26 January 2009

Six months and counting

The Tour Down Under, which finished yesterday, is traditionally the first major race on the UCI's cycling road race calendar, but in the greater scheme of things it's rarely a barometer for the rest of the season, with few of the top riders present and many of those who are there treating it as a six-day tune-up for the rigours of the year to come.

This year it was a little different.

While Quick Step's Allan Davis won his home race, international media attention was focussed predominantly on the man who finished a creditable 29th (out of 122 finishers), 49 seconds behind the winner.

That man is, of course, Lance Armstrong, winner of a record seven Tours de France, who was returning to competitive racing after a three-year absence. And who, despite constantly playing down expectations, is aiming to record an eighth triumph in the 2009 Tour, which will finish on the Champs Elysées in Paris on July 26th: six months today.

I have previously written about my regret on hearing the news of Armstrong's comeback. Even for a man who has made the impossible appear merely routine ever since his return from cancer in the mid-1990s, to win the most physically demanding race in his sport - in any sport - at close to 38 defies all apparent logic. (Only one cyclist over the age of 35 - Firmin Lambot, in 1922 - has ever won Le Tour.)

Having said that, a shiver of excitement started running down my spine as the daily stage results from Australia started to come in last week. Armstrong performed well throughout, always there or thereabouts, and even jumping off the front of the pack a couple of times to test his legs.

The fact he "only" finished 29th is neither here nor there. The Tour de France is not won in January, as a cyclist's peak form is a transitory state which cannot be sustained for more than a week or two. As he has always done, Armstrong will be working to a precise schedule with the sole aim of delivering his maximum performance in the final two weeks of the Tour, which features seven stages in the high mountains of the Pyrenees and Alps, as well as an Alpine individual time trial.

July is the only month that matters where Lance Armstrong is concerned, a singularity of focus which is shared by few of his rivals, most of whom compete in at least one of the other two Grand Tours (the Giro d'Italia in May and the Vuelta a Espana in September). Although there will be key markers along the way which will give us an increasingly accurate indication of Armstrong's performance level relative to his key rivals, we will not know for sure until the Tour has hit those first slopes of the Pyrenees. If the American is listed among the starters when this year's Tour starts in Monaco on - how fittingly! - the 4th of July, it will only be because he believes he has a genuine chance in the race.

Certainly Armstrong's Astana team will be one of the strongest line-ups - if not the strongest - come July. In Alberto Contador, Andreas Kloden and Levi Leipheimer, he will have teammates who have finished, respectively, first, second and third in previous Tours de France. And that, perhaps, is also the single biggest threat to Armstrong's victory hopes. Contador will most probably be the main threat. Still only 25, he has completed the rarified hat-trick of winning all three Grand Tours, the youngest of only five riders in cycling history to do so (the others being Anquetil, Gimondi, Merckx and Hinault).

Fundamentally, I'm a logical person. My head tells me there is a mountain of data and precedent which suggests that Lance Armstrong cannot possibly win the Tour de France; arguably he may only be the third or fourth rider in his own team. But you know what? In my heart, I believe that if anyone can do it, Armstrong can. And that's enough for me to count down the six months between now and Paris with an excitement I haven't felt, well, since Lance Armstrong was last competing.

16 January 2009

Indecent proposal

If you haven't seen the film Indecent Proposal, the key question posed by it is this: as a married woman, would you spend one night with another man for a million dollars?

Now football has its very own indecent proposal: Manchester City's audacious bid to buy Kaka - certainly one of the top three players in world football over the past few years - from AC Milan.

As things stand this morning, Milan themselves have confirmed that City have been granted permission to speak to the player, with a view to a deal in which Milan would receive a world record fee of as much as €115m (£105m), while the player is afforded a contract worth £500,000 a week.

Credit crunch, what credit crunch?

Setting aside the transfer fee, is any footballer worth £500,000 a week? (That's equivalent to £26m per year or, to put it another way, £71,000 per day- about as much as the average British adult earns in three years.) Robinho, Kaka's Brazil and would-be Man City teammate, is reportedly football's current highest-paid player with a weekly salary of £160,000, but even this is dwafed by the terms apparently on offer to Kaka. Even in the English Premier League, the richest league in world football, the number of players earning a basic salary of over £100,000 a week (a mere one-fifth of what City are offering Kaka) is small: Cristiano Ronaldo, Steven Gerrard, Michael Owen, Frank Lampard, John Terry, Rio Ferdinand and Michael Ballack being the only names which sprang to mind, with a larger gaggle in the £80k-£100k range.

