Thursday, 29 October 2009

England must flaunt its assets to attract the World Cup

Frank Skinner and David Baddiel’s terrace anthem, Three Lions, perfectly captured the anticipation with which England eagerly awaited the return of its sporting offspring. And, for just over three weeks in June 1996, football really did come home.

Okay, so Skinner and Baddiel’s prophetic claims that England could end thirty years of hurt were about as misguided as Gordon Brown’s belief that he can successfully navigate the forthcoming general election. But, that does not mean that Euro ’96 was a complete failure.

In fact, what the tournament emphasised - aside from England’s ability to capitulate under the weight of expectation - was that the country is capable of successfully hosting major sporting events.

However, our bid to host the 2018 World Cup is proving to be rather arduous and, unfortunately, the process itself has become less-than transparent.

According to FIFA guidelines, bidding countries must boast ‘approximately 12 stadiums with a minimum capacity of 40,000 for the group stages and 80,000 for the opening match and final.’ In addition to this, these countries must also demonstrate ‘the highest standards of TV broadcasting, information and telecommunications technology, transport and accommodation.’

Evidently, England is capable of satiating even the sternest FIFA representatives on these fronts. Yet, there are certain influential characters within the morally-questionable FIFA hierarchy who may prove significantly more difficult to impress; these are the sorts of characters that may feel more comfortable shouting in the House of Commons, than singing on a football terrace.

Vice-President Jack Warner has already expressed his ambivalence towards England’s bid, arguing that they are “not making the most of their attributes.” So, like a cheap floozy in a backwater brothel, England must do its best to woo Mr Warner. That means that we must flaunt our curvaceous stadia and most attractive broadcasters (consequently, Adrian Chiles is excluded).

Indeed, Warner has previously claimed that “England is an irritant,” and that “nobody in Europe likes England.” He has since retracted those remarks, but the FA will obviously need to promote themselves more shamelessly than a glamour model, if they are to secure Mr Warner’s vote. And, sadly for England, his ability to control the votes of the CONCACAF nations may prove crucial to the outcome of the election.

Therefore, it may be wise for the FA to succumb to the blatant inducing of crucial voters. Perhaps, just perhaps, they should attempt to discredit their rivals in order to strengthen their own prospects.

Competition to host the tournament is provided by Japan, Indonesia, Australia, Russia, the U.S.A, as well as joint bids from the Netherlands and Belgium, and Portugal and Spain. If you examine FIFA’s election criteria, then it is not too difficult to find fault with the rival bids.

For instance, those who have had the misfortune of watching a FOX News broadcast will know that it falls well short of meeting the ‘highest standards of broadcasting.’ Similarly, if you have ever stumbled across a Portuguese or Spanish soap opera - which are essentially Eastenders plus a concoction of Valium and Viagra - you may agree that they also fall short of the requirement. Also, let us not forget that Endemol, the company responsible for the Big Brother franchise, was founded in Holland. Surely, FIFA cannot overlook such broadcasting travesties?

Additionally, if you have ever attempted to deal with the customer services department of 3 Mobile, you will accept that Australian telecommunications leaves a lot to be desired. Meanwhile, the fact that a meagre 10 percent of the Indonesian population have access to the internet is an even worse condemnation of their telecommunications infrastructure.

Furthermore, recent statistics published by the International Transport Statistics Database claim that you are 60 times more likely to be involved in a road traffic accident in Russia, than in the UK. This is a sad indictment on Russia’s transport infrastructure when you consider the tracksuit clad, drum-and-bass-loving types that can often be seen cruising the streets of the UK.

As for Japan, erm, they have a thriving film and broadcasting industry, excellent transport and telecommunications, superb stadia, and fantastic accommodation facilities… FIFA are going to award it to Japan, aren’t they?

Saturday, 30 May 2009

Long Live the King

Ever since he unexpectedly announced his retirement from boxing, the spectre of Floyd Mayweather Jr has loomed large over the sport.

Well, the self-proclaimed 'cash-king' is back with his ego and bags of dollars in tow. 'Money May' will return to the square circle against the outstanding Mexican Lightweight Champion Juan Manuel Marquez.

Given the natural size difference between the two-men most observers expect Mayweather, regardless on any ring rust, to easily defeat Marquez. And a win against Marquez would help setup a super-fight with the current pound-for-pound champion Manny Pacquiao.

