27 October 2008

When the Saints came marching in

What a difference a year makes.

This time last year, having just returned from the first NFL regular season game to be played in the UK, I wrote: As games went, it was a bit of a stinker, the NFL’s equivalent of a dreary nil-nil draw.

Yesterday’s game between the New Orleans Saints and San Diego Chargers, however, couldn’t have been more different. As games went, it was a roaring success, the NFL’s equivalent of a 4-3 goal-fest.

It wasn’t just the scoreline – 37-32 to the Saints, incidentally – that was in stark contrast to last year. It helped that we didn’t have last year’s torrential downpour, which hampered both teams and destroyed the Wembley turf – although the pitch still looked greasy and heavy underfoot, it was no worse than you might expect to see in, say, Green Bay at this time of year. And the NFL also made a wise choice in selecting two teams with explosive offenses, not something which could be said about either the New York Giants or Miami Dolphins last year.

It was also clear that other important lessons had been learned from last year’s experience. Instead of flying in a couple of days before the game, both teams arrived early in the week, allowing greater scope for both acclimatisation and PR opportunities. (Although what the four Saints’ cheerleaders who appeared on Saturday’s Soccer AM made of one of the quirkier sports shows around is anyone’s guess.) And whereas the crowd last year was largely a mix of interested neutrals, this year there was much more effort to create the feel of a Saints’ home game, with a pre-game tailgate party serving Cajun food and free Saints flags distributed to all seats. As a result, the noise level generated in key third down and goalline situations was considerable; not at Louisiana Superdome levels, but sufficient to discomfit the San Diego offense enough to be a contributing factor to a number of San Diego’s fourteen penalties.

What else? It was nice to have an honorary team captain (Rebecca Adlington, wearing her two gold medals) for the coin toss who was applauded rather than booed (John Terry last year), even if the role involves little else than strolling onto the field in a Saints shirt, waving to the crowd and then sauntering off again. And we clearly had a better class of anthem-singer this year too – Ne-Yo and Joss Stone, rather than Paul Potts, winner of Britain’s Got Talent. (Whatever happened to him? And does anyone care?)

And, of course, the game itself was a considerable improvement on last year, as it was always likely to be between two evenly-matched sides with extremely strong offenses (New Orleans lead the league in total offense, San Diego are second in points scored) and iffy defenses (both rank in the bottom ten in total defense). By halftime, the Saints had as many points (23) as the Giants and Dolphins amassed between them in the whole game last year. Both teams topped 400 yards in offense, both quarterbacks – Drew Brees for the Saints, Philip Rivers for the Chargers – threw for three touchdowns and exceeded 300 yards passing, and we had our fair share of spectacular plays.

For the purist, it was a bit too much like basketball at times, with both teams marching up and down the field and seemingly scoring at will – combining for five touchdowns in the second quarter alone – and offering little in the way of defensive spectacle (no sacks, one turnover, only a handful of big hits) but that’s just nit-picking. The NFL would have been hoping for a close, action-packed game to win over the neutrals, and they certainly achieved that.

Did we see – as we did with the Giants last year – a potential Super Bowl champion yesterday? I doubt it. At this, the mid-point of the season, neither team flies home above .500 – the Saints are 4-4, the Chargers 3-5 – but more than that, while both will always score freely, neither appears to have enough defensive steel. As the old NFL truism goes: offense wins games, defense wins championships.

Mind you, I doubt anyone leaving Wembley last year would have bet on the Giants (6-2 at the time) achieving anything more than perhaps an early playoff exit, so poor was their performance that day, especially on offense. (They did, however, have the defense which managed to shut down the all-conquering New England offense in the Super Bowl. Like I said: defense wins championships.) So we shall see, but I’m not hurrying out to Ladbrokes to back either the Saints or the Chargers any time soon.

One final note. Since that initial Giants/Dolphins game last year, we have seen Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore vilified for his proposed ‘39th game’ international expansion. The NFL (and also the NBA) has managed to make this a reality with a plan which requires one team (New Orleans this year, Miami last) to give up one-eighth of its home fixtures and, despite the cost – estimated at £5m - and logistical complexity of staging the game, will generate significant revenues for all 32 teams, not just the two involved. This year’s game was broadcast live by both Sky Sports and the BBC; in the case of the latter, this is the first time it has provided full coverage of a non-Super Bowl NFL game. And both Sky’s TV ratings and participation in the sport in the UK are up significantly since last year, demonstrating the positive effect that even a one-off international game can have.

Where the Premier League has been castigated for its single-minded focus on revenue generation and has (for the moment) failed in expanding the football experience to a global audience, the NFL, with its ‘one-for-all, all-for one’ collective commercial mentality – equal sharing of commercial revenues, a salary cap, and an annual ‘draft’ which gives the worst teams first choice of the best young players - is gradually creating a successful bridgehead in key international markets.

Yes, I know big sports are big businesses these days, and no amount of dewy-eyed, rose-tinted wistfulness is going to change that. But here’s a controversial thought: maybe money – or at least the pursuit of it – isn’t everything, or even the most important thing, in sport. Maybe sport is the most important thing in sport. Get that right first and the money will surely follow.

