Thursday, 29 April 2010

The Special One Indeed

Just a quick one. A few hours ago José Mourinho notched up another impressive Champions League victory as his Inter Milan side knocked out the best team in the world currently, Barcelona. The self-proclaimed 'Special One' produced another tactical master-class that would have even his most ardent Italian critics struggling not to praise him.

Inter Milan's football in this year's European competition has been far from the classy or vintage displays that you would come to expect from the Italian giants but their resolute defence has booked them a place in the final at the Bernabeu where they will meet Bayern Munich on 22nd May. 98,000 fans filled the Nou Camp to watch Mourinho's men defuse Barca's potent attacking force. They did what few other have been able to in the past two years as they managed to prevent the likes of Messi and Xavi from dictating the play. Instead, despite playing with 10 men for over an hour, Inter Milan looked comfortable as they sat back and absorbed anything and everything that the Catalan club had to offer.

Italian football has been less than welcoming to Mourinho and his outspoken approach to management which has led to the Portuguese coach to become somewhat disillusioned with life in Serie A. On the European stage, however, the Special One has displayed the sort of tactical nous that has put him at the top of every club's managerial wish-list over the past few years. Having fought their way through the group stage in a less than convincing manner Inter Milan have gone on to produce a couple of great two-legged performances against Chelsea and Barcelona and they are now comfortable favourites to lift the trophy at 8/15.

A couple of months ago it seemed likely that Mourinho would be leaving the San Siro at the end of the season but his European success will have endeared him to the home fans and surely he would now be likely to stay a little longer. Having said that, it would probably not surprise me if Mourinho won the Serie A and Champions League titles and still walked out, but I doubt it nevertheless. I would, though, love to see him return to the Premiership in the near future. Not only is he an entertaining character but he has reaffirmed his position as one of, if not the, best managers in the world with his club's European performances.

Rarely will a manager be given as much attention or credit for a team reaching the Champions League final as Mourinho will be this year but that is the nature of the man. Controversy, praise, criticism but most importantly success follows the 47-year-old to whichever club he is managing. Here are a couple of interesting statistics about Mourinho. Since 2002 he has won 15 league or cup trophies and he is currently on a run of 135 competitive home matches unbeaten which reaches back to his reign as Porto manager!

Love him or hate him, his managerial talent is unquestionable. He has won league titles in three different countries in the last six years and brought Porto the most unlikely of Champions League trophies. His tactical adaptability between different leagues in different countries or against varying opposition has delivered consistent accolades... he is like a Portuguese Iain Dowie without the charm or good looks!

Thoughts, comment and opinions please...

Monday, 26 April 2010

Giving the Conference a Chance

Another season of Conference football has come to an end and now Max Smithson reflects on a drama-packed finale to the Blue Square Premier League and gives us his opinion on why it is a league worth getting involved with:

I know not a lot of people care but after the weekend’s events I feel people need to be informed of a much under-appreciated level of football. Before this season I had only watched one Blue Square Premier game (or more commonly known as the Conference) but this season I have really come to appreciate football at this level and feel it is given nowhere near the credit it deserves. Being a big football fan and being at university in Newcastle I felt the need to adopt a local team up here to follow as well as my beloved Leeds United. I tried to support Newcastle but having had many good battles with the Geordies in the past as a Leeds fan, I could not get excited about them. Then, after a successful game on Football Manager, and their real-life promotion to the Blue Square Premier, I decided to go watch Gateshead F.C. when I wasn’t watching Leeds.

Gateshead survived relegation by the skin of their teeth on the final day of the Conference season at the weekend which could lay the foundations for their return to The Football League after a 50 year absence. However, the dramatic fashion in which they did so shows the competitiveness and talent on offer in the league. After an unlucky 1-0 loss to champions Stevenage in mid-week, Gateshead needed to beat a top 8 A.F.C Wimbledon side and hope that one of Eastbourne Borough (at home to runner’s up Oxford United), Forest Green Rovers (away at rock bottom Grays Athletic)or Histon (at home to in-form Barrow) lost. Ebbsfleet could also have stayed up if they beat Tamworth, Gateshead failed to win and Eastbourne lost. So on the final day, with Chester expelled from the League in February, and Julian Dicks’ Grays relegated some weeks ago, any of 5 others could have filled the remaining two relegation spots.

