Monday, November 29, 2010

Sports and Investigative Journalism – Where is the line?

So, the Panorama people are pushing ahead with airing their expose on FIFA ahead of the vote for the hosting of the next two World Cups. The England bid team and the FA are calling ‘foul’ and accusing the BBC of being ‘unpatriotic’. Fellow journalists are rallying behind The Times – the source of the initial cash for votes expose – and the BBC and asking why on earth should uncovering corruption cause harm to the English bid? On one hand you could entirely side with the journos as they have a perfectly valid point, but on the other you could also ask them why are they being so incredibly na├»ve?

Nothing in the world of this ilk is without politics or machinations behind the scenes - and never has been. The very nature of the bid presentations is designed to cajole and persuade whilst stopping short of direct influence. Prime Ministers, Presidents, pop stars are all wheeled out in an effort to fly the flag to the utmost. That things occasionally get a bit murky is disappointing but is nevertheless the way of things. Everything from boxing champions’ next opponents to the venues for Grand Prix or England test matches is a system of lobbying which allows for ‘grey areas’ where the line can be crossed on what is acceptable in terms of incentives.

What both the Times and Panorama have done is to simply expose corruption within FIFA and what could be wrong with that? I do not enjoy the culture of simple entrapment that many journalists now pursue, the Mail on Sunday’s earlier effort on Lord Triesman was no more than gutter journalism and certainly was not ‘in the national interest’ as is so often the cry when these stories are queried. Nevertheless, it can hardly be argued that journalists uncovering corruption at any level is a bad thing and those involved would argue that the ends justify the means, something that the anti-terrorism branch of the same UK ‘establishment’ bidding for the World Cup would also counsel, so who’s to argue?

The issue the England World Cup has however is with the reaction of the remaining FIFA committee members and Sepp Blatter. Their take on the situation is that the members will rally around their fallen colleagues rather than look down on them for their actions. It’s only speculation on my part but my guess would be these kinds of events are far more reaching than just the ones who have been exposed. The other members who may also have things to hide will see this as an attack on themselves. Again, what Sepp Blatter has referred to is not the uncovering of the corruption but in the entrapment, it is a method that endears little sympathy.

You will rarely see me write anything positive about Sepp Blatter and my own feeling is that he has an anti-England bias on his agenda. He and FIFA are all about international football with the World Cup as the pinnacle. The rise of UEFA and the Champions League has been a large and painful thorn in his side. He sees the Premiership as an abomination of excess and I have little doubt he wishes to see another bid being successful.

Now in an ideal world, Panorama should be able to air their programme whenever they damn well wish without fear of recourse but the above text shows the world is far from ideal. From a ratings point of view, putting out the show on the eve of the vote is probably the best thing but at the same time surely the Panorama people could hold off for a few days to make sure no additional damage is done to the bid. Would it really kill them to do so and would it not be in the national interest that we keep hearing so much about? Morally and ethically the journalists are correct but an element of realism and if you like cynicism could maybe help everyone in what is they key moment for the competing World Cup bids. No one is suggesting the revelations should have been swept under the carpet to help the English bid but a little bit of give and take might have been to the benefit of all.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The True Value of the Crowd and the Role of Corporate Hospitality

Whilst it was a cricket match I was in Brisbane for these past few days, the subject of crowds at sporting events as a whole is one which I think is universally relevant.

Anyone who follows cricket at all will know that trying to win matches for any touring side in Australia is an incredibly tough ask. Many of the visiting teams are from equally hot countries so it’s not just the conditions that are the reason. There is another factor, an incredibly intimidating crowd. Whilst at times it can cross the line, all professional teams accept that stick from the opposition crowd is part of the game and something to be overcome. Many home crowds have fearsome reputations and not just in Australia nor in cricket.

