Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Pseudifier – by Offgrass & Greenside

A bierstube just off the autobahn. Outside, a faded, peeling poster promises: "For this night only - Madame Mimi's Lycra and Leather Extravaganza".

Inside, Oliver Kahn dances the can-can, accompanied by a bevy of lederhosen-clad Bavarian brass monkeys. Greengrass turns to Offside:

  • So you brought me all this bloody road for this?
Offside flashes an enigmatic smile. He moves towards the bar area, fishes a strange looking device out of his bag, plugs it into the back of a computer ; sits down and starts banging away at the keyboard.
  • That’s just a decoy, I’m trying to keep this quiet for the moment. Listen, Gigi, you've been away for a long time, so I was getting bored and I developped this… thing. Hang on, let me show you.
Offside punches in a couple of codes, hits the Enter key. The Bavarian set-up flickers and vanishes. It is instantly replaced by a gigantic bedroom, subdued lighting, soothing music, a couple of kimono-clad beauties reclining on a sofa so big and soft that it's threatening to engulf them. On the black coffee table, three lines of fine white powder and a small silver tube..
  • What the f…?
Offside hurriedly presses the Escape key. The room turns to a neutral, formless grey.
  • Oops, sorry. That’s just a test environment I created to fine tune the… oh, nevermind. Here, look at this.
He types in another combination, hits Enter. The place flickers again and turns into the Antibes Absinthe Bar. Spiral staircase descending into a stone cellar, vintage Pernod posters, a collection of old absinthe fountains, a piano, marble-top bar tables, comfy chairs. Offside turns to Greengrass and grins.
  • Pretty neat, hein? But look, what’s even better is that I can do it with people, you know, Pseuds. I can bring them to life. I tried it last weekend with Guitou and Marcela as guinea pigs and it worked fine. Well, Guitou’s hair came out all wrong and Marcela was a lot smaller than she should be, but otherwise it was great. All you need to do (Offside pastes the Pseuds’ Corner URL in the addres bar) is work from one of their comments on the site, and the machine… well, it’s complicated but, to put it in a nutshell, the letters and words solidify into a data stream that goes through… this… and the blogger materialises… like so…

Blinding flash of light. Greengrass stares, open mouthed…

Heartbreak, heartache and Gosh did I ever need that Lion-print bikini - Mimitig

So here we are, again. Drug cheating bastards making a mockery of the Lycra. I've cried, God only knows how many tears I've shed for the wishing of my sport to be clean. I thought this year we had it cracked (subliminal choice of words there), but I did believe that we had a Tour that would live up to its glorious start in London - Ken and Christian as one, smiling - oh smiling so much you had to be happy. Millions, sodding millions of Brits and visitors to our shores turned out to watch the Prologue and the first racing stage to Canterbury. Oh, we were so happy and so proud. I felt that my months of protecting and championing Pro-cycling were vindicated. Now as I write that word - I shudder from the Vin. It's so cruel and so unfair.

I can't bring you a report of the latest stage because I am in shock - I am horrified and sad, and in tears. My sport, my precious cycling is plunged back into its darkest Festina days. Brad Wiggins - so clean you could wash your clothes in him - was afraid to voice his doubts about Vino, and how many others feel the same?

Today we not only had more drug suspects, but also the horrifying sight of ETA using the Tour route as a means to terrorism. I live in a very safe place but I've just been to the south and at Luton Airport, there were men with guns and hostility. Coming home, to Inverness, how calm it was. Just a few chaps and girls in those luminous green jackets to not get run over by the planes. It was just so low-key. No scary stuff from terrorism, no scary stuff cos the rivers are flooding and, hey, I'm fine, my family is fine.

I would love to write something jolly and funny about this stage - but it's all shite and I hate it. I am, if you- my reader hadn't already grasped this, a romantic. I believe in the best of everyone, I trust. For me, it is the only way to live and follow the sports.

Apparently the stage ended with Rasmussen, Leipheimer and Contador taking the honours.

Well, however much of a naïve I am, there are two names there that I now doubt. Contador to win in Paris. Mimi to wear the bikini in Paris!

