Sport in general

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A 48 teams FIFA Men’s World Cup? Yes please

Published January 11, 2017 by tootingtrumpet
FIFA's 2026 plan is not a load of World Cup balls

FIFA’s 2026 plan is not a load of World Cup balls

What’s a World Cup for? “To make money”, so the “Elite” (who aren’t getting a good press anywhere) can fly the world First Class, drink Dom Perignon champagne from golden goblets and, for all I know, pay Russian chambermaids to turn down their bed linen. But it’s also for the “World” (the clue’s in the name), so it strikes me as a good idea to invite as many guests as one can – within reason. Look at the FIFA’s decision to go to a 48 nation tournament for men from 2026, and the sniping and snarling it has provoked begins to appear a little like the media bemoaning a 50% increase in its “research” for all those “Ten players to watch” listicles that will start pretty much the moment the presentation ceremony of the 2022 shebang finishes.

Okay, there are genuine concerns about a bloated competition, the matches splattered over weeks like a Jackson Pollock painting superimposed on a 2026 calendar… but, heavens above, FIFA have actually thought it through and have devised an intriguing plan that preserves the current 32 days “Opening Ceremony to Bouncing For The Photographers” schedule . There are 80 matches to be played rather than 64, but is 16 more games once every four years really too much to bear? If we can stomach the Europa League (aren’t IFK Sheepshaggers playing CKSA Stasischaft in that competition’s preliminary qualifying round for the group stage play-offs somewhere next week?), surely a few more World Cup games will be okay, particularly with (I presume after a bit of haggling) some matches being played simultaneously on the red button – so you don’t, you know, have to watch all of them.

The three team groups format may mean fewer dead rubbers and, though the (mooted) penalty shoot-outs for 90 minutes draws are hardly satisfactory as a decider, if the actual bloody Final can go to pens, that ship has long sailed. Okay, shares in local bus companies may rise as national coaches look to park them, then hope their goalkeeper can give it the wobbly legs and sneak his team through, but recent World Cups have hardly been short of unambitious teams and dull defensive matches, nor the possibility of sides producing a mutually beneficial scoreline. Why not see if coaches do the equivalent of leaving two men up when defending a corner and decide that the best way to defend is to make opponents defend – getting their retaliation in first, so to speak?

The pundits’ version of “Who will think of the children?” is “What about the quality?”, a phrase of which I’ve heard plenty over the last few days on radio discussions, often from people whom I am sure would be hard pressed to name five countries ranked between 32 and 48 (the imperfect, but best, indicator of current “quality”) never mind the players comprising such squads. So who are these minnows tipping their hats to the regulars, “giants” (like England) who must agree to share their ball. the “no-hopers” set to pollute the purity of the 32 team tourney?

The current rankings suggest that the extra teams would include the likes of: Senegal, Ivory Coast, Tunisia, Egypt, South Korea, Algeria, Romania, Paraguay, Sweden, Greece, Czech Republic, Serbia, Japan, Denmark, Australia, DR Congo. Okay, not many likely winners there, but plenty of contributors – all of them worthy of being described as “dangerous floaters” in any draw, certainly as far as England are concerned.

But the qualifying competitions are structured so a straight “Top 48” to progress to the Finals will not happen because each confederation has an allocation: Europe 16 teams (13 currently); Africa 9 (5); Asia 8.5 (4.5), South America 6 (4.5), Concacaf 6.5 (3.5), Oceania 1 (0.5), Host nation 1 (1). Who wants to deny Africa and Asia that representation given that football is the global game and the continent’s players’ tremendous progress over the last generation? South America only get 6 qualifiers, but that’s from the 10 nations in that confederation. Thus the Jackson Pollock tournament begins to  look more like a Piet Mondrian, the blur resolving into something quite neat.