No professional footballer relishes a trip to the New Den to face Millwall, English rugby players are no doubt pleased they don’t have to play in Dublin or Cardiff every week. For a couple of years, Ricky Hatton managed to make his home crowd portable and some of the most hostile and fervent behavior I have seen or heard in a sporting arena has been from Mancunians in Las Vegas. You can argue the rights and wrongs of it, but from the point of view of supporting your side, it works. And here is the problem for many teams, the era of corporate hospitality is to a fair degree killing many of these atmospheres as the ‘traditional’ fan is now priced out of the market and excluded from the event.

Roy Keane had his famous ‘prawn sandwich’ rage a few years ago much to everyone’s amusement but he was right. You can call me hypocritical or even call me part of the problem as I am often fortunate enough to receive that same hospitality but there is no denying that the atmosphere is in many cases being badly affected.

Take the atmosphere at the Gabba on Thursday and Friday when Australia had their tails up. It was very intimidating for the English players despite the best efforts of the fun police and the presence of a huge amount of English fans. I don’t get the impression that the Australians feel anything like that at Lords for instance where much of the ticketing is corporate and the members are generally asleep after midday. The WACA is equally raucous and ninety thousand at the MCG will get the hairs up on the back of anyone’s neck.

I’ve only been to Twickenham once (thank God) and I was struck by the general ‘niceness’ of the environment. Sure there is loud singing but seventy odd thousand all singing ‘Swing Low’ in Barbour jackets isn’t likely to put the opposition fly half off his penalty kick. ManYoo have had to deal with a quiet Old Trafford for years now, Chelsea can be dead sometimes and the Emirates seems to be having the same issue. Arsenal are making a packet from matchday hospitality but their home form is dreadful.

When I was taken to Wimbledon many years ago, we watched about forty five minutes of tennis before going down the pub - spoiled? Damn right. You regularly see rows of empty seats at Wimbledon now, the tickets are all sold, it’s just the people who have got the freebies can’t be bothered to sit in those seats whilst many true fans can’t even buy one if they wanted to. It’s actually all a bit pathetic.

Corporate hospitality is not going to go away and coupled with television revenue, it provides the bulk of income for all sports outside of merchandising. Those home teams however who still manage to maintain a good vocal crowd will continue to prosper and places such as Australia for a visiting cricketer will continue to daunt and intimidate - and no doubt I’ll keep accepting the invites……..

Monday, November 22, 2010

Why Scottish Referees are going French.

Refereeing standards, a topic you could debate ad infinitum and one that in my view will never truly be remedied until FIFA embraces the technological possibilities that all other sports are doing so successfully.

But Sacre Bleu! Referees in Scotland have taken dramatic action that will have their counterparts in Ligue Une scratching their heads and thinking 'why didn't we think of that?' Yes indeed, the whistlers are going on strike.

Abusing the officials at football matches is de rigueur regardless of their actual performance. In Scotland, the fans of the Super Hoops have long held beliefs that the refs are controlled by the Powers of Evil within Ibrox where weekly meetings with the refs are held involving sacrifice and black magic all to make sure that Celtic finish second every season. David Murray is rumoured to hold so much power that not only can he walk again at these meetings he can even fly around the room.

There is no doubt that the referees in Scotland have got themselves in one hell of a mess with the situation surrounding the issue with Celtic who for once have adequate grounds for their grievance. On this occasion however, it appears that things have spilled way over the normal abuse and have started to have an effect on the refs’ lives away from football with fans targeting their employers and families, this is clearly not right and the culprits should be found and tortured.

Refereeing of any sport is incredibly difficult. An ex colleague of mine and a cricketing nut, tried his hand at umpiring village cricket (nice Sunday afternoon gentle village cricket, morris dancers at the side of the pitch, people in bath chairs and tartan blankets) and after one match said ‘never again’. It was apparently impossibly fast and was not helped by all the players constantly screaming at you to give the decision in their favour.

These however are ‘professional’ referees, they are paid for what they do so by implication they should be competent at it. I also think referees do themselves no favours by their almost complete shelter from the media on the whole. I can remember very few occasions where a referee afterwards said ‘Sorry’ or ‘I got that wrong’. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen but generally they sit in Ivory Towers with managers and players being fined anytime they open their mouths to complain even though in many cases they are justified.

