Monthly Archives: November 2008

Crikey! Aussies really are the sorest losers

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In his thoughtful book, The Meaning of Sport, Simon Barnes argues that the English are born to lose. He argues that losing is nothing to be ashamed of, simply something to manfully strive against. And because the English are so pre-disposed to sporting failure, it gives them an entirely different perspective on it, and indeed, on victory.

Oh how we Aussies could learn a thing or two from the English on how to lose well, especially when it comes to Rugby League, a sport in which Australia has experienced defeat about as many times as England has reached the semi-finals of the World Cup. When Australia finally lost the Rugby League World Cup after 33 years in possession of the trophy (have you ever heard of a more ridiculous dynasty in a sport that purports to have global status?), it was summed up in those two most punchy words, ‘cunt’ and ‘fuck.’

More specifically, it was ‘you’re the cunt who cost us the World Cup…you fucking cheat.’ This from the Kangaroos coach, Ricky Stuart, to Ashley Klein, the Briton who refereed the final game that Australia lost to New Zealand, 34-20. But that wasn’t the lot of it. The Aussies didn’t bother collecting their runners-up medals and even shirked the post-match dinner and drinks affair, in the process fobbing off members of the much-lauded Rugby League Team of the Century.

Is defeat really that hard to take? Really? And why is it seemingly so hard for Australia to lose? What is wrong with us?

Let’s go back to Barnes for a second. He reckons that when the national psyche is already prepared for failure, it makes the next defeat part of the ongoing cultural narrative, and in England’s case, makes their victories all the more important. When England win, they don’t really do the smug satisfaction thing. They do the ‘wow, that might not happen again for a really long time, good thing we won that’ thing.

Australia, on the other hand, becomes a collective basket case in the face of defeat. We’re a young country, and have spent the majority of our time proving we’re not just the rabble England chucked down south a couple of hundred years ago. So desperate are we to prove it, and so perfect an arena is sport in which to prove it, that a sporting defeat is like an assault on national identity. Consider the ‘big three’ defeats up till now:

1. England beats Australia in the 2003 Rugby World Cup final. This one really hurt. Australia got past the All Blacks in the semis (which no-one expected, don’t believe anyone who says otherwise), then got done by Johnny Wilkinson’s left boot. On home ground. The press then was all about how Wilkinson beat Australia; that England didn’t have a ‘team’ in the way Australia has a ‘team’; that only Australia wanted to play rugby the way it’s meant to be played. What a load of hogwash. It’s not like Australia didn’t see Wilkinson coming. It’s not like England’s forwards didn’t do their job in making space for him. It’s not like Australia didn’t depend on kicking just as much as England. The real tragedy of that result is that Elton Flatley’s supreme kicking in that game has been forgotten in the years since.

2. England beats Australia in the 2005 Ashes. This was simply a shock. No-one, perhaps even the English themselves, really saw this one coming. The media wrote it off as a weird, flukey event; that England were just lucky in victory, whilst Australia were brave in defeat. Attention immediately turned to ‘the next one.’ Rather than congratulate the English on a job well done, Australia started talking about how they would win the 2007 series 5-0. They did, incidentally, but starting that chat in 2005 before the England team had even done their lap of Trafalgar Square smacked of a badly banged up ego.

3. Italy beats Australia in the 2006 World Cup. This was more about naivety that anything else. Having qualified, Australians figured the Socceroos might as well go on and win the damn thing because, you know, we’re pretty good at other sports. But that is where international football had a surprise in store. International football doesn’t like plucky upstarts. It likes the established order. And Italy are the most established of that order. So when Lucas Neill ‘tripped’ Fabio Grosso to concede a penalty in the last minute of their round-of-16 match, a nation pointed a collective finger at the ‘cheats’ of world football, which included the referees. We’re honest, you’re liars. We’re physical, you’re weak. But that is what you get for supposing that the international order will be turned on its head because Australia finally managed to turn up.

And so back to Rugby League and this seemingly impossible defeat, and our reaction to it. Are we actually the worst losers in the world? My gut tells me yes. Where a country sees defeat as an outrage on our national sovereignty rather than what it simply is – the most common part of sport – is when we need to rethink things. Maybe we should just do what the Americans do and play amongst ourselves yet call everything a ‘world championship.’ That way we’ll never have to experience being beaten by another country. Yep, the sore loser in me thinks that sounds alright.

