Saturday, 31 July 2010

The FA's New Squad Regulations: A much needed and awaited step in the right direction

With the start of another Premiership season only two weeks away, there will be one question looming over every one of the league's twenty managers - Who should I include in my squad of 25 for the upcoming campaign?

A new initiative is to be implemented for the first time this year in which each Premiership club may only register a squad of 25 players for league games. Within the 25 man selection there must be a minimum of 8 home-grown players.

Players under 21 do not need to be registered and an unlimited number of them can be used. Any senior player not registered in a 25 man squad is forbidden to play in Premiership matches but may still play in the domestic cups. In January the registration window will be re-opened, allowing managers to alter their 25 man squad.

Many may jump to the conclusion that this new law is the result of the inquest into England's woeful performance in the World Cup. The new squad rules were actually decided last September. Nevertheless, its objective remains the same. To encourage the use of home grown players.

The initiative has clear positives but also has been met by inevitable criticism from some managers. One problem that many have been quick to comment on is the definition of a home-grown player.

A home-grown player is not simply someone born in England. It is any player who has spent three or more years at an English club before the season in which they turn 21. Fabregas, for example, would qualify as a home-grown player having moved to Arsenal at the age of 16.

There are many foreign talents waiting to emerge from the youth academies of the big Premiership clubs. The likes of Macheda and Kakuta are just a number of stars of the future who will count as home-grown players.

The problem of this technicality ought no to over-shadow the major promising aspect of the new squad regulations. They promote the use of a club's academy and the investment in young players. Some who come through may be 'home-grown' foreign players but the vast majority, certainly in comparison to senior players in the Premiership, will be genuine home-grown talent.

The fact that no player under 21 has to be registered will also enable young players, otherwise stuck playing for the academy, to gain first team experience. Squad rotation, suspensions and injuries will mean that youngsters may well find their way on to the bench for league matches, offering them valuable experience.

The requirement of a minimum of 8 home-grown players has left many managers with a selection head-ache. Sir Alex Ferguson has already stated that the likes of Anderson and Owen Hargreaves may not make the cut because of their fitness problems.

There is no longer any room for the excess baggage of over-sized squads which will result in many players needing to find a new club, probably abroad, or risk four months without first-team football.

Managers such as Mancini and Wenger have been amongst the most outspoken about the new rules. Not surprisingly, those most opposed to the new regulations are those how will struggle the most to meet them.

Arsenal have a distinct lack of English players in the squad while Manchester City's squad currently contains 32 senior players. Mancini will have to offload seven players or be paying wages to spectators, although at Manchester City that may not prove to be too much of an issue.

A team like Chelsea, just to name one of many, would also struggle to meet the new quota of home-grown players in their squad. Terry, Lampard, Cole, Turnbull and Mancienne are their only home-grown senior players. Ancelotti would only be allowed to register a further 17 foreign players so as to not breach the new rules.

One team who will not struggle under the new rules is Everton. David Moyes regularly promotes players through the youth academy, such as Rodwell or Gosling (although he has now moved to Newcastle), as well as having many English players in his first-team. This is an example of the what the FA probably wishes to achieve with these new laws.

There are other concerns that it will prevent young players being released on loan to gain first-team experience with clubs unwilling to send away young players they may need to call on at some point. The new rules are also certain to further inflate the price tags placed on home-grown players.

Despite the groans from some managers this remains a step in the right direction from the FA. Clubs will have to make sacrifices. Players will have to be sold or left in the cold. Teething problems for any like-minded initiatives are inevitable as is the resistance to them.

Ultimately, however, it will limit the amount of foreign players standing between young English players and first-team football. It encourages promotion from within and promotes investment in English players rather than a reliance on the grass-roots systems of Europe or South America to produce the high quality footballers. Other leagues across Europe have had similar restraints in place to support home-grown players for a while now and it seems England has finally followed suit.

When England slumped off the pitch having been humiliated 4-1 by a young German team the question was asked, 'What is the future of English football?' The 'golden generation' had come to a disheartening end and the search for a new generation of stars began.

The new squad rules are the first step in that search. It will take time, of course. Further steps will undoubtedly have to be taken. But through the confusion over the new rules and the criticism of them from the more effected Premiership managers, finally we have a positive new initiative to nurture and support young English talent.

It will be very interesting to see how the minimum quota for home-grown players impacts upon the rapidly approaching Premiership campaign. How noticeable will it be? How soon will English football reap the benefits of the new rules?

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Thursday, 29 July 2010

A Mixed Bag: Hughes, Lemaitre... and a Few Others

Football fans are eagerly and optimistically awaiting the start of a new season. Amongst the monotonous tide of pre-season friendlies, though, there have been some interesting pieces of news from the last forty-eight hours so I thought I would reflect on a few of them.

