Monday, 28 December 2009

"Ref you suck" and other American sporting practices

Some of you may remember a series of television adverts for the international banking conglomerate HSBC. Under the strapline 'The World's Local Bank', the adverts demonstrated how cultural practices differ around the world. There was the Chinese attitude to generosity, and their ideas on fishing; parking á la français; and the importance of getting your hand gestures right in Brazil.

Before you ask, no, these straightened economic times have not forced The Cynical Challenge to seek corporate product placements. It's just a reminder that, although the world is getting smaller, we shouldn't forget that things are done differently around the globe.

And sport is no exception, as The Cynical Challenge has found out in the last week after taking in a Christmas feast of American sport - including live basketball, where Miami Heat hosted Utah Jazz, and live American football at Miami's Dolphin Stadium between the Dolphins and the Houston Texans. And, like the sportswriting equivalent of Claude Lévi-Strauss (let's be ambitious), this blog is reporting back its findings on these most American of leisure-time activities.

More more more - how do you like it?
Turn on the TV at any time of the day in the US and you'll find more sport to watch than on an average matchday in Britain. There's the usual suspects, American football, hockey, basketball and baseball (the latter less so as it's currently off-season). Then there's "soccer" - sorry, it had to be done - from England, Italy, Spain, South America and even Australia. There are even Spanish-language versions of all these channels for the United States' sizeable Hispanic population.

In short, there's something for everyone. On Christmas Day, traditionally the worst day for television in the calendar, lucky American viewers could see five (five?!) NBA games back-to-back whilst digesting their Christmas turkey, running from 1pm to past midnight. On Boxing Day fans of English Premier League football could watch three games consecutively, starting with Fulham vs Tottenham and ending with Liverpool vs Wolves.

And even the most desperate sports fan finds themselves sated. In the last week - purely for research purposes of course - The Cynical Challenge has watched a bunch of 12-year-olds from  Texas and Kentucky play Little League Baseball, a re-run of the 1982 playoff game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys (one of the greatest games of all time, by the way - read more here), and former New York Giant Tiki Barber do a turn on daytime TV as correspondent for NBC's Today.

Food glorious food...
Watching live sport in the US is as much a culinary experience as it is entertainment. Foot-long hot dogs, corn dogs and chilli dogs. Pizza slices the size of an average pizza in the UK. And as many salt-infused empty calories as you can think of - nachos, popcorn, grilled cheese, and pretzels so large they could be murder weapons.

Best of all is the beer. Dispensing with standard-sized cans, the Americans go for a 24 fl-oz ring-pull can (that's over 700ml) while they watch a game. That's heavy duty. Shame they cost $12 a piece.

...and impeccable toilet habits
 Clearly The Cynical Challenge's experience of bathroom facilities in Europe's sport stadia only takes in 50% of the available toilets - best not to get arrested for inspecting the ladies loos, even for a blog post. But it can be said without much reservation that American stadium toilets are the best in the world. The sight of Leeds United fans effectively destroy the toilets through, shall we say, 'misuse' on an away day at Norwich City's Carrow Road stadium about 3 years ago were banished to the past as soon as I saw all that spotless ceramic.

And not only that - some people actually washed their hands. With soap. That'll be the day.

"Ref you suck"
Continuing with the theme of politeness and etiquette, here's another difference between watching sport in Europe and in America - here in the States you hardly ever here a swear-word raised in anger or for amusement.

For a young British boy of primary school age, being taken to watch the football was a rite of passage. Once you'd seen your local team live in the flesh you were a man, and not just because of the cultural connotations that attendance meant, but because you heard, probably for the first time, the English language being put to highly colourful use. Ubiquitous, for example, is 'the referee's a w*nker', heard across English football grounds pretty much every weekend without exception.

By the way, an interesting exception might be Russia, where, like in the US, swearwords are largely confined to quiet grumbling among supporters rather than orchestrated chants. The Russian version of 'the referee's a w*nker' is pretty clean. They shout 'referee to soap', which sounds if anything odd, but actually has quite an insidious connotation. Back in Soviet times the regime had a nasty habit of dispensing with people they didn't like by killing them off, and boiling the bodies to turn their fat into soap. The fans are effectively calling for the ref to be taken away by the KGB for a nice dose of "re-education".