To my mind the bulk of the problems could be solved very simply with video technology. Nearly every other major sport has integrated it successfully and there is no reason to suggest football would do otherwise. The arguments about it disrupting the flow of the game are unfounded. Other sports have proved it can be done quickly and accurately. Obviously football needs some leeway for interpretation but for instances such as the ball crossing the line, fouls inside or outside the box, these matters could be settled quickly and to everyone’s satisfaction. It is nonsensical to have games with fifty odd TV cameras and expect one whistler with one pair of eyes and a split second to react to be as accurate as those cameras, yet those are the standards he is now judged by. American football has as many umpires as players I think (around three hundred on each side at any given time) and they still regularly need TV replays. Tennis, rugby, formula one, cricket, they are all using it successfully. It is not meant to replace the referee, it is meant to be a tool for him to arrive at the correct decision where there is doubt.

There has to be a line draw at some stage regarding the abuse of officials. The powers that be however could do much to help themselves by much improving their interaction with the teams and the media and the dinosaur that is Sepp Blatter could solve the majority of the problems by doing what every other sport has done, allow the use of technology. Just ask Frank Lampard what he thought after the Germany game, I’m sure he’d agree.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Scottish Football - A Slow Death

Scottish Football, if it was a horse, by now you’d have taken it to the barn and shot it. Following football North of the border has always been a testing pastime. With the exception of the early eighties with Aberdeen and Dundee United and the occasional splutter from the much vaunted ‘Old Firm’, supporting Scottish clubs or the national team in any kind of International setting has been akin to going to work in the morning and realizing you forgot to put your trousers on.

The difference many years ago though was that we actually produced players that had talent and gave us hope before the inevitable glorious defeat. McGrain, Souness, Hansen, Miller, Strachan, Dalglish, Archibald, Jordan. Even as recently as McAllister, Duncan Ferguson, Lambert, Collins, McCoist - and Stewart McKimmie. All good players and in some instances great players. So where did it all go wrong? Look no further than the English Premiership.

The globalization of football and the major leagues has all but killed interest in the leagues of the smaller Nations. Take a look at the once mighty Ajax of Amsterdam whom against now, English clubs would field a second string team. French and Portuguese clubs have mainly stuttered to a halt also in the European arena. Belgian clubs used to flourish, famous names such as Royal Antwerp (now a feeder club for ManYoo), Standard Liege, long since forgotten.

Why pay twenty quid to watch Dundee United serve up rubbish in the freezing cold when for the price of a Sky Sports Season ticket, you can watch Drogba at lunchtime, laugh at Paul Merson and co all afternoon, watch Rooney at tea time & then Lionel Messi before bed? Ask many kids in Scotland which team they support and a fair few will name a Premiership team first.

Rangers in particular have got themselves in a dreadful mess trying to keep pace with the Premiership when the revenues simply were not there. Everybody else then racked up debt trying to keep up in turn. We now have a domestic game riddled with debt and serving up produce not fit for human consumption.

This I also believe is the reason for the current standard of Scottish player. Many are blaming the Playstation generation but they will be the ones at fault for the lack of talent in years to come. The issue now I believe is the development from the age of sixteen years and upwards. A league full of third rate imported players has blocked domestic talent and the standard of football in the reserve and youth arena is simply not good enough. Take Darren Fletcher as an example. Does anyone really believe he is particularly more talented than many of his countrymen? What he has had is exposure to excellence in terms of the players around him from a young age and he has duly developed into a fine player.

I cannot believe that there is something genetically different (other than superior intellect North of the border of course) between people born in Glasgow or Edinburgh versus people born in Manchester, Merseyside or Newcastle. It is the access to top level football at a young age and the period approaching senior football that is the issue.

