30 October 2007

The 'other' football

As games went, it was a bit of a stinker, the NFL’s equivalent of a dreary nil-nil draw. But that didn’t detract from the sense of occasion.

When the NFL announced last year that the New York Giants would be playing the Miami Dolphins at Wembley, it looked like a great match-up between two likely playoff contenders.

The best laid plans of mice and men, eh?

Having lost their opening two games, the Giants had turned things around by winning their next five, coming to Wembley with an enviable 5-2 record. Having lost their opening two games, the Dolphins had continued the trend by losing their next five as well, coming to Wembley with an unenviable 0-7 record.

And as time wound down on a 13-10 defeat – a scoreline which flattered Miami – you couldn’t help but feel sorry for them. Already the worst team in the NFL, they had sacrificed a home game to act as ambassadors for the league, were missing their starting quarterback, running back and defensive leader, and were greeted by teeming rain which made play difficult, to say the least. And to top it all off, during breaks in play, the big screens showed short vignettes celebrating the 35th anniversary of the Dolphins’ ‘perfect’ Super Bowl season, the only unbeaten, untied campaign in NFL history. As if sliding to 0-8 wasn’t bad enough, this was like being taunted from beyond the grave.

Still, at least they weren’t booed with the kind of ferocity which greeted Chelsea and England football – make that ‘soccer’ – captain John Terry, present as an honorary team captain for the pre-game coin toss. As an Arsenal fan, I had to laugh.

Having said all that, it was a great occasion. An enthusiastic – frequently expert, in some cases merely curious - capacity crowd turned up to watch the first competitive NFL game played outside of North America. Many of us turned up sporting our favourite team’s colours, whether it was the Giants or Dolphins, or the 49ers, Packers, Patriots or Colts, or the Monarchs, Claymores or Admirals of the now defunct NFL Europe, or indeed the kit of an active team in the BAFL (British American Football League).

And the spectacle and razzamatazz of an NFL game was not dampened by the wet weather. From the pre-game entertainment (The Feeling) to the Miami cheerleaders and the national anthems, there is a scale and an unapologetic glamour about American football which even football’s Premier League cannot match.

Admittedly, the game was what you would euphemistically term as ‘one for the purists’. The sodden conditions hampered both offenses and contributed to several unsightly errors, meaning there were few big, spectacular plays (actually, make that none). Having established an early lead, a stuttering Giants team withdrew into conservative play-calling; the Dolphins simply lacked the firepower to threaten convincingly. But that didn’t detract from the overall spectacle, even though overall the atmosphere in the stadium was less intense than it might have been.

Hopefully, the NFL will have seen enough to be convinced that Wembley should host more games like this in the future. Certainly there are enough die-hards, UK-based ex-pats and travelling fans to ensure that occasional annual or bi-annual matches would always be sell-outs.

Talk of Wembley hosting a Super Bowl is, however, premature. Host venues have already been decided through to 2011, and even if the NFL owners did agree to stage a Super Bowl outside of the US, the UK is by no means the guaranteed front-runner. Enthusiasm for the game in Germany is at least as strong - while Britain’s two teams, the London (later England) Monarchs and Scottish Claymores, had long since folded, Germany held five of the six NFL Europe franchises when the plug was pulled on that league earlier this year. And China remains the big prize from a commercial perspective, a market of potentially limitless riches which is already being penetrated by football.

Anyway, we move forward one small step at a time. I started going to the pre-season ‘American Bowl’ exhibition games in the 80s, and I was a semi-regular attendee at Monarchs’ games during their existence in the 90s. Back then, I would never have dreamt that one day we would see a ‘proper’ NFL game in the UK. I’m glad just to have been part of the experience last Sunday, and hopeful that this will not prove to be a one-off. It will never replace soccer as the global ‘football’, but a game as colourful, violent and delightfully complex as American football - where a quarterback named Lemon can throw passes to a receiver named Peelle - has to be deserving of a global audience.

28 October 2007

Money doesn't equal class

There's a world of difference between the Bank of England and a loan-shark.

