Monday, 25 January 2010

Monday Bonus

Also thought I'd draw your attention to an article I've written in today's Wall Street Journal Europe. That's two for the price of one today.

Mens Tennis: An Old Man's Game

The Australian Open looks like it's shaping up for a fascinating second week, with Federer, Nadal, Murray et al looking more evenly matched than ever before. It's getting harder and harder to pick a Grand Slam winner these days, which is surely only a good thing.

Truth be told, though, the first seven days of the tournament haven't really generated a huge amount of excitement. The early rounds produced a few nice stories - a win for Louk Sorensen, the first Irishman to compete in a Grand Slam since 1985; victory too for Turkey's Marsel Ilhan, who followed up a win in the 2009 US Open first round with another against Sebastien Grosjean.

But there was only one person tennis romantics were concentrating on in Melbourne last week, and that was 37-year-old Fabrice Santoro. The Frenchman, of double-handed forehand fame, became the first man ever to appear in Grand Slams in four different decades. Okay, he kind of cheated, in coming out of retirement specifically to play in Melbourne. But still, such longevity is a true achievement, in an era when physicality, fitness and the demands of a worldwide ATP tour make youth a real asset.

But hang on.

A quick look at the ATP rankings suggests that perhaps youth isn't that much of an advantage in mens tennis. This may seem a surprise, but there isn't a single teenager in the world's top 150. The highest-ranked teen is 19-year-old Guillaume Rufin, at number 173 in the world. The young Frenchman's ranking shouldn't be sniffed at - but then again, to put things into perspective, he is positioned two places behind Great Britain's perennial underachiever and Davis Cup bottler Alex 'Boggo' Bogdanovic.

Rufin leads a pack of promising youngsters which includes Bulgaria's Uladzimir Ignatik (world number 193), compatriot Grigor Dimitrov (268), Finland's Henri Kontinen (293) and Argentine Guido Pella (319). There's even a Brit on the list, 19-year-old Dan Evans, who is current world 254 and thus next in line for the British tabloid media's title of Wimbledon-winner-in-waiting, worn with such aplomb by Andy Murray and Tim Henman before him.

But the best illustration of this seeming lack of teenage breakthrough talent, more than their relatively low ranking, is that few outside the hardcore of tennis followers will have heard of them. Perhaps the best known of the current crop of under-20s is Australian prodigy Bernard Tomic, who was defeated by another young gun, 21-year-old Marin Cilic of Croatia, in Melbourne last week. Tomic looks to have a bright future ahead of him, and is still only 17, but he is currently ranked 289.

And this lack of a teen presence among the world's top players does appear to be a relatively new phenomenon. As recently as January 2007 19-year-old Novak Djokovic occupied 14th position in the ATP rankings, while Andy Murray, a week older than the Serb, was one position behind him at 15th in the world. A year earlier it was French duo Richard Gasquet (16th) and Gael Monfils (30th) who were flying the flag for the acne-afflicted and the hormone-hampered (sorry).

Going further back, we have had the likes of Nadal, Federer, Hewitt - who at 19 became the youngest ever world number one in 2001 - Sampras, Chang and Becker, all breaking into the top 25 in the world in their teenage years. We're not just talking prodigies and Grand Slam winners either. Czech Tomas Berdych, 24, the current world number 21, entered the world's top 100 aged 18 - thus demonstrating that it isn't only once-in-a-lifetime players who can make the step up before the age of 20.

In addition, comparing the mens tour with that of the women puts the lack of teenage talent into stark relief. The current WTA rankings show 12 of the top 100 women in the world to be teenagers. These include the current world number 4, Dane Caroline Wozniacki, and American prodigy Melanie Oudin, ranked number 48. Although the headlines concerning the womens seem to be dominated by the return of a handful of older players - Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin, and, most sensationally, Kimiko Date-Krumm - the rankings show a concurrent trend in teenage talent breaking through.

So why the current lack of youngsters on the men's tour? The way the ATP rankings are worked out, while imperfect (the subject of a whole different article), don't seem to discriminate against younger players, in that they rely for the most part on the previous 52 weeks of competition. Even more counterintuitively, though there are far more successful teenagers on the WTA tour, there are limits placed on the number of ranking tournaments that young women can enter - while no such limitations exist on the mens tour.

