Archive for the ‘sports’ Category

The World Cup in South Africa was meant to bring together the ‘dark continent’ and leave a legacy of hope and unity for Africa’s future. There was even optimistic talk that maybe, just maybe, the 6.5kg, 18-carat gold and malachite trophy might be won by an African side.

Instead it has left poverty-stricken South Africa with a £3.5 billion bill, and a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths. Don’t get me wrong, many accounts have suggested that the local’s hospitality and generousness of spirit has shown no bounds, and that many visitors have taken away a wonderful experience full of African flavour and flair.

However there has been a much darker experience of this world cup. In a poverty-stricken country where every extra rand earned makes a huge difference, FIFA’s insistence on commercial protection against even the smallest vendors has bordered on gross protectionism of the worst kind. We are not talking about simply seeing off the big multi-national rivals of major sponsors, such as the Dutch beer brand who ambush-marketed a Netherlands match with pretty girls in orange dresses, but more the ‘little people’, such as the ‘Jo’burg’ woman whose self-made food stall on which she depended for her livelihood, selling authentic, South African homemade food to very interested International tourists, had to be forcibly shut down by police in order to protect the profits of official sponsor McDonalds – a product they can all get at home. She had been quite happily making a small living selling this food to Soccer City stadium workers in the build up to the tournament, but as soon as the football fan tourists hove into view, the police dragged her and her stall off. Or the man who was selling hand-crafted key-chains featuring a small football, a metallic map of Africa and a ‘2010’, as well as a small vuvuzela. These had to be confiscated less they interfere with the profiteering of official merchandise. Interestingly enough, kicking out and arresting the Dutch beer girls seems to have drawn more attention to the beer brand than ignoring them probably would have done. Sales have sky-rocketed as a result of this FIFA own goal (It’s called ‘Bavaria’, if you are interested, and is quite a decent drop!)

FIFA’s ignorance of the opportunity they had to help heal a broken South Africa even extended to the official venue staff. The world’s governing body awarded a multi-million pound contract for stadium security to ‘Stallion Security Consortium’, who were highly embarrassed the day before the game between USA and England – possibly the biggest security threat in the whole tournament, when a British reporter for the Evening Standard managed to wander into just about every area of the stadium, including the players dressing rooms, completely unchallenged.  If that was embarrassing, they disgraced themselves when it emerged that the executives were on hundred-thousand pound salaries, and the poor, mostly local black stewards, were originally offered a paltry (but normal by local standards) 450 rand (about £25) per 15 hour shift, only to actually be given 126 rand (about £8.50) per shift. During these gruelling shifts, they had to endure the harsh cold of the South African winter (yes it gets freezing there at night in June) without any officially issued protective clothing. They were also only offered one meal a shift, and some complained the food was either rotten or had been left out during the whole shift. Unsurprisingly, they decided to strike in order to receive the wages they had originally been offered. Not wanting to face the embarrassment of calling off matches, FIFA called on the local police to disperse the security staff with tear gas, and install police guards as match stewards. The show must go on!

As I mentioned, the World Cup in South Africa has still managed to impose a certain ‘African-ness’ on the cup so far. Aside from the earthy African colours, tribal music, and the rather strange Dung Beetle ‘renewing life’ during the opening ceremony, the most obviously African element of the 2010 Cup, has been the incessant use en masse of the local horn known as a ‘vuvuzela’. Love it or hate it, there is probably very few people in the world today who have not had some experience of hearing the buzzing drone of this instrument. Indeed it has been so hard to ignore, that sometimes the commentary and pitch-side sound effects have been drowned out. When blown in large numbers within a football stadium, it produces a buzzing din which sounds like deadly swarms of Tanaostigmodes tambotis (that’s a species of Afrotropical Apoidea, or super-wasp, common to South Africa). This effect is especially acute when the trumpeters decide to blow in concerto in crescendo-ing waves, giving the effect the swarm of wasps is circling around, ready to deliver their deadly stings at any moment.

Some people apparently do enjoy this buzzing din. For me personally, my 2010 FIFA World Cup vuvuzela highlight was the noticeable absence of them in the England vs Slovenia match, in which it was replaced by that old-fashioned but irreplaceable football terrace activity known as singing. So much more pleasant. Indeed, made even the more so, by the sound of 15,000 English fans singing, in the ever-creative way they always do: ‘You can shove your vuvuzelas up your arse, You can shove your vuvuzelas up your arse, you can shove your vuvuzelas, shove your vuvuzelas, shove your vuvuzelas up your arse!’