Both are sources of money, but while one oozes history, reputation, credibility and class, the other lacks all four, no matter how expensive a suit he wears.

Which is a bit like the difference between clubs like Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal (the last of which has often been referred to as 'the Bank of England') and teams like Chelsea or Tottenham Hotspur.

United, Liverpool and Arsenal are part of English football's aristocracy: clubs with a history of success, a proud and loyal fan base and, on the whole, a reputation for doing things 'the right way' (although, like any royal family, they also have their fair share of dirty laundry).

Chelsea, despite their recent success and Roman Abramovich's billions, are widely regarded as Johnny-come-latelys, earning derogatory sobriquets such as 'Chavski'. But they at least have a cabinet full of trophies to point at; they may have bought their way in (and, lest we forget, they were tottering towards bankruptcy under Ken Bates before Abramovich rode in to save them), but they have nonetheless been successful and have barged their way into Europe's elite as a result - not unlike their owner's sudden elevation to Europe's financial top table.

But Tottenham, now there's another matter.

As a club, Spurs have enjoyed historical success. Two league titles and eight FA Cups (including the double in 1961), and three European trophies make them one of England's most successful sides. But they have not won a major honour since 1991, the FA Cup final victory over Nottingham Forest where the match took second billing to Paul Gascoigne's horror tackle on Gary Charles. Being trophyless for the past 16 seasons added to a record of 15 consecutive finishes outside the top six prior to 2006 somewhat undermines Tottenham fans' protestations that they remain 'a big club'.

And it is the circumstances surrounding the departure of Martin Jol, the manager who ended that run of non-top six finishes with a brace of fifth positions, which underline exactly why Spurs are widely perceived as a club lacking that critical, ever-so-intangible ingredient of 'class'.

Last night's official unveiling of former Sevilla coach Juande Ramos as Tottenham's new head coach was merely the final confirmation of what has, for the past two months, been football's worst-kept secret.

Political machinations within football clubs are hardly new, but events at White Hart Lane have taken them to a new level this season. Over the summer, there had already been several stories about unrest between Jol, chairman Daniel Levy and sporting director Damien Comolli: £40m had been spent on new players (reportedly, Comolli's choices rather than Jol's), and expectations of a top-four finish - and the Champions League spot which goes with it - were high.

It only took one game - an opening day defeat at Sunderland - for the whispers to start about Jol's position being under pressure. Soon after, we learned that Tottenham representatives had been to Spain to offer the job to Ramos; the story was flatly (and feebly) denied by the club, who vehemently stated that no such meeting had taken place and they had only been to Seville to see how the club was run. Yeah, right - and that's airborne bacon I see over there.

As Spurs' poor start to the season continued, Jol's position was continually undermined by a board who provided him with little support, none of it credible. To the outside world, Jol was clearly a dead man walking being let down by a board who had terminally undermined his standing with the players; Levy and the Tottenham board presumably felt they were doing everything right and that Jol was to blame for the team's poor form.

Thursday night's UEFA Cup game at home to Getafe was the final straw. There has been some confusion over the exact order and wording of events that evening, but it appears that the board decided before the game to sack Jol (presumably because they had already received Ramos's acceptance) but opted - with a naivete which borders on the inconceivable - not to inform him until after the game.

Sure enough, as these things have a tendency of doing, the news leaked. Jol received a text message (from a boardroom sympathiser?) during the game informing him of the news, and by half-time both the media and the fans at White Hart Lane were buzzing with the news. Repeatedly throughout the second half, chants of 'Stand up for Martin Jol' rang out around the ground, occasionally punctuated with boos aimed at the directors' box.

By Friday morning, Jol had gone, with even the wording of the club's press statement, which made it quite clear that Jol had been sacked in a proactive and positive move by the board, oozing callousness and a casual disregard for their most successful manager in nearly 20 years. And less than 36 hours later, Ramos had been installed at Tottenham with a reported four-year, £20m contract in his back pocket.

The haste was unseemly, and it doesn't take a genius to work out the chain of events which has occurred.

