Friday, March 9, 2007

MotoGP 2007 Preview MouthoftheMersey

The preview that didn't make it - by OBO king and mimitig collaberator MouthoftheMersey

Nicky Hayden starts his defence of the MotoGP title in the desert of Qatar’s Doha circuit and, lest we forget, in the desert of the BBC’s live sport roster (11.30am Sunday BBC2, since you ask). But of course nobody is too interested in the Number 1 bike when there’s a Number 46 bike on the grid.

After his sensational late season charge to (what seemed) yet another fairytale MotoGP Championship, Valentino Rossi was (for once) unable to write the final chapter. The Doctor fell off in the last round of MotoGP 2006 and handed the title to the consistent young American who had accumulated points steadily over the season.

Having spent the close season flirting with Ferrari and rallying, Valentino, to the huge relief of TV companies and sponsors, is as hungry as ever for motorcycling, as his fastest lap in last month’s official testing at Jerez proves. Having won well over half of all MotoGP races, the Doctor will be looking to win in Qatar and stay ahead of the field through the 18 race season, with the British round scheduled for Donington Park on June 24. Like Woods and Federer, Rossi thrives on the pressure favouritism brings and can look forward to another season basking in the adoration of his worldwide tifosi.

As ever, the new season comes with a new rulebook, 2007’s stipulating that bike capacity come down from last season’s 990cc to this season’s 800cc. But, inevitably, the bikes are going faster. We can expect close racing, drafting then overtaking (as Formula One cars did before the boffins got a grip) and plenty of thrills and spills (though not many serious ones please).

To the uninitiated, channelling over 220 bhp through the few square centimetres of rubber in contact with the road seems completely crazy, but to the initiated… well, we think it’s pretty crazy too. Having said that, a great joy of motorcycle racing, as compared to Formula 1 or WRC, is that the bikes look like our own bikes – they go quite a bit faster and stop astonishingly more abruptly, but it’s still two wheels with an engine in between and a rider struggling to control it. Of all top-end motorsport competitors, it is probably bike riders who are closest to their public in every way but salary..

Joining Hayden and Rossi on the grid are old favourites like Alex Barros and Kenny Roberts (not so) Jnr and young guns Casey Stoner (real name!) and pocket-rocket Dani Pedrosa. Ulsterman Jeremy McWilliams will fly the Union Jack, but at 42 is old enough to be Casey Stoner’s father. With Rossi a long-term London resident, many British fans consider the Italian genius as one of their own.

Will Hayden repeat his feat of 2005 and hold on to the title? You can get 10/1 about the Kentucky Kid if you think so. Rossi, on the other hand, is odds-on.

The tribulations of Brazil’s most flamboyant defender- By Pipita

Francisco Marinho Chagas was only 22 when elected best left-back of the 1974 World Cup. However, in spite of this achievement, he would never again appear for Brazil in that tournament. His legacy as one of his nation’s best ever left-backs, as well as one of the most irreverent, has pretty much faded from the memory of many Brazilian fans, probably due to the manner Roberto Carlos has monopolized that position in the “scratch” during the last decade.

Born in Natal, Marinho rapidly achieved fame when Rio de Janeiro giants Botafogo purchased him from Nautico Recife in 1972. His rise to stardom was immediate. He scored in his debut in a Brazilian championship match against Santos, for whom Pele scored the equalizer, and also became an instant feature of the Rio beaches given his appearance, no doubt enhanced by his long blond hair which he persisted in dying even blonder. A firm favorite amongst many “garotas” during the seventies, Marinho’s playboy image is inevitably referred to in most profiles written about him.

His success in 74 was however partially marred by a much publicized rift with Leao. The brazilian goalie allegedly thumped Marinho and made him directly responsible for the goal by which Poland defeated Brazil in the Third/fourth place game. Marinho’s surging runs forward was a feature of his game that provoked as much admiration as criticism. The left flank of the defense which he so often left unprotected, especially when playing home matches at the mythical Maracana Stadium, merited the sarcastic term of “Marinho Avenue”.

In 1977 Marinho joined Fluminense, the unforgettable “machine” that had obtained both 1975 and 76 Carioca tournaments. However by the time Marinho arrived there, the only stars remaining were Rivelino, Edinho and veteran argentine striker “Gringo” Doval. In spite of not winning any trophies, he scored frequently especially from free kicks and penalties. After two seasons at “Flu”, Brazil’s poor economic situation and an alleged row with Edinho, accelerated Marinho’s departure. His next destination was New York.

Signed in 1979 by a Cosmos team that included Beckenbauer, compatriot Carlos Alberto, Chinaglia and Neeskens among others, Marinho performed decently in his only season there and will especially be remembered for his hat trick in a 3-2 win against Geroge Best’s Fort Lauderdale Strikers with 70000 attending. The following year he played for the latter team in what was to be his last season at the NASL. On returning to Brazil he joined Sao Paulo with whom he obtained the State championship of 1981, the only league medal of his entire career, and was also chosen for the third time as Brazil’s best left back. However, a dramatic decline in his performances forced him to leave Sao Paulo two years later and, after a series of unsuccessful spells in minor clubs, he finally retired in 1987.

Brazil’s 1970 top scorer, Jairzinho, a friend and former team mate of his at Botafogo and the national team, has sustained that after Nilton Santos, there was no better left back than Marinho, and the great defender of the 1958 and 1962 World cup wins, himself once stated “Ah Marinho, como jogava bonito”-“Oh Marinho, how nice he used to play”. Every now and then Francisco Marinho appears in the brazilian media as a football pundit. He recently stunned many Brazilians for his strong criticism regarding his country’s performances in the last world cups, and most particularly that of one of their key defenders……Roberto Carlos.

Four British Heroes - mimitig

In November 1975 Graham Hill died when fog took over the skies of North London and his aeroplane crashed. The nation reeled at the loss of a hero.

Hill was not the first, nor tragically the last of the heroes of British Motor Sport to die off the track. In 1959, a few months after becoming Formula One World Champion, former Le Mans winner, Mike Hawthorn took the spirit of competition too far. On the A3 Guildford By-pass, in filthy weather, he put pedal to the metal in his Jag and raced to catch and overtake his one-time racing colleague Rob Walker's Merc. No-one really knows what happened, but the result was in no doubt. Mike Hawthorn had driven his last race.

An audaciously talented youngster, Mike Hailwood made his debut on the motor cycling stage in 1957 at Oulton Park. Great things were predicted and fulfilled. From the age of 17, he enjoyed huge success and won 4 World Championships in the premier class. Perhaps more astonishing is the fact that he also took 14 wins in the gruelling Isle of Man TT Road races, and then, incredibly moved to 4 wheels. Although he never won a Formula One race, he more than earned the right to fame when he saved the life of fellow driver Clay Regazzoni, dragging him from a burning wreck in the South African Grand Prix of 1973. Soon after, he retired from racing but came back to win a final TT race in 1978. It was hard to read of his fatal accident on a Warwickshire road in 1981.

