28 December 2009

Is defeat a blessing in disguise for the Colts?

With just one week remaining in the NFL regular season, the '72 Miami Dolphins can breathe easy and - as has become traditional for the surviving members of the league's sole 'perfect' team at the fall of the last unbeaten side every season - pop the celebratory champagne corks.

At least as far as 2009 is concerned, nobody's perfect any more. But, for the Indianapolis Colts, that may turn out to be a good thing.

Until a week ago, the tantalising prospect of not one but two unbeaten teams duking it out in the Super Bowl - in, of all places, Miami - on February 7 remained very much a possibility. But then the New Orleans Saints stumbled to a 24-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, and followed that up last night with a 20-17 defeat to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who recorded only their third win all season.

So now 13-0 has turned into 13-2 for the Saints. And what was shaping up to be a marquee season - and potentially a first-ever trip to the Super Bowl - led by the NFL's most potent offense is now plagued by doubt. Are the Saints losing form as we approach the business end of the season? Will the pressure of carrying the hopes of a city still struggling from the after-effects of Hurricane Katrina prove too great?

The same question marks cannot be said to hang over Indianapolis. Even if last night's 29-15 defeat to the New York Jets - who scored the game's last 19 points in erasing a 15-10 third quarter deficit - dashed any hopes of a perfect season, the result raises no major doubts about the Colts' momentum, coming as it did with quarterback Peyton Manning and other key starters sitting out the second half.

After all, the primary objective remains the Super Bowl, and with home field advantage in the playoffs already secured, there was little left to play for other than the mythical 19-0 season and the sometimes-voiced notion that a winning team should never let up.

But what if Manning or, say, running back Joseph Addai had been injured in what was effectively a meaningless game? Is the quest for perfection really worth the risk?

And, I would argue, a single defeat can even be healthy for the soul. It is a reminder that nothing can be taken for granted, and it also relieves the additional pressure of striving for the perfect season (as if pursuing a Super Bowl win isn't enough already).

Just ask the New England Patriots, who marched through the 2007 season with a 16-0 record, and from there to a Super Bowl against the New York Giants which many considered to be not so much a competitive game as a coronation. It was a game in which the Giants played out of their skins and the much vaunted Patriots coughed, spluttered and were eventually defeated, as if choking under the weight of expectation, both their own and that of a live audience of hundreds of millions.

There are many reasons why the Patriots lost that game. The pressure of emulating the '72 Dolphins was almost certainly a contributing factor. But so too was a dilution of focus. Instead of conserving their effort at the end of the regular season, they poured considerable energy into pursuing individual records for quarterback Tom Brady and wide receiver Randy Moss, which went right down to the final regular season game - against, of all teams, the Giants. In pursuing individual and team glory, did the Patriots show too much of their gameplan to the Giants, an act of vanity which would later cost them in the Super Bowl? It's hard to tell, but it certainly wouldn't have helped their cause.

Interestingly, there is a possibility that the Jets will face the Colts in the playoffs. Unlike the Giants against the Patriots, they will have learned very little about Indianapolis last night.

So, the Colts are not chasing the end of the rainbow any more. They won't care about sacrificing the perfect season if it means they win the Super Bowl. It's a lesson which New England learned the hard way; Indianapolis may well benefit from maintaining their tunnel vision and playing the long game. Only time will tell.

There are many reasons why the Indianapolis Colts may fail to convert near-perfection into a Super Bowl win (not least the fact they have statistically the least productive running game in the entire NFL). But the vainglorious pursuit of the perfect 19-0 season will not be one of them.

17 December 2009

Contenders or pretenders?

Burnley 1 Arsenal 1

A dark omen or a temporary aberration? Two points dropped or one point gained? Glass half empty or half full?

You pay your money and you take your choice.

It is certainly true that games such as last night match at Turf Moor, those involving long round-trips to play middle-ranking team in inhospitable conditions, are often a measure of the true position of a championship aspirant. However, it is also far too easy to assign too much pessimism (or optimism) to a single data point.

For instance, Arsenal’s 1998 title-winning run came off the back of a thoroughly dispiriting 3-1 home defeat against Blackburn – a performance every bit as poor as the scoreline suggests - and even the 2004 Invincibles side had to battle for a 1-1 draw at Bolton in a wintry midweek fixture similar to last night’s. Take either of those two results in isolation, and you would be amazed that these were both championship sides.

And, lest we forget, this is a Burnley side which has lost just one of its nine home league games this season (to Wigan, ironically one of the Premier League’s worst travellers), including wins against defending champions Man U and Sunderland, and a draw against top-four challenger Aston Villa.

So was a draw really so bad? Or does it only look so grim off the back of Sunday’s big win at Anfield, and the fact that Man U, Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham and Villa all won their midweek games?

Glass half-full?

Let’s start by looking at the positives.

Firstly, there is no question that the club’s injury list has had an enormous impact throughout the season, but with several players either recently recovered or soon to return, things should soon improve. In recent weeks, injuries have deprived the team of its most potent striker, Robin van Persie (gone for at least four months) and his back-up Nicklas Bendtner (out until the New Year), the first, second and third-choice left-backs (Gael Clichy, Kieran Gibbs and Armand Traore) and, just before half-time last night, captain and creative lynchpin Cesc Fabregas. Theo Walcott has barely played all season (and it really shows); Abou Diaby and Eduardo were just returning from injury last night; Denilson and Tomas Rosicky are sidelined, and Samir Nasri has not fully hit his stride since his long lay-off.

It’s certainly been a major contributory part of Arsenal’s recent problems, but a reason to be more optimistic looking forward. (Having said that, it should not be held up as an excuse. The reality is that injuries are part and parcel of the modern game, and big clubs are expected to have deep squads. Man U, for instance, can point to a defence which started on Tuesday minus Rio Ferdinand, Jonny Evans, Wes Brown, Gary Neville, Fabio and Rafael da Silva and John O’Shea.)

