Friday, May 4, 2007

The fate of La Volpe - Paulita

Football needs villains and Ricardo La Volpe most certainly embodies one of the best ones, or better said, the evilest ones.

Having a target to whom address sporting frustrations in the form of whistling or light verbal abuse, is common, some might even argue healthy for the fan that suffers from pressing nerves. That is assuming the villain lies in the opposite side. Other is the story when the evil wears the very same shirt you adore. Then the villain becomes venomous, intoxicating your pure intentions to stay by your colors no matter what.

That is the case of Ricardo ‘el loco’ Lavolpe. Nobody hates him more than the fans of teams he has worked for, except maybe for many of the footballers he has coached.

Media of course can’t resist such a colorful character and Lavolpe’s first approach is alluring. He will enter any press room confidently, or looking like it, act games with bottles, and offer detailed explanations of moves and tactical decisions. Sport journalists and thorough fans love this exception to the rule of silent coaches reluctant to disclose any information that could actually inform.

The spiky hair, sparser as his defeats mount, the concave moustache, the religious golden pendants leaping out of his flashy attire, the lit cigarette that hides between his fingers, the volatile gestures that he makes during the games, all add to the charm. Until he is somehow contradicted and the jovial aura vanishes. Mexican journalists, as (little) innocent as journalists elsewhere, were told they knew nothing, received insults (Don’t break my balls, fucking idiots) and some got their equipment wet by El Loco. And then, the feud with Hugo Sánchez and CuauhtĂ©moc Blanco sealed the villainy that resulted in the interrogative ‘Why should we have an Argentine coach?’.

Obsessed with tactics as he is, he finds that saturating players with obligations and endless repetitions of plays is not enough. For the unforeseen events, he wears something red. But destiny rebels and settles the least wanted scenario: Argentina vs Mexico in the world cup. He stays away when the anthems are sang but fate, hostile once again, authorize Maxi Rodriguez’s deadly shot.

His tactical flexibility won him much praise, in his words: ‘Pele and Cruyff told me Mexico was ten times superior to Argentina’. Argentina was not as eulogistic but he gained the respect that he had lacked during the thirty years he spent as coach in Mexican clubs (with one title). A respect that made him the replacement of Alfio Basile at Boca Juniors, after his departure to the national team. The several stories of confrontations with Mexican footballers were muffled by the expectation that this character can arise.

But the stay at Boca was far from thriving. It kicked off with the blown up chance of matching the record of consecutive victories in the league, it followed downhill with the early elimination of the South American Cup (Boca was the last champion with almost the same squad), the 3 – 1 defeat against River and it culminated in a championship shamefully lost in the end. Quivering, Boca had managed to maintain in the league the advantaged obtained with Basile but slowly lost the victor impulse and wasted three opportunities to claim the crown. The functioning of the team had been scrapped, defenders oscillated disoriented between a line of three, four and five, many forwards were thrown on the field so that Boca formed a tangle unable to knit an attack. The playoff was rightfully won by Estudiantes de la Plata and Boca’s fans swallowed their pride together with the newborn venom to applaud the new champions.

La Volpe resigned as he had previously said he would if he lost the title. He then signed for Velez and Velez’s coach (destiny?) signed for Boca.

Several months before it finally happened, La Volpe was asked if he would like Riquelme to come back to Boca. ‘I’d say don’t bring him. Riquelme wouldn’t play in my team’. He later added that football is no longer played with enganches, with tens, and turning to the journalist that refuted his statement: ‘you should stop lying to the people and just retire’.

And venom finally found its way out through an unwelcome chant towards La Volpe when Boca and Velez met last night for the Libertadores Cup at la bombonera. And the non existing Riquelme scored the first goal, followed by a curtain of applause, and also received imperturbable, while organizing the play, the violent mark of Velez. The score was 3 – 0 and the venom, out and forgotten, at least until the next leg.

But La Volpe vows to have the last word. He has said on the sly to be keeping something to himself, something about the lost championship that he will reveal when this season is over, when the work of the villain is ultimately fulfilled.

Cycling's latest disaster - Mimitig

Or as I might have titled this: Who's Next to Break my Heart?