The first is that Fulham are set to announce Mark Hughes as their new manager and this would appear, at first glance, to be a well suited partnership. As Roy Hodgson packed his bags to leave for Liverpool many at Craven Cottage may have been fearing the worse. Would the manager's exit signal an exodus? How would the squad cope without his guidance?

The Cottagers will probably be pleased with the choice. Hughes, who has been out of work 222 days since his less than amicable departure from the City of Manchester Stadium, will be see Fulham as the ideal club with which to make his return to managerial life.

Fulham is a club far removed from big spenders Manchester City and this should Hughes always seemed more comfortable in the dug out at Ewood Park in comparison to his time at Eastlands. He, like Hodgson, is not a flashy manager but can help elevate an average squad into a very competitive one.

The club has the sense of a tight-nit family. The players are honest and hard-working, the stadium is modest and the fans are realistic. With a reported budget of around £15 million, Hughes will have enough to bring in a few new players to strengthen the squad but will have to spend intelligently.

Hughes has immediately been linked with fellow Welshmen Craig Bellamy. Fulham will have to fight it out with Tottenham for Bellamy it seems but Hughes will be hopeful that his strong personal relations with the well-documented trouble maker will help clinch the deal.

The squad at Craven Cottage is without any glaring weaknesses. If Hughes can show some nous in the transfer market and add an extra bit of quality to the solid foundations his predecessor left behind then I would expect to see Fulham achieve a top-half finish this season.

Elsewhere, the legend of the Bernabéu, Raul, has joined the German side Schalke. The Spaniard had hinted at a move to the Premiership that never seemed to materialise, which is a shame. He is only 33 and would have had plenty to offer any club he went to. He is a superb technician and great play-maker with a fantastic goal-scoring record and it would certainly have been very interesting to see how he would have fared in England.

Away from the world of football, there is one piece of news that simply could not be ignored. Last night France's Christophe Lemaitre took the gold medal in the 100m final of the European Championships in Barcelona. This is remarkable for one simple fact - he is white.

I never thought I would see the day that a white sprinter took a gold medal at any major athletics competition but the 20-year-old, after a slow start, cut through the field. Brit Mark Lewis-Francis took an impressive and unlikely second place while Dwain Chambers finished fifth but this has been overshadowed, even here in the UK, by this alien result.

Lemaitre had already been the first white man to dip under the 10 second barrier but is touted as an uncut diamond. He may have raw speed but can still improve technically and physically. Surely it is premature, however, to claim the Frenchman is a direct challenger to Bolt, Powell and Gay's dominance of athletics' blue ribboned event.

His achievement may be remarkable simply because of the colour of his skin, his time, however, is not remarkable by modern standards. Let's not get carried away, running under 10 seconds is not rare any more and so the Frenchman will still have to improve by great strides to become more than simply a sporting anomaly.

Meanwhile, Mo Farah secured a gold medal of his own in the 10,000m on Tuesday night with fellow Brit Chris Thompson taking the silver. Maradona and the Argentinian national team parted company. And finally, in the match between Sri Lanka and India, Sachin Tendulkarhas reaffirmed his quality with a stunning innings of 203.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

An SPL and Premiership Merger: The change that Scottish football needs but English football does not want

Newcastle United are seemingly on the brink of signing veteran defender Sol Campbell. The ex-Arsenal player is said to have turned down an offer from Celtic before deciding to join the Toon, surely that was a no brainer. The SPL is a footballing scrapyard of has-beens and never-will-bes.

There has been talks of merging the English and Scottish football leagues for quite a while now. The debate seems to arises annually, although it is unclear as to whether it is a serious proposition or just wishful thinking. The calibre of Scottish football means that this merger would only be of an advantage to those North of the border and thus has never been taken too seriously in England.

You only have to take a quick glance at the quality of the footballers who enter and leave the SPL in the transfer windows to see how large the gap is between the elite clubs in each country. Championship striker Gary Hooper has just left Scunthorpe to join Celtic while many Scottish players including Chris Boyd, perhaps the best player in the SPL, have left the SPL to join Gordon Strachan's Tartan Army in Middlesbrough, in the second tier of English football.

Georgios Samaras was recently called 'an enigma' by his manager Neil Lennon because he has been in unusually rich goalscoring form in Celtic in comparison to his less than formidable prior record. He scored 13 goals in 67 games for Greece and Manchester City but has been finding the net more regularly in Scotland scoring 26 goals in 61 games. Samaras in no enigma, he only acts as perfect example of the quality, or distinct lack of, in the SPL.

