Chelsea give us the PowerPoint presentation on how to win at The Football Game.

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Chelsea 2 – 1 Wigan

English Premier League, Stamford Bridge, February 28th 2009

The corporate side of sport – and especially football – is a strange thing. On the one hand you feel like a right wanker sitting in some plush little room enjoying the finer things for free whilst all the punters around you eat reallycrap, really expensive pies. On the other hand, if you’re going to put up with nitwit footballers who get paid twice your yearly salary every week, you might as well do it in some style.

For those of you so far not lucky enough to have experienced the joys of watching sport from the corporate box, allow me to run through the absurdness of it for you.

You’re ushered into a cosy little dining room, being served your choice of champagne/wine/lager by a waiter, before being sat down to enjoy a nice piece of meat, salad (and I mean cous-cous with read and green pepper type salads, not rubbishy coleslaw or something) and a quiche-type thing. Then you speculate on which member of the Chelsea squad is gay and/or cheating on his WAG and why their marriage is a convenience thing. Then, a few minutes before kick-off you pop out of a little door onto your private section to watch the game from the smugness of the corporatate box whilst everyone around you who actually had to fork out serious cash for the privilege of watching overpaid footballers prance around ignore your annoying presence but not so totally that you don’t feel like a bit of a knob for being there.

In the end, Chelsea got away with the three points, despite Wigan looking worth a draw, and thanks mostly to Frank Lampard whose late, late header looped over Chris Kirkland who, despite being one of the tallest goalkeepers in the league, didn’t have the length of arm to keep it out.

But from the corporate box, all you can see is the corporate-ness of football. Now, in the end, corporate cash is what makes these sporting spectacles possible, and what makes them bigger and bigger every year. And let’s not forget it was corporate cash that got me my seat in that plush corporate suite. So I didn’t hate it, but there’s a limit.

Chelsea seem to be what I’m going to call a PowerPoint Football Club. They play like a PowerPoint presentation. They feel like a PowerPoint presentation. Linear; predictable; stifling. You can just imagine the bigwigs at Samsung, Etihad and Adidas discussing how Chelsea’s style of play should be like an ad campaign: creating synergies with their brand values and have a halo effect on their brand, therefore generating incremental sales, and all that rubbish. And I think the fans know it. They don’t really cheer at Chelsea. That would be off-brand. Instead they evaluate and measure effectiveness. In a word it’s boring. But at least those on the Shed End got a maximum return for their investment in tickets.

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The greats master the art; the greatest reinvent the canvas.

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Australian Open Men’s Final
Melbourne, February 1st, 2009

Reinvention. It was as beautiful as the Melbourne night sky. Yet another Grand Slam final played out by two of the greatest ever tennis players, was a true study in reinvention.

That Rafael Nadal won his sixth Grand Slam and maintained his apparent hoodoo over Roger Federer in Grand Slam finals is but a sub-plot to what was on display here. Here was a tennis match we should discuss and savour for as long as we play tennis. That’s not because it was the greatest tennis match ever played. It wasn’t. Their previous Grand Slam dalliance at Wimbledon in 2008 was better for its sheer technical brilliance. But that’s not the point. The point is that we should talk about this match in the context of all tennis because it proved that we, as sports players and fans, and as people, must constantly reinvent what we do and how we do it if we are to better ourselves and better the way we live.

Nadal has reinvented the sport of tennis. He plays it in a way no other player before him has ever done. Where we once marvelled at the pure grace and sublime skill of Roger Federer, and the way he seemingly played his tennis racquet as a virtuoso violinist would play a Stradivarius, now we gasp at the way Nadal moulds the entire edifice of tennis – the court, the racquet, the ball, the point – into what he sees fit.

Where Federer mastered the art, Nadal has completely reinvented the canvas. It was unthinkable, even at this time last year, that Federer would have to raise his own supreme level. And yet this is now the inescapable truth. His tears in defeat revealed not just that he knows this to be true, but also that he knows not where that next level will come from.

Of course there were moments when Federer was in the ascendancy and a victory for the Swiss looked possible, notably in the third set before the tie-break and in the fourth set. But in the wash-up, was victory ever truly in doubt for the Spaniard? Federer later felt that he gave the fifth set to Nadal. Of course he did; he was broken mentally through the sheer emotional effort of winning the fourth.