Gateshead got off to the best possible start with a bundled effort from Daryl Clare opening the scoring at the International Stadium after 3 minutes, and at half time, their fate was still in the balance with everywhere goalless except at the Lamb Ground where Tamworth and Ebbsfleet were level at 2-2 and Histon were leading Barrow by a goal to nil. The second half across the country proved to be a real rollercoaster for fans of all the teams. Barrow quickly turned round their game against Histon to lead 2-1, Tamworth went 3-2 up to seemingly doom Ebbsfleet and Forest Green grabbed an inevitable lead against a poor Grays side. This meant Ebbsfleet and Histon would be going down if things stayed the same. With ten minutes left Grays equalised and Ebbsfleet defied the odds to turn the tables in a thriller against Tamworth to lead 4-3. If Gateshead conceded now, Ebbsfleet would pull off a miracle survival. Then, yet more drama. Eastbourne scored an unlikely 84th minute winner against one-time runaway league leaders Oxford. This meant Histon were down unless Wimbledon or Grays scored. That goal also ensured relegation for a brave Ebbsfleet side who had battled to the death. Then with less than 5 minutes remaining, Grays scored a dramatic winner and managed to pull off an unforeseen victory against Forest Green. Gateshead managed to hold on and Histon scored an injury time equaliser to share the spoils at Bridge Road to guarantee Conference football for another season. This meant Forest Green went down and Gateshead stayed up due to having a goal difference of -23 compared to the Rovers -26. Great drama in a great league.

This will do wonders for Gatehead’s future. With the move to becoming a full-time club in the summer, better players will be attracted to a club steeped in history and with a new ground being built in the next few seasons, the future is pointing upwards for the Heeds Army.

After my experience of the Blue Square Premier, I would urge readers to take a greater interest in lower league football. The perception that the conference is full of part-timers is an old fashioned attitude. Only 6 of the 24 teams in the league this year were part-time, showing the level of professionalism within the division. As well as the many players poached from non-league football to have successfully graced the Football League, promoted teams have achieved unprecedented success since promotion. Since 2003, of the 14 teams that have been promoted from the Conference, only Chester City have found themselves back in non-league football and that can be accredited to severe financial problems which eventually led to them being wound up in February of this year. Yeovil, Exeter and Carlisle are now holding their own in League One and Doncaster Rovers are a respected Championship outfit. If readers find the big clubs around them too expensive or inaccessible, why not try a team in the Conference or perhaps further down the pyramid? It will be much friendlier and significantly cheaper than watching most other teams.

For me personally, I have watched a huge amount of live football in my time, estimated at around 500 games. Having seen some great games, players and goals, one of the best goals I have ever seen live came from the left boot of Gateshead winger Peter Winn. A scorching, dipping volley from 25 yards across the keeper into the far top corner sent the 485 fans into sheer amazement after the quality of the strike. Go to 3 minutes 50 on the video link below and you will see what I mean.

If you saw Steven Gerrard do this at Anfield you wouldn’t be too surprised but if you saw Johnny Conference Player do this at your local ground you would never forget it.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Froch, Football and the Toon

I have put the dissertation temporarily aside to write a quick post on a couple of sporting stories.

Tonight Nottingham's Carl Froch takes on the Dane Mikkel Kessler in his second Super Six World Boxing Classic fight. Needless to say they will have been few people aware that this fight was going ahead as it is yet another event that has been tragically under publicised in this country. The WBC super-middleweight title is on the line and the fight promises to be an exciting clash between two superb boxers.