When I read a while ago, that Ivan Basso had been signed to Discovery, my heart sank. He had been hugely implicated in Operacion Puerto, he had withdrawn (or been withdrawn) from the 2006 Tour de France, the new drug-free European teams wouldn't touch him and yet, yet, Lance Armstrong's team took him on. This week we here he's "resigned" and will take no further part in the ProTour. What stronger admission do we need? What is happening between the Spanish police and other bodies is not known to me in any detail, but the revelation that Basso may be required to give DNA suggests that the investigation has taken a further turn. His decision to "retire" from competition this year can only lead me to a negative conclusion.

Proof must be decisive and open before any condemnation is made, but as with Jan Ullrich's decision earlier this year to retire from the sport, it does not make for happy reading. If these riders are innocent of the accusations made against them, why would they turn away from the sport they have both loved and earned their livings from?

I have always seen the best in road and track cycling, but in these last years, so many times my heroes have been found wanting. Marco Pantani, the Elephant, was one of my great favourites. I followed his exploits with awe and admiration. When questions were raised, I was at the forefront of his defenders. I couldn't believe he would cheat. But he did, and paid the greatest price - his life. Going back in the history of cycling, others have paid the same price. Tom Simpson was one of the first that we absolutely know gave his life for his wrongly judged quest for success.

And this brings me back to my heartbreak in a sport that I still love. Lance Armstrong signed Ivan Basso. Basso appears to be a drug cheat - though that is still to be proved in the courts of law, if not in the courts of the media. Lance was, and is a cycling hero. He did what no-one has done before - he won the Tour 7 times. Allegations of doping have been an integral part of Lance's career (mostly led by L'Equipe), but there has never been any proof against him and I always believed him to be clean. Sadly, his support of the tainted Basso has caused me to question his ethics, if not his career, and that, for me, is the ultimate betrayal.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

What is it about sports I don't understand? - Mimitig

I've been entranced tonight by a game of which I know very little, and sort of fascinated by a game at which I am a mere amateur fan. The latter distracting me from a thrilling quarter-final in the former. That is enough to tell you what I'm talking about. Yes, the snooker and the football.

Snooker is an absorbing pastime. It is also a debate: is it a sport, or is it the bar game that I was banned from even trying at after ripping up the baize with a poorly advised thrust of the cue? Well, having spent several years following the career of the dynamic Ronnie O'Sullivan, I think it is a sport and gloriously on-the-edge entertainment. You can never write the script for what Ronnie will do, and as a watcher, although one who barely knows the rules of which order the colours have to be pocketed, I can assure you, it is riveting to watch.

Unfortunately tonight, for me, there was another contest underway that clashed with the Rocket's time at the table. I tried, very very hard, to follow Man U on R5 Live at the same time as watching what happened on the green baize, but for once my multi-tasking abandoned me. It's not that the football was that exciting - for goodness sake, after the first AC goal, the plot was a foregone conclusion, but I had to hold on, just in case Fergie's boys could pull the rabbit out of the hat. By the time the match was done, so was Ronnie. Higgins through, Rocket going home.

What it did leave me with was an absolutely classic nerve-trembling match between two young lads that I've barely heard of. Carter and Selby. Who they? Well, I don't know much more now, but the final few frames were far more exciting than the football I'd focussed on earlier in the evening. In fact, they were as thrilling as a penalty shoot-out - oops, probably shouldn't mention that in front of Chelsea fans!

So that leaves me now with the semis and the final of the snooker to enjoy, and the Champions League final in Athens which I hope, will give Liverpool the unprecedented 6th European title. Open-topped buses await at the John Lennon airport.

Do I spend hours trying to understand all the rules and peculiarities of the games before then? Do I buggery! Just watch and enjoy.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

The Right Stuff - Nesta

With the World Cup back under southern skies the Australian cricket selectors have wasted no time in getting back to work. David Boon, Merv Hughes, Jamie Cox and Andrew Hilditch announced yesterday the list of contracted players that will represent the national side over the next 12 months. With the retirements of Damien Martyn, Justin Langer, Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, and the omission of Simon Katich and Michael Kasprowicz several young players have been rewarded for excellence at first class level.