Nadal has the terrifying ability to reinvent parts of his game as he plays. Imagine facing up to a player knowing that you constantly have to better your best efforts – literally evolve your game – just to win the next set. That is a daunting prospect, and one that not many players, in any sport, are always able to do. Yet that is the problem Nadal poses because he himself is doing it; evolving, set after set, match after match.

Here we have a player who is changing the way we see the sport of tennis. Nadal has reinvented the tennis player’s physique; he has reinvented the way the ball is struck; he has reinvented the notion of defensive tennis; he has reinvented the importance of the service break. But most importantly, he has reinvented the nature of the game to make it a combative sport where, like in boxing, pain is a barrier that must be burst through in order to clinch victory.

In his book The Meaning of Sport, Simon Barnes hypothesises that the great champions in all sports are great because when they don’t like their reality, they change it. They impose their will on their environment. Federer has achieved this out of necessity, but Nadal seems to do it out of habit. This is the difference between them and the apparent reason Nadal has beaten Federer in their last three Grand Slam final matches, even in Federer’s stronghold: Wimbledon. Nadal can reinvent any reality Federer attempts to impose. He has a grasp of the building blocks of physics that Federer can but marvel at. For now, anyway.

I say for now because champions like Roger Federer don’t just go away. They look deep in themselves and when all the tears have dried they find that next level. They appreciate what the likes of Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg and Andre Agassi have done before them and they strive to prove, again and again, that sport is at its best when its players have to reinvent themselves and their sport and that only when we exceed our own expectations do we truly become better, not just as sports people but as people.

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Barber shop punditry: Kaka ‘sucks’

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Marylebone Barber Shop.

January 16th, 2009.

Sadly, my barber friend is feeling the pinch. A few weeks ago my usual opener ‘how’s your week been?’ was met with a tentative ‘not great, but can’t complain.’ Now when I give him my usual opener the response is a touch more frank: ‘bloody awful.’ Haircuts, it would seem, are not recession-proof.

Football clubs aren’t either, according to Arsene Wenger. Except Manchester City, that is. But Manchester City aren’t really a football club anymore, are they? They’re a football club in name only. What they are is a bizarre mass of money and talk, making bewildering noises that football purists can’t believe, but which the money-men can’t get enough of unsurprisingly.

So my barber friend is justifiably pissed off that when he makes 500 quid a week doing something useful for society – short-back-and-sides keeps crime down, true story – footballing no-hoper Kaka gets 500,000 quid a week to kick a ball around and reveal that he ‘belongs to Jesus’ all the time. That is, of course, if City get their way.

‘This is the end of football…’ he sighed, trailing off under the drone of the clippers. ‘Kaka…Man City…this sucks.’

And there you have it. Is it just me, or has my barber friend quite perfectly summed up the ridiculousness of this entire saga? Our footballers, and our teams, are supposed to be our heros: we revel in the joy they bring us in tough times, in the moments they make us forget that the world outside the stadium is relatively crap, and in the fact that they fight for the club we believe in so desperately. Now they can crash a £200,000 Ferrari and not really worry about it, so it’s becoming increasingly difficult for us to find common ground with our heroes. When you can’t find common ground with your heroes, you start to forget why they were so heroic to you in the first place.

At this point I fell into a ponderous silence, afraid to say anything positive about football lest it be misconstrued as a defence of the indefensible.

Then my barber friend said ‘I can’t look at the football pages anymore.’ He paused. ‘Page 3 is the only thing that makes me feel better.’

And then I felt a flood of relief. Thank goodness, I thought, at least the recession can’t make us hate everything that’s good in the world.

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In a rock’n’roll world, classical sports should stay classic.

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The Masters of Snooker.

Wembley Arena, January 15th, 2008.

Music and sport have more things in common than you might think. Sport, like music, has different genres. Sport, like music, demands a physical and mental effort on the part of its participants. Sport, like music, moves in waves: teams, even entire competitions, can become popular or unpopular on the strength of the generation coming through (or not coming through). Sport, like music, has its superstars; its rockstars if you will.

The one thing that sport and music don’t have in common is the ability to mix genres seamlessly. In music, Metallica can play with a symphony orchestra, Run DMC can play with Aerosmith and Tom Jones can play with, well, anyone he wants. It’s called collaboration and, whether it’s good or bad, it’s almost always interesting.

