Monday, December 22, 2008

The Night The Unbelievable Nearly Happened (United's Difficult Victory in the World Club Cup) - Beyond the Pale

Underestimating your adversary is a poor strategy in any competition.

Last night in Yokohama, where they were contesting the final of the World Club Cup, Manchester United came dangerously close to doing that. Their opponent, Copa Libertadores champion Liga de Quito of Ecuador, put up a courageous fight. Proving themselves a far more formidable opponent than expected, at the end a talented and experienced Liga side had mighty United on the back foot. When in the 90th minute a fully extended Edwin Van der Sar managed to tip Damián Manso's blazing strike from distance just over the bar, the quiet sigh of relief in the United camp was almost audible. Manso had terrorized Van der Sar earlier, coming wickedly close with a 25-yard bolt in the 62nd minute; that had been Liga's first shot on goal, but it marked a turning point in this match--the last third of which saw United on the defensive, all its holding skills required to deal with the surprising threat on the wings from Liga's speedy and mercurial Luis Bolanos and from--above all--the aggressive, confident Argentine veteran Manso, whose sure touch, excellent delivery and rampaging forward motion appeared to catch the European champions entirely off guard.

But perhaps United should be forgiven for failing to anticipate the threat represented by Manso and Bolanos. The very useful Goal.Com rating system for world players ranks Manso third and Bolanos fifteenth among all midfielders. (To put this in perspective, Xavi ranks fifth, Cesc Fabregas sixth, Kaka ninth--and the highest ranked Englishman, Frank Lampard, no higher than 18th.)

Certainly the English media were caught unawares. Both Barry Glendenning of the Guardian and Chris Bevan of the BBC, in their match reports, referred repeatedly to Damián Manso as Alejandro Manso. (Andy Hunter, in his followup piece in the Guardian, repeated his colleague's mistake.) No doubt their error was the result of limited research--but again, they too might be forgiven, since the sponsoring wisdom of FIFA, as evidenced in their website and publicity releases (which Barry and Chris must have been following, how else explain their common laziness), equally failed to include the correct first name for this wonderful player, who is renowned throughout South America but obviously unknown to the xenophobic sages of European football.

Certainly the twenty-nine-year-old veteran Damián "Piojo" Manso is well known in Argentina, where he played brilliantly for Newell's Old Boys of Rosario in 1996-2001 and 2002-2005. His teammates at Newell's in those years included the likes of Maxi Rodriguez, Gabriel Heinze and Gabriel Batistuta; among those behind him in the side was a Newell's youth team player and local Rosario lad named Lionel Messi.

And indeed Damián Manso did finally earn the attention--and respect--not only of the twice-challenged Van der Sar but of United captain Rio Ferdinand, arguably the finest central defender in what is generally considered the most powerful football league on the planet. Not that Rio had gone so far as to be able to put a name on the number of the man who had been such an irritant all night. "That little left footed front man, number 21, is a fantastic footballer," Ferdinand fairly conceded to a Japanese interviewer after the match.

At least Rio Ferdinand had sorted out the numbers. The Guardian's Glendenning, whose strongest assertion all night had been his stated wish that the match would end in 90 minutes so that he could get back to London to complete his holiday preparations ("I've got lots to do to clear the decks before heading home to my mammy in Ireland for Christmas"), computed Manso's laserlike stroke-of-90-minutes near-miss as coming three minutes before that--and, most curiously, credited the shot not to the man who had taken it but to another Liga player, Claudio Bieler.

Ah well, why bother to get things right in a game everyone in the English media had treated all along as the culmination of a ridiculous folly of a tournament?

United took the match--1-0 on a splendid 73rd minute Wayne Rooney goal--and won the Cup. Without much celebration, as it had been a somewhat harrowing contest. And there was that long flight home. And the prospect of Stoke City to contend with on Boxing Day.

But then United know what to expect from a hapless Stoke side, having punished them without much mercy in an easy 5-0 win last month at Old Trafford.

Stoke unlike Liga have proven themselves worthy of no more than limited respect. Of course we've heard endlessly of the threat posed by the epic throw-ins of Stoke's Rory Delap. Delap is by now a name everyone in the wide world of football knows. Still, it seems that not even after he scared United half to death last night is anyone in the charmed kingdom of Premier League triumphalism able to get Damián Manso's name right.

Why is this? Is xenophobia an English virtue?

Coming into this final, contributors on English websites, eager to demonstrate their cultural provincialism, consistently disparaged the Ecuadoran side. Liga de Quito would provide--it was thought--no more than a straw foe for might United to easily bowl over. One particularly confident blogging dummy referred to them as "LDU Quinto". Why bother to know who you're playing when you don't even expect a serious game?

The odd thing is, there are parts of the world where Liga de Quito is taken very seriously indeed. Brazil, for example, where, rumour has it, people know a bit about football. In order to qualify for the World Club Cup, Liga had to come out on top in the grueling Copa Libertadores competitition, the highest club-level prize available to sides from South America and Mexico.

Getting to the July final of the Libertadores--the decisive second leg was an unforgettably intense, emotional match played before 90,000 highly-involved Brazilian fans in the mammoth Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro--took six months of hard labor on Liga's part. There was no fluke in their victory. Up 4-2 over Fluminense after the first leg at home in Ecuador, they found themselves brought level at 5-5 aggregate after two spectacular goals from Flu's marvelous Thiago Nieves (another brilliant South American player as yet virtually unknown in Europe). Amidst the rocking euphoria of the Maracana, however, Liga held on. In a penalty shootout their great 37-year-old keeper Jose Francisco Cevallos, the final's most valuable player, saved three kicks--and perhaps also the life of Liga manager Edgardo Bauza, whose isolated agony during the fraught shootout, caught by television images, provides one of the more interesting emotional dramas in recent football history.

You can see the riveting highlights of that memorable final here:
first leg (ida)
return leg (vuelta)

After the Libertadores victory Liga returned to their own league, where, like United, they have had their own struggles. In the recently concluded Ecuadoran Apertura, they finished second to local rivals Deportivo Quito. Their title-deciding end-of-November clasico against Deportivo was a magnificent affair, closely-contested, every ball fought for with great feeling; it was a match that will be remembered in Ecuador for many years. But don't take my word for it, look for yourself.

As of course will many in South America--if not in Europe-- remember this 2008 World Club Club final, a match that was regarded, in the run-up, with little more than ridicule and annoyance by the fans and press corps of the English champions. But just ask Rio Ferdinand if this was an easy night for United. Defeating the second-best side in Ecuador required every bit of energy left in United's tank. You can bet that Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo had not anticipated being on the pitch a full 90 minutes, as in the event they were.

Liga stood brave and tall in defeat, though at the end the desolated keeper Cevallos sat gutted between his posts, watching the big screen at the other end of the stadium as though it might miraculously show a different outcome on a night when the unbelievable had nearly happened.

I, RespectBot - Ringo37

New new Wembley, 2066. Eighth quarter of the BeckhamCorp World Cup Final™. AlanBall-o-matic passes to Hurst-o-tron – Hurst-o-tron swivels, and shoots! Russian-made linebot TofikBakhramo v2.0 hesitates… and says – or, rather, displays on a flashing kilometre-wide holo-screen – No Goal!

Yes, the linebot’s spotted some hurly-burly at a molecular level. The ball’s bounced down from the crossbar, and, as it’s hit the line, what’s happened is, some of the atoms’ve strayed into a position of quantum indeterminacy – remember, under the latest rule clarifications issued by Deep Blatter (the supercomputer formed in 2054 from a merger of FIFA and the CERN particle-collider), the whole of the ball must occupy a specific point in Einsteinian space-time.

Needless to say, all hell breaks loose. Hurst-o-tron protests that the wavefunction had already collapsed by the time the ball bounced clear. Defender Wolfgang WebBrowser flashes up a furious Error Message querying Hurst-o-tron’s grasp of the Copenhagen interpretation. But the goal is ruled out, and all England weeps…

…awake, in 2008, from cheese-fuelled vision of dystopian future. What a nightmare (especially that WebBrowser pun). Consider briefly the feasibility of an actual FIFA-CERN merger – they’re both in Geneva, they both secretly crave dominion over reality itself, why shouldn’t they hot-desk? – and then switch on television:

Burton-shirted Pundit wants video technology introduced; this will take the element of chance out of the game.

…sink head despondently in hands.

The idea of justice, of deserving something (as in, “We deserved something from the match”), is tied up tightly with the idea of intent. So, when a ball is flayed wildly towards a goal from thirty yards out, the flayer’s vague intent is for it to end up somewhere in the back of the net. What he doesn’t do is aim to make the ball bounce down off the crossbar, three inches over the goal-line, and out again. If he does that, it’s what’s called an accident – so, model-professional RespectBot that he is, he’ll just shrug, and allow himself an embarrassed smile, and be grateful for a lucky goal – and, should the ref call it wrong, he’ll still just shrug, because after all it was nothing but a fluke in the first place.