Carl Froch boasts a perfect record as he has won all of his 26 professional fights. The Super Six tournament is an excellent new initiative that sees the top six middleweights fight each other in a round robin format. Despite all this promise, the fight is going to be aired on Primetime (that's sky channel 480 in case you didn't know!). Unlike Haye or Kahn, the quieter character Froch remains undefeated and has taken part in some exciting bouts against quality opposition and yet has been widely ignored by the British media.

His opponent Kessler has won 42 of his 44 fights and will give Froch one of, if not the, toughest tests of his boxing career. Joe Calzaghe fought Kessler back in 2007 and he inflicted his first lost but it was certainly the hardest of Calzaghe's fights. An all British showdown between Froch and Calzaghe has been on the cards but the Welshman seems content in retirement and after his drug use revelations recently I doubt he will be emerging into the public eye any time soon.

Even if Froch, 32, claims his 27th victory you will have to flick through the back pages to find any coverage of it. This is a world championship title fight between two excellent boxers and should make for an entertaining contest. Lets just hope that he starts to get the coverage he deserves, sooner rather than later!

In football there is another weekend of decisive matches as teams at the top and bottom of the league tables jostle for promotion and relegation. Hull and Burnley could have the fate of Championship football next year secured. Meanwhile, at the top of the Premiership there are intriguing matches between Manchester United and Tottenham and Arsenal and Manchester City which will have a decisive impact on who claims the 1st and 4th spots. The news has just come that Rooney will not take part at all for United today so Berbatov will lead the line and they will have to hope that he can perform at his best against his former club.

It is also worth mentioning that Newcastle United, who play Roy Keane's Ipswich side, will be presented with the Championship trophy in front of a capacity crowd at St. James' Park today having run away with the league title. This is such a contrast to the state of the club a year ago and now, with a quality core squad, they will surely be hopeful of surviving the drop next year. Chris Hughton has quietly gone about his business and now it seems he will get his much deserved chance to manage in the Premiership. As a Newcastle resident for the last three years I am personally very happy to see the team bounce back so well. The players, the fans and the club are too big to be anywhere other than the top flight. Toon Army!

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Monday, 19 April 2010

What a Difference a Day Can Make

The dust has settled on another drama-filled weekend in the Barclays Premiership. The saying goes, 'what a difference a day can make' and over 24 hours the race for the title, as well as the fight for fourth place, once again underwent another twist. From Paul Scholes' 93rd minute header past Shay Given to Charles N'Zogbia's last minute screamer to beat Arsenal yesterday afternoon the top end of the table adopted a very different look. So important were the weekend's results I felt as though it needed to be mentioned.

In my poll last week it was clear, as would be expected, that Chelsea were favourites to take the title. More surprisingly, there were more people who thought that Arsenal had a better chance than Manchester United at taking the crown. Now, with Arsenal falling out of the race at the hands of Wigan and Manchester United brining Chelsea to within one point, the odds are looking very different.

For the second time in the league this season the red side of Manchester celebrated a winning goal in the dying moments of the game to re-establish their dominance over their Sky Blue city rivals. The game passed with few exciting instances and most would accept that the teams deserved to share the points but Alex Ferguson's side showed the resolve that has characterised his teams down the years and managed to bag all three points.

This win put the pressure back on Chelsea as they travelled to White Hart Lane hours later. The game always promised to be challenging and Tottenham did not disappoint. Spurs outplayed Chelsea for much of the game and through a Defoe penalty and a great solo effort from Gareth Bale sealed the win by half-time. Chelsea' frustration manifested itself in a rash tackle by skipper Terry that saw him get a red card as his poor run of form continued. In comparison, Michael Dawson has surely booked his place on Fabio Capello's plane to South Africa. He has been consistently impressive in his performances and they have made him currently, on form, England's best centre-back.