Anyway, in the US the closest you'll get to that is 'ref you suck', ad infinitum, which sounds, to use another Americanism, a bit 'lame' in comparison. Still, it makes for a very family-friendly atmosphere, without all that turning the air blue, and it's hard to think of too many reasons why you wouldn't want to take young children to watch live sport in America. Besides perhaps the threat of morbid obesity from all those snacks.

Sport as entertainment
More than anything, though, the overriding impression from watching sport in the US is that sport is less about partisanship and localism, and more about entertaining the viewer. And for the purists reading this and scoffing, it's worth saying that that isn't such a bad thing.

The average Premier League ticket price is around £30 per game as of 2008, and for that princely sum the paying punters get about two hours worth of entertainment, maybe more if you can bear the pre-match buildup. In America ticket prices vary considerably, but for about £20-£30 you can get a decent seat at a game which lasts for perhaps 3 hours. That factors in not just the running, passing and scoring, but the cheerleading, the fireworks, the music and video replays, the t-shirt giveaways and much else besides, that go into an average game-day.

Stadia and arenas are built with entertainment in mind too. At the American Airlines Arena, home to the Miami Heat basketball team, you can comfortably see the game from any of the 19,600 seats, even on the top tier. There simply isn't a bad seat in the house.

As for generating atmosphere, it's hard to argue that American sports can generate the kind of intensity from the crowd that a big football or cricket match can over in Europe. Having said that, the prematch buildup at an American sports arena matches any examples The Cynical Challenge can muster from Europe. The players enter the field one by one, called by the stadium announcer, accompanied by fireworks and flashing lights. Then comes the national anthem, and though it's hard to talk about this as a Brit without sounding disingenuous, it must be said that hearing The Star-Spangled Banner live, along with 60,000 others, gets the hairs on the back of your neck on end.

Cynical's Final Thought
The message is this: Britain can learn a few things from the Americans about its relationship with sport. First and foremost, and this is only my opinion, you get better value for money from a ticket to an NBA or NFL. game than you do to a football match in Britain. Sure, the food and the drink all costs money; the dancing and singing and fireworks are all incidental to the sporting action; and the free giveaways are a huge marketing gimmick; but it all adds up to a hugely enjoyable, longer-lasting bang for your buck.

Still, let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Political correctness is something that should never be imposed on British sporting chants.

Friday, 25 December 2009


Merry Christmas! Or as they say over here in Florida, "time for Chinese food". Yes, it's Friday 25th December and that can only mean two things - it's Jesus' birthday, and it's time for another of The Cynical Challenge's Friday features. This week it's Kickipedia, the column that moves through sport's rich history like a hot knife through brandy butter, and puts the facts and figures under the microscope like a Food Standards Agency official checking turkeys for E. coli.

I appreciate most of you will have stuffed yourselves full of pigs in blankets, turkey and cranberry sauce, whilst carefully avoiding the sprouts, so I'm going to keep it light this week. You see, once again, as in the first ever post on The Cynical Challenge, I've become interested in names. More specifically, the names of birds.

Some of you who know me well might say that's a welcome development in my chat-up technique, as usually I show no interest at all. But actually I'm talking about birds of the feathered, flighty variety, the reason being that South Florida is home to some fantastic specimens. My parents own a book entitled Birds of Florida, and I've been going through it identifying the ones I've seen. So now I know that the long-legged-long-necked one is a Great Egret, the black-and-white-fuzzy-head one is an Anhinga, and the one-that's-just-showing-off is the Purple Gallinule.

But leafing through Birds of Florida I found two outstanding bird names, the Chuck-Will's-Widow and the Whip-Poor-Will. After further digging it transpired these are so-called because their songs sound like the words chuck-will's-widow and whip-poor-will (follow the links and click 'song' to download and hear for yourselves).

It's quite neat when names so aptly fit the thing they describe - which is why, for Kickipedia, I've cobbled together a list of sportsmen whose names very much precede them.

Football can certainly count a few appropriately-monikered professionals. Robbie Savage, formerly of Leicester, Birmingham and Blackburn and now winding down his career at Derby, is one. Never has the aphorism 'never judge a book by its cover' been more apt than in Savage's case, for despite his perfectly-conditioned shoulder-length blond hair, the midfielder has forged a career out of kicking the ankles, bruising the shins and crippling the nipples (probably) of his opponents, picking up a Premier League-record 89 career yellow cards in the process. Funnily enough video evidence of Savage's brutality is hard to come by - the most popular offering on Youtube is actually of Savage himself being injured in a variety of comic ways. Perhaps that's karma. As a footnote, Savage's behaviour doesn't seem to have been replicated by namesakes Bas and Dave, though they would have made a great tribute act together.