When you try collaborations in sport, they always feel weird. It’s either a tad curious – see the Winter Biathlon – it’s a bit odd – thank you chess-boxing – or it’s downright ridiculous – anyone for underwater hockey? Something about trying to jazz up a particular sport by shoehorning another sport into it or setting it in a zanier environment or just chucking in a token member of the opposite sex to ‘create intrigue’ just doesn’t work.

But that’s why they do it, isn’t it? Jazz up their sport to make more people watch it. This is what Ronnie O’Sullivan, World Champ and undisputed rockstar (he broke a cue!), reckons needs to happen to his sport, snooker. O’Sullivan mentioned this week that snooker needed the kind of ‘glamming up’ brought to darts over the last ten years. That is, banging choons as the players walk out to the table, drunk fans holding up signs and wearing Shrek ears, and presumably a ‘7-point song’ that gets played every time a player pots the black.

Fair play to Ronnie, about three people were on hand to watch him win a 6-5 thriller over Joe Perry in the first round here on Sunday. But something feels wrong about getting the boys to wear badly fitting cabana shirts to play whilst a scantily clad female referee bends over to place the pink ball back on the table after giving it a sensuous rub.

Some sports are simply classical. Like classical music, they require a whole other level of attention and mastery and appreciation. Snooker is not meant to be a rock’n’roll show. It’s not meant to have players high-fiving the crowd after they win a frame. I place snooker in the same family as chess and golf: they are more cerebral than physical. They are meant to be played in an austere atmosphere because, bottom line, when you’re trying to get a small ball into a small hole somewhere far away or literally outwit your opponent, all by yourself, you just need everyone to shut the hell up.

Of course you could rock’n’roll up snooker, but then you just get this:

And as much fun as that might be to witness in reality, something would leave the sport altogether – it’s sense of self. Snooker doesn’t need to apologise for its nature; no sport should. Adapt and evolve (think time limits), yes; attempt a shameless, Madonna-esque attempt to ‘appeal to the kids,’ no. Because snooker is better than that, and its players are clever enough to be the force for change by modelling themselves differently, in the way Andre Agassi did for tennis or Seve Ballesteros for golf, not by remodelling the game itself. There’s a reason we still listen to Beethoven and Mozart a few hundred years after the fact: the classics never die. Snooker would do well to remember that.

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Idiot fan lights up ridiculously poor contest.

Cleverly, Susannah won't sit with non-Brazil fans.

Cleverly, Susannah won't sit with non-Brazil fans.

QPR 1 – 1 Coventry City

Loftus Road, January 10th, 2009.

As you’ve probably guessed from the picture, there wasn’t much to say about this match. Actually, sometimes there is nothing much to say about football. You spend your 30 quid on a ticket and sit in subzero conditions and watch. Then the match is over and you go home. Your life is neither enriched nor damaged by the whole thing; it just was what it was. Your life remains the same. And so try as I might, I simply could not find an interesting thing to say about QPR’s drab 1-1 draw with Coventry City. It was practically a non-event.

It’s moments like this that I wonder why we spend time looking for the bigger meaning or subtexts or themes in sport. It’s games like this that make me think that maybe there is just nothing to say. Coventry got a goal from a free kick taker who was wise to the the QPR goalie’s poor positioning, and QPR equalized with a header that came from a moment of indecisiveness between goalkeeper and defender. That’s it. 1-1.

But you tell yourself to wait and not be so dismissive. Maybe something around the game will give you a story to tell. Like the idiot Coventry fan who chose to sit with the QPR fans (the more moderate section, but home support nonetheless), and cheer like an idiot and taunt like an idiot when Coventry scored.  He actually had the courage to turn around and flip the bird (one on each hand) to the ranks of QPR supporters behind him. That idiot. He was lucky a steward was on hand to pluck him out of there and toss him into the away end. But part of me wished to see the full effect of his idiocy played out – namely via a kicking out the back of Loftus Road – just to teach him a lesson.

And sadly this is all I can take from this match. Fan idiocy. But more specifically, football fan idiocy; that heady mix of seen-it-all-before nonchalance and ‘I’ve been going to games for 30-odd years’ arrogance, with a dash of self-loathing for good measure. After all, the majority of footy fans live to see one or two truly great moments in their lifetimes. The rest, I suppose, has to get taken up with playing a game of chicken with the opposing fans, just to keep things interesting, or something.