Not since Henrik Larsson has there been any great players playing in Scotland in their prime. Larsson scored a staggering 174 goals in 221 goals at Celtic but Alfonso Alves bagged 45 goals in only 39 games at SC Heerenveen before going on to struggle at Middlesbrough. Although Larsson is indisputably a better player, his goalscoring record is, nevertheless, more representative of how uncompetitive Scottish football is than of how prolific the Swedish striker was.

It is a league that is dominated by the two Glasgow clubs. The last time any club outside the big two won the SPL was in 1985 when Aberdeen lifted the trophy. If the Scottish and English leagues were to merge then realistically it would only be these two sides that would stand a chance of playing in the top flight and still, with the squads as they are, even they would struggle to secure a top ten finish.

The unification of English and Scottish football would certainly help to elevate the prestige and lure of playing football in Scotland. Currently a move to Scotland, even for someone like Sol Campbell, would be a backwards step in a footballer's career. If Scotland could feed off the success of the Premiership then teams like Celtic and Rangers could exploit their reputation and affiliations to bring much better players to their squads. The merger would, however, threaten if not extinguish the chances of any of the Scottish clubs to play European football.

The merger may help to drag Scottish clubs out of the footballing wilderness but it would be of little to no benefit for English clubs. No struggling Premiership team or side in the Championship would favour new teams entering the English leagues as it be a risk to their own position. Furthermore, its implementation would raise endless practical problems meaining that, ultimately, the long proposed merger is just not feasible.

An idea that I have heard of is the inclusion of Scottish teams in the FA Cup and I, for one, would be in favour of this. Traditionalist may not like such an idea but I believe it would add a much needed extra dimension to the competition. It would also act as a helpful indication as to how Scottish teams would stand up against their English counterparts. This is an idea that is probably an unfounded rumour though.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Muttiah Muralitharan and his 800th Test Wicket: The perfect end to an outstanding career

As India's Pragyan Ojha was caught by Jayawardene on Thursday, cricket history was made. It was the moment that Muttiah Muralitharan captured his 800th Test wicket, a landmark that will surely never be eclipsed.

Murali had gone into the Test, which he had already announced to be his last, he was searching for eight more wickets to reach 800. He took 5-63 in the first innings but had only taken a further two in the second innings as his team-mate Malinga took a five-wicket haul. At nine down, Murali toiled away at one end seeking the elusive final wicket and sure enough, as if taken from a Hollywood script, the spinner claimed his 800th wicket with the final ball of his Test career.

It was an outstanding achievement to bring the curtain down for what was an outstanding cricketer. He has left Shane Warne behind on 708 Test wickets and did so having played eleven less tests. Murali played only ten more Tests than the great Glen McGrath surpassed his wicket total by a staggering 237 which puts this achievement into perspective.

He had the ability to spin the ball any which way while giving little indication to a batsmen as to which delivery he was facing until the ball bounced. He used his devastating variety of deliveries with guile and intelligence allowing him to pick up wickets against any opposition, on any wicket and in any form of the game.

Murali has inevitably been lavished with the praise of greats of the game, past and present, and by journalists worldwide, and quite rightly so. Arguably the greatest bowler to ever play International cricket has retired in emphatic circumstances and the cricketing world has duly delivered a rapturous standing ovation.

Since his test debut against Australia in 1992 there has, however, been a constant controversy surrounding Muttiah Muralitharan and his unorthodox action. Questions have been asked throughout his career as to the legality of his bowling technique, many calling it a throw.

It was thanks to Muralitharan that the definitions of a legal delivery, in terms of the angle of the bowlers elbow, were defined. His action was examined on numerous occasions throughout his career where it was discovered that he had a condition that meant he was unable to fully straighten his arm, making his bowling action occasionally look like a throw. Each of his different deliveries were tested and his arm was even placed in a brace to prevent in bending. After all these tests on his arm, his bowling action was declared to be legal.

There have also been some who have attempted to diminish his record by stating that too many of his Test wickets came against the minnows of Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, 176 in total. Critics were outspoken through his career and a few linger on even now. Thankfully their criticism is widely ignored.

Murali's action was far from textbook but it never failed to get results. He picked up wickets whenever his skipper threw him the ball. He made great batsmen look foolish and did it all with that trademark smile on his face. The record will probably never be broken, his cricket legacy will certainly never be forgotten.

In other cricket news. Pakistan have just sealed their first Test match victory over Australia since 1995, which means that Ricky Ponting still remains without a Test series win in England as captain. Pakistan made needlessly hard work of the win at Headingly though.

Their bowlers excelled in favourable conditions on day one and dismissed the Aussies for 88 in their first innings. Pakistan managed to get a score of 258 in their first innings before Ricky Ponting and co battled to 349 in their second innings, setting Pakistan a target of 180 for the win. They seemed to be cruising to that target last night but they struggled this morning and gave Australia hope by dropping wickets before eventually reaching the required total to draw the series 1-1.