A more recent lost hero was Steve Hislop. A bike rider for whom the words man-of-steel could have been coined. I followed his career with awe and fascination. He did what no current track rider can even dream of. He ruled the TT races and he ruled British Superbikes. After suffering a poor season start in 2003, defending his '02 title (he'd won it before in 1995), he was turning it around. We all knew that he had the talent and the hunger to triumph again. But fate had another card to play. At just 41 years old, 5 years younger than Graham Hill, an eerily similar accident claimed his life. In the skies above Hawick, not far from his home, in conditions of poor visibility, something caused his helicopter to crash. Hizzie died and everyone who had ever sat on a bike or watched a bike race mourned.

Motor-sport is dangerous and we watch, or compete, at all levels knowing the risks. There are horrendous crashes. Men are carried off on stretchers with broken, twisted limbs. Yet, across all levels, these competitors come back a week later, and ride to win.

The tragedy of my four heroes is that they did not die in pursuit of their sporting ambition. They fell foul of the grim reaper because they loved thrills, excitement and chasing the adrenaline rush. They were the victims of chance, the weather or even the hand of God.

Milkmaids…? by Zephirine

At my all-girls’ secondary school, sport was dull and badly taught. We played netball - a version of basketball specifically invented for females, where you have to stand still when you get the ball, but not for too long, and physical contact is penalised. Pretty much everything which is great about basketball isn’t allowed in netball.

We also played a game called stoolball, which I remember as being good fun; we were taught that it was ‘the Sussex version of rounders’, and I always assumed that this was another genteel sport devised for the weaker sex by some Victorian educator.

Wrong, wrong. I’ve recently discovered that stoolball, which is still widely played in Sussex (predominantly, but not exclusively, by women) is one of the oldest known English sports. It was originally played by milkmaids (I kid you not) using a milking stool as a wicket, and is mentioned in documents going back at least 500 years. Historians believe it originated in the fourteenth century. It was a rough country game - there are records of it being played with stones instead of a ball - and matches were followed by rustic merrymaking with the village swains and ale-fuelled hanky-panky. It also made its way to America, and some Pilgrim Fathers (or their wives) were seen playing it in 1621 - on Christmas Day, and probably without the hanky-panky.

Nowadays there are also stoolball leagues in Kent and Surrey, and it’s played like village cricket, for competition and fun. It has always been played in Sussex, though East and West Sussex (typically) had different versions of the rules. After the First World War stoolball was ‘revived’ by a Major who felt it would be suitable for injured soldiers to play - he codified it and added rules from the men’s game of cricket which had, of course, been evolving separately for quite a while by then.

So, much of the terminology in today’s game comes from cricket, and the rules are roughly the same, but it looks more like rounders. The two wickets are square boards, at head-height, on stands, and the small leather ball is bowled underarm. The bat is weird. It’s round, like a heavyweight version of a table-tennis bat, made of wood, and hefty - you can take a good wallop at the ball with it. It, too, was probably originally a milking-stool, or the top of one, though there are also records of an early form of the game where the maids hit the ball with their hand, and in some areas they used a stick.

No one knows at what point the breakaway men’s version began to call itself cricket. The Stoolball Association firmly states that its game is the ancestor of cricket (though the MCC may not agree). Obviously the stick version of ancient stoolball developed into rounders, which is thought to be the origin of baseball. Or, given the 1621 eye-witness account, stoolball may be the direct ancestor of baseball.

So… cricket and, maybe, baseball were invented by….girls. Milkmaids. Not their boyfriends or their dads. Girlies in skirts.

Who is going to break this to Shane Warne?

Losing my V-Plates: My day at Spa-Francorchamps - JensonHerofClark

I remember the date well – Wednesday September 13, 2006 – no, not the date I became a real man. It is a date that will forever stay with me, as you will soon discover. I am cycling down the hill from my house on the outskirts of the beautiful Ardennes forest in Belgium, of Boire de la Pierre situated about 80 kilometres north of the notorious Spa-Francorchamps grand prix circuit, speeding freely into my hometown.

Anybody who cycles appreciates the sensation of freefalling effortlessly into the wind at high speed. It is probably the same for motorcyclists, but I wouldn’t know. There is an even larger sense of freedom about my pedalling this time. Normally, I cycle into the wind purely for my own enjoyment and sense of adventure. But this time it is a premeditated adventure: I am collecting my driving licence. The adventure has been brewing in my mind for days, ever since I passed my driving test on the previous Friday – lucky number five. As a fanatical Formula One aficionado, words cannot describe the relief I felt in finally passing my test.

I was free; I am free to go wherever and whenever I want. My license wouldn’t come through until the following Wednesday and unsurprisingly gave me too much time to think where I should endeavour on my maiden voyage. A journey through the willowed and perilous roads of the Ardennes forest unquestionably awaited me, culminating at what some call the most exhilarating and hardest racing track in the world – Spa-Francorchamps.

The days leading up to the ride of my life were painful, as you might expect, but that morning of September 13, 2006 every suffering in my life disappeared for the moment. Selfish, I know. Naturally, parents were told a plausible tale of where I might venture within the car on my own for the first time in my life. Cunningly told, they were oblivious to my intended destination. Stocked up with saccharine skittles and Lucozade sport to add to the buzzing vibes excreting from all parts of my body, my rusty 10 year old scarlet Volvo was up to the task and headed for the highway and on to the possible danger an 18 year old boy might come up against on the pursuing roads of the Francorchamps forest.

I was in heaven, and if this is what heaven looks and feels like, then I want to be dead. Free to go wherever I want and how fast I wanted, within the speed limits of course, or there about. Climbing the peaks through the vines of this misty yet stunning forest I head for signs of the racetrack. I reach a vantage point – you are now entering the old Spa-Francorchamps circuit de F1. This is where the very best drivers of our world are killed, Alan Stacey and Chris Bristow, Britain’s casualties to name but a few. And I am not surprised. Just driving in the midst of such dangerous public roads, I cannot comprehend how racing was ever endorsed here.

The sheer steepness of the corners, narrowness of its straights and the minimal liberty a driver would have encompassed from the screaming spectators mesmerises me. It is simply breathtaking knowing that these roads I now have in my grasp were the landmarks of which Formula One legends were born. Driving for the first time was something special for me, but hustling my way through the tricky, empty soul-filled roads of Francorchamps is unexplainable through words. I hadn’t even reached the Spa-Francorchamps circuit they use today.

I park my unorthodox Volvo at the gates of La Source hairpin at the new circuit. And from one awe-inspiring mania of driving through the outskirts of this circuit, of which is the old track, to the next by staring at this new spectacular racing roadway. I catch a gulp of air and with it want to faint as a result of the reflection that stares back at me. There in front of me, down the prominence from La Source is the infamous Eau Rouge corner – the hardest grand prix corner in the world, taken flat out. Aware that I’m not meant to enter the circuit; but with no one about and gaps visible in the fence I persevere.

