24 March 2007

Football's coming home

Accustomed though we have become to the concept of England internationals being played in Manchester, Newcastle, Southampton and even - who would have thought it? - Wales, the return of competitive football to Wembley today was a reassuringly welcome notion, like coming home after a year travelling abroad.

OK, it was only an under-21 match - England versus Italy - but still.

Forget the well-documented budget and timing overruns which dogged the project throughout. Forget the ignominy of defeat suffered in the old stadium's final game (the 1-0 defeat to Germany which marked the end of Kevin Keegan's underachieving reign). This is a stunning construction.

Beyond the modern design and the characteristic arch which dominates the skyline for miles around (and which affords spectators an unobstructed, pillar-free view), the new 90,000-seater Wembley Stadium boasts some impressive statistics. 212,000 tons of concrete and a further 23,000 of steel went into its construction, and the site boasts nearly 700 catering outlets and - as anyone who has ever enjoyed a beer or three at a major sporting venue will appreciate - 2,618 toilets. (By comparison, the old Wembley had a paltry, leg-crossing 361 - and people wonder why the British are so good at queuing!)

It has been a long time since we have seen football at Wembley - in total, counting international, domestic cup and playoff finals, 61 matches over six and a half years have had to be relocated elsewhere - so any game at the new stadium would have been welcome, so long awaited (and much delayed) has it been.

The fact the game matched the occasion was just the icing on the cake. Only 25 seconds had elapsed when Giampaolo Pazzini earned the honour of scoring the new Wembley's first competitive goal with a stunning long-range effort. David Bentley became the first England scorer half an hour later. And four goals in 15 second half minutes produced a 3-3 final scoreline, including the completion of a hat-trick - again, another first - by the impressive Pazzini.

So now we can (hopefully) look forward to the return of the FA Cup final and the England senior team to their spiritual home in May (not to mention the first NFL regular season game outside of the Americas in the autumn).

At last, football has come home. And it's been worth the wait.

23 March 2007

The show must go on

Even now, I'm not sure it has sunk in.

Jamaican police have confirmed that Pakistan cricket coach Bob Woolmer was murdered by "manual strangulation" on Sunday. Links to match-fixing rings have been the focus of much of the speculation over the past five days; in addition to any allegations surrounding Pakistan, Woomler was also the coach of South Africa at the time of the Hansie Cronje scandal.

Woolmer's death was already a tragedy when the world believed he had died of natural causes; now, it is something altogether more sinister.

The ICC have confirmed the competition will continue. On Wednesday, Pakistan completed their formalities, defeating Zimbabwe in emotional circumstances. And the wider match schedule continues uninterrupted.

Some commentators, such as Allan Donald (who played for South Africa under Woolmer), have called into question whether the World Cup should continue under the circumstances: not just a death, but a murder; not just a murder, but one linked to that most unsporting of crimes, match-fixing.

"I just don't know how this World Cup can continue under the shadow of what's happened," Donald told the BBC. "World Cup 2007 will be forever remembered for this."

Sad, but true.

No matter what great performances we see on the field of play over the next five weeks - and we have seen some truly memorable ones already - this World Cup will forever be remembered for Woolmer's murder, just as the Munich Olympics of 1972 is associated as much with the massacre of 11 Israeli team members (and one policeman) by Black September terrorists, as it is with Mark Spitz's seven swimming golds or the spellbinding grace of Olga Korbut.

Should the show go on in such circumstances, or should it pause or even stop altogether? It's hard to say. Certainly, there are massive complications - both logistical and commercial - in rescheduling any major sporting tournament: TV rights, ticketing, teams' and fans' travel arrangements, and the million and one other things that go on behind the scenes to make an event like this just happen. But it can be done: competition in the Munich Olympics was suspended for a day, and in the wake of the 9/11 bombings the Ryder Cup was pushed back twelve months.

So it can be stopped, but should it be?

