22 February 2007

Is this really equality?

It was announced today that Wimbledon will for the first time this summer offer the same prize money for female players as it does for the men.

So we now have parity in financial terms. But does this really represent true equality?

In modern times, there has always been a natural inequality at the four Grand Slam tournaments (Wimbledon, and the Australian, French and US Opens), by virtue of the fact that men's matches are played to a best-of-five sets format, whereas the ladies play best-of-three. This means a one-sided ladies' match can be over in 45 minutes - and rarely lasts more than two hours - whereas a men's match can go on for four hours or more, and rarely lasts less than two hours.

Put another way, the winner of the women's singles title at this year's Wimbledon will play a maximum of 21 sets (and a minimum of 14) in the tournament, whereas the men's champion will play a minimum of 21 (and a maximum of 35) to win the same prize money.

It's not the fairest and most direct of comparisons, but one could say that this is equivalent to a women are being paid the same for a three-day week as their male counterparts are for a full five-day week.

In the workplace, there is certainly no reason why women should earn less than men. However, sport is another matter, where commercial drivers dictate the size of the prize. In virtually all other sports it is normal for female players to earn less (usually far less) than males. This is simply because interest in women's football or golf or cricket is tiny compared to the men's equivalents - and consequently attract smaller audiences and commercial revenue. For women's tennis, this is emphatically not the case. Viewing figures for women's tennis are comparable to men's. And Maria Sharapova is every bit as popular and marketable as the likes of Roger Federer. So in the case of tennis, there is no overriding financial reason why women shouldn't have the right to earn as much as the men.

So, the question is: why don't women play best-of-five in the Grand Slams? Play the same amount as the men - earn the same amount as the men. It seems like a simple equation, doesn't it?

After all, in many other sports, women compete over the same time-span as men: ladies' golf tournaments are frequently played over 72 holes, women's football matches last 90 minutes, and so on.

Historically, the biggest argument against five-set women's tennis was the physical capability of women to play longer matches in tournaments. This may have been the case in the past - as it was in athletics as 30 years ago, where women could not compete in endurance events such as the 5,000 metres or marathon - but is not necessarily so today. Now, top players like Amelie Mauresmo or Venus Williams possess just as much strength and stamina as their male counterparts, in a way that was perhaps not the case 30 years ago.

So why don't women play over five sets at Wimbledon? Or, at the very least, play the ladies' final over the longer span?

It's a question which has been argued circuitously (and inconclusively) by wiser and more knowledgeable minds than mine. But while I applaud the equality in prize money which Wimbledon has finally bowed to today, I find myself scratching my head at the inequality this appears to have created for the men's game.

20 February 2007

Is the romance of Cup replays worth it?

A lot has been said in recent days about whether the current system of allowing FA Cup replays should continue, or be abolished to avoid potential fixture congestion for the big clubs.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger was particularly vocal in his desire to do away with replays. From his perspective it is an understandable view, as Arsenal are still competing in four competitions, and are currently in the middle of a run where they must play two games a week for seven out of eight weeks - a big ask given the physical demands of the modern game, even allowing for the benefits of squad rotation.

Speaking more generally, the arguments in favour of one match cup ties are well known, and include:
- No need to squeeze a replay into already congested fixture schedules
- Discourages the away team from defensively playing for a draw (the "we'll beat 'em at ours" strategy)
- A lower division side probably has a better chance of causing an upset in the lottery of a shootout than in a full replay
- Fans are rewarded for their attendance by the guarantee of seeing a result on the night
- Penalty shootouts are exciting
And so on and so on.

But there are arguments against as well, which support those who favour replays. As always in modern football, there is a financial case: a replay means extra ticket sales and extra revenue which can be particularly valuable to lower division sides.

And then there is the romantic one, which takes me back to my childhood. Between 1978 and 1980, Arsenal reached three consecutive FA Cup finals. Both the '79 and '80 Cup runs featured marathon ties that are no longer possible in the Cups.