If ever a man was born to manage a team it's this next example. VfL Wolfsburg are the current Bundesliga champions, but back in the late '90s when they were relative newcomers to Germany's top flight they famously appointed Wolfgang Wolf as coach. Arsenal made a pretty half-hearted effort at this kind of synergy when they appointed a manager named Arsène; over in Wolfsburg, for five seasons club and coach had the kind of mutual understanding that only a shared name can bestow.

Incidentally, the town of Wolfsburg has its own naming story. Constructed by the Nazis as the factory town for their new 'People's Car', it was originally known as Stadt des KdF-Wagens - or in English, in full, The City of the Strength Through Joy Car. Catchy eh?

A few tennis players merit inclusion. There's Maria Bueno, who was, as her name suggests, quite good. There was Margaret Court, who made a career playing on one. But they all rather pale in comparison with the Israeli Anna Smashnova. For a while after her marriage in 2002 Smashnova insisted on being called 'Anna Pistolesi', but thankfully for sportswriters around the world she compromised with the double barrelled 'Smashnova-Pistolesi' until giving up completely and getting a divorce.

In cricket meanwhile notable mentions go to Peter Bowler, who took 34 first class wickets with his part-time offbreak, as well as a trio of Battys, Jeremy, Gareth and Jon (though only the latter could really wield a bat with any authority). In a similar vein, there have been plenty of cricketing Glovers, but none of them seem to have been wicket-keepers. And then there's the, albeit tenuous, example of Dominic Cork - for those unclear on this, the famous cherry cricket balls are made using a core of cork wood, wrapped in string and leather.

In motorsport American Scott Speed did his level best to live up to his surname in three seasons as a Formula 1 driver, but failed to pick up a single point. Speed left his team, Toro Rosso, in controversial circumstances in 2007, amid allegations that he came to blows with team chief Franz Tost. At the time Toro Rosso's co-owner Gerhard Berger commented on Speed's departure, saying, "he didn't perform and that's why he isn't here any more". Which is Formula 1-speak for "he was total rubbish". He now races NASCAR in the States.

A few others to run through include rugby players Neil Back (though he was a forward) and speedy winger Austin Healey. If you don't understand the latter, click here. Any football goalkeeper named 'Hans' deserves a mention, so that's Hans Tilkowski, Hans Segers, Hans-Jorg Butt and Hans Vonk. In golf it's no surprise Gary Player actually became a sportsman, while Tiger Woods used plenty of woods (no jokes now), along with drivers and irons, until his personal life caught up with him recently.

And then there's swimmer Mark Spitz - winner of seven gold medals at the 1972 Olympics, and the man who set 33 world records in his career. His name is derived from a German word meaning 'peak'. Amen to that.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Better late than never?

The Cynical Challenge is running late this week. This entry should have been running to press at about 2am on Sunday by normal standards, but here it is, vying with the London Evening Standard for attention mid-way through Monday. This is partly because The Cynical Challenge is standing in solidarity with fans of Wigan and Bolton, whose match this evening has been postponed owing to snow.

It's also partly because I have horrendous jet-lag after a marathon trans-Atlantic flight to Florida, with a mercifully brief stopover at delightful Charlotte, North Carolina. At this point I'd like to wish the gang of 25 people from Swindon with whom I shared airspace a lovely visit to Disney World, and I hope the 7-year-old in your party gets over his vomiting fits soon.

Anyway, The Cynical Challenge is a bit of a mixed bag this week. Much of the contents of my head - like the  aforementioned 7-year-old on the flight in fact - are being randomly thrown out at all angles, for others to deal with as they see fit. As always, comments and opinion are welcome.

Life begins at 40
Over here in the States breakfasters munching on their waffles, pancakes or 5-egg omelettes will this morning be reading reports from yesterday's matches in the NFL. Lead story for much of the papers was  the Minnesota Vikings' shock 26-7 loss to the Carolina Panthers. Minnesota, who on Sunday night had been confirmed as NFC divisional winners - making them hot favourites to reach the Superbowl - gave up 20 straight points in the final quarter against a team with a 5-8 win-loss record and with little to play for besides pride.

