Friday, April 20, 2007

Sporting suffering - by Mimitig

I was minded when reading Allwell's piece of my first sporting injury and it gave me pause for thought. Apart from my last serious accident, all injuries I've suffered before have been related to my activities on various sporting fields.

I started early - coming off my trike when attempting a ridiculously difficult corner was the beginning. Not many years later, I was running home, leaving my 2-wheeler abandoned in the lane, when I broke my nose and scarred my face going over the handle-bars at the age of about 8. My mum's biggest concern was for the cycle! My next visit to casualty was with a hockey injury. I had been knocked out by a blow to the head. Not from a random ball, but a fellow team-mate smiting the ball and swinging back too high and connecting with my head. Great. Next time was hockey again - after taking a bad hit to the hand, I ended up at the doctor with a smashed knuckle. Nothing they could actually do. Put ice on it, was the advice! A couple of years later and I was back in casualty - this time a smashed knee. Another hockey wound. Again, nothing we can do, put ice on it. My mother must have gone through endless packs of frozen peas that were never eaten due to my sporting injuries.

After this, I took some time out from proper sports. Still cycled everywhere, and guess what? Knocked off my bike - smashed my face again and went home to my mum covered in blood! Fortunately there were no scars and for several years I remained free of sporting injury. Then, just when I thought I was safe, my sister and I decided to teach her children how to ice-skate. I see you, my readers, hiding behind the sofa already! But, no, we managed 2 years before I ended up in casualty. This time it was a fall in which I managed to hit my head so severely that I lost consciousness for more than a minute. This put an end to my sporting endeavours for quite a while. Ice-skating was a no-no, and it wasn't until some years later when I was living in London, that I decided that it would be a good thing to start cycling again.

Good/bad: I'm still not sure. Smashed my knee again (trip to casualty); broke my collar-bone (trip to casualty). Saw awful things on the road but also had some of the most fun of my life. Riding central London at 5 or 6 in the morning and being the only person on Waterloo Bridge to watch the sun rise is a pretty good feeling. Watching a rainbow strike the Rose Window of Westminster Abbey and light up the stained glass, with no-one else around is pretty special. If I hadn't got back on the bike, I'd have missed all that. I guess I've answered my own question. It was good, and now I can cycle in a rural environment, there's very little pain. Apart from the aches of old injuries.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Cricket should tackle its football hooligans - Margin

Snobbery is fundamental to English society. It pervades everything we do. It affects the homes we buy, the way we speak, the clothes we wear, and the jobs we do. So naturally sport is not immune.

My somewhat below average secondary school, when it sought to improve itself, pretended to be middle class. It introduced private school uniforms. It created a Private school ‘house system’ for classes. And it closed the football team and started to play rugby. Exam results didn’t improve, but its reputation shot up.

Of course I should explain that Rugby in Essex is a middle class game. I don’t know why that is when in the South West it is beautifully egalitarian, and in Wales decidedly working class. But what maters more is that a true snob doesn’t pick rugby anyway. He picks cricket every time.

Cricket is rural, middle class, calm, and peaceful. Far from support high wages for top players, this sport once reserved highest regard for ‘gentlemen cricketers’ – men wealthy enough to play for free and not soil the sound of leather on willow with the rustle of folding notes.

In the minds of most Englishmen Cricket has never changed. It represents pleasant village greens, warm bear from wooden club houses, handshakes and gentlemanly conduct. It is the height of honesty and fair play, and remains the picture perfect England that never truly existed.

In that same mind’s eye, those who watch it are well dressed accountants, lawyers, and captains of industry. They know their fine cigars and display good manners at all times. In short, cricket fans are not the rowdy, aggressive, brawling mass of factory scum that makes football a violent and brutal affair both on and off the pitch.

And so it was that more than a decade ago that cricketing legend Geoffrey Boycott reported on radio that ‘football hooligans’ were causing trouble in the stands. Football was violent, cricket was not, and his light hearted tone emphasised the honesty behind his wisdom.

But what now that violence is worse at Lords than Wembley?

English football is still aggressive and loud, and that’s part of why I love it. But so to is English cricket. The Barmy Army has better elocution, but it is just as loud and aggressive as any football counterpart and viciously lambastes those who let it down. And that’s part of why I love it too.

At the same time football is no longer violent. Indeed as a steward for two years not so long ago, I ejected not one fan from Craven Cottage, Stamford Bridge, or Wembley Stadium. Stewarding Lords and the Oval however, was a whole different matter.