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Barber shop punditry: better than real punditry

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I just came back from my barber where the standard of punditry was excellent. Here’s the latest:

Chelsea ‘are rubbish.’

Liverpool will win the League. Crucially, they need a big dose of luck to get there but that is ‘what all teams need to win the title.’

Man United need Berbatov back in the line-up and doing ‘his Cantona thing’ to beat Man City on Saturday. Also, their failure to capitalise on Chelsea and Liverpool drawing their respective matches was ‘ridiculous.’

Portsmouth did themselves proud last night against AC Milan. In fact, they did England proud against those over-paid, pompous Italians. But Ronaldinho is still ‘the man.’

That’s the long and short of it. Pun intended.

What I like about it all is the directness. No guff; no fluff; just brutal, clear opinion. So here’s my idea:

Rebuild the entire barber shop on the Setanta or Sky set, so at half-time of this weekend’s Manchester derby or London ‘derby’, we can all be treated to such concise thought. And all while customers got their hair cut of course. Now that would be entertaining. Or at least more entertaining than the stock-standard phrases and quips turned out by former players in sharp suits, week-in, week-out. It would, of course, have to be called something pun-tastic like ‘The Cut Back.’ Would footy-lovers across the UK be interested in the rantings of John Smith who wants a number 4 or Pete Jones who just wants a bit off the top? I think they would. Don’t think so? I’ve got two words for you: Big Brother.

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Chelsea remain in purgatory; Gourcuff gives glimpses of heaven

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Bordeaux 1-1 Chelsea FC

Champions League, November 26th, 2008

It looks like Chelsea have to wait in football purgatory for another two weeks. Well, technically one more week, which is when Arsenal come to visit Stamford Bridge. But in the Champions League context, their match against CFR Cluj in a fortnight will decide if they get to go to football heaven or are consigned to football hell.

Hell, in the case of the club, is the UEFA Cup, the equivalent of bad sex in football terms: it’s still sex, but it’s ultimately drawn-out, overblown and boring. And it’s now a real possibility should they slip against the Romanians and Bordeaux somehow sack Rome. Hell for Luiz Felipe Scolari is Brazil, for that’s where he intends to go should his team fail to qualify for the last 16 and he presumably resigns.

In his article yesterday, Martin Samuel argued that Chelsea are potentially the next crisis club, especially if they were to suffer a reverse in France. They didn’t, but the image of the cartoon black cloud hovering over Stamford Bridge conjured by Samuel has yet to dissipate.

This contest between two former World Cup winners failed to produce any stand-out quality, except the occasionally dazzling Yoann Gourcuff who’s spin and left-shoot shot in the 26th minute was world class. In fact, it was Gourcuff who consistently made Bordeaux look interesting. Indeed, it was the playmaker’s dogged pursuit of Joe Cole that won his team a corner and, for the resultant kick, their equalizing goal through Alou Diarra. Expect English clubs to be sniffing around in the summer.

But for all Chelsea’s high-profile players, they made hard work of this and it told in the end. They held an industrious, and at times very clever, Bordeaux team at bay in the same way an older brother holds his younger sibling just far away enough to not get hit. But eventually they tired of it, they lost concetration, and they lost an important two points.

Nicolas Anelka gave Chelsea a lead that he could not have timed better if he himself has scripted it. The Frenchman chose the 60th minute to latch onto Frank Lampard’s pass and coolly slide the ball home, just as Didier Drogba was summoned to the touch line. With questions over the Ivorian’s future at the club looming, Anelka made his case for frontline hegemony, and forced his moody team-mate into a somewhat awkward celebration with his equally grumpy manager.

But eventually Bordeaux’s doggedness tired Chelsea out. With yellow cards mounting up for Ashley Cole, John Terry and Frank Lampard, the French side won a corner that was poorly marked, especially by Terry, from which Diarra capitalised. And the lack of discipline didn’t end there, as there was still time for Frank Lampard to throw a needless challenge at Gourcuff and earn a second yellow card. All of a sudden the home fixture against Cluj feels uncomfortable.

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Why it’s right to hate Cristiano Ronaldo.