For me, if the Pakistan team were happy to fulfil their obligations and play what was (for them at least) a meaningless game in circumstances where suspicion was already rife, then there is no reason why the tournament as a whole cannot continue. The growing rumour about links to match-fixing is neither here nor there: it is a spectre which has never gone away and will probably never do so.

The show must go on. Not because of commercial interests, not even because it is the right thing to do for the fans who have travelled thousands of miles to see it, but because it's what I'm sure Woolmer, a cricketing man through and through, would have wanted. The World Cup should be a celebration of cricket. The time for mourning and criminal proceedings will come later.

20 March 2007

Eighteen sixes and a post-mortem

After all the thrills and upsets of the previous few days at the cricket World Cup, it was back to business as usual yesterday as the West Indies eked out a win over Zimbabwe in a match they were generally - but never quite totally - in control of. And India re-established the true gulf in class between the big boys and the minnows, blasting the Bermuda attack to the tune of 413 runs, including eighteen sixes, en route to a resounding 257-run victory. Both totals represented new World Cup records, and it was the first time any side has ever passed 400 in the tournament.

However, the abiding memory of the India/Bermuda game was not Virender Sehwag's 87-ball 114, or even Yuvraj Singh's explosive 83 from 46 balls. It was Bermuda's 19-stone spinner Dwayne Leverock’s instinctive one-handed slip catch which accounted for Robin Uthappa in the second over of India's innings - and then the mad run-around celebration which followed it. Even before the tournament, Leverock was already being feted as one of the World Cup's cult heroes; he cemented that yesterday.

It was a joyful moment to watch, one which reminds you that sport is about so much more than simply winning and losing.

But, sadly, not as much as life and death.

Much has already been said about Pakistan coach Bob Woolmer's saddening death on Sunday morning at the age of 58. At the time of writing, the cause of death is still unconfirmed pending the outcome of a post-mortem; a heart attack is a possibility, and stress has also been cited as a potential contributor.

In accepting the role of Pakistan cricket coach, Woolmer took on a task similar to that of Sven-Goran Eriksson managing the England football team: a stranger in a strange land where they have great passion for the sport and even greater expectations, and a team with players of great ability, but never quite a dominant world force. By all accounts, Woolmer had grown to love Pakistan, its people and its culture. And, despite a seemingly never-ending stream of ball-tampering rows, drug bans, personality clashes with star bowler Shoaib Akhtar and former coach Javed Miandad, and a moody captain in Inzamam-ul-Haq, he had moulded a team capable of challenging the very best. Ranking third in the ICC test championship and fourth in the ODI ratings, Pakistan had entered the World Cup with realistic hopes of winning the tournament, so the fact they were the first team to be eliminated from the tournament was a major surprise, notwithstanding their historic tendency for spectacular implosion.

All that, however, seems irrelevant now.

The world of cricket has lost a great coach, and a good man. And a fine player in his time as well, one who registered more than a thousand test runs and three centuries in a 19-match England career.

Robert Andrew Woolmer (1948-2007). RIP.

For an inside perspective, I would recommend Ivo Tennant's article in today's Times. Tennant was working with Woolmer on a book, and offers a unique insight into the man behind the tragedy. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/sport/cricket/article1539817.ece

19 March 2007

And they're off!

With a banshee wail of V8 engines, the new Formula 1 season – the first without Michael Schumacher since 1990 – got off to a flying start in Melbourne in the early hours of yesterday morning.

In modern F1, with its cutting edge technology and comprehensive pre-season testing, there are rarely many surprises even at the opening race of the year. And so it proved to be. Ferrari underlined their winter testing times by delivering a consummate lights-to-flag romp for new lead driver Kimi Raikkonen. McLaren confirmed their credentials as the nearest challengers. And Honda showed that, while their cars might win the award for the most striking livery, you need more than just go-faster stripes to be competitive in F1.