By the time Arsenal kicked-off against Wigan they knew that the title race had been blown back open and, until the 80th minute, they seemed to have earned a win through a professional, if not inspiring, performance. I have been questioning over the last couple of months their ability to avoid slip-ups in the business end of the season. In the last ten minutes of yesterday's game, like against Birmingham, they did just that. Whether it was through complacency or bad luck is irrelevant as Arsene Wenger's team are now six points adrift with three games remaining. With big players missing the Gunner's showed their vulnerability as a team and let a 2-0 lead slip in ten minutes. That will never win you titles. Can you see Manchester United or Chelsea doing that?

These results also had a big impact on the fight for the final Champions League spot as Tottenham overtook Manchester City. This means that the fourth position may very well be determined by Tottenham's trip to Eastlands on 5th May although Tottenham and City both face tough test away to Manchester United and Arsenal respectively this weekend. Meanwhile, the fact that Liverpool play tonight and yet are outside the Europa League spots, let alone the Champions League places reiterates what a state of turmoil the football club finds themselves in. Their dire situation is exacerbated by the news that Torres will miss the rest of the season as he undergoes knee surgery.

This past weekend was just another eventful chapter of twists and turns in this year's Premiership campaign. Predicting results is verging on impossible now and that makes for great entertainment with so much to play for over the final three weeks.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Friday, 16 April 2010

NBA: Where Amazing Happens

The regular seasons has drawn to an end and the wheat has been separated from the chaff. This weekend the cream will rise to the surface as the first games of the NBA playoff first round match-ups take place. As the season enters its enthralling climax it serves as a reminder of just how poor the coverage of the NBA is here in Britain. Considering the attention the NFL receives now it is a travesty that the most entertaining of all the American sports is so widely neglected. With all this considered I just figured I would write a quick and brief piece on what makes the NBA such a great spectacle and why the playoffs promises to deliver such drama.

Fortunately, despite how difficult it is to watch any basketball over here due to the time difference and non-existent coverage, the sport's website is a superb means of following all the action. It not only allows you to keep up fixtures and results but it also has highlights from every game in the NBA and so much more. The tag-line of the website is 'NBA, where amazing happens' and this sums up the sport just about perfectly.

The NBA undoubtedly has the most athletic sportsmen on the planet. People complain that the NFL has too many rules and too many stoppages, that the MLB is too long and too dull. The NBA is immune to such criticism. The sport is faced-paced, end-to-end and action packed and rarely delivers a boring period of play. Watching some of physical feats of the NBA stars can be quite simply breathtaking. The strength, speed, agility and skill of the players means that unthinkable aerial acrobatics are commonplace - click here for a taster!

Another great strength of the sport is its competitiveness. Complete blow-outs are rare and despite each of the two teams scoring up to and over 100 points in a game over 48 minutes it is amazing how many of the games will be decided with the final possession. Those emphatic slam dunks, monstrous blocks and last second game winning buzzer beaters means that the NBA, more often than not, delivers a great spectacle.

The playoffs sees the biggest players face-off on the biggest stage. The likes of Dwayne Wade, Dwight Howard, Carmello Anthony, Kobe Bryant and Lebron 'The King' James will all be hoping to lead their teams through four different best-of-seven-game series. The best of seven game format in the playoffs may seem drawn out but as games are played every other night each round only takes two weeks to complete. It speaks volumes about the demand for basketball when the Championship winning side will have played over 100 games in the season and usually each of these games takes place in front of sell-out crowds. Compare this to the 19 games the Superbowl winners will play.

Looking forward to some of the more interesting match-ups of the first round of this year's playoffs there are some contests that promise to go down to the wire. The series' between the San Antonio Spurs and the Dallas Mavericks and the Boston Celtics and the Miami Heat are particularly appealing. Such is the quality of the players and teams left as we enter the post-season that all the series will be fixating.

I urge anyone who does not watch the sport to try and get a taste of it. The NBA is so unique in it's explosiveness and constant action and drama that it warrants the effort that it takes to keep up with it. When the teams are tied in the seventh and final game of the series with only a minute left on the clock it becomes glaringly clear why the NBA can deliver moments that are unlike any other sport.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Blue Moon Rising?