Michael Clarke - NSW; Matthew Hayden - QLD; Brad Hodge - VIC; Michael Hussey - WA; Phil Jaques - NSW; Ricky Ponting - TAS; Chris Rogers - WA; Adam Voges - WA

Adam Gilchrist - WA; Brad Haddin - NSW

James Hopes - QLD; Andrew Symonds - QLD; Shane Watson - QLD; Cameron White - VIC

Cullen Bailey - SA; Nathan Bracken - NSW; Stuart Clark - NSW; Daniel Cullen - SA; Jason Gillespie - SA; Ben Hilfenhaus - TAS; Brad Hogg - WA; Mitchell Johnson - QLD
Brett Lee - NSW; Stuart Magill - NSW; Shaun Tait - SA

There are few surprises within the squad but two selections do stand out. Jason Gillespie, after being in the wilderness for 18 months has returned to provide more experience to the fast bowling ranks. And sensibly the fetished selection of four wrist spinners to try and cover the loss of Shane Warne. I’m afraid four may not be enough but the inclusion of 22 year old South Australian Cullen Bailey is the stand out.

A super fit, committed Christian with MENSA membership, the modest Bailey is a complete contrast in personality and manner to the great S.K.Warne. However, the crucial thing they do have in common is the mentorship of Terry Jenner. Bailey has been under Jenner’s tutelage since age 14 and Terry unsurprisingly speaks very highly of his young charge.

Jenner describes Bailey as a spinner similar in style to Richie Benaud and the most treasured Australian captain has been making regular trips to Adelaide in the last 18 months to offer advice and groom the young spinner.

Richie has praised the youngster's analysis of the game and points to Bailey’s insightful columns on the Redback’s website as evidence. He is most impressed with his insatiable curiosity and I suspect that Benaud sees a fair bit of himself in the young South Australian.

Whilst senior citizens around the country are rushing to have their cholesterol checked to ensure they are around to witness Benaud Mark II, Stuart Magill will be expected to fill the gap until Bailey is ready for international cricket. Jenner is of the opinion that the selectors mustn’t rush the erudite Bailey and insists that he needs more time to hone his craft.

"I think it would be devastating for a young player to follow Warne straight in, and the reputation and aura and records that come with that," Jenner said. "Stuey has a very important job now. I do believe that Bailey has the ability and the work ethic to be a successful Test bowler, but he needs to be given a chance to develop."

Magill, after more than a decade of playing second fiddle to Warne is now presented with a very important role to play for the successful future of Australian cricket. In the short term, as the spinning spearhead and in the longer term as the bridge to the next generation.

This was emphasised by Chairman of Selectors Andrew Hilditch at yesterday’s press conference, “Australian cricket is very lucky to have someone like Stuart," the solicitor said. "We obviously think he is a very valuable player for us and that is why we have placed a fair bit of faith in him."

He also added probably to Jenner’s horror and Bailey’s delight that the young Redback was well in the frame for international selection. "He has put together a couple of solid seasons now," Hilditch added. "Sometimes these things happen quickly."

With India touring later this year it will be tempting for the selectors to play Bailey in the Sydney Test as Magill’s spinning accomplice. This echoes of the Indian tour of 1991/92 when a young, tubby, inexperienced leggie with peroxided locks from Victoria was given his first baggygreen. That match was a baptism of fire for Warne and I expect the selectors will throw Bailey into the same inferno to see if he really is made of, the right stuff.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Where Now for the ICC World Cup? - leeroycal

Media and fans alike are tearing at the fetid remains of the Cricket World Cup like a pack of rabid Hyenas. The difference being that Hyenas usually laugh; there is no amusement to be had here at all. But can we take a rib from the bones of this tournament and create a whole new being, as God apparently did with Eve: a thing of beauty, a tournament fit for purpose, something people actually want to watch?

Forgetting the obvious ICC cock-ups, the biggest problem with the World Cup is the cricket itself. There are not enough truly competetive fixtures from the outset, in that teams can lose a number of matches and still get to the semis. The crowds know this and the players know this, threfore there is no intensity from the players and thus no interest from the spectators. I have been watching this tournament throughout (unfortunately), and I can count on two fingers the number of conversations I have had about it: it is too long and too many matches inconsequential to care.

The ICC simply have to find a way of harnessing the games that are happening all over the world as teams tour and play each other. The cricketing calendar is currently an endless merry-go-round of triangular series' and back to back ODIs that mean very little; these could and should be used as some kind of qualifying regime.