Nervously I trot and take in the surroundings of this polluted forest of which lies an outer ring of death in the now form of public roads, and at this instant the inner unyielding raceway of a modern grand prix circuit. Probably without blinking I walk upto the bed of this frightening corner that is Eau Rouge. I look up and reminisce of last years race where invisible to television cameras, I watched from the grandstands’ insistently as some, and many other drivers so nearly got Eau Rouge wrong. Climbing the embankment that is the corner, I now understand why. The steepness of the banking together with the bend of the corner is unbelievable to think you could go flat out in a normal road car, let alone a racing car.

I sit in the middle of the mound, overwhelmed at the immensity of such a spectacle that it takes a few attempts by a construction worker to snap me out of my apparent gaze. He says I should not be here and I respond by telling him I just came for a quick look and that my car is parked nearby. Realising my state of shock he sympathises with my gormless state and tells me to enjoy the walk back, but whatever I do, make sure I do not imagine the past greats of Fangio, Clark, Senna and Schumacher tearing round La Source hairpin and hurtling towards Eau Rouge – it is exactly what I don’t do.

There is no real point to this story, just to try and share animatedly what it’s like to envisage history accompanied by actually being in the place it occurred, and something you feel so zealously for.

I assemble my shaken self into my car and mull over what has taken place. I eventually pull away with the zeniths of the foliage absorbing my mirrors. Losing my virginity felt good, but nothing compares to my time at Spa-Francorchamps and its charming scenery – yes, including a grand prix race track. The feeling is everlasting; they don’t make race tracks and all of its complexities like this anymore. So unequalled, I went back the next day.

As the wind blows, the train approaches

Can you feel the wind - it's coming...

Or, this week's big blogger is.

Good luck everyone, and many thanks for all those who have submitted articles for Pseuds' regardless of entries to the GU competition.

Email address for entries here at the top of the page.

I've got a couple of things I didn't manage to get on this week (I've been super-busy with my real job) to go live, so there should be something to distract you from this weeks' invoices on this afternoon regardless.

And as a final message, spread the word about the site. Last check we had more than a thousand visitors from about 100 locations across the world. China, South Africa, Jakarta, Australia and New Zealand, someone from Dallas and another from Reykjavik, Santiago and Buenos Aires (and even some Tahitian rower), but that's not enough. If you enjoy the stuff, or want your musings read, forward links on (and you can link to individual articles) - any money earend will go on a bloggers convention in Tahiti and a present for Sean and Barry for making this all possible.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

The trouble with Spurs’ identity - Margin

Once upon a time - so the story goes - Tottenham Hotspur were a Jewish club. The vague mists of history conspired to turn that very simple fact into the modern club’s identity. And that Jewish identity now invites racism from the fans of other teams.

This myth is so strongly ingrained that chairmen have defended anti-Semitism because of it. Ken Bates argued that Spurs should not bait racist Chelsea fans with their Jewish solidarity. West Ham’s owners are not so vulgar, but following the ‘seig heils’ at Upton Park this week, the football authorities have rushed to condemn the victims.

The Kick it Out campaign, the Premier League, and the Football Association have called an emergency meeting with the Tottenham hierarchy. It is the second such meeting. Last year’s one condemned the club and called for action to eliminate the chants.

To these people Spurs must stop pretending they are still Jewish. After all, ‘yid’ is an insulting term that should be silenced everywhere. And they are right that the club is not quantifiably a Jewish one.

In 2007 they have no more Jewish fans, players or board members than near neighbours Arsenal. But that misses the point. Spurs were never Jewish. The myth is wrong. The identity isn’t what they think.

When the old firms travelled the country West Ham and Chelsea had particularly nasty factions. The National Front would recruit at Upton Park, and Combat 18 infiltrated Chelsea. Both clubs deserve praise for their successful fight to remove the racist garbage, though that praise if not often given.

But in the 1970s when such scum travelled to White Hart Lane, they passed through South Tottenham with its large community of orthodox Jews. Primed by that sight they arrived in full Nazi voice, chanting against the vile Hebrew filth. To racists like them no insult could be more pure than ‘yid’.

And so from the darkness of 1970s football the Yid Army grew. Spurs fans took anti-Semitism as anti-Semitism. They opposed it in the only way they could. No committees. No meetings. No do-gooders. They chanted en masse. They took Judaism to their hearts. And they shouted down a scourge that deserved to be confronted.

So when the ill-informed men in suits display their intellectual sensitivity at that meeting with Spurs bosses, expect the club to ignore them.

There will be a consultation and some high minded agreement to tackle racism. But Spurs won’t give up their anti-racist identity. And does anyone really think they should?

At what point do sport and art come together? - mimitig

By Mimitig - queen of the OBO

There are many sports fans who feel no warmth at all to the concept of art. They will happily argue that sport is macho: it is the epitome of the struggle of men against men. They will admit to a fine or beautiful run down the wing side resulting in, say a superb cross leading to a goal in football, or in rugby, a neat blind-side switch leading to a try, but it's not art.

But they should stop and think. There has already been a ballet choreographed about Archie Gemmell. For all I know, there may well be one about Phil Bennett and his devastating performance during the famous match in 1973 as the Barbarians beat NZ. On that day at the Arms Park there was a dance as magical as anything the Kirov Ballet could produce in their wonderful Swan Lake.

Why should there be an argument? Sportsmen and women aspire to perfection in their art and physical fitness. This is exactly the same with the artistes of the ballet. Why should we seek to find differences between these disciplines? Why not recognise that there are more similarities than disparities? When Asian cricketing hero Shahid Afridi suffered a loss of perspective and performed a pirouette on the popping crease, should we not have celebrated his artistry, and imagined him in tights, dancing on the Parisian stage?

There used to be an Olympic sport dedicated to the togetherness of sport and art: it was called synchronised swimming and drew much derision from all courts. I think we can do better. If we all come together and recognise how close these two disciplines are, there will be joy unbounded.

What fun there would be. Gilbert and George become Premiership referees and gloriously redraw the meaning of the red and yellow cards. Tracy Emin is put in charge of 30 young men with unfeasibly large thighs who like to finger each other in the scrum. Darcy Bussell controls the strip at Lords. When Damien Hirst is on stand-by with a tank of formaldehyde, and Anthony Hopkins waits with a bottle of room-temperature Chianti, who then would take the risk of a dive and a 5 minute agony-roll on the ground?

Sport must then give back to the arts: there are many sportspeople who could betaken for "Living Art". Coat some snooker stars in silver paint and put them on display to the public as living statues. Isenbayeva caught at the moment she vaults the high bar and Wilkinson trapped with his hands in prayer before kicking, both locked forever in Perspex boxes. True art.

There is a wonderful arena in the heart of central London that could be the perfect venue for art and sport to come together. Southwark, stand up and claim your inheritance. The next installation for Tate Modern: gymnastics, Aussie Rules, basketball - the imagination can run riot.

What’s in a name? Plenty, if the name is Pele - allwell

“Don’t be so soft.”

My reaction to hearing that Pele was plying his trade in England was in no way a reference to the great man’s evangelical approval of Viagra. It was more an expression of disbelief at a story so implausible. But stranger things have happened this season - each new development at Upton Park for example - so I felt compelled to consider the possibilities.