I am hoping to do a few of these different posts as the season comes to an end with other people writing a review of the season for the club they follow. For the first instalment Andrew Belfield is going to give us an insight into his views on the 09/10 season as a Manchester City fan:

Am I dreaming, could it possibly be one of the best sporting weeks for a City fan in living memory! On reflection of the past 8 days of football, it seems like the results are going City’s way. Firstly our 6 – 1 demolition of Burnley and then Yesterday another high scoring win against Birmingham. Both Adebayor and Tevez grabbing goals by the bagful! Not only has the city team “clicked” this week, but it was furthered by the results of our “noisy neighbours”. Not only is their title challenge fizzling out, but Arjen Robben's sweetly hit left foot volley was a true delight to watch as Bayern sent United crashing out of Europe.

At the start of the season I stood firmly behind Mark Hughes, but felt his days as city coach were numbered. On reflection I do think the appointment of Mancini has brought the best out of some of the players. He has a greater aura than Hughes did and quickly dealt with an out of form an unhappy Robinho. Is he the manager that will take us to tournament glory... I’m still undecided. I think an appointment such as Hiddink would have justified the sacking of Hughes more than the eventual appointment of Mancini. Despite my uncertainty it is now imperative we give Mancini another season. Over the past few weeks numerous papers have said his time is up, but it would be a travesty to sack him. It would be our 4th manager since 2007, and in my opinion would be a step backwards in our goal of European Football and a trophy.

I think the reason why I am most excited about this season is we have something to play for in the last 5 games of the season, for the first time in years. Ever since our promotion back in 2002, we have been a solid mid table team, however the prospect of champions league football looms large. Since our takeover we’ve run the slogan “Blue Moon Rising” and hopefully in 5 weeks time we can take a step forward and being playing on the world’s biggest stage.

I am under no illusions about the difficulty of the task that lies ahead in the coming weeks, Firstly against our Noisy Neighbours, and fixtures against Arsenal and Villa are all tough games. But I feel ultimately that 4th Place will be decided at Eastlands against Tottenham. For once I am feeling confident as a City fan that we will do it!

Although all too often I have jumped on the city roller-coaster and being left disappointed. I would not at all be surprised if we beat Tottenham but throw Fourth place away on the final game of the season at West Ham. It would be classic City, the City that many other football fans from around the country love for their chronic underachievement.

Is this going to be the year when the Blue Moon rises? Without doubt anything but Fourth place will be considered a disappointment by the city fans, the club is changing and we will hopefully be playing in the glamorous champions league next season. The job is still not done by City, it will be a long road to Trophy success which is what all the City fans crave, and the banner being removed from the Stretford end.

Looking to next season now, I ask what do City, with the copious amounts of money at their disposal, need to do to elevate the club higher. Ultimately our summer transfer policy will be determined by the final champions league space. But I ask for your opinions on who you think would be a good signing for city. Do we buy young British players like Johnson who has been one of city’s biggest successes this season or bolster our squad with more big names?

I leave you with the thought about City’s upcoming encounter with the red half of Manchester. It could be a day to savour for City fans, effectively ending United hopes of a title, and consolidating our grip on fourth place, or will it, like the last minute 4-3 defeat earlier in the season, leave a sour taste in the mouths of the City faithful.

Score predictions please ... I fancy a cheeky punt on another 6 – 1 hammering at the hands of a certain Carlos Tevez.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Great British 'Bottlers'

Late last night Phil Mickelson won his third Masters trophy. Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood had topped the leader-board at the half-way stage and Lee Westwood was still in pole position as the final day's action got under-way. Neither Poulter nor Westwood, however, were able to capitalise on their strong starts and rather than becoming the first Brit to win the Masters since 1996, Westwood could only add his name to long list of Brits to have 'bottled it' on the biggest stage.