While enjoying watching Australia struggle in all forms of the game this summer, England will have been watching this series with interest as they prepare to take on Pakistan in the first of four Tests at Trent Bridge on Thursday. Although, with an Ashes series looming, Pakistan may not provide the sternest opposition, they have still shown that they are able of very good cricket, especially with ball, they have just lacked consistency.

It will be interesting to see how England fare against Pakistan in the upcoming series... a blog will follow at some point on this I am sure.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Mayweather v Pacquiao: The fight that the boxing world needs

The fight that all boxing fans have been so eagerly anticipating has suffered yet another setback. News came out of Manny Pacquiao's camp earlier this week that he is to pursue a new opponent after talks with Floyd Mayweather Jr broke down once again and I thought I would express my concerns on the story.

If the two are unable to make the bout go ahead then it would surely have to be the greatest fight to never happen. Pacquiao and Mayweather currently stand at first and second respectively in Ring Magazine's pound-for-pound ratings, making them the best two boxers in the world across all weight-classes. Yet, despite the fact that it will almost certainly be the most lucrative contest in boxing history, the two seem unable to agree terms for the fight.

It would be a fight that would have even part-time boxing fans salivating. The prospect of seeing Pacquiao and Mayweather in the same ring is something that the boxing world has been desperate to see for several years now.

The form of each of the fighters over the last few years has been beyond impressive. They both made Ricky Hatton, himself a world-champion, look distinctly average. Floyd 'Money' Mayweather boast an unbeaten record of 41-0-. His elusive defensive and devastating speed make him one of the most naturally gifted boxers ever to step into the ring. After the masterclass that he, like Pacquiao, gave Hatton he has also gone on to show up Shane Mosley and Juan Manuel Marquez , themselves formidable opponents if perhaps past their best.

Pacquiao, meanwhile, has been in even more devastating form. Unlike Mayweather, Pacquiao has suffered defeats in his professional career, his record stands at 51-3-2. The Philippine legend has, however, won more fights by way of knock-out (38 compared to Mayweather's 25). His punching power and speed has been effortlessly transferred between the seven weight-classes in which he has been crowned world champion as 'The Pacman' has eaten up any challengers to stand in his way.

The two are, quite simply, in a league of their own. The increasing chance that these two great boxers will never meet in the ring would therefore be a tragic loss for the boxing world. The breakdown has been well documented. Mayweather has requested blood tests right up till the start of the fight. Pacquiao has said he would accept urine tests throughout and blood tests far enough in advance of the fight but not too soon before it.

It had appeared as though the two had agreed on the drug testing rules for the fight a couple of months ago but negotiations have again broken down as, according to Pacquiao, Mayweather “didn't want to commit”. Floyd Mayweather Sr,on the other hand, has been quick to state that his son was not dodging the fight and launched his own attack on Pacquiao calling him a "midget" and a "faggot". Amidst this war of words it has become unclear as to what is preventing the fight from going ahead. One thing remains sure though, if the two do not come to fight each other it would further damage an already troubled sport.

Viewing figures are on the decline, fights happen less often and interest levels seem to be falling in favour of the increasingly popular mixed martial arts sports. The problem is that fights between the best fighters in a weight-class are too rare. Boxers look for an easy pay-day, an angle to keep their belt or simply fight whoever their promoters or managers tell them to fight.

The quantity of different belts available has only exacerbated the problems. There are WBA, WBO, WBC, IBF and IBA belts, just to name a few. This enables the big fighters to easily avoid the other top names while still holding title belts. It is the lack of fights between the two best boxers in any given weight-class that has contributed to the demise of the sport in the 21st Century.

Perhaps the fact that the two premier boxers of this generation could quite possibly not fight one another indicates that boxing has now come to be dominated by the media and promotion circus that surrounds it. If laws on drug testing are not clear then the boxing federation ought to examine their rulebook. Ultimately, regardless of reasons why, a failure to make the Pacquiao v Mayweather bout go ahead would challenge the credibility of the sport. This is a fight that fans want to see to happen and, more importantly, the sport of boxing needs to see happen or risk the 'sweet science' being brought into further disrepute.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Monday, 19 July 2010

The 2010 Summer Transfer Window: Why has there been so little activity?

Around lunchtime today the news broke that Joe Cole had just signed for Liverpool on a four-year deal. This signing is, however, a rare moment of significance in this summer's transfer window. The biggest shop window was open for a month in South Africa but had few managers tempted to dip into their pockets for any of the talents on display.

Joe Cole, like many of the players to have changed clubs so far this summer, moved on a free transfer after his contract at Chelsea had expired. Liverpool certainly got a good deal by beating various other clubs to Cole's signature, especially when you consider that Chelsea got Yossi Benayoun going in the other direction.