Cricket has real violence. While never ejecting a football fan, I helped expel cricket fans by the dozen. Some were in groups. Many were individuals. And heaven help any steward posted near a pretty girl with bare legs. The exploits I saw would lead to arrest, charge, and conviction for sexual assault if they happened in the high street. Yet these men were never even banned from the ground.

Part of cricket’s problem is drink.

Football fans spend two hours at the game, and drink at most a pint or two bought before kick off, and a pint or two bought at half time. Cricket fans can spend all day drinking, buying pint after pint throughout proceedings with little pressure to stop. We rarely had trouble at the Oval at noon, but were over worked five hours later.

And here in lies a problem. English mind are comfortable with the fact that alcohol turn a law abiding family loving builder into a raging, violent and sexually aggressive bastard. But I’m not sure I want to accept it does the same to accountants and lawyers. And society certainly doesn’t.

So can I ignore my own knowledge, for the sake of snobbery, and pretend that the violent outbursts come from working class cricket fans instead of the bankers to blame?

The answer is of course no. England is not yet ready to accept that middle class fans really care about football, or that working class fans really get cricket. Well spoken football fans are labelled ‘corporate’ while working class cricket followers are often just ignored so as to pretend they don’t exist.

So how do we explain unseemly behaviour from the Barmy Army when England are poor? And how do I explain the violence in the stands that stewards struggle to cope with?

Simple, we pretend they are football hooligans and like Richard Remedios on the Guardian yesterday, demand they ‘Go back to football and stay there please.’

Italian football offers cautionary tale – Margin

The Premiership is the best league in the world. We have the best players and the best teams in the world. Or at least that’s the official line from England, where Spanish football is rarely shown on TV. But what has happened to the previous best?

In the 1990s Italian football was the pinnacle of excellence. That was partly thanks to the interest in, and investment for, World Cup Italia 90. It was however also built on the back of tactically intelligence managers and technically able players.

So strong was the lure of the Italian game that it broke into the saturated English market. The contrast between wizardry on Football Italia and Long ball drudgery on Match of the Day was truly stunning. It certainly encouraged kids to don metaphorical Inter or Juve shirts at school.
Of course the real proof of quality was on the pitch, and so it was that European Football asserted the unquestionable status of Italian football in that distant decade.

Of sixty finalists in three European competitions in the 90s, 25 were Italian. And this was not Juve, AC and Inter repeated. The winners did include those three with eight pots between them. But Parma, Sampdoria, Lazio, Roma, Torino and Fiorentina all made finals too, sharing five pots along the way.

Ask any Englishman what went wrong and the answer is as follows. The rise of the English game - combined with an Italian predilection for corruption - topped off with individual tales of woe at specific clubs - crippled the game irrevocably.

But the truth should be more worrying for the Premier League.

All divisions have a bad season or two, but when the 90s ended, so did Italian dominance. The smaller clubs who had so enriched and strengthened Italian football were mostly bought by rich fools or weak companies who replaced innovation with the tactic of throwing money at every challenge.

At the same time the elite was strengthened by regular Champion’s League qualification, and as the Italian economy declined, those owners who liked to throw money started throwing tantrums instead. Good managers were sacked on whims and top players were sold to recoup losses that barely existed.

It was in this context that Italian football suffered regulatory capture. A death knell for competition.

In economics, if a monopoly is strong enough it can convince its regulator that the public interest and the monopoly’s interest is the same thing. And so it was with Italian football.

The Italian FA and the Italian media as the official and informal regulators grew convinced that winning European Cups was the same thing as serving Italian football. The elite of AC and Juve were the most likely winners. So the authorities found themselves serving Juve and AC in turns. At the same time the media over reported those two clubs at the expense of all others.

This meant small clubs complaining at unfair refereeing could be largely ignored by the media and dismissed for their sour grapes by the authorities. And that was all the easier thanks to many a controversial decision against the big two.

Note though that controversial does not mean wrong. For every big decision against them became quickly controversial. The managers or players would rant at each decision, and the media would play up the ‘controversy’ for want of real drama in what quickly became a hollow league.

The Authorities could and should have stepped in, demanding proper punishment for such bad sporting behaviour. But instead they turned a blind eye rather than distract their fading stars from the goal of European silverware.

The top clubs were emboldened and tested their power further. And as governing bodies stood by their now incestuous support, those clubs went further and further, egged on by a media with no interest in the fates of any sides but Juve and Milan.