Westwood has finished 3rd, 3rd and 2nd in his last three Majors and seems unable to cross the finishing line and claim that elusive Major trophy. He joins the likes of Tim Henman who get labelled as 'bottlers' or 'chokers' because of their inability to capture the biggest prizes.

Is it wrong to say that he 'bottled it'? He finished at an impressive -13 but his final round was a timid 71. Mickelson cruised past the Brit as he carded a fourth round score of 67 to finish comfortable winner at -16. Westwood played himself into the driving seat but let the trophy slip through his hands. As good as Mickelson played, it was Westwood's title to lose and, when the pressure was on, he did just that.

Unlike Henman, Lee still has many many years left to play and if he continues on the form he has been showing the last couple of years he is sure to have another chance to secure a Major. Mickelson broke his duck at the age of 33 back in 2004 and has gone on to four Majors so there is till plenty of time for Lee, 36, to get his hands on one.

Tiger Tim played in six Grand-slam semi-finals but never reached a final and therefore, obviously, never won a Grand-slam. The question is whether or not Tim was ever good enough to win one of the big four tournaments? I don't think he was. He may have bottled it when he lost in the semi-finals of Wimbledon to Goran Ivanisevic in five sets despite being in a dominant position. Ultimately, he was not as good as Sampras, Hewitt or Federer all of whom beat he regularly. To win a Grand-slam you have to be the best in the world, on that surface or at that time, as you will have to beat the best and Henman did not have the quality to beat the elite.

This is not dissimilar to the situation that Murray finds himself in. He has gone one step further than Henman and has reached two Grand-slam finals but has lost both to Roger Federer. Murray cannot be said have 'bottled it'. He lost to the greatest player to ever pick up a racquet. So high are the expectations that we readily place upon our sports stars that when they fail to reach the heights we expect they are labelled as 'bottlers'.

The England football team has exited both of the last two tournaments on penalties. This was repeated in 1996 and 1998 as well. This has been a classic example of the British vulnerability to 'choking' under pressure. When Gareth Southgate stepped up against Germany in '96 he knew that the hopes and dreams of a nation lay on his shoulders. It is hard not have sympathy for these people who have come so close but been unsuccessful.

As a nation we seem to have a habit of 'bottling it' on the big occasions, but why? My explanation would be that we are generally, as a nation, quite reserved. We see arrogance as such a negative trait in society today and yet is so important in sports. Just look at our cricketing rivalry with Australia. We hate their arrogance and yet that is why they go into the ashes, and other cricket tournaments, with the edge both technically and, more importantly, mentally.

Contrast us with America. They instil clichés such as 'you can do whatever you put your mind to' into their society. They are far more confident and outspoken than ourselves, you only have to look at the characters in the NBA or NFL to see how different they are to our football or in rugby stars. This self-belief could be the difference at the 'crunch moments'. Such assurance, which we some commonly mistake for arrogance, could be why other nations so often enjoy sporting success over us or maybe it is just because we simply don't produce the same level of talent.

If you look at characters like Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Cristiano Ronaldo, Floyd Mayweather Jr, Randy Moss, Tiger Woods (perhaps) even our own David Haye, you can see how their 'arrogance' has been so important to their success. It allows them to perform at the highest level and on the biggest stages with unerring confidence. Talent in, of course, integral but as the old saying goes; 'winning is 10% physical, 90% mental.' It is this mental strength that our sports stars may lack and is why they seem to fall at the final hurdle.

This, in my opinion, is why Sampras could beat Henman, why Germans beat us on penalties, and why Westwood was left watching Mickelson sink a the winning put on the green of 18th hole at Augusta.

I would be very interested to hear what you all think about this matter. Did Westwood 'bottle it' last night? Is it something that is unique to Britain, and if so, why do you think that is?

Saturday, 10 April 2010

A Mugs Game

At 4.15 this afternoon the Grand National will be run at Aintree and that means that millions of pounds will be changing hands at betting shops across the country. People always say that betting is a 'mugs game' and they are, of course, right. Quite simply, people lose a lot more than they win. It would, however, be extremely hypocritical for me to sit here and say that only fools bet on sport.

