Tuesday, 20 July 2010

The biggest sport you've never seen?

Sometimes during the advert breaks for Sky Sports News - the only channel which is consistently on in the Appell house - I see adverts for British Elite League speedway. I say "I see" in its most casual sense. The eyes point in the direction of the screen, but the brain is far, far away.

Speedway makes about as much sense to me, an ignorant football-watcher, as the ramblings of Mike Parry on Talksport - and, to be honest, up to now I've been only slightly more likely to buy tickets to a speedway match as I have been to tune into Parry's show.

Essentially, speedway is motorcycle racing round an oval dirt track, made of crushed shale or brick, on single-geared bikes with no brakes. The riders slide round the corners to maintain speed, before powering through the straights at speeds of up to 70mph. All that seems to separate the audience from being hit by dust, exhaust fumes and (in the case of an accident) a flying motorbike is a low wire fence.

But it's not something I grew up watching, nor is it something I've ever been compelled to get acquainted with. And I don't feel like I'm alone here.

I don't know anyone who has been to watch live speedway. I don't know anyone who regularly watches speedway on TV. I don't recall ever having had a conversation about speedway in my life which didn't end with everybody shrugging.

However, by a series of strange events I found myself this week in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire, wandering around a speedway track. Hoddesdon, a town of just over 20,000, is home to British Premier League team Rye House Rockets. Their home is Rye House Stadium, situated between a Kart track and a large pub.


As it was a weekday there was no racing, but as I sat in the seats overlooking the track I got a feel for the place. 

The barriers didn't inspire much confidence
The field of dreams

Are you sitting comfortably?

Though I may not have fallen in love with Rye House, at least it prompted me to do some research. And it turns out speedway is quietly becoming one of Europe's growth sports. 

Britain has three national speedway leagues, the biggest of which is the Elite League. Average attendances number in the hundreds rather than the thousands, but the Elite League benefits from money invested by Sky for broadcast rights. Further down the tree, though, and it seems speedway clubs in Britain generally live a hand-to-mouth existence, kept afloat by a hardcore of die-hard fans.

But, perhaps surprisingly, the country where speedway is seriously thriving is Poland. In 2009 the average attendance in Poland's Ekstraliga was more than 10,000, the highest for any sport in the country, outstripping even football. And Poland's love affair with speedway goes back to the socialist period. In 1973, 1976 and 1979 the World Speedway Finals held in Chorzow attracted crowds of up to 100,000.

There are well-established speedway leagues in Scandinavia, and relatively young ones in Italy, Central Europe, Russia and Ukraine - the latter of which founded only last year. The Russian Championship has a team from Vladivostok, meaning league participation in speedway stretches from Europe's westernmost extremity to its easternmost. And with plenty of riders hailing from Australia and New Zealand, the sport can be considered truly global.

So while it may not be my thing, or yours for that matter, it works for plenty of others. Those Sky adverts don't seem so strange any more.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

International Retirement: Virtue or Vanity?

And so, less than a month after England's ignominious exit from the World Cup, the queue for Fabio Capello's next squad to face Hungary on 8th August just got smaller.

Much-maligned Aston Villa striker Emile Heskey has announced that he no longer wished to be considered for England selection. He will no doubt soon be joined by other underperformers from Capello's World Cup 23 - Jamie Carragher looks likely to retire for the second time, and it's easy to understand that the likes of John Terry and Frank Lampard might not want to face the wrath of the Wembley crowd, both against the Hungarians and beyond.

Retirement is one of sport's great virtuous gestures. Germany goalkeeper Oliver Khan was fortunate enough to be able to retire in emotionally-charged circumstances, having helped his side to third place at their home World Cup in 2006. Those such as Carles Puyol in 2010 or Laurent Blanc and Didier Deschamps in 2000, who retire after international triumph, likewise do so with public blessing. More unhappily, speaking personally, Dean Ashton's retirement at 26 was a genuinely upsetting moment.

Then there are the pragmatists - most notably Paul Scholes - who prematurely retire from international football, it is said, to help lengthen their club careers. Whether we believe this reason or not, there is at least a certain dignity to that decision, flying, as it did, in the face of overwhelming public calls for him to stay.

But back to Heskey. First, his decision renders void the dull debate over his role in the England team. As it happens, though, I've always considered Heskey to have worked hard, and often effectively, under immense pressure from the media and a large number of vocal detractors among England's supporters. 