And so it was that Juve was able to select referees. And while all this went on, Italian football fell behind Spain, where technical development and tactical innovation ensure a plethora of teams compete for trophies.

Oh, and in case you are reading this wondering what England must learn, don’t worry. We are the best in the world. Just look at ManU, Chelsea and Liverpool.

South Africa defeat, the aftermath - mimitig and MouthoftheMersey

Tape from the England dressing room after the most miserable performance that any of us can remember for a very long time.

In an inspired move, Mouth of the Mersey and Mimitig flew to Barbados and personally concealed a selection of very very special listening and video devices within the hallowed sanctum. So for your pleasure, right now, we can bring you the latest report from England's meretricious command headquarters.

(from the hidden camera we see Michael Vaughan slamming the dressing-room door, collapsing into the nearest chair and holding his head in his hands ... the team enters)

MV: oh my fucking Christ! What has just happened? Is anyone here going to help me with a way to find some fucking positive to take from this? I'm gonna have to spend the next 3 days talking to the fucking wankers from the press, and you lot had better have some answers for me. Personally, I think that was a pile of steaming horse manure and I don't know what any of you thought you were doing. You didn't follow the plan, you didn't have a plan B and basically I don't know what the fuck you expect any of us in the management to do when none of you can do what you're told.

I've done my fucking best with you - yes, OK, I've been out of form, but what do you expect? I haven't fucking played the amount you lot have. I've been here to guide you, and what have you done? Absolutely bloody fuck all. I'm done with you, I really am - sort out the mess amongst yourselves. I'm off to watch my boxed set of Dr Who - at least that's more like real life than hanging around with you lot.

(Vaughan is seen on the tape grabbing his kit bag and lurching out of the dressing-room, favouring his better knee whistling this... the remaining team members, white and trembling, turn to talk to their neighbours ...)

Fred (to KP): mate, you know, you and me, we're supposed to be the backbone of this team, what went on with you today? I thought we'd agreed, you'd bat like a good'un, get us to a really good place and I could forget the batting thing and just go in second time round and bowl the buggers out.

KP: yah, well, Fred, it's just not that easy for me. I thought Belly and Strauss would give me a bit of a start, y'know, but that didn't happen and bluddy Smith, and that Afrikaans bastard kept having a go. They bring up all the stuff from school - everyone thinks I'm a haard man of the veldt, y'know, but when they taunt me about how I didn't kill that lion in the playground, man, it hurts, y'know, it really hurts.

Fred: that's feeble. When I was a kid, I had to kill the beast of Bodmin (aside to Strauss - Kev'll never realise that Cornwall's not near Lancashire, will he?). Playground taunts are nothing. You're a loser Kev.

Strauss: addressing the shaken horde.

Look guys, this isn't all bad. I've been out of the side for most of this, but I came in today and top-scored. You see, what they say is true, class is permanent, form is temporary. Some of you have been OK today - well, one of you: step forward Ravi. We're going to be looking for a big, big change in this one day side and not many of you have impressed me - but this summer there are going to be chances. As you know, I've spent most of the last six weeks studying stats on Cricinfo, and with what you lot have been doing, it makes for interesting reading. I'll be expecting written reports from all of you, on my desk by the end of the day tomorrow. You can attempt to justify your places in my side later this year. Colly: as a special task, you can do the report on Michael as well as your own.

There's going to be a LOT of changes round here, and one thing I will make clear, right here, right now. There's to be no more use of bad language and profanity. That era is over.

Right - get to work, and if anyone is late with their homework, I'll be setting detentions and I have a pros.. sorry friend, on hand to administer further punishment with whips.

(the video catches a final picture of Strauss looking extremely pleased with himself as he turns away and the audio feed becomes fuzzy and hissy as the assembled ranks all start talking together)

Tape ends

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Absolute Beginner Goes Wild - allwell

“Mountain biking?” was the question.

“Why not?” was the reply.

Well, mainly because I never had, and it was 10 years since I’d been on any kind of bike. But as an eight year old I was the proud owner of a Raleigh Grifter, so how difficult could it be?

I suppose it depends when and where you ride. In early August the forest-covered Sierra Nevada mountains of northern California boast sufficient heat and altitude to turn strolling into an extreme sport. So it was strange that neither the conditions nor the name of the trail concerned me, right up to the point that I failed to conquer the first incline of Mr Toad’s Wild Ride and rolled gracelessly back towards the highway.