Just a thought.

14 October 2008

Que Cera, Cera

In both this July and the last, I have written a piece praising the increasingly vigilant and effective stance the Tour de France is taking on detecting the use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs, despite the short-term collateral damage the sport ends up inflicting upon itself. The general assumption has been that, on balance, it does the sport of cycling good to ruthlessly pursue the cheats, as this will only serve to discourage others in the future.

For once, it appears that this year the French authorities have finally got the jump on those who would seek to gain an unfair advantage. But at what cost?

By working with the pharmaceutical company Roche, a test was developed for Cera, the company’s third-generation form of the banned blood-booster EPO, just in time for this year’s Tour. All of a sudden, a drug which had previously been undetectable by conventional testing was anything but, and instead of being several steps behind, the testers were suddenly one step ahead.

One by one, offenders were caught. Manuel Beltran and Moises Duenas were relatively minor names, but the big one was Riccardo Ricco, winner of two stages on the Tour and runner-up in May's Giro d'Italia. (And, innocent before proven guilty and all that, but feel free to draw your own conclusions about Duenas's team-mates, Felix Cardenas and Paolo Borghini, who abandoned after crashing into each other the day after Duenas’s disqualification.)

Worse was to follow. Leonardo Piepoli, stage-winner and team-mate of Ricco, was kicked off the Saunier Duval team for a serious breach of the team’s ethical code. It didn’t require a genius to work out exactly what that was, an assumption which has been validated in the last week with the results of a revised, upgraded test on Piepoli’s Tour samples confirming the presence of Cera.

And it hasn’t stopped there. Re-testing of the samples of Stefan Schumacher (winner of both time trial stages) and Bernhard Kohl (King of the Mountains, third overall and Schumacher’s room-mate) has also led to positives in each case.

In case you’re counting, that’s six confirmed positives, including the winners of five stages, and the holder of one of the major jerseys.


And who can say whether this will be the end of it? Even if there are no further revelations, the cumulative damage wreaked on the reputation of the Tour is enormous. Is anything we see in the month of July (or in the other grand tours of Italy in May and Spain in September) even remotely credible now?

As I’ve said before and will say again, it is not fait to assume that cycling is the sport with the worst problem, simply because it is the one in which the problem has been most exposed. Other sports which have been targeted with rigorous testing – athletics, in particular – regularly identify and punish drugs cheats. It is not at all far-fetched to assume that if testing procedures and budgets were as advanced in other sports where the ability to compete and train more intensively for longer periods is a distinct benefit – football, tennis, swimming, baseball, basketball, the list goes on and on – then we might be viewing these sports as being at least as troubled as cycling.

However, for the moment the downside of the French authorities’ vigilance is clearly starting to outweigh the benefits. All these positive tests should be increasing the credibility of cycling as a sport - it is unarguably the right thing to do if we want to see a ‘clean’ sport – but it certainly doesn’t feel that way at the moment.

The cycling ship is sinking before our very eyes. But surely this – no matter how painful the repercussions in the medium-term - is better than living in a state of blissful ignorance? I want my sporting heroes to be just that: genuine heroes. I just hope that cycling does not pay the ultimate price for being at the forefront of the movement to catch the charlatans.

13 October 2008

Sympathy for the devil

Last week, I found myself in the unlikely position of writing a piece defending Jade Goody. This week, I find myself in the equally implausible position of writing a piece defending that least beloved of former Arsenal players, Ashley Cole.

Saturday’s World Cup qualifier at Wembley against the minnows of Kazakhstan – ranked 131st in the world, behind such footballing powers as Singapore, Burundi, Luxembourg and Malawi – was a surprisingly tense affair, with England taking 52 minutes to break the deadlock, but with just a quarter of the game to go and a 2-0 scoreline in their favour, England appeared to have things well in hand. And then Cole, facing his own goal, chipped a casual back pass in the vague direction of David James, which Zhambyl Kukeyev seized on and slotted coolly into the net.

Okay, England would go on to win 5-1 against the rapidly tiring Kazakhs, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that Cole had committed a terrible and potentially calamitous error.

But that’s all it was: a mistake. We all make them in life, don’t we? None of us is perfect; we are, by definition, only human.

Did Cole’s misjudgement justify the booing he subsequently received every time he touched the ball from a small but clearly audible section of the crowd? Certainly, this was the key topic of debate on the 606 radio phone-in on Saturday night. Alan Green branded the booing fans as ”morons” and the majority of callers broadly supported this viewpoint. And yet a significant minority claimed the booing was at least partially justified, with arguments ranging from the fact that fans who have paid large sums to attend the game have the right to express the displeasure however they see fit, to the belief that Cole is fair game to be targeted for his past misdeeds and generally unlikeable personality.


Let me make things quite clear. I consider Ashley Cole, as a person, to be an utterly reprehensible character. This is a man who, among other things:
- Claims to have nearly crashed his car in disbelief at being offered a contract worth ‘only’ £55,000 a week by Arsenal. (It’s a hard old life, eh?)
- Was revealed to have had a one-night stand after a match late last year
- Sparked controversy for ignoring and then turning his back on referee Mike Riley while being booked for a dangerous tackle in a game against Tottenham

As a footballer, however, he has been one of England’s most consistent players for a number of years, as well as being one of the best left backs in world football. You can count the number of times in his career he has made serious mistakes like Saturday’s on the fingers of one hand – not bad for a player with close to 300 appearances for club and country.