As an Arsenal fan, I realise I can be accused of a large degree of bias, but to me this whole episode smacks of boardroom power games and a distinct lack of class. Sure, Spurs have flashed the cash over the past couple of years, buying up talent left, right and centre. And the deal they have offered Ramos puts him at the very highest level in world football in terms of managers' pay. I do not dispute that Spurs have spent money like the big club they claim to be. But there is a huge difference between a pretender talking a good game and actually being a genuinely big, successful club who are admired for doing things in a befitting manner.

It's not often you will hear an Arsenal fan saying this, but I genuinely feel sorry for Spurs fans; they deserve better (but not much better, mind you). Money simply does not buy you class, no matter what Daniel Levy may think or say. It doesn't even guarantee sustained success: it can even result in the exact opposite. Just ask Leeds United.

22 October 2007

Conspiracy or paranoia?

There has been much jingoistic rubbish spouted in the past 24 hours to rationalise how Lewis Hamilton was ‘robbed’ of the Formula 1 driver’s title yesterday at Interlagos in Brazil.

Depending on who you listen to, their level of paranoia, and their objectivity/knowledge (or lack thereof), Hamilton has been the victim of a conspiracy involving some combination of the FIA, Max Moseley and Bernie Ecclestone, including the possible collusion of Hamilton’s own team, McLaren.

Utter, utter codswallop.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m well aware that Formula 1 is a ‘business’ where decisions are as often determined by political agendas rather than any concept of sporting fairness. On occasions too numerous to mention, the rules and even the results of races have been, ahem, amended to encourage a close championship finish, generate additional column inches or punish a team or driver who has stepped out of line.

2007 has been no exception. The $100m fine – the heaviest in the history of all sports - levied against McLaren for their part in the ‘Spygate’ scandal was undoubtedly related to team principal Ron Dennis’s long history of rubbing the powers-that-be up the wrong way. And the fact that the team was stripped of all its points for being the recipient of confidential Ferrari design information, while its drivers - one of whom, Hamilton, was already being hailed as the Tiger Woods of motor racing - were allowed to retain theirs was farcical, an obvious victory for commercial interests over sporting justice. Apparently the drivers shouldn’t be blamed for being innocent beneficiaries of secret information which helped them go faster. In the same way that Marion Jones should not have been punished for being (as she claimed until recently) the innocent beneficiary of performance-enhancing drugs which helped her run faster. Oh no. Perish the thought.

Anyway, enough is enough. Let’s have a quick look at two of the more popular conspiracy theories.

1. At the Chinese GP, McLaren deliberately kept Hamilton out 2-3 laps too long as part of a secret agreement to scupper his title hopes.

Yes, it was a terrible decision, but hindsight is a wonderful thing. What we do know is that the weather was changing by the minute, so McLaren and/or Hamilton (despite the team taking the blame for it, no one really knows) held out as long as possible before deciding whether to switch to wet or dry tyres. Running an extra two or three laps, even losing 7-8 seconds per lap, was preferable to wasting perhaps 30 seconds potentially making the wrong tyre choice which would have then required an additional stop to correct the error. (I’m reminded of the European GP at Donnington in 1993, when in similar conditions Alain Prost spent the entire afternoon switching from slicks to wets at the first sign of rain, only for it to immediately stop, necessitating an immediate switch back to dry tyres. In the meantime, Ayrton Senna stayed out on slicks, tiptoed through the damp patches, and promptly won the race at a canter.) So McLaren made the wrong call in changeable conditions, something they have been known to have a weakness with historically. If they had wanted to throw the race, there are far more subtle and less embarrassing ways they could have done so.

2. Felipe Massa was clearly helping his team-mate Kimi Raikkonen, so why did Alonso overtake Hamilton at the start, and then not help him later?

Of course Massa was supporting Raikkonen, as the Brazilian was already out of the championship running. Alonso, on the other hand, was in a position to claim the title, and therefore had his own interests to protect.