1979, third round. Arsenal (losers of the previous year's final) versus Sheffield Wednesday of the old third division. It took five matches covering 540 minutes of football to finally separate the teams, Arsenal winning the fourth replay 2-0 with goals from Frank Stapleton and Steve Gatting. Back in those days, you played the first match at one team's home, then the first replay at the other, and then you went to a neutral venue. Three times an icy-cold Filbert Street was filled by the faithful fans of both sides. As an eight-year-old, I remember listening to the commentary on Radio 3 (there was no Five Live or live TV coverage back then!) and being completely caught up in the thrill of this seemingly never-ending tussle. Arsenal went on to beat Man U 3-2 in the final, having squandered a 2-0 lead in the last five minutes.

1980, semi-final. The longest FA Cup semi-final in history, spanning four matches. Arsenal finally overcame the mighty Liverpool 1-0, and we all felt our name was on the Cup, especially because we knew we only had to beat second division West Ham in the final. Oops. The semi was a thrilling and titanic struggle, but I can't help but wonder how much it took out of the team. In the space of a few weeks, a promising league challenge faded quietly away, we lost the FA Cup final to a rare Trevor Brooking header and then an exhausted side lost the Cup Winners' Cup final to Valencia on penalties. The FA Cup semi was one of the great battles of any FA Cup, but ultimately it cost Arsenal severely. However, that didn't make it any less great as a spectacle.

We just don't get these long, drawn-out Cup ties any more. That's a shame in some ways, but in many others it is a good thing. And there ARE compensations to having a sudden-death format too. A few years back, Arsenal beat Rotherham in the Carling Cup after a shootout that totalled 22 penalties and included (successful) spot kicks by both goalies. Great stuff. And a hell of a lot better than having to trudge all the way back to watch a replay after what had been, quite frankly, a very poor game of football. Then there's the 1994 World Cup final. Who could forget the great Roberto Baggio's amateurish blast over the bar? Euro 96, with Oliver Bierhoff's golden goal. South Korea disposing of Italy in the 2002 World Cup by the same means. Great moments one and all.

So it's not just a case of black and white, right and wrong. The current system is a product of the times; it has its good and bad points, but is it actually any better or worse? Or is it just different?

On balance, I think the system is about right. But that doesn't mean I don't miss the romance which has largely disappeared from Cup football - and the absence of open-ended replays is a big part of that.

Much ado about nothing

Rafa Benitez took his Liverpool squad away to a training camp in Portugal last week and apparently there was an "altercation" between Craig Bellamy and John Arne Riise, involving karaoke, a golf club and Riise's legs.

So what?

It happens in all walks of life. Just because a group of people work together doesn't automatically mean they're all best mates. Different people have differing personalities, views and preferences. Mutual dislike or even open conflict between colleagues is commonplace in offices, factories and other workplaces up and down the country, and football clubs are no different. In fact, it's surprising we don't see more of this sort of incident when you consider the scale of the earnings and egos involved in top flight football.

So was it in any way a surprise that, given the opportunity to let their hair down in a relaxing environment and allowing themselves to partake of a low alcohol beer or ten, that an otherwise trivial disagreement bubbled over into something more? Not really. (Just think how many fights break out at lads' nights out or on stag parties.)

And was anyone genuinely surprised that Craig Bellamy was central to the incident? A man who is to off-field trouble what a magnet is to iron filings? Again, no.

So he blew his top, biffed one of his team-mates, and has no doubt been severely reprimanded by his boss. It's nothing you don't see on any Friday night outside a pub. Bellamy is a young man who has, shall we say, anger management issues which he needs to work on. But he has hardly committed a capital offence, and it's only because he is a highly-paid and often controversial footballer that this incident has attracted such media attention.

It's done, and in the greater scheme of things it will soon be forgotten. Time to move on.

18 February 2007

Say hello, wave goodbye

In many respects, boxing is the most basic – certainly the most visceral – of all sports. In no other sport is the ultimate objective so naked: to physically dominate your opponent, ideally beating them senseless. And in no other sport can a single defeat be so catastrophic. A football team can lose a match one week, but if they win handsomely the following week all is well again. But for a big-name boxer to lose a major bout is tantamount to disaster; it always damages their reputation, and can often stop a career dead in its tracks.