'I'm the greatest'
Aston Villa 0 – 0 Manchester United
Villa Park, November 22nd, 2008

Let’s get all the obligatory stuff out of the way quickly so we can get down to elaborating on this article’s purposely inflammatory headline.

There was a lot talk around how Aston Villa would take it to Manchester United in this game. Villa have had a good season so far; Villa are ready to break the hold of the big four on the four Champions League places; Villa finally had the players, and in Martin O’Neill the manager, to do one over the Champions and make themselves quite comfortable in the upper echelon of the Barclay’s Premier League, thank you very much.

None of that happened.

In fact, all that did happen was a maybe-maybe-not penalty claim for the impressive Gabriel Agbonlahor towards the end of a high-tempo match, low on technical excellence but high on physicality. Villa didn’t get the penalty. The match finished 0-0.

But the more interesting sub-plot was, unsurprisingly, Cristiano Ronaldo. Let’s be clear now: this is not a rant about what a wanker (or winker, if you still will) Ronaldo is. His silver short-shorts fiasco was enough to settle that issue in the summer. This is no unsubstantiated strop. The evidence for this indictment was supplied by Ronaldo himself when he was subbed off by Sir Alex Ferguson around the 70 minute mark. And the comment is this: Cristiano Ronaldo is not a footballer, and that’s why we hate him.

We hate him because he uses the game of football to keep the bubble in which he exists, permanently inflated. Football to Ronaldo is but a buxom masseuse; just a reason to style his hair. To him, football is a mere plaything. And that’s why we’re right to hate him.

There is no doubting Ronaldo’s supreme talent. But if he’s not a footballer, what is he? Frankly, he is just a player of the game. A player. Not a footballer. And here is the difference: in all great footballers (as in all great athletes), skill is entwined with those intangible qualities that set the best men head-and-shoulders above their peers. Honesty; the willingness to muck in; an awareness of the bigger picture; graciousness for a highly-paid but ultimately frivolous life. Ronaldo lacks them all. Players showboat; they whine about what they didn’t get; they graze until they find greener pastures; they bite the hand that feeds them. In these aspects, Ronaldo is in surplus.

What will not be questioned here is his fitness, pace, close control, goal-scoring prowess, and appetite for destruction. But what must be questioned are his qualities as a man. For football at the highest level is a ruthless expose of a man’s soul and if they are left wanting in the analysis, 50,000 people are on-hand to witness it.

And Ronaldo was exposed at Villa Park. The window into his soul was opened wide as he made his way down the tunnel. Limping off, his leg as bruised as his ego, he felt compelled to remind the Villa fans close by that he, not them, was ‘number one.’ That he, not them, was a superstar. That he, not them, was stinking rich. That he, not them, was allowed to speak. He did it by pointing at himself, then pointing skywards, then pointing at himself again. You got that? I’m number one. Me. Not you. Me. Fuck you. And shut up. (He signaled that by holding that same finger to his pursed lips).

Ronaldo thinks that he is above the searching examination that is a football match. Ronaldo supposes that his skill, so sublime as it is, would not, could not, dare be usurped by some lowly tackler; someone who relies on sheer tenacity to win the ball, and the game. Ronaldo believes he is beyond all physical contact. That he is literally untouchable. Hence the little hands-on-hips tantrums he throws whenever he has adjudged himself to be wrongfully touched.

Aston Villa dealt with Ronaldo this time around. They dealt with him the way all players in opposing teams should deal with Ronaldo. They tackled him. They hassled him. They weren’t afraid of him. They denied him the freedom of the pitch. They ignored the hype. And yet it was always fair. Meaty, yes. But fair. And so every time Ronaldo went down under a challenge, which was under every challenge, referee Chris Foy saw no reason to halt play. No foul had been committed. So the players continued. They didn’t kick the ball out of play so he could receive treatment. They knew that there was nothing wrong with him. They refused to bow to his whining. The paying hordes knew there was nothing wrong with him. So they refused to give him the adulation he craves when he was replaced by Nani.

Instead, they jeered him. They jeered him because when they peered into his soul, they saw that there was no footballing character there. They saw that there was no character, full-stop.