Perhaps Chelsea had invested their fortune in a time-travelling contraption, enabling the Special One to assemble of team of legends - galacticos across the ages - all at their peak. Visitors to Stamford Bridge would marvel at Pele and Maradona lining up alongside the likes of Puskas, Cruyff and even Billy Whitehurst. It would almost justify the admission fee.

The prime suspects, however, were Garforth Town. They would sign the present day, 66 year old Brazilian in a flash. After all, in November 2004 they persuaded Socrates to make a cameo appearance in the Northern Counties East League Premier Division. That’s right, Socrates, the medically-qualified, chain-smoking Che Guevara look-a-like style-meister who, with the grace and athleticism of a gazelle, choreographed and captained those beguiling Brazilians of 1982.

The interest generated by the 2004 version was substantial; so too, sadly, was our hero’s frame. Now with the grace and athleticism of a moose, he lasted little more than 10 minutes, most of which he spent gasping like a freshly landed fish. Whether he then returned home or earned a big-money transfer to Newcastle United, I really can’t recall.

As long as Garforth check FIFA’s list of banned substances, they might enjoy better luck with Pele. Fuelled by Viagra and rampaging around Wheatley Park, the priapic maestro would treat spectators to his full repertoire of tricks: an outrageous dummy, a cheeky chip, a bicycle kick. Everything, with the possible exception of a lazy lob.

To my disappointment, I discovered that the man in question was not the Pele, but a Pele, a Portuguese defender signed in the summer by Southampton. This raised a question even more pressing than why it had taken seven months for this matter to come to my Premiership-obsessed attention: what kind of name is Pele to give to a child? All dreams of accountancy dashed, he is forced into a life of football. Unless then hailed as the greatest player of his generation he becomes a failure, an embarrassment to the name.

Isn’t life a difficult enough journey without the weighty burden of expectation? Enveloping and invading the mind, it influences every thought and deed. It suffocates, leaving its victim drained of confidence, bereft of creativity, broken of spirit, stultified. Just ask anybody who represented England in last year’s World Cup.

Admittedly, European Cup winner Abedi Pele did all right, but imagine his achievements had his parents been a little more prosaic in their choice of name. I won‘t make the same mistake, and that’s why any son of mine will be called Sharon. Or Gary Neville.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Kusturica on Maradona - Marcela Mora y Araujo

By the utterly lovely Marcela Mora y Araujo

A friend of mine once complained, after a film which had failed to meet her expectations, “all I’m after is 90 minutes of enternainment, is that too much to ask?”. Someone looked at her and said with a perfectly straight face, “that’s exactly what you get with a football match”.

People are forever asking why aren’t there more good films about football. They may as well ask why aren’t there more good films about film. The two genre are in a sense tokens of a type. Football is its own art form – it is the game itself that gives us whatever narrative we may be after: drama, suspense, hope, fear… laughs, tears. The whole gammet of human emotion can be observed on the pitch.

I was re-reading an interview with the Argentinian writer Julio Cortazar where talking about literature he said: “It’s not a game. What I do believe is that literature has such a great margin, a latitude, which allows or even requires – at least to me – a recreational dimension that turns it into a huge game. A game in which you can risk your life but which preserves playful characteristics. Literature evokes for me sports such as basketball or football, in which a combinatorial art, the creation of strategies, are elemental. Without them, there would be no game”.

I feel the same applies to film. Which is not to say that a film couldn’t take football as a subject – far from it. Perhaps the reason why successful football films are rare (although increasingly less) is precisely because they tend to be instances when the filmmakers take football to be a topic which they ought to say something ‘about’.

As any avid football follower will know, football isn’t a ‘thing’ which we can make single pronouncements about, any more than film is. Football is almost an umbrella term which encompasses action, illusion, dreams, pain, sadness, and increasingly elements of showbusiness such as advertising, murky international deals and the attention of the rich and famous.

Sue Clayton, a director and screenwriting lecturer for the University of London and the British Council, claimed to have found the formula for the perfect film. According to her, the perfect film would be made up of: action 30%, comedy 17%, good v evil 13%, love/sex/romance 12%, special effects 10%, plot 10% and music 8%.

To varying degrees in the percentages, an average football match has its quota of all the above.

DIEGO

Over the last decade I have had reason to observe Diego Maradona and his ‘entourage’ on several occassions. As a subject (journalistic, football, film… whatever the channel) he is without equal. His fairytale rise from rags to riches, his compulsive misbehaviour, his talent, his brilliance… all combine to provide every ingredient a good story could ever wish for.

I always remember being invited to join his ‘intimate’ dinner party in October 1995. First, outside the Boca stadium where a match had just finished, I was ‘loaded’ onto the back of a cattle truck with about 20 or 30 young men whom, if I met in a dark ally, would inspire me to cross the road. Then, I joined an assortment of fat women, gangster looking men, loud children, seated around some tables shaped in U, and Diego like the king of this bizarre kingdom seated at the centre. They banged cutlery and cheered his every word as if we were on the terraces, or perhaps it is the terraces that emulate Diego’s family dynamics. They swore and kissed each other and insulted each other and embraced again. They laughed. The whole thing was beamed live on national television but only certain frames would be broadcast – a close up of Diego, the celebrities and the restaurant owner, the musicians who came to perform… . The essence, the feel of the event, was never broadcast.

It was an atmosphere that I have on occasion seen successfully depicted in films such as Ettore Scolla’s portrayals of life in the poverty striken outskirts of Italian cities. And, of course, in Emir Kusturica’s films portraying gipsy life in Eastern Europe.

EMIR

What Emir Kusturica has achieved in his films is to take us, the viewer, into the code by which his characters live, without bringing our moral baggage with us. Rather than suspension of disbelief it is suspension of western value judgments.

In the Hollywood movies, and by Hollywood I mean all mainstream white western cinema, we have those formulaic portrayals in which there is a single moral dilemma, a bad guy and a good guy, a homogenous sense of what things should be like. On the rare occassions in which the heroe commits some kind of transgression (adultery, theft, etc) this becomes the ‘issue’, and punishment or justification will be provided accordingly.

In Kusturica’s films the moral code is more honest: his characters will sell their own children or thoroughly search the corpses of their own parents in search of cash. Good and evil are thus no longer defined by the written laws but rather by a sense of the warmth, loyalty, and appeal of the characters. By the end of the movie we are no longer appalled or questioning of the ethics of what goes on, but rather have been absorbed into accepting that’s how things work and just hoping the ones we like get their way.

This is more like real life generally but particularly like real life in the ghetto, in the developing world, in football even.

It was Hunter Thompson who said we live in a society where everyone is guilty and “the only crime is to get caught”. Traditional film has taken a pedagogic approach which is so removed from reality that it has become escapism in the most dumbing of ways. There are no shades of grey, everything is black and white (albeit in technicolor).

The western media has taken a similar stance, and with regards to Maradona in particular for example, has always clinged firmly to judgmental stances: he takes cocaine, he cheats. Therefore, he is evil.

