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.