But - and this is far more important - it gives Heskey the chance to end his international career on his own terms. At 32 years of age Heskey is no spring chicken, but there's no reason to rule him out of the campaign to qualify for Euro 2012 on the grounds of age. Instead, he has stepped down from the international scene before being given the opportunity - or perhaps more accurately, being denied it.

If you are an angry England fan, stop and think: is this a serious bone of contention?

To be dropped is the one and only punishment available to international managers. At club level a player can be fined, transfer-listed, sold or sent to train with the youth team. At international level the public announcement of a squad, and the revelation of those who have been dropped from it, is the one statement of disapproval available. 

Hence, in jumping before he was pushed, Heskey has hidden the stick to beat him with.

You might think this is an unfair way of depicting Heskey's actions. That may well be because you're sympathetic to Heskey. So substitute the name Heskey for Anelka. Or maybe for John Terry. It sticks in the throat doesn't it?

In examples such as these there is no heroism, no self-sacrifice about premature retirement. It is a self-serving gesture, an attempt to forestall attempts to come to terms with failure at international level. And it allows the player in question to avoid facing up to their own failures, and to avoid the feelings of rejection associated with being publicly dropped by their international manager.

As much as one can understand Heskey's decision, it gives him an easy route out of the debacle of England's South Africa campaign. And after the disappointment of this summer, it is of no solace to England fans that the players responsible could similarly avoid judgement. Heskey may be the first, but it would be a surprise if he were the last.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

After the World Cup party - time for the pundit clean-up

The World Cup has concluded, but a bitter taste remains - some of the television coverage of the tournament has been downright shocking. Guest blogger Ewan Roberts pours scorn on TV punditry teams, and suggests that the Twitterverse, rather than terrestrial TV, might be the place to go for intelligent football coverage.

What do vuvuzelas, Louie Spence and getting your member caught in your flies all have in common? All are significantly less painful and annoying than the World Cup coverage.

Football is a game of opinions. Watching a game of football is like reading a novel or watching a film: they are all open to interpretation. Ideally, coverage should be like a York Notes for football, offering in-depth analysis that would make even tactics blogger Zonal Marking purr. Instead, the World Cup coverage provided by BBC and ITV is the equivalent of having the finer nuances of The Brothers Karamazov explained by Miss South Carolina. I feel as though I’ve spent the last month being bludgeoned to death by clubs made out of tired clichés, chicken wire and human faeces.

The anchors of both stations are largely inoffensive, though Adrian Chiles’ pre USA versus England anti-America tirade was a miscalculation to say the least. It is not even the multitude of errors (most notably ITV HD opting to cut to an advertisement as Steven Gerrard opened the scoring against the USA) that riles me. Rather, it is the complete lack of intelligent discussion from the “expert” pundits.

Alan Shearer, despite his authoratorial receding hairline, is less insightful than a cephalopod mollusc – although Paul the psychic octopus has been particularly acute with his recent predictions. Shearer is as intelligent as his goal scoring celebration was creative and when commenting on Pele’s assertion that an African team would win the World Cup before 2000, he muttered: “I think it’s going to be longer”. Really, Alan? Are you sure?

Shearer presumably graduated from the same school of “stating the obvious” as Andy Townsend (who shares the same facial features as a bull terrier), with both offering pearls of wisdom that have included: “This is a game neither side will want to lose” and “A goal now will change the game”. Shearer’s use of droll, outdated clichés, and his lack of tactical knowledge, makes his four point haul (and subsequent relegation) as manager of Newcastle seem an achievement in retrospect, rather than the failure one might have originally considered it.

All the pundits suffer from a lack of relevant information regarding “lesser nations”. Lee Dixon, while talking about Slovakia, remarked: “We don’t know a lot about them.” Rather than do research, he was “given” the name of Slovakia captain and Napoli star Marek Hamsik, which he merely mentioned in isolation with no elaboration. The majority of the pundits’ knowledge pool is criminally limited to the Premier League, and the odd Champions League encounter (but only if an English team is involved).

What can be done to solve these deficiencies? Perhaps it’s time the BBC/ITV followed the example of the brilliant Guardian Football Weekly podcasts and employed intelligent journalists with encyclopaedic knowledge of specific leagues (from Germany’s Raphael Honigstein to La Liga aficionado Sid Lowe). The World Cup coverage has been far too Premier League (and England) centric.