Secondly, Arsenal’s league position actually isn’t that bad. With more than half the season still to go- and a game in hand (at home to Bolton) - they are potentially just five points behind leaders Chelsea and two behind Man U. (Which is not so shabby for a club who many ‘experts’ thought would struggle to retain their place in the top four.) Moreover, United’s defensive injury list is potentially crippling, and Chelsea will lose key players like Drogba, Essien, Kalou and Mikel to the forthcoming African Cup of Nations for at least a month. Meanwhile, Arsenal’s league fixtures over the next month are relatively kind, with four home matches sandwiching a trip to bottom club Portsmouth. And with games against United, Chelsea and Liverpool to follow in an 11-day span shortly after, it is clear that it is this two month spell out to mid-February – and not last night’s result - which will truly determine the outcome of Arsenal’s Premier League challenge.

And, finally, Arsene Wenger has made it clear that he will be looking to strengthen the squad in the January transfer window. In the past, notwithstanding last year’s capture of Andrei Arshavin, he has generally kept his wallet in his pocket during the winter window, so such news is welcome, even if he is unlikely to be spending mega-bucks.

Glass half-empty?

Naturally, there are negatives too.

The back four is dangerously short on depth, with any injury to Thomas Vermaelen or William Gallas requiring the less-than-reassuring Mikael Silvestre (currently looking every bit the fourth-choice left back) or Alex Song (who will be away at the African Cup of Nations) to stand in. Song will of course be missed in his holding midfield role during the African tournament, and there is no obvious like-for-like replacement. Manuel Almunia, a decent keeper who has played consistently above his level for the previous two seasons, is bereft of confidence and playing well below his level. Too many others are either playing poorly, inconsistently or struggling after injury, and beyond Fabregas and Arshavin the side lacks genuine match-winners which previous title sides boasted in abundance: Henry, Bergkamp, Pires, Ljungberg, Vieira et cetera.

And while last night’s result was certainly a disappointment, it was the manner of the performance which was particularly depressing. Having taken an early lead, Arsenal dominated until Burnley equalised, at which point you could visibly see the confidence drain out of the team. And once Fabregas went off, things became increasingly disjointed. There was plenty of tidy possession, but much of Arsenal’s play lacked purpose. I can’t remember Brian Jensen having to make a difficult save throughout the second half, and the most penetrating run from an Arsenal player in that period came not from Arshavin or Nasri or Walcott or Eduardo, but from Vermaelen, a centre back. In truth, it was Burnley who created the most threatening opportunities in the final 45 minutes, and were it not for the thickness of the post and an assistant’s flag, could have won 3-1.

In fact, the second half summed up Arsenal’s ongoing problems in a nutshell. Too often lacking genuine bite up front, and yet giving up scoring opportunities at the other end with alarming regularity. A tendency to dominate without scoring, and then struggle for long periods after conceding. Able to conjure up a thrilling win at Liverpool on a Sunday, and then subside to an insipid draw just 72 hours later. It is a pattern Arsenal fans have seen on more than a few occasions over the past couple of years.

The (not-so-final) verdict

Which is the real Arsenal? The Anfield lions or the Turf Moor lambs? We don’t really know, but – and this is perhaps the crux of the matter – I’m not really sure Wenger or the team themselves know either.

We will have to wait and see how this most unpredictable of seasons pans out. What seems certain is that Arsenal’s form will continue to fluctuate, and the media will be all too quick to deliver their black-or-white verdict based on individual passages of 90 minutes.

More fool those of us who choose to take their quick-fire judgments as bible. In truth, Arsenal are maybe only half as good as they looked at Anfield, but probably also twice as good as they looked last night (or in the 3-0 home defeat to Chelsea). Whether that is good enough to sustain a title run all the way through to May remains to be seen. Any declaration one way or the other right now would be distinctly premature.

10 December 2009

The alternative SPotYs

The BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards take place in Sheffield this Sunday, with Jenson Button still the even-money favourite to win the main SPotY award (although it's interesting to note that Ryan Giggs is now 2/1 second favourite and drawing closer by the day). Usain Bolt is a shoo-in to retain Overseas SPotY. And the England cricket team that regained the Ashes the overwhelming favourite to win Team of the Year (although I would give a shout-out to the Arsenal Ladies football team, winners of the domestic treble).

It's a bit dull, really. The only real grain of doubt is whether the Welsh and Manchester United-supporting constituencies will be enough to sweep Giggs to the main award on the same wave of sentimental twaddle that brought him the PFA Player of the Year Award back in April, and has previously seen nice-guy also-rans such as Damon Hill, Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski triumph on the night despite not actually winning anything of consequence during the corresponding year.

So, to spice up what is likely to be an all too predictable evening of back-slapping and poorly-delivered one-liners, here are my alternative SPotYs; some serious, others less so.

Comeback of the Year

Lance Armstrong - After more than three years in retirement, the seven-time Tour de France winner returned to the sport at the age of 37. Despite a broken collarbone disrupting his preparations and an intra-team cold war with Astana teammate Alberto Contador, he went on to finish third behind Contador in this year's Tour, at times showing glimpses of the indomitable champion he was previously.

Kim Clijsters - Retired suddenly in 2007. Returned just as suddenly two years later, and won the US Open in fairytale circumstances in September, becoming the first wild-card champion of the event - defeating both Venus and Serena Williams en route -  and the first mother to win a major since Evonne Cawley at Wimbledon in 1980.

Catriona Matthew - Won her first career major (and the first ever by a Scottish woman) at the British Open in August, just 11 weeks after giving birth to her second child.

And the winner is: Lance Armstrong. No sport is as unforgiving as cycling when it comes to exposing any physical weakness, and the Texan showed he can still stand toe-to-toe with the very best, despite giving away ten years or more in many cases.