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Another new Argentine dawn - Paulita

Goals shouted from the depth of the lungs, firecrackers, honks, spontaneous gatherings of unknowns on the streets, nothing seems too much when celebrating a cup in Argentina. Especially in Buenos Aires, a city that exhales football through every pore and dresses accordingly in the colours of the winner, non-footballing citizens and losers can't help but finding themselves captives of the victory tide.

Not last Sunday anyway. Not the day in which Argentina obtained the World Cup U-20. Again. Despite the high TV viewings and the endless lines written in newspapers, that went by as quiet a Sunday as any other winter football-less Sunday in Argentina.

Imposingly, five of the last seven world cups in this category were won by Argentina, cumulating a total of six in the thirty years of history of this tournament.

The first one was delivered in 1979 by a dearly remembered pair: Ramón Díaz and Diego Maradona, who claimed to have played his best football in that team. Considering the mouth that uttered those words or, better said, the left foot of that mouth, it's not hard to imagine exactly how good that football was. Or maybe it is. A final with Brazil in 1995, another with Uruguay in 1997, a home victory in 2001 with Saviola's record of eleven goals and the kick off of Messi's era in 2005 were the stops to the 'again' in 2007.

The WC U-20 took place under the shadow of Copa América and ironically ended casting a merciless light into the senior team and the final where 'it was all yellow'. No, the 'again' is not conceited and uppish, not even anesthetized by the habit of U-20 cups, or at least not entirely, but it's mostly saddened, disconcerted and slightly accusatory of the habit of not winning cups of the elders.

Nonetheless, whatever the context, the squad and coach, Hugo Tocalli (previously, Pekerman's assistant), deserve the accolades. If, as it is said, every champion needs to first experience rough times to forge character, this team forged its own at the South American Championship in which the qualification for the World Cup to be held in Canada was put in check.

In the beginning of the WC, they hammered Panama 6 - 0 and later on outplayed the joint favourites in this tournament, Mexico and Chile, the latter resulting in incidents between fans, players and the police. The fibre was displayed in the final, after an anxious start and the opener scored beautifully by the Czech Fenin and so was the flair. In the second half, Banega was lord and master of the midfield, Moralez moved mischievously from flank to flank, from box to box, and Aguero's back proved to be strong enough to carry the ten in his shirt. So convincing were the last 45 minutes that little it was noticed the absence of defender and captain Cahais, the speed and goals of De María and the homeostatic presence of Yacob.

As Tocalli puts it: "The objective is always the same: collaborate in the growth of footballers," these teams invite you to think about the future, the path that will hopefully lead them to the senior national team. A path that could be bumpy and bumpier if footballers keep emigrating early, as Insua (Liverpool) and Fazio (Sevilla), to foreign benches.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Football Dodgems: How to be cool in school - TonyEllis

Sports do not build character. They reveal it.
Heywood Broun (1888 - 1939)

Children as a social group are not very imaginative, so the ways to advancement in the playground hierarchy are fairly limited. In fact, there are only really three.

Method 1: Being Hard. The adult world might have problems in quantifying this, what with WBC, WBC, IBO etcetera, but there’s only one Hardest Kid in the School (well, two I suppose, as the girls had their own category). Unfortunately, this was far from being me, handicapped as I was by a morbid fear of pain. My father, desperate for a real boy, paid for me to have classes in Pushido, the ancient Japanese art of shoving and scowling. Not even this could overcome my basic cowardice.

Method 2: Getting in Trouble. Since a necessary corollary of this method was being rulered, slippered, caned or otherwise thrashed, I was again hamstrung by my algophobia, along with my uncanny ability to maintain a lie in any situation. The latter skill might have earned me a degree of respect, had I been able to claim it publicly. However, as my refusal to confess had led to one or two mass detentions, any boasting would have put me in a difficult situation (see method 1).

Method 3: Being Good at Sport. I think I could have been a contender in this category were it not for two early traumas. The first of these, aged 9, was overhearing my father describe my first appearance in the scouts’ football team to my mother. “I was so embarrassed - he was staggering around on those skinny legs like a new-born foal.” Yet far worse was to follow. In a last-ditch attempt to awaken my masculinity, I was sent to a boarding school. Here I was introduced to every cowardly weakling’s nightmare: Rugby.