There’s no bigger meaning here. Just a simple, short lesson, which is this: when at the football, on a bitterly cold day, with the home team playing pub footy, and the away team (who you support) scores, keep your arse on your seat, your hands in your pockets and your mouth shut. Or sit in the away end. (It works in reverse as well, so it’s actually two lessons for the price of one). And that’s all there is to say about that.

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Seduced by simplicity, a slave to the complex I now am

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Darts World Championship 2009
Alexandra Palace (and Lakeside), January 4th, 2009

Is darts the best game ever? Does sport get any better than a bunch of invariably fat (or fattening) guys throwing tiny arrows at a board as a crowd of pissed old-timers, fancy-dressed larrikins, pseudo-WAG chicks, dignified parents and B-grade celebs hold up signs with things like ‘I am The Stig’written on them and singing the darts song, all while going mental as a guy on a microphone shouts out ‘wuuuuuuuuuun-huuuundreddd-aaaand-aayyyyyteeeee!’?

Possibly not.

I recently posted an article on 10,000 Weekends that was written by an entrant in The Guardian’s Big Blogger 2008 competition. Blogger D’s treatise on the beauty of darts lay in the idea that darts, like life, is devastatingly simple: you’re either throwing good darts or bad darts. Sport is not some grand Rushdie-esque metaphor for life, but a rather more simple exposition. ‘The rest,’ as Blogger D points out, ‘is just window-dressing.’

And having spent the last three days glued to the telly, watching the action at both Lakeside and Alexandra Palace, I now know what Blogger D was really talking about.

In darts, unlike any other sport, there is simply nothing to talk about but the points. Leg by leg, set by set. Just the points. That’s it. The  pundits can’t rely on talking about different tactical formations, managerial mistakes, the strengths of kicking over running, beating a world record time, or any of the myriad other details other sports are predicated on. At one point during the Lakeside coverage, the commentators resorted to commentating on rugby  when they spotted some members of the Gloucester club side in the audience, particularly on how Wales are a very real possibility of doing the Grand Slam in the Six Nations this year. Then of course, there are moments like this that the commentators must dream of.

But back to the action. In darts you either ‘play well’ or ‘play badly.’ The analysis, if you were to call it that, only goes so far as discussing efficiency in the checkout and whether they could hit what they needed to hit. For example, when Raymond ‘Barney’ van Barneveld needed a double top to take a leg, and missed, the commentator sagely noted ‘he needed that.’ It was as refreshing as it was absurd.

(On a side note, if Roy Keane does get involved in sport again any time soon, I hope it’s in darts commentary. It seems custom-made for him. You can just hear Keano now: ‘he missed that because he’s a hack.’) 

But this is where I diverge from Blogger D, and from Martin Kelner writing on the Guardian Sportblog today. They argue that darts is simple. But they have been seduced by darts’ simplicity into thinking it is simple. Simplicity and simple-ness are two very different things. Simple means no substance; flimsiness; a ruthless reduction. 1 + 1 = 2 is simple. It is what it is.

Simplicity is divine. Simplicity is the art of somehow squeezing an endless complex of information and ideas and effort and skill into a bite-sized chunk. E = mC2 is simplicity. Yet the theorem invites exploration and proof and challenge, again and again, forever, with new results and ideas yielding themselves to the explorers time after time.

Of course darts is about getting to zero before the other guy. But the audience sits behind you. And they’re loud. And drunk. It’s like performing an appendectomy while your nurses sing karaoke. They say in football that when you take a spot kick the goal shrinks. But that’s nothing compared to those improbably small spaces on that improbably small board, which must feel leagues away from the oche.  Its complexity defies belief. But hey, it’s still just about getting to zero before the other guy, right?

Van Barneveld went from throwing a nine-dart finish in the quarter finals to being demolished by Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor in the final. His assessment? ‘Clearly practising 10 hours a day is not enough.’ What? Practising anything for 10 hours a day is bound to make you a millionaire at that thing. But such is the nature of darts that the seemingly simple act of throwing a metal pin into a bristle board is but the next exploration of the theorem. And some theorems elude and defy the best practitioners going around forever. Well, at least a year. Roll on Alexandra Palace 2010 for yet another attempt at cracking it.

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I survived an Old Firm derby and all I got was this stupid idea.

SOCCER-SCOTLAND/CELTIC-RANGERS

Rangers 0 – 1 Celtic
Ibrox, December 27th, 2008

Blood and thunder alone doth not a great football match make. It’s that simple. Passion is not enough to compensate for a glaring lack of quality. You can fill a stadium with as much derby rivalry (both the savoury and unsavoury varieties) as you like, but that won’t magically make mediocre players play better. Maybe they’ll play harder, but they won’t play better because they’re just not that good.