Dick Dastardly Award for Most Evil Sportsperson in the World, Ever (Boo, Hiss)

Flavio Briatore - For ordering Nelson Piquet Jr to deliberately crash his car into a wall at the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, engineering a safety car period which allowed Renault teammate Fernando Alonso to win. (The F1 wags say it was just about the only time Piquet Jr made an impact in his brief F1 career.)

Harlequins - The club's cynical manipulation of rugby's blood rule through the use of capsules of fake blood resulted in the departure of both director of rugby Dean Richards and chairman Charles Jillings, and gave rise to pointed questions about other unsavoury but rarely spoken about shady practices within the sport.

Thierry Henry - For single-handedly (see what I did there?) putting the integrity of football at risk - at least according to the FAI - by controlling the ball with his left hand in setting up William Gallas's decisive extra-time goal in France's World Cup playoff win against the Republic of Ireland. Robbie Keane would never have done anything so dishonest, no sirree.

Eduardo da Silva - Dived to win a penalty in a Champions League qualifier against Celtic. Arsenal's Croatian striker was retrospectively banned for two games (later overturned) and held up as the poster boy for football's cheating culture. Although, obviously, when Michael Owen does it against, say, Argentina at the World Cup finals, it is merely an example of the 'art' of 'cunning centre forward play'. There's a huge difference, of course: Owen plays for England; Eduardo doesn't.

And the winner is: Flavio Briatore. Henry and Eduardo gained unfair advantages, but did only what the vast majority of other players would also have done in their place. Harlequins were unfortunate insofar that they were the ones who got caught. Briatore's actions went way beyond all of these, conspiring to put at risk the safety of his own driver, marshals and spectators.

Sports WAG of the Year

There can be only one nominee and one winner here: Elin Nordegren, wife of Tiger Woods, who demonstrated that Tiger is not the only member of the Woods household who knows how to swing a golf club.

Victim of the Year

Again, there can only be one winner. Caster Semenya won the women's 800 metres at the World Athletics Championships in Berlin, mere hours after the IAAF informed the world that it had asked her to undergo gender verification procedures. It was the kind of baseless public humiliation that no one should ever have to experience, let alone an 18 year old preparing to compete that same evening on a global stage.

Idiot of the Year

Mike Ashley - Bought Newcastle United. Sacked Sam Allardyce and brought in Kevin Keegan and Dennis Wise. Oversaw relegation from the Premier League, and now still can't offload the club despite asking for less than a quarter of the £400m he was reportedly attempting to sell for a year ago. If ever you needed it, Ashley is living proof that success in business does not guarantee success in sport.

ITV - For accidentally cutting to a commercial break and depriving viewers of the only goal in Everton's FA Cup replay win over Liverpool, the only moment of joy in a stultifyingly dull game.

Tiger Woods - Enough said.

And the winner is: Mike Ashley. Just because.

Gone But Not Forgotten Special Recognition Award

Sir Bobby Robson, former England manager and recipient of the 2007 SPotY Lifetime Achievement Award. 1933-2009. R.I.P.

And finally ...

Really Deserves to Win SPotY But Doesn't Stand a Chance Award

Alistair Brownlee - The 21 year old did not even make the final SPotY shortlist of ten, despite becoming World Triathlon Champion (having won all five of the World Championship Series events in which he competed) in a year in which he also completed a degree in Physiology and Sport. As if that wasn't enough, he is now undertaking an MSc in Finance.

Mark Cavendish - Won six stages in the Tour de France as well as the Milan-San Remo one day classic, confirming his status as the current king of sprinting on the road. He's arguably the best there has been in a decade or more - and is the subject of a frank and highly entertaining autobiography - but nonetheless remains unknown to many, while to others he is notable for being the only member of the British track cycling team to return from Beijing last year without a medal.

Jessica Ennis - Became world heptathlon champion just a year after missing out on Beijing with a career-threatening injury, as a result of which she has had to switch her take-off leg for the long jump. Ennis has talent, personality and a movie-of-the-week heart-warming tale of overcoming adversity to boot.

Beth Tweddle - Twice a gold medallist in a sport in which she is Britain's only world champion, and which is starved of funding and often ignored by the general sporting public (and, indeed, the Prime Minister when it comes to recognising a Briton winning a world title in somewhere as remote and far-flung as, er, London). While competing under such constraints, Tweddle also studied for (and completed, in 2007) her degree, a feat requiring a degree of commitment and flexibility every bit as impressive as her difficulty-laden, world title-winning floor routine.

And the winner is: all four of them. If push came to shove, Cavendish would get my vote, but in a parallel world where SPotY was awarded based on an objective assessment of achievement rather than how many column inches a sportsperson or their sport generates, each of the above would be a thoroughly deserving winner.

Shame it - like the other awards outlined here - will never happen, eh?

3 December 2009

Defining moments 4: Armstrong’s last stand

An occasional series looking at the defining moments which explain why sport captivates us so much ...

In sport, you often hear competitors talk about “110 per cent effort” or similar to emphasise that they’ve given absolutely everything. While one might quibble over the mathematics of such a statement, it’s nonetheless a valid reminder that sportsmen and women do push their bodies to the very limit of their capabilities, and sometimes beyond.

Nowhere is such single-minded effort more necessary – or indeed more obvious - than it is every July at the Tour de France.

There’s something about the Tour that sets it apart. It provides the most strenuous examination possible of speed, stamina, strength and sheer obstinacy, with its long flat stages, savage mountain climbs, and against-the-clock time trials stretched over a gruelling three-week schedule.

To put this challenge into context, here are some basic facts and figures about the 2003 edition, which provides the setting for this post. That year’s race comprised 21 stages over 23 days, covering a total of 3,428km, roughly the same distance as Paris to Moscow. The furthest covered in one day was 231km (London to Cardiff), and the longest stage took over six hours to complete. En route, there were fifteen climbs higher than the peak of Ben Nevis, Britain’s tallest mountain. And at the end of it all, the race was won at an average speed of 41kph. At this pace, you would run the hundred metres nearly a second faster than Usain Bolt.