The truth is that I am here writing this with my own betting slips lying on the table beside me. One of the best advertising slogans was Sky Bet's 'it matter more when there's money on it'. There is no better way to spice up a Saturday afternoon then a cheeky betting slip in-hand and Jeff and the boys on the TV.

By sticking a few bob on a horse you can turn an relatively dull event into something that suddenly becomes very exciting... come on Big Fella Thanks!

Yet with this excitement comes the inevitable frustration and disappointment. Despite having an accumulator which only has five teams only, all of whom are favourites, there will always be an upset. The day always starts with such promise, the bets are a sure thing, how could it possibly not come in?! In reality, the long odds you get on such bets are a reflection of how unlikely they actually are.

Every one has their own 'methods' and 'systems' that they use, teams they will or wont bet on. Ultimately, as people say, 'the house always wins'. Who cares. You never really expect to win but the point is that by putting a quid on an accumulator you can turn a unappetising Hull v Burnley match into a gripping and entrawling contest. No one can predict sport, that is why we love it.

One sporting event that promised to be extraordinarily entertaining, bets on or not, was the clash of the titans last night between Audley Harrison and Michael Sprott and the fight did not disappoint. If you were foolish enough to miss it then you missed a classic, so I hear. Harrison had put his career on the line and so the boxing world stopped to take note of this momentous occasion.

Harrison, who won a gold at 2000 Olympics, has been accused of fighting with no heart since turning pro. It seemed that this criticism was going to be justified again as for 11 and a half rounds Harrison's performance was lack-lustre. Having sustained a shoulder injury Audley was reduced to having to box with one arm and had therefore been out boxed throughout the fight. As the bell rang to start the final round Harrison was comprehensively behind on all scorecards and yet with only a couple of minutes to go he landed one of the best left hands you are likely to see this year. It knocked Sprott spark out and against all odds Harrison had claimed the most unlikely of victories.

It is likely, however, that claiming the vacant European Heavyweight belt with one wild punch will silence his critics. I am sure when he beats one of the Klitschko brothers and goes on to unify the division we will all be eating our words!

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

A League of His Own

I have delayed commenting on it but it now seems that I can no longer avoid writing about Lionel Messi's ridiculous form of late. The 22-year-old Argentine hit in his fourth hat-trick of 2010 as his four goal haul sank Arsenal's Champions Leagues dreams. The performance left football fans salivating at his display which leaves no doubt that he is the greatest football player in the world right now. In my previous post I stated that football had adopted the role of a modern day religion. If so, Lionel Messi would be the latest prophet to be given a divine footballing gift.

It seems an almost futile task to attempt to put into words Messi's quality. Over the last two seasons Messi has played 79 games in La Liga and the Champions League, scoring a staggering 66 times. The truth is, however, that goals will never come close to showing just how good the 5ft 7” forward is.

It cannot be debated that he is the best player on the planet. Rooney or Ronaldo may score goals but neither does it with the ease and grace of the Barcelona striker. Nor do they look as menacing with the ball at their feet. Arsene Wenger commented after last night's game that Lionel Messi was the best player in the world by some distance calling him “unstoppable”. Messi appears to be almost inhuman in his current form and if he can carry it to South Africa this June then the odds of 8/1 for Argentina to lift the trophy, and Messi to top-score in the tournament at 11/1, both look extremely tempting.

Messi must be considered more than just currently the best player in the world though. At the age of 22 he seems certain to go on and become one of, if not the, greatest players the world will ever have the joy of watching. His touch, ball control, dribbling, skill, agility, pace, technique, flair, finesse and finishing are unreal. Watching both of his performances against Arsenal have left spectators open mouthed at his ability to glide past players with apparent ease and continuously torment defenders and he recreates this week -in-week-out. Like past icons, such as Pele, Best, Maradona and Zidane, Messi has the ability to do the unthinkable on a regular basis.