So Alonso overtook Hamilton: so what? It relegated Lewis to fourth place, which would have been enough to clinch the title anyway as long as Alonso didn’t win the race. Hamilton’s subsequent disastrous attempt to reclaim third spot was both reckless and unnecessary, and belied his inability to turn down his racer’s instinct at a time when a cool head was called for. No matter what, to suggest that Alonso, the reigning two-time world champion, should have sacrificed his chances from the start to aid his rookie team-mate is ludicrous beyond words.

As for later in the race, if either Raikkonen or Massa had retired in the closing laps, then Alonso would have been champion, so he had to push and hope right to the end. And even if Alonso had strategically retired on the final lap, the additional point this would have earned Hamilton was still insufficient. (He would have been level on points with Raikkonen, but the Finn would still have been ahead on count-back, having won more races.)

I’ve heard a number of other arguments, from the vaguely plausible to the downright nonsensical, but quite honestly I wouldn’t waste any more time than I already have debunking them.

I prefer instead to look back on a season which has given us a thrilling title battle, several exciting races, and more twists and turns than an Alpine pass. At the end of it all, three drivers – Raikkonen, Hamilton and Alonso – were separated by just one point, and it was the one who had been all but mathematically out of it with just two races left who ultimately triumphed.

Let’s be quite clear about this: Kimi Raikkonen’s championship win is neither fortunate nor undeserved. Yes, Hamilton suffered from a combination of bad luck and poor judgment in the final two races. But equally Kimi had suffered even more misfortune with mechanical failures in mid-season. He has driven beautifully, consistently fast and virtually error-free, throughout the season, and a lesser competitor would have given up the ghost facing a 17 point deficit with only two races to go. But Raikkonen did what Raikkonen does: ignore everyone else and focus on doing what he needed to do, win both races and hope for the best.

Which was exactly what he did. While all around him were falling off the track in China, Raikkonen charged through the field to win. And yesterday, under the most extreme pressure, he drove with the ease of a Sunday driver. It was his sixth win of the season, two more than either Hamilton or Alonso. And it is a title which only the most churlish would deny a driver who is widely regarded to be the fastest on the grid in terms of raw speed.

Congratulations, Kimi. Technically, he is still only champion subject to an appeal by McLaren against fuel irregularities being turned down (which it will be), but he has won fair and square, untainted by accusations of cheating. He is absolutely a worthy winner.

As for Lewis Hamilton, he has had a fine season, far exceeding everyone’s expectations and so nearly becoming the first rookie driver to win the world title. He will be back next year, better and wiser for the experience, and he is clearly a champion-in-waiting. But success is by no means guaranteed. In a sport where the machines are as important as the driver, it has to be remembered that McLaren will not necessarily be competitive next year (just as they weren’t last year), especially with the millstone of that $100m fine around their necks. A great team/driver combination one year can easily be an also-ran the following year, and this year’s bright young thing can quickly become yesterday’s man. Just ask Jenson Button.

Anyhow, it was a dramatic end to a thrilling season. Sure, the Machiavellian political manoeuvrings add spice to the mix, but they shouldn’t be taken too seriously and they shouldn’t be allowed to detract from the first three-way finish to a world championship since 1986.

Conspiracy? Don’t make me laugh.

Alonso sacrifice his own title aspirations to aid Hamilton? Why should he?

And as for the notion that Bernie somehow has a big red button in his trailer with which he can orchestrate the results he needs by destroying engines or exploding tyres? Oh come on …

… Everyone knows the button is blue.

Fractions and margins

Sadly, it wasn’t to be.

England gave 100% on Saturday night, but it wasn’t enough against a South Africa side which was ultimately too strong and too well organised. 15-6 was perhaps a little unkind to England, but there was little doubt that the Springboks had been the better side and were worthy world champions.

Like any good sporting competition, this match was won and lost by the finest of margins. Some tight refereeing decisions certainly went South Africa’s way; in particular, an obstruction against Bryan Habana that wasn’t given, and one by Mark Cueto a couple of minutes later that was. Cueto’s ‘try’ early in the second half was – correctly - chalked off by the television match official who spotted his foot brushing the touchline before he touched the ball down in the corner.