Three weeks. Two wheels. One living hell. Welcome to Le Tour. This is not an event you choose to participate in unless you are the hardest of masochistic hard men (or doped up to the eyeballs, but that’s an entirely different topic).

I can’t stress enough just how tough the Tour is to even complete, let alone win. It may share the same means of propulsion as a Sunday afternoon bike ride, but it has about as much in common with it as the marathon does with my walk home from the corner shop.

Over the years, the Tour has provided a plethora of memorable images and defining moments, many of them involving Lance Armstrong, the most successful Tour rider of all time. This is my favourite.

Tour de France, July 2003

No matter how good a climber you are, this is the kind of day you know is going to hurt in a way that no amount of training can truly prepare you for. Covering 160km and culminating in three major climbs – the Col d’Aspin (the warm-up act at a mere 1,489m above sea level), the Col du Tourmalet (2,114m) and finally the finish at the top of Luz-Ardiden (1,715m) – this is four-and-a-half hours of intense suffering for the very best; an extra thirty minutes or more for many others.

The American Lance Armstrong is seeking a fifth consecutive Tour victory, but he has not dominated this race in the manner of his previous wins, looking vulnerable in the Alps and conceding a massive 96 seconds to Jan Ullrich in the individual time trial three days earlier. His advantage over the German is now a wafer-thin 15 seconds, with Alexandre Vinokourov just three seconds further behind. Armstrong’s objective today is simple, at least on paper: build his slim cushion over Ullrich and Vinokourov, ideally to a minute or more, ahead of the potentially decisive second time trial.

The slopes of Luz-Ardiden are to be the battleground for Lance Armstrong’s last stand.

Four hours into the stage, the leading riders are bunched together at the foot of the final climb. They are watching each other, waiting for the attack they know must come soon.

Sure enough, the yellow jersey eases into position at the head of the group, the orange-shirted Spaniard Iban Mayo and Ullrich at his shoulder, the others a few metres further back. And then suddenly, inexplicably, Armstrong’s bike twitches violently and he crashes to the ground, taking Mayo with him. (TV replays will later show his handlebars had caught the straps of a spectator’s bag.)

A second passes, then two, then three. Is his bike broken? How badly is he hurt? Is it all over for Lance Armstrong – just like that?

The wait is excruciating, like watching a jelly-legged boxer struggling to beat the referee’s count. Ullrich and the other leading riders cycle past. Armstrong is clearly dazed and shaken as he picks himself up and rights his bike, pausing to refit his chain before setting off in pursuit. A TV camera zooms in on his bleeding elbow, then pans up to his face. His wide-eyed, adrenaline-fuelled fury tells you everything you need to know: I will not let it end like this!

Armstrong strains every sinew to regain the lost ground, but not without one further flirtation with disaster. Charging up the mountain in pursuit - out of the saddle, standing on the pedals, maximum effort - his right foot slips out of the pedal, and he lurches forward precariously, his balance utterly compromised. For a moment it looks as if he’s either going to lose his manhood on the bike frame or else come off his machine altogether. Fortunately he does neither. He instinctively catches himself, regains his balance, and quickly slots his foot back into the pedal. A hiccup, no more.

At this point, any ordinary human would probably be content to thank their lucky stars and follow the pack to the finish. But professional cyclists are not ordinary humans, and Lance Armstrong is no ordinary cyclist. He has been in this situation – hunted, disrespected, written off as lacking a winner’s quality – before, and he knows what to do.

The leading group is now back together again, and almost immediately Mayo launches an attack, his tired legs developing an instant burst of speed in an attempt to put a decisive gap between him and the others. Armstrong’s response is immediate, surging forward to catch the Spaniard’s breakaway, and then without pause for breath he does what he has always done best – launch an attack himself. A devastating burst of acceleration, a quick look over the shoulder to see if anyone can respond - they can’t - and he’s away, a yawning gap opening up rapidly behind him: five seconds, fifteen, thirty …

Literally and figuratively, Lance Armstrong never looked back again. He finished 40 seconds ahead of the rest that day, but it might as well have been 40 minutes. The war was not yet won, but the key battle had been.

Put firmly on the back foot, Ullrich would go on to crash in a torrential downpour during the final time trial in a desperate attempt to make up time, confirming Armstrong’s fifth Tour de France victory. The American would go on to win the next two Tours; Ullrich would never get as close again.

Armstrong’s stirring fight-back on Luz-Ardiden was potentially the difference between him losing his stranglehold on the world’s greatest bike race and becoming its most successful ever participant. On such critical, defining moments are sporting legends made.

20 November 2009

Henry's handball changes nothing - football has never been fair

In the wake of Thierry Henry's handball to set up the decisive goal in Wednesday's World Cup playoff, the Irish FA has claimed that the incident had raised doubts over the "integrity" of the game.

It’s not fair, and I think you’re really mean
(Not Fair, Lily Allen)

I hate to point this out to the many (and there are very many) crusading for truth, justice and the Irish way into the 2010 World Cup, but football has never been fair. And its integrity has been, at best, shaky for many years now: I'm not entirely sure how one act of deception can strike at the foundations of the sport any more than, say, Serie A's calciopoli scandal.

Thierry Henry: Most evil person in the history of the world? Er, no

Let's put Henry's part in this to rest, shall we? He handled the ball twice; the first time looked accidental, the second much less so. But it was a spur-of-the-moment action, and anyone who can state with absolute certainty that they would have owned up is kidding themselves. (Honestly? I'd like to think I would own up, but I suspect I wouldn't, at least not on the spot.) Before the indignant and the self-righteous start attaching epithets such as 'scumbag' to Henry - and a quick trawl of blogs, discussion boards and Twitter will show you there has been plenty of this already - it would be wise to remember the old biblical parable: let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

Henry handled the ball; he made a snap decision which he will regret later. (Haven't we all done that at times?) His reputation will be slightly tarnished but hardly ruined, as some are claiming it will be. Yes, I am disappointed that he has shown himself to be merely human, but that does not diminish his talent or his achievements in the game.

