Friday, December 7, 2007

NFL Week 13‏ - the Velvet Bear

It would be wrong to start this week without mentioning Sean Taylor. My last paragraph last week mentioned his tragic death. He was shot by an intruder at his home and died the following day. He was 24 and had a very promising career ahead of him – indeed, there are many who are now saying that he could have been one of the great defensive players of all time. This is perhaps stretching a point for a player who had only played a couple of seasons, but what we can say is that Taylor was a wholehearted competitor who asked and gave no quarter. He had been absent injured from the Redskins’ matches in the fortnight before his death and it showed, as they gave up easy plays into the area of the pitch he would normally have covered. They will miss him on the pitch, but by all accounts they will miss him more off it.

Sunday was always going to be an emotional day for the Washington side. A minute’s silence before the game was impeccably observed. The Washington team wore stickers on their lapels bearing Taylor’s number, 21, and throughout the NFL players wore the same sticker on their helmets. In tribute, the Washington defense played their first play of their game against Buffalo with only 10 men and Taylor’s strong safety position empty.

No-one minded the 22 yards which the Redskins gave up to Fred Taylor on that play. What they did mind was what happened 59 minutes and 56 seconds later. With what was going to be the last kick of the game, Bills kicker Rian Lindell lined up a 31 yard field goal attempt. Buffalo were 16-14 down. Success would give the Bills a much needed win, by a solitary point. To increase the pressure on Lindell, Redskins’ head coach Joe Gibbs called a timeout. All part of the game and all perfectly legal. Thirty seconds later everyone went back onto the pitch, Lindell set up to take the kick again – and Gibbs called another timeout. Naughty. Not allowed. That is called ‘Icing’ and is most definitely banned. The resulting 15 yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct moved the kick to the 36 yard line and proved to be a piece of cake for a kicker of Lindell’s quality.

Did the emotion of the day get to Gibbs? Who can tell. The end result is that the Redskins are almost certainly out of the playoffs.

The sad news about Taylor rather overshadowed the much vaunted faceoff between the Packers and the Cowboys. For some strange reason, the Packers decided to change their strategy and go for a long passing game, instead of the short passes which have served them so well this season. The result was an easier than expected win for the Cowboys and their 37-27 victory means that they will almost certainly play at home throughout the January playoffs. Worse news for the Packers were the elbow and shoulder injuries sustained by Brett Favre, which could force him to miss his first match since he became a first-choice quarterback over 15 years ago.


- The Bears blew a 16-7 lead in the final quarter, going down 21-16 at home to the Giants. The battle of the NFL’s two most underwhelming quarterbacks was won by, well, no-one really. Eli had a stinker until those two touchdowns in the last 15 and Rex didn’t actually do much wrong. The loss puts the Bears out of the playoffs and the win means the Giants are still in with a shout.

- The Patriots are unbeaten, but boy did they get a scare in Baltimore, just nudging past the Ravens by 27-24. You start to get the feeling that teams are finding the Pats out now. Their main threat on Monday wasn’t Moss, Stallworth or even Wes Welker, but running back Lawrence Maroney. A better team than the Ravens – who are now 4-8 for the season – might have shaded this one. Are the Pats perhaps running out of steam at the wrong moment?

- The Dolphins, on the other hand, would die for some sort of momentum. Going down 40-13 at home isn’t funny. Especially not when it is to the Jets, who have barely been able to string two passes together all season. To make matters worse for the ‘Fins, linebacker Zach Thomas, one of their few decent players, is likely to miss the rest of the season with the migraines he has suffered from since a car accident back in October.

- There are still only two confirmed play-off teams, but the Colts and the Steelers both only need one more win to get there after victories on Saturday. Peyton Manning’s sublime little shovel pass to running back Luke Lawton for what proved to be Indy’s winning score even had Jaguars’ coach Jack Del Rio nodding in appreciation.