In as much as World Cups can be summarised, my experience of the Finals since 1970 is one of a flattening of differences in talent, tactics and skills: the lesser teams are more competitive; the top teams less dominant. A true “World” Cup Finals should reflect the world, with as many hats thrown into the ring as possible. FIFA’s clever plan balances that objective with a manageable schedule (easily accommodated in a limited number of stadiums given 21st century pitch preparation and recovery) to the benefit of all.

So, England to play Mexico and Senegal in their group matches in 2026? What times are the kick-offs?

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Rio Olympics – Ten To Watch

Published June 28, 2016 by tootingtrumpet
So I can go back to Spain now?

So I can go back to Spain now?

Zika Panikova – Will team up with fellow Ukrainian Ivana Jabnow in the women’s doubles, where they intend to cause havoc in the tennis.

Ray N. Forest – American golfer ranked 370 in the world. Favourite for the gold medal.

E.P.O. Putin – Russian 50km walker whose recent world record bettered the marathon world best by ten minutes.

Skinnilatte Venti – Italian long jumper said by some to have his name on a medal.

Favela Kerfu – Unpopular local, but likely to challenge in the shooting events.

Charlie Coker – As usual, he’s likely to feature strongly in the Closing Ceremony.

P.K. Nelson – Rio taxi driver who guarantees the shortest time from city centre to Olympic Stadium, and, maybe, back.

Anna Konda – Big hope in the wrestling, with her famous strangle hold likely to kill off opponents.

Cameron Brexit – Pole vaulter who sensationally cleared a high bar last week, but now looks likely to spend months on the sidelines as his coaches squabble over what comes next for him.

Robin Hoodie – Teenage Brit who aims to take gold in the Archery (and if not, silver – or just cash).

Slaying The Badger by Richard Moore – revisited and reviewed

Published August 20, 2014 by tootingtrumpet
The greatest kit in sports history

The greatest kit in sports history

Bernard Hinault was The Patron of the peloton, the four-time winner, the force of nature – in the unwritten, but understood and fiercely enforced rules of the Tour de France, that gave him rights, rights he was very happy to exercise. In 1985, he had used this throwback to a version of droit de seigneur (and his team leadership, though that seemed almost incidental) to stifle the opportunity of his young team mate, Greg LeMond, to ride for the maillot jaune. Though injured and riding as much on reputation and that ferocious will as physical power, Hinault’s record equalling fifth jersey was secured in Paris: in return, LeMond secured a promise (well, a sort of promise) that Hinault would ride for him come 1986.

Richard Moore’s Slaying The Badger is the story of that unforgettable Tour, a story that holds its mysteries to this day. It speaks of a race that is now gone forever – not just because it was written prior to Lance Armstrong’s confession that sliced cycling history into a “Before and After”, but also because the 1986 Tour is so very French, the domain of radio-free riders grabbing information and instructions on the fly and still rooted in cycling’s long gone culture of riding hard and playing hard. There are no marginal gains here, no diet sheets and no hypodermics either..

The book sets up – aided by long and (mainly) frank interviews with its key personalities – the men whose actions decide the 1986 Tour. What seemed at the time like madness (I watched the nightly Channel 4’s coverage avidly, bewitched by even bit-part players like the great Colombian climber, the wildly attacking Lucho Herrera, never mind the two main men) becomes, if not quite explained, then certainly explicable, as a set of characters who surely could have been invented by Anton Chekhov, emerge to duel in the sun.

Hinault’s force of will is illustrated with the already legendary deeds of winning in the snow of Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the mud of Paris-Roubaix; in his ascent from a ravine into which he and bike had tumbled, rising to use the spare machine to win 1977’s Criterium du Dauphine Libere; in his leadership of a riders’ strike in his first Tour and his willingness, even today, to take the direct physical action French farmers such as he employ to deal with those invading their space. Though a brawler in both the metaphorical and literal senses, Hinault emerges as a man who knows his obligations as much as his rights, not so much a monster as a man who could be monstrous when required.