For sure, one of the key drivers behind Saturday’s booing is that negative perception of Ashley Cole as a person. Would Rio Ferdinand or David James have been booed so readily for such a catastrophic error? Of course not. Conversely, I suspect that even if Cole were to score a hat-trick and make a series of goal-saving tackles in Minsk on Wednesday, he will never receive the kind of frenzied adulation which seems to accompany David Beckham’s every touch. (And this, remember, is a man who earns considerably more than Cole and has himself been outed for a sexual indiscretion.)

To an extent, that’s just tough luck on Cole’s part: life isn’t always equitable, and that’s the way it is. Crowds will always have their preferred scapegoats: there is a long tradition of them at Arsenal, stretching back from Emmanuel Eboue and Philippe Senderos to Igors Stepanovs, David Hillier and many others who were perceived as being “not fit to wear the shirt”.

But here’s the difference - and maybe it’s just an inevitable consequence of the difference between the week-in, week-out loyalty of the club fan and the few-times-a-year lot of following a national side – while a club’s nominated donkey du jour may regularly elicit groans of frustration, the fans will still support them to the bitter end. That patently isn’t the case in the relationship between players and fans of England.

And this is the thing. Do fans have a right to boo? Of course they do: freedom of expression and all that. But is it the right thing to do? In the midst of a frustrating team performance, is singling out one individual on whom to vent your spleen going to help matters? Will it encourage or inhibit? (And one of the most frequent explanations of the marked difference between individuals’ club versus country performances is the fear of failure that comes with pulling on an England shirt.)

There is enough pressure on the England team as it is after the ignominious end to the Euro 2008 qualifying campaign. (Reality check, people: it was not the end of the world, it was hardly the first time England has ever failed to qualify for a major finals (most recently, the 1994 World Cup), and it’s not a disease which solely afflicts England among European football’s ‘major’ powers (Italy, Spain and Holland have each slipped up once since 1990).)

So in what way is booing a team, and in particular singling out particular individuals, going to help? I thought we all went along to matches as supporters, hoping to cheer our teams on to success. Or am I just being naïve?

In the words of an old Harry Enfield character, “Is that what you want? Cos that’s what will happen?”

Ashley Cole: I still reserve the right to think of you as an exemplar of all that is wrong about the modern footballer. But when you pull on an England shirt, I’m right behind you. Just cut out the suicidal back passes, okay?

1 October 2008

Gallow(gate) humour

So, Mike Ashley has reportedly lowered the asking price for Newcastle United from £450m to somewhere more in the vicinity of £300m. This, a mere 15 months after he bought the club for £133m and paid off a further £110m in debts, would still net him a profit of £50m or more.

Doesn’t your heart just bleed?

Now one could argue that Ashley is entitled to seek a return on his investment. However, as the small print in financial services ads is so fond of pointing out, investments can go down as well as up if their performance is poor or if they are badly managed.

On both counts, Ashley and his advisers have failed miserably.

Poor performance? Newcastle have for 40-odd years been a ‘nearly’ club, always promising much but never quite delivering the success their many passionate fans believe is due to them. In the space of barely a year, the quality of their football has nose-dived, they have flirted with relegation (and are already threatening to do so again), they have been caught up in the circus that is Joey Barton, and they have lost two managers, Sam Allardyce and Kevin Keegan. Now to lose one could be seen as an accident; to lose two very much seems like, as the Gallowgate faithful have repeatedly pointed out, “you don’t know what you’re doing”.

As for bad management, well. Having a London-based executive director (football), Dennis Wise, who has zero rapport with the Newcastle-based manager, with unclear lines of accountability and decision-making: not good. Writing an open letter to the fans which amounted to 1,500 words of “woe is me” and served to further destabilise and devalue the club he is trying to sell: plain stupid. Need I continue?

Don’t get me wrong, Mike Ashley is clearly an astute and very successful businessman. However, as the owner of a football club, he might as well turn up wearing a big pointed cap with a ‘D’ on the front. He failed to conduct due diligence on an acquisition – and as a result was unaware of the club’s £100m-plus debt. He has consistently attempted (and failed) to portray himself as a man of the people, to the extent that many of his executive decisions seem to have been made to placate the fans, rather than because they make sound footballing or business sense. And then, having pointed the finger at everyone but himself, his opening negotiating position was to ask potential buyers to double his money at a time when he has clearly devalued the club, rather than adding value to it.

Mike Ashley is not automatically entitled to a profit. However, such is the cachet (and the potential commercial benefits) of owning a Premier League club, he will undoubtedly make a tidy one, despite the fact that all he has achieved in the past 15 months is to take one large, underachieving football club and turn them into a national laughing stock.

In the same way that investment bankers shouldn’t be making fat-cat bonuses at a time of global financial crisis, that is just plain wrong.