Only he won’t, of course, because he’s a big nappy-wetting baby, and neither will the fans, because they’re all big nappy-wetting babies too. What he’ll do, if it’s given, is run roaring around the pitch like a toddler that’s just been given an e-number enema, and, if it’s not, he’ll whine and sob and rail at the bitter-as-the-cud injustice of it all.

What’s most galling about such pathetic behaviour is that we accept it. If we’re not trotting out the laissez faire nihilist’s catch-all of choice – “Human nature, innit?” – we’re producing pitiful videos like this, in which various panto-grade celebs seek to demonstrate that, without the supervision of a referee, footballers will invariably and inevitably act like contemptible, cheating vermin.

Respecting the ref is fine, but wouldn’t it be better if we tried to get players to respect the rules first?

Animals, Sir Alf called the Argentines back in ’66 when they, let’s say, took issue with some of referee Kreitlein’s decisions in their match with England – by which he meant, in his cuddly way, that they showed no self-control, no self-discipline. The rights and wrongs of that incident are by-the-by: the point is that the term Ramsay used isn’t a bad one. Self-control, perspective, rational thought – decency, even: these are the things that make us human (you could say that Ronnie O’Sullivan and Adam Gilchrist are atypical humans in many ways, but do we really want to start classifying sportsmanship as an aberrant and alien condition?).

The point is that many things that happen in sport happen at random: lucky goals, freak mis-hits, snooker flukes. In the circumstances, it’s insane to pretend – or, rather, to insist (pretending is what we all do, from time to time) – that it all really matters, that it’s worth tearing your hair and gnashing your teeth about, that it’s more than a game.

I’ll be told, I’m sure, that I don’t Get It. Well, if this and this is the price you pay for Getting It, I’m not sure I Want It.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

FIFA World Club Championship: A Longer Look - Beyond the Pale

For argument: The problem with approaching any non-European competition as an a priori supporter of English or other European leagues or clubs is that one tends to be blinded by one's predispositions and miss what virtues there may be in such competitons. Take the currently ongoing FIFA World Club Championship tournament in Japan. While in general agreement with the commonly held disparaging view of many of the chintzier elements of this tournament, I also fear the conventionally-wise disdain teeters over in some cases into easy and outright scorn, rather unfairly given the quality of some of the actual play; and that this imbalanced and perhaps prejudicial treatment calls for a bit of redressing.

The Eurocentric prejudice against less familiar manifestations of world football I'm here addressing holds true especially in the case of Latin American competitions, and tends also to extend into a general disregard for the contributions of Latin American clubs in international competitions in general. Granted Latin American football doesn't much resemble European football--it boasts less raw power, and probably also less pace than one might expect from the EPL, if not also from La Liga, and perhaps even from Serie A (though has anyone ever sincerely accused Serie A of being the least bit pacy?)--it also offers relative virtues of its own: more touches, more finesse, more grace, and, in this writer's modest view, more true fighting spirit.

The present Japan world club tournament is no exception. The sometimes farcical nature of the set-up and proceedings may well have caused many to see this as a shambolic clown show to be laughed at and ignored in anticipation of the ultimate appearance of the semi-divine grandees from Manchester, who have pretty much been accorded the championship before even venturing out of the hotel mass-autograph-sessions to bother to touch stud to pitch.

But in the quarter-finals we did--as has unfortunately not been much reported outside the "hinterlands" (semi-wildernesses?) of Latin America and North Africa--see one wonderful match. Al Ahly, the skilled and brave Egyptian club here representing Africa, looked indomitable for most of the night against Mexican CONCACAF representative Pachuca; but in the second half Pachuca came roaring back, tied the match at 2-2 late-on with a goal by Argentine forward Christian "Chaco" Gimenez, working an adroit 1-2 with his fellow Argentine Bruno Marioni, then scored twice again in extra time--the ultimate winner put in by another of Pachuca's experienced and talented Argentine contingent, Damian "El Chilendrino" Alvarez, with an insurance goal coming on Gimenez's second of the night. Marvelous and utterly exciting game, in short, whichever side you may have been rooting for.

Then, after enduring the intervening descent into admittedly dull matches involving the pretty ordinary Oceanian and Asian representatives--never more than straw opponents anyway, vying in futility for the anticipated dubious honour of being knocked out by imperious United in the semis--came the semifinal between Pachuca and Copa Libertadores winner Liga de Quito of Ecuador, representing the South American continent.

You may not have heard of the latter club unless you're enough of a football fan to have looked in on their recent victorious Libertadores campaign, crowned by a fantastic conquest away to Fluminense in the caldron of Maracana in Rio de Janeiro; but if you were lucky enough to see any of that, you'll know that Liga represents no straw opponent for anybody. This is a wicked-good football club.

As I might have expected unreason got the better of me and I ended up, after three nights up working on a piece on the unbelievably exciting Mexican gran final, not sleeping again, opting instead for tuning in at 2.30 a.m. to the Pachuca/Liga semi-final in Japan.

And the game I thought was bad/good, with the good winning out on balance. The weather conditions and crowd apathy: very bad. Reminded me of 2002 Copa Mundial and why I hate watching games played in Far East: unless local teams are involved (in which case we observe mass robotic beehive-culture fanatic brainless crowd support), nobody in the stadium understands or cares what's happening save the few loyal traveling supporters. Thus here, a few dozen Pachuca fans made more noise than the "neutral" crowd.

But the football they saw, despite awful conditions, had some real quality I thought. The ultimate winners from Ecuador sported in their starting eleven the nucleus of the same wonderful Liga club aficionados of Latin football know from the Libertadores–the night's two scorers Bieler and Bolanos, plus Manso, Riesgo, Cevallos, all the key players from last year save the excellent, now-departed winger Guerron. Once behind 2-0, in a nasty cold rain, Pachuca had an impossibly slippery hill to climb.

But this was the same veteran club that had fought back so courageously to defeat Al Ahly a few nights earlier, and you could see they believed in the possibility of doing the same here–si se puede! Were I a Pachuca loyalist, I'd have been disappointed on the night yet nonetheless would have felt no shame in holding my head high afterward, given the battling performance of my defeated club. And were I an Argentine (instead of merely a foolish old norteamericano) I'd be entirely proud of the fighting spirit shown, pretty much for pride's sake, by the venerable Pachuca all-Argentine front line of Gimenez-Alvarez-Marioni… luchando, peleando till the end. Pachuca must have outshot Liga by 20-8 or so, dominated possession by something like an 80/20 ratio, made many great late chances, while never quite managing to llegar--get there in the end--but left all their hearts on the pitch nonetheless.

So: I had little trouble extracting more than a bit of the good (excellent competitive football of a pleasantly high quality) from the otherwise bad (the rest of the tournament, i.e. games not involving the three clubs from Africa and Latin America). Mixed views on the tournament so far, then--but please let's not entirely dismiss it as merely another convenient stage for the prancing glories of United, as some have done.

You can probably tell from all this that in my heart I had really wished for a Pachuca/United final. And as it is, I expect LDU to give United a run for their money. Anyone else feel likewise?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Tears of Joy (Mexican League Apertura Final 2008) - Beyond the Pale

If you can't remember the last time you watched thousands of mature adults, on a day of deep blue skies and blindingly bright high altitude winter sunshine, all weeping and singing at the same time, then you're like me. And while you like me have probably read in the news lately that happiness has been discovered to be contagious, but only when shared in person, a case might be made for the belief that every now and then you can pick up a bit of contact emotion--including sheer joy--over distances of thousands of miles.

That's what happened to this grateful scribe, observing from afar Sunday's return leg of the championship final of the Mexican fall torneo.

The match was played in Toluca's Estadio Nemesio Diez (nicknamed La Caldera, and for visiting clubs traditionally about as comfortable as the crater of an erupting volcano), and won by Toluca over Cruz Azul by a final global or aggregate count of 2(7)--2(6). But mere numbers do not do justice to such a day. This was an intense, exhausting affair full of wonderfully competitive football--much of it beautiful, passionate, skillful, and some of it brutal; there were thirteen yellow cards, a red card, and more hard knocks than could be counted, yet without a single C-Ron-esque display of wounded theatrics. This was real war, not the opera: one player, the defender Jose Manuel Cruz Alta of Toluca, ended up staying on the pitch all the way to the end with one side of his face blue and swollen twice the size of the other--and he'd been the one who'd got the better of things in a violent clash with the excellent young Cruz Azul midfielder Cesar Villaluz; Villaluz went into convulsions, apparently stopped breathing and when last seen was on oxygen being stretchered off to the hospital (as his side had run out of substitutions, they had to fare the rest of the way--and coming from behind at that-- with ten men).

This was an unrelenting affair which took nearly three hours. Ninety minutes of furious action followed by two periods of leg-heavy extra time followed by an energy-draining round of thirteen penalties, the first twelve all made. When the unlucky-for-the-visitors thirteenth was saved by Toluca's 39-year-old Argentine keeper Hernan Cristante, an infernal ocean of dammed-up feeling broke loose and turned to pure heavenly joy among the red-clad sections of the crowd.