Which leaves us with the only sensible conclusion. Mens tennis is going through a dry spell, with very few young players looking like they will make the grade at the top level. All of which must make happy reading for Fabrice Santoro's thirty-something contemporaries, who will all be relieved not to have to swap their tennis rackets for walking sticks quite yet.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Kickipedia

It's 22nd January. That means only one thing in my house - it's my parents' wedding anniversary. They'll either be delighted or mortified that I've mentioned that on The Cynical Challenge. Tune in next week to find out which!

Anyway, 22nd January is also an important date in the sporting calendar. On this day in 1927 the BBC broadcast live radio coverage of a football match for the very first time. Arsenal 1-1 Sheffield United, in case you were wondering. As the now famous tale goes, in the week running up to the match the Radio Times printed a diagram of a football pitch divided into numbered squares, so that the commentator could describe where the action was taking place - whence the phrase 'back to square one' entered the English language.

What better day, then, for Kickipedia to list a few of the great moments in sports commentary? Below is a brief list of the good, the bad, and the downright appalling commentary sequences, which all ultimately have their roots in that first BBC broadcast from Highbury 83 years ago.

Call me Crazy
It's impossible to do justice to the significance of the 1954 World Cup final, the so-called Miracle of Bern, in a short paragraph. For that, check out Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger's quite superb Tor!, a history of German football. In a (long, rambling) sentence: less than ten years after the entire country was destroyed by the hubris of Nazism and the invading Allied armies, West Germany beat Hungary, boasting Hidegkuti and Puskas, to lift the World Cup.

But the commentary provided by German reporter Herbert Zimmerman has gone down in history, as much, in many ways, as the match itself. With the score West Germany 2-2 Hungary and with six minutes remaining, Helmut Rahn powered the ball past Hungarian 'keeper Gyula Grosics, sending Zimmerman into rapture. "Rahn shoots...Goal! Goal! Goal! Goal!" Eight full seconds of silence. "Goal for Germany! Germany lead 3-2. Call me mad, call me crazy!" The catharsis of an entire nation in the voice of one man. 

Jones...
"Harmison...Jones...Kasprowicz". Okay, it's not the most elegant of sequences - but that makes it all the more special. Commentator Richie Benaud always allowed the sport on the field to speak for itself, and his perfect, concise description to the nailbiting finish to the 2005 Ashes Test at Edgbaston, which England won by just two runs, was a fine example. Benaud mastered the art of using silence to his advantage, allowing the drama to build on screen before adding his deft finishing verbal touches. It's a lesson that, where commentary is concerned, sometimes less is more.

Dennis Who?
This is perhaps as famous for the quite magnificent goal it accompanied as for the commentary itself, but it still goes down as one of the most dramatic pieces of sports commentary ever. With two minutes to go in the 1998 World Cup quarterfinal between the Netherlands and Argentina, and the score at 1-1, the tension seemed to have got to Dutch commentator Jack van Gelder, who announced to Dutch viewers, "I have a feeling we're going into the semifinals". What followed requires little explanation, but for those desperate to know: "Frank de Boer plays the ball, on to Dennis Bergkamp, Dennis Berkgamp, Dennis Bergkamp..." ad infinitum. Probably, football commentary is so full of exaggeration these days that, when a truly astounding goal is scored, commentators go into meltdown, as van Gelder aptly demonstrated. 

Super Sid
Darts. Not a sport often linked to classical Greece (some would say not a sport at all). But commentator Sid Waddell, who served his intellectual apprenticeship at Cambridge University before opting to pursue a career in sports commentary, manages to produce these kinds of ambitious comparison by the bucketload. Once, commentating on a match featuring Eric 'The Crafty Cockney' Bristow - perhaps best described as the David Beckham of darts during the 1980s - Waddell uttered the immortal line: "When Alexander of Macedonia was 33 he cried salt tears because there were no more worlds left to conquer...Bristow's only 27." And there's plenty more where that came from.

Francis Lee's interesting face
BBC commentator Barry Davies has had a truly varied career. As one of the corporation's more versatile employees, he's been everywhere from World Cup finals to Winter Olympics. He even had a short stint in the 1990s voicing a sketch on comedy series Big Train. But nothing he has ever said during commentary compares with his description of events at Manchester City's Maine Road in December 1974.