The reality is that a lot of people take cocaine – and that the formal rules of football are such that it allows for breaches to go unpunished as long as the referee doesn’t see them. Societies like Argentina, where the judiciary is endemically corrupt and the application of the formal rules has always been arbitrary, people function according to a code which recognizes informal rules.

Maradona’s sin has always been his transparency and his absolute refusal to hide this fact. He is, in many ways, the most honest of us all. For he never lies. He is always sincere and true to his whims.

Kusturica has not breached rules in his art, but he has done away with Hollywood conventions and he is in many senses regarded as a maverick. A rebel of extraordinary talent.

But is he the Maradona of the film world?

GENIUS AND CELEBRITY

There is a wonderful moment captured on camera of a meeting between Kusturica and Coppola (Francis Ford). Coppola is sitting down and Kusturica (who has presided the Cannes film Festival and won an Oscar) goes up to him and introduces himself. It becomes clear that Coppola has no idea who he is, doesn’t even stand up, and Kusturica eventually walks away.

The clip was shown to a series of European intellectuals who deconstruct the encounter, mostly concluding that Coppola represents Hollywood and Kusturica independent European cinema. The former is so ignorant of the accomplishments of the latter, and the scene is both humbling and frustrating.

Maradona knows who Kusturica is and even requested personally that Kusturica be the man to direct the official documentary on Maradona’s life. This is part of a series of deals Maradona has signed with production companies who will ‘exploit’ his image and split the proceeds with him. Maradona admires Kusturica, one can only imagine because he fully understands the world depicted by Emir in his films. There may be more in common between the marginal life of the Balkans and the slums of Buenos Aires than either of them share with Hollywood.

And Kusturica has a lot to offer Maradona: an entrĂ©e into the glamorous world of film celebrities, invitations to walk along the red carpet in Cannes, access to the frivolous five star existence of the superstars. Last year (2005) this meeting between one world and another was splashed across the pages of Argentina’s versions of Hello magazine and, pressumably, when Maradona visited Serbia the same happened there.

Kusturica got to grasp the Maradona clan in its entirety, befriending the daughters who are now soap opera actresses, visiting Naples where Maradona is revered like a God, pressumably capturing the candlelit altars where the virgin is replaced by Diego on film.

Another wonderful point of connection between these two is Kusturica’s treatment of death. In his films, characters die and then come to life again without any explanation. Or you are never sure if they’re dead or alive. Diego himself has been thought dead many times – his health now defies medical science and he himself refers to “the time when I died” and even “the time when I really died”. Whereas most people struggle to comprehend what Maradona’s physicians and friends refer to as a ‘miracle’ Kusturica is probably ideally suited to be able to tell this story in a completely believable way.

Interviewed by the Guardian about the project and Diego Kusturica said: “There are always motherfuckers queing up to pull you down to earth. But we must fly occassionally, we all have to feel that joy or we are nothing”.

For these reasons Emir Kusturica is perhaps the most apt filmmaker imaginable to make the documentary of Diego maradona’s life. And yet, the project is now at a standstill, its completion delayed, the real life elements involved in ‘film-making’ and ‘dealing with Maradona’ conspiring to stall this most promising of ouvres.

THE CUM SHOT

Any film, any football match, needs its climax. Whether a hand goal, a goal of such beauty and prowess that for 20 years or more no-one will think of another, or a head-butt, each game will have its dramatic fulcrum.

And films too will require the equivalent of the goal, or what is known in the porn industry as the cum shot: the moment that makes the whole thing worthwhile, the entire picture fall into place.

In Maradona’s relationship with the media (TV, books, film, whatever) the cum shot has come to be widely regarded as the ‘sit-down’ one on one with Maradona himslef. Kusturica is no different, and it is his need to have this one last exclusive moment with Diego that is holding back completion.

A little over a year ago I visited the set of Maradona’s own TV show, a bizarre cross between a reality show and an italian mega production, with cars on set and Diego’s own family captured weeping among the audience. My visit coincided with Emir’s. It was a double edged sword for him: he was hoping to appear on the show as an interviewee in exchange for an interview for his own film with Diego. But instead he was paraded onto a set with a white sofa and some other guests, hardly given a chance to speak, and made to watch from within the bizarre spectacle which ensued. It happened to be on that night that a Mexican actor who spent most of his adult life dressed as a child in his show “El chavo del Ocho” (the orphan from number eight) was the guest of honour. Now, El Chavo was a children’s show which has delighted many generations of Latin American TV watching children (which is many, for even in the most deprived areas of the thirld world TV sets beam all day long) and the Mexican actor is now a reactionary celebrity in his late 70s. But Maradona loves him, and his show, and when he was a guest on this programme the producers dressed dozens of small children in the Chavo’s characteristic outfit and filled the set with smoke as the kids performed a choreagraphed dance around the old Mexican man. I caught a glimpse of an image which will stay with me forever: Kusturica, whose own cameraman had been banned from filming in the studio, stood up in the middle of the smoke filled set, his camera held out like a machine gun, and he spanned the studio with a killer look in his eye.

For me, that would be as good an image as any to call it quits. If I was him, I would have what I came for.

But alas, Kusturica still awaits his audience with Diego: his proper ‘sit down one on one exclusive’ which Diego has come to realize is the ace up his sleeve, the most powerful bargaining tool he has, and therefore, the card which he keeps closest to his chest.

A series of missed planes on both sides, impossible schedules, and one pressumes egos which are getting in the way of pragmatic negotiations have meant that a year on this exchange has not taken place and that the maverick film-maker is unable to complete his cut while the maverick footballer – one can only speculate – is playing hard to get in the hope of getting something more out of the project.

Yet here is where the film-maker and his subject cease to be on an equal footing: Diego is now more like Francis Ford, sitting grandly and refusing to acknowledge the unique brilliance of the man who stands before him – Emir.

And Emir, proud like a gipsy from the Balkans, will not give an inch.

No doubt there is enough canned footage to make us all, lovers of the game itself, pursuers of the pure joy, the flight of genius, the trajectory of the ball, the magic of the celluloid, rejoice in what Emir has shot, could cut.

But will we ever get to see it?

Racism makes things worse for West Ham - Margin

It heralds rain in comedies, gory death in horrors, and a retort about tempting fate in other all other films. But in football, or at least in East Ham, the phrase ‘things can’t get any worse’ is merely a challenge to be overcome.

Not discontent with relegation, gambling distractions, damaging cliques, awol players, poor form, and FA charges over dodgy transfers, a small but significant minority of Hammers wanted worse.

And so they filmed Nazi style chants as their side suffered an incredible 4-3 defeat to Spurs, and stuck the footage on the internet. Police pulled the film and launched a public order investigation in double quick time.

English readers may be more shocked than foreign ones, believing with good cause that our game is free from such racism. It is after all years since the National Front recruited members on match days.

West Hams fans will be disgusted too. They don’t want their club spoiled by such filth. They live in streets once bombed by the Luftwaffe. But after the ‘shoe shoe shoe bomber’ chants towards Egyptian and Spurs striker Mido last season, we could forgive Tottenham fans for judging West Ham harshly.

