11 June 2009


The Kaka-to-Real Madrid transfer was the biggest story in world football for less than 48 hours.

This morning, it has been confirmed that
Manchester United have accepted a world-record £80m bid from Real Madrid for Cristinao Ronaldo, after the player again expressed his desire for a move.

While nobody ever wants to sell their best player, the transaction makes perfect sense for United. Ronaldo has been openly talking about his dream of playing at the Bernabeu for the past 12 months, and although he has just completed an excellent season, he rarely touched the stellar heights he did in 2007/8 and he was frequently petulant towards opponents, referees, teammates and even Sir Alex Ferguson. And £80m is very much at the top-end of market value, even for the reigning World Player of the Year. With that cash, Ferguson will be able to reinvigorate his squad with two or three world-class players, with a central midfielder, a winger and possibly a goalkeeper high on his shopping list.

With the best part of £140m - or whatever is left after all the intermediaries have taken their cut - of Real Madrid's cash flowing into the market, it's not so much the transfer window as the floodgates which are now well and truly open. There are always many behind-the-scenes factors which make transfers drag out into late August - a player's personal terms, his agent's fees, haggling over how and when the fee will be paid - but I think we will now see a significant number of deals being finalised in June/July rather than August this year.

It is only the story of the Kaka transfer which has been gazzumped here. With the large and early moves that Real have made, few clubs will want to risk their big summer signing being snatched away from them by a cash-rich rival for the sake of a few hundred thousand pounds or a deferred payment. Expect a flurry of activity soon, and don't be surprised if there are some eyebrow-raising, over-inflated deals as a result.

Madrid may have shelled out a king's ransom for Kaka and Ronaldo, but the panic this is likely to create in the market - and they themselves may not be done yet - may well mean that we look back at the end of the summer and congratulate Fiorentino Perez for getting his shots in early.

9 June 2009

Cheap at half the price

It's been the worst-kept secret in football for the past week, but within the past few minutes Kaka has officially been revealed as a Real Madrid player, signing from AC Milan for £56m.

That is, in sterling terms at least, a world record fee.

Or, to put it another way, it's just over half the reported £100m Manchester City were willing to pay for the player's services during the January transfer window.

It's not often - for which, read: never - that £56m can be considered a bargain, but I would think that Real Madrid president Fiorentino Perez will be silently raising a glass to City chief executive Garry Cook for making it look like exactly that. He can also thank Cook for making the seemingly unthinkable possible. Kaka had been at Milan for six years and, prior to City's audacious bid, there had never previously been a credible whisper about him ever considering a move. But whatever happened behind the scenes in January - and City and Milan provide two very different viewpoints on that - it was enough to open the door to a possibility which has now become reality.

Madrid are likely to launch further raids - there has been much talk of Perez brandishing a €200m (£170m) budget this summer - which could trigger a domino effect leading to some serious movement of footballing talent between Europe's top clubs as the cash starts to flow.

A quiet off-season? Don't make me laugh ...

8 June 2009

Feat of clay

Without meaning any disrespect to Robin Söderling, he was really the least significant of Roger Federer's opponents at Roland Garros yesterday.

In no particular order, Federer was also battling:

- Pete Sampras, whose record of 14 Grand Slam singles titles he was attempting to match
- Andre Agassi, the only man in the past 40 years to win each of the four Grand Slam tournaments
- Rafael Nadal, the Spaniard who had taken not only his number 1 ranking but also his aura of invincibility
- The Spanish spectator who decided to run onto the court and (non-violently) accost Federer early in the second set, an event which visibly unsettled him for a few minutes afterwards
- Himself, and the combination of weighty expectation and self-doubt which have hung over him since his defeat to Nadal at January’s Australian Open

In reality, despite his hugely impressive fortnight's work, which included that stunning defeat of Nadal, Söderling’s best chance was that Federer would beat himself. In nine previous meetings – all defeats - he had only managed to take a single set off the Swiss.

Federer serenely raced through the first set 6-1, and despite his equilibrium being upset by the unwanted intruder – it took security an unforgivably long 18 seconds to stop him – he duly stepped up a gear in the second set tie-break, firing down aces on all four of his service points and winning three times against the Swede’s serve. In that moment, the championship was effectively sealed.

This was a good but by no means perfect display from Federer – if anything, his performance over the two weeks at Roland Garros has been the poorest we have seen from him at a Grand Slam tournament in the last five years – but it was still more than enough to deal with Söderling. Only once, serving for the match at 30-30, did he momentarily betray the immense pressure he must have been under, miscuing a chest-high volley which had more chance of hitting the Eiffel Tower than the baseline. But that was no more than a hiccup, and he closed out a 6-1, 7-6, 6-4 victory, achieved in under two hours.

With that, Federer became the sixth man – and, alongside Agassi, only the second since Rod Laver in 1969 - to have won each of the four Grand Slams, a feat which eluded even Sampras, Borg, McEnroe, Connors, Becker and Edberg. It was his 14th Grand Slam singles title overall (tying Sampras for the all-time record), in his 19th final (tying Ivan Lendl’s record).

