid video is pretty funny. Finally, the one bit of hope we have – Paul the Octopus, may he rest in peace, selected England as the winners of the hosting competition before he popped his clogs suckers. Come on England!

Same Old Story

Another tournament, another penalty shoot out, another photo of the beaten Enland team in the centre circle. Where does it all keep going wrong? Well I will tell you! Such is my disappointment – nay, despair – that I need to have a rant at the collection of idiots who are responsible for the repeated early demise of the England team at every tournament they take part in.

The first World Cup during my life time was Spain ’82. Do you remember the crushing 3-1 win over France, and Keegan and Brooking missing winners against the hosts in the dying minutes as England valiantly but vainly battled for that one goal they needed? How about Mexico in ’86 when we were genuinely cheated out of the cup by Maradona, but we nonetheless battled to the last minute, throwing everything at them – Lineker so close to touching in Barnes cross at the death? And then 1990, the most glorious campaign of them all, with great, gutsy displays against Holland, Belgium and Cameroon before eventually falling in the semi finals against the eventual winners on a penalty shoot out. And only then after putting up a remarkable battle.

Other than brief moments of glory at our own Euro 1996 under Venables, and in 1998 under Glenn Hoddle, there have been no repeat performances of the good old days, when we used to lose with the Three Lions flying proudly and defiantly, where we could claim our team had done themselves proud and gone out in the most unfortunate of circumstances.

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So where did it all go wrong? Well not only can I tell you where it started to go wrong, but I’ll give you the date and the solutions!

November 6th 1986 – the day Alex Ferguson was appointed manager of Manchester United. This man has done more to destroy the chances of England winning a tournament than any other individual. Of course, there are other factors and other people who have also contributed, such as the introduction of the Premier League and with it the vast influx of financial supoort to the game from TV and other sponsors.

But it was Ferguson who opened serious battle with the FA over players being called up for England duties, and he who started a club policy of withdrawing players from international matches with very dubious injuries that usually miraculously disappeared the following Saturday. Arsene Wenger has come along and been just as bad, but he was following a lead.

They both complain vociferously about the cost to their clubs when releasing players and both keep repeating the ‘football is big business, big money’ mantra.

Well football may be big business with huge sums of money at stake, but it is still meant to be a sport! Why does professional football exist? To entertain the paying customers – the fans! And for us it is a sport, solely a sport, about blood, guts and glory, not £’s in the bank. If you want to entertain us, concentrate on the game, give us the fantastic matches of old and for the love of God, support the England team which is by far and away the most important and supported team in our green and pleasant land! Sure, money has become more important than ever, and it is needed to help bring the English game up to scratch, but it shouldn’t be allowed to dominate over all other factors.

In Mexico, the national team withdraws it’s squad from the leagues a month before the World Cup for training. Brasil have a history of playing their best eleven at every game. Other countries are similarly focussed. But not the English. Which needs to change urgently. The power needs to be taken back from the clubs, and pride returned to the act of pulling on the white shirt of England. A strong and determined FA needs to be created from the weak and increasingly irrelevant organistion that today presides over the national game.

We should know pretty much what the team will look like for a tournament two years in the future, because we should see them playing the full 90 mins every time England play. Perhaps it is time to reintroduce the Home Nations tournament between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Extra competition, increase pride, help us remember what it is like to be winners! In fact there is no perhaps about it – it should have happened a long time ago.

Of course that will increase the amount of football played, which is also a problem. Time to reduce the Premier League to 18 teams and leave the League Cup to those in the Championship. I’m not in favour of a winter break though, I love my Boxing Day and New Years Day football, and if we managed to arrange things in such a way as to shorten the league season by a couple of weeks, and limit the number of mid week games, then we wouldn’t need it. I wasn’t crazy about the idea of removing replays from the FA cup, but they are practical. Perhaps just the final could be given a replay if necessary…

Lastly, I move on to the subject of Sven Goran Eriksson. Oh the joy of hindsight. After five and a half years we can finally look back and see why exactly he wasn’t the ideal choice to lead the English team. But the FA isn’t paid to look back in hindsight, they are experts who are there to know what we the fans find out years later. Clairvoyancy not needed, just a thorough knowledge of the sport and the english game in particular. What is our game about? Passion, strength, speed, flowing attacks from all directions, strong minded footballers with character, discipline, fitness….

So why did we employ a man whose main backgroud comes from the patient, defensive Italian leagues, whose tactical nouse was inclined towards the holding of a lead, whose passion was hidden beneath a thick sheet of ice, whose ability as a disciplinarian is questionable to say the least?

I like Sven, don’t get me wrong. And I think he is an excellent manager. But not here in England. We need a manager who appreciates the differences of the English style of football compared to our Euro brethren and who looks to utilise it so that it might fulfil it’s potential. Rather than attempt to change it. We can be proud of our League, our players and our game. Let’s show it to the world and let them enjoy it too.

There are causes for optimism in the future, regardless of the doomsaying of much of the media. We have a new manager who will understand the game here – even if there are enough question marks for the jury to still be out regarding his other qualifications. We have a new Wembley. We will have a new captain. A whole fresh start. And there were some bright spots in the World Cup. Steven Gerrard was good – great when Beckham and Rooney went off and he had his customary free role in midfield. A role he must be allowed to keep. Joe Cole was fantastic throughout the tournament. Not just pretty skills, but results too.

Crouch was perhaps the biggest surprise. I didn’t think he had what it takes on the international scene, but he performed admirably. Exceptionaly against Portugal, making himself available and easy to hit with long passes from a sieged defence, and holding the ball up well. Rooney may have seen red, but he is still the key to England’s future. Robinson is a quality goalkeeper who has now proven himself the undisputed number one. Aaron Lennon has what it takes too – I hope he moves to a big club to get big match experience and show what he can really do. Owen Hargreaves at last showed what he is capable of, when Sven at last managed to utilise him correctly. They are all young players and along with John Terry and Frank Lampard will be there for the next bash at glory.

But individuals don’t make a team. That’s what the manager is there for. And he needs help from the clubs, the FA and everyone involved in the English game if he is to make a success of it. So on to South Africa….