The club meanwhile stress that they work hard to tackle racism. Indeed their claim to be a leading campaigner to ‘kick racism out’ is not just rhetoric. This was a club that fought a very real battle in years gone by to eradicate far right influence on their fans.

It is hard to imagine chairman Eggert Magnusson, or Terry Brown before him, taking the Ken Bates line on this matter. The aggressive Bates, while chairman of Chelsea, defended his club’s anti-Semitic chanting and blamed the North London club for their historic solidarity with Jewish fans.

Magnusson won’t say a word. His club will investigate. Video footage will be viewed. Bans will be dished out. That may go unreported, but that is what football does now.

But for now the incident will make headlines. The FA will condemn it. The police will take action. And West Ham will hold their collective head even lower for a while. Still, at least things can’t get any worse.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Dear Paolo - slimjim68

I could have written to Gazza for Wembley 1996 but I didn’t. The bleach blonde genius killed off my team’s hopes in a tournament they were never going to win anyway, and although I still can’t bring myself to watch that goal even ten years on, what you did was worse, far worse.

I know I would have done the same thing had I been in your position, but did you really think of the consequences when you swivelled on the six-yard line that sweltering Spanish afternoon 25 years ago? As Tardelli’s mishit shot came to you didn’t you stop and think that what you were about to do would change the beautiful game forever and sound a death knell for all-out attacking football? You see, Paolo, when you scored that third goal you knocked out the coolest, most swaggeringly brilliant team I’ve ever seen, and I’m never going to forgive you for it.

Now I know you were looking for a little personal redemption after they accused of things you said you didn’t do, and I know you did the world a favour by stopping Schumacher and co in the final, but Brazil would have done that anyway, and more gracefully, more sophisticatedly and more beautifully than you and your team-mates did. And I know Careca, Zico and the class of 86 had their moments, but it wasn’t the same. Something died that day in Barcelona, and you with your pitiless goalscorer’s instinct killed it.

Zico has since said that if Brazil had won, football would have changed. But he was wrong. If Brazil had won, football wouldn’t have changed. They would have carried on playing with the same fabulous, attack-minded approach instead of gradually sinking into a lamentable, win-at-all-costs mindset.

Perhaps I shouldn’t try and pin their near-criminal waste of talent in Germany last summer on you, and you weren’t directly responsible for team selection or tactics when the boys in yellow and green bored their way to World Cup glory in 1994. But if it hadn’t have been for you Paolo, it would have been much harder for philistines like Parreira to get the Brazil job. You see, they think it’s their duty to win the World Cup for their country no matter what, but they’re wrong. Brazil are the custodians of the world game. When they start playing 4-5-1 you know football as a spectacle is over. You can do it, Greece can do it but the Brazilians can’t. Don’t you see that? Couldn’t you see what it had come to when we all cheered as Henry’s volley hit the back of the net?

I’ve watched your goal time and again over the years and I keep hoping you shank it wide or miss the ball completely. You never do though. In it goes, over and over again, like a nail driving into a coffin.

Perhaps the wheel will turn full circle and a brave new generation will emerge to carry Socrates’s torch. I’m not holding out much hope though. I wish I didn’t blame you, you were just doing your job after all. But I keep coming back to the same thing; if only you hadn’t scored.

How sport reflects our lives - mimitig

When I was a child, sport was afternoons watching my Dad and his cronies playing a gentle game of club cricket. We played with other children and learned when to clap and cheer. Always in fun, no-one cared who won.

At school the idea of competition crept in: would you be the last one picked for a play-ground game of touch-tag? Then growing older, teams began to matter. Were you good enough to be in the under-11s, 12s? Could you punch above your weight and represent the age group higher than your own?

Sport was no longer just fun - it had a bearing on your status in life. Then, there was a moment watching the grown-ups play, when you realised that there was something more at stake. Tactics, even cheating came into the picture. For me there was a defining moment watching the rugby at Iffley Road in Oxford when a supporter yelled out, at a scrum: "Watch Mr Laidlaw put the ball in, Ref." I turned to my Dad and asked what this meant. He explained. Suddenly I understood.

Sport was not just playing the game. It was more, so very much more. What mattered was winning, and scruples were placed aside as a representation of life was battled out in a sporting arena.

Years passed and I grew up but still there was the belief that sport was mostly entertainment although results were always crucial. However money had not yet come to dominate the sports I followed and the idea of serious injury was a world away.

Then, as for many of my generation, everything changed over the course of one desperate and dark weekend in Italy. The date Saturday April 30, 1994. The venue The San Marina Formula 1 Motor Racing Circuit at Imola. Out of sight of the cameras Roland Ratzenburger (forever to be known as "the other one") crashed and subsequently died as a result of his injuries. Nonetheless, the very next day the race itself started as scheduled. There was another crash at the start: our hearts were in our mouths, but all was well. They took the restart. A few minutes later, Ayrton Senna's Williams F1 car speared off the track at Tamburello, and the world watched as a god of motor-racing died before our eyes.

Time to grow-up. Sport was no longer simply an entertainment for spectators and fans, or a fun thing to do for participants. It had become, in the most real and vivid way, a matter of life and death.

Since that day, I find I have to constantly re-evaluate my motives for watching and following not only motor-sport, but so many other disciplines in which participants, some major stars, some lesser-known lights, risk injury and even death to entertain us, the fans.

This is the same process we go through every day in our own lives learning that every little decision we make may change everything for us or another human being.

Football as art? - Ebren

If football was an art, what would it be?

This question came up elsewhere this week (http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/sport/2007/03/01/whatever_happened_to_ricky_vil.html) – so here are my thoughts.

Firstly, What is it most frequently compared with currently?

Ronaldihno's samba hips are frequently referred to - so dance?

But dance might be a feast for the eyes, a festival of movement, colour, power and grace.

But there is no true drama in dance. No tension. No surprise ending.

And plot is key to football. We know the back-stories, the history of the characters and teams, stories of redemption and talent squandered, feuds and friendships ambitions and fears.

So novels, then - they have all this. But no visual feast, no sound.

A play then - it has its characters and visual display, and rhythms and passion. Stars and supporting cast. The theatre of dreams anyone?

But physical prowess plays no part. I am not in awe of actors.

Ballet has elements of both dance, movement, music, grace, power, but also the drama and plot.

But the ending is already written, the audience watch - they are not involved in the outcome, only appreciate the performance.

Fundamentally - football (or sport more generally) is not like any other art form.

It IS an art form.

Unscripted drama. Grace and brutishness. Briliance and bastards. Tactics and scheming, plotting by managers - but inspirational moments of breathtaking imagination and improvisation.

Art IS life - life as viewed by someone else. If the vision and skill of the artist is good enough then we too get to see the world as they do.

I look at Monet or a Turner and - for a while - I can see the world as he did. And the genius can not only show his world, but teach you something new about it, something you had never see.

The truly great can also make you feel as they do, their fears, joys, loves and passions.

Football can do this as well as many other forms of art. Not just the individuals - the whole thing. It makes you feel, see things you didn't see before in ways you didn't think possible.

Greece break hearts, and write legend winning Euro 2004, then don’t make it to the 2006 world cup.