LeMond is, of course, his opposite. Prone to self-doubt, American and so, so keen to be seen to be doing the right thing, only his extraordinary physical attributes give him anything in common with the Hero of France. Hinault knew that LeMond would win the Tour – as proud a champion as he would only assert that he could handle LeMond so forcefully, so frequently if he felt it needed to be said – but he didn’t want him to win in 1985 and, when the combat went mano-a-mano in 1986, he didn’t really want him to win then either.

Managing these two most alpha of alpha males in the same team was Dr Paul Kochli, a technocrat who logged riders’ data on 80s era computers and preferred to focus on the team rather than the rider – it was not a recipe for harmony at La Vie Claire. Behind him lurked a man for whom harmony was anathema and victory was expected, the larger than life team owner, Bernard Tapie – industrialist, singer, jailbird. Tapie loved the limelight and the Hinault-LeMond saga gave him plenty of that.

1986’s Tour was a combustible mix and it caught fire when Hinault decided to “stir things up” with a series of random attacks to which his team-mate LeMond was not privy (nor was the anglophone half of La Vie Clair). Was Hinault reneging on his promise of a year earlier? Was it really ever made? Was he riding to reduce the field to himself and LeMond to ensure a La Vie Claire man on the top step of the podium supported by another just one rung down? Or did he glimpse a sixth Tour and immortality with just a Yankee kid in the way?

As the book follows the stages of 1986’s Tour, Hinault’s mind games get to LeMond and they get to the reader too. Is Hinault bold and brave, tilting one last time at one of sport’s greatest prizes with the panache of his youth? Or is he cruelly playing every card in his hand against a team-mate to whom he owes, at the very least, a moral obligation to support? In an astute afterword, David Millar’s nuanced interpretation rings most true – but we’ll never really know.

It’s no surprise to learn that the book has been adapted into one of ESPN’s series of sports documentaries as it’s a page-turner full of suspense, humour and no little pathos. It’s also a reminder of why my generation fell in love with the sport, despite its flaws which were to metastasise in the two decades to follow into the obscenity of Armstrong’s bullying, lies and the culture that supported them. Richard Moore’s research, his love of the race and his respect for its riders rekindled memories undimmed by the passage of time (that iconic La Vie Claire jersey hardly fades does it) but also the joy of discovering a sport with so vast a canvas, a sport that so brutally revealed human character and, yes, a sport that was such fun to watch. Hinault may have stirred the race, but the Tour stirred our souls.

A day at Wimbledon

Published June 24, 2013 by tootingtrumpet

IMG-20130624-00635At 8.00am, the ground is still damp with overnight dew, but the clouds look thin enough for the midsummer sun to burn them off – if the midsummer sun ever returns to England. The ultra efficient queuing system that so impressed me three years ago is not so, well, unEnglishly efficient this time round and the cold bites as the time drags.

There’s shoe-friendly plastic laid on the grass in the park where the queue assembles – but, inexplicably, not for the first 100 yards or so. There are fewer stewards than I recall and the famous queuing card has not been issued some 40 minutes after arrival. Wimbledon 2013 is making a few unforced errors.

Some things don’t change. The queue is multi-national if not exactly multi-cultural and the absence of English voices allied to the long snaking lines and the security both explicit and implicit, gives the place the feeling of an airport without planes. And somebody really should be selling us coffee – or, if it gets any colder, whisky.

By midday, one reason for the slow pace of everything becomes clear. Just eight security stations with both x-ray and bag search (why both?) decanted into 20 turnstiles, most of which were inevitably idle. That’s not good enough and neither is the fact that the gates opened at 10.30am for an 11.30am start. The £20 entry fee was low in 2010 when I last queued and it’s even better value today, but the experience is much diminished.

To Court 16, where lots of Japanese fans cheer quietly and sigh softly as Ms Doi’s all or nothing game produces errors and winners aplenty. Eventually Ms Soler-Espinoza’s weight of stroke overpowers the tiny Doi and it’s game, set and match. The quality goes up a few notches for Ms Cirstea vs Ms Voegele, but power is still very much the determining factor in women’s tennis – even more obvious up close than on television. Ms Cirstea shows that the rankings seldom lie and goes through in straight sets.