Hodgson had already signalled his intent to create a new-look squad at Anfield by allowing peripheral members of the team to leave in order to create room to introduce new faces. Bringing in the likes of Joe Cole should also help the new manager to keep Gerrard and Torres from jumping ship. Now that Cole's future has been confirmed, it is possible that transfer activity will increase as clubs look elsewhere.

Nevertheless, aside from Joe Cole's move, the current transfer window has been a subdued one. Perhaps the lesson of buying players based purely on an above-average performance in a World Cup has finally been learnt. Perhaps the recession has truly hit the football world.

Ultimately, in my opinion, the dangerous precedent that has been set by the super rich clubs over the last five-or-so years has finally comeback to haunt managers. The inflated price tags placed on run-of-the-mill footballers now because of the willingness of teams like Chelsea, Real Madrid or Manchester City to spend well above reasonable prices has meant that players who are good value for money are like silver needles in a very large, over-rated and over-paid stack of hay.

Big name signings have been few and far between. Villa's move to Barcelona, Di Maria's transfer to Real Madrid and Manchester City's signing of Yaya Toure, David Silva and Jerome Boateng have been a few of the scarce cases involving big names moving for big money. Ozil, one of the few players to attract the attention of top European clubs on the back his dazzling campaign in South Africa, is among the list of players who remain in the daily transfer rumour columns.

Inter Milan's Balotelli supposed move to Manchester City and Fabregas' potential move back to Barcelona are two of the other ongoing transfer sagas that stand out amongst the repetitive, and most likely unsubstantiated, transfer gossip. Real Madrid seem to be linked with every left back available, Gordon Strachan seems determined to take every Scottish professional footballer to the glorious town of Middlesbrough, while Manchester City seem to be linked with any half decent player going.

There may have been fewer transfer stories dominating the back pages than we have become use to and - with the asking prices you read about it - that is hardly surprising. James Milner, Carlton Cole, Phil Jagielka and Steven Piennar have been on the wish lists of several managers but the ambitious valuations of these players by their respective clubs have scuppered their proposed moves.

Manchester United, apart from the already agreed signing of Mexican Javier Hernandez and Fulham's Chris Smalling, have opted out of making any big money signings, despite their ageing side. Liverpool and Arsenal have also been reluctant to meet the unrealistic prices quoted for some of their targets while the likes of Aston Villa, Tottenham and Everton are yet to make any noteworthy additions to their squads.

There is, of course, still four weeks until the Premiership gets under-way and players will inevitably move around before the first weekend of fixtures. This does not change the fact that with 19 days already gone, transfer activity has been minimal, certainly in comparison to years gone by. Eastlands aside, it seems that the influx of foreign talent into England has slowed considerably this summer.

Whether it is the finances or the lure of the Premiership that has seemingly dipped is hard to say. Perhaps the next month will correct the pattern. Alternatively, this could mark a shift away from the big spending on foreign players, although it is undoubtedly premature to try support such a claim. If we do start to see less players enter the Premiership from overseas then this could give a glimmer of hope to the young English talent struggling to emerge out of the darkness of youth and reserve squads at clubs up and down the country.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Aint Nothing Like the Real Thing: Armchair viewing may have gone 3D but it still lacks the extra dimension of watching sport live

In the face of the new 3D and HD technology, Max Smithson tells us why the armchair viewing of sport will never compare to the real thing:

With the amount of televised sport available to watch these days, it has become far too easy to simply enjoy watching sports from the comfort of your own home. The speed and skill of top athletes, however, often fails to transcend beyond the television screen. Having been fortunate enough to attend many different sporting events, I would argue that sport is a considerably better experience when viewed in the flesh.

Two sports in which I have witnessed the biggest contrast from watching on television to seeing live are cricket and tennis. Watching cricket live is a totally unique experience. The first thing you notice is just how quick the bowling is. When sat side on, watching a fast bowler, you simply do not see the ball. You also get a far greater sense of the power and force the bowler is putting into his work. Bounding in like a rampaging bull, slamming his foot down on the crease and bringing his arm crashing down (like England’s dreams at a World Cup) is a truly impressive sight. All the time the bowler is doing so with such accuracy, trying to get the ball to swing or finding the smallest of gaps between bat and pad.

The wicket-keeper is also stood at an incredibly far distance from the stumps. From your own home you have no perspective on this. I was very surprised the first time I witnessed it. Despite being stood so far back, reaction times for a keeper or slip fielder after an edge are so minimal and much more impressive when seen in the flesh. With all this speed involved, the quality of a batsmen can really be appreciated (except Ravi Bopara), seeing them timing and placing their shots to perfection is remarkable. Super slow-motion cameras, high definition or hot spot will never give you the same understanding of the skill on display.