5 of the worst

From some of the media coverage I have read over the past two days, you might think Thierry Henry is the only player who had cheated in a football game anywhere ever. Clearly that is ridiculous. Here are five others, all of whose 'crimes' should be familiar to football fans:

Diego Maradona - Scorer of the infamous 'Hand of God' goal in a 1986 World Cup quarter-final against England. Later tested positive for cocaine, became a laughing stock over his ballooning weight, and is now proving to be an inept and foul-mouthed national coach. Nonetheless, one of the best footballers ever to walk on to a pitch.

Roy Carroll - Manchester United goalkeeper who, chasing desperately back after a Pedro Mendes lob, clawed the ball back when it was two feet over the goalline and knowingly, nonchalantly played on. United won 1-0.

Harald Schumacher - German goalkeeper who, in a 1982 World Cup semi-final, charged out of his box and leapt into France's Patrick Battiston, breaking his jaw. The referee awarded a goal kick.

Roy Keane - Pre-meditated stamp on Manchester City's Alf-Inge Haaland, for which he was correctly sent off. Later admitted that he had set out to deliberately hurt Haaland in revenge for a taunt over three years previously.

Stephane Henchoz - Deliberate first-half handball on the goalline in the 2001 FA Cup final, preventing a certain goal. Liverpool rallied behind two late goals by Michael Owen to defeat Arsenal 2-1.

Righting wrongs

Anyhow, the 'Hand of Frog', as it has been termed, happened. Replays show the referee (who otherwise had a very good game) was unsighted, and that his assistant may not have had a clear view either. It's unfortunate, but it happens; no matter how good an official is, he cannot anticipate every eventuality. Michel Platini's experiment with AARs (additional assistant referees), currently being piloted in the Europa League, would have helped in this instance, as the extra official at that end of the field would have been standing to the right side of the Irish goal, with a perfect view of the handball. (I'm not a big fan of AARs, by the way, but they are better than nothing.)

The argument supporting the use of technology to help match officials will begin again - as it should do. I have long been a proponent of the judicious use of replays to reverse clear miscarriages of justice - a dive in the penalty area, the ball crossing the goal line, a clear foul in the build-up to a goal - an aid which has been enormously beneficial in other sports.

Sorry, Shay, the world (and the World Cup) isn’t about fairness

Ireland goalkeeper Shay Given has also spoken about how the incident may have cost him his last chance to play at a World Cup tournament. And while I feel sorry for him, Richard Dunne and others for whom this probably was their one shot, there are other, more deserving players who have never been to a World Cup either: Ryan Giggs, George Weah and George Best to name but three. (And, equally, there are many less deserving players who have been to one or more torunaments.)

And, when you look at it, the whole way the World Cup qualifying process is set up is fundamentally unfair, and deliberately so. The tournament is not intended to feature the best 32 teams in the world - if it did, Europe would have more than 13 qualifiers - rather it is supposed to encourage global development of the sport by bringing together representatives from all the continental federations. As such, Europe is handicapped at the expense of, say, Oceania.

If the 'fairest' way of determining the 32 qualifiers for next year's World Cup was to take the host nation and then add the 31 highest-ranking countries according to the FIFA world rankings, Europe would be sending 18 (not 13) teams to South Africa with Croatia (ranked 10th), Russia (13th), Bulgaria (27th) and Norway (31st) elevated at the expense of qualifiers such as New Zealand (77th) and North Korea (84th).

But that isn't the case. It's just how it is.

So, yes, the Republic of Ireland have discovered this week that football isn't fair. Tell us something we didn't already know. Twas ever thus.

13 November 2009

SPotY-watch 2

With the BBC Sports Personality of the Year (SPotY) awards now exactly one month away, here's how the odds on the identity of the winner of the main award have changed since I last posted on this subject nine weeks ago.

Jenson Button 8/13 favourite (previously 7/4 joint favourite)
Jessica Ennis 3/1 (7/4 joint fav)
David Haye 4/1 (50/1)
Andrew Strauss 16/1 (8/1)
Ryan Giggs 20/1 (100/1)
Andrew Flintoff 33/1 (6/1)
Beth Tweddle 33/1 (100/1 or greater)
Amir Khan 66/1 (50/1)
Andy Murray 66/1 (14/1)
Phillips Idowu 66/1 (25/1)
Stuart Broad 66/1 (16/1)
Tom Daley 66/1 (33/1)
Mark Cavendish 80/1 (previously 50/1)

There is now a much greater degree of certainty in the odds than was previously the case. Most significantly, since my previous post in mid-September, Jenson Button secured the Formula 1 drivers' championship with a stirring drive through the field to fifth place in Brazil. It is the first time in 40 years that the title has been won in consecutive years by a British driver (Button succeeds 2008 champion Lewis Hamilton, who has dropped out of the running according to the bookies).

On the same day that Button clinched his first world title, gymnast Beth Tweddle secured her second with a breathtaking performance in the floor final. It is a clear indication of where gymnastics rates in the British sporting consciousness relative to F1 that the odds on Tweddle adding SPotY to her two world golds are a generous 33/1. (Similarly, Mark Cavendish, winner of six stages at the Tour de France and road cycling's dominant sprinter for the last two years, has slipped back - ludicrously but sadly accurately - to 80/1.)

On Saturday night, David Haye defeated the seven-foot Nikolai Valuev to become the WBA heavyweight world champion in what had been billed as David versus Goliath, but in reality was more Jack and the Beanstalk. In what has been widely regarded as one of the dullest fights in heavyweight title history, Haye ducked and dived, the giant Valuev lumbered ineffectually after him, and the British fighter ultimately triumphed on points. Haye's SPotY odds were immediately slashed from 50/1 to 4/1 third favourite. And while I have nothing against him and have no desire to belittle his achievement, it has to be borne in mind that Valuev, once you strip away his freak show physical statistics, is simply not a very good boxer. The 'Beast from the East' does not deserve a mention in the same breath as either Klitschko brother, let alone the likes of Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield or even our own Lennox Lewis.