- As predicted, JaMarcus Russell made his debut for the Raiders, coming off the bench and showing what a class act he is by throwing two booming downfield passes in a 34-20 win over the Broncos masterminded by the other Oakland QB, Josh McCown. The Broncos’ season, which started so promisingly, appears to be dead in the water.

- As not predicted, the Minnesota revival continues. Tavaris Jackson at last looked like a professional footballer and not a kid who had wandered in off the streets as the Vikings beat up the Lions 42-10.

- The Chargers beat the Chiefs 24-10 and now look like they will win their division. This is in no small measure due to them suddenly realising that they have on of the best running backs ever in their side and giving him the ball more than once in a blue moon. Two touchdowns on Sunday moved LaDanian Tomlinson to third on the all time list with 111 and he still has plenty of time to beat the all time record of Emmitt Smith of 165.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Third Person Singular? - Zephirine

Recently, our good friend Marcela Mora y Araujo drew attention to Juan Roman Riquelme’s habit of referring to himself in the third person: "I like to think it's been a good year for Riquelme." Marcela also commented: “Diego Maradona consistently uses ‘Maradona’ in his speech, and over years of careful analysis I feel confident formulating the following hypothesis: ‘Maradona’ is used when discussing the media construct, the celebrity - e.g. 'Maradona should not be held as an example to anybody' - and ‘I’ enters the discourse when the narrative truly is in the first person; when he is talking about playing football, for instance, he says ‘I’. Anyone feels like funding me? I'll do a PhD on the topic.”

In eager anticipation of Marcela’s PhD, here are a few more thoughts on this phenomenon, and no doubt Pseuds will have their own to add...

This odd use of language has appeared among cricketers too: during the disastrous 2006 Ashes season, England’s captain Michael Vaughan, sidelined through injury, began talking about himself as Michael Vaughan and was roundly mocked on the threads for his apparent swollen ego and detachment from reality. Interestingly, the speech pattern seems to have disappeared with Vaughan’s return to health and form – is he now in a more normal psychological state, or did his wife/PR person read the cricket blogs and tell him to stop it?

By far the most unsettling of these strange verbal usages in the cricket world was that adopted by GU journalist Rob Smyth, who spent an entire over-by-over commentary referring to himself as Daddy – a genuinely creepy gimmick which probably got him a record number of emails. Mr Smyth, however, is no longer with GU.

This is the thing about the third-person trick: other people don’t like it. It bothers them. They think the person concerned is nuts or conceited or both. Or else it’s a bit of a joke: “It’s all about entertainment,” says Floyd Mayweather, “and that’s what Floyd Mayweather brings to the table.” And the effect seems to be the same in most languages. It’s not that you can’t use another word instead of ‘I’ - ‘one’ or its equivalent is used as a substitute in various languages, and in some languages you can refer to yourself as ‘he’ or ‘she’. No, it’s the use of the name which provokes a reaction.

So why do they do it?

Perhaps it’s an unconscious expression of the psychological tricks required to deal with the stress of competing and performing at a high level, or, in the case of Maradona, being a legend and not having lived anything approaching a normal life for many years.

Some degree of disassociation is probably encouraged by sports psychologists as a mechanism to make it easier to deal with media hype. When the tabloids and pundits are alternately describing someone as a genius and a total loser, it must be a lot easier to take if that someone isn’t you...or isn’t quite you.

Detachment must also be needed to deal with defeat or inexplicable loss of form. Suddenly the skills have deserted you – is it your fault? What have you done? Have you annoyed God? Were you rubbish all along, but a kind of collective hallucination prevented anybody from noticing? No, no, it’s just a thing that’s happening to a different part of you, an other you, and your inner self isn’t personally responsible.

There’s also the pressure on successful sportspeople to see themselves as brands – the company that pays, for example, Jonny Wilkinson to advertise its range of classic men’s clothing is buying a set of attributes which are connected with him in the public mind, and in turn encouraging him to see himself as a marketable entity which really has those characteristics “modest, taciturn, English hero”. While supping on his diet of egg-whites and boiled chicken, does Jonny look at those adverts and think “That’s me” or “That’s ‘Jonny Wilkinson’ ”?