Andres Cantor, the great Mexican announcer, made the contest a stage upon which to build with his astonishing voice the roller coasters of emotion that always make these finals so thrilling--none more so than this one. This was a match that finally wrung every last drop of emotion out of everyone: not only the sincerely committed, enormously valiant players and coaches, but the masses of absolutely involved spectators. There was not a quiet moment all day, the small lagoon of Cruz Azul blue-shirts standing up continuously to sing bravely in the face of the far louder, brighter sea of Toluca red shirts and pennants and banners that surrounded and finally overwhelmed them.

Coming in to this return leg, or vuelta, down 2-0 after a flat and dispirited performance before their disappointed home fans on a bone-chillingly cold night back in the capital, Cruz Azul appeared to have little chance to dig themselves out of the hole they were in. They faced not only perhaps the most difficult of all Mexican away venues, but also the most difficult of defenses; Cristante, indeed, was coming off a recent stretch of nine consecutive games without surrendering so much as a single goal. He'd already won four championships in goal for Toluca, and it appeared now as though a fifth was inevitable.

And indeed, as the gran final now began to unfold, it looked very much like a repeat performance. Once again Toluca was orderly, precise, serene, dominant; as they had in Mexico City three nights earlier, they were playing with energy, discipline, confidence and flair. But then something mysterious occurred. After half-time Cruz Azul coach Benjamin Galindo tossed caution to the winds, made three substitutions, opted to attack at any cost and sent his players out chasing for all they were worth a forlorn hope--what now appeared to be a mission-impossible fightback.

It was as if Galindo had instilled in his team the understanding that to lose by six was no worse than to lose by one or two. And then suddenly, back they came. There was a Cruz Azul score: a lovely centering pass from the gifted joven Villaluz, flicked by the heel of Paraguayan forward Pablo Zeballos (a classic taquito) into the path of Alejandro Vela to turn home. Tienen la esperanza! exclaimed Andres Cantor. They've got a look-in! And then, with twelve minutes left, blue-shirted defender Julio Caesar "Cata" Domingues headed in a corner from Jaime Lozano, and Cantor's famous Gooooooooaaallll! echoed all across the intently listening Republic.

The aggregate stood now at 2-2: and the real drama was at that point only beginning.

The Mexican final--since 1997 three have been two every year, the Apertura in the Fall and the Clausura in the Spring--is a sort of national fiesta, and as such a pretty tough ticket at the best of times. But when, as has happened quite often in recent years (the past two winners before Toluca, Atlante and Santos, were also smaller clubs), the final migrates away from the big stadiums of Mexico City and Guadalajara, it can be all but impossible to buy your way in through honest means.This aspect of things always adds a little extra publicity spice to the run-up, and this year, interviews with ticket-hungry Toluca followers dominated the sports news in advance of the deciding leg.

And so that much anticipated match finally took place on Sunday: in the thin air of this small-to-mid-size provincial market and industrial city--the city located at the highest altitude of any in the Republic, at 2680 metres, high enough indeed to land itself and its earnest, proud little club within fallout range of the Brazilian clubs' longstanding efforts to restrict high-altitude competition in Copa Libertadores competition (a campaign frustrated at one point by the brilliant PR ploy of Bolivian president Evo Morales, who invited reporters to come watch him have a kickabout in the snows of the high reaches of his Andean nation, to suggest that even if pacy Brazilian fullbacks might get winded trying to bomb forward at such altitudes, he himself was hardly daunted by the task.)

Toluca, a small club in a bright red kit--they're sometimes called the Diablos Rojos, Red Devils, and sometimes los choriceros, hot red peppers--has for some time sported a refreshing, intelligent, engaging, highly entertaining style of play, with amazing success considering their low-echelon status in a league perennially dominated by a few big clubs. In overcoming the giant club Cruz Azul--Cruz Azul's shirts bear the blue cross emblem of a huge cement company, and they are accordingly called La Maquina Cementera, and are historically the club of the employed industrial working classes; that is, those with actual jobs, not including peasants--this overachieving minnow Toluca has now won its ninth championship, thus surpassing Cruz Azul's total of eight. (Though always a power, the maquina have been underachieving and won nothing for the past decade.) The only clubs to have won more titles are Chivas of Guadalajara with eleven and America of Mexico City with ten; but neither Chivas, the unofficial national club (they employ only Mexican players, and thus in effect represent everybody, that is, Mexicans of all classes and political persuasions), nor America, owned by the national television-monopoly conglomerate known as Televisa (Americanistas tend to represent the middle class and the political center), have been doing very well of late, and indeed neither of them even managed to quality for the eight-team liguilla from which Toluca now justifiably emerges as campeon.

And so how did that intense long day in the bright high sun finally close? Two relatively slow-motion extra-time periods. Then a period of lie-down in dappled sun-and-shade, and a regathering finally around the managers, Cruz Azul's Galindo and Toluca's Jose Manuel "Chepo" De la Torre (a decade before, the two had been teammates on a championship Chivas team); De la Torre could be seen absent-mindedly stroking the wounded head of his battered defender Cruz Alta, much as a mother strokes the head of a child, as he explained the strategy for kicks to be taken. And then those excruciating penalties, with not a miss through the first dozen, the whole building sequence narrated so wonderfully by Andres Cantor that if you don't enjoy this two-part set of clips of that full narration, you probably don't like football--or high drama:

That second clip also provides, at the end, just a taste of the emotion I mentioned coming in--the heady elixir in the air of an unforgettable day of football, celebration, excitement, pain, and tears of sorrow and joy. You'll see Hernan Cristante, in tears, saluting the home fans, and the wonderfully skilled Brazilian-born midfielder Sinha, holding his child, in quiet tears as he's interviewed; these are battle-hardened international veterans mind you, for the moment totally and quite movingly at one under the bright sun with the equally overjoyed, weeping supporters in their adopted footballing homeland. And then there's an interview with Toluca coach Jose Manuel "Chepo" de la Torre, also in tears. Two years before to the day, De la Torre was celebrating another championship won by a team under his direction. That day it was Chivas. But as you will see, for De la Torre as for almost everybody fortunate enough to have been there (as well as for many of us who weren't), this day it was totally Toluca.

(For the curious, here are two additional highlights clips, one for the first leg and one for the second leg of the final, up to ninety minutes; alas, on these two the announcer is perfectly fine, but is not the great Andres Cantor):

First leg (ida)

Second leg (vuelta)

Monday, December 15, 2008

For the Love of the Game by Mouth of the Mersey

Football fans profess love for their clubs, tennis and golf fans may profess love for a player (say Roger or Tiger) and rugby union fans may profess love for the culture of the game. But cricket fans regularly profess love for the game qua game, not even as ex-recreational players, but simply as spectators.

On completion of the extraordinary First Test between India and England played in the aftermath of the Mumbai outrage, this love for the game was evident all over the blogosphere, possibly best captured by Silverflash from whom I quote at length and to whom I am indebted.

Maybe this game had India playing in a daze for 3 days, and England snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, but in the end analysis, this was so much more than just a match.

Today, I saw an old warrior battle it out at the site of one of his biggest personal defeats, when he came so close only to see victory slip away. I saw him shepherd a young turk through his impetuous moments, never letting him lose sight of the ultimate goal. I saw one of the best batsmen ever to play the game shackle every attacking instinct and apply himself to a task at hand, rejecting the natural for the necessary.

Before today, I had dismissed this series as too frivolously planned to make any sense. I dismissed any chance of England coming here and playing with all their heart. I called the entire exercise pointless. How wrong I was. Today I learnt that a team of sportsmen, shown the way by a charismatic leader, can raise what they do beyond just being a sporting spectacle, and make it mirror so much that all of life stands for, or should. The pursuit of excellence, the chase of a dream, perseverance in the face of adversity, the pain of loss, grace even in humbling defeat. Over five days, England stood shoulder to shoulder with my countrymen by fighting tooth and nail against them.

In the wake of what happened in Mumbai, I dismissed the return of the England team, forgetting what a Test match, played right, could mean.

Today, England and India have reminded me why it was so important that the game was played. That it ended the way it did - with the young turk giving the grizzled warrior the chance to reach his personal milestone while burying the demons of the past and the horrors of the present - made me remember why this is the king of all sports.

Amen to every word Sir.

My questions to pseuds are as follows. Why does Test cricket provoke such confessions of love? Does any other sport provoke such views (maybe baseball?) Does any other activity provoke such love (maybe opera?)

Sunday, December 14, 2008

No pain, no game? - Ringo37

“I felt I was good enough to deal with the bowlers without using a helmet.”
Sir Viv Richards

A hockey ball weighs 5½ ounces, the same weight as a cricket ball. Hard, white, muddied in those days, and studded with the milk-teeth of unready goalkeepers... I was eleven years old and I wasn’t nearly good enough to deal with this.