However, Haye is unlikely to win despite his massively shortened odds, particularly if Amir Khan, currently a 66/1 outsider, successfully defends his WBA light-welterweight title against Dmitry Salita the week before SPotY, thereby splitting the boxing vote.

As Button and Haye have enhanced their credentials, heptathlete Jessica Ennis has slipped from 7/4 joint favourite to 3/1 second favourite by virtue of doing nothing. Two months ago, I was really hoping she would win and, although I still do, I don't think she will beat Button now - but she should still secure a place in the top three.

Pretty much everyone else has seen their odds lengthen. The Ashes are now a distant memory, and while England's cricketers must be favourites to win Team of the Year, none of them will get close to the final reckoning for the main award. Andy Murray's chances disappeared with his fourth-round US Open exit and subsequent injury lay-off. Phillips Idowu and Tom Daley never realistically stood a chance to begin with.

Which just leaves the slightly puzzling question of why Ryan Giggs has, according to the bookies, crept into the top five. Presumably there has been a gentle trickle of money being put on him, to which the bookies have reacted. Perhaps they feel there may be a wave of seasonal goodwill and sentimentality which will sweep a representative from our most popular sport towards the top end of the poll. Who knows?

Either way - and, again, nothing against Giggs himself - I will not be voting for him. I can tell you right now that on the night I will be casting one vote for Cavendish (the rightful winner as the outstanding British sportsperson over the past 12 months) and one for Ennis. 

Not that it will make any difference to the final outcome, of course. I fully expect that the bookies have got it spot on and that Button will win, with Ennis second and Haye third. But, much as I love F1, you'll have a hard time convincing me that Button is the most deserving winner, though.

5 November 2009

F1’s winds of change

Reflecting back on the last 12 months in the world of Formula 1, two apparently contradictory aphorisms spring to mind. Firstly, that change is usually for the better, and secondly, that you can have too much of a good thing.

Change has certainly been the prevalent theme in F1 over the past year. On the plus side, we have had the Brawn team’s fairy-tale march to the constructors’ title in its maiden season, spearheaded by new world champion Jenson Button. The established order of McLaren/Ferrari domination with the rest scrabbling around for the minor placings was turned on its head, with Brawn and Red Bull largely bossing proceedings. The first ever day/night race at the new, no-expenses-spared track in Abu Dhabi provided a memorable spectacle (even though the race itself was pretty dull). Jean Todt has succeeded the controversial Max Mosley as FIA president, promising a lower-profile and less confrontational style of leadership. And four new teams have been granted places on the grid for 2010.

All the above is good, but they are almost footnotes in what has been a tumultuous season in which the sport has repeatedly appeared on the verge of implosion.

Honda departed abruptly before the season had even begun, leaving Ross Brawn to rescue the double championship-winning team which now bears his name. BMW announced mid-season they would follow suit, followed by Toyota yesterday with, potentially, Renault to follow. This is not good news for the stability of the sport and its teams, at least in the short to medium-term. Yes, it is counterbalanced by the arrival of four new teams, but it is by no means certain that all of those teams will actually be present in Bahrain in mid-March, let alone survive beyond their debut seasons.

While it was good to see the established order disrupted – Ferrari languished in midfield for the most part, while it took McLaren half the season to turn what had initially been a dog of a car into a front-runner – we are unlikely to see this repeated in 2010. In a season where the technical regulations were changed significantly, both Ferrari and McLaren compromised the development of their 2009 cars due to their need to squeeze every last improvement out of their 2008 designs in a title race which, literally, was not decided until the closing seconds. With in-season testing now banned between races, it meant that Brawn’s early season advantage could be sustained long enough to give Button what would prove to be an unassailable lead before the big boys could catch up. We will not see the same in 2010: with less dramatic rule changes for next season, McLaren now have a good working baseline, and Ferrari clearly abandoned development on this year’s car to concentrate on next year’s.

The one big rule change for 2010 is the end of refuelling, but it is impossible to tell right now whether or not this will improve the on-track racing. On the one hand, heavier cars will mean longer braking zones and potentially more driver errors, facilitating a shift from overtaking in the pits to on the track. But it may also lead to drivers taking a more conservative approach to racing in order to conserve their tyres which will be much more susceptible to wearing, which may reduce the scope for overtaking. We will have to see whether this turns out to be a good move.

What else has happened over the past year? We have had a hasty attempt to introduce a medal system where the driver with the most race victories (as opposed to the most points) wins the title. The outgoing Mosley tried to railroad the introduction of a £40m a year budget cap for all teams – unquestionably the right direction for F1 to ensure it survives the current economic climate, but handled in such a ham-fisted way that it brought the teams to the brink of a civil war in which they threatened to walk away and set up their own, non-FIA-sanctioned championship. Bernie Ecclestone remains at odds with Silverstone over the future of the British Grand Prix, even after the proposed permanent move to Donnington fell through recently. And his apparently sympathetic comments about Adolf Hitler in a July newspaper interview didn’t go down too well either.

We should also not forget how lucky Felipe Massa was to survive being struck in the head by a loose spring from compatriot Rubens Barrichello’s car in a freak accident which underlined how dangerous the sport remains, despite the massive advances in safety made in recent years. Massa was back on the Ferrari pitwall by season’s end; whether he will be up to the challenge of returning to F1 as a fully competitive racer in 2010 remains to be seen.