This would take the form of a two division World League, with the top eight teams in Division 1 and the next eight in Division 2. A schedule of games would then be agreed over a 4 year period in which points are accrued; nations could of course arrange fixtures outside of this schedule as well. This would lead to a seeded 16-team straightforward knockout competition at the end of the qualifying period. Imagine that - a World Cup that is only 15 games long: more flexible scheduling; an end to the comedy Duckworth Lewis nonsense in the big games; no need for semi finals to be played midweek.

Of course this format could increase the risk that top teams could go out early, and if it does so what? This is sport, and it just may reduce this risk as it will force big teams to get their game faces on early.

Alan Ball. A trailblazing modern footballer - Margin

Dave Mackay was the most gifted player in the Spurs double winning side, and once described life after 61. The players, he said, ceased to be the men they were. They became ‘The Double Winners.’ - Superstars of a whole new order.

The modern footballer was effectively born as they ‘cashed in’ with free suits from London tailors and other such modest benefits. Alan Ball was 16 at the time, and probably wasn’t watching very closely.

In 1966 eleven men ceased to be men and became ‘The World Cup Winners’. This time Alan Ball was among them aged just 21.

As the youngest player there, and as man of the match in the final, Ball became a superstar with his career still ahead of him. A record transfer quickly took him from Blackpool to Everton, giving him a chance to win trophies.

The trophies came and Everton lifted the title in 1970, in part thanks to incredible form from the fantastic Alan Ball. He had by now evolved into a much more complete player than that fast running, hard working kid of 1966.

Sadly England then flopped in the 1970 World Cup. With high expectations the side went out in the quarter finals. And on the back of international let down, Ball cashed in.

Hummel had a new boot to publicise, and £2000 to do it with. That figure could have bought a family home in 1970, and Alan Ball offered his services. All he had to do was wear unusual boots and the money was his.

Of course he didn’t wear the boots for long. He took the money but continued to play in Adidas boots as the Hummel ones were uncomfortable. To con his sponsor he had an apprentice paint his own boots white. Then when it rained the game was up. He had to give the cash back.

Having won the title at Everton, Ball left a year later for new champions Arsenal who became the second side to break transfer records for him. He played there for several seasons, enjoying the highs of London life and splashing out on suits that Mackay might have envied.

While his club performances were great, the England side was poor. They suffered ignominy by failing to qualify for the 1974 World Cup.

By 1978 he had dropped down a league to play with Southampton. His was a key role in their promotion that year, and during this time he took to gambling. It was a habit he latter encouraged in others, taking his teams as manager to race courses to build team spirit.

And that was Alan Ball. He didn’t stay with Blackpool all his life. He did cash in on his fame and status. He gambled his riches on horses. And he celebrated the high life while it lasted.

He was a modern footballer in every sense. And he was all the more fantastic for it.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

At home with Duckworth and Lewis - Zephirine

[“In the sport of cricket, the Duckworth-Lewis method is a mathematical way to calculate the target score for the team batting second in a one-day cricket match interrupted by weather or other circumstance.” Wikipedia]

(A scrupulously tidy kitchen. Two BOFFINS appear, in old-fashioned dressing-gowns and pyjamas).

Lewis: Morning Duckworth.

Duckworth: Morning Lewis.

Lewis: Sleep well?

Duckworth: Sadly not. I woke up at 4.09 which meant I had to get back to sleep in less than 17 minutes in order to reach my revised target of 7 hours 45.5 minutes’ sleep.

Lewis: Did you manage it?

Duckworth: Unfortunately after 37 minutes I was still awake and I was too sleepy to recalculate before I did drop off again, so I have no idea if I’ve had a mathematically appropriate amount of sleep or not.

Lewis: My dear chap! That’s terrible. Have this average sized slice of toast. It’s been done to 3.35 minutes as you prefer.

Duckworth: Most kind.

(He takes the toast and starts to butter it, but there is very little butter left in the dish.)

Lewis: Ah. We’re going to need…. 0.235 of a pack of butter, would you say?

Duckworth: Based on a consumption of two slices each at a consistent level of greed I would say that would be a defensible target.

(Lewis gets the butter out of the fridge and measures it with a small slide-rule before cutting a section off and putting it in the butter dish.)

Duckworth: Getting back to sleep within 20 minutes should have been possible on a basis of my resources, ie tiredness level, physical exercise taken, softness of bed and pre-sleep mug of cocoa.

Lewis: I think you get a clearer set of numbers with a pre-sleep single malt, myself. Tea?