Come 3.30pm, old hands Xavier Malisse and Fernando Verdasco pitch up in front of a standing room only crowd. They’ve been round the block these two, and the warm-up is somewhat desultory – no need for mindgames here. At 29 and 32 respectively, they don’t look like they’ve the condition to play 35 sets of singles in a fortnight, but they give a splendid display of topspin and slice, ball and racquet in perfect harmony, before Verdasco’s greater skills triumph. His shiny black hair will represent Spain in Round Two, even if its favourite son is already back home.

Wimbledon was not as slick as I recall from previous years, but its plenty slick enough to warrant a visit – even if you’re a local. Especially if you’re a local.

That Petrol Emotion – Motor Racing at the BBC

Published April 6, 2013 by tootingtrumpet

hawthorneAs much as I despise the BBC’s touchy-feely, human interest-led, interactive approach to sport in which everything seems to be a 1980s Top of the Pops party with the heirs of Peter Powell presenting the shows in such a way that the sport is incidental to the promotion of an audience experience as inclusive as possible aimed squarely at the lowest common denominator whose imagined finger is poised on the remote and with a mind wandering to the Jeremy Kyle Show unless an angle can be found that reveals the journey traversed by the sport personality, their pain, their disappointments and their imminent redemption (“How does it feel?”), I loved The Rock and Roll Years. The clarity, the crispness, the sheer bloody confidence to add nothing at all but a music soundtrack to ropy old pictures, made it one of my favourite programmes ever.  Francis Welch had the bleedin’ obvious and bloody genius idea to do that with the BBC’s motor racing archive  – and That Petrol Emotion is the result.

Few sports look better in the old days – football looks too slow, athletes, with one or two exceptions, look like ordinary blokes and you can’t even see the ball half the time in the cricket. But motor racing? Oh motor racing was so much more beautiful, so much more thrilling, so much more alive (even with the Grim Reaper’s finger continually tapping on the windshield) in the old days.

There’s doomed Mike Hawthorn in his bow-tie winning a World Championship and unexpectedly so shy in interview; the nonpareil Fangio, fat and bald but with ice in his veins; the impossibly handsome Stirling Moss chatting to a devilish Colin Chapman; and Jimmy Clark, on his farm tractor, the quiet everyman who might just have been the best of them all. Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart do their turns of course, and there’s a sight or two of the likes of Denny Hulme and Jackie Oliver with James Hunt’s glinting eye and fierce will to come. I haven’t seen Jochen Rindt or Ronnie Peterson yet, but I’ll get upset again when I do.

And the cars! From the curves of the science-fiction machines of the 50s to the sleek lines of the rear-engined 60s F1 missiles to the first experiments with the aerodynamicists’ crazy looking bolted-on wings, every last one of them is a vision – pretty much devoid of sponsors’ logos and identifiably a car. The circuits are also clearly roads or purpose built tracks that look like roads  – kerbs, lamp posts and walls boast a couple of straw bales as protection for a car hitting them at nearly 200mph. Camera positions at the likes of Monaco and Spa are different, so we see unexpected perspectives on old favourites. Fire is an ever-present hazard, but mechanics still smoke in the pits while they ready jerry cans of fuel for the cars.

There’s no omniscient voice to explain, judge or apologise for any of this – just the men (always men) who did so at the time. Raymond Baxter is outrageously posh and paternal, but he knows his stuff (he was a fighter pilot so he knew all about facing down death day after day and a decent rally driver, so he knows the skills required to keep a car on an icy road with the foot down hard). Other raffish middle-aged products of decent public schools and Oxbridge happily describe cars as being like girlfriends, stereotype Italians in a way that would make Paolo Di Canio blush and give the overarching impression that the British are the natural leaders of the world. It’s not so much offensive at this distance as sweetly quaint.