Conversely, a big win is everything. Emotionally, it is an affirmation of status or of great potential. Financially, it can be obscenely rewarding. And pragmatically, one (literally) lives to fight another day.

Boxing regularly shows us either side of the coin: triumph or disaster. On Saturday night we saw both, on the same card at Wembley.

The end of the line for Audley?

Audley Harrison exploded into the UK consciousness as an amateur, thanks to his gold medal at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

He quickly turned professional, proclaiming himself a future world champion. After 14 consecutive but largely unconvincing victories against opponents who were heavyweight in category but distinctly lightweight by reputation, he finally fought for and won the lightly regarded WBF title (effectively boxing’s equivalent of the Carling Cup).

Nominally, he had delivered on his promise. In practice, he had done little to shake the “Fraudley” tag attached to him by his critics, each successive bout cementing a reputation for talking a far better game than he produced in the ring. Meanwhile, Harrison continued to cite his undefeated record and remind everyone he was, factually, a world champion.

As the saying goes: the bigger they are, the harder they fall. Having successfully ducked the heavyweight division’s big names, Harrison finally agreed to fight British rival and Commonwealth champion Danny Williams – and promptly lost, effectively killing his prospects of a more lucrative title bout.

And on Saturday night, Harrison was knocked out inside three rounds by European champion Michael Sprott. It was his third defeat in five fights in 14 months, and surely the final curtain. In any other sport, a career record of 21 wins to three defeats would be considered exceptional; in boxing, it signifies more “chump” than “champ”. It seems that history will remember Audley Harrison as a man who was a good boxer, but never a great one - and after this weekend's defeat, it seems this is exactly where his career now resides: history.

Amir marches on

Like Harrison, Amir Khan emerged into the public consciousness thanks to his exploits at the Olympics, winning a silver medal in the lightweight division in 2004, aged just 17.

On Saturday night he recorded his eleventh straight win as a pro - and seventh by knockout - beating Frenchman Mohammed Medjadi in just 55 seconds. He’s still only 20.

Whereas Harrison was the heavyweight with the lightweight reputation, Khan is very much the reverse. He is an exciting fighter, well liked by the media and public, and his career is very much on an upward trajectory. He is yet to compete for a world title, but this is a realistic prospect in the next 12 months if he continues his carefully-managed development.

What separates Khan from Harrison? Both emerged from the Olympics as promising amateurs. Both won their first 11 fights. And yet the young Bolton lad is cherished in a way which Harrison always aspired to, but never was.

There is a feeling that Amir Khan possesses that intangible X factor, a sprinkling of pixie dust which Harrison always lacked. Certainly he has consistently fought as good a game as he talks – a key difference to Harrison. Whether Khan will fully deliver on his potential remains to be seen, but it promises to be a thrilling tale.

The fact that the pair’s careers crossed and then passed in opposite directions on Saturday night – Khan’s rapid-fire win serving as a neat counterpoint to the demise of the plodding Harrison - is just one of those bonuses which sport delights in throwing up.

17 February 2007

90 minutes of tedium

FA Cup 5th round - Arsenal 0 Blackburn 0

I've just got home from this drab and dismal game at the Emirates Stadium, having paid £49 for the somewhat dubious privilege of my seat at the top of the Upper Tier.

Passionless. Half-asleep. Lacking intensity.

And that was just the crowd.

Soapbox time. When I go to games, I usually sit behind one of the goals. Today, we had seats on the halfway line; the view was great, but the atmosphere was virtually non-existent. While the fans at the north and south ends behind each goal did their bit to cheer the team on, around us was stony silence. Now I'm not exactly the sort to start the singing, but I'm more than happy to join in given the opportunity (I'm a loud singer, but let's just say I won't be winning Pop Idol any time soon). Today, it felt like the three of us - my brother Peter, Heather and I - were all but alone in opening our mouths in our section of the stand.

Very disappointing. Even the dullest of games can be livened up with some crowd participation; today we didn't even get that. You can see how Highbury got its reputation as "The Library" due to the quietness of its fans.

I have very little to say about the game itself. Blackburn created the grand total of ZERO meaningful shots; we were little better, until the final five minutes, when Brad Friedel produced three top-class saves in quick succession (something he has a habit of doing against us).