(Incidentally, I wonder how long it will take Robinho - a key behind-the-scenes influencer in this deal - to demand a new contract more in line with his compatriot's? Or, for that matter, Stephen Ireland, Shaun Wright-Phillips et al?)

If we look further afield than football, there are a few - but only a few - examples of sportsmen who are being paid a salary approaching what Kaka may soon be earning. Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees is on $25m pa (about £16m at today's exchange rate). And in Formula 1, Michael Schumacher was reportedly being paid upwards of £25m pa by Ferrari, for whom he duly delivered five drivers' world titles. (Schumacher's successor at Ferrari, Kimi Raikkonen, is earning at a similar level.)

But that's not really the point. You cannot directly equate salaries in one sport with salaries in another, because their commercial economics are different. A top rugby or cricket player will struggle to secure a contract paying £500,000 per year, because their clubs and their sports simply cannot afford any more than this. Even a double Olympic gold medallist like Rebecca Adlington has to get by on lottery funding of £24,000 a year - Kaka would earn this much every eight hours - and the goodwill of private sponsors, simply because she competes in a sport which has the money-making power of a three-year old with a crayon and a sheet of A4.

Make no mistake, despite being awash in cash for the past 15 years or so, the proposed Kaka deal is wildly out of step with the prevailing football and global economies, particularly at a time when businesses are going under and people are losing their jobs or having their pay frozen. What Manchester City are doing in trying to buy their way to instant success - even if it is being funded by the owners rather than the fans - is not indecent at all.

It's obscene.

7 January 2009

The master and the puppy

It's a little bit like a little puppy faithfully following his master wherever he goes. Except in this case, the puppy is Jermain Defoe, the master Harry Redknapp.

Redknapp has now managed Defoe at three different Premier League clubs. Firstly, he was his boss at West Ham. Then, last January, while managing Portsmouth, he bought Defoe from Tottenham for £9m. And now, twelve months later, having replaced Juande Ramos as Tottenham boss, he is bringing the striker back to North London for a fee reported to be £15m.

While unusual, it's certainly not the first time a player has left a club only to return later while still in the prime of his career. Teddy Sheringham spent seven years at Tottenham either side of a four-year stint at Manchetser United. And Ian Rush left Liverpool for Juventus in 1987, only to return - like Defoe - a year later. (Rush is famously alleged to have described his problems settling in to life in Turin as "It's like living in a foreign country." Classic.)

But it is surely the first time in top-level football that a manager has brought a player from Club A to Club B, only to subsequently engineer the reverse move himself.

They say in football that you should never go back. And yet the Defoe deal seems to be a win-win for both parties. Cash-strapped Portsmouth receive a much-needed financial boost; Tottenham fill a significant need (remembering that they have also sold Dimitar Berbatov and Robbie Keane in the last six months).

As an aside, it is puzzling how Defoe's valuation has changed so dramatically in the space of just a year; a reflection of the frequently irrational science which is football economics. After all, it is hardly as if the 26-year old was an unknown quantity before his initial move from Tottenham. And while I am sure Spurs fans are delighted to have Defoe back, they must surely be scratching their heads over whether they have just overpaid for him, whether they undersold him in the first place, or a combination of the two. Looking in from the outside, £9m last year was clearly ludicrously low for a striker - and semi-regular England international - with a strong goalscoring history. Conversely, £15m today seems like a fair fee, particularly when you consider that it was less than 18 months ago that Spurs paid £16.5m for fellow striker Darren Bent who, while two years younger, has just 4 England caps (and no goals), compared with Defoe's 32 caps (and 6 goals).

Still, I suppose it's no stranger than Chelsea granting Wayne Bridge a contract worth £88,000 a week (allegedly) when he was already only the second-choice left back at Stamford Bridge. At least he'll get to run around a bit more often now he has joined Manchester City. Mind you, now that he is now reportedly earning £100,000 a week ... nice work if you can get it, eh?