And yet aside from that, having watched the game and read the reports, The Cynical Challenge can only marvel at one thing: the fact that Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre is still playing in the NFL, aged 40. Favre is a miracle of modern sport. His hair is as grey as that of two other  famous sporting silver foxes, Fabrizio Ravanelli and Graham Kavanagh - only he has the excuse of age. And Favre is still performing well. In fact, with a tally after 14 games of 27 touchdowns and only 7 interceptions thrown, 2009 has been one of Favre's best seasons ever.

If Favre and the Vikings make it to this season's Superbowl at Miami's Dolphin Stadium it would be one of sport's great romantic stories. If they do want to go all the way, however, the Vikings defence need to protect their 40-year-old talisman from big hits, something they didn't really do last night (see 2:03).

A damp squib
Firstly, before anyone writes in to complain that it should be "a damp squid", can I refer you to this article?

Okay, on with the blog. Back in the UK, Manchester hosted the first ever Duel in the Pool this weekend, generally referred to as the "Ryder Cup of Swimming". America's swimmers, Michael Phelps et al, took on the best that Britain, Germany and Italy had to offer and promptly wiped the floor with them, winning 185-78. The Europe team only won 9 out of the 30 races, and in 6 of the races the Americans swept the board, taking the top three places. No surprises there.

The biggest surprise is that the Duel in the Pool managed to claim as much air time as it did in the sports media. Okay, Michael Phelps performed surprisingly poorly, winning only his individual 100m butterfly and the 400m freestyle relay (the latter in a world record time); Phelps was beaten in the 200m butterfly by  Britain's Michael Rock, hardly a household name. But despite all the headlines that this story grabbed, it should be remembered that Phelps was racing in an all-textile suit, rather than the ultra-fast polyurethane suits which Britain's swimmers wore, and which will be banned from 1st January 2010.

The Cynical Challenge is all for encouraging coverage of more marginal sports, especially if it can break up the blanket, microscopic coverage of Premier League football. But outside of the Olympics, swimming isn't really the sport to capture the imagination. On TV all the thrashing and churning makes swimming pretty difficult to follow. Watching live is worse, an eye-wateringly boring afternoon made worse by the fact you have to sit in a disorientatingly-echoey sauna. Plus even if you know which swimmers to look out for you can't really keep track of them - all the swimming caps and goggles make the competitors look identical.

Fans of swimming - convince us.

The end of the Premier League's best rhyming pun
So Mark Hughes has been sacked. Subbers will have had their heads in their hands on Saturday evening, as the departure of "Sparky" from Manchester City deprived them of a flurry of tried-and-tested favourite headlines. Random combinations of "Hughes", "Blues", "News", "Short Fuse" and "Santa Cruz" have been doing the rounds on the back pages of most tabloids for some time now. Mark Hughes' sacking is a sad day for headline writers. Back to the drawing board lads - though great effort from Vital Football to squeeze one last corker out of the story.

Friday, 18 December 2009


It’s Friday morning so it’s time for another of The Cynical Challenge’s patented features. The Kickipedia column tells the story of sporting events which are memorable, wonderful, or just plain weird.

This week, to commemorate the fact that the weather has been freezing in the UK, and that the hot water has been cut off in my house, Kickipedia remembers when the meteorological conditions intervened to make what was already an exciting end to one Italian Serie A season into a real nailbiter.

The headlines at the start of the 1999-2000 Serie A season concerned the transfer of burger-loving striker Christian Vieri from Lazio to Internazionale for a world record fee of £32 million.

Lazio, managed by Swedish lothario and future England manager Sven Goran Eriksson, did not, however, appear to suffer from having lost the burly (why is it only ever strikers who are “burly”?) Vieri, staying in touch with the pack of clubs chasing early pace-setters Juventus.

The biancocelesti found an able replacement in the equally rotund Croat Alen Boksic, who would later demonstrate his love of the odd pie in a short, ill-fated spell at Premier League Middlesbrough. But they did boast some genuine class with the likes of Nesta, Nedved and Veron, while some apparently average performers would surpass all expectations – such as Matias Almeyda, who scored this screamer against Parma in September.

Juventus meanwhile raced out of the traps, and by April led the table with a 9 point lead over Lazio in second place. Theirs was a star-studded team, with Edgar Davids, Alessandro Del Piero, Filippo Inzaghi and the imperious Zinedine Zidane. Juve began to falter, however, and they had managed to retain only a two point lead of Lazio going into the final round of matches – though, in a foreshadowing of events to come, accusations of bribery were levelled at them in early May after what appeared to be a perfectly legitimate goal from Fabio Cannavaro of Parma, which would have brought Lazio level on points at the top, was controversially chalked off.