Duckworth: Thank you. I shall need an extra 0.36 grams of sugar to compensate for my estimated loss of energy through sleep deprivation. Why is the phone off the hook?

Lewis: They kept phoning up from Barbados last night and I got fed up with it. I was busy revising the calculation of how many chimpanzees it would take to write the Wisden annual.

Duckworth: How many was it, in the end?

Lewis: Chimpanzees? 73,050,025 over a period of five years. Assuming some of them are cleverer than others across a 40 percentile range.

Duckworth: I think the television needs repairing. I had the cricket on with the sound off while I did my Super Sudoku, and the picture was terribly dark.

Lewis: No, that was from Barbados, it was actually night-time. They kept going on about it.

Duckworth: Well, that’s nonsense. You can’t use our targets at night. It would require a completely new set of calculations.

Lewis: I told them that. They were quite abusive.

Duckworth: Ah well. Let them fret, our system’s only a temporary measure. Once the ICC gets all one-day internationals played in Dubai, rain won’t be a problem.

Lewis: Er-

Duckworth: Sorry, I mean it’ll be approximately 95.3 % less of a problem.

Lewis: Indeed. And we can get on with more important things. More tea?

Duckworth: Just 0.45 of a cup, thanks.

(A knock at the door. Lewis goes to open it. A DELIVERY BOY hands him an enormous bunch of flowers.)

Lewis: (surprised) Thank you. (shuts the door) How very odd. Flowers. Almost 90% unforeseeable.

Duckworth: Is there a message?


Duckworth: Ah, cricketers… so charmingly unpredictable.

The big five re-emerge - Margin

When the Premiership was created it was a stitch up. The big five were warping the league to serve their own aims. Papers complained, fans despaired, and the league threw its hands up in resignation.

Those big five were United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Spurs and Everton. They were the five clubs always tipped to win something and each had a million fans or more. Other clubs would rise for a while, but these five were the giants that always came back.

Of course looking at old predictions shows the trouble with predicting. No one expected a Liverpool title drought. Spurs failed to recover from bankruptcy. And Everton just faded. Meanwhile Blackburn spent a fortune and rose to the top. Newcastle spent a fortune and rose to second. And Chelsea raised the bar for both spending a fortune and rising to the top.

But as the league starts to settle into its final shape again, there are signs the ‘big five’ is re-emerging, with Chelsea as long-term interlopers.

Two years ago Everton finished fourth. Their manager David Moyes publicly pushed to finish higher - and that gave them the edge to hold on to the end. Last year Spurs nearly did likewise, but manager Martin Jol did things different. He sheltered his players and played down expectations all season.

Spurs now look a natural fifth. Still not as good as the dominant four, they are better than the rest across all competitions. And they did that after losing their most influential player to ManU last summer.

But the more interesting story is Everton.

Everton’s overconfidence two years ago got results, but at a price. Raised expectations followed by early failures triggered a confidence crisis. At one stage they looked a certainty for relegation, and that prompted a change in attitude.

Well run for the first time in years, Everton did the unusual nd kept their good manager when times got tough. They spent money wisely to build a solid team rather than paper over cracks with aging stars.

Tactically sound and with an eye for good signings, Moyes learned an important lesson. He still exudes confidence, but protects players from expectations instead of hyping them up himself. That may sound less glorious but if it avoids collapses that last for months it will serve the club well.

Few people have noticed Everton’s revival because of that bad season last year. The resulting lack of European football drew attention away from the side. The blip was portrayed as a return to mediocre form. And no one noticed the side improve and learned from experience.

Of course eventually the old Moyes will return. Both Spurs and Everton have a big barrier to face in the next couple of years. Both sides can outplay and beat the modern ‘big four’ over 90 minutes. But their capacity to throw away commanding leads shows that neither side yet believes they are worthy.

Spurs lost leads in cup exits to Arsenal, Chelsea and Seville this season. In each game they showed a lack of belief that they were really good enough to win. They talked in terms of ‘could win’ not ‘should win’ and seemed grateful for cup runs instead of angry at defeat.

When Everton step up to match Spurs, Moyes’ instincts may serve him better. His aggressive belief and will to win backfired before, but might be fit the bill when better players have a chance to win trophies.

So with Spurs improved and Everton rising, those long wrong predictions may finally prove true. Sort of.

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