On paper, there is cause for concern about the competitiveness (or lack thereof) which we may see in this F1 season. Raikkonen was able to control the entire weekend pretty much as he pleased with an imperiousness more than slightly reminiscent of his predecessor, Schumacher. Only five other cars finished on the same lap as Raikkonen; of those, only three were within a minute of him. Although world champion Fernando Alonso ultimately crossed the line only seven seconds adrift, a more telling statistic about his car’s relative speed was that his fastest race lap was a full second slower than Raikkonen’s – this in a sport where teams pour millions of development dollars in pursuit of a couple of tenths.

And yet, despite the predictability of the result, there is real hope for an exciting season ahead, much of it thanks to a 22-year old Brit competing in his first F1 race. Lewis Hamilton finished in a deserved third place, having taken the fight to his team-mate Alonso throughout the weekend. He looks like he belongs – no mean feat for a rookie – and then some. With McLaren still to work out how to get the best out of their Bridgestone tyres (having raced on Michelins for several seasons), there is clear scope for improvement. If the team can deliver the car, Hamilton has the race-craft and speed to register a win.

If nothing else, Hamilton will probably push Alonso consistently. The Spaniard is a scrapper who consistently extracts the maximum from his car, and will not relinquish his title easily. Give him a sniff of Raikkonen’s exhaust and he will pounce.

Beyond the top two teams, there also has to be hope that both Honda and Toyota, with their massive budgets and engineering expertise, will improve on cars which are some way short of maximum potential. Renault, the defending constructors’ champions, still have plenty of pedigree. And BMW Sauber are already there or thereabouts (although, as Jenson Button will readily testify, there is a huge difference between being there or thereabouts and actually getting there).

At this stage, it’s very much a case of its, buts and maybes, but I’m optimistic that we’ll see a good, closely-fought title race this year - although that may be the petrol fumes talking!

18 March 2007

The benefit of hindsight

In my last blog on Thursday, I commented on the excessive length of the cricket World Cup, and in particular the predictability and one-sidedness of many of the initial group matches.

How wrong I was!

Ireland set the ball rolling on Thursday evening with a thrilling tie against Zimbabwe in a match which had seemed all but lost. Chasing 222 to win, Zimbabwe appeared to be easing to what would only have been their second win in 15 ODIs, only for three wickets to fall in the final two overs, the last on the final ball as they desperately tried to complete a winning run.

An amazing result, but that was just the warm-up act for yesterday's day of double drama. Ireland - on St Patrick's day, of course - skittled out Pakistan for 132, and then held their nerve to complete the job after sliding to 113 for 7. And Bangladesh did a similar demolition job on India, bowling them out for 191 before comfortably completing their run chase.

In a word: wow!

I said on Thursday that we could already confidently predict who the qualifying teams for the "Super 8" would be. Already Pakistan are out - and this is with most teams still to play their second game.

It's at times like this I wish I stopped making such sweeping predictions. But then, where's the fun in not sticking your neck out? And if sport was so predictable, then we wouldn't all be so captivated by it.

I look forward to seeing more shocks and being proven wrong again in the coming days. Mind you, if you think that means I'm going to predict a Netherlands victory over Australia this afternoon, you've got another think coming ...

15 March 2007

Have we started yet?

So, the cricket World Cup is under way at last. Or is it?

I’ve been looking forward to the tournament immensely, but somehow it feels like we’re still watching the warm-ups. Don’t get me wrong, there have been some notable individual performances already – Dwayne Smith’s rapid-fire 32 and three wickets in the West Indies’ opening win over Pakistan, Ricky Ponting’s belligerent, 93-ball 113 – but, aside from the Windies/Pakistan game, the opening days of the tournament are very much a case of men against boys.

Yesterday, for instance, we had Australia demolishing Scotland by 203 runs; a result as one-sided and predictable as Man Utd versus a pub team who are being forced to play blindfold the morning after the night before. Similarly, Kenya v Canada was only ever going to end one way. (Kenya strolled to a seven-wicket win with seven overs to spare.)