Equally notable is Federer’s sheer consistency. He has contested the final of all but one of the last 16 Grand Slam men’s finals (his one aberration being the 2008 Australian Open, where he lost to eventual champion Novak Djokovic in the semi-finals). In a men’s field which boasts arguably greater strength in depth – and, in the form of Nadal, a nemesis every bit his equal - than at any time in the past 50 years, that is a remarkable achievement.

Now unshackled from the fear of failing to fulfil his destiny, don't be surprised if he wins both remaining majors – Wimbledon and the US Open – this year.

Roger Federer may be number two in the current ATP rankings (which only take into account results over the last twelve months), but- if we didn’t know it already – he really is the number one player of this - or indeed any - era.

As the French would say: chapeaux.

1 June 2009

Better than backgammon

I have to admit, I’m not a big fan of Eurosport. Their production quality is reminiscent of those old daytime soaps where the entire set wobbled whenever a door was closed. As for their scheduling, ‘random’ is the most generous description I can offer. Programmes frequently start late, overrun, move without warning or sometimes disappear completely.

The Giro d’Italia is a good example of this. Through 21 days of racing, I religiously set my Sky+ box to record the highlights every evening, only to discover on at least five occasions that I had missed at least half the programme due to a combination of late starts and the EPG not being updated accordingly. (On one evening, I was less than amused to discover the slot had been switched for a programme of backgammon highlights. Thanks for that.)

Having said that, Eurosport is the only channel in the UK carrying Giro coverage, so I suppose I shouldn’t complain too much. And, through fortunate happenstance, the broadcaster yesterday gave us live pictures of two pieces of tremendous sporting drama, less than an hour apart.

Giro d’Italia, Rome

Denis Menchov was the last rider down the start ramp in yesterday’s 14.4km time trial around the streets of Rome, which concluded the Giro. Starting three minutes behind Danilo di Luca and nursing a meagre 20 second lead, it’s hard to know what must have been going through the Russian’s mind.

Certainly, he will have been receiving constant updates on the Italian’s progress through the time-checks, and as he passed through the first one himself five seconds slower than di Luca, no doubt his already fast-beating pulse will have quickened further. The news that light rain was falling over parts of the circuit won’t have helped, either. The cobbles that comprised long stretches of the course are difficult enough to ride in damp conditions on a standard road bike; on a racing bike, with its super-skinny tyres, it becomes close to impossible to corner at any speed whatseoever.

So Menchov will have been relieved to know that, as he started on the long, cobbled run to the finish, he had not only regained the early time losses to di Luca, but had indeed extended his advantage. And, of course, it was at that moment, on a straight stretch of cobbles, that his bike slipped away from underneath him, sending him sliding painfully across the road for at least ten metres.

In the long moment that followed, we wondered if Menchov had suffered an injury serious enough – fractured collarbones are not uncommon – to deprive him of his first Giro win inside the final kilometre. Fortunately, he was quickly back on his feet, while a mechanic in his following team car quickly jumped out, whipped a spare bike off the roof rack and gave Menchov a quick push start once he had climbed into the saddle – all done with the smoothness and efficiency of a Formula 1 pit-stop.

Bloodied but unbowed, Menchov continued on to the finish, to discover that he had triumphed by 41 seconds overall. It was the right result, as even di Luca would recognise, but a dramatic coda on the end of what had already been a tight, eventful race.

Roll on the Tour de France in July, by which time the ever-improving Lance Armstrong (12th overall in Italy) may just be in a position to challenge defending champion Carlos Sastre and 2007 winner (and Astana teammate) Alberto Contador for podium honours.

French Open, Roland Garros, Paris

Before yesterday afternoon, Rafael Nadal, the world number 1 and four-time defending champion, had a career record of 31-0 at Roland Garros, which included a run of 32 consecutive sets won, dating all the a back to the 2007 final.

Robin Söderling, the Swede seeded 23 (and ranked 25th in the world), had never previously ventured beyond the third round of any grand slam singles, and is regarded as something of an indoor specialist.

So, naturally, in one of those wonderful reversals of logic that only sport can provide, Söderling won, 6-2, 6-7, 6-4, 7-6. I turned over after the cycling to watch the fourth set, and while it was clear that Nadal was marginally below his best, it was also apparent that Söderling’s ultra-aggressive approach was paying huge dividends and filling him with confidence rather than trepidation. For every fizzing winner that Nadal fired across the net, Söderling had an answer. And in the decisive fourth set tie-break, there was only ever one winner as the Swede dismantled the defending champion’s serve, breaking his first three service points before emphatically closing out the match.

It was a stunning display of clay court tennis, from both players. And on a weekend where world number 4 Novak Djokovic also took his leave of the tournament, the happiest men in all of Paris – after Söderling - must surely have been Roger Federer and Andy Murray, for both of whom the draw has now opened up. Several dangerous obstacles remain – most notably del Potro, Davydenko and Gonzalez (who Murray faces next) – but all of a sudden the prospects for a British Grand Slam singles winner are significantly enhanced. Fingers crossed.

So, thanks to Eurosport for providing an hour of high sporting drama yesterday. However, I'll still be watching the Tour de France on ITV4 come July. I simply couldn't face another hour of televised backgammon ...