This has all been before we have even stepped onto the pitch as well! Another FIFA balls-up, has been the ball itself. The ‘Jabulani’ African-themed ball (it’s name means ‘rejoice’ in Zulu), has caused upset and frustration for many of the players. Supertars who can usually be relied upon to hit the target from range have been constantly embarrassed and confused as their attempts at wonder-strikes from distance continue soaring up, up and away towards the nose-bleed seats. It also seemingly resulted in the lowest ever tally of goals after all teams had played one match in any world cup. Ever. And that, despite both Germany and Argentina scoring four each in their first matches. Surprisingly, some players have come out in support of the ball. Unsurprisingly, all of the players who have supported it seem to be personally sponsored by the ball’s manufacturer, Adidas.

Regardless of the ball we have also seen some pretty insipid performances from teams expected to do well. It is the first time the previous champions (Italy), and runners-up (France) have ever gone out in the first round. South Africa also suffered the ignominy of becoming the first ever host nation to go out in the first round. Africa’s other promising contingent of Cameroon, Ivory Coast and Nigeria all also disappointed by failing to progress, with only Ghana’s ‘Black Stars’ keeping the host-continent’s hopes alive. Out of the pre-tournament favourites, England proved the biggest disappointment, but despite their boorish early displays, they were ultimately undone by an absolutely dreadful refereeing error in their round of 16 match against arch-rivals Germany. Uruguayan referee Jorge Larrionda and his compatriot linesman somehow both failed to spot that Frank Lampard’s shot had ricocheted down off the cross bar and bounced a full metre inside the goal before spinning back out into the hands of the German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, who best explains what happened next himself: “I tried not to react to the referee and just concentrate on what was happening. I realised it was over the line and I think the way I carried on so quickly fooled the referee into thinking it was not over.” I guess that makes him not just a cheat but a boastful cheat to boot. It is true that the German’s went on to win 4-1, but all could see that the non-goal had left the English players demoralised, and their second half performance was hollow. Going in 2-2 at half time would have completely changed the complexion of the match.

Disappointingly, that glaring error has not been an isolated event. Even on the same day a dreadful offside call allowed Argentina’s Carlos Teves to claim an illegal goal and seal the fate of a spirited Mexico side. Indeed it is hard to remember any tournament, ever held, anywhere with so many cataclysmic refereeing howlers. Perhaps the benchmark was set before it even all began, in the France vs Ireland play-off, when Tierry Henry, a player most had previously considered to be above such juvenile cheating, clearly paddled the ball back into play with his hand in order to allow France to score the winner and undeservedly qualify for the finals. The benchmark was set. Under ‘can-do-no-wrong’ protection from FIFA, referees have blundered through, and ruined many matches at the 2010 finals – and taken the hopes of many teams along with them.

In Australia’s first match against powerful Germany, their job was made so much the harder, when Mexican official Marco Rodriguez sent off team talisman Tim Cahill for a challenge in which he won the ball. That decision turned a survivable 2-0, into a 4-0 route, and the Aussies eventually went out only on goal difference. But just to add to their troubles, they got done again in their second match. Having completely outplayed Ghana for the first 25 minutes, and already 1-0 up, their second best player Harry Kewell was given marching orders by Italian Roberto Rosetti, for hand ball on the goal line. Now the ball did hit his arm – his arm, that was firmly tucked against his body and in no way trying to control the ball. Law 12 clearly states the player must be making a deliberate action with the hand or arm to control the ball. Ghana equalised from the penalty, and with a numerical advantage hung on for a 1-1 draw. Chaill’s send off was made to look all the more silly when the next day, in the Italy vs Paraguay match, Mexican ref Tellez only gave a yellow to Paraguay’s Caceres for challenge in which he came in from behind and nearly broke the legs of Italy’s Riccardo Montolivo. French referee Stephane Lannoy, somehow contrived to interpret Ivory Coast’s Keita running into Brazilian Kaka as a foul, brandishing a straight red. In the same match he somehow completely forgot to notice Luis Fabiano blatantly handling the ball for Brazil’s first goal as well. USA were robbed when a perfectly good match winning goal goal against Slovenia was given as a foul. For what, no one is quite sure to this day. USA can also feel aggrieved that not one, but two perfectly good goals were disallowed by Hungarian Viktor Kassai in their 2-1 round of 16 loss to Ghana. In the round of 16 clash between Spain and Portugal, despite being 1-0 up, Spanish player Capdevila took a massive dive that everybody except Argentinian referee Hector Baldassi laughed at – instead Hector gave Ricardo Costa an even more laughable red card. The litany of errors is even longer, but that summarise the worst of the match changing ones. Yes FIFA, some of us do keep tabs. Has their ever been such a bulging catalogue of officialdom errors in such a short space of time? The standard of refereeing in South Africa has not only blighted this world cup, but also ruined it as a fair sporting contest.