Today we have the enthusiastic but talent-deficient Bermuda taking on Sri Lanka, while Ireland will fancy their better-than-slim chances of upsetting Zimbabwe, but even that is about as likely as the Italian rugby team winning twice in a single Six Nations. (Oh, hang on a minute, they just have.)

Either way, neither is a match to quicken the pulse.

In fact, the odds have to be better than 50:50 that the eight qualifiers from this initial group stage will be the eight “major” test-playing nations: the West Indies, Australia, South Africa, England, New Zealand, India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

There’s something not quite right about that.

While it’s true that a World Cup in any sport is always going to have its share of makeweights who have no realistic chance of avoiding the first plane home, you always expect at least one or two surprises. For instance, who would have predicted the Czech Republic’s early exit at last summer’s football World Cup, or Ukraine battling Switzerland for a place in the quarter-finals? It’s hard to picture Kenya or Bangladesh making a similar impression over the next few weeks in the Caribbean.

Which begs the question: why does the tournament have to take so long? Here’s some statistics to ponder.

The cricket World Cup involves just 16 teams but requires a total of 47 days – seven weeks, pretty much - to determine its winner.

By comparison, football’s World Cup is contested by twice as many teams (32), but is done and dusted in a month: last summer’s tournament in Germany lasted 31 days. And even the forthcoming World Cup for rugby union, a sport whose players require extended recovery time between matches due to its physical intensity, requires only 44 days to sort out its 20 entrants.

Yes, I know the length of a one-day cricket match means the qualifying group phase cannot be crammed into a three-a-day TV schedule as happens in football or rugby. Yes, it is good to include too many, rather than too few, teams for the good of developing the sport. And yes, it is important to ensure everyone gets a fair crack in the tournament, for both sporting and commercial reasons.

But my point is this: seven weeks is a long time – too long – for even the most passionate of fans to follow any sporting event. Quantity does not necessarily equal quantity; indeed, the opposite can often be true, which is why many casual followers will probably not bother tuning in for anything other than England matches until we reach the business end of proceedings. Which is a real shame for a tournament which is intended to highlight and celebrate the global reach of the sport.

Something is not quite right. To my mind, we would be better off with a World Cup that could be completed within a calendar month, benefiting from more concentrated excitement and media focus, rather than one which, like Shaun Wright-Phillips, spends a disproportionate amount of time on the bench or warming up before finally producing a short burst of action at the very end.

To that end, I hope to be proven wrong today and that either Bermuda or Ireland can upset the odds and give the World Cup the kick-start it needs and deserves. But somehow I doubt it will happen.

13 March 2007

Hopelessly optimistic?

Cricket’s World Cup kicks off this afternoon at Sabina Park in Jamaica, and I’m looking forward to it with equal measures of excitement and hope.

Excitement because World Cups in cricket, as in football, only come around once every four years. Not to mention the fact the event is being staged in the cricket-mad tropical paradise that is the West Indies, where the sport is still followed with undiluted passion.

And hope because I genuinely believe England have a chance of winning the whole shebang. Yes, that’s right: they can.

Am I mad?

Possibly. Notwithstanding the recent 2-0 series win against Australia, the defending World Cup holders, there is little logical evidence to support an English triumph.

After all, England are ranked a lowly seventh in the ICC one-day rankings; of the major cricketing nations, only the West Indies are below them, and they at least have the advantage of playing at home.

Injuries, retirements and other problems have deprived the squad of veteran campaigners such as Steve Harmison and Marcus Trescothick, and their replacements lack experience. The form of those who remain, such as captain Michael Vaughan, Andrew Strauss and the talismanic Andrew Flintoff, has been patchy at best over the past year.

And, apart from Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen, there aren’t any obvious examples of England players who are capable of consistently dominating in the limited overs format. The statistics bear this out: England has just one of the top 20-ranked ODI batsmen (Pietersen, 4th), and only one entry among the top 20 bowlers (Flintoff, 15th).

In short, pretty much any way you choose to analyse the squad, England simply aren’t good enough to win the tournament.

So why am I still optimistic?