Nil-nil was about right in the end. Although Arsenal were by far the better team, nobody really deserved to win. The lack of urgency on both sides was curious, given that a replay was the last thing either team wanted - we both have fixture schedules filled to bursting, with European games prominent this month.

Just about the most positive thing I can say is that it's not the worst game I've ever seen live - there is a special place in my chamber of horrors for a goalless League Cup draw against Liverpool about 20 years ago which didn't provide a meaningful shot on goal - by either side - in 90 minutes plus a further 30 of extra time.

With hindsight, I guess there was an inevitability about it all. Like us, Blackburn were depleted in strength. We had Gallas and Ljungberg both trying to find their way back to sharpness. And, perhaps most importantly, was the fact we were coming off the back of a big emotional win at Bolton, and with two big, big games - PSV in the Champions League and the Carling Cup final - to come in the next eight days.

Oh well. That's just how life is as a football fan. For every classic thriller or 5-0 hammering, there are half a dozen mediocre games and then the occasional truly awful match like today. I've learned to take the rough with the smooth.

15 February 2007

Boring, boring Arsenal (not)

FA Cup 4th round replay: Bolton 1 Arsenal 3 (after extra time, FT 1-1)

There have been times in Arsenal's history - notably the era of the '71 Double-winning side and more recently the late 80s under George Graham - when Arsenal routinely won games 1-0 playing the most dour, drab style of football known to man, and deservedly earned themselves the moniker "boring, boring Arsenal". Nowadays, the style of play under Arsene Wenger couldn't be much further from that tag, and Arsenal fans now sing "One-nil to the Arsenal" in strictly tongue-in-cheek fashion.

Last night's rollercoaster FA Cup replay at the Reebok Stadium was a case in point. Four goals (including Bolton's injury time equaliser), a red card, one missed open goal and two penalty kicks sent sky high into the stands. And, at the end of it all, Arsenal emerged triumphant at the home of their bogey team.

To paraphrase Dickens: it was the best of performances, it was the worst of performances.

Firstly, the best. The build up to Adebayor's early opener showcases the fast-flowing, precise style the team constantly strives for: great team movement, quick one- and two-touch passing, and a couple of sublime examples of close-control trickery from Hleb and the 18-year-old Denilson. One slightly fortuitous deflection later and - boom! - one-nil. Thanks very much. For the rest of the first half, Arsenal's neat interplay scythes through Bolton's midfield almost at will, only to be let down by a poor final ball or wayward finishing.

It's a familiar tale; one we've seen before. The worst is yet to come, and we all know it. Bolton give fair warning in seeing an effort rebound off the frame of Manuel Almunia's goal just before the interval, and they start the second half with renewed purpose, denying the visitors time on the ball and applying increasing pressure.

And then things turn from bad to worse. A clear penalty, but the normally unflappable Gilberto lifts the ball over the bar. Five minutes from time, Adebayor capitalises on a Campo error, rounds Jaaskelainen and, faced with an unguarded goal, steers his shot against the post. The rest is inevitable. Deep into added-on time, Meite stabs home from short range and we're into extra time.

Extra time is, if anything, even more exciting. Bolton hit the post again. Then substitute Freddie Ljungberg, who has looked off the pace since his introduction, suddenly produces a predatory finish to give the visitors the advantage again. Ben Haim is sent off to reduce Bolton to ten men. Then, another penalty to Arsenal: this time Baptista emulates his fellow Brazilian by scooping his spot-kick high and not-so-handsome. Then, just when I've convinced myself that the story can only end one way - a second Bolton equaliser - Baptista breaks free and calmly passes to Adebayor to seal the tie.

Boring, boring Arsenal(!)

We shouldn't be surprised. This season, Arsenal have shown an alarming knack of conceding the opening goal, only to show great spirit in coming back to win or at least draw. On no less than fourteen occasions this season, they have rescued points from a trailing position, including late come-from-behind wins against Manchester United and Wigan, and a thrilling 6-2 win over Saturday's opponents, Blackburn. Eleven of those fourteen have been at home, preserving a proud unbeaten record at the new Emirates Stadium. Make no mistake, this is not only an exciting team, but a resilient one as well.