However, both ITV and the BBC have tendencies to only employ ex-professional footballers, a recruitment plan that is evidently flawed. Are former footballers more suited to discussing and analysing matches than journalists? According to Zonal Marking: “In theory they're more qualified, they can offer insights from personal experience, which is valuable and something mere journalists will never be able to do. But equally, they must be knowledgeable on the teams and players they're talking about, and they must be able to express views with some level of insight.” 

Are Shearer, Hansen et al better equipped to discuss the Italian national team than, for example, the Guardian’s Paulo Bandini? Certainly not. Sadly, the BBC’s decision to shun James Richardson when replacing Chiles suggests a move towards greater journalist representation is still some way off.

Equally frustrating has been the lack of gusto on show. Mark Lawrenson has about as much enthusiasm for football as I have for joining an orgy organised by the entire England football team, while Edgar Davids wears a pained expression that suggests he’s spent the afternoon being seen to by Ron Jeremy and Peter North. His contribution solely consists of scowling at Chiles as he slumps in his chair.

Alan Hansen is the greatest culprit when it comes to sucking the life out of a match. He reminds me of Michael Douglas in Falling Down, except rather than embarking on a killing rampage provoked by a general dissatisfaction with life, he simply simmers and makes banal and morose comments. His melancholy and dour nature has an almost lobotomising effect.

This lack of zest is particularly frustrating for Zonal Marking: “[the pundits have] so often sat down at half-time and said a game was boring for 15 minutes. Make it interesting, then.” Mesut Özil’s recent criticism of the England squad’s complaints of boredom could equally be levied upon the jaded punditry panel: “If you find the greatest tournament on earth boring, then you probably shouldn't be there.”

The supporting cast and commentators aren’t much better. Clive Tyldesley’s spits out pop culture references with such regularity one could be forgiven for thinking he is sponsored by Heat Magazine. While Marcel “I love Ghana so much I shunned them and played for France instead” Desailly’s celebrations are about as entertaining as chlamydia. Emmanuel Adebayor talks with such rapidity I briefly thought I had hit fast-forward on my remote, and he was left red-faced when his mobile phone rang live on air.

There is also a worrying lack of ability to pronounce players names correctly (from Kagisho Dikgacoi to Xavi), though we were at least spared the misfortune of David Pleat, who is still trying to get his tongue around “Pascal Chimbonda”.

A large portion of ITV’s coverage rests on the (rather broad) shoulders of James Corden, whose World Cup Live show is about as much fun as accidentally clicking a link to online pornography at work. Watching Corden is a bit like being tied down to a chair as Michael Madsen dowses you in petrol and cuts your ear off to the sound of Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You”. Only the soundtrack is Corden’s high pitched and irritating laugh, and you’re pleading with Madsen to take the other ear too.

Amongst this myriad of clueless pundits there are (all too few) shining lights. Successful managers Roy Hodgson and Jürgen Klinsmann have offered not only an advanced knowledge of non-Premier League players, but keen tactical observations that are unparalleled by their peers. Clarence Seedorf is a pleasant, eloquent addition, while Danny Baker was a bundle of energetic vigour in his all too brief appearance.

Hopefully the outpouring of rage and criticism aimed at misers Townsend, Shearer & co. will prompt a much needed punditry purge.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Money and match-fixing - the Russian football season continues

What football match are you watching this weekend? I bet its the World Cup final isn't it?

Well The Cynical Challenge is delighted to reveal that, for the first time in weeks, you can warm up for the international football on offer with a healthy dose of the Russian Premier League.

After its summer hiatus Russia's top flight is back, with Thursday's game between Spartak Nalchik and Terek Grozny kicking off the second half of the country's football season, which runs between March and November. And while the battle (on second thoughts that's probably the wrong word) between the two sides from the North Caucasus may not whet the appetite, it's a pleasure to have the Russian Premier League back on the agenda.

Whether you're a regular Russia-watcher, or if you're just looking for some football to watch in the yawning chasm between the end of the World Cup and the start of the English Premier League, it's worth updating yourself on what's been going on during the summer break.

Dinamo on the move

First up is Dinamo Moscow, who have been making waves. The club revealed details last month of the redevelopment of Dinamo Stadium. It used to be my favourite stadium in Moscow - a roofless, concrete dustbowl full of Soviet-era charm, set in the grounds of a tree-lined park - but it was admittedly decrepit. With the help of $1.5 billion of investment from backers VTB Bank they are set to transform Dinamo Stadium into what has been described as a 45,000-seater "glass egg", to open in 2018.