In truth, there are plenty of good reasons. Pietersen has been in tremendous form for the past 18 months, and he is one of a tiny handful of players in world cricket who is genuinely capable of single-handedly transforming a match. Flintoff can do likewise with both bat and ball, and the return of Vaughan to release him from the burden of captaincy may be all that is required to unleash the man who dominated the Ashes series in 2005. The squad is full of great team men like Paul Collingwood and Monty Panesar, who will lift spirits and make telling contributions. And last, but by no means least, a World Cup tournament is all about establishing a head of steam early on and riding the momentum that creates. England’s qualifying group is by no means the toughest. If they can defeat New Zealand in their opening match on Friday, their subsequent games against Canada and Kenya should be relatively straightforward, and after that who knows? If Vaughan, Strauss and Ian Bell can manage some confidence-building knocks, if Panesar, Liam Plunkett and Saj Mahmood can bowl with both threat and discipline, if Pietersen and Flintoff can just meet expectations, then 28th April 2007 might just become one of those dates that becomes etched in the collective national consciousness, like 22nd November 2003 or 30th July 1966.

I’m not saying it will happen. I’m not saying even saying it’s a high probability. But can it happen, and do I have hope? You betcha. Only time will tell whether or not my optimism is hopelessly misplaced, but for now I’m keeping April 28th clear in my diary – you never know.

6 March 2007

Luck of the Irish?

It was during the second half of Saturday's game between Liverpool and Man U that Andy Gray made the fateful observation that having Mikael Silvestre, Wes Brown and John O'Shea on the bench was not exactly the kind of firepower you needed to win a match.

Sure enough, deep into injury time - and reduced to ten men thanks to Paul Scholes' attempted haymaker aimed at Xabi Alonso - it was the Irish international O'Shea who was John(ny)-on-the-spot to lash home the game's only goal from close range.

It was the second consecutive game where United had found a crucial goal in the closing moments to win a game they really had no right to win.

Is this good luck? Or is there more than that?

While any championship-winning side must inevitably benefit from a share of good fortune at some point in the season, there is also an argument that good teams make their own luck. The great golfer Gary Player summed it up best when he wryly noted "The harder I practise, the luckier I get."

It is no coincidence that a team of the ability, spirit and doggedness of United have been able to turn draws into wins, just as Chelsea have demonstrated the ability to score crucial late goals, and Arsenal have rescued more points after going behind than any other Premiership team this season.

Conversely, teams at the wrong end of the division always seem to possess an unerring knack of being dealt the bum cards. West Ham lead 2-0 and then 3-2 with five minutes left against Spurs, only to lose 4-3. Bad luck? Maybe. Naivety, lack of confidence and an absence of composure? Absolutely. Ditto Watford. Blowing a 2-0 lead at home to fellow strugglers Charlton a week after a 1-0 advantage against ten-man Wigan is hardly misfortune.

Sure, it could be argued there was an element of the proverbial "luck of the Irish" that Man U somehow contrived to win a game they looked more likely to lose throughout. But few teams would have believed they could turn things round so late in the game the way United did.

It's at this point I'm supposed to trot out all the usual truisms about how good teams make their own luck. Or about how champions are the teams who can win when they're playing badly, not just when they're playing well. I'm supposed to say all the portents clearly indicate that Man U are destined to regain the Premiership title.

To tell the truth, I don't believe it. Much though it pains me to say it, I would still put my money on the title staying at Stamford Bridge. There is no rational reason for it, just as there was no rational reason to believe Theo Walcott (no goals up to that point) would score in the Carling Cup final (but he did). Good teams DO make their own luck, but equally things do have a way of evening themselves out ... and I just have a sneaky feeling Chelsea's karma is about to improve.

While I'm on my Irish theme, I must take the opportunity to eat a large slice of humble pie - and I suspect I'm far from alone in this - in recognising just how well managerial rookie Roy Keane is doing at Sunderland. Against all expectations, he has taken a team which was rooted to the floor of the Championship and elevated them to fourth place and within three points of the automatic promotion spots. And he has done so with a combination of the footballing intelligence we always knew he had and a calmness of manner which is almost the polar opposite of his persona as a player. Jekyll and Hyde.