Facing Derby County, the home side were being held 1-1 when Derby's former Manchester City player Francis Lee picked up the ball 30 yards from goal. The ensuing goal, and the surreal commentary to go with it (from 0:42), have gone down in footballing folklore, so much so that Davies named his autobiography after it.


Of course, these are just a selection of my favourites, so if you have any other contenders by all means make your suggestions in the box below.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

African Cup of Nations - What's the big deal?

Chelsea 7-2 Sunderland. It's what English newspapers would refer to as a cricket score - though only one in which the opening batsmen will have failed miserably (a test match involving England, for example).

Well done to Chelsea for putting seven goals past Premier League opponents who were challenging for the European places only a few weeks ago, and who had held Manchester United to a draw at Old Trafford whilst beating Arsenal and Liverpool at home this season. Okay, Sunderland put in a shocking defensive performance, but isn't this the kind of awe-inspiring display we should expect from Chelsea?

Hang on a minute, though. Weren't we all being told this season that Chelsea were going to struggle without Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou, Michael Essien and John Obi Mikel, who are all absent at the African Cup of Nations?

'African Nations Cup could ruin Chelsea's season' opined that sage of the game, Franck Leboeuf. Matt Lawton, who already featured in The Cynical Challenge last week (fingers crossed for a hat-trick eh Matt), predicted a crisis at Chelsea as a result of their 'African exodus'. 'Chelsea facing striker crisis' screamed Simon Johnson in the London Evening Standard.

Well if seven goals against Sunderland are a striker crisis, one dreads to think what Chelsea might have managed with their Cup of Nations players in the side.

It's time to end this to-and-fro surrounding the departure of players to the African Cup of Nations. As the shocking events in Cabinda last week demonstrated, our primary concern should be with the welfare of players and their security arrangements. And as the savaging of Sunderland's back four on Saturday demonstrated equally (without wishing to diminish the seriousness of events in Angola), suggestions that Europe's top clubs are unfairly crippled, nay, emasculated during the African Cup of Nations are pretty much hot air.

The proof of this particular pudding is in results on the field. And strangely enough, few of those predicting that leading clubs would have it tough during the tournament seem to have bothered to gather supporting evidence from previous iterations of the Cup of Nations.

Back in 2008 Chelsea, missing the same four players as this year, went unbeaten throughout the duration of the tournament. Indeed, their most disappointing result of the season came a couple of weeks after the return of Drogba et al, when they lost 1-0 away to Barnsley in the FA Cup. In 2006 Chelsea gained two draws and beat Liverpool whilst missing Drogba and Mikel, though the latter had yet to start a game for the club at the time. In both years they remained top of the Premier League throughout.

And this, admittedly rather rough-and-ready, measure of performance translates across other clubs and other leagues too. In France in 2008 Marseille lost four players, the most in Ligue 1 - André Ayew, Modeste Mbami, Mamadou Niang and Taye Taiwo - yet still jumped five places in the table in their absence. Two years earlier second-placed Bordeaux lost three players - Armand Tchami, Naby Diarso and Marouane Chamakh - yet only dropped points away to table-toppers Lyon, who were only missing Lamine Diatta.

Clearly it's pushing the point too far to suggest that losing players to the African Cup of Nations makes no difference at all. Clubs with smaller squads and at the wrong end of the league table struggle without their players during the tournament. Take Portsmouth who, in 2006, had to cope without Collins Mbesuma, Kanu, Lomana Lua Lua and Benjani and ended up shipping 11 goals in four matches, gaining just one point. Similarly Rennes dropped four places to fourteenth in Ligue 1 in 2006 when missing John Utaka, John Mensah, Abdeslam Ouaddou, Youssef Hadji and Cheick N'Diaye.

But the point still stands - the clubs at the top, playing with confidence and with deep squads to delve into, barely bat an eyelid come Cup of Nations time. Meanwhile it's the strugglers who suffer the loss of players hardest.

Still, what with papers to sell, don't expect to read the headline 'Table-toppers will coast along during African Nations' any time soon.

* big shout out to www.statto.com for enabling me to compile the above article.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Anger over Angola

It's never nice when politics gets in the way of a football match. Sadly this is precisely the situation the 2010 African Cup of Nations finds itself in where, despite the fanfares and a fantastic opening match (in which hosts Angola went 4-0 up against Mali, only to be pegged back to 4-4), the tournament headlines are still dominated by events off the field.