FIFA have lost touch with what the game is about. How it inspires people, lifts their spirits, and gives them hope. In the quest to profit, the game has been totally commercialised, and has become an ugly thing as a result. The players are overpaid, spoiled prima-donnas, who think they are owed something and play accordingly. They no longer feel the connection, passion and pride of the fans, and seemingly no longer care. Indeed the grossly inflated cash of the Premier League has done more to tear players attention away from what the game is really about than anything else, and this is now reflecting a lack of pride in their national crests. Do you not see the anguish and pain on the fans faces. You should fight with your life for them, as many of them make massive sacrifices to follow and support you.

I am sure many people will take away happy memories from South Africa 2010, not least the side who eventually lift the trophy, but I am sure much of the local population, deprived of their only chance to witness such a spectacle in their own country, probably for the only time in their lifetimes, and also deprived of any opportunity to profit or even benefit from it, will not be amongst them. And nor I, as a true fan of what used to be a beautiful game, played by champions in a usually fair and honest way, will take happy memories from this tournament. My only hope is that in four years time, 32 of the world’s best international teams will descend on Brazil, and the local spirit will inspire the Brazilian philosophy of joga bonito – ‘beautiful play’.


The future of cricket

Posted: March 18, 2010 in cricket, sport, sports, T20, Twenty20, Uncategorized

Well we all love cricket – after all, it is the second most popular sport on the planet, after football – and forget whatever the Americans say about their favourite codes – they are all way down the list. But what is the current state of play? A quite glance around web forums shows a huge level of debate about the game and how it is currently played. And just this debate shows something is not quite right.

Despite it’s mass popularity and recent attempts at global expansion, the game still revolves around the sub-continent and other former outposts of the British Empire.  It’s status as the second most popular game is largely thanks to it being the most popular sport for India’s billion plus population.  Football, however, is played in every country on the planet!

Is that due to some kind of archaic elitism associated with cricket?? The complexity of the rules? The image of play meandering for hours with little action? Perhaps… But all of us who love and play the game know that this isn’t the case.  It is  action packed, physically and mentally demanding, highly challanging, and  is a very rewarding sport to play. But how do we get over these old stereotypes? Particularly when trying to take the game into new markets??

I for one think T20 is the only way forward. I AM a traditionalist, don’t get me wrong. Bah! Traditionalists like only like first-class and test cricket, and don’t promote the benefits of T20, I hear you say…. Well I disagree. There is a place for tradition for certain, and it should, and will always remain within the game. As an Australian I will always love to watch an Ashes series decider going down to the wire in the fifth test of a grueling tour, than a silly bit of hit and giggle T20.

But actually, on the other hand I am actually starting to quite enjoy a bit of hit and giggle. The explosive shots, the sense of adventure and daring do, the crowd involved, roaring along – it all reminds me of my mid-80s youth, and the excitement I felt watching the touring West Indies playing ODI’s under lights at the MCG. The likes of Desmond Haynes and Viv Richards charging down the track to smash fast bowlers out of the attack! The coloured clothing. The boozed up (but generally well-behaved) crowd. The classic catches. That was living! But then something weird happened to ODI’s. They got computerised and formulaic.

That sense of excitement has long drifted away from ODI’s, and out of fear of losing television money, desperate cricket boards around the world are in a panic to recapture, reinvent, rejig, reorganise it. Whatever can be done, lest they lose some advertising revenue.

Well administrators, listen to the fans instead of the marketing boffins. Crowds are down in ODI’s all around the globe. Only the Ashes, and perhaps series such as India v Pakistan, and Australia v South Africa continue to draw test crowds. T20 draws big crowds all over now, and the games are fast-paced and action packed. The IPL is very exciting and the games are quite competitive and skillful.

There WILL be more T20 at the expense of ODI’s, but more T20 matches means more advertising space, not less. It is also less stressful on the players, so the quality of the ‘package’ or whatever the markerteers wish to call it, will be improved. Plus, no one has the time to watch a whole ODI on tv these days anyway. Whereas three hours in the evening to watch a T20 game is doable. I say let ODI cricket die it’s natural death. And Shane Warne even agrees with me.

We now all live ever more hectic lives, and the ability to get in a whole game in 2-3 hours on the way home from work is great. I cannot seriously remember the last time I sat down to watch an entire ODI on tv. It is now virtually impossible to get in a whole ODI, unless you want to waste all your annual leave, or are the kind of old money that would only watch test cricket anyway.