There’s no smart-arsery in cutaways to Jimmy Carr or Miranda Hart to give an ironic glaze and capture the twenty-something demographic, just a willingness to let these grainy, glorious, foolish pictures speak for themselves. It’s not on the i-player because of bloody rights issues of course, but there are clips on the website here and you can still catch some episodes on BBC Four. And you should. You really should.

Old Films revisited, reassessed and reviewed – La Course en Tete

Published February 22, 2013 by tootingtrumpet

EddyThe man who was so often The Leader of the Pack (La Course en Tete) was Eddy Merckx, the greatest cyclist in history and, it must be said, an astonishingly beautiful human being. Joel Santoni’s film tells us that and much else, but leaves the enigma of the man as impenetrable as ever.

Starting with the pain of defeat – much the greatest pain shown on Merckx’s notoriously impassive face over the next two hours – in the controversial 1973 World Championship (causing a rift with Freddy Maertens that has never really healed), the film traces the contrasts of joy and pain in Merckx’s life on the road and at home. There’s the joy of family life with Claudine and kids and the pain of crashes on the track and road; there’s the joy of reflection on victories and the pain of the muscles being brought back to life by his loyal soigneur; there’s the pain of doping allegations (ever so briefly raised and dropped) and the joy of the jerseys and trophies accumulated by the man who could bear pain better than any other.

It’s in the details that the film excels. Bikes are perfect triangles of thinnest steel tubing, obviously designed on graph paper with a ruler and pencil. Team jerseys are of lightweight wool, with sponsor’s names etched in such continental calligraphy. Riders are free of helmets and sunglasses, their sacrifices on climbs and in sprints lain bare before our eyes. Crowds crowd the riders, on the roads and at the finishes. Everyone wants a piece of Merckx, many literally swiping his hat and anything else as he is consumed by an adoring public and jealous Italians.

We learn little of Merckx the man. That he hated losing is hardly a revelation nor that he obsessed over his bikes, fetishising the components, fiddling with saddle heights and cassettes, watching mechanics like a hawk, partly to make sure they did their jobs with the same single-mindedness as he did his and partly (one suspects) in envy for their shelter from the public and their long hours in the sole company of bicycles.

Of the rider, there’s ample evidence for his nickname, “The Cannibal”. He pushes big gears up mountains riding tempo until there is nobody left on his wheel and then rides tempo to the finish to win with a momentary smile. His style is reminiscent of Jan Ullrich in his glory days. At other times, he looks ugly on the bike, out of the saddle and over the handlebars, fighting against the gradient – like Cadel Evans trying to suck a wheel. In time trials, he attacks the course, showing it no respect, dismissing it from under his wheels – like Fabian Cancellara at his best. We see Merckx winning sprints, but there’s no evidence of a real jump, more the relentless ability to go faster than anyone else, no matter what the circumstances.

As ever when a camera is pointed at the Giro or the Tour, there are breathtaking landscapes through which the cyclists ride and some fantastic shots of the kind of medieval towns through which the Giro passes every year. The best shots have the more terrible beauty of the mountains, especially descents in rain, even full storms, in which Merckx shows that he may have gone uphill like Ullrich, but he descends like Pantani – Merckx was a bike handler nonpareil.

There’s a lot wrong with the film – the music is ill-judged and intrusive and the cuts from massage to the day’s climb are too cliched – but it is a remarkable chronicle of a remarkable man at a time when cycling, with its grands tours and monuments, was undeniably foreign, untouched by the familiarity that comes with global sponsors, live television and cheap air travel. The footage is but forty years or so old and Merckx himself isn’t yet 70, but one is looking in on a world gone forever. It is to M. Santoni’s credit that he brings so much of that world to the screen.

You can see La Course en Tete by clicking here.

(This review will also be published at Made Good.)