So, it's not just lots of goals and aesthetically pleasing football with this current Arsenal side; there is genuinely never a dull moment. It's exciting stuff to watch ... but it's not great for the heart! To be honest, I could do with the occasional return to the old boring, boring Arsenal every now and then, for the sake of my own health.

Now where are my high blood pressure pills?

13 February 2007

Fed up of being the "overdog"

Arsenal 2 Wigan 1.

The scoreline doesn't even begin to tell the tale. But the last 24 hours have reminded me of the cross one has to bear by being a fan of a so-called "big team".

Here's the potted summary of the game. Arsenal created several gilt-edged chances in the first 30 minutes - and wasted them all. Denny Landzaat then scored a stunning long-range effort - great strike, no complaints - to put Wigan a goal up. In the second half, we had an Adebayor goal disallowed (wrongly) for offside; it happens. Then Wigan's Heskey was felled in the box by Mathieu Flamini: a clear penalty and a possible red card, but neither was given. To add insult to injury, Flamini later receives the ball in an offside position - the linesman's flag stays down - and he delivers a cross for the equaliser. A late Rosicky header completes a turnaround of, shall we say, questionable merit.

The final whistle blows: the debate begins, with fans on both sides trotting out the usual cliches. On the one hand, Wigan supporters claim referees always favour the big teams with big decisions. On the other, Arsenal fans roll out the old aphorism about luck evening out over the course of a season. And phone-in shows such as 606 fan the flames and steer the agenda in whichever direction fits the presenter's own views.

As an Arsenal fan, let me say this: Wigan were hard done by. It was a penalty, definitely; a red card, arguably. But equally, replays showed Adebayor's earlier effort should have made it 1-1, and there's no knowing what would have then happened. And yes, Flamini should have been flagged offside in the build-up to the equaliser, which means the linesman got one right and one wrong; it happens. Ultimately, there were a number of officiating errors; some benefitted us, some Wigan.

However, any objective post-match analysis is quickly overrun by a wave of symapthy for the underdog. Everyone is quick to point out the incidents which counted against the lesser team: the first half chance that Heskey missed (but no mention of Lehmann's fingertip save); the penalty that never was; the offside which was missed. Every story has two sides, but in instances like yesterday only one is ever told.

And God forbid the fans of the "lucky" big team, which has "robbed" the plucky underdog of a richly deserved result, having the temerity to voice their views. Dear, oh dear, no. It's like the Sheriff of Nottingham pointing out that Robin Hood, for all his altruistic intentions, was a thief. No one wants to hear the opinion of the "overdog" (I think I've just invented a word there); if they are heard, they are immediately made to sound like whingeing, or arrogance, or lacking a sense of perspective, or a combination of all three.

But I guess that's our lot in life. You support a big team, you have to learn to deal with the brickbats as well as the bouquets. I accept that, but it doesn't make it any easier to just stand there and take it. And experience has taught me there's no point trying to put forward a logical counter-argument detailing the times when decisions have gone against us, or when we've been denied wins we have "deserved". (After all, why let the facts spoil a good argument?)

So, here goes. All you Wigan fans and Arsenal bashers out there: yes, we won a game we really shouldn't have won. Sport - like life - is like that: deal with it.

And before anyone gets all holier than thou on me, consider this. The difference between a subjective view and a balanced one is this: to have a subjective view, you need to have a chip on your shoulder; to be balanced, you need a chip on both. (If you don't have a chip on your shoulder, you don't really have a view either way.)

Like I said, it's a hard life being the "overdog" when it seems like everyone else wants to gang up on you. A sensible and objective fan (I like to think I'm both) is able to turn the other cheek. But it still hurts when someone hits you just because they're feeling aggrieved.

Anyway, time to move on. Roll on Wednesday and our arch-nemesis, Bolton. I'm preparing my blinkered, one-eyed, chip-on-the-shoulder tirade already ...

Silence speaks a thousand words

While exhibitions of sportsmanship are frequently seen on the field of sporting combat, it has to be said that the same cannot always be said for the behaviour of fans themselves.