Whenever he receives the ball there is an air of expectation, an expectation of brilliance, and he rarely disappoints. Like the past greats Messi has the ability to manipulate the ball in ways 99% of footballers could only dream of. Defenders lunge in desperation to get a piece of ball or man and yet he evades all challengers and then consistently executes the outrages and audacious final ball or shot. There is no footballer anywhere, nor has there been for some time, that strikes the level of fear into an opposition as Messi does.

As long as Messi remains healthy and motivated he can go on to acquire countless amounts of sliver-ware and receive endless plaudits. One would also assume that Barcelona is the place for him to do so. There would be no need for Messi to leave the Catalan club. He is playing alongside other world-class players and they play a style of football that suits him perfectly. Barcelona won all 5 trophies they competed in last season (League, Cup, Champions League, World Club Challenge and Super Cup) and it makes perfect sense for the best player in the world to play at the best club. As such Messi will be at the club, which he joined at the tender age of 11, for the foreseeable future.

Messi is undoubtedly the most devastating footballer of his generation, not only with his goal scoring record but with his ability to produce moments of inspiration, astonishment and pure magic whenever he touches the ball... and he is only 22. Superlatives cannot do the little Argentine justice, no matter how great your vocabulary. He is quite simply unstoppable, as close to a perfect player as it seems possible to conceive.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Football is the Opium of the People

Karl Marx famously remarked “Die Religion ... ist das Opium des Volkes", which translates into "religion is the opium of the people." In 21st Century Britain, however, cannot it not be said that it is actually football that now has replaced religion as the opium of the masses. Football, like religion in past ages, now acts as the one of, if not the, most important things in many peoples lives and the two can be seen to have many similarities in the role they play in society.

It is unquestionable that football now plays are far more important role than religion in the lives of the masses. How many people can name the current Pope? How many people could tell you who the England Manager is?

Every weekend hundreds of thousands of fans across the country go to support their team at the great sporting arenas while outside the stadiums the great prophets of the club are honoured and remembered with statues. As Patrick Kaviani states in his blog, “Football is now a shiny money-making church. People worship at the altar of Old Trafford and wherever else, bowed (topless) before their footballing idols.” It is places like Wembley and not religious buildings that warrant huge funding and act as the focal points of our modern culture.

Beyond an enjoyment for football, supporting a football team also gives someone a sense of belonging, unity and the team is an icon for which the community can rally behind. Whole cities turn out to see a team return victorious displaying their latest relic to the people.

At the matches the fans, home and away, stand to sing their hymns in which they celebrate the heritage of their club and relive the famous moments from their history. Football matches allow football fans to be around like-minded people. It is the football stadium, not the church, mosque or synagogue, that now acts as the cornerstone of the society.

The bigger clubs, such as Manchester United or Real Madrid, carry with them world-wide support as fans from all corners of the planet go on a pilgrimage to their Mecca. Players such as Park Ji-Sung return to the native countries and are worshipped like living Gods.

Like religion, football has also been so intrinsically linked with violence. As with the wars of religion, such as the crusades, football fans are so attached to their team that clashes with opposing fans are inevitable, whether it be at home or abroad. Their passion for their club is such that people are willing to abuse opponent fans verbally and physically in a somewhat barbaric manner. People in Newcastle, for example, speak with a concerningly genuine hatred of people from Sunderland despite the fact the two are only ten miles apart and vice-versa. Such rivalries too often go beyond being merely 'sporting' and violence with people of clashing faiths are all too common.

When meeting people they will typically ask you which team you support, as if it has any bearing on your character or the chances of the two of you becoming friends, while whether or not you believe in a deity is irrelevant in modern society. When making these comparisons I am not attempting to present a social commentary. It is merely an observation about the importance of football in our lives today and how, as religion use to be, it is central to so many people around the world. This is only a very brief exploration of this idea and it is something that warrants far greater attention and thus it may well be something that I choose to come back to at a later date.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Previous posts