Rough Ride by Paul Kimmage

Published February 3, 2013 by tootingtrumpet

RRIt’s sat on my shelf for over a decade. Unlike the back copies of Procycling and Cycle Sport in the loft and under the bed, it didn’t grow so distant so quickly, as chronicles of the near past so often do. It had no photos of fallen heroes, no photos of those heroes not yet fallen, no photos of those who may be heroes yet (Boardman, Obree and Lemond and…). But I hadn’t read it, hadn’t wanted to break the spell woven by the voices of David Duffield and Phil Liggett (“IT’S ROCHE!”), hadn’t wanted to know what I merely believed. After reading David Walsh’s Seven Deadly Sins last weekend, the time had come to pick up its precursor.

For a while, it’s rather an ordinary, almost apologetic, read. Kimmage wants to emulate his father and win bike races – he soon does, and joins three other Irishmen, giants of 80s cycling Stephen Roche and Sean Kelly and fellow domestique Martin Earley on the continental pro circuit. There’s some laddish banter, some old bastard managers with hearts of gold (and plenty without) and some minor successes. The only unusual aspect of this rise to the middle is the author, a spiky young man, quick to judge (but usually right) with a gift for observation and recording that marked a talent for writing that had much more potential than his talent for bike racing. (Though he was no loser on the bike – he did his job and he did it well)

Then suddenly, the curtain is drawn and we’re ushered into the murky enclaves of professional cycling. It’s a looking glass world in which those not taking a “charge” are the immoral ones, letting down their mates. There’s the vicious weeding out of the “weak” of body and mind by the managers’, by the fan’s, by the sport’s insatiable desire to win. And there’s the brutality of the races: long miles in the cold, up and down mountains, day after day in which the losers are not those placed behind the winner, but those who get off – it’s as close to gladiatorial combat as is legal, and, boy, did we love it for that. People, as they do, learn to cope – the riders ran for the shelter of the pro cyclists’ little helper.

Kimmage didn’t want that. He remained as true as he could to his romantic image of what cycling could be. He weakened as far as the strong stuff three times in the narrative, but not to win – to survive. Even as clean as he was, hs story is an unedifying tale of needles in bums, suppositories up bums and of dodging the Keystone Kops of the doping controls. Don’t put your daughter (or son) in a stage Mrs Worthington.

Eventually he has had enough of the whole thing and swaps sitting behind the handlebars for sitting behind a computer – and, to his genuine surprise, discovers that he’s a better writer than rider. The diary pieces after stages of the Tour and the Giro are vivid portraits of life on the road, made all the more powerful by being headed by that day’s stage winner and maillot jaune – men never referred to in each day’s account. They might as well have been on another planet – often they were.

23 years after its first publication, the book has little to reveal to the cycling fan who has had eyes to see – cycling’s stars have often been treated like Chuck Connors in Branded. Through those 23 long years, Kimmage (like David Walsh) has been ostracised for “spitting in the soup”, speaking truth to power and challenge the alliances of sponsors, cyclists, managers, doctors and administrators who needed the show to go on, despite all that they knew. He lost friendships and found himself sued by his heroes for talking about a hit of amphetamine on the road, the setting up of a few criteriums and the occasional oiling of inter-team alliances with money – all stuff every cycling fan knew about and largely accepted. I know I did.

Now a journalist, he and Walsh began to find out about stuff stronger than that taken at most nightclubs in Europe. Hormone supplements are only hinted at in Rough Ride, but the genie was already out of bottle. EPO was allowing the riders to fly ever closer to the sun and to fall ever further if they got it wrong, as the blood thickened and the heart just couldn’t pump it. Kimmage’s book was a warning to the future and it was largely ignored by those with the power to do anything about it. And we know where that story ended last month.

Today David Walsh has revealed that he will live with Team Sky this season – the troll no longer under the bridge, but at the heart of cycling’s Number One team. His insider’s tale will be quite different from Kimmage’s – but did there have to be so many casualties laid out on the road between them? The UCI may have to answer that question very soon – and I hope Paul Kimmage is among the inquisitors.

(This review will also be published at Made Good.)