My own view is that the Premiership has had it’s time in the sun and that the ‘big 3’ of Italy (already in a huge mess), Spain and England are in steady decline. The Bundesliga is steadily improving and the French league is becoming more competitive again. Nothing lasts forever and the domination of the big leagues has proved to the detriment of all. Club debt is not restricted to the smaller leagues, it’s just the major leagues have had the revenues (step aside Leeds United) to service that debt. Bolton Wanderers currently have debts four times the size of Rangers, scary stuff. No one is saying Scottish football is dead but it is certainly not breathing without assistance. A decline South of the border might just be the tonic to revive the fortunes of football in the North.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Are Liverpool the new Newcastle?

Not in terms of how much they have won nor in terms of them being in danger of being relegated but these recent calls for the return of 'King Kenny' are certainly akin to the Return of the Messiah nonsense attached to Kevin Keegan at the Toon.

Dalglish inherited a phenomenal side at Liverpool and whilst he did enjoy some success yes, the team ultimately was going into decline before Souness showed up to truly wreck the side. Dalglish in my view is revered (and rightly so) in Liverpool mainly for his fabulous play on the pitch and the incredibly dignified and personal way that he dealt with the Hillsborough tragedy, for both those things he should be remembered as a great. I can however also remember the near meltdown at the end of his reign.

Sure he won the league at Blackburn and it was a great achievement but he had a huge chequebook and a certain Alan Shearer in his pomp. Newcastle was less of a success and since he left the game it has changed beyond all recognition. Players nowadays are akin to movie stars (or at least they think so), since Dalglish left, man management and tactics have changed enormously and the pressures have got nothing but greater - and he struggled with that pressure before. Does Dalglish really have the encyclopedic knowledge of the modern game, of the players, of the other managers to succeed - and to do so quickly - as the Liverpool fans are demanding? I think not.

On a lighter note, I notice new owner John W Henry said "I've met with a number of our players and had private discussions with some of them. I've been greatly impressed by them personally. They are all exceptionally bright and they all want to be here." Doesn't sound like he spoke to Glenn Johnson then..........

Monday, November 15, 2010

Trouble at the Bridge

It's always easy to write 'I told you so' or 'I saw it coming' or whatever when results like yesterdays' one at Chelsea happen. This however has indeed been coming for a while, results like this can be a one off but there is a larger issue at hand. Sure, Chelsea will be there or thereabouts for the title but it is clear that it is a team in decline. The key for Chelsea from here is how they handle the transition to the new breed (something Ferguson up the road has always been very good at) and whether the younger players are indeed good enough to fill the rather large boots they will be inheriting.
I don't think it's any co-incidence that Essien was missing yesterday as Chelsea regularly struggle when he is not around. As ManYoo are also finding with the likes of Scholes, Neville et all, whilst you can replace players like Lampard and Terry maybe in terms of ability, in terms of heart & commitment it's not always that simple. The spine of Chelsea's team with Drogba getting on a bit too needs serious consideration, and with the new found thrift at Chelsea the club may well be at a crossroads.
If the players coming through prove not to be good enough then what happens next? I can't see that Abramovich pumped in all that money just to see Chelsea fade back in to the pack yet at the same time they seem to be sticking to their guns on their transfer policy. Whilst it's early days for a couple of them, to my mind, Zhirkov, Mikel, Ramires, Sturridge are not Premiership & Champions League winning material, good players though indeed they are. You can see the same again at Old Trafford where many of the players coming through are certainly good but not as good as what they are replacing in terms of the last few years' vintage.
I understand that in the current climate, the top teams can't carry squads of 25 players with 50 caps or more & I don't wish to sound like a pampered, spoilt fan either, but I think Chelsea have serious problems in terms of the balance of the age of the squad, question marks over the quality of the replacements and what appears to be a chronic lack of leadership on the field when you take a couple of the ageing warhorses out of the squad. It is not time to hit the panic button but I think Chelsea are quickly arriving at a tipping point that they might not yet fully appreciate.