Athletes have no disguise, whatever luridly-coloured and/or skimpy kit they compete in; they aren’t playing a role on screen with the help of make-up, camera angles and computer effects, or blogging behind the safety of a pseudonym. But, aided by the media and its own prejudices, the public will see its own version of them. How can they distinguish between the person the public sees and the person they feel themselves to be? Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff is clear that Freddie is the cricketer and celebrity while Andrew is the family man – and it seems that sometimes when Freddie goes out and leaves Andrew at home, he gets into trouble.

Robbie Williams has said that the ‘Robbie Williams’ who appears on stage is his evil twin. Many sportspeople experience ‘white line rage’ – as they step out onto the pitch they take on a persona which is more aggressive, more provocative, more reckless than the everyday one. It’s not just about being pumped up and adrenalised, it’s being taken over by a more vivid and dangerous version of yourself. To succeed at the highest level, that persona has to be encouraged, fed, trained, nurtured, taking over like a cuckoo in a nest. It’s not surprising if the anxious parent bird sometimes feels disconnected from the monster.

Nuts? Conceited? Demonically possessed? Or just trying to cope with it all? What do you think?

Monday, December 3, 2007

Beats doing the Christmas shopping - premcorrespondent

I've already bought the wife her Christmas present - a new ironing board - so that left me free to watch the football slewing across the television over the weekend.

First up was the Chelsea - West Ham local derby (although it takes me longer to get from Stamford Bridge to Upton Park than it takes Roman Abramovich to get from Stamford Bridge to Monaco), which saw an offside Joe Cole bite the hand that used to feed him. A Big Four Club went into a top four place, everyone yawned and Avram Grant nearly smiled.

The three o'clock kick-offs-saw criminal justice reform agitating do-gooder Harry Redknapp reflect on a stalemate with Everton at Fratton Park, vaudevillian defender Titus Bramble hand Sven's Citeh a goal before Borat lookalike Paul Scharner rescued a point for the ever-cheerful Steve Bruce's Wigan, and the last draw of the afternoon played out by 22 unknowns representing Reading and Middlesborough. Of the games with a positive outcome, popular Big Sam Allardyce's Newcastle fell to two superb David Bentley strikes at Blackburn. How that young man finds enough time away from the mirror to practise, I don't know, but he shows every sign of knowing how to kick a ball properly - a rare quality in a young Englishman. Roy Keane's Sunderland repeated last week's feat of scoring a single goal, but conceded seven fewer to secure three points against doomed Derby.

The highlight of Saturday's programme was Arsenal's first half performance at Villa Park during which Arsene appeared to field 10 Juan Roman Riquelmes (only with more, much more, pace and heart). Come the second half, Martin O'Neill borrowed the old Bolton blueprint and got his VIlla men amongst them, but this new, resilient, Arsenal held on to run out 1-2 winners in a splendid match that was a fine advert for English football, if not English footballers. Arsenal have shown that they can play without Little Cesc: can they play without their African contingent? If so, the Premier League will surely be theirs.

Sunday's games comprised Liverpool swatting aside a minimal challenge from Bolton at Anfield as a Big Four Club went into a top four place and an hilariously incompetent match at White Hart Lane marred by Ossie Ardiles, sorry, Juande Ramos selecting no competent defenders, a red card for Robbie Keane apparently agreed upon by the referee and the radio-linked fourth official (making them the only two people in the country who thought so) and a magnificent winner from Arsenal reject Sebastian Larsson. It's a shame that it was Keane and not strike partner Berbatov who got the dodgy card, as nobody would have noticed the sulky Bulgarian's absence (and they won't when he goes in the transfer window in January).

The final Premier League game of the weekend brought two goals for "not quite as good as Kaka" Ronaldo as Manchester United defeated Fulham 2-0. Who would have forecast that?