T20 is the future, as is the expansion of domestic competitions like the T20 Champions League. I am personally salivating at the prospect of my beloved home team of Tasmania, taking on the English or Indian champions in a future edition. If only they could win the Australian domestic mouthful known as the KFC Twenty20 Big Bash.

I am also in favour of a city-based English league, and similar ventures in other traditional bastions of the game. The prospect of Manchester v London enthrals me. Don’t abandon the County game, but keep it for the first-class comp, and create the T20 EPL. This is the kind of innovation the game needs to maintain its role as the planets second favourite sport, and perhaps challange football as number one. Certainly if not challenge football, it should firmly hold the role as the world’s summer game. After all, imagine if there was more baseball around the world. Urgh! In the media-globalised-techno-world that we now live in, expanding into more countries is essential as well. Countries without the first-class tradition, are more likely to grow to love an exciting fast-paced spectacle of T20, and it will be the main source of growing the game in new countries. I recently met a barman in Naples who was from Sri Lanka, and the likes of him are begging for a league to play in within Italy.

With T20 offering an easier route into the game, the ICC needs to let go of the old MCC gruffness a bit.  So what if a few associates get battered – quite a few of the current test nations got battered when the first entered the test arena, and are now competitive. The idea of watching China v USA in the cricket world cup sounds great, and playing against better the sides will only improve lesser sides. One of my favourite memories of the 2007 ICC World Cup was not my home nation of Australia winning the tournament, but of underdogs Ireland defeating established side Pakistan. We need more of that to keep the game fresh and exciting.

Test cricket and tradition will always have a place, mainly in the old empire countries where it already thrives. But with sports like American gridiron, baseball and basketball, motorsports, rugby and ice hockey all adopting global marketing strategies, cricket has to modernise and sell itself as the fast-paced, action packed game that T20 always offers. No four-day draws here please.

My thought is for the following. Test cricket remains with the current 10 teams, or with a reduced number of nations, if they cannot prove popularity requirements for the game within their country. It is a two division league with promotion and relegation of one team between divisions. Each team plays three home, and three away tests against each other, within a two year period. At the end of each two years, a test champion is crowned. The only exception is the Ashes, which should remain a five-test series, to acknowledge it’s importance as the original international rivalry. However for parity, the winner of the series still receives the same points towards the test championship as all other series. I think the popularity and demand for the Ashes in both the UK and Australia will allow this.

50-over cricket will cease entirely. It has become too formulaic, and it is clear the formula serves no purpose other than to provide tv advertising revenue. Although it still reamins viable in the sub-continent for the time being, it is already being eclipsed by the popularity of T20.

T20 will be structured as follows. The T20 World Cup should expand to 24 or 32 sides, allowing for more nations to get through to the opening group stage. The first round should see six or eight groups of four, with the top two going through from each group. With each of the test sides seeded into a group, it should avoid them meeting in round one, and should also see at least one non-test side progress from each group into round two. Imagine how much it would spark a new interest in the cup if USA or Argentina went through to the second round. Outside of the World Cup T20 should also be played at the Olympics, and regular tour series should accompany Test series, as they currently do. Regional championship tournaments could provide regular matches for non-test teams.

At the domestic level, the test teams should maintain their first-class tournaments, but replace their domestic 50-over tournaments with a second T20 series. One series should be for existing representative sides, and a second for city-based franchise sides. The victors in both series go on to play in the Champions League. New T20 leagues should form the basis of new domestic competitions in expanding market nations. City-based T20 leagues should be set up as the main form of the game in Netherlands, Canada, USA, China, Argentina, Italy etc, all of the top 50 or so countries. Perhaps the T20 champions from non-test nations could go into a qualifying round to see wild-cards play in the Champions League.

The Ashes will go on forever, but 50-over cricket, and test series involving the bottom four sides are losing popularity and threatening cricket overall. T20 is the global future of the game, and I say embrace it. It will also help maintain our game as the world’s number two sport in the increasingly franchised, globalised world of 21st century sport. Or maybe it will even move it up to number one.

Why England are their own worst enemy.

I am always amused by the attitude and commentary of the British public and press, from back pages to pub bars, as England prepare for major sporting tournaments. It is especially interesting when, on the rare occasion, England have even managed to assemble a squad of would-be contenders, with a real or imagined chance to finally lift that elusive trophy.