They have also been among the most active in the transfer market this summer. They picked up Serbian defender Marko Lomic from Partizan Belgrade last week, but the real headline-grabber was the free transfer signing of Germany international striker Kevin Kuranyi from Schalke.

Many fear that Kuranyi will go the way of other big-name signings from outside Russia - Maxi Lopez, Maniche, Fernando Cavenaghi - who struggle to adapt to Russia's impenetrable language and cultural specificities. However, Kuranyi is different - a true citizen of the world. Though he doesn't speak Russian, the German has a bit of a pedigree for languages - born in Brazil to a Hungarian-German father and a Panamanian mother, he speaks German and Portuguese fluently, and can understand Hungarian, Spanish and English. In addition, Kuranyi's wife is Croatian and has been able to help the striker due to the similarities between Croat and Russian.

I tipped Dinamo at the start of the season for a shot at the Premier League title, which was starting to look a little embarrassing as they slumped 13 points behind leaders Zenit before the summer break, and parted with promising manager Andrey Kobelev. But with cash to burn in the transfer market, an able manager in Miodrag Bozovic and a top-class strike partnership in Kuranyi and former Liverpool player Andriy Voronin they look much better prepared for the second half of the season.

CSKA a selling club?

Over at CSKA, meanwhile, transfer rumours are rife. Having brought in Manchester United's Zoran Tosic at the start of the summer, the club looked to be building for the title run-in - they currently lie second in the table. But the performances of their players at the World Cup have started tongues wagging, and they may find it difficult to keep some of their big foreign signings.

Serb Milos Krasic has already made clear his intention to move to Juventus. He effectively bid farewell to CSKA fans in May, with the intention of moving on after the World Cup. Despite wrangling over the size of the transfer fee, Juventus are likely to get their man sooner rather than later.

Chile's Mark Gonzalez has also done much to enhance his reputation after a good World Cup in which he was Man of the Match against Switzerland. His stock had fallen after a disappointing spell at Liverpool, but his first months at CSKA have been impressive and he may well earn himself a move back to one of Europe's big leagues.

But top of everyone's shopping list is CSKA's Japanese playmaker/forward Keisuke Honda. Signed in January from Dutch club Venlo for €6m, Honda has been a revelation for fans and headline-writers alike, putting in some scintillating performances for both club and country. There are already suggestions that he may be a target for AC Milan, though his agent recently cast doubt on the link, suggesting the rossoneri don't have the cash. Still, Honda is a wanted man.

Match-fixing rears its head

Aside from transfer speculation, in recent days a rather less happy tale has been doing the rounds in recent days - one which may impact Russia's hopes of hosting the 2018 World Cup. On Tuesday FK Khimki, a Russian First Division Club from the northern suburbs of Moscow, approached the league administrator to report an approach to one of their players to throw their game against FK Volgar-Gazprom that evening. A football agent named Sergey Panov had allegedly leaned on a Khimki player to influence the outcome of the game - an allegation Panov denies.

The match went ahead and finished 1-1, with little evidence of match-fixing or interference. It was revealed after the game that Khimki goalkeeper Roman Berezovsky had himself asked teammate Aleksandr Tarkhanov to introduce him to Panov, who is Tarkhanov's representative. The pair met, and the match-fixing scandal subsequently ensued.

This is not the first time Roman Berezovsky has been embroiled in controversy. Last April the player received an anonymous phone call before a home match with FK Rostov, ordering him to throw the match or risk the consequences. The game ended 1-0 to Rostov, though there is no suggestion that Berezovsky underperformed (see the video of the winning goal yourself).

But these kind of rumours continue to dog Russian football, to the great detriment of the country's bid to host World Cup 2018. Indeed, speaking after the game, Tarkhanov also revealed that this wasn't the first time Khimki had been approached.

"Before a game in Saransk we were approached," he said. "There were whispers. The lads started warming up and began asking whether we would actually lose the game on purpose, and whether in exchange the opposition would allow us to win the return game.

"In Nizhny Novgorod it was the same situation. They say to us - we'll give you this game and then later you'll return the three points."

It should be emphasised that at this stage the allegations have yet to be proven. But at the risk of sounding like Lord Triesman, one wonders just how many of these types of arrangements are being struck across the Russian leagues.

Big money and allegations of match-fixing - just another season in Russian football eh?