But to blame the defeat wholly on marginal officiating decisions is to miss the point. England had squeaked through the quarter and semi-finals against Australia and France by the finest of margins – Stirling Mortlock’s late penalty miss, Joe Worsley’s tap tackle on Vincent Clerc which prevented a certain try – so what goes around has to eventually come around.

For all England’s passion and heart, the truth was they never looked able to either mount sustained pressure or to provide the flash of inspiration to scythe through the South African defences. Only once – Mathew Tait’s thrilling line break which resulted in the try that never was – did they look capable of scoring a try.

And the reason for that was all too obvious from the opening minutes of the game, as the Springboks twice won the ball from England lineouts. They would steal seven in all (and disrupt several others), while winning all 13 of their own, starving England of the vital oxygen of territory and momentum from which they could have launched a serious threat. England ultimately had the lion’s share of both possession (55%) and territory (57%), and spent twice as long in South Africa’s 22 as they did defending their own. But they never managed to gain control in the critical areas where they could really hurt the Springboks.

Not that it was all doom and gloom, of course: on the contrary, there was much to be proud of. This was a vastly better side to the one which surrendered so meekly, 36-0, to the same opponents just five weeks before. The tournament’s most dangerous try-scorer, Bryan Habana, was a non-factor offensively, and as a team South Africa rarely threatened England’s try line. And there were England heroes all over the pitch, from the man-mountain that is Andrew Sheridan to Tait’s thrilling run to the unflinching crunching tackles regularly administered by Jonny Wilkinson.

England finished the tournament disappointed, but with their heads rightfully held high. They gave absolutely everything. With the rub of the green, they might even have won. But it just wasn’t to be.

Ultimately, Brian Ashton’s team couldn’t quite deliver the fairy-tale ending. But nonetheless it was quite a story.

19 October 2007

Perchance to dream

Exactly five weeks ago, England, the defending world champions, were whitewashed 36-0 by South Africa in a World Cup pool match which was every bit as one-sided as the scoreline suggests.

Tomorrow night, England will face the Springboks once again, only this time it will be in the final of the tournament, a prospect which would have been regarded as preposterousness of send-in-the-men-in-white-coats proportions five weeks ago.

Is this a bridge too far? Or do we dare dream the seemingly impossible: that somehow, this beaten-up England squad - a side which has lost more than half its games since winning the 2003 World Cup, a team so widely written off before the tournament they were considered 33/1 outsiders - could actually triumph over adversity and all expectation and actually retain the trophy?

This is no small matter. England teams have only ever won two World Cups in a major sport; the football team were unsuccessful in their defence of the Jules Rimet trophy in 1970, and so the rugby squad stand within 80 minutes of an unprecedented achievement.

Over the past month, a faint hope has grown into a very real possibility. After the earlier defeat by South Africa, it was by no means certain that England would even avoid the ignominy of failing to qualify from their group. But Samoa and Tonga were competently disposed of, and in a titanic quarter-final against an Australia side hell-bent on revenge for 2003 they somehow emerged triumphant against the odds. By the time last week’s semi against the hosts, France, rolled around, the obvious improvement in England’s confidence meant that it came as little surprise when they again overcame their underdog tag, running out 14-9 winners in another nail-biter of a game. There is no doubt that significant momentum has built up over the past few games.

The question is: is that enough?

By pretty much every objective measure, South Africa should win tomorrow night. They have the more talented players. Where England lack outright pace across the team, the Springboks have Bryan Habana, arguably the fastest and most dangerous winger in world rugby today. They have beaten England in their last four meetings, twice scoring more than 50 points.

And yet.

If there is one thing this World Cup has underlined, it is the capacity of sport to produce glorious surprises. From Argentina’s win over France in the opening match to Ireland’s shock exit to the quarter-final defeats of favourites New Zealand and Australia by France and England, the tournament has proved that the more talented side in any match is not necessarily the better one; an advantage on paper does not automatically transfer onto the scoreboard. Just look at New Zealand: the best side in the world over the past four years, odds-on favourite entering the tournament, but dumped out unceremoniously in the quarter-finals.