Worst of all, though, the sport was engulfed in two major controversies surrounding the integrity of its participants. First we had the unedifying situation at the season-opening Australian GP where defending world champion Lewis Hamilton lied to the stewards about his involvement in a late-race incident, an affair which ultimately hastened the departure of McLaren team principal Ron Dennis. And then we had the furore over ’Crashgate’, as an inferno of indignation over Nelson Piquet Jr’s deliberate crash at the 2008 Singapore GP engulfed Renault and led to the dismissal of team boss Flavio Briatore and technical chief Pat Symonds.

All in all, it’s been quite a year even by the Machiavellian standards of F1, one in which the sport has been constantly in the headlines, often for all the wrong reasons.

But who will emerge as the front-runners for 2010?

Brawn faces a difficult winter. With Button yet to re-sign and with other teams having consistently overhauled them in the second half of the season, a repeat title win would be arguably more surprising than their initial one. Brawn have less in the way of development resources and budget than the bigger, more established teams, and must additionally have had to divert development focus away from their 2010 car to ensure the 2009 one remained fast enough to deliver Button to the title. Despite Ross Brawn’s technical and management genius, I would not be surprised to see them struggling in the midfield early on.

In Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber, Red Bull have arguably the strongest driver pairing in F1, and an indisputably quick car to match. Like Brawn, their 2010 car may be a bit slow out of the blocks given their attempts to maintain a title challenge this year. I expect them to be faster than Brawn at the start of next year, but whether this will be enough to see them at the front of the grid remains to be seen.

McLaren cannot possibly start 2010 in as poor a shape as they did this year. By season’s end, they were the class of the field at most circuits, and in Lewis Hamilton they have an experienced driver who is capable of wringing every last ounce of performance from a car. I will be amazed if Hamilton is not a genuine contender next year.

But my close-season tip for next year is Ferrari. They have all the money and experience a team could possibly ever want, and they will also have two-time world champion Fernando Alonso alongside a hopefully fully-recovered Massa. Don’t be deceived by the lumpen machine which was being tooled around by the unmotivated Kimi Raikkonen and the new boy Giancarlo Fisichella in the last few races – Ferrari have been fully focussed on their 2010 car for months now. I expect them to get off to a flying – potentially season-defining - start next year.

So there you have it. Before a wheel has even been turned in winter testing, I predict that Fernando Alonso will dominate, Button-style, the early part of next season, with Lewis Hamilton hot on his heels and the Red Bull pair not far behind. As for Button, much depends on where he ends up. If he stays at Brawn, I think he will struggle to do more than contend for podiums; however, if he ends up at McLaren, he could do much better, although I do not expect him to win out over Hamilton in the long run.

Whatever happens, I hope Formula 1 will be in the news next season more for the great drama on the track than for the theatrical melodrama off it. There has been more than enough change in 2009 already, thanks.

29 October 2009

Defining moments 3: Redmond’s three-legged race

An occasional series looking at the defining moments which explain why sport captivates us so much ...

Not all defining moments in sport are about winning; occasionally a glance into the mirror of defeat tells us more about the human spirit than the glory of victory, and provides us with images which are indelibly etched into the memories of those watching.

Sceptical? Well, try this.

Olympic Games, Barcelona, August 1992 – men’s 400 metres semi-final

It is one of the most heart-rending of sporting images, and yet also one of the most heart-warming. Two men hobble over the finish line together, arms around each other like participants in a three-legged race. The other competitors have long since finished, but they are nonetheless given a champion’s reception by the crowd in Barcelona’s Olympic Stadium. One is a finely honed athlete dressed in the red, white and blue of Great Britain, the other a more generously proportioned man dressed in shorts, t-shirt and baseball cap.

This is one of those ineffable moments that television captures brilliantly, but still photographs somehow capture better. Photos of this strange duo crossing the line show the athlete being all but dragged across the line, freely shedding tears of pain and despair.

The pair are joined, not just physically but by ties of blood: Derek Redmond and his father Jim.

Redmond had entered the Olympics in good form, knowing this was his best opportunity to win an individual Olympic medal. The early signs had been good as he ran the fastest time of all in the first round, then won his quarter-final comfortably. Everything was going exactly according to plan, with no hint of trouble.

And so to the semi-final.

As usual, the athletes settle into their blocks for the start, followed by a moment of pin-drop silence and finally the bang of the starter’s gun. Redmond starts well, settling quickly into his stride and asserting his authority. All is going well. Then, about 150 metres into the race, sudden disaster. One moment he’s running smoothly; the next thing he knows his right hamstring has torn and he is tumbling on to the track.

In that instant, he knows it is all over. And so do we.

Redmond lies on the track, watching as the other athletes speed into the distance, still chasing their Olympic dreams. His are shattered.

But although the race is lost, he will not be beaten. He struggles to his feet while his father Jim makes his way on to the track. Together, they slowly make their way towards the finish. Officials attempting to stop them are waved away by a father who insists his son is allowed to finish with dignity.

The standing ovation the Redmonds receive from the 65,000 crowd as they cross the line conveys sympathy, empathy and respect in equal measure. In competitive terms, the victory is a Pyrrhic one; in human terms it is truly Olympian. 

Officially, Derek Redmond was disqualified from his 400 metres semi-final and did not finish. We know better. He may not have won a medal, but he captured the hearts of millions.

Redmond later featured in one of the International Olympic Committee's 'Celebrate Humanity' videos entitled ‘Courage’, and last year he featured in a TV ad for Visa which stated that "he, and his father, finished dead last. But he, and his father, finished."

Derek Redmond's defining moment was, for him, not a happy one. But his reaction to the sudden ending of his Olympic dream - and that of the crowd in Barcelona that day - spoke volumes about the indomitability of the human spirit, and the role which sport can play in revealing that to us.

It's scant consolation and no substitute for an Olympic medal, but Derek Redmond will always be remembered simply because, although he had already lost the race, he refused to be defeated. That should count as a victory in anyone's books.