This was my first club game: I’d been shanghaied into filling in as goalie for the under-14s. No-one else’d seemed to fancy it, and, quivering in the Bradford rain with nothing between me and hurtling white death but a bent stick and a pair of cast-off cricket pads, I slowly and horribly began to realise why.

When I was 12 the club gave me a pair of hobnailed leather ‘kickers’: reinforced boots for hoofing the ball to safety. At 13 I got my first chest-pad, and my first helmet. Armguards arrived at age 17 and by the time I turned 18 I was kitted out like all the goalies you see nowadays: a shambling golem of styrofoam and velcro.

I think about the innumerable times I could’ve been hurt – and the innumerable ways in which it could’ve happened – and I wonder: why do I miss those days? Why do I hate Cipriani’s scrum-cap? Why, when the F1 commentator says “Of course, with these new cars, it’s practically impossible for a driver to be seriously hurt”, does it always seem to be in a tone of regret?

I don’t think it’s about I’m-no-sissy machismo. And I don’t think it’s simple Luddism, either.

I think it’s about engagement with the fundamentals of a sport. Sport in general forces us to acquaint ourselves with the strengths and limitations of our own bodies; ball-games, for instance, are generally a question of how well we engage with the interacting realities of opponent, ball, grass and gravity. In some sports, danger – indeed, death – becomes a fundamental.

Every time we step away from these fundamentals, the appeal of the sport – to me, at least – is diminished. A padded-up hockey goalie is hopelessly compromised in terms of vision and mobility; a helmeted cricketer is insulated from certain realities of speeding ball and human skull.

I don’t wear a helmet when I ride my bike. In part, that’s because it’s what I’ve always done. In part – a particularly stupid part – it’s because I’m worried about looking like a tit. But mostly it’s because cycling’s meant to be just me, and the bike, and the hills – and anything more would feel like an intrusion.

It’s a faintly uncomfortable sort of position. I don’t want anybody to get hurt playing sport – but then, in a weird way, I miss the days when there was a better-than-evens chance that somebody would.

Sportswriting About Sportswriting About...--or, Is the Champions League A Bore? by Beyond the Pale

Duly noted that we Pseuds--Ringo37, Beyond, and our several brilliant commentators--have lately involved ourselves in involving ourselves with involving ourselves in....what am I saying? Sportswriting about Sportswriting about Sportswriting?

Back in the hoary days of yesteryear (just so we're clear, this is not product-placement, as the product no longer exists) there was a cleaning substance sold in the U.S. called Dutch Cleanser. On the label one saw a little Dutch girl--cleaning, naturally. Behind her, on the wall of the inevitably spotless interior, there was a mirror. In the mirror, one saw the little Dutch girl cleaning the same spotless interior, on the wall of which one saw a mirror...and so on, into endlessly receding mirror images. Or if not endlessly, then diminishing until...

Or as offsideinthemirror has so thoughtfully put it, putting a fine point upon all this by applying the same sort of image to our lively discussions here:

"Writing about sports is sportswriting, fine. Writing about sportswriting is something we probably need a new name for. But commenting about writing on sportswriting is a kind of writing that leaves me entirely baffled as to what it should be called."

And the esteemed Ebren, obviously with nothing but the naked truth in mind, has helpfully responded:

"Dog above Offie-- let's hope no one replies to your comment. The consequences don't bare [sic--sorry, Ebren!] thinking about."

To which the indomitable Offside, never one to say die, whether bare or clothed--remember, it's always as warm as a fine day in Paradise here on our enchanted isle--comes back:

"Dunno, sounds like a perfectly valid avenue of discussion to me. I wish I had more resources at the Pakalolo Institute so that it could properly investigated. 'sigh'. "

(Beg pardon Offie for a wee spelling edit there, courtesy of the proofreading staff at the Institute.)

"Language disguises thought," wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein, respectfully paraphrasing our Ebren, in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. "So much so, that from the outward form of the clothing it is impossible to infer the form of the thought beneath it, because the outward form of the clothing is not designed to reveal the form of the body, but for entirely different purposes."

Which brings me back to our little Dutch girl discussion about sportswriting about sportswriting about...for what else, indeed, is a sports blog but an extension of the little Dutch girl model? We may feel silly about our mirror-staring, in short, but that doesn't stop us doing it.

"The world is all that is the case," opined Senor Wittgenstein, that kindly feeder of birds. "The world is the totality of facts, not of things... The facts in logical space are the world."

E.g., a recent popular post on the Guardian sports blog--a site frequented, the Institute has determined, by many if not most of us Pseuds--is this one by Scott Murray (a writer indeed nominated by some of our commentators as belonging in the great tradition of colorful nonselfconscious sportswriting--as if such a thing ever existed):

"The state of the European Cup: discuss. Though, unlike the competition in its modern guise, let's get straight down to the nitty gritty so we don't waste anybody's precious time: the Champions League group stage has become such a tiresome, irrelevant farce that it is threatening to bring this once-great competition to its knees..."

MouthoftheMersey, a dedicated regular here, offers the first response to the Murray post, and I quote in full:


"A thought is a proposition with a sense," that tireless old blogger Ludwig once declared. "The totality of propositions is language."

Last time I checked, 205 posts had followed MotM's on that particular Guardian thread. Many of the posters happen also to be familiar Pseuds: Ringo37, Private Dic, DonWendyAgain, et al. Here's Beyond's post, which came at the bottom of the comment chain initiated (as cited above) by MouthoftheMersey--and Beyond, like a good little Dutch girl, is citing a fellow commentator, Jimathon--

"Agree in principle with Mr. Murray's premise--the group stages are a total bore, unless one somehow actually enjoys seeing the haves beat up on the havenots--but fear it doesn't go far enough. For my money the current configuration of the UEFA Champions League is all about their money. Corporate business is in essence not sporting. Football is a world language, thus its world popularity among not only the rich but the poor. There was a time when the twain could meet on these grounds. That time is no more. Thus I feel that Jimathon's comment--

'For heavens sake! Whats [sic] wrong with people nowadays?! Always going on about the good ol[sic] days. Everything was always better back then wasnt [sic] it? Sepia tinted glasses anyone?'

--is blind to the true history of this matter. Without sepia glasses but with clear eyes one may view the 1968 Bert Haanstra film Return Ticket to Madrid and view from an intimate perspective--that is, the fans' as well as the players', as the Ajax team is given a private tactical preparatory talk by trainer Rinus Michaels, and then the matches unfold --the first-round fixtures that year between between Ajax and Real Madrid. It is thrilling stuff indeed. It is not mere nostalgia but simple objective judgment that's required to see how much has been changed by the ramping up on money and hype around the tournament since that time. What was once a glorious competition has now dwindled to tiresome pimping designed, and quite successfully, to extract the maximum money from the maximum number of gullible fools. I believe that if Mr. Murray's premise is logically applied and extended to include the entirety of the tournament in its present state, this conclusion is sadly unavoidable."

Pseuds will note that Beyond made sure to reference a Dutch film about a Dutch football team so that the little Dutch girl model might subliminally haunt the minds of thread followers. (All this at no charge, mind you.)

But to get back to offsideinthemirror's original telling objection--which now begins to seem as though perhaps it shows more than it tells: once again, for refreshment:

"Writing about sports is sportswriting, fine. Writing about sportswriting is something we probably need a new name for. But commenting about writing on sportswriting is a kind of writing that leaves me entirely baffled as to what it should be called."

"The world and life are one," Wittgenstein interjects at this point, the strands of his grass skirt lapping at his knobbly kneecaps as the fresh breezes of the isle flow gently as zephyrs through the Institute's air-circulation unit. "I and my world are one. There is no such thing as the subject that thinks or entertains ideas."

There is something, it seems, about the Pakololan climate that either encourages or discourages thought--exactly which, it remains to be decided by our analysts.

And so I ask our great resident Pseuds scholar emeritus: how, Offie, does one ever truly avoid that horrible self-referential pitfall, the little Dutch girl trap, while blogging? Because a blog without a response stream is like the sound of one hand clapping, is it not? And is not every writer about a previous writing--including our most prolific thread-stitcher at the Institute, the redoubtable, never-at-a-loss-for-a-reply Offie himself-- thus forever writing about writing? Where does this all end? When the dikes finally give way and the sea of words floods in and washes over everything and leaves only silence and a cow floating past on a clump of dirt and grass (another wonderful Bert Haanstra image, drawn naturally from the abundant Institute archives)?

And compared to the wonders of all our minds, is not the Champions League truly a great bore after all? Or is saying this a matter of saying the unthinkable?

"We cannot think what we cannot think," suggests Wittgenstein in his grand Tractatus--indeed, merely confirming a discovery made some time ago by a highly-qualified team of researchers at the Institute--"so what we cannot think we cannot say either."

And how pleasant must it not have been, indeed, back in Paradise before the Fall, when that charming little Dutch girl Eve and her rather foolish but well-meaning consort Adam could communicate with the trees and flowers and birds and other animals without using language at all, as the Bible tells? Is there a single Pseud out there who supposes they'd ever have bothered to attempt to discuss whether or not United was going to draw Real Madrid in the first knockout stage?