The Cynical Challenge was knocking up its own preview to the African Cup of Nations on Friday, when news broke of the attack by Angolan rebels on the Togolese national team in the enclave of Cabinda. It seemed churlish to have persevered with a low-down on 'the players to watch' when such a shadow has been cast over the tournament. In addition, the wall-to-wall media coverage of events in Angola has served to underline how football journalists and commentators can get out of their depth as soon as 'the beautiful game' starts to get mixed up with serious political issues.

Apart from a few notable exceptions, sports journalists have taken the opportunity presented by the shocking attack on the Togo team bus to spout the kind of drivel usually reserved for writers in the Daily Mail comments section.

On Saturday afternoon the usually reliable Daily Telegraph columnist Henry Winter wrote on Twitter,
"Fifa must investigate events in Angola and improve teams' safety before World Cup. S Africa are organised but nothing can be left to chance",
displaying a magnificent combination of both geographical ignorance and political insensitivity. Firstly, apart from sharing the same continent, Angola is nothing like South Africa. The distance between Angola's capital, Luanda, and Johannesburg is over 2,500km - that's about 800km further than the distance between London and, er, Kosovo. It's hardly sensible to draw conclusions about security provision during the 2010 World Cup based on the Cabinda attack.

Besides which, Winter's comment betrays the kind of broad-brush attitudes to the African continent which have so stymied development since the end of the colonial period. The assumption that post-colonial Africa is any less complex and multi-dimensional than modern-day Europe is not just ignorant, nor just racist (though that is not an accusation which The Cynical Challenge wishes to make of any football journalist). It is dangerously misleading, in that it perpetuates these ideas rather insidiously - in a sports column, rather than in the politics pages. And if you think this is all just hyperbole, have a read of some of the things ordinary football fans are saying about the situation in Angola.

But then there hasn't been much subtlety in the reporting of the Cabinda story generally. Perhaps understandably, hardly anyone among the sports journalism fraternity knew much about Angola's complex and bloody civil war when the Togo story broke, and scrambling to get the story written has inevitably involved cutting corners. But that shouldn't excuse writers from reporting the facts as accurately as possible.

From Matt Lawton, in the Daily Mail, writing that the Ghana team "flies into the death zone" of Cabinda on Sunday - despite the point that, though unsettled, the eponymous capital of Cabinda region is far less dangerous than the border region with Congo-Brazzaville where the Togo team were shot at; to the general criticism of the Togolese for travelling to Cabinda by road "against advice", which obscures the fact that both CAF and the Angolan government had made assurances on the security situation in Cabinda prior to the tournament.

One also wonders why more media outlets hadn't examined the possibility of violence in Angola during the African Cup of Nations. Hats off to a few writers - particularly Martin Samuel and the good people at Just Football and Pitch Invasion - for having identified the potential for trouble prior to the tournament. Conditions in Cabinda were no secret, and there were plenty of signs that trouble could be brewing - had anyone bothered to look for them.

"It struck me as unusual that matches were being played in Cabinda," International Relations graduate Jon Rivlin, who was brought up in Angola, told The Cynical Challenge. "Those that know Angola know that Cabinda is not a safe place to go." It seems the vast majority of the sports media were unaware of such concerns.

It may be asking alot of the press, what with tight deadlines and an audience not always receptive to discussions of complex political issues, to get stories such as the Cabinda shooting 100% right, 100% of the time. But equally, media coverage of the event shows that sometimes, when a sports story breaks with political ramifications, the sports hacks should leave it to the experts.

Friday, 1 January 2010

A Cynical New Year

Happy 2010! A new year is upon us, accompanied by the sounds of Big Ben striking twelve, popping champagne corks and, later, the 'plop-plop-fizz' of hangover remedies. After weeks of the sports media looking back - on the year 2009, on the first decade of the 21st century, even on whole careers - readers must be suffering from pretty sore necks. So allow The Cynical Challenge to administer a corrective treatment, as we look forward to a few names to watch in the world of sport in the coming year.

Detroit Lions
It’s not as if things can get much worse for the Lions. As of this week, with only one round of the NFL regular season left to go, the team’s win-loss record stands at 2-13, with only the St Louis Rams (1-14) preventing them from being given the dubious title of NFL’s worst-performing franchise in 2009. This is on top of the Lions’ 0-16 season last year, the first time in NFL history that a team has lost all of its regular season games.