To truly experience tennis it must be seen live. It is a sport that involves an incredible level of power and accuracy that is sometimes bewildering. I have been lucky enough to visit Wimbledon and to watch some of the world’s best players is an absolute privilege. Watching it live, as with cricket, gives a much greater impression of the power and force players put into their shots. We all know they strike the ball hard, but they can also cover the court with speed, place their shots with precision and finish points with the finesse of a drop shot. That is what I love about tennis. There are so many other important facets that a player must possess in order to be at the top of the game. Seeing them first hand makes you appreciate them so much more.

Being at a venue to watch sport also provides you with a different viewpoint to that of the TV cameras. Yes, they have cameras at different angles but usually, apart from the main camera, they all operate in slow-motion. A different viewpoint can show you different aspects of the game. For instance, when watching football I love being sat behind the goal. You sacrifice your view of the far end but you get an equal view of what is happening on both wings. You also get a much better perspective of the runs the players are making, especially when from deep, which do not get picked up by the cameras. Some people prefer sitting side on, some low down, some high up, but it all contributes to the different aspects of the sport that watching from the standard broadcasting view on your TV just cannot offer.

As well as these impressive skills and different perspectives, watching a sport live, has an extra factor that makes it so great. The atmosphere. For me, atmosphere is why I go watch football every week, why I travel hundreds of miles across the country for sport and why I love watching live sport in so much. Every sport and every venue has its own unique atmosphere that must be experienced in order to fully understand it. So much so that I could write an individual article for each venue I have been to, with them all contributing so much character and ambience to their respective sport.

Whether it be singing ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ with 82,000 others at Twickenham, the silence before a serve at match point on Centre Court, the general hubbub that gently buzzes round Headingley Stadium during an England Test match or jumping around in joy in the pissing rain on a concrete slope in Kettering after your team have just equalised in the FA Cup, atmosphere is something to embrace as much as sport itself.

Those of you who do go to watch live sport, hopefully you appreciate and agree with what I am saying. Those of you who don’t, I would urge you to get down to whichever local sports venue you can, large or small, because you will experience something special there. Sports broadcasters can introduce as much new and exciting technology as they like but, ultimately, the pleasure and appreciation to be gained from enjoying any sport in a stadium cannot be surpassed.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

'The Decision'

While football fans had their eyes firmly fixed on the Rainbow nation, there has been a story competing, successfully, for attention of the sporting world across the Atlantic. It was what became known simply as 'The Decision'. This was the media circus that followed the reigning NBA MVP, Lebron James, in his decision of which team to sign his new contract with.

James had spent his entire NBA career at the Cleveland Cavaliers but was one of a number of stars who had run out of contract at the end of the recently concluded season. The rumour mills went into overdrive as nearly all of the NBA franchises were linked with the biggest name currently in the sport. Lebron 'The Phenom' James announced which club he was to pledge his future to in an hour long special, 'The Decision'.

His choice was always going to have a massive impact upon the shape of the league for the coming years but probably not to the extent that it now looks likely to have. Lebron signed for the Miami Heat but he was not the only NBA All-Star to do so. James joined the former Toronto Raptors forward Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, who re-signed for the Heat.

The combination of James, Bosh and Wade makes Miami the 'Galacticos' of the NBA. Each of the three superstars talked about the appeal of winning multiple Championships as being the reasoning behind their decision. Most NBA franchises build their team around a key player, few have a player as good as any of the three the Heat now have on their roster. To have three of the elite stars in the sport could make the Heat the dominant force in the league for the foreseeable future.

Sacrifices will have to be made, however. Sharing the spotlight on and off the court will be something very new to each of the players. Their playing style will have to be adapted to fit this new team and their ability to become 'team players' will be tested to the full. How well these individuals can form a successful team will only be seen through time but anything less than a Championship this year will certainly be deemed a failure.

NBA commissioner David Stern recently expressed his view on 'The Decision', which I would largely agree with. Lebron James played into the hands of the media by delaying his choice for so long. The free-agent window opened at the start of the month and this year there was a particularly rich field of players who were out of contract. By leaving his decision so late and thus not informing the Cavaliers that he was not going to be returning to them he put them at a distinct disadvantage in their attempts to find a replacement for their MVP.

The Cavs now have a massive amount of room remaining in their salary cap and an even bigger gap left in their roster. Other stars had already been snapped up while the Cavaliers were left hoping that their most precious asset would remain with them. James did not need to state which team he was to sign for but merely declare that he would not be remaining in Cleveland so they could prepare for a future without him.