For, compared to the wonders of our minds, is not the Champions League a great bore after all?

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Awards 2008 (as seen by Mouth of the Mersey)

Yes it's a cliche, but it's fun too. Comment is welcomed below, but pseuds' own nominations are welcomed posted to the address above. As personal as possible please! 

Team of the Year

Such is the volume of football available to the subscription holding viewer that it is easy to become sated with the game, but Euro 2008 lit up a dank English summer with free-flowing, imaginative and skillful play. In Spain, the tournament found worthy winners, the best national team since France's 2000 squad and amongst the top half dozen I've seen. England were not missed - naturally.

Man of the Year

Before the Beijing Bolt, the leading man in sports was Rafael Nadal. His extraordinary success on the clay continued at Roland Garros where he is unbeaten since 2004. But he stamped his mark on the season with his epic victory at Wimbledon over grass courts' acknowledged master, Roger Federer. It was a reward for his bold expansion of his game and a refusal to rest on his laurels. This bull of a man retains his boyish charm and is unfailing polite in the media, which allows us to forgive his on-court ticks.  

Woman of the Year

Sport celebrates its winners, but should acknowledge its losers too. Lolo Jones went to Beijing as favourite to win the 100 metres hurdles and was about to deliver the gold when she hit the penultimate obstacle and, at 26, her dream disappeared forever. Once the initial shock wore off, her reaction showed a depth of understanding of the nature of sport that reveals a more rounded personality than most sports stars, as this interview shows. Lolo comes from a less than privileged background, but she knows that her obligations run beyond winning races and making money. Her er.. natural advantages will guarantee a post-athletics career in the media, should she want one, but few would begrudge her.

Event of the Year

After seven races in just a few days, then adrenelin was ebbing, but the expectation was mounting. Merely Gold in the Olympic 200 metres suddenly wasn't enough: Michael Johnson's "untouchable"  world record was required now. It hurt, it really hurt, but Usain Bolt rounded the bend and stoppd the clock at 19.30: a new mark that nobody but he is likely to threaten for a generation. Orson Wells was cursed by his achievement of writing, directing and producing Citizen Kane at the age of 25. Bolt completed his masterpiece at just 21. 

Thanks to all pseuds who have written above and below the line and a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Eboué and the Rights and Obligations of Football Crowds – Mac Millings

Last Saturday, Arsenal’s Emmanuel Eboué was booed mercilessly by his own team’s fans during their game against Wigan. Such was the vehemence of the jeering, that it prompted Richard Williams to write on the Guardian SportBlog that, “It was the self-expression of the new breed of football fan, with his £1,000 season ticket and his increasing sense of entitlement…it is nasty, and it needs to be stopped.” Within hours, the article had become the most commented-upon on the Blog. The verdict was far from unanimous, and fans of every shirt had all kinds of opinions. So how are we to judge the reaction of the crowd towards Eboué? In order to answer this, we must address a broader question: what are the rights - and the obligations – of the ticket-buying crowd at a football match?

The mere purchase of a season ticket, even one that costs £1,000, does not, of course, guarantee to the buyer that they will be watching either high quality or successful football. And football being a game of passion, the first thought of the watching fan when things aren’t going well for his side is probably far more visceral than “You’ve got to do better than this – do you know how much my ticket cost?” But if that £1,000 price tag were reduced to £100 (or a £500 one to £50), yet the standard of football on offer remained the same, we’d have to expect fans to be at least a little happier. On that basis, we must admit that it’s not entirely unreasonable to factor ticket prices into fan dissatisfaction at least a little.

More important than the financial “investment” that fans are making when they pay to see their team play, is the emotional one. By purchasing a season ticket, fans enter into a loose form of contract with the club. The club, for its part, will provide entertainment in the form of a chance for the fans to see their side “live”. In turn, the fans will to provide support and encouragement to the team. In this way, we may say that the “contract” is mutually beneficial – the crowd gets to see its heroes up close, and the team reaps the benefit of a supportive crowd.

Supporting the side takes many guises, and includes both “positive” and “negative” types (in football, intimidation of the visiting side is arguably as important as support of the home team). Thus we find singing in praise of the team and/or individual players, jeering of opposition players and drowning out the cheering/jeering of visiting fans.

Fans may, of course, turn on their players when things aren’t going well., and we will address this issue shortly. Generally speaking, however, we may safely say that the main obligation of the football crowd is to protect the interests of the team.

Since these obligations extend to all fans of all clubs, we might consider them “rights”. In accordance with our tradition of free speech, jeering, booing, and criticising are permissible, although naturally there are exceptions. Fans’ rights do not, of course, extend to criticism on the basis of, say, skin colour or sexual orientation. However, they may include mockery regarding, for example, on-pitch performance and shirt colour.

Crowds jeer their opponents because it works. They suspect that the singing of songs aimed at encouraging an individual improves that individual’s performance, so they do it. Conversely, they suspect, and have doubtless seen that, while some may thrive on it, many opposing players are adversely affected when targeted for abuse. Crowds therefore know that it is counter productive to employ the same tactics on their own players.

As a result, loud criticism by fans of individual players on their own team is rare (which is why the Eboué case received such attention) – in cases of displeasure with an individual player, the crowd might instead target its wrath at the manager (who picks and deploys the players). Alternatively, the fans might sing the praises of a player on the bench whom they consider a superior alternative to the one with whom they are dissatisfied. A recent example in the US, showing what many considered to be both the acceptable and unacceptable sides of crowd dissatisfaction with a player, was when the fans of the Cleveland Browns football team, unhappy with the incumbent quarterback, Derek Anderson, chanted the name of their hoped-for replacement, Brady Quinn (acceptable), but later cheered a season-ending injury to Anderson as he was helped from the field of play (unacceptable). Like Alanis Morissette, I’m not an expert in what constitutes true irony, but the fact that a couple of games later Quinn himself suffered an injury that ruled him, too, out of the rest of the season might qualify.

So how does this all relate specifically to the Eboué situation? He was heavily criticised by the crowd that day - but acceptably, or not? Why did the Arsenal fans boo him? Those posting under the line on the SportBlog gave two main reasons: that he’s a “diver and a cheat”, and that he’s “crap”. The former doesn’t stand up. Fans do not, in my experience, boo their own players when they cheat – indeed, while they may be embarrassed in private, at matches some may even revel in it. It helps, of course, if he’s a good player. Skill, productivity, a good work ethic, even likeability, all contribute to encouraging fan support for an individual – or at the very least to protecting him from abuse. If, however, his performances are perceived to be to the detriment of the side, everything changes. He is no longer guaranteed the support of the crowd, whose main obligation, as I suggested earlier, is to protect the interests of the team. If the player in question happens to be a diver, lazy, and unlikeable (as some bloggers contended is the case with Eboué – I personally have not seen him play enough to comment), then abuse is likely to come his way the quicker.

“50,000 Geordies can’t be wrong” I once heard Kevin Keegan say. We’re all aware, of course, that the herd instinct and self-interest of a crowd mean that 50,000 people can be wrong. Perhaps, as some bloggers suggested, there are too many Johnny-Come-Lately “Tarquins” in the Arsenal crowd, meaning a lessened understanding of the game among those in the stands. Perhaps 20 years of success have resulted in too-high expectations from those watching. Nevertheless, if the crowd were booing him in order to express their belief that he was harming the team, even if they were wrong to do so, they were within their rights. Our advice to Mr. Eboue must, therefore, be to suck it up. To his credit, it appears that may be exactly what he is going to do.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

"The Runyonesque Archetype" (a response to Ringo37's "Talking the Talk") - Beyond the Pale‏

A few words of response and clarification may be in order re. Ringo37's recent post here on the great sportswriting tradition of which the work of Damon Runyon (1880-1946) still stands as both prototype and principal representative.

First, Ringo37 credits Runyon with capturing "the familiar spirit of the Polo Fields and Madison Square Gardens".

To be a bit of a fact-stickler, actually that was not Polo Fields but Polo Grounds--at 157th Street, beneath Coogan's Bluff, in New York City, where assembled the cream of New York's sporting society in the baseball season of 1911, when Damon Runyon, the hottest young spark in the Hearst journalistic empire, freshly imported from Denver (where for the Denver Post he'd reported on the activities of Bat Masterson, ex-sheriff of Dodge City and prominent promoter of sporting and gambling activities in Denver) took up the baseball beat, covering the New York Giants of manager John McGraw for Hearst's American. Not polo but baseball--and business--took place at the Polo Grounds.

And among the kinds of business that took place there--like those which took place beginning in the late Twenties at Tex Rickard's Madison Square Garden, a singular garden in fact largely of gambling, blood and dirty money--were shady-side activities that Runyon knew intimately and wrote of with the authority of an insider.