It saddens me to say that fans of the so-called "beautiful game" often provide the least edifying examples of sporting conduct. Opposing players are routinely jeered and taunted (sometimes racially). At internationals, it has become fashionable to drown out the other team’s national anthem with a chorus of boos. And recent events in Sicily have reminded us that physical - occasionally fatal - violence is never far from the surface.

Having said all that, I should emphasise that the overwhelming majority of fans I have encountered over the years – whether it be football, cricket, athletics, Aussie Rules or any other sport – have been friendly, civilised and about as violent as the Dalai Lama.

There is a fine line between what is acceptable and what is not. For me, jeering and waving at an opposing penalty-taker is ‘banter’, part of the natural interplay between crowd and players. However, when you start raising questions about the moral rectitude of his parents, hurling racial abuse, or throwing missiles at him: each of these moves us further along the line from misdemeanour to crime, although where you should draw the line is far from clear.

My point is this. For many fans, the distinction between what is acceptable ‘sporting behaviour’ and what is not is a very grey area. Some would argue that a degree of "crowd interaction" is part and parcel of being a highly-paid professional sportsman. Others would hope you would afford players the same degree of civility you would to a work colleague.

Basically, there’s about as much chance of getting two fans to agree on this as there is of getting a straight answer out of a politician (quite possibly less).

There is, however, one aspect of crowd behaviour that supporters of all teams in all sports would agree unanimously on.

FA Community Shield, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, August 2003

Let me tell you about a young, 21-year old footballer named Jimmy Davis. At this match between Manchester United and Arsenal, he rendered 60,000 vocal supporters silent and moved grown men to the verge of tears.

Don’t recognise the name? That’s no surprise, for Davis hardly shared the same limelight as the Beckhams and Zidanes of this world. Indeed, he only ever played one senior game for Manchester United, and wasn’t present in Cardiff on the day in question.

So how exactly did he capture the attention of an entire stadium?

Well, the previous morning, Jimmy Davis, an up-and-coming Manchester United player on loan with Watford, was killed in a car accident.

In one of those quirky coincidences that sport seems to throw up with disarming regularity, Jimmy Davis’ sole senior appearance for Man U was in a League Cup tie against, of all teams, Arsenal, in 2001.

Equally coincidentally, I had been at a half-full Highbury that night for this essentially meaningless game between the teams’ reserve line-ups. Now I generally have a fair recollection of matches I’ve attended, but pretty much all I can remember is that Arsenal won 4-0. I certainly don’t have any memory of the teenage Jimmy Davis playing. In a team full of backups and youth team players, he was just another shirt on the pitch. His name never registered on my consciousness until I heard the tragic news on the radio on the morning of 9th August 2003.

Davis’ was a career ended before it had ever really begun. Maybe he would have developed into a Premiership superstar, or perhaps he would have faded away into relative obscurity in the lower divisions. Nobody will ever know. What is certain is that until his death he was a largely unknown footballer, not one of the sport’s great superstars.

But that’s neither here nor there. When you visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, you’re paying your respects to the thousands of faceless young men who gave their lives fighting for what they believed in, not to the generals whose names are recorded in the history books. You don’t know their names, but you don’t hold them in any lesser regard.

The simple fact is a talented young sportsman died before his time in a car accident. The following afternoon the 22 players and 60,000-odd supporters of Arsenal and Manchester United put their allegiances and animosity aside for one minute to observe his passing in a silence so perfect you could have heard the proverbial pin drop. It’s the sort of thing that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end; it's the sort of thing which makes you proud to be part of such a community.

And then we watched a game of football that was played with the same fiercely competitive intensity as any other. Which is as it should be. Acknowledge death, pay your respects, and then move on. But in that one minute of impeccable and eloquent silence, you remember that sport is as much about the unknown soldier as it is about the generals. For all that is occasionally reprehensible about the behaviour of some sports fans (and again, I emphasise that a vocal and violent minority do not speak for the peaceable vast majority), moments like this remind everyone that there are bigger, more important things in life than baiting your opposite number.

Respected properly, the minute’s silence is one of the most unifying and moving experiences I have ever been a part of, both within and outside of sports. And I mean that most sincerely.