My pathetic build should, by rights, have kept me safe from this appalling blood sport. However, in an ill-conceived attempt to appease a disappointed father and a psychopathic Welsh Sports Master, I won a hundred yards race for my house. The brief, warm glow of victory was quickly replaced by an icy terror: “Well, well, boyo, who’d have thought it? You’re very small, it’s true, but quick, mind. Right Wing. Saturday.

I really thought I’d got away with it. Eighty minutes of running up and down the wing and not a scratch or a bruise to show for it. My method was simple: if there was no-one near me, I could make a serious attempt to catch any passes that came my way; if any of the other team was within tackling distance, I would fumble the ball, making sure I fell into the nearest mud patch in my desperation to reach it. I even received a few hearty pats on the back from my team mates - the other side, weary of wasting their energy on an obvious non-combatant, had decided to focus their efforts on more worthy opponents, thus leaving me free to score the winning try.

There was no fooling Mr Roberts, though. ‘Beaten for cowardice’. I’ll never forget those words. At our school, we were made to fill in the punishment book ourselves.

While this last experience may have broken some people, it was the making of me. First of all, it gave me an appreciation of irony far beyond my years, according to Mr Wright, our English Literature Master. Secondly, I lost my terror of corporal punishment. In fact, had I known how much this service was going to cost today, I’d probably have made more of the opportunities afforded by a minor public school. In short, I was now primed for success. Who knows what I might have made of myself?

Back in Wanstead, however, events dictated otherwise. My father had run away with Laurie Webb, the bucket and sponge man for Clapton Orient, and next half-term hols I was introduced to Uncle Frank, mum’s new friend from the local Labour Party. Uncle Frank was a car worker and Trotskyite infiltrator, so, rather than being put on the train with my tuck box, I took the bus from our council house in Dagenham to Burton’s, a comprehensive in Rainham.

Drippy ex-public schoolboy goes to state school in Essex; you wouldn’t give much for my chances, would you? Yet this was 1970 and, for the first time in my life, I was perfectly placed to stake my claim for coolness. While uniform rules had been ruthlessly enforced at my previous school, the headmaster had a love for the Romantic poets which meant that hairstyles were largely left to our parents. Uncle Frank had done away with the holiday tradition of dragging me off for a short back and sides, so I started my first day with one of those floppy basin cuts you’ve probably seen in films starring Rupert Everett; a style which coincided perfectly with Essex youth’s segue from skin to suedehead. Although my crossed ‘t’s gave rise to accusations of homosexuality, a public school accent was perfectly suited to the baiting of teachers whose pathetic attempts at flagellation were now as flea-bites to me. The discovery of Uncle Frank’s stash moved me up rapidly through the playground ranks, but I didn’t reach the top until I invented Football Dodgems.

This game inside a game required one always to be where the ball was not, accurately judging the trajectory of each pass so as to be able to run away from the target area. Great skill was necessary, since the rules stated that neither the players of the official game nor the overseeing sports teacher should become aware of the game within. Each unwilling touch of the ball would earn a minus point, and the loser had to ask Jenny Dobson to go out with him.

At first there were only three of us. Still, by now it was possible for even tossers to be cool, as long as we had long hair and a collection of records by groups nobody else had ever heard of. We began to attract more players. As our numbers grew, the skill required became more demanding and we had to make some changes. Jenny Dobson’s schoolwork was suffering, for one thing. For another, maintaining some kind of flow became increasingly difficult as the number of genuine footballers went down. This last factor nearly saw the death of the game. Mr Owen, our psychopathic Welsh Sports teacher, finally noticed that something was amiss; difficult not to, really, given that the only person grimly hanging on to the outmoded football was the school captain, Kevin Bernard. As Kevin was being forced screaming into the ambulance, Billie Gover, the school grass, whispered something into Mr Owen’s ear.

My expulsion was, it seemed, a matter of formality. However, since that formality involved a meeting with Uncle Frank, Head of the Board of Governors, it was a chastened Mr Owen who took the early bath.