Ringo37 and commentators on his piece have introduced several parallels among Runyon's contemporaries and successors. The first of these, and the best comparison, is Ring Lardner. Lardner began not at the Saturday Evening Post but as a junior writer at the American (when one of his pieces happened to appear above one of Runyon's, there was hell to pay, and it never happened again). But in their time it was well known that the differences between Runyon and Lardner were greater than the similarities. Both came from America's heartlands and wrote brilliantly in an invented and stylized version of the vernacular, but the likeness ended there.

Runyon was a tough, laconic teetotaler--a reformed drunk in fact--who lived and worked and traveled among the seamier precincts of Broadway. Lardner cultivated a slightly more genteel demeanor, drank heavily, was a Long Island neighbor of F.Scott Fitzgerald, and was socially conversant with a "literary" crowd (Scott and Zelda, Dorothy Parker, Edmund Wilson) who stood off from Runyon as the polite always stand off from those regarded as associates of the truly dangerous: Runyon's own associates included the dapper playboy Mayor Jimmy Walker, picturesque hoods like Abba Dabba Berman and terrifying gangster lords like Al Capone (who would one day be Runyon's neighbor in Florida).

In a fascinating review of what remains a useful book on the subject of what Ringo37 calls "the Runyonesque Archetype"--Tom Clark's The World of Damon Runyon--Lardner's son Ring, Jr. (himself no slouch as a writer, his credits including the M*A*S*H screenplay) underlines the basic opposition of character and temperament between his father and Runyon.

"Half a century ago in the Georgica section of East Hampton, where my father and Grantland Rice had bought land together and built adjoining houses on the ocean, there was a slight taint attached to the name of Damon Runyon...I got the impression in my teens that there was something vaguely shady about Damon Runyon. As Tom Clark points out, the disapproval was all on one side. Runyon couldn't understand why his colleagues would want to spend time a hundred miles from Broadway finding their favorite diversion in a game he disparaged 'because golf doesn't require any courage, except the pants'... He shared none of my father's fondness for Scott Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker...or Granny Rice's for some leading figures of the social and business worlds. And they, moral and fastidious men both, couldn't understand what they regarded as a moral deficiency in him. It wasn't only gangsters and con men and ordinary denizens of the underworld whom Runyon chose as friends and drew on for fictional characters. He had quite a close relationship going with Al Capone, just as his friend Walter Winchell did with Lucky Luciano. And they felt there was something not quite right about a sportswriter getting involved in the actual promotion of athletic events, especially of prizefights with prearranged results."

Over the years Runyon covered the baseball Giants, a frequent guest in the Polo Grounds owners' box of the club was Arnold Rothstein, a New York gambling king. Rothstein would be made legendary by Runyon in short stories where he appears thinly-disguised as an imposing character called "The Brain", and also, somewhat more thickly veiled, would figure as the shadowy-grotesque "Meyer Wolfsheim" in Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Among other questionable activities, he bankrolled the bucket shops and rum-running operations of one of the boxholding club owners Horace Stoneham; backed the Havana racetrack enterprise of Stoneham and manager McGraw; and even invested in a pool hall run by McGraw (Rothstein, as Runyon knew from first-hand observation, hung out there shooting nine-ball at $100 a game). When three policemen were shot in Rothstein's gambling parlor, the Partridge Club, another of the Giants owners, Judge Francis McQuade--as Runyon would report with typical close-mouthed cynicism--obligingly dismissed charges against twenty of twenty-one persons arrested. Rothstein had indeed personally brokered the McQuade-Stoneham-McGraw purchase of the Giants; it was not until a few years after it became apparent not only to Runyon and Fitzgerald but practically everybody else that Rothstein had also masterminded the infamous "fixing" of the 1919 World Series, that he was finally discouraged from appearing any more in the owners' box.

The difference between the Runyon "insider" strain of Golden Era sportswriting and the less-involved, more distanced Lardner "literary" strain is worth going into because it brings out an underlying class difference--which in turn sheds some interesting light on the latter-day parallels offered by Ringo37 and his Pseuds commentators.

For my money the only parallel cited by Ringo37 and his commentators that bears much weight is that brought up by Guitou: i.e. Jim Murray, the late, legendary Los Angeles Times sports columnist who consciously and openly patterned his writing approach after Runyon's, and to a great degree managed to live up to that high standard in his work over many decades.

As to others cited: Ringo37 mentions Hornby, Plimpton and Mailer. But Hornby's work is a bit too clever, selfconscious and distanced to really bear much relation to the tradition under discussion, and the more literary he gets the further away he moves from the prize ring/poolhall ambiance that is Runyon's home ground; "cute" is certainly one term not applicable to anything Runyon ever wrote. Plimpton and Mailer, even more, were "literary" writers whose other-side-of-the-tracks assignments on sporting beats always felt very much to this writer like high-class slumming. (Plimpton, for whom I once worked, was a prince of a fellow in many ways, but a tough guy he definitely was not; in fact he didn't have to be; it's a little-known fact, speaking of class as we were, that among the possessions of G.P.'s New England WASP family was the original manuscript of one of The Canterbury Tales.)

MouthoftheMersey introduces The New Yorker's Roger Angell and Anthony Lane into the discussion. The New Yorker and everything it represents, in terms of U.S. sociology, are diametric opposites of "the Runyonesque". Angell is a nice, polite, sensitive baseball writer who would have been entirely out of his depth on any Runyon assignment--say, interviewing Jack Dempsey about his days "riding the rails", or covering the murder trial of Ruth Snyder, who eliminated her spouse with one hefty swing of a sash weight. MacMillings hits the target here when he deftly dismisses Angell from the discussion as a "chin-stroking" type. And as for Anthony Lane, the movie critic, with this suggestion we have moved all the way across the board from the fight-ring to the fey (and I don't mean Tina).

One final note: Ringo37 laments that "England doesn't really have a sportswriting tradition". Is he being a strict purist and eliminating writers of Irish origin from consideration, or can it be he's really never heard of the wonderful historian of the London prize ring of several centuries ago, the immortal Pierce Egan? To put it as Egan's great fan Damon Runyon might once have, Pierce Egan's furbishment of fistic fact has never been surpassed. And that, fellow Pseuds, is saying something.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Histon v Leeds, 30 November 1973 - mountainstriker

Histon’s recent victory over Leeds was a classic FA Cup tie featuring ITV coverage that equalled its glory days of the World of Sport and The Big Match. Leaving the Guild Hall in Hartlepool where Big Daddy - roared on by a crowed of homicidal grannies high on a lethal cocktail of gin and mint imperials - had finally triumphed over Jim Breaks, Steve Rider, his bouffant greying visibly on camera, welcomed us to the Glassworld Stadium - home of Histon Town.

Battered throughout by a North Sea gale that seemed to pick up mud as it hammered across the Fens, the pitch had been reduced to a quagmire on which carefully weighted passes became becalmed like dumplings in my old Mum’s stew. Not that you could tell mind. Every time the lens panned towards the Histon goal, it was met by a volley of rain that obliterated everything as completely as Kevin Keegan on a bike. Shots between cameras were accompanied by the off screen squeak of hanky on lens and, as the half wore on, a halo of steam leant the action the kind of soft focus usually only afforded to Joan Collins.

It got better. As another clearance was shanked onto the A14, Peter Drury, who now surely deserves to be mentioned in the same breadth as Gerald Sinstadt, was heard to chuckle ‘That’s your ball Jim!’ before seconds later Leeds fans grabbed a pitchside microphone and treated the nation to a heartfelt rendition of ‘ITV…is fucking shit…’

As the combination of mud, rain, pies and Thermos steam rendered the players and crowed increasingly indistinguishable, the sense of time warp grew stronger – scarves became longer and more stripy, shorts got shorter, coloured boots became a uniform shade of brown and hair got longer. Then, just as you thought it couldn’t get any weirder, Histon’s Mathew Langston, sideburns flaring to Dave Watson proportions, rose like a miner from the pit to put the part timers in front with a header so firm that the smack of wet leather on head could be heard as far away as 1973.

It was all too much for the west Cambridge electricity grid, which (and I swear this is true) suffered a power cut that sent us scrambling for long forgotten transistor radios. Tuning our dials carefully, we were shocked to hear the sounds of Sport on 2 where Peter Jones was noting that Langston was a postman who was only able to play that day because he was on strike. Mercifully, a 120% pay increase was immediately forthcoming and power was quickly restored thus allowing us to see a Peter Lorimer hot shot unwittingly deflected over the bar by Histon sub Antonio Murray. For all the world, Murray appeared to have merely wandered across the goalmouth en route to his local corner shop for a can of Younger’s Tartan Ale and a packet of Spangles. ‘Oooowww! Leeds are NEVER gonna score!’ howled Sinstadt. ‘Not until at least 1992’ I thought.