I have to wait 48 whole hours for the next Premier League game with just some Champions League football to see me through - I'll survive.

An intimate setting for a clash of old foes - Byebyebadman

The 2008 European Championships will be a tournament of familiarity. In Group A the Swiss and Turkish players will exchange pleasantries just a few years after kicking their way to brutal injury and suspension in a World Cup qualifying play-off in Istanbul. Group D will see Spain, Russia and Greece in opposition, just as they were in the group stages four years ago. Neighbours and rivals Germany and Austria meet in the final matchday of group B in Vienna, which recalls unpalatable memories of their mutually beneficial and grotesquely manufactured result in Gijon in 1982. Romania and Holland were paired together in qualifying and are together again in Group C, although this will be overshadowed somewhat by the presence in the group of Italy and France, who on 17th June 2008 in Zurich will meet once again in international competition.

That date marks twenty-two years to the very day that I first saw France and Italy play each other. The World Cup in Mexico opened my eyes to the wonders of football outside of England and that summer I was, like many others, bewitched by the French midfield of Giresse, Tigana, Fernandez and Platini. In the knockout phase they faced Italy, a meeting of European and World champions, which the French deservedly won two-nil. It was Platini, he of Italian heritage and captain of the mighty Juventus, who chipped in the crucial opening goal to help secure their first competitive victory over Italy in sixty-six years.

That victory could be said to be an example of one national footballing stereotype winning out over another, with French flair outwitting Italian defensive acumen. The next time the two teams would meet they proved to be so closely matched in all departments that it kicked off a decade of international rivalry that the continent has not witnessed since the fractious contests between Holland and Germany in the late eighties and early nineties.

Firstly, Luigi di Biagio smashed a penalty against the crossbar to hand victory to the French in the 1998 World Cup quarter-final in Paris after two hours of goalless, tense football. The Euro 2000 final was a far more liberated affair, where a Toldo mistake in the last minute of normal time and a Trezeguet golden goal cruelly snatched away victory from the Italians. Revenge on both counts came for the Azzurri in Berlin just over a year ago, where Trezeguet’s missed penalty in the shootout was mercilessly punished and Italy claimed their fourth World Cup. Since then the French have taken four points out of six in Paris and Milan to just pip their rivals to first place in their qualifying group for Euro 2008.

Although over the period France just about have the upper hand there is no doubt control in this seemingly ongoing battle currently lies with Italy, having snatched the biggest of prizes away from the French in Germany. That match is of course notorious for the incident between Zidane and Materazzi that ended with the greatest player of his generation being sent off in his final game. To use a parallel with the Germany and Holland rivalry mentioned earlier, the incident has cranked up the tension in the same way as when Rijkaard spat on Voller and both were sent off at Italia 90. Revenge will be uppermost in French minds in Zurich, not just for the World Cup but for the ignominious end to the career of their former captain.

Thoughts now move to next June. As the final game in what on paper looks one of the toughest groups an international championship can ever have known, the progression of both teams could hang in the balance during that ninety minutes in the tiny Letzigrund Stadion in Zurich. Veterans of the previous meetings – Thierry Henry, Lillian Thuram and Fabio Cannavaro have played in every encounter between the two sides in the last decade whilst Patrick Viera, Alessandro del Piero and Gianluigi Buffon have been at least in every squad – are used to surroundings of far more grandeur like the San Siro, the Stade de France, the Olympic Stadium in Berlin or the de Kuip in Rotterdam. Although the stadium boasts a ghastly athletics track around the pitch, it’s capacity of just under thirty thousand promises to make this a more intimate occasion than the rival sets of players are accustomed to.

And they may meet further down the line – with UEFA’s decision to split the tournament into American football style conferences where groups A and B provide one finalist and C and D the other, there could potentially be a semi-final in Vienna should both teams qualify from the first round and win their quarter-finals. So we are guaranteed one, but there could be even two acts to come in international football’s greatest modern rivalry.

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