No question, Keane has done brilliantly. And there is nothing lucky about that.

1 March 2007

Losing the plot

Carling Cup Final - Arsenal 1 Chelsea 2

I’ve refrained from commenting on Sunday’s Carling Cup Final until now because I’d wanted to gauge the media reaction to what was – to put it mildly – an incident-packed game.

The cynic in me always suspected the focus would inevitably fall on the final couple of minutes of what ended up being a 102-minute match.

Sadly, the cynic in me was proven right.

We should have been talking about how Arsenal’s “galactikids” – average age 21.6 – had given the full-strength Premiership champions a genuine run for their (considerable) money. Indeed, for much of the first 50 minutes or so, they were the better side (certainly they were playing the more aesthetically pleasing football).

We should have been talking about how Theo Walcott – supposedly out of form, low on confidence and needing a season-ending shoulder operation – demonstrated his appetite for the big stage by scoring his first senior goal for the club in his first domestic final. And what a well-taken goal it was too: one part Thierry Henry, one part Michael Owen.

We should have been talking about John Terry’s immense bravery and the sickening contact Abou Diaby’s boot made (inadvertently) with his face. And we should have been praising the speed at which Arsenal (but also England) physio Gary Lewin raced on to the pitch to deal with what was potentially a life-threatening situation. Get well soon, JT.

We should have been talking about the difference a truly world-class striker like Didier Drogba can make. (And who really thought the words “Drogba” and “world-class” would be used in the same sentence even seven months ago?) No question in my mind, Drogba was the single biggest reason the ribbons on the Cup were blue rather than red.

We should maybe even have been commenting on Cesc Fabregas being pelted with celery by (some of) the Chelsea fans. Yes, I know it’s related to a song they sing. Why does that excuse it? If I make up a witty terrace chant about Britney Spears’ shaved noggin, does that make it okay for me to throw razor blades at opposing players?

We should have talked about all these things.

However, the events of the closing minutes of the match changed all that. And it has been the focus for perhaps as much as 80% of the press coverage I have read over the past four days.

Let me make myself clear. What Kolo Toure did was inexcusable, no matter what was said, no matter what injustices he perceived. The rabbit punch which Emmanuel Eboue apparently threw at Wayne Bridge was the act of a player who, sadly, has rightly earned a reputation for petulance and cheating which overshadows his prodigious talent.

There are no excuses. Well, except perhaps for Emmanuel Adebayor who, it seems, was spotted punching Frank Lampard by one of the assistant refs. Which is odd, given that Lampard himself has come out and confirmed that nobody punched him. (The FA has subsequently sought to "clarify" that the decision to send off Adebayor had nothing to do with Lampard. Cough, splutter, cover-up, anyone?) Even so, Ade’s reaction to his sending off was disappointing, to say the least.

However, I will say this. The words “mass brawl” and “melĂ©e” are bandied around way too easily. What happened at the end of the match on Sunday should never have happened; I do not dispute that. Appropriate – and I stress the word appropriate – punishments should be handed out; I wholeheartedly agree with that too. But let’s keep a sense of perspective here. There was some anger, some frustration, some pushing and shoving, and one half-punch. Is that really worth bringing back the FA’s equivalent of hanging, drawing and quartering for?

Let’s punish the culprits. But, unlike some of our players, let’s not lose the plot here.

Oh, and last night Blackburn knocked us out of the FA Cup with a Benni McCarthy goal of genuine quality utterly out of keeping with the match as a whole.

But that is just a footnote. Sadly, the “Cardiff Kerfuffle” is the headline people will remember from last Sunday.

Incidentally, if you want to read another considered view on all things Arsenal without having to wade through my random ramblings on other sports, go to my friend LG’s blog at http://blogs.goonerville.com/blog/
. Well worth a read!