At the second attempt I was away, pedalling furiously up woodland, steep, dry and at twice the height of Ben Nevis. Soon my path was blocked by a jumble of rocks known charmingly, but wholly inappropriately, as a garden, conjuring images of calm, relaxation and perhaps a little skipping instead of fear, trepidation and a whole heap of pain. It was the first test of my technical skills; I failed miserably, thudding to a halt against the trunk of a tree.

Enthusiasm undimmed, I continued. The sky was huge, the sun high and the air thin. My nostrils filled with the scent of pine, my eyes with an ocean of sparkling flowers, my lungs with nothing. My body poured with sweat and my hands shed their skin. Bugs feasted, undetected, on my flesh as I faltered in the dirt. Trail truly became trial when a man twice my age passed at twice my speed, provoking in me a self-loathing that knowledge of his recent heart surgery did little to soothe.

Far below, Lake Tahoe shimmered, rippling with all the activity of a resort in high season, but at the summit the only movement was a chipmunk’s scurry, the only noise a cyclist’s gasp. As if tossed nonchalantly by a giant’s hand, huge orange boulders littered the track; vegetation was sparse. Rather than celebrating an inept but bold ascent, I shuddered, understanding that incompetence is more dangerous when you’re going downhill.

Some time later, clambering down a ferocious ‘garden’ with my bike on my shoulder and long since resigned to failure, I asked whether it was possible to ride such terrain. The answer came quickly. Hearing a shout, I turned to glimpse a blur of colour then, with my swiftest and most effective manoeuvre of the day, dived to one side. A fleeting whirring noise, a gust of wind and it was gone, a fellow rider whose solution to the horror of Toad’s was simple: air-borne, he soared rather than rolled. It was a humbling sight.

As the day closed I finished, grimy, exhausted and relatively unscathed, leaving nothing more than my pride on the hillside but vowing never again to set arse on a bike.

Four days later I rode once more.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Monday, April 16, 2007

Everyone gets a smile - paulita

This super clásico seems to have arrived as one of the most anticipated ever. But that’s the feeling it irradiates every single time.

La Bombonera gathers the most diverse kind of people. Between many, economical chasms and nationalities separate us. A group of Asian tourists dressed for the occasion in ‘azul y oro’ (blue and gold) stand out. The game has not started but already they show big smiles. Their incessant, indecipherable, murmur is frowned upon. My prejudice tells me they can’t possibly get it. I’m proved wrong when they stand up and flap their hands in tune with La Doce when it’s time to remember hoaspitalised Diego.

I guess nobody is immune to this.

I try to not get carried away neither by the alleged condition of River of underdogs nor by the near departure of Boca’s biggest idol of the last decade: Guillermo Barros Schelotto. I find that anything but easy.

My heart will be accelerated for 95 minutes and there’s no point in trying to fight it.

The first ball goes to Riquelme’s feet and it comes as a balsam: Román is in one of those days. You can tell, one touch is enough. The second ball he touches finishes in the quickest goal in the history of the clásico (50 seconds). Only he can find the unseen alleys to the goal and leave Ledesma in a position to execute River’s goalkeeper, Carrizo (I suggest that you remember that name). The waving terraces slide at the deafening shout of gooooooal, followed by Riqueeeelme Riqueeeeeelme, which will be spontaneously repeated all through the game.

The first 45 minutes are played at the pace that Riquelme settles. And no, it’s not slow. It’s profound, precise and elegant. Not only ball possession, but ten clear possibilities to score that mostly encounter the wall that Carrizo built up in the goal line. River seems to come back to life at the very end of the first half with one chance.

The breaks in Argentina are longer than in other leagues. They last long enough for the pessimist thoughts to arise. Everyone stuffs with whatever food is sold (they all include meat and bread) in order to avoid thinking about the widespread football law which says that the goals that you fail to score are scored against you. Whether if that’s true in itself is of little importance, it’s proved right in facts more often than not.

The second half finds an eroded Boca and an early equalizer from Rosales. He looks up to the sky, conscious of how grateful he and his fellow gallinas should be. River have a few chances to win the game and so do Boca. River don’t attack but wait crouched and counter attack, always a valid tactic, though hardly satisfying for the black palate that River fans parade.

Carrizo miraculously saves with his leg a free kick taken by Riquelme who also puts a remote-controlled ball on Palermo’s head. All the subtlety that his feet lack, lie in his headers. And yet, he misses. I know then that it’s just not going to happen. Not this time.