This England rugby side remind me so much of Greece’s football team at Euro 2004. In terms of talent, they were distinctly mediocre, but that didn’t stop them from winning the tournament through a combination of solid defence and outstanding team play and tactics.

And that is where we are with England. Here we have a side with good but not outstanding talent, certainly less than both their last two opponents and tomorrow’s. And like Greece, England’s defence and overall team solidity have been the rocks on which they have ground out workmanlike if unspectacular wins. This is a team which has rediscovered how to win, even against nominally superior opponents. And they have demonstrated it in the past two weeks, not once but twice.

Three times a charm, perhaps? We can but dream ...

11 October 2007

Damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t

The storm in a teacup which has brewed up over Michael Owen is perplexing at least, downright hypocritical at worst.

In an era where English footballers are frequently criticised for undervaluing the honour and importance of playing for their country, it seems slightly perverse that Owen is being questioned for declaring himself fit to play in England’s two vital Euro 2008 qualifiers over the next week.

Newcastle manager Sam Allardyce had expressed his concern about Owen’s fitness to play for England, having had surgery on September 28th, restricting him to a brief substitute appearance on his return last Sunday (during which he scored).

Allardyce’s concern is at least understandable. Owen has, to say the least, a chequered history with serious injuries and ongoing niggles, which has restricted him to just 21 appearances for Newcastle in the two-and-a-bit years since he signed for the club.

But if some factions in the media are to be believed, Owen stands accused of rushing back to play for Newcastle solely to further his chances of playing for England and a selfish pursuit of Bobby Charlton’s England record of 49 goals. And there is a right royal bust-up developing between Allardyce, Owen and England boss Steve McClaren.

In other words, the finger is being pointed at Michael Owen because he is the antithesis of so many of his peers: he (allegedly) prioritises country over club.

Owen has defended himself strongly, telling BBC Radio 5 Live, "I'm fine now and there's no risk. If you listen to the surgeon, they will say there is absolutely no problem. The surgeon has said that it is a short rehab time when you get back playing. There is no problem with playing both games. I'll listen to the surgeon and nobody else because she knows what she is talking about. I don't see why I can't play - the surgeon tells me nothing can go wrong."

I can’t help but side with Owen. He clearly values playing for England, and is sensible enough to know that to do so he needs to demonstrate form and fitness for Newcastle – club and country go hand in hand. So whatever his personal motivations, Michael Owen simply wants to play football, whether it is for England or Newcastle. And for that alone, he should be praised rather than pilloried.

It’s difficult to say how much of the reported tension between Allardyce, Owen and England coach Steve McClaren is real and how much is media exaggeration, but to focus solely on what is happening now is to miss the point. Given the injuries he has suffered, lesser men than Michael Owen would have walked away from the game altogether, or returned less hungry and greatly diminished as a player. The fact he has returned at all - let alone score three times in England’s two most recent games against Israel and Russia - is testament to his strength of character and determination.

It’s sad that Owen feels he still needs to prove himself to his doubters. By returning from his most recent setback so quickly and so positively, you would think everyone would be rushing to praise him, but he had it spot on when he said, “I thought people would say 'how has he got back in eight days? That's fantastic'. But people have turned it into a negative, saying 'you've only done it for England'. You can't ever win."

He’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. And that just isn’t right.

8 October 2007

Expect the unexpected

You've got to love sport. Just when you think you're on top of what's going to happen, something comes along to throw all your expectations out of the window.

The Rugby Union World Cup kicked off a month ago with a major upset, as hosts France were blind-sided by Argentina. However, despite notable wins and performances by several of the so-called lesser nations in the group phase - which saw Argentina and Fiji qualify for last weekend’s quarter-finals at the expense of Ireland and Wales – the tournament had not really come to life.

In part this was due to England’s frequently feeble attempts to emulate the World Cup-winning side of four years ago; a tournament in which the defending champions are classified among the also-rans is never a good thing. But there was also the feeling that the quarter-finals were likely to be little more than a tune-up for the triumvirate of southern hemisphere powers – Australia, New Zealand and South Africa – who have dominated world rugby over the past few years.