A Bergkamp touch or pass will show you space in a way only he can, something you – or the defenders – would never have seen (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CisFA_gG1mw).

Henry's power and grace (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M340nIeI0Rs), footballers are only part of the script, but an unwritten script that is truly worthy of any other.

As Homer almost put it:

Sing, muse of the anger of Zidane, son of Marsaille, the accursed fury that brought uncounted anguish on the Brazilians, and hurled down to hades many great sides, making their managers prey to the fans and the media's feasting: and this was the working of football's will. Sing from the time of the first quarrel which divided Materazzi, lord of Inter, from godlike Zidane.

Just What The Doctor Ordered - jonnyboy71

The ultimate measure of the greatness of Ayrton Senna is that people remember where they were and what they were doing when he died on the Tamburello corner at Imola in 1994. Judged on that scale, he’s somewhere between JFK and Princess Diana. Both sexes remember the death of the former; if you remember the latter, you probably own one copy of the Scissor Sisters’ album Ta Dah for every room in the house.

Senna’s death in 1994 threw a blanket over Formula 1 racing for the next decade and, despite Michael Schumacher dwarfing his achievements statistically (7 F1 titles vs. 3, 36% of races won vs. 25%), the German never dispelled the perception that the Brazilian was the better racing driver.

Indeed, Schumacher was one of Senna’s victims in the rain-sodden 1993 European GP at Donnington, when Senna entered the first corner of the race in 5th place but ended the first lap in the lead. Alain Prost and Damon Hill also saw him indicate and pull out. Technical excellence beaten comprehensively by natural talent and a racing mentality.

So, that’s it then. Surely it’s pointless watching motor racing now?

Not this year. This is the year that Nicky Hayden starts the MotoGP season wearing the number 1, the same number which belongs to Valentino Rossi, who has held the title since before very small men starting racing really big bikes.

Rossi has ruled MotoGP since the top division went up from 500cc to the full litre in 2002; first, with Honda and then, when that no longer required any effort, on Yamaha’s commuter bike. He has won 48% of the races he’s started, seeing off comedy nemesis Max Biaggi and Sete Gibernau along the way. With no real challenges left, all that remained for him at the ripe old age of 27 was another five seasons, maybe winning on a 250cc Hungarian quad bike with a puncture. Small wonder that he was dreaming of the World Rally Championship, or of playing pit stop in F1 cars.

But that all changed last year when Hayden survived the divine wind of his own team mate, Dani Pedrosa - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T0DSG63BBuE – to snatch the title away from Rossi in the last race. Although Hayden enjoyed as much good fortune in 2006 as Rossi enjoyed bad, this is not a one-off, a last hurrah at the end of a mediocre career; the American is 25, a full 3 years younger than Rossi. This looks like a real rivalry in the making.

If that wasn’t bad enough for the poor old Doctor, Honda Gresini have re-signed Marco Melandri and the outrageously talented-slash-suicidal Toni Elias, who gave Rossi the race of his life at Estoril to pip him by 1/500th of a second after the most exciting lap of racing you will ever see - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MIDsSmv2Jus. Repsol Honda have wisely stuck with Dani Pedrosa as Hayden’s stable mate, although they might consider issuing team orders this year on occasion. These three riders are 24, 23 and 21 years old, respectively. They are on what is likely to be the best ride, the Honda RC212V.

Speaking of bikes, this is also the year that the FIM has addressed MotoGP’s fundamental technical problem: how an 8 stone rider like Pedrosa gets more than 240 bhp of power onto the tarmac through one wheel. Teams were actually de-tuning the 990cc bikes last year. This year, they’re down to a lighter 800cc. This means later, harder braking, quicker handling, higher corner speeds… plus Rossi v. the Next Generation?

Don’t miss the first MotoGP of the season in Qatar on March 10th.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Footballers and nurses - Margin

Premiership footballers often make headlines for their off field antics. Add mention of nurses and the words ‘romp,’ ‘video,’ and ‘police inquiry’ seem destined for a Sun headline that has to be read.

As such it was an uplifting if slightly disappointing surprise to read that the millionaire playboys have come together with nurses and caused less scandal than an actress said to the bishop quip.

We have heard years of complaints about petulant and complacent players earning too much. They take home more for a single lazy performance than hardworking nurses/teachers/firemen/etc are paid in a year, or so the lament goes. And now it seems some one is taking action.

That some one is an attractive blonde called Noreena Hertz. But far from another candidate for lurid headlines, Ms Hertz is a well regarded and cerebral campaigner. And like many of the best ideas, hers is a simple one.

May 17th, 100 days from now, will see all signatories give up one day’s pay for a nurses hardship fund.

So far this socially aware campaign has earned a predictable endorsement from well known socialist agitator Gary ‘Che’ Neville. But he is just one of ten players from eight clubs that have already signed up, and they have been joined by a collection of club owners, managers, pundits and even spin doctor Alistair Campbell.

A single 365th of an annual wage is not a great deal of generosity for anyone. Indeed for a London nurse on £30,000 it would require payment of an affordable £82. However, £5million a year equates to around £14,000. So those figures could do a fair bit of good.

The campaign website www.maydayfornurses.com also sets out a wider political message that it hopes perennial bogeyman ‘the Government’ will listen to. And to make Whitehall take notice it calls on fans to support the cause by signing a petition. No cash required.

In truth the campaign is a little weak. It uses some alarmist rhetoric about lives at risk, and some questionable figures about future nurse numbers. It also glosses over experienced nurses earning far better money than most non-graduates, and it ignores that hospital porters and cleaners face far worse financial hardship.

More surprisingly it also fails to raises some serious questions. Why, for example, does the female dominated and better qualified profession of nursing earn less than male dominated policing? Politicians are unlikely to respond to this effort with much vigor.

That is a shame. It is a shame because student nurses in particular do face real hardship. It is also a shame because many give up their training because they can’t pay their rent. And mostly it is a shame because I want more chances to hint at sexual misdeeds in my writing.

On second thoughts.........Carl Leaburn - 50KaWeekSub

"Peter Crouch should marry a short, fat woman - that way his kids will look normal." No, this isn’t a genetically innovative cloning technique to enhance the human race; just some innocent musings from my 9 year old nephew; but it got me thinking:

Phil Neville, Owen Hargreaves, David James and Crouch - what do they have in common? Nothing, actually, but the latter three are reformed jesters in the public eye, one for displaying the dying art of passion, "Calamity" for some long overdue good form and Crouchy rather ironically because of a robotic dance. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=96eSrFlUVh0 Neville it seems is cemented eternally at first-base.

Carl Leaburn was a laughable, lamentable figure to many, managing to combine the uniqueness of not being particularly quick, neither good in the air nor on the turf. In fact, if you had to put your finger on it, he wasn't much good at anything, aside from being incredibly bad: He was an apprentice at Charlton in the mid eighties making his debut in 1987 aged 18 . Leaburn was a striker who had more dry periods than a menopausal mother-in-law, netting only three times in his first 100 games with the club.