At the final whistle, Histon fans invaded the pitch as the sound of Queen’s We are the Champions echoed around the ground. Marvelling at a truly great day for the FA Cup, I turned off my telly and sat in silence as the white dot faded gently from the screen. It was Sunday, so I picked up the paper and returned to the grim tidings of recession, war in the Middle East and the threat of international terrorism. Ah, I see that Slade are releasing a song entitled Merry Christmas Everybody…

The fighter still remains - Ringo37

In the week I was born, and in the city where I was born, Paul Sykes fought the Connecticut heavyweight Dave ‘Doc’ Wilson at the Theatre Club, and beat him up so badly Wilson was hospitalised for a month. A year later, in the summer of 1979, he challenged Hackney’s John Louis Gardner for the British Empire Heavyweight Championship, and lost; nine months after that, in Lagos, Nigeria, he was knocked out in the first round of his last professional fight.

Sykes died last month, at the age of sixty.

I remember him only at his worst – as a big man sat on a bus-station bench with a can of Special Brew in his fist, all bristle and bile, all mad-eyed belligerence and garbled snarl; to my dad, around town in the late 70s, Sykes was a face, and a face to be avoided if he’d had a few.

A tribute was paid to the ex-champ (BBB of C, Central Area) by the Baptist Church he attended during his period of homelessness. “There will be many things said about Paul in the next few days,” read a note posted on the church’s website, “but infinitely more important will be God's words to him. May they be full of mercy and grace.”

Mercy and grace; precious little of either in a boxer’s life.

Emollient churchisms aside, Sykes’s death passed pretty much unremarked by the world at large; his obituary runs to six digits – W6, L3, D1 – and beyond that no-one, save for those who knew and loved him, seems to have had much to say.

But a boxer leaves marks.

There’s a temptation, in looking over the old fight cards, to play at Six Degrees of Separation – something along the lines of, I danced with a boy who danced with a girl who danced with the Prince of Wales. Well, Paul Sykes fought with a man who fought with a man who fought with Muhammad Ali.

“I hated Ali,” Joe Frazier told Thomas Hauser in 1997. “Twenty years, I’ve been fighting Ali, and I still want to to take him apart piece by piece and send him back to Jesus.”

Frazier’s bitterness towards Ali is breathtaking. Is this how boxers remember boxers?

“Look at him now; he’s damaged goods.”

No peace, yet, for Frazier; no mercy, and no grace. Ali left marks on Smokin’ Joe.

“He’s finished,” Frazier insisted to Hauser. “He’s finished, and I’m still here.

The last man to knock Paul Sykes down in the ring was the Nigerian Ngozika Ekwelum. Ekwelum, like Ali, seems to have found peace beyond boxing – but, where Ali turned to Islam, Ekwelum found his calling in self-help. On his website, the Heavyweight Champion of Africa turned cornerman for the soul doled out wisdom that ranged from the arbitrarily severe (“You must be awake by 5.00 a.m.”) through the baffling (“In order to succeed in boxing, you must have the right metalatitude”) to the soporifically banal (“Winners are positive thinkers who see good in all things”).

But it’s peace, still, of a sort, and not to be sniffed at.

“Paul loved listening to the music [at church services],” reports the website of Wakefield Baptist Church. Even that is something; many a fighter, forgotten or not, finishes up with less.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Rule Changes in Sport. Carpe Diem - PhilWest

[Editor's note: this was a lot more timely, but I'm rubbish at uploading things at the moment. Don't blame Mr West though]

In this modern era where time is of the essence, some sporting contests just go on for too long. There’s a long unnecessary build-up of tension.

Must we really be forced to watch a tennis match for three hours, an F1 Grand-prix for close to two hours, and darts for three and a half pints?

No. Let’s cut to the chase.

To enable true fans to be able to enjoy their sport and yet also allow them time to email all their friends/work colleagues/partners; update their Facebook page; and drink themselves senseless; I propose the following:

The game starts at 90 – 90 with all players on four fouls. Games to last two minutes. All fouls to the free-throw line. No time-outs.

Best of one. 159-down.

Only play Twenty-20. Assume England have made 113-9. Give the opposition the Duckworth – Lewis target for five overs.

All races to be three laps. Drivers placed on grid in reverse order.

All field events to be reduced to just one round. Track events over 1500m to be abolished.

First punch to the chin wins.

(I thought I’d leave boxing as it is)

Tour de France:
To be decided by the total time over two stages: The first being the top 2km of the “Col de la Forclaz”, and the second being from Place de la Concorde to the Arc de Triomphe.

Put Tiger on the tee of any hole anywhere. Tell him he needs a birdie to win. If he fails, share the prize-money between everyone else.

Must dash!

Talking the talk - Ringo37

During the summer of 1913 the Chicago Record-Herald, somewhat alarmed by the extravagant fancy of its baseball reporters, asked its readers if they would prefer a return to plain English. Such of them as were literate enough to send in their votes were almost unanimously against a change. As one of them said, “one is nearer the park when Schulte slams the pill than when he merely hits the ball”.
- HL Mencken, The American Language (1921)

England doesn’t really have a sportswriting tradition. Of course, that’s not to say that it doesn’t have a truly great tradition of writers writing about sport – but there really isn’t such a thing as an English sportswriter. Neville Cardus wrote on opera as well as cricket; Nick Hornby publishes marvellous books that aren’t about football as well as marvellous ones that are; Hugh McIlvanney would have been a great writer even if he’d never set foot in Rugby Park or the 20th May Stadium.

What, then, differentiates the sportswriter from the writer who writes on sport? Well, looking like this helps, but it isn’t strictly necessary. A sportswriter, for me, has to live and breathe the smoke, sweat and slang of his place of work – and, for me, that place of work is always the locker-room, the racetrack, the ballpark, or the boxing-ring, because, for me, the sportswriter is almost always an American.

Take Damon Runyon, for years the familiar spirit of the Polo Fields and Madison Square Gardens. Or Ring Lardner, whose baseball yarns for the Saturday Evening Post seem to reek of the bleachers and the bullpen even if you don’t know a swing from a bunt from a hole in the ground. Or the great Red Smith, whose approach to sportswriting was to “get to where the cabbage is cooking and smell the scents”.

The words are the thing: the words make the game, and in return the game makes the words.

Even when the sportswriter comes with a college degree or a Pulitzer prize attached, the focus seems still to be on the words that bubble up from the soul of the sport: see the relish with which George Plimpton recited the “splendid variety” of nicknames adopted by golf caddies (“Cut Shot, Violence, Texas Sam, the Wolfman, the Rabbit…”), or Norman Mailer’s willingness to play the role of amenuensis to Ali’s illiterate-but-gobby cornerman Bundini Brown in The Fight.

English writing on sport has traditionally adopted one of two distinct approaches. If it’s front-line, phoned-in-at-the-whistle reportage, you can expect a stultifying bodge-job of cliché and banality. If, on the other hand, it’s highbrow copy for the quality press, you’ll have to wait – till the next Sunday supplement or issue of Sports Illustrated, maybe, or till the William Hill shortlist shows you the way; it’s writing designed for leisurely digestion over the breakfast egg or chin-stroking rumination amid tactics chalkboards and old Subbuteo sets. Where are the English sportswriters who can spit out stories as punchy and pungent as tobacco-juice? – the guys (and dolls) who, in AJ Liebling’s phrase, can write better than anyone who can write faster, and faster than anyone who can write better?

Well, maybe they’re right here – online. Minute-by-minute reportage by the likes of Cricinfo, the BBC and, oh okay then, the Guardian has brought an immediacy to the written sports report that outstrips the rattling typewriters of even the most deadline-crazed old-school pressroom. And it’s here that we find hoicks and nurdles, flays and funks, slugfests and gamefaces – here, just like on the pitch or in the ring, spontaneity takes precedence over pontificating, and the language is as lively as the onfield action.

Half the time, I don’t give a damn whether a sportswriter knows his stuff or not; half the time, all that matters is that he talks the talk. The poet Carl Sandburg said that slang was “a language that rolls up its sleeves, spits on its hands and goes to work”. True enough – but it’s also a language that more than earns its corn when it just pulls on a fedora, lights up a cigar and goes out to play.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Seven rule changes - MacMillings

Like a love affair, the rules of sport must be inflexible, subject to video replay, and should favour one side over the other. The following changes are the only ones necessary.

Formula 1 – How can I take you seriously if all you do, essentially, is drive around in circles for an hour and a half? That’s not a measure of driving skills. Traffic lights, roundabouts and pedestrians to be added to all F-1 circuits.

Tennis – if a player’s first serve is a fault, the second serve should be taken left-handed. This will, quite rightly, favour left-handers.

Boxing – With UFC on the rise, it’s time for boxing to get back to basics. All fighters should be naked and oiled-up, as the Ancient Greeks intended. You’re a homoerotic sport, Boxing. Act like one.

Basketball – Introduce handicap system based on player height.
Under 6’: Step ladder
6’ to 6’6”: Shoes with springs
6’ 7” to 7’: May only hop
Over 7’: Not allowed to use hands.

Football – Everton to present the 1984 F.A. Cup to the rightful winners, Watford, who only lost because big cheater Andy Gray headed the ball out of Steve Sherwood’s hands and into the net. It’s not really a rule change. I’m just saying.