The rest is history. Uncle Frank became Minister for Sport under the premiership of Red Robbo and championed Football Dodgems as an antidote to competitive sport. It may only be a demonstration sport in China, but by 2012 it’ll be right up there with synchronised swimming, hopscotch and origami.

Long live the king - Nestaquin

Optometrist Geoffrey Francis Lawson, son of Wagga Wagga and known throughout the continent as plain old Henry, recently accepted a lucrative offer from the Pakistan Cricket Board to coach the national squad for the next two years. It is a curious decision for both parties.

When first approached some two months ago Lawson scoffed at the offer. “A 1000 planets would have to align” was his curt response when asked if he was interested. His concerns were many and serious.

At the time rumour and innuendo were rife about the nature of Bob Woolmer’s demise. Lawson spoke of “safety being a big factor” and no-one doubted whose safety Geoff was referring. Once the police investigations were complete Lawson warmed a little towards such a prominent appointment stating, “Once the Woolmer event was resolved, that made me feel better about things”.

There were, however, other fears that needed assuaging. Most of them concerning the Pakistani players. Chief amongst these worries was the attitude of the cricketers. There is a discernment throughout the cricketing world that Pakistan are unfit, ill disciplined and poorly motivated. There is plenty of evidence that this is indeed the case. The recent World Cup debacle and the petulant forfeiture at Kennington Oval in 2006 are two of the more publicized attestations of recent years.

Their opening bowlers Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif were pulled from the 2006 Champions Trophy after producing a positive urine test for nandrolone. Taken predominately by post menopausal women to treat osteoporisis, ingesting the banned anabolic steroid earned the meretricious Akhtar a 24 month ban, and in a somewhat perplexing decision, the equally guilty Asif a 12 month stint in the nets. These convictions were soon overturned in controversial circumstances. The players were found not guilty on appeal not because they were innocent but because of a legal technicality from the original case.

Lawson. as befits a country squire with a liberal education, adores the moral high ground and this situation disturbs him. Ethically, Henry sees the world mostly in black and white and his attitude regarding performance enhancing drugs is well known. Pakistan officials have been told in no uncertain terms that if there is a repeat indiscretion Lawson will resign immediately. Considering that players take these substances in the shadows away from prying eyes, and knowing that Lawson is an intelligent, experienced and skilled media performer, it is an obstreperously ill directed public ultimatum that will undoubtedly bear a bitter fruit in the fertile political soil that is Pakistan cricket.

It is anathema to an Australian sportsman to not give total effort when competing in a team environment. It is linked to the mythical and ephemeral ANZAC spirit affectionately and colloquially known as mateship. “Not having a go” is the greatest sporting sin an athlete can commit. Three seasons back on Pakistan’s last tour of Australia, Lawson in the employ as cricket analyst at the publicly owned Australian Broadcasting Commission routinely described the visitors cricket as abysmal and their efforts disgraceful. Always the public diplomat Henry balanced his views with the diametrically disguised diatribe along the theme that the team was brimming with talent.

Now a rookie international coach Lawson has stressed the importance of pride, mongrel and respect on every occasion available. In a lengthy interview with Cricinfo’s Assistant Editor Nagraj Gollapudi, the new coach put forward his philosophy for turning around Pakistan’s pusillanimous performances.

“As a captain or a coach or even as a spectator or a selector or a board member you expect the players to give 100 percent every time they walk on the field; now that 100 percent might vary if they are injured or tired but if they walk on to the field and give their maximum all the time then everyone walks away satisfied. That's what Australia do so well: they treat every single game as very important. They never go at it half-hearted, they never go at it three-quarters, they are always doing their best to win every game. That is a great approach to follow - that every game of cricket you play you have to treat it like it's your last one.”

It would appear obvious to most that the Pakistan Cricket Board have appointed Lawson with this philosophical paradigm in mind. Only three coaches were interviewed and all were Australian. Despite his inexperience and the natural language barrier - only 4 players within Pakistan’s squad understand English - the PCB chairman Dr Nasim Ashraf has admitted that it is the quintessential Australian sporting nature of Lawson that got him the nod over his vastly more successful and qualified compatriot Dav Whatmore, “He is an educated no-nonsense fellow with a positive outlook and that Australian attitude we are looking for”. Lawson concurred, “I think they appreciate how the Australian approach to playing cricket is a successful one and that's what they're trying to tap into”.