If you could tap the collective consciousness of the Manchester United support, you may find they view Ronaldo as the kind of guy who finds a way to skip out on rounds when you’re at the pub, but is let off because he gets girls. They may never admit it, but United supporters must know Ronaldo fancies himself as bigger than the club, bigger than the game of football and, most crucially, bigger than all of them. But football and its fans were there before Ronaldo, and they will be there long after he has gone.

A word of warning to United fans: do not dare think that Ronaldo would not do the same to you should he feel the need to remind you of the pecking order he believes exists: him at the top and everyone else beneath him. He already did it over the summer in what amounted to the most drawn out public handjob in the history of transfer windows. But this is the nature of mere players.

Perhaps I have overlooked the flip-side of this argument: that all the world’s top footballers have the belief that they are somehow ‘better’ than everyone else. And what’s more, that they must cling to that belief in order to stay at the very top of the game. So let’s take a look around at the best players in the world at the moment and see if I stand to be corrected.

Javier Mascherano reluctantly accepted the Argentine captaincy, despite open endorsement from his new national boss, Diego Maradona. Xavi recently pointed out that he ‘is nothing without his team-mates’. The former is an Olympic champion, the latter is a European Champion. Meanwhile, it’s the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovich and Joey Barton who have professed to being ‘better’ than us mortals. The former is a prolific waster, the latter is a mediocre footballer at a mediocre club.

No, for now the argument stands. The game-player may succeed at the game for a time, but the footballer will succeed at life, because he can see beyond the goalposts and beyond the stands. Ronaldo cannot see past himself. And for that reason he will remain merely a game-player, and never be a true footballer.

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Sport: the original Armistice

I was going to write about the Australian cricket team’s series defeat to India – their first series defeat since the infamous 2005 Ashes series. I was going to write about how maybe Australian cricket is just not that good anymore. I was going to write about the ridiculous notion (currently permeating through the Aussie media) that the slow over rate on the final day of the final Test ‘allowed’ the Indians to win , when in fact it was their superiority over the course of the series that delivered them their victory. I was going to write about how we Aussies really are quite bad losers (when it sometimes happens).

But it’s Armistice Day, just past the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month here in London. And Australia losing some cricket series just doesn’t feel important. What feels important is The Great War. And the part of The Great War I’m thinking about now is that almost mythological game of football played in No Man’s Land on Christmas Day in 1914.

So, five months into the most grievously heinous conflict in human history, the soldiers who would spend the days and nights trying to blow each other up came out to shake hands and say ‘merry Christmas’ to each other. And they said it with a game of footy.

Part of me wonders what the result was; what the tackles were like (meaty yet good-spirited or spiteful and late?); who they picked to play in goals; whether they had rolling subs. All the kind of variables you tweak every time you get an impromptu game of football together.

The other part of me simply marvels at the fact that sport (in this case football but it may have been cricket or hockey or even marbles), was the best way these young men knew how to share Christmas with each other. Sport was the way they took a break from trying to kill each other. Sport was the only thing the British, French, Belgians and Germans had in common at that point in time. Sport was the original Armistice.

It was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who wrote of the Christmas Day Game as ‘the one human episode amid all the atrocities which have stained the memory of the war.’ And that’s why sport is important. It is the fundamentally human pursuit. Sport is not trivial or silly. It is what brings mankind together. It can even compel soldiers to stop launching cannons and going over the top to play 4-4-2 on No Man’s Land.

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Redwings show they scrap as well as they strut

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LA Kings 3 – 4 Detroit Redwings (penalty shoot-out)
Los Angeles, October 27th, 2008.

Sometimes champions have to abandon the remorseless precision that made them champions and win a messy, scrappy tussle with lesser opponents determined to take them down a notch. For that’s what it takes to win back-to-back Stanley Cups, and last night at the Staples Center the Detroit Redwings showed they are up to the task.

Credit to the LA Kings, they forced their illustrious opponents to come down to their level. This was more a street fight than a hockey game. The punches and counter-punches may as well have been dished out in the parking lot behind the stadium, such was the messy nature of the battle.

Yet for the vast majority of the game, the Kings were the better brawlers. Time and again they caught their more cultured opponents off-guard all the way up till the last minute when Valtteri Filppula threw one last desperate punch with ninety seconds remaining to haul the Redwings back into the contest at 3-3.