Lebron was fully entitled to leave his home-town team. Cleveland have finished top the Eastern Conference for the last two years but in both years have failed to go on and enjoy any success in the Playoffs. James' motive was unquestionably to win titles and his decision was the best suited to that end. The manner in which he went about it, however, only suited the media frenzy that surrounded the ordeal.

It is a story that will have gone unnoticed by many. Its importance, however, ought not to be underplayed. The result of 'The Decision' will have a greater impact on the NBA than all the transfers made by all other English clubs this summer will have on the Premiership.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Monday, 12 July 2010

South Africa 2010: How should it be remembered?

The final ball has been kicked, the final whistle blown and the sun has now set on the 2010 Fifa World Cup in South Africa. Andres Iniesta put his name into Spanish folklore with a 116th minute winner last night. Spain, probably deservedly, lifted the trophy for the first time while the Netherlands suffered their third loss in a World Cup Final. As each of the competing nations reflect on their varying and contrasting fates, fans are left to ponder the question of how the tournament will be remembered.

As an Englishmen it would be difficult to take many positives from the competition. As a football fan it would be hard to argue that it produced even close to the most entertaining matches or performances.

The tournament started very slowly. The big teams played conservatively while the smaller nations set up defensively clinging to the hope of improbable progression into the next round, which some did achieve. Goals were hard to come by and many of the opening games ground to uninteresting draws. The football gradually improved but for both of the finalist of four years ago it all ended prematurely.

Italy and France were sent home having fallen at the first hurdle while England limped into the knock-out stage where the Germans came to life as they comprehensively dismissed England and Argentina. Ghana, the only African side to survive the group stage, pulled out an extra-time victory over the USA only to be beaten by Uruguay following one if the most memorable moments of the competition, the already infamous Luis Suarez handball. Uruguay, led by Golden Ball winner Diego Forlan, were the surprise package finishing fourth.

Spain and Holland continued to progress by beating Portugal and Brazil respectively. Each side impressed without really exciting throughout and the Final followed this pattern. Holland played their new found aggressive and defensive football which was as far removed from the total football that has characterised them as a footballing nation for generations as is seemingly possible.

Howard Webb was left with the unenviable task of being in-charge of the ugliest World Cup Final, statistically at least, in history. Bert van Marwijk, the Netherlands manager, was quick to publicly criticised Webb's performance. In reality he should have been thankful that Holland finished with 10 men still on the field as their unattractive tactics to stifle the Spanish attack at all costs was made abundantly clear.

Both sides had their chances but Spain always looked the more dangerous and with penalties looming Cesc Fabregas' perfectly timed ball over the top of the Dutch defence left Iniesta, with billions watching, to calmly slot the ball home. Spain were favourites going into the tournament and they, without delivering the mouth-watering football we know they are capable of, broke their World Cup duck to complete the Euro and World Cup double.

The legacy of the World Cup will, of course, only been known over time. England's supposed 'golden generation' came to its disappointing end and this will, unfortunately but inevitably, taint the way we remember the tournament. Many of the big players and the big teams failed to reach the expectations of many. Their were moments of controversy which may well stick in the memory longer than the fleeting moments of footballing brilliance.

I doubt, however, that this will be a tournament remembered for its football but instead for its host. Never before, and perhaps never again, will so much attention be paid to events off-the-field as we have seen over the past month in the Rainbow Nation. The country's political history and unique culture has, at times, been a greater talking point than the football itself. It was the first time the World Cup has travelled to African soil and few would argue that it has been a resounding success.

Not just South Africa but the entire continent has embraced the chance to host the competition and to have the spotlight of the sporting world fixed firmly on them. The enthusiasm, the vuvuzelas, the dancing in the streets and the passion in and around the stadiums is what can be taken from the 2010 World Cup.

Rooney may not have scored, Ronaldo may not have entertained and Messi only gave us glimpses of his greatness. In four years will we remember or be talking about this? Probably not. This is a tournament that will be, and ought to be, characterised by its footballing culture that was a positive and refreshing change from the mundane and ordinary. Thus, although the matches may not have been epic, the football not great, the 2010 World Cup in South Africa will remain uniquely special.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Howard Webb: England's New Saviour fights away the 4 German Goals of the Apocalypse

On the eve of the Final of the 2010 World Cup, Pardaad Chamsaz reflects on the announcement that Howard Webb is to referee the match:

Howard Webb will represent England in the World Cup Final and he will be the first Englishman to do so since 1976. Yesterday, as the news broke out, Buck's Fizz corks could be heard popping inside the red-and-white-clad Barmy Army dives. England has made the World Cup Final – or so it has been cleverly reported. There is no suggestion that the achievement of Webb is in any way comparable to an England team making the final, however the announcement – which is not to be downplayed – carries the familiar echo of English National Pride. It is no more than a desperate attempt at salvaging the wreck of English football from the bottom of a very deep ocean.