The final round of matches took place on 15th May 2000, with Juventus needing a win away to mid-table Perugia, who had nothing to play for, to give them their 26th scudetto. Lazio faced Reggina at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, knowing that only a win combined with a Juve defeat could win them the championship.

Lazio began well and did their bit in comfortably brushing aside Reggina 3-0.

Over in Perugia, however, an enormous downpour had turned the Renato Curi Stadium into a swimming pool. With the score still 0-0 approaching half time, referee Pierluigi Collina began to show concern about the playing conditions. After blowing the whistle to end the first half, Collina proceeded to undertake a pitch inspection, and decided to delay the restart.

Minutes passed, and though the deluge had let up, the Renato Curi turf was still soaking wet. However, over an hour after the scheduled start of the second half, Collina’s unmistakeable features emerged from underneath an umbrella and the teams returned to the pitch to kick off the last 45 minutes of the season.

Having completed their victory over Reggina, Lazio’s players huddled around TV screens at the Olimpico to follow the heartstopping events in Perugia. And their mood brightened when, just four minutes into the second half, Perugia’s Alessandro Calori latched onto a poor headed clearance by Antonio Conte and rifled the ball low into the corner past Edwin van der Sar.

Chasing an equaliser which would put them level on points at the top with Lazio and into a playoff for the title, the bianconeri were dealt a further blow when Gianluca Zambrotta was sent off by Collina for two bookable offences. Juventus created chances but Perugia held on, and Lazio’s players – perhaps fittingly under blue skies in Rome – celebrated just their second ever scudetto.

"I never thought it would be this beautiful," Lazio coach Eriksson told journalists after the result was confirmed. He probably says something similar to all the ladies.

Meanwhile Juventus could only curse their luck that the weather in Perugia brightened up sufficiently for Collina to allow the players to return. I suppose, if I was going for the easy pun, I would say that it quite literally rained on Juve’s parade – but I’m not, so I won’t.

Monday, 14 December 2009

In Praise of the Own Goal

Tragicomedy is a very topical art-form.

Tiger Woods (sorry to keep bringing it up, but it's pure gold) plays away with a string of disreputable women and, though we are witnessing the tragic destruction of a family, and the downfall of a man who had it all, we still laugh.

Meanwhile everyone's favourite misogynist Silvio Berlusconi gets whacked with a miniature model cathedral and we feel sad that, however disagreeable he may be, a 73-year-old man has been publicly and brutally assaulted.

In the sporting world, there is probably nothing quite as tragicomic as football's own goal. And this weekend served up some real bittersweet treats across Europe's top leagues.

A tasty starter was provided by Chelsea's Petr Cech, who was a little unfortunate to have one go in off his back (it's goal number 1 on this link). Even so, seeing the big Czech goalkeeper hitting the ground like a pigeon suffering an in-flight heart attack raises a smile.

But the main course was a veritable feast of own goals at the Bundesliga fixture between Borussia Moenchengladbach and Hannover 96. Hannover managed six goals in the match, though unfortunately for them three were in the wrong goal. Special mention should go to Hannover defender Karim Haggui, who grabbed a pair of own goals in the game.

But the Romeo and Juliet Memorial Prize for an own goal inviting most hilarity goes to Constant Djakpa for his spectacular long-range effort, Gladbach's third goal of the game. Djakpa then provides his own punchline by collapsing to the floor, head in hands, looking like a man who has just crashed his car, been attacked by his golf club-wielding wife and been revealed as a serial philanderer. Oh wait...

There are plenty more where that came from too. A favourite is Jamie Pollock's majestic strike for Manchester City against QPR in 1998, which incidentally also condemned City to relegation. Franck Queudrue, playing for Lens, scored a superb volleyed lob against his own goalkeeper. And what about Chris Brass of Bury, who not only scores a contender for greatest own goal ever but broke his nose in the process?

The Cynical Challenge reckons there's nothing in sport which provokes that potent mix of laughter and sympathy quite like a football own goal. Watching a batsman run his partner out can be funny, but cricket being a gentleman's sport, cricketers tend to be quickly forgiven by crowds for their errors. Watching figure skaters sprawl out on the ice after an abortive triple lutz is hilarious, but it's hard to really laugh hard about it when the skaters look so upset.