There was neither clever movement, nor finesse, nor sweet puck control to savour. But that was inevitable as the only way the Kings would overcome the Redwings was to strip them of their champion luster and make them fight for it. And fight they did.

In a seesawing contest, the Redwings went ahead 1-0 through Henrik Zetterberg, before falling behind 2-1 after Oscar Moller replied and Kyle Calder scored within two minutes of the start of the second period. Marian Hossa brought the game to 2-2 late in the second period as the struggle continued. When Alexander Frolov scored the Kings’ third at the start of the third period, the Kings looked as though they were finally overwhelming their opponents, Filppula begged to differ, tying the game up again in the final minute. All the goals were bundled in, all a mix of opportunism and quick wrists rather than sublime skill or vision.

But the Kings should take some positives from this display. Landing three blows against the Champions is no mean feat, especially when the first of these from Moller was the Kings’ first this season. They harried and hassled the Redwings, who simply could not find a way to assert their class on the Kings in open play, needing a power play to score their third goal.

So to the shoot-out we went, where scrapping and hassling count for little in the face of that remorseless precision of champions. Specifically, it was the precision of Chris Osgood that told on the Kings and enabled the Redwings to finally swat away their clumsier rivals.

Osgood took complete control of the shoot-out. As if somewhat bored with proceedings and the fact that all three goals he conceded had come from sloppy defensive mistakes, he decided to stamp some prize-fighter class on the bout by saving both the Kings’ penalties with consummate ease.

The Kings will come away knowing they can ruffle the feathers of their higher-flying rivals, and for that they should take heart. But for the rest of the league, the warning has been issued: the Champions will not relinquish their crown easily, and are prepared to scrap for it.

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Keane repays Kop faith with timely brace

robbie-keane-001Liverpool 3-0 West Bromwich Albion
Anfield, November 8th, 2008

Liverpool fans will have walked away from last night’s 3-0 victory with spirits high from the satisfaction of a job well done. The performance was not brilliant; it was simply appropriate for a team at the top of the Barclay’s Premier League playing a West Brom side that started the game in 19th place.

This is probably no bad thing for a team with serious designs on the Premiership this term. In fact, for the majority inside Anfield, this was the kind of performance that they will happily take all the way until the final day of the season. Three points in the bag. Top of the table. If these two statements are still bandied about with regards to Liverpool come the new year, then Rafael Benitez’s men really can start thinking about ending the club’s 19-year wait for the title.

But what this game was really about was Robbie Keane. Or more accurately, it was about Robbie Keane justifying his much-discussed price-tag. Many have argued that Benitez paid over-the-odds for Keane, that 20-odd million pounds was too much. But this will quickly become a moot point if Keane carries on in this fashion.

The Irish striker has taken 11 games to open his Premiership account, but the clinical nature of both his finishes was worth the wait. His first came in the 34th minute. From an almost casual Steven Gerrard pass – such was the time and space afforded the Liverpool captain – Keane lifted the ball with conviction over the advancing Scott Carson.

His second was less glamorous but no less important given Keane’s own admission that scoring his first Premiership goal would be akin to getting a monkey off his back. From a West Brom corner at the Kop end, Javier Mascherano found an outlet in Fabio Aurelio, the left back playing an inch-perfect ball in front of Keane who calmly rounded the on-rushing Carson and arrowed the ball into the empty net.

The game was effectively over at this point. And while West Brom gave a good account of themselves for the remainder of the match, they were never going to trouble the league leaders. Except for a well-struck Brunt free kick that hit Pepe Reina’s side netting, West Brom had scant other legitimate goal-scoring threat.

The three points in hand, Benitez had twenty minutes to introduce the returning Fernando Torres for his obligatory rapturous applause. But the bigger and more important part of that ovation was for Keane, making way for the Spaniard, as the crowd acknowledged his handiwork and his goals. The famed number 7 shirt is seemingly in good hands once again.

For now, the Liverpool bandwagon rolls on. Alvaro Arbeloa added gloss to the score line with a late curling shot, having been played into the area by the no-mess, no-fuss Mascherano. But last night was Keane’s night. He left the Kop simmering nicely over the prospect of his partnership with Torres being reignited and signaled the value of his own renewed confidence to title-chasing Liverpool.

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