It all neatly, though depressingly, ties in with the story of the city of Detroit’s apparent economic and social decline, a process emphasised in 2009 by the bankruptcy of two of the city’s major employers, Chrysler and GM.

Under the circumstances, perhaps citing the Lions as a team to watch might be interpreted as mockery. But it isn’t intended as an invitation for schadenfreude – there was a moment in 2009 when the team showed guts, fighting spirit and maybe, just maybe, a hint of the green shoots of recovery in 2010.

On 22nd November in a home game against the Cleveland Browns, Detroit recovered from a 24-3 first quarter deficit to trail 37-31, in possession going into the final minute of the game.

Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, a rookie who was starting only his eighth professional game, took an enormous hit and suffered a dislocated shoulder with only seconds remaining. Evading the doctors who had carried him groggily from the field, Stafford ran onto the field, left arm hanging limply by his side, to pass for the game-winning touchdown. Watch the video here, it’s truly spellbinding (from 3:22). And it might just point to grounds for optimism for Stafford and the Lions next season.

Aaron Ramsey
The Cynical Challenge knew it was getting old when a player appeared in the Premier League who was born in the 1990s. When Aaron Ramsey signed for Arsenal from Cardiff in the summer of 2008 it was assumed he would be another product of Arsène Wenger’s seemingly endless production-line of young talent.

Thus far, though, Ramsey hasn’t made the immediate impression made by the likes of Cesc Fabregas – himself still only 22 – or more recently Kieran Gibbs, having started only four Premier League games in his Gunners career.

Not that Ramsey has been out of the headlines. Coming off the bench, the Welshman has scored some outstanding goals, including a lovely individual goal against Stoke earlier this season; while his exploits for the Wales national side have rightly earned rave reviews, most notably for an absolute cracker he scored for Wales U21 against Italy in September 2009.

Over Christmas, with a hamstring injury ruling Arsenal talisman Fabregas out of the tie with Portsmouth, Ramsey grabbed his chance with another wonderful strike. After a slow start it looks, rather ominously for Arsenal’s rivals, that Wenger has found another starlet – one who will get more and more game time in the coming year.

Marcos Baghdatis
From an up-and-coming youngster to a relative old hand: 24-year-old Cypriot Baghdatis has already experienced the heights of world tennis, reaching the final of the 2006 Australian Open, and following that with a run to the semi-finals of Wimbledon in the same year. Bearing more than a passing resemblance to Colin Farrell, and bringing with him a faithful (and vocal) band of Cypriot-Greek supporters wherever he plays, Baghdatis is a popular member of the tour.

However, a succession of injuries – to his ankle, back and knee – marred 2008-09 for Baghdatis, and he slipped from a high of number 8 in the world to number 151 in July 2009.

Returning to action, he won his first title for over two years in Vancouver in August, and followed that up with a year-ending victory in the Stockholm Open. On the way Baghdatis also managed to pick up the Tashkent Open title, an event most notable for forcing its winners to dress in traditional Uzbek style for the presentations. Credit to Baghdatis for doing his best to put on a brave face for the ensuing photo call.

Back inside the world’s top 50, and with an injury-free winter under his belt, the popular Cypriot could be on his way back into the world’s top 10 in 2010.


The US Winter Olympic Speedskating Team
Readers in the United States will know all about comedian Stephen Colbert. The presenter of satirical chat show The Colbert Report, Colbert brilliantly sent up George W. Bush at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner in 2006 and then attempted to run for the American Presidency in 2007.

But in late 2009 Colbert turned his attention from politics to winter sports, when he announced on The Colbert Report that he would be sponsoring the United States men’s speedskating team. The team had suffered a shortfall in funding after the collapse of Dutch bank DSB (whose liquidation, incidentally, has also ruined the season – and possibly the long-term future – of Dutch football league champions AZ Alkmaar), and Colbert stepped in with both cash and a superbly irreverent marketing ploy.

All eyes will surely be on the US speedskaters at the forthcoming Vancouver Winter Olympics, and not just to check out their lycra uniforms, emblazoned with Colbert’s signature “Colbert Nation” logo (modelled rather disturbingly by Colbert himself in Sports Illustrated last month).

The team broke a number of records at their World Cup meet in Berlin in November 2009, so they may just be good tips for a host of gold medals in Vancouver. Either way, though, the story is going to be good for a few laughs.