Howard Webb deserves this honour and it was evident since his first game in this year's competition that he was one of the more accomplished referees. Admittedly it was not difficult to pick him out of a pack of self-important, error-prone, trigger-happy officials, who, in an attempt to establish a stricter boundary ended up brandishing innumerable yellow and red cards, which not only constantly broke up potentially free-flowing, neutral-friendly matches, but actually created an atmosphere that made simulation and diving possible. Even if BBC's ex-striker football Gurus, Alan Shearer and Gary Linekar, want to term it “clever forward play” or the cunning winning of a free-kick in a good area, it is simply an embarrassment for a formerly honest beautiful game.

England's representative referee, Webb, is, by all accounts, a part of this formerly honest game. A South Yorkshire police officer, who tries not to throw himself into the limelight during a game. Is it not the ultimate compliment to a good referee and a good game if, at the end, you do not remember the referee who officiated the match? Sure, during the 2008 European Championships, Webb famously dominated not only the back pages but also the pages of hate-mail delivered to various Howard Webbs dotted around the country, when he gave Austria a penalty against Poland in 90th minute of the opening round fixture, which when converted took two points off the Poles. This event featured in the 2009 documentary “Les Arbitres” (The Referees), which shed new light on the men behind the (in)famous faces. Howard Webb and that incident played a central role in the film and when the cameras follow Webb back to Rotheram and to his family home, the disappointment of not reaching the latter stages reveals his passion as well the emotions of a difficult profession as a whole.

Webb is proud to represent England, I am sure. He will say something to that effect if he has not done already and there is nothing wrong with it. If anything it is a necessity to pander to patriotic side of the English, when in that situation. The question is, why must Howard Webb share and dilute his success with a nation of insatiably desperate football fans? Are we not just hopping on Webb's bandwagon? In the minds of the English it is not Howard Webb they are proud of but Howard Webb, “the English representative referee”. Webb happens to have stumbled on this time and place in history but for England fans it could have easily been another with a British Passport.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Substance over Style: What managers can learn from the World Cup finalists

We now know that on Sunday night a new country will be added to the list of World Cup winners. Neither Holland nor Spain have ever lifted the trophy before but after pragmatic tournaments for both teams one will finally get their hands on the most highly sought after prize in football.

Spain, the favourites before the competition began, are finally delivering the sort of performances that most had expected. They started slowly and failed to excite for large parts of the group stage but their quality has started to shine through in the knock-out stage and there are, for me, three key factors behind their success.

The first is, quite obviously, that they have a superb squad of players. On paper the players they have at their disposal could easily explain how they have reached the final but one thing that ought to have become abundantly clear in this year's World Cup is that a squad of great players does not guarantee success.

The second factor is their tactics. The manager Vicente Del Bosque has been willing to leave the likes of Fabregas, Silva and Torres to warm the bench so as to create a cohesive unit on the pitch. Sacrificing individuals for the good of the team is a lesson that many managers from this summer's tournament ought to have learnt.

The final factor for their success is the strength of the Barcelona contingent in the side. Last night the Spanish set a record for having the most players from one club in an international match with seven players from the Catalan team. Pique, Puyol, Busquets, Xavi, Inneista, Pedro and the recently acquired Villa all started last night and, Villa aside, these players who play together week-in-week-out create the foundations on which Spain's success has been built.

The true test of any national team is to bring together clubs from different clubs wherein they play varying styles of football and to make them gel. Del Bosque's job has been made substantially easier by his the fact he can take the core of the best football team in the world and slot it into his Spanish team. This is why Busquets and Pedro are keeping the likes of Fabregas and Torres on the sideline.

With the 2008 European Champions improving with every game it is hard to see how Holland, who apart from their quarter-final with Brazil have faced relatively easy opposition, can overcome the challenge that awaits on Sunday. The Dutch are underdogs at around 3/1 to beat Spain.

The Netherlands do, however, boast an impressive streak of 14 consecutive wins and although they may not have been playing 'Total Football' they have been the most consistent performers in the tournament.

Fabio Capello, like many managers, can certainly learn from both the finalists, namely their use of the 4-5-1 formation. The road to the 2010 World Cup final has been littered with under-achieving teams while Holland and Spain have managed to find the balance between the personnel and a system that works. Although they may not have been as exciting as some football purists may have hoped, they have still been, for the most part, entertaining teams to watch.

Fans were pleading for England to play with a lone striker in South Africa but their wishes were never realised. Spain and Holland's use of the line-up allows for both side to retain possession, remain solid in defence and play with far greater creative freedom. The rigid 4-4-2 formation used by England became far too predictable and static and the fact that both the teams playing this Sunday play 4-5-1 is, in my opinion, no surprise.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

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