He was an old fashioned target man, 6 foot 3 with a menacing look but the ball never stuck. He moved around the pitch like a baby giraffe taking it's first steps, often torpedoing tragically to ground, elbows and long tangled legs everywhere, wearing a repeatedly bemused expression every time things went wrong. He was a lost soul in the cruel spotlight, chasing illustrious shadows, a fallible figure working tirelessly but ultimately failing at every turn. Carl Leaburn was like a bad wine - getting worse with age - tellingly unaware of the commotion that he was causing.

Despite, or maybe because of all this; Leaburn was a celebrity figure; like any cult, us followers joined in without really knowing why we were doing it; we idolised him just because everybody else did. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/688317.stm For me, it was in the eyes; his eyes showed that passion; that will to win and this somehow transcended beyond mere performance; beyond his failings. Shouts of “Leeaaaburn, Leaaaburn” would reverberate around the stadium and would more than drown out the groaning and cruel cackles of laughter at his latest boob. Vendors were selling T-shirts with “I saw Leaburn score,” life was good. Unlike Drogba with his fake yelps of mid-air pain or Ronaldo with that effeminate wink, Leaburn was a real man trying hard to do his job but ultimately failing at every turn. He didn’t know how to cheat, ruffle defenders, dive or badger referees; he barely knew how to play football.

And then - something remarkable happened. Leaburn returned the love to his fans by managing to score fifteen goals in a season almost ten years after his club debut. He even scored at Old Trafford - the support group had worked and our faith had been repaid. The following year in 1997 he moved to Wimbledon for an initial and final £150,000 seemingly at the peak of his powers, but alas his purple patch has come and gone and he soon moved on to non-league football. It didn’t matter; the cult of Carl Leaburn would live on.

Ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn't have fallen in love with? - thetoootingtrumpet

My pain inflicted by Pantani's, and, especially, Millar's and Hamilton's drug abuse (amongst many others) is still keenly felt. Over the last twenty years, first with the brilliant pairing of Sherwen and Liggett on Channel 4 (now ITV 4), then with the acquired taste of the eccentric, sometimes overweening, occasionally deeply moving David Duffield of Eurosport, I had come to treasure the first three weeks of July as a highlight of the sporting year (indeed in odd numbered years, the highlight). Add to that the Classics (especially the Belgian "Hard Man" races (Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Ronde van Vlandareen), a crazy world championship race and a smattering of true characters (Cippollini, Pantani, Chiapucci, Durand, LeMond, Fignon, Lance, McEwan, mad Frankie Vandenbroucke, lately Boonen), the sport had a lot going for it. To top it off, pro cycling isn't an easy watch - it takes years to learn the jargon, understand the tactics, judge the players - so you became part of a secret brotherhood who knew the difference between hunger knock and choosing 39 21 instead of 42 19. Even the drugs I accepted as part of the absurd denial of human frailty pro cycling demands - so long as it wasn't too much...

And then a vulnerable genius (Pantani) and two educated, articulate, cosmopolitan cynics (Hamilton and Miller), allied to team managements deeply implicated in systematic drug use, turned me away from the sport, and I cancelled my subscriptions to both "Cycle Sport" and "Procycling" (for years I literally could'nt get enough!)


But Stages 16 and 17 TdF 2006 reminded me of what I'm missing.

Stage 16 saw Floyd Landis blow in a manner that a Formula 1 car blows when the smoke pours from the gearbox and the driver coasts to the pits off the racing line. 11 minutes went, as well as morale and belief (more important in a Grand Tour than any other sporting event). I was heartened, as this was racing as it was in the mid-Eighties, when a bad day was a disaster, rather than losing twenty seconds in the last kilometre and when riders yo-yoed on and off the groups on the climbs as they put in efforts and recoveries, rather then just efforts and more efforts - it seems the clean-up at last was working. Rasmussen, a pure climber, won the Reine Etage in the grand style and reminded me of Luchio Herrera, my first great stick-like hero in the mountains. Floyd suffered horribly.

As I settled at 7.00pm for the ITV 4 highlights package of Stage 17, I smirked as Landis claimed that he would go for the stage win - "You're for the broom wagon mate" I inwardly said. Once underway, I, in common with Phil and Paul, couldn't understand what Landis was doing as he set off alone on the first mountain of five brutal climbs in the cauldron of a French July. I thought that even a Yank would know that the live television coverage would only really start on the second last climb, so it wasn't even worth doing for the publicity.

The gap widened and the bunch bickered about who would work - even the dreaded earpieces failed to sort out an alliance to chase, and my jaw dropped lower and lower. Floyd was going on a epic ride and pulling it off. And, the other side of the beast that is the Joux-Plane (the only mountain to trouble post-cancer Lance), Floyd, afloat on a sea of adrenaline, rode over the line and into favouritism for the Maillot Jaune. At 9.00pm, I watched the whole lot again on Eurosport just to be sure it happened.

It was my sporting highlight of the year and an all-time great sporting comeback.

And I was falling in love again...

And then, suddenly, it was all gone.

The Bounce of Panesar - Zephirine

When Monty Panesar gets a wicket he leaps in the air. He does it every time. Usually he seems to reach about eighteen inches off the ground, but at particularly key moments he’s definitely clearing two feet. The leap is always accompanied by an immense smile and, increasingly, a double high-five with whichever of his team-mates is, as it were, to hand. The whole brief explosion is an irresistible combination of athleticism and glee.

Sportsmen and women being brands these days, the trademark celebration is a familiar sight, ranging from the showing-off-but-fun (Frankie Dettori jumping off his horse) through the OK-if-you-must-but-a-bit stupid-really (the Adebayor/Henry little dance) to the downright nauseating (that two-handed wave of Kournikova’s which used to make my slapping hand itch). No doubt aspiring athletes devise their own celebration, just as all actors have their Oscar acceptance speech rehearsed and ready. Yet the Panesar bounce, even though we’ve seen it often now, still seems spontaneous and genuine.

It’s part of the package: there’s just something about the guy out on a cricket pitch that gladdens the heart. He loves his cricket, and you feel he always will. Of course he’ll have bad times, losses of form, personal problems, injuries (God forbid), but you know that the day Monty Panesar gets cynical the game will be in serious trouble.

But don’t think for a moment that I’m suggesting Panesar is merely some kind of simple, lovable, boyish enthusiast - obviously he’s a whole lot more than that. He’s known to take his religion seriously; I understand that in Sikhism self-respect, hard work and personal honour are highly valued while turning the other cheek doesn’t come into it much at all. This is a fighting man of outstanding talent who badly wants to win. It’ll be interesting in coming years to see how he combines with Flintoff, another alpha male with a deliberately unpretentious manner - symbiosis or rivalry?

Glenn McGrath owns the turf because he’s f**king earned it, thank you very much, but Shane Warne owns the turf because ‘the scriptwriter’ has given it to him for a playground, and no nightclub, no blonde, no naughty substance will ever, ever be as much fun. On the surface Warne and Panesar couldn’t be more different, but the crested larrikin and the leaping Sikh share that same wicked joy in destroying their opponent…. the smile on the face of the tiger.

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