The widely-held expectation on Saturday morning was that by evening the World Cup would be waving goodbye to both the current holders and its host nation.

So when England edged out Australia 12-10 in the opening quarter-final, it classified as a shock. Even more so because the win was thoroughly deserved, built on a solid foundation of a dominating scrum and destructive defensive play. By the end the Wallabies simply had no answer, and although Stirling Mortlock had the opportunity to snatch the win late on with a long-range penalty, the neutrals could hardly begrudge England their hard-won victory.

In Cardiff, where New Zealand were preparing to play France, the All Blacks’ fans were gloatingly chanting “four more years” at the Aussies. And as the All Blacks moved smoothly into a 13-0 lead on the back of some coruscating attacking play, there was little sign that France were capable of extending their presence in the tournament. But 13 unanswered points either side of half-time brought the French level, and a dashing try 12 minutes from the end put them in the lead for the first time in the match, 20-18. And despite some frenetic pressure in the closing minutes from New Zealand, that’s how the score remained

In a few short hours, the Australia v New Zealand match-up that most had been taking for granted has been blown out of the water, and it will be France who take on England – hosts versus defending champions – in next Saturday’s semi-final.

Yesterday’s games were no less dramatic. Fiji registered two rapid-fire tries early in the second half to tie South Africa at 20-20. And although the Springboks eventually overcame their tiring opponents to run out 37-20 winners, the final scoreline flattered them. In the last quarter-final, Argentina opened up a 19-6 advantage over Scotland, but had to withstand a sustained assault in the final quarter of the game before finally emerging 19-13 winners.

Four quarter-finals had produced four dramatic and entertaining matches, with the result of every match in doubt until the closing minutes (indeed, until the final whistle in three out of four cases). For many casual fans (among whose number I include myself), the Rugby World Cup has been something of a take-it-or-leave-it affair as it gently ambled its way through the past month, as the fireworks of the Twenty20 World Cup and the ongoing soap opera of Premier League and international football have dominated the attention.

Not any more. The Rugby World Cup is very much front and centre now. The tournament may only have four games remaining, but better late than never. And the fact that no sane person would have predicted the final four – South Africa, France, Argentina and England - which have emerged (an unexpected line-up reminiscent of the 2002 Football World Cup, which saw South Korea and Turkey in its semi-finals) is just the icing on the cake.

And, who knows, this time next week we may just be salivating at the prospect of something which no England team in any major sport has ever achieved: the successful defence of a world championship. Now that's worth getting excited about ...

Keeping up with the Joneses

There was a time when Marion Jones had the world at her (very fast) feet. She was the dominant force in women’s sprinting, a gold medal winner at the 1997, 1999 and 2001 World Athletics Championships, and winner of three golds (and five medals overall) at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. She had even survived the revelation of her then-husband CJ Hunter’s ban for a positive nandrolone test shortly before Sydney with her reputation intact.

But by the time she was implicated in the Balco scandal in 2004, that reputation was already in tatters. By then, people were regarding her marriage with her former husband in a more cynical light. Having Trevor Graham as her coach made things worse. And her relationship with fellow sprinter Tim Montgomery (with whom she had a child), also the subject of a doping ban, further served to erode the presumption of innocence which she steadfastly continued to claim.

So Jones’s revelation on Friday that she had indeed lied in her testimony to a federal court during the Balco enquiry came as no surprise. Tell us something we didn’t already know, Marion.

Even then, her public ‘admission’ was nothing if not economical with the truth. She has conceded that she had given false testimony, but continues to state that Graham fed her tetrahydrogestrinone – more commonly known as THG or ‘the clear’ - without her knowledge. This despite consistent testimony from many others that she was a fully aware and active participant, and her own admission of there being a clear improvement in performance as a result of what she maintains she always believed was ‘flaxseed oil’.

She also announced her retirement from athletics, a disingenuous statement if ever there was one, given the inevitable reaction which would have followed from both US Athletics and the IAAF.

Forget the PR spin. The weight of evidence against Jones goes way beyond circumstantial: she is as complicit as she is guilty. And her attempt to claim her departure from the sport on her own terms was both self-serving and utterly transparent.