Lawson, before accepting the poisoned chalice, also expressed concerns about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in mainstream Pakistani culture and the fact that the Pakistan Cricket Board’s patron - the real boss - is military dictator General Pervez Musharraf. He cited reports that the players infatuation with Islam was affecting their cricket, even stating that he had heard that fielders were substituted during international matches to allow them to kneel towards the Kaba and pay homage from the prayer mat. For a secular cricketer like Lawson this recent development in Pakistani society and sporting culture is barely comprehensible. “I’ll be having none of that” was his final comment on the situation before appointment.

Coronated King Henry in the Pakistani media, Lawson has now softened his tone, "I believe they have overcome those obstacles," he said. "I think the board, the players and maybe some religious leaders have set out some conditions for when players can pray during matches, and how much work they can do during Ramadan. They are professional athletes, and as a coach you are looking for them to maximise their own potential.”

It is ironic that in a country that prohibits gambling that the PCB would plunge so heavily in entrusting Geoff Lawson with the stewardship of the national side. He possesses a mediocre decade old first-class coaching record and has no international experience, he understands very little about the changing nature of Pakistani society and he proudly possesses the natural lack of empathy required of an Australian Test quick. He said upon his appointment, "I don't suffer fools and I don't put up with second best”.

Combine Lawson’s quirks, insecurities and forthright attitude with the fractious nature of the Pakistani administration, an out of the loop and outspoken ex-player lobby, a newly appointed untested captain, a caviling squad with a poor work ethic, in addition to the widening linguistic, religious and cultural divide between the West and Pakistan, all under the unsleeping eye of an unpopular and tottering military dictatorship and it is not difficult to imagine some tough times ahead for the man affectionately known as Henry.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Canny Contador chases Chicken and conquers col - Mouth of the Mersey

With the 15 km climb to the Plateau de Beille rearing up before them, the main contenders were massed to attack the inevitable Spanish breakaways - all except Vinokourov who paid for yesterday's fine stage win.

Rabobank immediately went to the front to distance the pretenders to Rasmussen's jersey with Michael Boogerd showing real strength in his last Tour. Valverde was the first GC man to go and Kloden was looking troubled. Discovery's Popovych then worked very hard for Leipheimer and Contador, before the final selection was made.

The lead group contained a super-strong Contador, a nervous Rasmussen, an experienced Sastre, an unpredictable Soler, and two riders who were marking moves desperately, Evans and Leipheimer. Rasmussen and Contador soon realised that they were the strongest and rode together to distance Evans and Kloden who were intent on limiting their losses to the climbers and thinking about Saturday.

As the pair entered the cauldron of fans unique to a mountain-top Tour finish, the alliance split as Rasmussen bickered with Contador expecting the young Spaniard to come through and do a turn. No doubt under orders from the wily Bruyneel, Contador was having none of it, knowing that Rasmussen had to pull him to the finish to maximise his gains over Kloden and Evans. (In the old days, Rasmussen would simply have sold the stage to Contador in exchange for his work).

Sure enough, Contador came round the Maillot Jaune for the stage, a huge win for him so close to the Spanish border. They were chased home by the eccentric but gifted Columbian Soler, then two men not quite strong enough for the stage, Leipheimer and Sastre, then the two time-trial specialists, Evans and Kloden, both of whom were smart and brave.

After two tumultuous days, Rasmussen is still in yellow with Contador at 2.23, Evans at 3.04, Leipheimer at 4.29 and Kloden at 4.38. Tomorrow is another brutal day, with a brief respite on Tuesday before the last mountain stage on Wednesday and the crucial contre-le-montre lurking on Saturday. Rasmussen is now odds-on, which can't be right, with Contador good value at 9/4, Evans at 7/1 and Kloden available at 12/1, which must be too generous with two mountain stages and the time trial to come. Contador looks the coming man to me and may usher in a new era for the Tour after last year's disaster - let's hope so, whoever wears yellow in Paris. Join Mimi next week for her inimitable reportage.

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