That clash would make hundreds of millions in pay-per-view subscriptions, but more importantly, it could determine which man can lay claim to the title of the generations best fighter.

It is a fascinating match-up; a clash of styles, personalities and cultures. A life-line to the sport and certainly the shot in the arm that boxing desperately needs.

Style and Substance

There is an old Chinese proverb which states that: 'It's only once your house burns down that you can see the sun.'

Well, on Wednesday evening Manchester United's house came crumbling down in rather spectacular fashion. The current English Champions were exposed and humiliated by a Barcelona team who practice a brand of football that is lightyears ahead of anything else.

Prior to kick-off the so-called experts were predicting a tense, competitive finale to Europe's biggest cup competition. However what transpired was 90 minutes of Barca dominance and United dillegence.

The Brits provided the sweat and the Spainards provided the style.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Culture Clash

Fact: top level sport thrives on bitter rivalries. Tension creates drama, and drama in turn creates entertainment. And few modern day sporting rivalries can claim to be as acrimonious as that between the Indian and Australian cricket teams.

It is a contest that matches the Ashes in terms of significance, controversy and pure white-knuckle style entertainment. However to truly understand the depth of feeling it is important to understand both the history of the match-up and the context of it.

Throughout the last decade India have been the only team to consistently challenge the all-conquering Australians in both forms of the game. Despite the fact that India have only occasionally occupied the no. 2 spot in the official world rankings, the superstars in the Indian line up (Tendulkar, Laxman, Dravid etc.) have always been able to rise to the challenge of confronting the Australians. Beyond the closeness of the games, there have been numerous sub-plots that have added an extra layer of intrigue to the contest, though not all of these asides have reflected well on the game of cricket.

In the most recent series held in Australia at the turn of this year, there were accusations made against spin bowler Habajan Singh, alleging that he had racially abused Andrew Symonds. The charges brought against Singh were eventually dropped after the Indians had threatened to withdraw from the tour; the incident almost caused a diplomatic crisis. Since that time the two sets of players have continued to trade insults through the media and there is a very real danger that the tension could spill over when they face off in the 1st Test.

Beyond the purely sporting, on-field acrimony there exists an off-field tension that has creates an interesting back-drop for the series. Both countries occupy unique positions in world cricket: Australia is the dominant force in the game whilst Indian is the commercial powerhouse.

So when MS Dhoni and Ricky Ponting walk out for the coin toss later this week prepare yourself for another predictably unpredictable contest.

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Patience is a Virtue

Talk about hastily drawing conclusions. Barely three games into Dimiter Berbatov’s Manchester United’s career and the temperamental Bulgarian is already being whispered about as another of Sir Alex Ferguson’s white elephants.

The number 9 has thus far been a noticeably ineffectual force for his new club; appearing unfit and unable to link up with United’s other forwards. Writing in his weekly column in The Daily Mirror Stan Collymore, a man who should know a thing-or-two about squandered talent, remarked that: “… unless (Berbatov) bucks his ideas up, he could find himself on the bench for Manchester United.”

However such a judgement seems astonishingly ill-considered given that Berbatov has proven international and domestic pedigree. In 63 international appearances for Bulgaria the forward, who also captains his national team, has scored an impressive 41 goals and in his two years at Tottenham he achieved similarly impressive results. Indeed given that Berbatov only appeared in a few of Spur’s pre-season games his lack of form and fitness can hardly be considered a surprise.

Sir Alex Ferguson has reluctantly admitted that his latest signing is still searching for his best form but he remains justifiably confident that Berbatov will flourish. Ferguson said: “When we understand how good he is in terms of his movement and ability to lead the line, then we’ll get the best use out of him.” On Saturday afternoon in United’s match against Bolton the football-public were treated to a taste of just what a United team, with Berbatov in tow, are capable of. The introduction of Wayne Rooney in the last few minutes of the match seemed to inspire Berbatov to produce the kind of elegant, effortless football that persuaded Manchester United to invest £30 odd million pounds in his talent.

Although Berba could never be described as the missing piece in United’s jigsaw given that last season they won a European Cup and Premier League double. It is fair to suggest that his sheer size and physicality makes him unique to United’s two other senior centre forwards- Carlos Tevez and Wayne Rooney. At 6 foot 2 inches Berbatov is able to act as a reference point for all of United’s attacks and he is also able to perform equally competently as the front man in a 4-5-1 formation.