But this is a democracy so I'm going to throw this one open to you, the readers. Feel free to leave your suggestions for similarly tragicomic sporting moments in the comment box below.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Handbags at Ten Paces

The first of The Cynical Challenge’s weekly features, Handbags at Ten Paces gives ordinary sports fans the chance to foam at the mouth about the big sporting stories of the week. This Friday:

The British Grand Prix is saved and will return to Silverstone from 2010

fantastic chance to watch quality sport close to home :D come on england, be proud and support our boys button and hamilton!

Hasn’t everyone forgotten about climate change? These cars have a carbon footprint the size of North Wales. F1 fans will be laughing on the other side of their face while they’re watching racing at Silverstone under 2 feet of ice-melt, surrounded by the carcasses of Polar bears. :(

wt a giant waist of taxpayers money :( ordinerry britains like me and my dorter britney wll SUFFER

Well said Swampman. Motorracing is a pointless waste of our Earth’s natural resources. Anyway nobody ever overtakes these days, it’s more entertaining watching traffic from a footbridge over the M1.

give f1 a break “tree-huggers” for once bernie ecclestone has done something for this country instead of running off to monaco with his 7ft wife

burnie ecclustun? wots it got to do wiv dr who?

If you like this you might also like Jim Lovetoy on The Football Ramble blog OR anything featured on the BBC Have Your Say site.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

World Cup 2010: Answers to the questions nobody is asking

Over the next week there's going to be alot of column inches taken up by the 2010 FIFA World Cup draw, which took place in Cape Town on Friday evening. At the risk of jumping on the bandwagon, The Cynical Challenge is going to be no exception.

Much of the fallout from the draw has revolved around a limited number of topics. Will Brazil emerge unscathed from their "Group of Death"? Will France wilt in the face of a partisan South African crowd in their final group game? Will there ever again be a drawmaster as attractive and brilliantly irreverent as Charlize Theron?

But even though this blog is essentially covering the same story as every other sporting publication on the planet, The Cynical Challenge likes to be a bit different. So below is a list (they're all the rage at the moment) of some of the more alternative questions to be asked following the draw.

Will Honduras have another Football War?
Back in 1969 Honduras and El Salvador went to war in the immediate aftermath of a World Cup play-off match, a conflict which was dubbed the Football War. Not that it's surprising that sport can spark off military conflict - for instance, some writers, among them Jonathan Wilson in his superb Behind the Curtain, have suggested that the war in the Former Yugoslavia really begun after fans of Partizan Belgrade and Dinamo Zagreb clashed during a league match in 1990. Still, Honduras have been drawn alongside fellow Spanish-speaking nations Chile and Spain, a rivalry which is being stoked up by the Honduran media. "The Spanish think we are Cinderella...the weakest team in their group," Honduran newspaper La Prensa reported on Saturday. There could be fireworks.

Will anyone have any national loyalties in Group D?
Germany, Serbia, Australia, Ghana. Four proud nations with well-defined national identities. Pity some of these countries' players, though, who must have a few divided loyalties as a result of the draw. Germany's Jérome Boateng, born in Berlin, is of dual Ghanaian-German nationality. The parents of Australia's goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer emigrated from Germany in the 1960s, while his compatriot Danny Vukovic is of Serbian descent. Serbia's Neven Subotic was born in Banja Luka but brought up in Baden-Württemburg, Germany. And Ghana's national coach is Milovan Rajevac, who is from...Serbia. Phew.

How many goals will be scored in the Ivory Coast - Brazil game?
20th June 2010, Johannesburg. Mark the date in your diary. The attacking might of Brazil versus the power of Ivory Coast's forward line. Kaká, Luis Fabiano, Robinho, Alexandre Pato. Didier Drogba, Bakari Koné, Salomon Kalou, Abdel-Kader Keïta. It could conceivably finish 4-4. Making predictions is a tricky business, but it would be a real surprise if this wasn't one of the most entertaining group games in South Africa.

How many Air Miles will Holland's fans clock up?
Johannesburg on 14th June, Durban five days later, and then over to Cape Town on 24th June. Approximate travelling distance 2100km. That's after the 12 hour plane journey to actually reach South Africa. The Dutch tend to bring a jovial travelling support, but anyone would be forgiven for getting crabby on such a long trip.

And finally...will Ireland ever stop talking about the Henry handball incident?