Nobody believes you, Marion. And, worse still, I suspect nobody particularly cares either. Good riddance.

As a footnote – and further evidence of the sickly state which athletics finds itself in – if the IOC strips Jones of her Olympic golds, one of the beneficiaries will be Ekaterini Thanou, the Greek sprinter best remembered in 2004 for attempting to excuse her third missed pre-Olympics drugs test by claiming she had been involved in a motorcycle accident. Not exactly a shining example of the Olympian ideal.

There was a time when Marion Jones had the world at her feet. Today, a weary world wouldn’t waste the effort of treading on her.

3 October 2007

Oil and water

It’s a sad reflection on the modern game that football owners, chairmen, chief executives and managing directors now attract as many column inches as the clubs and players they represent.

Gone are the days when the only time business impinged on what is still (lest we forget) a sport was in the area of transfer fees and player contracts. But in the last few years, the back pages have feasted on:
- Tales of financial mismanagement, most notably Leeds United)
- Foreign takeovers: the Glazers at Man U, Abramovich at Chelsea, Ivanov at Hearts, not to mention Liverpool, Portsmouth and several others
- Image rights (obviously, Brand Beckham springs readily to mind)
- Turnover and profit, with one often being confused with the other. Even the BBC mistakenly reported Arsenal’s recent £200m-plus turnover as ‘income’ (which is actually profit) – a bit like a doctor looking at an x-ray of your hand and telling a patient he has a broken metatarsal

And then, of course, there is the ongoing saga of Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov and his attempt to buy Arsenal.

Let’s start with the facts. Usmanov has raised his stake in the club to 23%. The board effectively controls around 51% of the shares, and has made a ‘lock-down’ agreement which effectively prevents any of them selling up before April 2008.

Usmanov has talked about establishing a ‘blocking stake’ of 25%. This would allow him to block any special resolutions or changes to the club’s articles of association – in effect, to stop the board changing the club’s constitution – but in reality he would be unable to exert any influence over the day-to-day running of Arsenal. So 25% is not that significant a milestone in terms of his ability to launch a hostile takeover.

The next key stepping stone is 30%. At this point, City rules state he would be obliged to launch a takeover bid. But even that should be a formality in the current situation, as the board control a majority of the shares and so would be able to resist (if they chose to do so).

The magic number for Usmanov is 50% (technically, 50% plus one share). At this point, he would own a majority share in the club, be able to appoint a representative to the board, and effectively control the club.

Whether this would be a good thing or not is a matter for debate. Roman Abramovich’s money has helped bring star players and trophies to Chelsea, but has left many fans disillusioned, particularly after the events of the past two weeks. The Glazers’ takeover of Man U has not brought about the end of the world in the short-term, although doubts remain over the club’s heavy debt burden. Nikloai Ivanov at Hearts? An owner who wants to pick the team, a revolving door of new managers, captain sold for daring to speak his mind, and a team which is neither better nor more successful than before.

And yet … Alexandre Gaydamark has clearly had a positive effect on Portsmouth. Taksin Shinawat’s financial and political record may be dodgy, but his cash has certainly fuelled Man City’s revival this season. And while Randy Lerner’s money has not totally transformed Aston Villa yet, they are clearly heading in the right direction.


It seems clear that, despite Usmanov’s posturing and charm offensive over the past couple of days, nothing much is going to happen until next April – at least. As a first step, he will almost certainly have to reach some kind of agreement with the American Stan Kroenke (remember him?), who owns 12% of the club. And then he will have to persuade one or more of the major shareholders on the board to cash in – by no means an easy feat.

I guess that probably still leaves things as clear as mud, but the fact is it’s not an easy thing to get your head around as a fan – largely because the murky world of business and financial markets never is easy.

Now I work in the business world (and so have a fair understanding of what is going on) and I love sport, but to the idealist in me they are and should always be two separate things, like oil and water. The fact that these two worlds now collide so regularly – and that football is now as much of a business as it is a sport – breaks my heart.