Whilst physical limitations may continue to restrict his influence in the immediate future, there should be little doubt that Berbatov will eventually make a significant impact at Old Trafford. His whole persona is suited to everything that comes with playing for Manchester United and as he showed briefly on Saturday afternoon whatever happens, it is guaranteed to be entertaining.

Saturday, 10 May 2008

Selling Out

Saturday 6th October 2007 was both a remarkable and historic date in the history of English football. The date will not be remembered for any particularly astonishing results or incidents, but for the fact that only one game kicked off at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon.

Of course the big wigs at the Premier League protested that games had to be re-arranged because of the involvement of English teams in the UEFA Cup, and there is a certain degree of truth in that argument. However, there can be no escaping the fact that Television schedules are dictating kick-off times: football has become a product, and perhaps more disconcertingly, supporters have become customers.

"This is a matter of great concern," said Malcolm Clarke, chairman of the Football Supporters' Federation. He added that: “It's symbolic of the way things are going but the views of the match-going fan seem to be bottom of the list of priorities.”

When the Premier League was launched it was supposed to serve multiple purposes: to improve the performance of the English national team, to attract a new audience to the game, to glamorize the sport and generally give English football the kind of makeover that it desperately needed. The game in this country had its reputation badly tarnished by hooligan problems and an obsession with the long ball tactic. The Premier League was promoted as the antidote to all of footballs ills.

And to an extent it has been the antidote; problems with racism and hooliganism have decreased, there has been an influx of the best foreign talent and the perception of the English game on the continent has certainly improved. However televisions belated realisation that football could be a serious money maker has forever changed the sport, and the FA Premier League, or the “greed is good league” as it has been known, is leading the way.

Sports Minister Gerry Sutcliffe acknowledges that the commercialisation of the game is coming at the cost of your average match going supporter. He said that football authorities should be more willing to listen to views of the fans: “The Saturday three o'clock kick-off is a great tradition of English football and one that supporters, myself included, would like to see continue.”

Sutcliffe added that a better balance needs to be found between maximising profit and rewarding the loyalty of supporters. “While TV rights have contributed to the success of the Premier League- money from which is now filtering down to lower league and community football- fans concerns’ need to be listened to when fixtures are drawn up,” he said.

This commercialisation has manifested itself in a number of different ways, unfortunately none of which appear to serve the best interests of the supporters or the traditions of the game.

The advent of the Premier League coincided with flotation of a number of top-flight sides on the stock market: proof, if any were needed, that football is officially a business. Consequently an enormous financial chasm has developed between teams at the top of the pyramid and the teams at the bottom. Fixtures have become uncompetitive and the outcomes are often predictable.

The grim reality of the situation is that the game of football has sold itself out.

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It's Just Not Cricket

It is somewhat ironic that the game of cricket has been Americanized by a group of wealthy Indian bussinessmen. But the glitz and glamour, not to mention the vast wealth, of the Indian Premier League has totally turned the cricket world up side down.

The IPL, which is an inter-city Twenty20 competition which lasts for roughly two months, has overshadowed the beginning of the English county season and dominated the cricket agenda. The worlds best best players have been attracted to the competition by huge sums of money and the unquenchable thirst for the game in India. And whilst the tournament has not been a totally unqualified success, it has succeeded in laying the foundations for a competition which threatens the future of the world game.

The IPL has attracted substantial and long term sponsership deals with internationally recognised brands and the broadcasting rights have been sold for more than $1 billion in total. Amongst the current list of contracted players are Ricky Ponting, Shane Warne, Sachin Tendulkar, Shoaib Ahktar, Jacques Kallis, Daniel Vettori, Glenn McGrath and Ramnaresh Sarwan. Also the IPL are actively looking to recruit more star players for next years competition, and are especially keen to speak to memembers of the current England team including Andrew Flintoff.

Presently only one player currently in the England setup- Dimitri Mascheranas- has agreed to sign up for the competition, but others including star batsmen Kevin Pietersen have expressed an interest. The ICC and the ECB both worry that the money offered by the IPL could lead to the sports best players retiring early from the international game to exploit their commercial value in India.

Also the county game could be deprived of the best overseas talent because of the lure of the IPL, which would in turn damage the overall quality of the English domestic game. Clearly cricket has reached a cross-roads and for the games governing bodies there appears to be no obvious solution.

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