Here’s the match summary: the ball pinged around a lot; the crowd didn’t like things a lot; people kicked things a lot; managers pointed a lot; Scott McDonald scored a world-class goal; the ball pinged around a lot; the crowd didn’t like things a lot; people kicked things a lot; managers pointed a lot.

That’s it. One moment of quality in an entire 90 minutes of Old Firm derby. And this is purported to be on of the world game’s premier matches. One moment of quality. What a moment it was. But Scott MacDonald’s chest-knee-turn-volley combination – like something out of Ronaldinho’s playbook circa 2006 – was as outstanding as it was isolated.

People who think the Old Firm could just be plonked into the English Premier League are deluded. One moment of quality is not enough to beat the likes of Manchester United or Chelsea. It’s not even enough to beat Hull City. Maybe it’ll get a result against Newcastle United, but that’s not saying much now, is it?

On the evidence of this match, the only thing that would achieve is to provide months of schadenfreude for English fans at watching Scotland’s greatest clubs struggle in a relegation scrap. No, the Old Firm will have to learn to distinguish itself against English opposition if they are to avoid being branded like the new Scottish parliament building: a national disgrace. 

So, what to do then? We could just continue bemoaning the Scottish Premier League’s lack of quality and wishing the Old Firm could get to play better teams; we could resign ourselves to the futility of asking UEFA or miscellaneous FAs to do anything any time soon; or we could suggest something a bit spicy, just to see if anyone bites on it.

Here’s the pub sentence: let the Scottish champs scrap for a promotion place and send a relegated team from the English Premier League to Scotland.
 
Guffaw all you like, but give it a minute’s thought before consigning it to the dustbin marked ‘Bad Ideas 2009’ (where it probably belongs).

It would work something like this: of the three teams relegated from the English Premier League, one ends up in Scotland, possibly the eighteenth-placed team because in theory they should be ‘rewarded’ for not finishing last by being handed a seemingly easier road back into the Premiership. The nineteenth and twentieth-placed teams go to the Championship, as normal.

Then, at the season’s climax, the third and fourth-placed teams from the Championship would vie for the final promotion place with the Scottish champions and runners-up. If the Scottish teams don’t make it, they just head back to the Scottish Premier League to try again.

This is as much a reward for the Old Firm as it is a punishment for Premier League make-weights. Scottish club football is, on the whole, awful. But somehow getting the Old Firm into the English Premier league is only one part of the fixing Scottish football’s awfulness. Sending lesser English clubs the other way is bound to teach the Scots a thing or two about the quality required to play consistently against teams that acquit themselves year-in, year-out in a host of competitions, including the Champions League.

And given the pub team feel of this last Old Firm derby, it feels only right to point out the amusing side-benefits of this particular hair-brained scheme:

1. Seeing the Scottish champions fall in a Wembley play-off would provide at least 5 pages of fodder for the tabs.

2. The Scottish Premier League would have to give up its Champions League spot, which spares us all from the Groundhog Day that is Celtic or Rangers’ struggle in the group stage before being knocked out with a grand total of about one point.

3. With no Old Firm around to make the season a fait accompli by Christmas, witness the likes of Hearts and Hibs grapple with the idea that they might, just might, win something. At last.

4. We would be treated to wee Gordon and big Fergie teasing each other all season long.

5. Rangers fans would have to think of more creative (and less bigoted) put-downs than singing the Hokey Pokey. 

6. Soon-to-be-relegated rubbish teams like Manchester City and small-clubs-masquerading-as-big-clubs like Newcastle United get handed glamorous away fixtures at Thistle and Dundee.

7. It rewards also-ran Scottish teams like Thistle and Dundee and their fans by handing them glamorous away fixtures at Eastlands and St James’s Park.

I know what you’re thinking: it has massive holes in it; it highly implausible; it’s kind of ridiculous. But then again so was the Old Firm match last week, and so they (and the rest of the Scottish league) will remain unless we try something different. Meaningless matches like Rangers v AZ Alkmaar and Celtic v Basel week after week, or a play-off against Birmingham FC at Wembley for a shot at the best league in the world (with the added bonus of seeing Newcastle having to fight their way out of Scotland for the foreseeable future)? I know which one I’d rather see.

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