I have of course, been inspired to discuss this topic by the seeming attempt at self-destruction that is currently being undertaken by the England football team. Back in October 2009, England sailed through qualification for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa on the back of an impressive nine wins out of ten, with a positive goal difference of 28. Despite the minor aberration against Ukraine in the penultimate qualifier, it is impressive stuff, indeed. Then the discussions began. Perhaps they have a genuine chance this time? There is no doubting that the side that cruised through group six of UEFA qualification is an impressive football side. In Cole and Terry you have two of the best defenders in the world. Gerrard and Lampard can control any midfield on their day, and well, Rooney, is probably the best striker in the world on current form. There are also others such as Lennon, Carrick, Crouch, Johnson and Gareth Barry who all look up for the job of performing on the world’s greatest stage. Even the aging Beckham looked like he still had one last in-swinging cross to see the Three Lions over an insurmountable obstacle and onto the next stage, probably in dying moments for added drama.

But that was October, and now we fast forward to mere weeks away from the tournament itself. In the intervening time we have had the Eastenders-esque pantomime that is British sport, start to play it’s usual undermining role. First we have ‘red tab’ revelations about Captain and stalwart Terry and his affair with former Chelsea tem-mate Wayne Bridge’s ex, Vanessa Perroncel. The nation was divided. For some, Terry the defensive god can do no wrong, and should be left to do as he pleases and guide England to world cup victory, shagging whomever he likes along the way. Never mind his missus. For others, the deceit and betrayal is unbecoming of an England captain, and he was rightly stood down. Interestingly, for some, it was more about the betrayal of a team-mate, that the cheating on his lawfully wedded wife. The editors of said paper obviously couldn’t have cared either way, but it certainly shifted not just the expected extra Sunday copies, but dragged on for about ten days, filling the shrinking coffers. Whatever the case, the man who had been arm-banded for England and was probably best qualified for the job, was stood down by his Italian Don. Bullet in foot number one.

What seemed like mere moments later, fellow England and Chelsea defender Ashley Cole was revealed to have cheated with not just one, but five, yes five other women! At least none of them were attached to team-mates… It was alright though, as Cole was already a figure of hatred up and down the fair isle for his money-grubbing exploits and the most heinous of betrayals, a London derby-rival transfer. Monster.

Of course it might not actually be Cole, widely regarded as one of, if not the best left back in the world, who actually performs that role in the Cup, as he is fighting back to fitness from an injury that threatens to scupper his tourney. His obvious replacement would have been Wayne Bridge, quite adept at the role, but victim of said infidelities of Terry and Peroncel. He has subsequently made himself unavailable to ‘protect team unity’, and that leave England with no internationally experienced or decent left-backs. Bullet number two.

Which brings us on to the old curse of injuries. Old warhorse Beckham topped up frequent flying points, learned to love pasta and even got a bit of semplice Italiano in order to become the first Englishman to play in four Cup final tournaments. But of course the England injury curse had to hit someone, and dear oh dear, poor Becks, alas, shall play in the cup no more. At least it was Becks and not Rooney, I hear echoing up and down the land. Well, there is still a lot of football for United to play between now and June…

It has of course all happened before. Rooney’s injury in Euro 2004 may have contributed to the poor showing there. Beckham was famously undercooked trying to recover from an injury prior to the 2002 World Cup, and underperformed. England goal-machine Michael Owen was also hit by the big-tournament curse at the 2006 Cup.

Regardless of injuries, the British Paparazzi never cease to amaze me with their willingness to destroy British sporting ambitions on the sniff of a ‘good story’. I imagine them sitting in their office chewing the nails over whether to destroy England hopes by publishing some revelation of wrong doing, or show support for the cause. Ha! I jest… Of course they would drive the nail in without a second thought.

As an Australian this is very foreign to me, as our press are usually our secret weapon. They hail and lift on high Aussie athletes of all shapes and variety, and always, without fail, make life hell for touring sides by jumping on the backs and leaning backwards for the whole trip. Sometimes quite unfairly, to be honest. But manys the touring cricket side who have travelled from Perth to Sydney and been hounded all the way. And you do not want to make indiscretions on the long and arduous tour, believe me. And that is before the players and the fans have even gotten stuck in. Sporting, spirit of fair play? I think not. We want to win, and win at all costs. British paps however are more interested in who is shagging who.

Speaking of touring down under, it reminds me that it is not just the football team who get completely undermined by Fleet Street. How they rejoiced into their mojitos who the woke up to find Freddie floating across the Caribbean at the 2007 Cricket World Cup. To be fair, the ‘Fredalo’ headline was quite clever. England’s Rugby team have been struck by the same Pap-injury curse as well.

As England go out of the 2010 FIFA World Cup on penalties, it will not be the infidelities or the injuries that have cost the team, it will have been the paps who highlight every crack, expose every wound to the opponents, and snap every beer in a club after a win. Our press will be showing the Socceroos training hard, practicing pens, and running their arses off.

Who needs strong opponents when you are being undermined from within?