26 October 2009

Wembley is not the pot of gold at the end of the NFL’s rainbow

Even on a day when the unbeaten New Orleans Saints overcame a 24-3 second quarter deficit in Miami and the San Francisco 49ers fell just three points short of reeling in Houston’s 21-0 halftime advantage, the odds of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers recovering from the 21-point head-start they gave the New England Patriots at Wembley Stadium yesterday never looked good.

This was the third year in a row that Wembley has hosted an NFL regular season game, but the novelty does not seem to have worn off, at least not among the die-hard American football community, nearly 85,000 of whom descended on north-west London yesterday. For while this was always likely to be a competitive fixture in name only – the Patriots are among the Super Bowl favourites, while the Bucs came to London winless after six games – it was enough that the NFL was just here.

The expectation of a one-sided contest was underlined when Brandon Merriweather intercepted Tampa quarterback Josh Johnson’s second pass of the day and returned it down the sideline for the opening score, and further reinforced when Merriweather picked off Johnson again on the Bucs’ next possession.

In truth, quarterback Tom Brady - who is to the NFL what David Beckham is to football - and the high-octane Patriots’ offense coughed and spluttered through much of the first half. Brady uncharacteristically threw two early interceptions - as many as in the previous six games in total - but when the Pats clicked it was to ruthless effect. First Brady hit Wes Welker across the middle with a short pass which the diminutive wide receiver took in for a 14-yard score, and then Sam Aiken slipped a tackle en route to a 54-yard touchdown to give the Patriots a 21-0 advantage.

The Bucs rallied briefly before halftime, with Johnson finding Antonio Bryant with 18 and 33-yard passes, the latter for a touchdown, but it was never likely to be more than a death rattle.

And so it was. The Patriots cranked it up a gear in the second half (without ever appearing to be running flat out), embarking on a pair of soul-destroying six-minute drives covering 73 and 89 yards at the start of the third and fourth quarters, culminating in, respectively, a 35-yard touchdown catch by Ben Watson and Laurence Maroney’s one-yard run. At 35-7, the game was up, and it was left to both teams’ backups to run out the clock on the remaining nine minutes.

After his nervy start, Brady settled into a deceptively easy rhythm, finishing with 308 yards passing and three TDs. (It says much for people’s elevated expectations that this felt like a relatively subdued performance.) Of his two primary receiving threats, Randy Moss had an unspectacular game by his standards (5 catches for 69 yards), while it was Welker who did most of the damage, repeatedly running free underneath the Bucs’ coverage to finish with 10 receptions. Too often the Bucs defense seemed uncertain whether to stick or twist: on the one hand, too often unwilling to press the short passing game for fear of giving up the deep ball, then unable to cope in man-to-man coverage when they did try to apply pressure. By contrast, the Pats patiently absorbed everything Tampa had to offer offensively, occasionally conceding ground and then finding big plays when they needed them to stop the young Bucs in their tracks.

But then that was no more than was expected from a match which pitted a confident team packed full of experience and star names against a winless side of relatively callow youngsters. The final 35-7 margin was neither unrepresentative nor unexpected, and is indicative of the difference between a team whose year will end quietly in Tampa, Florida when the regular season ends on January 3rd and one who has a very realistic chance of going all the way to the Super Bowl 300 miles south in Miami, Florida on February 7th.

Shades of Wembley 2007?

In the first ever NFL regular season game at Wembley two years ago, the New York Giants defeated the Miami Dolphins 13-10 in a truly awful game. The Dolphins flew home winless and would finish the season 1-15; the Giants went on to win Super Bowl XLII, their third overall.

So, will history repeat itself in 2009? Are the Bucs destined for an NFL-worst record this year? And can the Pats go one better than the Giants and notch up a fourth Super Bowl win?

The Patriots are ranked in the league’s top six in both offense and defense, a sure sign of a potent, well-balanced team. After a sluggish start, they are beginning to look like the real deal again, having outscored their last two (admittedly winless) opponents 94-7. With Brady returning to somewhere near his best form they are an awesome threat through the air, their ground offense is decent enough and the defense remains tough and steeped in experience. Super Bowl winners? Maybe. Serious playoff contenders? Definitely.

The Bucs, on the other hand, remain one of only three winless teams, and are ranked in the league’s bottom six in both offense and defense. With a young quarterback and a relatively inexperienced supporting cast, they will continue to struggle for consistency, but there is enough potential in a running game which boasts a decent twin threat in Cadillac Williams and Derrick Ward to build around. However, their schedule from here on is not the easiest, including home and away matchups against the undefeated Saints. They will probably not follow the 2008 Detroit Lions in going 0-16, but in all likelihood they will struggle to win more than a couple of games. At best, they are most optimistically described as a work in progress; at worst, they may just be the poorest team in the NFL in 2009.

Where next for the NFL in the UK?

After the success of the last three years, it is hoped that the UK will be granted two games next season, with the aim of hosting as many as four per season from 2012. The former seems highly possible (though by no means a given); the latter a worthy aspiration but probably no more than a pipe dream, as the NFL will undoubtedly look first to extend its reach into other lucrative TV markets where the sport will be welcomed with open arms. Germany is an obvious target, with Japan and ultimately China also likely to feature highly on the league’s hit-list.

Certainly any talk that London might one day be granted its own NFL franchise or the rights to host a Super Bowl is both premature and wide of the mark. For now, the NFL is certainly a successful and loyally-supported minority sport in the UK – and, for those of us who grew up watching the sport on a strict diet of one-hour weekly highlights programmes and scouring the box scores in the international version of USA Today during the pre-internet 80s, the level of coverage we get today is miraculous by comparison – but the UK represents no more than a stepping stone in the NFL’s wider global plans.

Personally, I doubt we will ever see the Super Bowl played at a stadium outside the US, but if it ever did, my money would not be on Wembley hosting it. I strongly suspect that, at the end of the rainbow, the pot of gold can be found in the heart of Beijing. Impressive though Wembley is, I can think of no more spectacular place to host the NFL’s showpiece event than the Bird’s Nest stadium.

Now that really would be a Super Bowl.