Cricket – Bowlers have to use different types of ball, according to their ability.
Warne: Beach ball
Boycott’s Mum: Orange
Harmison: (Home) Balloon; (Away) GPS

Golf – Players to run between shots and hit a moving ball, while having their picture taken and being verbally abused. You know, like in a real sport.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The road to Vancouver - Allout

Quirky Scottish sports have a mixed record in gaining popularity abroad. A bizarre game featuring the hitting of a little white ball with odd-shaped clubs is now played all over the developed world. On the other hand tossing the caber, like deep fried Mars bars and black pudding suppers, remains a Scottish eccentricity. In the middle of these two extremes lies curling, a game involving the throwing of three stone lumps of granite on a sheet of ice towards a target 40 metres away..

Three weekends ago David Murdoch’s team (it is customary in curling to use the skip’s name to refer to a team) from Lockerbie won the right to represent Scotland at the European Championships next month in Örnsköldsvik beating Warwick Smith’s Perth team in the key match. Örnsköldsvik is in northern Sweden, just under the Arctic Circle and in December there are only a couple of hours of light each day. In sporting terms though Scotland are hardly entering the twilight zone and they start as favourites, with Murdoch having skipped (the skip picks the tactics and, usually, plays the final and most important stones) Scotland to two victories in the European Championships in the last five years. In the same time frame the team have won the World Championships once and finished runners-up twice. In addition, Murdoch and his third (vice captain) Ewan Macdonald, are both now in their early thirties and should therefore be at their peak over the next couple of years – a male curler’s peak being somewhat different from a female gymnast’s!

Sweden and Switzerland, the two other traditional forces in European curling will, of course, fancy their chances of victory as well. Sweden will be particularly motivated playing on home ice, although their line-up looks weaker than in previous years following the retirement of three-time World Champion Peja Lindholm.

However, as much as winning the trophy itself, all teams will have an eye on general form as Vancouver in February 2010 gets ever closer. To a minority sport the Olympics is the Holy Grail. For curling in Britain, the fact that it is in the Winter Olympics (rather than the summer version) is even better. Team GB (did I really just use that phrase!) may have won 19 golds in Beijing but even the lottery millions will struggle to produce a “Cool Runnings” style bobsleigh team. In short, curling is one of Britain’s only medal chances and when gold is on the line people watch; as proven by the 5.7 million Britons who watched Rhona Martin, a Renfrewshire housewife, play a perfectly judged tap-back to defeat Switzerland in the Salt Lake City final.

The 2010 Olympics being held in Canada provides further motivation. Canada is not only home to lumberjack competitions and massive ice hockey hits; but also over one million curlers and is, by a massive distance, the curling world’s dominant country. The interest means that the arena in Vancouver will be regularly packed; a far cry from the empty seats in Turin (2006). Thus, playing in an Olympics in Canada is every curler’s dream.

Murdoch’s team in particular will have a point to prove in Vancouver. In Turin they were the dominant team in the round robin stages. Their crushing win against a strong Swedish side was particularly convincing with Ewan Macdonald playing every stone perfectly (each stone is critically measured by watching experts and entered on a database). This was unheard of in Olympic history and an 80% success rate is generally considered a reasonable performance.. Looking back though, the team peaked at the wrong time and lost momentum in a dead rubber having already qualified for the final four. They went on to lose both the semi final and the bronze match, finishing a disappointing fourth.

Since 2006, the performances of Murdoch’s team have confirmed their status as one of the world’s very best. They may very well come back from Örnsköldsvik with gold but, should this happen, they will no doubt keep the champagne on ice [cue drummer]. The newly ambitious British Olympic regime has targeted two golds (womens and mens) for curling in 2010 and everything from now on is geared towards that end.

On the Clapham omnibus - Allout

Charlie, the thirty something man on the Clapham omnibus, carefully picks the one graffiti free seat and stretches back following a hard day at work. Out of the corner of his eye he sees a large sports bag and, eschewing the obvious explanation that it is being used to transport the takings of a local break-in, he thinks how unusual it is to see a Briton participating in sport, rather than drinking copious amounts of lager whilst watching others sweat. Showing lateral thinking he didn’t think possible, his mind turns to the personnel of the England Test cricket team.

And who could be more “cricket” than the well-spoken, public school educated opening batsman Andrew Strauss. Unfortunately, Strauss’s career is beginning to resemble Charlie’s year so far: it started with fireworks but got pretty bad, pretty quickly. In fact, the only serious runs Strauss has scored for the last two years were against New Zealand (or New Zealand 2nds as some Mouthy bloke on a pinko-liberal sports blog aptly calls them).

No, Strauss has clearly been found out thinks Charlie as his mind moves to a more enigmatic batsman. Oscar, Charlie’s former work colleague and born optimist, has told Charlie for months that Ian Bell is the most technically adept batsman in the side with a highly respectable Test record. Charlie is more streetwise though. Bell will always be soft and prone to being bullied by the likes of Shane Warne; his debut Ashes series proved that. With his character he will never score runs when it really matters. Charlie grins as he thinks back to flushing younger kids’ heads down the toilet as a schoolboy.

There is one England batsman who will never be intimated though. Charlie hadn’t known what to make of KP when he first broke into the Test side – he hadn’t liked the sound of someone choosing England because of a quota system in their country of his birth. Pietersen had won him over with his batting form though. And nobody can claim that KP only thinks of money any more. After all, he decided not to pump his team up for the possibility of winning $1 million a man for a couple of hours work, preferring instead to save them for the proper challenges ahead.

And what about Andrew Flintoff? Great man chuckles Charlie to himself thinking about both his outstanding performances in the Ashes 2005 and his hungover demeanour at the post-series celebration. Just a pity he has been at more breakdowns than the AA over the last three years. Or maybe the other AA would be more appropriate thinks Charlie mischievously as he considers the infamous Fredalo incident.

Then there’s Steve Harmison. How many chances does he get? In real life you only get one chance. Oscar learned this the hard way when he got into a booze-fuelled fight with the boss at the office Christmas party. Unsurprisingly, a P45 was on Oscar’s desk the following Monday. What chance was Harmy on? Sixth maybe, or seventh? Charlie had lost count. Yet still some people view him as the saviour of English cricket.

Charlie has always had a soft spot for spinners, and he smiles as he remembers Monty Panesar in 2006: unable to bat and field, and with limited bowling variety and cricketing nous, but with a beautiful high action and dangerous on turning pitches. Yes, he had a lot of rough edges but he was young and would improve with coaching and experience. Charlie’s smile turns quickly to a grimace when he realises that the Monty of November 2008 is exactly the same but two and a half years older.

Not much of a team, but at least the Aussies are suddenly struggling. Plus, reflects Charlie, Beefy thinks we will win the Ashes and he took more than 350 Test wickets and scored over 5,000 Test runs, so he should know.. Right? Unable to answer that question definitively Charlie’s mind turns to more pressing matters, like whether the long-legged girl from accounts will make it to post-work drinks at the Rat & Parrot on Friday.

England's dilemma by Mouth of the Mersey

Should England's cricketers board a flight to India and play two the Test matches scheduled for December? They are now with their families and friends in England and it's a fair bet that few wives and parents will be urging them to return, but you can't always get what you want.

England's security adviser is assessing the position now and his report will be keenly awaited by players and administrators. I hope he will be free of any influences seeking a pragmatic and hence negative report, which would be convenient for his employers and the players with whom he must work in the future.

If he assesses the security risk as acceptable, what should the England players do? I suggest that they consider the the following issues.

When London Transport came under attack in July 2005, Londoners, including tube and bus drivers, did not refuse to go to work, indeed made a point of carrying on business as usual. Cricket, a sport that has always been played in dangerous places, needs its leading lights to show that same fortitude - there is no future for the game and, by extension, for the players (or rather the players that will follow them) if matches are only played in "safe" locations.

The handsome central contracts agreed by many of the England party were concluded in full knowledge of an itinerary which included visits to places recently hit by terrorist attacks - since India's cities have been targets of some time. Does the Mumbai outrage make a terrorist attack any more likely in Chennai come mid-December? Those central contracts also allow the families back home to buy their way out of other risks, a point made by KP, the England captain in his famous remark about who was going to pay for his kids' school fees.

Finally, the cricketers might consider that risk is a part of life. More people will be killed on Britain's roads in the days the team are scheduled to be in India than were killed in the Mumbai outrage, but that doesn't stop them driving their cars. They may also reflect on the fact that many of the people paying for their central contracts through Sky subscriptions will work in dangerous places, from building sites to rescue services through to armed forces in theatres such as Afghanistan.

I don't deny that this is a difficult few days for KP and his men, but I hope that they will see that the goodwill they will engender from cricket fans everywhere, and especially among the teeming millions on the sub-continent, makes fulfilling their fixtures worth it. I also hope that the captain and senior players will see the bigger picture I have outlined above and show the greatest quality required for success on the sporting field on anywhere else - leadership.

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