Passarella saved his head for now. During the previous game, River fans started chanting about him being a bostero. In their mouths, that’s a big offence. So he chose to carry a white and red umbrella when crossing the field in Boca (and we all let him know that we don’t want him here anyway). In the same line, after the game, he provocatively stated ‘I don’t celebrate draws, they do’. And yet his eyes were laughing so loud.

On the way out of la bombonera, the sense of loosing two points more than winning one was unavoidable.

But had we already forgotten what we just saw and how we felt? Riquelme floods our hearts with immense joy only by playing football. Anything can be said about him, but that’s the effect he has on us. Never has he failed us and we might consider ourselves lucky to have witnessed a breed of footballer in danger of extinction.

A constant reminder of the collective nature of the game.

R: ‘It’s my duty to do everything to help Palermo be the top scorer
J: ‘What about scoring yourself?’
R: (shrugging and looking down)‘I’m happier when I assist a teammate’

And those are not just empty words. Most of the celebrations of Boca’s latest goals include a gesture of thankfulness towards its conceiver who smiles in response (yes, Riquelme smiles).

Because on one of those days, he doesn’t randomly pass the ball. He protects it, even with his ankles at the risk of revenge from humiliated defenders, with such determination that we know he simply can’t loose it. Only then he raises his head and clarifies the play.

On one of those days, he treats us a trick or two and we say ‘have you seen what he just did?’ just to make sure it was not our eager imagination.

On one of those days, he defies modern football and proves that speed of mind beats sprinter's legs.

On one of those days, we get to smile and hope that those days never end.

Daniel Alberto Passarella: A River Plate legend - Pipita

Daniel Passarella surely felt a huge relief after hearing the final whistle of the super-clásico between Boca Juniors and River Plate which decreed yesterday’s one all draw. It had been a traumatic week for the River coach in the build-up to this very significant confrontation, given the recent apathetic performances of his team during the last month. Not only were River eliminated from the Libertadores Cup in the preliminary group during this period, but also his team had dramatically slid from joint first to fourth in the league table.

However, what probably most affected the former captain of the Argentine team that won the 1978 World Cup during that tense week, were the reverberations of the chants sung by practically the entire Monumental stadium during River’s uninspiring 1-1 home draw against Belgrano de Córdoba, which went something like “Passarella you traitor you are a Boca fan”. This cruel chant directed towards a man who scored more than a hundred goals for the club as a defender has its history. At a certain point of Passarella’s hugely successful career at River Plate during the second half of the seventies, he mentioned that as a kid he had actually been a Boca fan, and that paradoxically he had been rejected by this club after failing a trial there as a youngster.

The tremendously unfair chant also blatantly ignored the fact that during his first spell as coach for River during 1990-94 Passarella had not only achieved three league titles for the club but had also been responsible for promoting a series of youth players to the first team who later proved their value at international level, such the cases of Ariel Ortega, Matías Almeyda, Marcelo Gallardo and Hernán Crespo. During this time however, River frequently lost derby matches against Boca and failed miserably in the Libertadores Cup. Nevertheless, Passarella’s first experience as coach culminated in success when the Argentine FA designated him as the new national team coach in mid 1994.

Having returned to coach River in early 2005, Passarella has yet to win a league title but, after three super-clásicos, he can now boast an undefeated record against Boca. He has also been responsible for the consolidation in River’s first team of a youth player who after just one year proved talented enough to be purchased by Real Madrid: “Pipita” Higuaín. Where he has clearly not succeeded up to the moment, is in re-establishing cordial relations with the River barras bravas, who call themselves “los borrachos del tablón” “the drunkards of the terraces”. They have not yet forgiven him for having frequently confronted them during his first sojourn as River Coach. It was these hard-core fans who were mainly responsible for instigating that mean anti-Passarella chant during the Belgrano game.

Yesterday’s 1-1 draw at la Bombonera stadium will not necessarily signify “redemption” for Passarella with most River fans. But given his team’s disastrous first half performance, which only ended 0-1 thanks to the tremendous saves of River’s young goalie Juan Pablo Carrizo, he can feel a certain degree of satisfaction with the team’s second half recovery that gave way to Mauro Rosales’s equalizer. Passarella also proved a point in terms of his loyalty for the River Plate colors when before the kick-off he defiantly opened a red and white umbrella, as he approached the visitor’s dugout, to protect himself from the spitting reception given to him by the Boca fans.

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